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Hotel Tip of The Week: La Barranca Hostel, Suchitoto, El Salvador

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves. This week: Hostel La Barranca in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

suchitoto hostel

We had arrived in Suchitoto, El Salvador during a music festival, and while this guaranteed us an eventful time while in town, our only accommodation option the first night was a room at a well-known but sub-par American-owned place. While strolling around town, we came across Villa Balanza restaurant, and as they had received a glowing review in our Footprint guidebook, we decided to sit down here for a bite to eat and ended up booking a room at the hostel for the next night at the same time we paid our restaurant bill.

This is not your typical backpacker hostel with restaurant (read: bar) attached. La Barranca is a peaceful hostel set at the bottom of a rather long, steep hill, a five minute walk from the restaurant with views of the major tourist draw, the famous Lake Suchitlan. The way down the hill with luggage is a challenge, even harder is the slog back up after check out, but for those who are reasonably fit (or have a car) the serene setting of the accommodation is more than worth it.

Lago de Suchitatlan

La Barranca is made up of a two story main house with five bedrooms upstairs over a very homey kitchen and living room downstairs. A second building just behind it houses another five rooms with doors opening out onto a peaceful courtyard with tables and chairs. Staying here feels more like staying in a suburban home, with all the appropriate comforts. The clean, well-decorated rooms have double beds, plenty of space and en-suite bathrooms. (The bathroom is built into the room, has a saloon-door entrance and is open on top, so we recommend staying at La Barranca with someone you know fairly well, as you will be sharing your bathroom noises with everyone in the room.)

The kitchen has beautiful mahogany cabinets, a squeaky clean fridge, all the necessary appliances and is roomy enough to fit a decent sized kitchen table with space to host dinner for a few friends.  The living room is equally spacious, with a couch, chairs, a TV, and a computer with internet for those who do not travel with their own laptop. For those who do, including us digital nomads, La Barranca offers free, hi-speed Wi-Fi, which works perfectly everywhere in the main house, fairly well outside in the courtyard, but unfortunately did not reach to the rooms in the second building.

Stand Out Feature: The restaurant – Villa Balanza

As we mentioned, our meal at Villa Balanza hugely influenced our decision to stay at La Barranca, run by the same family.  Set just off of a quiet park five minutes from the Suchitoto’s central plaza, this restaurant serves up stylish versions of typical Salvadorian food for just pennies more than the street food vendors in town, while the quality of the food would rival any Latin American restaurant in any major city.  The food itself is just one aspect of what Villa Balanza is really setting out to do, which is to define through food, art and history, what it means, and what it has always meant, to be Salvadorian. Hanging over the entryway to Villa Balanza is a large scale (‘Balanza’ means ‘balance’ in Spanish). On one side sits a 750 pound weapon from the armed forces during the fairly recent civil war, on the other, a stack of tortillas. The scale is meant to symbolize the counterbalance of the town’s history in the war with the country’s deeply rooted traditional ‘culture of corn’. Inside the restaurant, the walls are lined with a mix of contemporary oil paintings, centuries’ old photographs and some of the most delicious food in town.

Sculpture

Room for improvement: In-room wi-fi

This is often a frustrating, if not downright picky, request as so often hotels in countries like the USA and Germany rarely offer free wi-fi at all. However, for those who spend time travelling in Central America, free wi-fi is a given in almost all hotels, especially those in the budget category. Plus, La Barranca offers free-wi to guests. With a second router, the hostel would have gotten perfect marks from us, as we often work late into the night after a day of sightseeing, and would have preferred working from our room rather than out in the living room until after midnight.

Location: Barrio San José N° 7 Next to the San Martin Park, Suchitoto, Cuscatlan, El Salvador
Price:
$25 per room per night
LGBT Friendly:
Yes
Amenities:
Kitchen, wi-fi, lounge, yard

Tip: Check out Booking.com for the best places to stay in Suchitoto!

Suchitoto hostel

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Costa Rica on a Shoestring

costa rica sunset

Costa Rica is the gem in Central America’s tourism crown: lush, green jungles, wild animals, breathtaking beaches and a well-developed infrastructure make a trip to Costa Rica as easy as it can be adventurous, suitable for many different types of visitors. The level of development, however, has also raised prices on goods and services, hotel rates and transportation to a level that most budget travelers (falsely) believe to be out of their range. It is certainly easy to plow through some serious cash here, but with a bit of planning ahead, you can visit Costa Rica on a shoestring – in fact: it can be nearly as inexpensive as its neighbors!Costa Rica on a shoestring
Many travelers we met along the way spoke with disdain about Costa Rica being over-priced and too expensive – those who were the most outspoken on the topic had opted to skip the country altogether. Since I had lived here for a year back in the day, there was no question that we would travel through. What we intended to be a two week trip was extended to three. In that time, our Costa Rica travel budget ended up to be less than both our Guatemala and Nicaragua budgets, coming in at just under $27 per person per day (based on two sharing accommodation). Read on for a few simple tips on how to travel through Costa Rica on a shoestring budget.

How to travel Costa Rica on a shoestring

Take the bus

Taking private shuttles or taxis to get around can easily eat through your budget, but this can be easily avoided by taking the bus. The bus system in Costa Rica is organized, and the buses are safe, comfortable and nearly at a North American standard. The chicken buses (old American school buses) seen throughout the rest of Central America are few and far between here. The buses run between all the major towns and on schedule, and while a private shuttle can easily cost from $40 to $75, a local bus charges less than $10 for the same route. MyTanFeet has an excellent guide that covers everything you need to know about taking public transportation in Costa Rica.

Eat at a Soda

Found everywhere throughout Costa Rica, a ‘soda’ is a typical Costa Rican restaurant which serves up ‘comida tipica’ or a menu of typical Costa Rican fare, mainly in various forms of casados: a huge plate of rice, beans, red and white cabbage salad, pasta and meat, or extra vegetables for vegetarians. While a restaurant in a tourist spot often charges between $10 and $15 per person per meal, the price of a ‘casado’ varies between $2 and $7, depending on the casado you choose and the place you are at – sodas in tourist destinations obviously charge much more than in cities like Heredia or Liberia.

Costa Rica on the cheap

Drink Tap water

Unlike the rest of Central America, drinking the tap water in Costa Rica is perfectly safe. If you have been traveling throughout the region, you might think only a crazy person would fill up bottles with tap water, but the water in nearly every Costa Rican town is drinkable (ask at your hotel/hostel if you’re unsure). With bottled water costing between $1 and $3 a bottle, refilling your own bottles will save you a hefty sum of pocket change.

Buy beer in the shop, not the bar

At $2.50 – $3.50 a bottle in most bars, beer in Costa Rica can quickly eat through your daily budget. Of course in a country with so many relaxing beaches, sometimes a beer is a must. Plan ahead and grab yourself a few cold cans at a local shop for half the price and enjoy your beers on the beach just a few meters past the beach bar itself.

Costa Rica on a shoestring

Book a trip for the off-season

Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination for North Americans and Europeans alike, and prices shoot up during Holidays, Christmas and between January and March. Planning a trip to Costa Rica during the low season, May to November, can save you as much as 50 per cent on hotels and flights. The low season is also partially the rainy season, but with the exception of a few rainy weeks, downpours usually only last a couple of hours in the morning and the sun shines for the rest of the day.

Opt for a hostel

If you want to visit Costa Rica on a shoestring budget, hostels are the way to go. The hostel scene has come a long way from the dingy twelve-bed dorm rooms, and not only are hostels cleaner, brighter and more affordable than ever, most also offer private double rooms for a fraction of what a hotel costs. We stayed in countless small hostels, run by people who care about their guests and take pride in offering a cozy, clean place to stay. Some hostels even offer a swimming pool, a bar, a lounge, books, board games, and free breakfast. You are also more likely to meet other travelers at the bar or in the common areas, whereas most hotels have a much more anonymous feeling to them. A private room in a hostel costs between $20 and $30 per couple, whereas a hotel room runs from $50 upwards.

Costa Rica on a shoestring

Budget Travel Tip: With such a well-developed tourism industry, National Park tours and adventure activities in Costa Rica are usually very much worth the money, so make sure to budget in $15 – $75 per tour during your time in the country. Putting these budget tips into practice should save you plenty of money to take at least a few top quality tours. In Manuel Antonio National Park for example you’ll be guaranteed wildlife sightings if you invest in a nature guide, and you’ll learn a lot about the local flora and fauna. Recruit a few fellow travelers so that you can split costs – the more people share a guide, the cheaper it gets (and again: hostels are a great place to connect with other travelers).

 


Have you visited Costa Rica on a shoestring? Feel free to add your money-saving tips for Costa Rica in the comments below!

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33 things we love about Costa Rica

costa rica sunset

These thirty three things are just a start –  things we loved about Costa Rica, along with some Costa Rica facts you may not know. There were so many positive aspects of our time in Costa Rica, we could easily list thirty three more! But we’re excited to hear your thoughts on this, too, so please feel free to add your favorite things about Costa Rica in the comments at the end!

1 Samara Beach
We won’t go on about this one, as we as you to please not go to Samara Beach, but the combination of jaw-dropping sunsets spotting, padding along the beautiful stretches of soft, clean sand and numerous places to enjoy champagne while looking out on to the water makes Samara Beach of the best beaches we visited in Central America.

Costa Rica samara beach Sunset
2 Comfortable public transportation

After spending a few months holding on for dear life on chicken buses throughout Central America, Costa Rica’s comfortable, clean and organized public transportation just felt good.

3 Sloths
They might look creepy, but these sleepy creatures sure are cute!
Costa Rica facts4 Gallo Pinto
This dish is not just rice and beans…the combination of black beans, rice, and magical spices make this Costa Rican (and Nicaraguan) easily our breakfast favorite.

5 Casados
Meaning ‘married’, a Casado is a marriage of rice, beans, veggies (and meat) on one plate. This typical, healthy and filling Costa Rican meal is an economical choice and sold at any ‘soda’ or local restaurant in the country. Casados make finding healthy veggie-friendly food a breeze.
casado vegetariano

6 A truly gay-friendly country
The theme throughout this post is the relaxed, accepting and peaceful nature of the country, and this also extends to the acceptance of the gay community…relative to the rest of Central America, of course. Although people not looking for it may never notice, Manuel Antonio is known as a kind of a mecca for gay travelers, with hotels and package deals targeted directly at the gay community, and there are plenty of gay bars (for boys and girls) in San Jose. This is one of the Costa Rica facts we’d heard rumors about, but didn’t believe it until we got there.

7 So many surfers
There’s nothing better than the relaxed vibe that the massive surfer population brings to the country, plus watching them sprint along the beach and ride the waves in some places is like a surfing championship every day of the week!
Costa Rica facts
8 The beaches of Manuel Antonio
Palm trees, coconuts, monkeys, and sparkling blue water…how can we not love Manuel Antonio. Just watch out for the mega-strong waves at high tide!

9 Licuados
With the variety of these refreshing, healthy fresh juice mixes in either water, milk or yogurt, we never had a sip of soda while in Costa Rica.

Licuados in Costa Rica
10 Pura Vida

Different to the international laid-back surfer vibe, Pura Vida is an entirely Tico feeling. This expression, which means ‘Pure Life’ is used as a greeting, a farewell, an excuse and a reason, and incorporates Costa Rica’s positive feelings about living life healthily, slowly, and peacefully (this country has no army and focuses on eco-friendly policies).

11 Guaro
Oh…how Guaro burns…this Costa Rican grain alcohol can’t possibly compare to Nicaragua’s award-winning Flor de Cana rum, but it’s available everywhere, it’s cheap, and after a couple of shots, who remembers anyway 🙂
Guaro shots & Imperial Beer

12 Cycling along the Caribbean coast
We absolutely loved this day out – we go on and on about it here.

13 The wildlife
From the Pacific to the Caribbean, no matter where you look you spot exotic wildlife in Costa Rica!
Costa Rica facts

14 Panaderias
The Ticos love their bread and after a lack of yummy baked goods in Honduras and Nicaragua, we were happy to see a panaderia or pasteleria (bakeries) on almost every corner in Costa Rica.

15 Punta Uva Beach
Okay, yes another beach – but Costa Rica has got the most gorgeous beaches! This beach just 4km from Puerto Viejo is simply breathtaking.
Punta Uva paradise
16 Both coasts are beautiful

No matter what side of the country you are on, you’re set for a quick trip to the beach. Nearly all Central American countries have access to both the Pacific and the Caribbean, but that’s not necessarily something to boast about. Nicaragua’s eastern coast is made up primarily of the infamous Mosquito Coast, while Guatemala’s Pacific beaches are not really even worth the trip. Costa Rica, on the other hand, is blessed with miles and miles of beautiful beaches, from the Northwestern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula down to the Puerto Viejo in the southeastern Caribbean region.

17 Drinking Tap water
Stick your glass under the faucet and let the water pour in! Drinking tap water here is as risk free as at home, and although it took us a few days to trust that drinking the water wouldn’t make us ill as in neighboring countries, it felt amazing to stop buying water everywhere we went. One of the Costa Rica facts we could not believe until we got there (from Nicaragua, where drinking water from a tab is a big NO!)

18 The cloud forest of Monteverde
Monteverde is one of the highest places in all of Costa Rica, nestled between green mountains and like the name indicates, often covered by clouds. The rains cause Monteverde to be one of the greenest places we’ve seen on our travels.
monteverde cloud forest costa rica
19 Sodas

Sitting somewhere between a food stand and a restaurant, sodas are like local Costa Rican diners. Located on every corner (next to the bakeries), they serve up typical dishes and a licuado for $3-$5, making it possible to travel Costa Rica on a shoestring.  Sodas are as great for your health as for your wallet, as the meal usually contains vegetables, rice, beans, meat (or extra veggies for us herbivores), plus the fruit in the licuado.

20 Flowers everywhere!
Costa Rica is certainly wild in terms of its population of various exotic animals, but the flowers in the country are equally as exotic and found everywhere. We don’t know the names of most the flowers we see, but they certainly put an extra bounce in our step.
Flowers in Cahuita Costa Rica
21 Butterflies

Costa Rica is home to 1,251 species, over 90% of all Central American butterflies. The Blue Morpho maybe the most remarkable one, but at times we were walking on paths being both followed and led by groups of fluttering butterflies.

22 The Caribbean village of Manzanillo
Manzanillo is a little village on the southern Caribbean coast and it still feels truly Caribbean and unspoilt by tourists.

Manzanillo caribbean house
23 People watching at Parque Central in Heredia

Heredia is a typical Costa Rican city, unspoilt by tourists, and even though only 11 kilometers from the capital, worlds apart from San Jose! Unlike the capital which has unfortunately begun to feel a bit shady in certain areas, Heredia is safe and relaxed, with a good variety of restaurants, excellent shopping, interesting architecture and a Central Park which is great for watching the Ticos in their day-to-day lives.

24 Hummingbirds
Costa Rica must have hundreds of thousands of hummingbirds – we saw these tiny little birds along both coasts, in the rain forest, the cloud forest and in the towns. We could watch them forever flying around with their record-breaking wing flapping!
Costa Rica facts
25 The fantastic Costa Rican coffee

The coffee here is known to be one of the best coffees in the world, and drinking it in Monteverde, surrounded by coffee plants, fresh from the farm, made it taste even better.

26 Stella’s Bakery in Monteverde
Far away from the most populated area of Santa Elena, Stella’s bakery & restaurant is set along the road to Monteverde and it is more than worth stopping by. Stella’s Dulce de leche strudel really is to die for, and there are so many other goodies (both savory and sweet) to choose from, you will probably end up taking something home for later or returning the next day.
stellas bakery Dulce de leche strudel
27 Waterfalls

Waterfalls here are practically a dime a dozen, except they are some of the most amazing we have seen.  You pass them just driving down the road or hiking along the beaches and it never gets old!

28 Cabinas el Pueblo Hostel in Monteverde
$10 per person for a clean room and breakfast included, plus a staff that provides priceless info about Monteverde, we can certainly recommend staying at the family-run, centrally-located Cabinas el Pueblo Hostel in Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Cabinas El Pueblo Monteverde Costa Rica
29 The cheeky monkey families in Cahuita

The little village of Cahuita has a National Park which can be visited free of charge. Much emptier than Costa Rica’s more famous Manuel Antonio National Park, you can sit down anywhere and watch the monkey families with the baby monkeys swinging through the tree tops.

30 Miles of deserted beach near Montezuma
We might have been disappointed by Montezuma’s development but we were happy as clams about the endless stretches of sandy beaches along the coast. You can walk for miles and miles without meeting another soul.
Montezuma beach in the morning
31 Taco Bell

Yes. We went to Taco Bell. Twice. And yes, the Americanization of the country is a shameless train wreck, but after months and months of rice & beans, we couldn’t pass up a cheesy Gordita crunch!

32 The bronze statues in San Jose
Costa Rica’s capital didn’t do much for us, but we found some fantastic bronze statues by several well known artists (such as Botero) throughout the downtown.

Costa Rica facts
33 The friendly Ticos

Costa Ricans are super friendly and welcoming. Proud of their beautiful country, they are always happy to chat with travelers or tell you which places you should check out during your visit. These great people are affectionately known as ticos, for their endearing and unique use of the Spanish diminutive – from momento, instead of adding ‘ito’ – momentito, Costa Ricans add ‘ico’ – momentico.

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A stroll through Casco Viejo, Panama’s historic quarter

Casco Viejo Panama

When we arrived in Panama City, the first buildings that came into view were modern monoliths like we hadn’t seen since Mexico City eight months earlier and seven countries to the north. Panama’s capital has a skyline to rival most major US cities, and being located right on the water, the sight is breathtaking. Panama City streetHowever, as contemporary as these skyscrapers and super condos are, they are the exception to the rule here in Panama. Put simply, the rest of Panama could not look more different than this area of the capital. Only a few minutes away from the  skyline so reminiscent of New York City, however, you enter a completely different world: Casco Viejo, Panama’s historic quarter. Casco Viejo churchDeveloped in the early 16th century, Casco Viejo is the oldest neighborhood of Panama City, set on a little peninsula bordered by the ocean on three sides. Casco Viejo is as antiquated as the skyline is modern.

Casco viejo buildingsCasco viejo streetThe flair that Panama City must have had in the late 19th century is still tangible when strolling between the colonial buildings and church ruins. In the well-maintained or newly renovated buildings, it is easy to imagine the bravado that must have been racing through the city’s veins, the amount of confidence Panama must have had in the late 19th century at the prospects of the prosperity to come, thanks to the construction of the Panama Canal, which would cement the city’s and country’s place on the world stage.
Casco Viejo alley
Casco viejo buildings
Casco viejo ruinToday, however, that mix of former greatness and crumbling buildings reminded us, although neither of us have ever been, of what Havana, Cuba must feel like. In contrast to other colonial towns in Central America, the buildings in Casco Viejo are considerably higher and have between two and four floors instead of only one.

Casco Viejo buildings
Havana Viejo in Casco ViejoOn a stroll through Casco Viejo, you will see several 15th century churches, green plazas and several grand buildings which house embassies and government bodies. Considerable funding, both national and international, has been invested in renovating Casco Viejo, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Casco Viejo pink buildingThe area has started to flourish once more, and high-end hotels and restaurants (see below) have moved in, as well as some mid-range spots we fell in love with including Caffe Per Due, an Italian restaurant with to-die-for pizza, or Café El Vienna, a German-run coffee house (the latter has sadly closed since we visited).
Casco Viejo building & street
Casco Viejo PlazaDespite World Heritage status, until just a few years ago, tourists were advised not to visit Casco Viejo. The area was dodgy, thefts and muggings occurred, and most of the buildings were run down and abandoned. In 2005, a tourism police force was put into place to reduce muggings and theft, and the number of crimes has been declining ever since. Casco Viejo building & street

Whether it is because of the heavy police presence in the area or despite it, Casco Viejo feels very safe today. While we love exploring off the beaten path, there are some sincerely shady areas in Casco Viejo (multi-storey makeshift shanties and such) that would be better to avoid, especially at night.Casco Viejo arcades

Most of Casco Viejo’s buildings have had a fresh coat of paint slapped on, several have undergone major renovation, and the area has now been converted into one of the most well-preserved colonial towns of Central America. Casco Viejo churchThe influence of the Europeans is ever present and the high buildings, featuring the typical Spanish window shutters and grand French balconies, but the combination of renovated and run-down means you never forget that you are in Panama. Balcony Casco ViejoFreshly-painted iron-gated balconies feature colorful flowers, while right next door, it is the colorful laundry which catches your eye as it hangs over the old rusty balconies which seem as though they could collapse at any moment.Casco Viejo old building balcony
Casco Viejo old building balcony
casco viejo old balconySome buildings seem one breezy day away from falling down, but seen through the eyes of the temporary traveler, the buildings add to the neighborhood’s charm.

Casco Viejo old broken building
Casco Viejo Balcony with Teddy
Casco viejo doorThe indigenous Kuna women arrive in the early mornings, in their traditional dress, to set up their market stalls near Casco Viejo’s waterfront, where they sell their famous and unique hand-made ‘molas’ (clothes in Kuna language) and blankets in the typical bright colors. Kuna Woman in Casco ViejoOver in the business district, where people identify more with the U.S. than with their own Panama, the Kuna presence is nearly non-existent, just one example of how the two areas of Panama City feel like two entirely different worlds.Casco Viejo Kuna marketEnd your stroll with a walk along the promenade, which offers marvelous views of Panama City’s skyline, especially at night. Pick up a Panama hat (you’ll never find them cheaper – surprise, surprise – than here in Panama) and other souvenirs.Panama hats in Casco ViejoGet yourself a raspado, or shaved ice topped with fruit syrup and condensed milk, from one of the food carts and try to gobble up your ‘snow cone’ before it melts in the hot Panama sun.Ice man

 

Where to eat in Casco Viejo:

    • Caffe per due (Av. A, Casco Viejo) – Beautiful Italian restaurant with scrumptious pizza and pasta dishes
    • Tiempos Specialty Coffee (inside the American Trade Hotel) – fantastic specialty coffee shop, great for breakfast.
    • Nomada Eatery (inside Luna’s Castle Hostel) – bohemian coffee shop and restaurant with fresh food and tasty cocktails
    • PalettAmerica (Calle 8a Este) – ice cream parlor with amazing exotic fruit flavors 
    • Casa Sucre (Calle 8 y Avenida B) – cozy coffeehouse with delicious breakfast and coffee
    • Restaurante Santa Rita (Av. Eloy Alfaro) – excellent fusion of Spanish tapas and Argentine parilla: meat dishes, sea food & fresh fish, tapas
    • Mula Bar (upstairs at Tio Navaja restaurant) – lovely cocktails in an intimate setting
    • Fonda Lo Que Hay (Calle 12 Este Entre Avenida Central & Avenida B) – unique Panamian dishes with a twist. Run by one of Panama’s most famous chefs, Jose Carles, who also runs Donde Jose (see below)
    • Donde Jose (Av. Eloy Alfaro) – Panamanian cuisine, prepared and served fine dining style in a beautiful setting.
    • Tantalo – thriving rooftop bar & restaurant atop the Tantalo Hotel. Elegan fusion cuisine and a fab happy hour.
    • The Dining Room (inside the American Trade Hotel) – Most elegant restaurant in Casco Viejo.

El Cafe Vienna

Where to stay in Casco Viejo:

Budget:

  • Luna’s Castle Hostel – backpacker hostel in an old refurbished French-colonial mansion. Terrace, hammocks, communal lounge. Bed in a 10-bed dorm from US$16, including breakfast
  • Vive Casco Antiguo – Small but stylish apartments with one bedroom, fully equipped kitchen, washing machine and TV, and a balcony. Apartment per night from US$65
  • Magnolia Inn – beautiful Inn in a wonderfully renovated French-colonial villa with terraces. There’s a shared kitchen and a shared dining room. Dorm beds from US$14, private double rooms from US$80

Mid-range:

  • Tantalo Boutique Hotel is located right in the heart of Casco Viejo. The contemporary artsy rooms have a balcony, the hotel has a fantastic restaurant and rooftop bar. Double rooms start at US$80
  • Villa Palma Boutique Hotel: Small boutique hotel in Casco Viejo that combines traditional elements with modern features. There’s a sun terrace with a hot tub, and the hotel has a restaurant and bar. Double rooms start at US$108 per night.

Splurge:

  • La Concordia Boutique Hotel is a small hotel with stylish, beautifully designed rooms (including standalone bathtubs) and a lovely terrace. Some rooms have a balcony. Double rooms from US$204, including breakfast
  • Central Hotel Panama: Modern hotel behind a historic colonial facade. Features an outdoor pool and a spa center, including a sauna and fitness center. Double rooms start at US$170, including breakfast.
  • American Trade Hotel – right in the heart of Casco Viejo. Guests can enjoy an outdoor pool and rooftop sun terrace, a gym, a restaurant and there is a jazz bar onsite. Rooms are modern and stylish, bathrooms come with a rain shower head. Double rooms start at US$249 including breakfast.

Panama city skyline

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Costa Rica’s National Parks: Manuel Antonio vs. Cahuita

costa rica crocodiles

Primarily known for its eco-friendly tourism, Costa Rica aims to preserve as many different regions as possible and has over 26 national parks. From mountainous cloud forests to volcanoes, coastline, wetlands and rain forests, the country is bursting with these parks. So when choosing the best, in Costa Rica it isn’t too much to ask for a trifecta – lush, green jungle, wild animals and sandy beaches to lay the afternoon away. Costa Rica has two such national parks: both Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast and and Cahuita on the Caribbean coast.
Manuel Antonio vs CahuitaWhile both can boast jungle, wildlife and beach, these are two very different experiences. Despite a US$16 entrance fee, Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. Cahuita, on the other hand, costs next to nothing to get in (US$5), and remains a more off-the-beaten path National Park in comparison. Most travelers don’t have time to hop from coast to coast during a trip to Costa Rica, so read on for a closer look at both to find which might be the right fit for you.

Cahuita national park

The Smackdown: Manuel Antonio vs Cahuita

Manuel Antonio National Park

At 4,014 acres (16.24 km2), Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s smallest, but certainly most famous national parks in the country. This family-friendly park is located 30 kilometers south of Quepos on the Pacific.

The animals are the main draw at this park and there are plenty of them: four kinds of monkeys, both the three-fingered and the two-fingered sloth, raccoons, pacas, coatis, hundreds of exotic birds, snakes, spiders, iguanas and crabs.
Monkey in Manuel AntonioWith wildlife sightings at Manuel Antonio essentially guaranteed, tourists come in flocks to spot them. Young, old, agile and those moving very slowly all crowd the main paths early in the day, but sneak off to some of the more secluded hiking trails and  you’ll have the forest to yourself. Head back to the beautiful blue beaches, however, and there is no way to escape the crowds, who line the sand, soaking up the sun.

Manuel Antonio BeachThere are smaller paths in the park that allow you to get away from the crowds, who tend to stay on the main trails. My favorite one is one leading high up to the top of a cliff with expansive views out over the ocean and some of the park’s picture perfect beaches – every time I hiked up there, I ran only into a couple of people. Plan in a few hours to explore the jungle and spot animals as you go. The monkeys are alarmingly accustomed to the presence of tourists here and have no qualms about coming right up to people to get their hands on some chips or cookies. Regardless of the number of people around, families of raccoons are known to walk right up to bags and coolers to snatch food, another good reason to head away from the madness and catch the animals in their natural behavior.

Advantages of Manuel Antonio National Park

    • Animal sightings 100% guaranteed
    • Pristine beaches

Manuel Antonio Flower at the beach

How to get to Manuel Antonio: From San Jose’s Coca Cola bus terminal (Calle 16 between avenidas 1 and 3) there are three daily buses. The ride takes 3.5 hours. $5.50

Park Admission: US$16 (free for children under 12)

What to bring: Camera, money (cash only – and if you want to hire a guide, extra cash to pay him & tip him), bathing suit & beach towel, binoculars

Tip No 1: Rent a guide. While we saw plenty of wildlife, guides who work in the park park know the best spots to see wildlife and carry high-tech binoculars to spot monkeys and sloths hiding high up in the trees.
racoon in Manuel AntonioTip No 2: Visit early in the morning. If you stay directly in Manuel Antonio, you can get up early and be at the park entrance right at 7am to arrive before the tour buses arrive around 9 or 10.

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita is a sleepy beach town on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, just half an hour from popular Puerto Viejo. The small village has several budget hotels but is practically undeveloped in comparison to Manuel Antonio. The national park at the end of town, which runs parallel to the beach, is not only known the wealth of wildlife on land, but also for its reef which is perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. Cahuita National Park is also perfect to pop into for a day out on the nearly empty beaches, surfing and sunning. Entry is technically free, but donations are welcome.
Cahuita beachEnjoy the sounds of the jungle during a walk along the two-mile tourist-free path on the beach. The animals here live in a much more undisturbed environment, which makes them much more shy and harder to spot, so keep an eye or two out for the rich variety of wildlife: howler monkeys, Capuchin monkeys, sloths, toucans, pacas, coatis, raccoons, snakes, various kinds of colorful crabs and hundreds of different kinds of fish and coral for divers. Hire a guide for optimal animal spotting.

Coloured crab in Cahuita Costa RicaBecause the National Park and the town are less developed than Manuel Antonio, exploring is less organized. The start of the park is an easy walk on a wide sandy path, but you will shortly come to a river crossing, which either requires a silly 20-second boat ride across the river, or wading through chest-high water to get to the other side. Get across that, and you will feel like you have the place to yourself.

Cahuita national park jungle

Advantages of Cahuita National Park:

  • No crowds
  • Great for diving & snorkeling
  • Ideal for surfing
  • Cheap (US$5 for foreigners)

How to get to Cahuita: From San Jose’s Terminal Atlantico Norte (avenida 9, calle 12) buses leave every 2 hours between 6am and 6pm with Autotransportes Mepe. The ride takes about 4 hours; US$9

From the Gran Terminal del Caribe bus terminal, (Calle Central, 1 block north of Avenida 11) there are five buses daily.

There is also a private shuttle company that offers daily rides from San Jose to Cahuita for US$55. If you don’t feel comfortable using public transportation, or are worried about the language barrier, you might want to check out these minibuses. The journey isn’t much faster, but you can communicate with them and book your tickets in English, via email or Whatsapp. Check out Caribe Shuttles here for all of their routes.

Tip: Don’t pay for the boat to cross the river. If you walk on the beach where the river hits the ocean, the river is narrow and shallow enough to be crossed on foot. Just make sure to carry your camera & valuables high up.

Admission: Admission is by donation at the main entrance in Cahuita, but if you arrive by car from Puerto Viejo and take a secondary entrance (sign posted on the main street), they charge foreigners US$5.

What to bring: A drybag to keep your valuables dry, especially if you’re visiting during rainy season (downpours are to be expected), bathing suit, camera, binoculars

Cahuita beach

Manuel Antonio or Cahuita: Our verdict

There is no clear winner here as both parks are definitely worth a visit. Manuel Antonio has much prettier beaches and more visible wildlife, whereas Cahuita offers more tranquility and allows you to take your time without other tourists. Manuel Antonio feels like a resort and is as much about a day at the beach as about a national park, while Cahuita is heavy on the park, with a beach on the side.
Manuel Antonio vs Cahuita

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Struck by a wave of charm in Valdivia

sea lions in valdivia

During a trip through Chile, odds are that unless you are Chilean or have unlimited time to travel, you probably won’t visit Valdivia.

Why would you?

Although it is the largest city in the south of Chile, it roughly four hours south of tourist-friendly Pucón and the same distance north of Puerto Varas, a popular stop with the South American cruises, and has no major tourist attractions to speak of.

valdivia riverside and fish market
Covered fish market and Valdivia from the river

We love these kinds of cities, the ones that are entirely unconcerned with tourists.

Their beauty is a natural one, no make-up, nothing over the top, out in plain sight for us to discover.

That’s why we fell for places like Valladolid in Mexico (we ask you not to even go there), Kamphaeng Phet (the town that tourism forgot) in Thailand and now Valdivia in Chile. While there is no earth-shattering attraction, it turns out that an event here actually altered the Earth forever.

valdivia streetLet’s back up a bit first. To understand Valdivia, the easiest place to start is by heading straight down to the river at the center of town. Not one river, actually this is where the confluence of three major rivers, the Calle-Calle, the Valdivia and the Cau-Cau.

It was here at the famous outdoor fish market, that, despite the bloody fish guts splattered on the floor, for us Valdivia began to sparkle.

valdivia market fish vendorIt is bursting with gorgeous produce on one side – fresh fruits and vegetables, a variety of colorful tubers, eggs, cheese, big cubes of dark green seaweed and another thick, rubbery type that looks more like animal intestine but is indeed seaweed straight from the area’s river system. Varieties of freshly caught river fish with strangely large teeth, or whiskers and tails stare across the aisle at the vegetarian-friendly section as fishmongers clean them, tossing their guts right onto the floor and then hosing them into the river behind them.

valdivia market algaeHundreds of birds hover and swoop in for this free fishy lunch, competing with six massive sea lions who roar, play fight and flap about lazily on a floating wooden pier just off river bank, both sure that they are the true main attraction.

The sea lions win, flippers down.

sea lion valdiviaAt one point Dani thought a space ship had landed in the market when seeing my eyes so wide with disbelief. The largest of the sea lions had made its way past the metal security gates and flopped right into the market itself. Hundreds of tourists with their cameras suddenly circled (at a safe distance) taking pictures with their phones, cameras, iPods and (annoyingly) iPads.

Dani jumped down right near him, of course, to get her shot, and though the market vendors were obviously used to this beast’s visit, they were amused with Dani’s eagerness to get the shot and kept urging her to touch him. She didn’t, instead letting some of the mongers lure him back into the water by dumping ever more fish guts into the water.

valdivia sea lion attackA stroll along the river brought us to the spot where river tours leave from – right in front of Fucoult’s Pendulum. You’d have to be much smarter than us to understand more than a basic gist, but we gleaned that the swinging of the pendulum proves the earth’s rotation.

In Valdivia, it turns out, this is more relevant than we would have thought.

valdivia submarineWe hopped on a one-hour river tour here (Spanish only) that gives a great outline of the history and industry of the city, but it was here we learned that Valdivia was the most affected city of the 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in history.

Registering a 9.5 on the Richter scale, the quake was so powerful it actually altered the Earth’s axis and shortened the length of every day on Earth by a few milliseconds.

Tsunami waves of over 80ft (25m) battered the Chilean coast and actually devastated a town in Hawaii. Learning this, and that waves as high as 35 ft (10.7m) were recorded over 6,000 miles (10,000km) from the epicenter – as far as Japan – while sitting on a small tour boat was not exactly where we would have chosen to hear of this earth-shattering event.

valdivia riverOur visit was calm and focused on experiencing the everyday life of the city’s residents. The weather was sunny and warm, so hundreds of people were out on the river in kayaks and paddle boats, with more serious rowers speeding up and down it, parallel to the length of the city. While we were there, we ate well in several restaurants with fair, local prices.

In particular we would recommend a stop in at La Ultima Frontera, just a few blocks up and away from the river, for their great priced and delicious lunch specials. For a boozy afternoon break, stop by the very local Cafe Palace, where we had a giant bowl of Patatas Bravas and 2-for-1 pisco sours for a total of $8. There is primary forest to be visited outside of the city and incredible wildlife just across the river, but we were focused on a city getaway in the middle of a month of Patagonian adventure. We spent the afternoons visiting museums, like the contemporary art museum, and stopping in cozy, if nondescript, cafes, noticing each time that if a place offered free Wi-Fi, the internet connection always worked.

Valdivia from modern art museum
Valdivia from the Modern Art Museum across the river

This is how we feel in general with most of Chile. While lacking in the crumbling grandeur (and constant threat of economic disaster) of neighboring Argentina, in Chile everything just works. The economy here is strong and the infrastructure solid. Even in remote areas, roads are paved and internet connections are speedy. There is a sense of order here, throughout the country that we found even in bohemian Valparaiso and seven-million strong Santiago.

In Valdivia, the waves are calm enough again to witness the subtle aspects of charming Chilean life.

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Getting steamy in Arenal, Costa Rica

volcano arenal costa rica

During our visit in 2011, we focused on Costa Rica’s beaches, visiting Montezuma, Playa del Coco, Samara, Santa Teresa, Manuel Antonio, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo. Our trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest was our one trip into the mountains, and yet, not 100kms from Monteverde was La Fortuna and its famous Arenal Volcano. Luckily this time Dani pushed for us to visit the area. What we discovered is that Arenal is a perfect Costa Rica escape.

lake arenal costa rica

What you can’t miss: Arenal volcano

Arriving under the cover of night, we had no idea of the massive volcano looming over the town. While sussing out tour options at a local travel agency, a dreaded, bearded Argentine flirting with the tour guide told us that it would be impossible for us to miss Arenal Costa Rica in the morning, and he was not just boasting in front of his girl. He was right. The volcano is the focal point of the area, from the town of La Fortuna across to the national park, and it is the inspiration for the name of nearly every hotel and restaurant in the area.

Costa Rica Volcano ArenalThere are complaints that the town of La Fortuna is ‘too touristy’ but it almost has to be. In 1968, after lying dormant for hundreds of years, Arenal Costa Rica unexpectedly exploded and decimated the small town of Tabacón. For years after that first eruption there were several explosions – some major, some minor – that left the volcano glowing red with lava. Although recent years have seen no activity or signs of it, the warning signs around town about the possibility of life-threatening volcanic activity should be taken fairly seriously.

When the girl in the tour agency heard we had a car, she encouraged us to visit the sights in town independently instead of signing up for a tour. Thankful for her tip, we combined a morning hike in the national park at the base of the volcano 15kms outside of town with an afternoon trip to the incredible La Fortuna waterfall.

Colorful toucans and other wild birds soared overhead as we descended over 400 steps into a ravine to the base of the massive waterfall. The pounding water was intense, but the resulting river was lazy, cool and perfect for swimming on a hot day. As we were there later in the day it was too chilly, though by the time we clambered back up those 400 steps we would have appreciated a quick swim. The imposing, mystical volcano, the powerful, pounding waterfall and hundreds of shades of green trees flooded us with an overwhelming sense of the natural splendor Costa Rica has to offer more than anywhere we had visited in the country before.

La Fortuna Waterfall in Costa Rica

What you must not miss: Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort

After a day of hiking and climbing we couldn’t wait to spend the next day relaxing submerged in the steaming hot pools. Because of the geothermal activity of this volcanic region, La Fortuna is rife with options for hot springs, but the absolute best place to experience this is the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. Also a five star hotel, Tabacón is consistently listed as one of the best spa properties in the world, and often listed as one of the top ten hot springs in the world. Readers of Travel + Leisure voted is the #4 Hotel Spa in Latin America 2011.

Tabacon Hot Springs Costa RicaThere is no question as to why this is. Tapping into streaming water from the Tabacón river, there are five natural mineral pools ranging from 25-38 degrees Celcius (71-100 F), with a river rushing through the center of the property. Each of the pools and their steamy offshoots along winding pathways are set in lush gardens so that many areas feel semi-private, others downright hidden. The Shangri-La adults only area is incredibly relaxing, with chairs and plush beds spread throughout and meditational music playing just loud enough to hear over the rapids. We dipped in pool after pool and then massaged our shoulders under gorgeous waterfalls looking out at the Costa Rican rainforest, with Blue Morpho butterflies and what look like dinosaurs but are most likely only lizards sunbathe nearby.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa Costa RicaIn addition to the restaurant, pool area and three bars (one of which is a swim-up bar) is the Grand Spa, the true showcase piece of the Tabacón resort. Clients here have an even higher level of seclusion and connection to nature with open-air treatment rooms set among gardens. Treatments include volcanic mud wraps, coconut skin exfoliation, meditation trails, even a traditional temezcal area where guests can experience an ancient Indian steam treatment process.

No matter how you spend your Spa day, when you get here you will want to stay for a long, long time, so make sure to go ahead and pay the full $95 per person, which gets you unlimited time in the hot springs plus a set lunch and buffet dinner (its $85 for lunch or dinner only, or $65 just for the Hot Springs). Guests of the hotel receive one complimentary Spa treatment, otherwise all Grand Spa activities are charged separately.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa in Costa Rica

Tips for traveling to La Fortuna / Arenal Costa Rica

Rent a car

We rented a car and drove over from Samara Beach, meaning we spent the afternoon meandering the road around Lake Arenal, a magical sight that reminded us of the lochs of Scotland more than the primary rainforest that lay just ahead of us.

Once in the La Fortuna area, the town is fairly compact, but sites, restaurants and hotels are spread out along the road, which couldn’t be easier to navigate. Renting the car made the trip to Arenal as easy, comfortable and relaxing as possible. Luckily, we were able to drop off the car near the airport without any additional drop-off fees as well.

Create exactly the trip that you want

Because tourism in this region is well established, visitors here can choose from a full five-star holiday to bare bones basic backpacker hostels and everything in between. For us this meant we were able to travel exactly the way we prefer – choosing to visit sites independently and eating in the many local ‘sodas’, or Costa Rican restaurants, while staying in the excellent four-star Mountain Paradise Lodge and splurging on the spa day at Tabacón. For those looking for a full tour package or budget travelers looking for hostels and other budget travel ideas, this part of Costa Rica offers options for every budget.

Arenal La Fortuna Costa Rica

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Conveniently picturesque – a getaway to Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento

uruguay classic cars colonia del sacramento

Sitting at a table at ‘El Drugstore’, a popular restaurant in the historic center of Colonia del Sacramento, sipping a medio-y-medio while looking out at the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, I felt at ease for the first time since our attempted robbery in Montevideo. It might have been the mix of moscato grapes and pinot blanc sparkling which mix to make Uruguay’s special wine, or the passionate singer who entertained the guests with Spanish love songs. The scene felt like out of a movie, the manicured town square just a little bit too perfect.

Colonia del Sacramento Medio y Medio and churchWe booked four days here despite being warned that Colonia could be ‘done in a day’. Catching up with work and relaxing in the picturesque little town was exactly what we needed.

Picturesque Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento is a former Portuguese colony founded in 1680 that has become a long weekend playground for residents of Buenos Aires, the reasons for which, however, are not purely touristic in nature.

Colonia del sacramento uruguayColonia is a charming, compact UNESCO World Heritage site that really could be visited in a single day, a soothing contrast to the sprawling Argentine capital that sits just a 50-minute ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata river. Here tourists from around the world step carefully along original and very rocky cobblestone streets lined with one-story colonial buildings filled with cheek-pinchingly cute cafes and restaurants and several modest attractions like the old lighthouse, the country’s oldest church, Iglesia Matriz, the city’s old fort and the 17th century port which juts out into the river.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayHere you eat ice cream and stroll, and the second day in town you can rent bicycles, scooters or even golf carts to escape out to the beaches just 15 minutes outside the city. We would also recommend riding, driving or carting around the Colonia beyond the historic center, which has an entirely different and much more Uruguayan feel.

Colonia del Sacramento Unesco UruguayWe spent most of our days between sightseeing and working away in one of the many little cafes. As was our routine in South America, we hung with the local stray dogs and watched the sun set across the Rio de la Plata.

Colonia del Sacramento Pupppies and sunsets

Money, money, money: Convenient Colonia 

Although it is truly picturesque, Colonia’s popularity might have slightly less to do with an influx of international tourists and more to do with residents of neighboring Argentina, in particular Buenos Aires, who flock here for entirely practical purposes.

Argentina is again suffering bouts of extreme inflation, devaluing the peso. There is no access to US dollars from banks anywhere in Argentina, which means that while parents hand out ice cream and climb to the top of the lighthouse with their kids, they are there to endure the long lines that wrap around the block to withdraw large sums of US dollars from Uruguayan banks. Both parents and business people are involved in bringing massive amounts of dollars back into Argentina, either to save under their mattresses or exchange on the blue market.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayColonia is also a practical escape for the Buenos Aires expat community, who make quick weekend trips here every three months when their visas expire. North American and European expats hop across the Rio de la Plata and upon their return, have a fresh new three-month tourist visa to continue living in Argentina without having to apply for any sort of official residency.

Our tip: How to best stock up on $US dollars in Colonia del Sacramento

For people who are traveling from Uruguay to Argentina, you will need to stock up on US Dollars, too, as you will save hundreds, even thousands of dollars by exchanging them on the blue market for pesos while in the country. Our advice is to entirely avoid the massive ATM lines in the barrio historico and venture out beyond the cobblestone into the ‘real’ Colonia. There are plenty of little details to discover and the further out you go, the shorter the lines at the ATM (we never waited more than five minutes near our hotel). You can also bring your passport and withdraw $$ with a teller inside the bank in order to avoid paying any ATM fees as well.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayNo matter what your purpose of your trip is to Colonia del Sacramento, do your hotel research, book at least a week in advance if you can and stay for a few nights to really soak in this charming city and the surrounding sleepy countryside and secluded beaches.

Colonia del sacramento uruguay

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The five best beaches to visit in Central America

costa rica beach nicoya

If you’ve taken the time to travel in Central America, or even considered settling down and possibly living in Costa Rica or another of the beautiful locations on this strip of land, then you must have already started exploring the beaches in the region. This can take months of traveling. Want the detail on the best beaches to see across Central America? Here are some to try!

The five best beaches to visit in Central America

San Blas Archipelago, Panama

There are 378 islands in this gorgeous arc, lying off the north coast of Panama. But only 49 are inhabited. Just imagine the endless strips of untouched sand and sea that you’ll find here. The Kuna, the indigenous population here, are friendly people who still enjoy a traditional lifestyle and if you visit the smaller islands in the Archipelago, there`s a chance there may be a member of the Kuna tribe waiting on shore to collect $1 from you, in exchange for all day use of the beach. So if you are ready to travel to your slice of paradise, definitely do it here! Tropical fish, shallow water, local population…you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Starfish PanamaTabyana Beach, Roatan, Honduras

For a more affordable price, you can experience some of the best that Honduras has to offer. Roatan Island varies quite a bit depending on which end you go to – the southern end is mostly rocky volcanic shore, whereas West Bay is gorgeous. Tabyana Beach isn’t totally out of the tourist way, but the sand is still beautifully clean and the sea just as amazing! Cruise ships can even dock nearby for a day, so don`t be surprised if it is slightly more crowded on these days. Otherwise, it’ll be like most of your Central American traveling – long secluded stretches of sand and sea! Taxis are also a great way to visit multiple secluded beaches here. But make sure the taxi stays with you all day – remote means remote, and you’ll be stranded if the driver decides to leave! Haggle for the best price, too, before you set off. Then, enjoy!

Hacienda Baru, Costa Rica

This private Natural Reserve will offer you something unique during your months of Central American travelling. Not just a typical seaside, this Reserve has four different types of forests, amazing wildlife, and guides who will lead you through it all for a great price. Take the bus from San Jose or a plane to Quepos Airport, after which a 20 minute taxi ride will lead you to the entrance of Hacienda Baru. Walk, clamber in the canopy, or enjoy a horseback ride – visits into the Reserve are daily, and will open your eyes to the stunning natural world of Costa Rica!

best beaches Central America

Whale’s Tail Beach, Ballena Marine National Park, Uvita, Costa Rica

If you have spent a few travelling months in the Central American region, chances are you will have discovered this unique National Park, with its beach shaped very much like a whale’s tail. It is slightly less-known than some of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist attractions, so enjoy it before it truly is discovered by the tourist hordes. With some of the most extensive reefs in the Pacific, and frequent whale sightings, this travel destination in Costa Rica is one you won’t forget.

Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Just a 10 minute boat trip from the town of Bocas del Toro, this secluded island has beaches which are just wilderness waiting to be enjoyed. You can venture into the main city of the Old Bank, a West Indian historic town, or head further south to the mangroves of the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos. Either way, if you’re traveling for months in Panama, this is somewhere that you won`t want to miss.

best beaches Central America

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Cycling along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast

Cycling along the Caribbean Coast in Costa Rica

“EEEeee! This is just like Eat Pray Love!” Jaime squealed as we pedaled away from the bike rental shop on our shiny new bikes to explore the Caribbean beaches of the Costa Rican coast. Cheesy as it sounds, I think we all found the experience to be liberating, exhilarating yet completely relaxing.

Puerto Viejo cycling

We had just met Jaime, the Breakaway Backpacker, in person for the first time the day before in Puerto Viejo, and even though he had not ridden a bicycle for quite a while, he was up for a bike ride along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Jaime had just landed in San Jose a few days earlier to start his solo round-the-world trip, and Puerto Viejo Costa Rica was the first stop on his yearlong journey.

Puerto Viejo Costa RicaPuerto Viejo itself is a fun town and has everything in terms of hotels, bars and restaurants, but the beaches in town pale in comparison to the spots further down the coast. Bikes are available for rent throughout town for US$5 per day, complete with locks and a big basket to hold your beach gear, so we set off by bicycle along the well-paved coastal road in search of a spot to swim and soak up the sun.

Bicycle rental Puerto Viejo

The road hugs the coast the whole 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo in the far south of Costa Rica, weaving along from just on the coast to a bit more inland where a glimpse of the beach is only possible through the thick jungle. Although there are patches where potholes are plentiful, the vast majority of the road is absolutely perfect for bike riding, traffic (both bike and car) is minimal, making it possible for us to spend the way out of town chatting away. Other times we rode along in peace and quiet, each enjoying our own little moments of solitude with the sun shining down.

Manzanillo Vendor woman at the beachJust about a mile outside of town we reached Playa Cocles, and if we had stayed there all day we would have been more than satisfied. The waves here are strong, and we watched surfers and sipped fresh coconut water before heading to Punta Uva, a thirty minute ride further along the coast. From the minute we parked our bikes under the palm trees near the National Park sign, it was clear this beach was our absolute favorite. Beaches rarely get better than this. Set in a bay, the beach in protected by a tropical tree covered cliff which keeps the waves out and the water perfectly flat, nearly motionless. Looking back at the lush jungle while floating freely in the water was invigorating. Despite it being Saturday afternoon and cloud-free skies, we shared the entire beach with no more than 20 people.

Puerto Viejo Costa Rica

We could have stayed here all day, but instead convinced ourselves to take advantage of our fabulous bikes and move on to Manzanillo. Whereas the first part of the road from Puerto Viejo to Punta Uva is lined with spacious hotel properties, a few resorts, high end restaurants, surf shops, and a smattering of cheapie mom and pop restaurants, the second half of the ride is almost entirely through the jungle.

Puerto Viejo cycling

Along the way, we dismounted just off the road to goggle at hundreds of hand-size Golden Orb spiders hanging in webs that must have taken generations to build. On the way back, in exactly the same place, Jaime squealed a second time, but this time to warn me about the 5 foot long black snake slithering its way across the road.

Golden Orb spider web

Manzanillo has the most Caribbean feeling of all the beaches. This cheerful, colorful little town is populated mainly by English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans living in smaller houses, some on stilts, plus a handful of bars, restaurants and hotels.

Puerto Viejo cycling

The beach is as long and wide as the town is small – the sprawling sand stretches for miles, but we only had time here for a quick bite in the local soda (simple Costa Rican restaurant), before jumping back on the bike and power-pedaling those 14 hilly kilometers along the road through the jungle, past the spiders, around the snake, back toward Puerto Viejo before sunset.

Puerto Viejo Costa Rica

The road was ours, only passing the occasional car or bike, until we hit Playa Cocles again. Here, we joined a heavy flow of bicycle traffic all heading back to Puerto Viejo, at time five bicycles wide, as groups of tourists on Caribbean holidays joined surfers riding one-handed, clutching their boards under one arm after a day out on the waves. We returned the bikes 8 hours and 28 kilometers later, sun-burnt, saddle sore and smiled the whole way back to the hostel. A truly life-affirming day indeed.

Puerto Viejo cycling

Continue reading: Is it safe to travel in Costa Rica?

In this article, I look at safety in Puerto Viejo Costa Rica but also other popular places in the country. This guide is aimed at solo travelers and female travelers, but some of the dangers mentioned in the article are relevant to all travelers, no matter if you’re traveling solo, in a group, with your partner, male or female.

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