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Five travel websites we couldn’t live without

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A friend of ours is getting married next summer and already daydreaming about the honeymoon to far away, exotic places. Doing a search for a trip to Bali, they discovered the airfare to be far out of their price range (traveling in summer from an airport that is not a major hub). Also, with so many hotels boasting to be the best or most romantic, they were feeling planning fatigue before ever really getting started!  Because we travel 365 days a year and are always trying to find the best deals on transport, tours and accommodation, we were able to help them out by looking into several different flight options and giving advice on how to find the right honeymoon hotel. For them, the travel websites we recommended were completely new, and others they just hadn’t thought to check.

That got us thinking – what travel website could we NOT live without? We came up with several, and below are our top five:

Hotwire.com

Maximizing our Great American Road Trip experience from New York City to New Orleans this summer was an intense undertaking. Between planning the route, researching hidden gems and main attractions in each destination, booking hotels and then actually enjoying ourselves in each place, we often left certain things until the last minute. And by certain things, we mean hotel bookings. This resulted in some surprising accommodation experiences – some were incredible while others were itchy, stinky and terrible. That is where our love of Hotwire really began.

Hotwire.com is a travel deal aggregator which finds users great deals on hotel rooms/cars/flights that would otherwise go unbooked. While Hotwire does have international deals, we find using it in the U.S. yields the best deals. The most heavily discounted rooms, up to 60% off, came when we booked ‘mystery’ rooms. This means that you aren’t able to see the actual hotel, but you know the neighborhood, how many stars and what other hotels are similar. We were able to book into three-star hotels in the downtown city center for $49 a night and even a trendy four-star spot for $79 that we absolutely loved and never would have considered for ourselves for just a couple of nights on the road trip. If you are willing to take a risk and are not loyal to a certain hotel brand, Hotwire.com makes some incredible hotel deals available. You can also use this site for rental cars and flights, too.

hotwire.comhotwire.com deals

Bookingbuddy.com

This is our ultimate price comparison website, we use it constantly for travel planning. Depending on what type of search you are doing (flights, rental cars, hotels, and even vacation packages) BookingBuddy.com opens up to seven travel websites into tabs, allowing you to compare prices across sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Booking.com, etc all in one place without you having to actively search each of these sites yourself for the best prices. BookingBuddy.com also searches sites you may be less familiar with. Here’s an example: when we were looking for flights from Lisbon to Toronto in the summer, we found, and booked, $299 flights on AirTransat, one of the flight comparison site results in our search on BookingBuddy.com, that had not come up in any other searches. We’ve used BookingBuddy.com to compare and book car rentals as well, including our road trip car rental this summer.

Bookingbuddy.combookingbuddy.com comparison

Booking.com

When we are looking for hotels, we are usually happy when we can book with Booking.com. We get great rates, even on hotels in some of our more far-flung locations, we like the search filters we can sort the results by (price, stars, amenities, kind of hotel, certain chains, review score) and the map where the hotel is located which also shows nearby attractions and landmarks. What we like best about Booking.com are the quality follow-up reviews. Just after checking out of a hotel you had booked on booking.com, you will receive an email asking you to rate your hotel on a scale from 1 to 10 and offer a quick paragraph on highs and lows of your stay.  Because of the survey’s timely delivery, while the hotel is still fresh, we tend to review almost all of our stays through Booking.com, and if most people are like we are, then that means that these reviews are both accurate (albeit opinionated) and trustworthy, as they have been provided only by people who have stayed at the hotel. Reading these reviews is easy and so useful when deciding between hotels in any given location.

Booking.com website & reviews

Tripadvisor.com

We do not book hotels without reading the TripAdvisor review, period. Unlike Booking.com, TripAdvisor can’t prompt you to review the hotel as they don’t actually know whether you have been a guest there. This means that, based solely on self-motivation,  more people tend to get on TripAdvisor to review a hotel negatively than positively. That is alright with us. There is something to be said for knowing the worst case scenario of the accommodation. In short, knowing what you are in for. If there are two reviews that are polar opposites (This is the best hotel we have ever stayed in vs whatever you do, do not stay here) we just check out both people’s profiles and previous reviews. Does one look like they work for that hotel (sneaky!) and are trying to promote it? Does the other look as they they might work for a rival hotel and are trying to trash the competition (even sneakier!).  Taking these reviews with a grain of salt is necessary, but at the same time, if a hotel has 58 five-star reviews and two negative reviews, we feel pretty confident when making that booking. Tripadvisor is also great for info on destination-based tours and tour operators as well as general travel info for each location.

http://www.tripadvisor.com

Wikitravel.org

This is our most recent go-to-site in our travel bag of tricks, but easily one of the most useful. Wikitravel is literally the Wikipedia of travel. In contrast to Wikipedia, where you can also find all of the cities & countries that are listed on Wikitravel, the site focuses on the travel aspect of a certain location and rather than including an entire overview, history, politics, etc., it focuses on topics every visitor needs to know: How to get there, how to get around, what to see, what to do, where to shop, where to eat, where to sleep and possible dangers or scams. The site is a constantly updated crowd-sourced travel guide updated by travelers for travelers. Even if you have your trusty guidebook or read hundreds of travel blogs (which we do), Wikitravel is much more detailed. Find out the cost of taxis and buses in each destination, a full listing of hotels in three budget ranges (backpacker, mid-range and luxury), as well as the same three tier food/restaurant breakdown. For some destinations, there are little known bars you wouldn’t have found otherwise, while for other destinations there are photos or facts about attractions and tours (including which ones you might need to watch out for in terms of scams or shady deals). Because this information is crowd sourced and content is not written by one single provider, anyone can go in to change/add to it. While that could possibly mean the entries contain certain untruths, we have found the information we get from Wikitravel to be so accurate, that this site has really become our first and last information source on the destinations we have traveled to in recent months – from Canada, through the U.S. and now in South East Asia – small towns, big cities and everything in between.

Wikitravel Singapore

What websites can you not travel without? Please add your recommendations in the comment section below.

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Our Top 5 Towns to Visit in Tuscany

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For those who haven’t been there, what they say about Tuscany really is true. Hilly countryside roads leading through chains of medieval villages really are lined with vineyards and olive trees. The locals really do move in slow motion, and between all of the wine drinking and pasta sampling, tourists to Tuscany easily adjust to this pace in no time.

While you could spend the majority of your trip in a rustic rural villa, swimming, sipping and sleeping the days away, either if you are on your own or if you are using an organised tour of Tuscany,  it is also important to get out and take in the culture and life of Tuscan people as well.Siena gate viewThe two most famous stops on the circuit are Florence, to see Michelangelo’s statues, the famous cathedral and the Ponte Vecchio bridge, and Pisa with its Leaning Tower, but the top five towns that won our hearts were actually neither of the above.

San Gimignano

The fourteen tall towers of San Gimignano greet visitors from far off in the distance. The town, perched atop a hill 50km south of Florence, is completely contained within the original city walls and the limestone houses along narrow lanes are filled with shopping selling wine, jewellery, and art inspired by the surrounding countryside.
san gimignano piazza della cisternaThe small town of 7,000 keeps these streets car-free, allowing visitors to stroll at a snail’s pace, sampling Italian sweets, cheese, bread and wine-tastings, the gelaterias with the creamiest gelato and pizza places keeping taste buds bursting with deliciously unique combinations. Work it all off with a climb up the hundreds of steps to the top of Torre Grossa on Popolo Square for 360-degree views of the most picturesque Tuscan countryside of anywhere in the region.view over san gimignano & towers from torre grossa

Piazza della Cisterna is the main square in the town and the well in the middle is a great spot for people watching. It is also where the world famous gelato maker Sergio has his Gelateria di Piazza, praised on television and in magazines around the world. If you happen to be there on a Thursday, you can visit the Tuscan farmer’s market here. The area of the old Rocca castle, the highest point of the town, offers splendid views over San Gimignano and the surrounding countryside.

Tuscany Tip: pick up a selection of cheese, olives, Italian bread and cheap, quality Italian wine and take in the sunset picnicking up on the Rocca – the perfect end to a day in San Gimignano.siena fruit store

Siena

Another medieval town on a hill in the heart of Tuscany, Siena is a much larger city whose historic town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is smack dab on the beaten path. Siena is famous for the annual Palio di Siena horse race held for centuries right on the central shell-shaped Piazza del Ciampo. This horse race is easily the biggest spectacle on the events calendar throughout the region each year.siena Piazza di Campo

The 300 steep steps of the Torre del Mangia right on the Piazza del Ciampo can be climbed, its tower also affording terrific views over the town and Tuscan countryside. Siena’s 12th century cathedral, with its striking black-and-white facade, is filled with paintings and sculptures by Sienese artists who were amongst the best and most influential in medieval times, before Florence became the focal point with Michelangelo and Da Vinci.

Because Siena is both a fair-sized city and a university town, we found a good blend of medieval history and a modern creative streak, which resulted in quirky shops, street art, and pubs and bars filled with local characters.siena cathedral columns & lion

Volterra

What if we said Volterra, just 30km west of San Gimignano, is another hilltop Tuscan town – would you be surprised? Yes, that’s just the way they made ’em back then, but each town, including Volterra, has its own unique characteristics.

Firstly, Volterra may be familiar to Twihards (fans of Stephanie Myer’s Twilight saga) as it is an important location in the popular books.volterra viewVolterra’s city walls are completely in tact, and once you enter through one of six majestic gates, the winding roads are free of cars and the cinnamon-colored houses along the quiet alleys have been inciting inspiration from the town’s early days.

Italian artisans continue to create works of art here, as did the Romans centuries ago, which can be seen in the remains of a classic Roman amphitheater. Theover 800 year-old city hall also served as the inspiration for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

Tuscany Tip: Make sure to head up to the panoramic viewpoint at the Piazza Martiri di Liberta on the south side of town where you can sit down on the wall and enjoy the views over Tuscany and Volterra’s red roofs.volterra roofs

Lucca

Though just a quarter of the size of Florence, Lucca is by far the biggest city on our list, with it’s population of 90,000. Located in a valley, not on a hill, Lucca’s historic center is still completely surrounded by fully-preserved defensive stone walls, but unlike other walled cities, the Lucchesi, or people of Lucca, built walls of stone 20m thick inside of a substantial moat.
Locals and visitors alike cycle, jog and stroll along the top of these massive walls, so make sure to rent a bike or take a 4km walk along the top of Lucca. The town dates back to the Roman Age, mostly visible in the oval-shaped Piazza dell’Anfiteatro where the amphitheater was located. Today, the oval ‘square’ is surrounded by typical Italian houses painted yellow with green shutters. Take in a cappuccino here, or indulge in pizza at one of several pizza pasta joints on the popular Piazza.lucca piazza dell'anfiteatro gateLucca is famous for its many churches, especially the Duomo di San Martino, Lucca’s cathedral, San Giorgio church whose bell towers is one of the most remarkable ones in northern Italy, and San Michele in Foro with its striking facade.

The city’s compact size makes it easily walkable, needing just a day or two exploring its labyrinthine alleys to get a good feel for the place. Lucca has everything, from excellent street markets and dining gems to great music venues and charming hotels.

Stumble upon fabulous little pastry shops and pizzerias or have an espresso at any of the coffee bars throughout town. There are art exhibits and fashion boutiques, which, even for window shoppers are fascinating in Italy.coffee cupWe’ve recommended climbing the towers in the towns above for the views, but head up on top of one of Lucca’s medieval towers for the rush of the experience. Other towers have been recently renovated, stairs reinforced. Not in Lucca. Here, the wooden stairs to the top, over 200 in all, look like the original 13th century wood.

Climb the Torre Guinigi, has ancient oak trees on top, or the Torre delle Ore, for views not only of the countryside, but also the Torre Guinigi.

Tuscany Tip: It costs €3.50 to climb one tower, or you can get a ticket for both for only €5.lucca tower & trees

Barga

Barga is far from the Central Tuscan towns above, nestled in the green mountains much further north of Lucca. There are no typically Tuscan rolling hills here, and very few tourists, either.Barga houses & cathedralPassing more cats than people, we made our way up to the magnificent medieval cathedral on top of the mountain, and what a difference to Siena’s cathedral which is filled from open to close with tour groups. Seriously steep and too narrow for cars, the  little streets wind undisturbed up the hill, sometimes suddenly replaced by a steep set of stairs instead.

The views from the top of the hill are terrific, of course, and we felt that, due to all the climbing, we deserved a pizza reward. We stopped in a mom-n-pop corner place and ended up having some of the most scrumptious pizza and antipasti of our entire time in Tuscany.montaione pizzasTuscany Tip: Barga is our top choice for a day trip from Lucca, only 35 kilometers north of the city.

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A taste of Italy…our first impressions

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Italy was one of the most anticipated countries on our travels through Europe. Both huge fans of wine, olives, pizza and pasta (who isn’t?!), we had been wanting to visit Italy together for years but for some reason, it never worked out. This year we finally made it – and had an incredible trip. We’ll cover our time in Italy more in subsequent posts, but here’s a taste of our time in Italy.

Italians love cats. There are cats everywhere.

italian cats

Italian fishing villages are just so cute.

fishing village

Italy has squat toilets. Who knew!

squad toilet italy

Italians make the best coffee drinks. Our favourites: Cappuccino, Macchiato, Espresso.

coffee drinks

No tourist can leave Pisa without a funny Leaning Tower photo.

Tourists in Pisa

Including us.

Jess at the leaning tower pisa

Italians are proud to be Italian.

italian flag

Tuscany really is as pretty as everybody says it is.

tuscany

Italian pasta is scrumptious.

Delicious pasta in Italy

Cinque Terre is overrun by tour groups but when you visit these ‘5 beautiful lands’, you know why.

cinque terre

This is what Chianti wine looks like before it’s bottled.

wine in chianti

Italian churches are beautiful. From the outside…

italy church outside

…and from the inside.

italy church inside

But they can also hold some pretty creepy stuff.

skull in italian church

Even in Italy you can get your picture taken with a British phone booth.

british phone booth in barga italy

Italian pizzas are giant and they taste perfect.

pizza & jess

Italians invented pizza with truffles & zucchini. It’s delicious.

truffel pizza

Pizza with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and pesto is even better.

pizza pesto

Italian door-knockers are intricately decorated.

knockers italy

Boar is a culinary specialty in Tuscany. You will see boars everywhere. Dead or alive.

boar in san gimignano

boar tuscany

Italian mountain towns are bellissima.

borgo a mozzano italy

In Italy, naked men are everywhere, standing very, very still.

Hercules and Cacus Statue florence italy

Italians don’t like their train system and at times, passengers get out protest on the tracks.

italian train strike

There are as many scooters and vespas in Italy as you might think.

scooters in italy

Italian gelato is addictive.

Gelato in Italy

Italians take great pride in decorating their windows.

Siena Window Italy

Italians really all hang their laundry outside their windows.

laundry italy

Pisa has much more to offer than just the leaning tower.

Pisa & River

There is wine everywhere. And it’s cheap.

wine bottles in italy

wine store italy

There are many expensive ’boutique’ wines, some of those are cheap in their own way…

wine with naked women italy

Italians like garden gnomes in their front yards.

garden gnome italy

Italy has thought-provoking street art.

street art italy

Italian pastries are worth every single calorie.

italian pastries

The sunsets in Italy are picture-perfect.

Italy Sunset

Milan’s cathedral has a beautifully decorated facade depicting some pretty cruel scenes.

milan cathedral fresco

Italian markets are bursting with mouthwatering flavors and bright colors.

Market Italy

Italy is a great place for lovebirds.

love birds in italy

It is hard to take bad photos in Italy.

san gimignano italy


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Top 5 things to do in Panama City, Panama

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Visit the Panama Canal – The heart of Panama City

The Canal is the pulse of Panama and what makes the city tick, feeding it with a steady (and tremendous) source of income and international respect and fame. The canal cuts 51 miles east to west through the country, the impressive Miraflores locks are the first set of locks closest to Panama City, and are by far the most visitor-friendly, with a large visitor center, a museum detailing the canal’s history and a small cinema which shows a short film about the construction of the canal.
Miraflores locks Panama canal
Once outside, there are several terraces to view the colossal container ships being raised or lowered through the locks. Ships carrying over 4,400 containers squeeze through the canal, paying per pound upwards of $400,000 each time to pass. In the mornings, ships heading from the Pacific to the Atlantic go through, the direction is then reversed in the afternoons. There are excellent explanations in English and Spanish over the speakers while the ships pass through, and you leave feeling very informed about how the Panama Canal (and international shipping) works.
Miraflores locks container shipThe locks are an easy 10-minute taxi ride outside of town. There is also a bus, leaving from Albrook Bus Terminal, which drops you off at the street leading to the docks (about 100m walk).

Miraflores Locks – $8 all-inclusive ticket.
Taxi from Panama City – $5-$6
Bus from Albrook Mall – $0.50

The Metropolitan Park (Parque Metropolitano): A jungle in the city

The Metropolitan Park is so much more than just a park. It’s an entire rainforest in the city, home to hundreds of animals and an oasis of peace and quiet in an otherwise very busy city. On a hike you can spot monkeys, anteaters, pacas, toucans, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, turtles, ‘jesus christ’ lizards, butterflies, snakes and many more.
Anteater at Parque Metropolitano Panama City
There are four trails leading up to Cedar Hill, which offers fabulous views over the city, and during the week you have the entire park to yourself. We spotted more animals in this jungle than in some National Parks, and here we were right in the city, just a 15 minute walk from a shopping mall to rival any large American mall.
Panama city skyline from Parque Metropolitano Panama City
Park entrance – $2.00

Bus ride – $.025 – $.050

Casco Viejo – A stroll through Panama City’s colonial quarter

Casco Viejo is may be Panama City’s historic heart, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Many of the colonial buildings lining cobblestone alleys and grand-tree filled plazas for this reason have been restored, and the colonial churches and architecture make this part of Panama City feel more like Europe than anywhere else in Central America.
casco viejo panama city
Take time to stroll through this beautiful quarter, which was even featured in the James Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’. Although the true center of the city with time has shifted to the financial district 2 miles up the waterfront, Casco Viejo, has several excellent restaurants and cafes, cheap eats, and easily the best views of the stunning Panama City skyline.

A walk along the promenade – Skyscraper watching

Starting in Casco Viejo and ending at the Multicentro Shopping Center in the Bella Vista area of the city, there is a two-mile long promenade along the waterfront which is perfect for enjoying the skyscraper skyline set on the Pacific Ocean. You will walk toward this impressive architecture passing the famous fish market, the yacht harbor and dozens of freights ships lined up and waiting to pass through the Panama Canal. The promenade is well-paved and easy on the knees, and hundreds of joggers weave around you as you walk.
Panama City skyline & yachts
If you’re looking for a place to stay fit in Panama City, jogging here is perfect, just make sure to get up early, as the heat in the afternoon can be oppressive at best.

Be a beach bum – A day trip to Taboga Island

Panama City can get hot, extremely hot! If you have a few days in the city, Taboga Island makes for the perfect day trip. 12 miles off the coast, this little island does not have much more to offer than a small sandy beach and crystal clear water, but that’s all we needed to escape the bustle of the city just a 30-minute ferry ride away. If you get bored lying at the beach, this tiny island paradise also have hiking trails and the small village center has a couple of cheapish restaurants with excellent seafood and ice cold beer.
Taboga Island beach and Panama City in the background

…And an extra tip for long-term travelers:

See a movie in English & go shopping!

We know that for backpackers, a shopping mall is not high up on the list, but if you have been on the road for a while, a visit to one of Panama City’s malls is like being teleported home. We had been travelling for over six months through Central America and welcomed the chance to sit in an air-conditioned movie theater (did we mention Panama is hot?) watching current and cheap ($3) Hollywood blockbusters in English at the Albrook mall (also the main bus terminal). And sure, we know you don’t want American fast food, we’re backpackers, right? Well… we scarfed down Taco Bell at the huge food court which has everything you could possible crave – Subway, Mickey D’s, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts, Popeyes, Wendy’s … you name it!
Panama City Mall food courtA last tip for long-term travelers: if your clothes need replacing (and not just in the form of traveler pants), the malls here are great for that. Not only do they have clothes that are more North American or European in style, they also have sizes to fit us non-Latinas out there!

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33 things we love about Costa Rica

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These thirty three things are just a start – 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!
friendly sloth in Monteverde Costa Rica4.    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 vegetariano6.    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.

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!
Surfer at Playa Cobles Costa Rica
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 Beer12.    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!
Monkey in Manuela Antonio14.    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.

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!
Hummingbird monteverde
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 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 trainwreck, 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.

Sculptures in san jose costa rica
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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33 things we love about Nicaragua

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Every once in a while, a country really takes us by surprise, like our deep love affair with Mexico. We had an inkling we would love Nicaragua, and after spending six weeks here, it was easy as pie to come up with a long list of favorites. Read on for thirty three things we love about Nicaragua, in no particular order.

1.    Leon
Well, we say in no particular order, but number one is by far our Nicaraguan number one. Leon is our favorite city in Nicaragua. It is constantly buzzing with vibrant, friendly locals, interesting colonial architecture, one of Central America’s most stunning cathedrals and countless restaurants and bars to eat and drink your nights away. We could easily spend much more time in this scorching hot city!

Orange truck in Leon Nicaragua

2.    Gallo Pinto
This dish, called ‘painted rooster’ is the national dish both of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (we preferred its taste in Nicaragua). Consisting of rice, beans and a magical mix of spices, we could literally eat Gallo Pinto morning, noon and night, although it is usually eaten for breakfast.

3.    La Calle Calzada in Granada
Normally we wouldn’t choose the main tourist center of a city as one of our favorite spots, but Granada’s Calle Calzada is lined with full green trees and one brightly colorful house after the next, from the Cathedral all the way down to Lake Nicaragua. Strolling past the (admittedly overpriced) restaurants and bars, the street is buzzing with diners, drinkers and street performers ranging from acrobats and breakdancers to a slew of international jewelry-sellers.

Calle Calzada Granada Nicaragua4.    Counting the stars on Little Corn Island
Every evening, as we walked back to Little Corn Beach and Bungalow hotel along the deserted beach, we swear we could see almost every star in the sky, which really made us realize just how remote this little island was in the middle of vast Caribbean sea.

5.    Pigs roaming the beach of Poneloya and the streets in Balgue on Ometepe Island

Poneloya Pig on beach

6.    The California feeling of San Juan del Sur

7.    Flor de Caña rum

The national rum of Nicaragua, this drink is sold throughout the world as one the best rums. Luckily, in Nicaragua, this homegrown drink is both delicious and cheap! Nicaraguans traditionally order an entire bottle, along with water or Coke, and split it across a table of four…often times, they then order another!

8.    The horse-drawn carriages
All over the country, in little villages as well as big towns, the horse-drawn carriage is a part of everyday life.

church & horse carriage in Masaya Nicaragua9.    El Desayunazo
Our favorite breakfast place in Leon, which made for some of our top food moments of 300 days of travel! We usually ordered Gallo Pinto and Huevos Rancheros.

10.    Riding our rented bicycles around Granada
We would encourage anyone who visits Granada to get out and see beyond the well-maintained town center. Our ride revealed a city with a very uneven distribution of wealth, much different to Leon, as well as the striking ruins of the old hospital and a peaceful poetry park far from the city center.

11.    The perfectly shaped volcano Concepcion of Ometepe

Volcano Concepcion Ometepe Island12.    Leon’s Central Market
By far one of the cleanest markets in Central America, Leon’s market is filled with friendly vendors, super cheap fruits & vegetables and is a ‘real’ market not overrun by tourists.

13.    The relaxing effects of a lazy day at Laguna de Apoyo

14.    Public transportation is easy
Throughout Nicaragua, using public transportation is easy. The buses are cheap, never as crowded as Guatemala, and some were even pretty comfortable.

15.    Cheap street food in the Parque Central in Granada
Eating out in Granada can be ridiculously overpriced, aimed at the surprisingly large number of high-end tourists who flood the city. However, the city’s central park is anchored by four outdoor restaurants which serve up typical Nicaraguan food at typical Nicaraguan prices, plus there are several street food stands spread throughout the park, too.

Street food in Granada16.    The Colibri Hostel in Leon
This hostel
was our home for two full weeks, and we can highly recommend staying here.

17.   Toña beer
Maybe it was due to the hot, sunny days, but we loved Nicaraguan beer more than any other in Central America and Mexico. Our favorite by far was the delicious Toña beer! We miss you Toña!

18.    The creative street art in the northern city of Estelí

Esteli street art19.    Rocking chairs!
We loved rocking away in them or just watching the Nicaraguans chilling in their rocking chairs on the sidewalk in front of their house.

20.    Exploring  Masaya by horse-drawn taxi
Sure, you can jump in a horse-drawn carriage made for tourists in Granada, but while we were in the nearby city of Masaya, we discovered that the locals get from A to B by way of horse-drawn taxi. For less than a dollar we got a ‘lift’ from the central park down to the beautiful promenade overlooking the lake and the Masaya volcano.

21.    Macuá
The national drink of Nicaragua, Macuá is a sweet cocktail with Flor de Caña rum and several fruit juices. Fabulous!

Macua Cocktail22.    South Bay beach on Big Corn Island
The beautiful white-sand beach is lined with palm trees and crystal clear water.

23.    El Rincón Pinareño restaurant in Estelí
This clean, bright local favorite has a large menu with Cuban and Nicaraguan dishes. We had the best Yucca dish in all of Nicaragua here, plus they offer a great selection of mouth-watering cakes.

24.    Chicken Buses, literally.
Latin America is famous for their ‘chicken buses’ but Nicaragua had more chickens and roosters per capita than anywhere else we experienced in Central America.

Chicken on bus in Nicaragua25.    Boarding down the Cerro Negro Volcano near Leon

26.     Pan y Paz
The French owner of this Leon cafe makes deliciously fresh chocolate croissants and brie baguettes – a rare find in Central America!

Pan y paz in Leon27.     Passionate politically-charged poetry
Poetry in Nicaragua remains a relevant political tool and reveals the passion of the people. The national newspaper includes a poetry section every day, and internationally-famous poets, like the Leon local Ruben Dario, are cherished by all.

28.    Mama Sara
Mama Sara runs a little (unmarked) guest house in San Juan del Sur, and was one of the warmest Nicaraguans we met. She treated guests like her very own children, making us traditional food and drinks, and always making sure we had everything we needed. If you arrive in San Juan del Sur and a nice lady on her bicycle introduces herself as Mama Sara, make sure to go to her house at once!

29.    Choys Maní
This tasty little chocolate bar is similar to a Snickers but much better.

Choys Mani chocolate bar30.    Pathways on Little Corn Island
This tiny Caribbean island has no roads, only pathways, which makes the island feel that much more remote.

31.    The revolutionary spirit of Leon
Leon was the home of the revolutionaries, and this passion can still be seen in the street art, graffiti, murals and museums.

A C Sandino Wall Painting in Leon Nicaragua32.    Cooking an Old Indian with Doña Ana

33.    Mariposa
We haven’t spoken much about our love at first sight experience in Leon as it was too close to our hearts. We fell in love with Mariposa, a little stray dog in Leon who instantly became attached to us. We bought her food, took her around town with us each day, even bought her a collar and leash. She was so well-behaved and loved us so much, people on the street would always remark what a great dog she was as we walked by. We almost took her with us. But after several long discussions we decided it would be better to find her a home in Leon and vowed not to leave until she was in safe, loving hands.  The owner of the Via Via hostel took her in, and Mariposa got a new family with three other canine brothers and sisters. If you go to Leon, make sure to give a bit of your patronage to the caring, good people at Via Via (and if you ask about Mariposa, please give us an update!)

Dani & Mariposa in Leon

If you have visited Nicaragua and share our love for the country, please add your favorite things in the comments below!

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14 things we love about El Salvador

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After spending fourteen days in El Salvador, here are 14 things, in no particular order, we found out we love about the country, one for each day.

  1. Pupusas We could eat these lovely little things morning, noon and night.
  2. Sunsets over the Pacific – beautiful every single day we were there. El Tunco, El Salvador
  3. SuchitotoWith loads of culture and located on the shores of lake Suchitlan, the cute colonial town is equally popular with foreign tourists and weekenders from San Salvador.
  4. Salvadorians – don’t let the number of people packing pistols throw you off – the good-spirited people of El Salvador are as kind and helpful as they are lively. There might be rotten apples in every bunch, but during our time in the country the number of times people went above and beyond to help us is countless.
  5. The Beer – El Salvador is hot, and they serve up their beer cold. There is nothing like a 5 o’clock Golden or Pilsener in El Salvador.
  6. Villa Balanza in Suchitoto – worth a visit for a cheap, very well-prepared lunch or a great hotel stay with wi-fi, lake views and peace and quiet.
  7. Climbing the volcano crater and mountains around La Laguna de Alegria
  8. Escencia Nativa although we were not fans of the beaches of El Salvador, Escencia Nativa hostel in the beachside spot of El Zonte does everything right. Owner Alex, a former champion surfer turned hostel owner and native of El Salvador, has constructed a perfect chill out spot which works as well for surfers after a hard day on the waves, as well as for non-surfers who spend the day relaxing at the pool and scarfing down the delicious food and drink.
  9. The Painted Phone Poles Artistic spirit is very much alive in El Salvador, and, more than in most other Central American countries, there is plenty of street art, murals, and inspiring graffiti. In the towns of Ataco, Alegria, and Suchitoto, the phone and electricity poles are all painted on the bottom, individually designed by different artists and displaying many positive messages and histories.
  10. The colorful buildings of Ataco, a village among the ‘Ruta de las Flores‘, El Salvador’s Flower Route
  11. Entre Piedras hostel in Alegria – read here for a full review.
  12. The vendors on chicken buses – Travel long enough through Latin America and you come to know: where there is a ‘chicken bus’ there are people selling food. In El Salvador, the entire bus+food vendor process is taken to a whole new level. Rather than one or two, there are up to 15 vendors on one bus at any given time. Regardless whether every single vendor on the bus is selling the same thing, each individual makes her/himself heard while selling pupusas, fish, or entire chicken meals with fries on plates wrapped in plastic. But it’s not just food. One day, we bought toothbrushes for a great deal on the bus. The next day, for half the price, we could have gotten the two toothbrushes with a pack of three pens. Why didn’t we wait?
  13. Frozens – similar to licuados (or fruit+ water shakes), in the hot, hot sun of El Salvador, the Frozen is a very large, very frozen version and is delicious.
  14. The seven waterfalls around Juayua – these waterfalls are located just past the popular tourist town of Juayua, and tours can be organised in town. Jason and Aracely, the TwoBackpackers, also explored the 7 waterfalls when they came through El Salvador and have great video footage on their website.Waterfall Juayua, El Salvador

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33 things we love about Guatemala

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No matter how well you know a place, there is always so much more to discover. Though Jess lived here for two years, the 10 wonderful weeks we spent in Guatemala in 2010 led to some of our most magnificent discoveries and experiences of our travels so far. Read on for a list of 33 things, in no particular order, we absolutely love about Guatemala.

1.    The impressive Maya ruins of Tikal – We had visited several ruins in Mexico and Belize, but Tikal is by far the most spectacular of them all.

2.    Lake Peten Itza – Unlike the more famous Lake Atitlan, swimming in Lake Peten Itza is perfectly fine. Jump in off one of the many piers and dry off tanning on the dock. If you see Miguel (a highlight all its own – below) ask him to take you to the zoo on a little island in the middle of the lake. You’ll see all wildlife native to the region.

3.    Our friend, Miguel de San Miguel

4.    The boat ride through the jungle on the river between Rio Dulce and Livingston.

5.   The children of Chichi who were our friends and guides throughout our time there.

6.     The Mennonite Bakery in Xela – Open Tuesdays and Fridays only, this tiny bakery outside the center in zone three offers up fresh homemade breads, pastries, butter, peanut butter, jams and yogurt made by the Mennonite community based outside of Xela. Get there early, as the goods go quickly!

7.    Women carrying giant baskets on their heads – Although this happens in many parts of the world, in our own experience, Guatemalans seem to do it the best. It is unbelievable how big /full these baskets can be.

8.    The colorful ‘trajes’ or dresses of the Guatemalan women – We loved this in Mexico, too, with the difference being that in Guatemala the traditional dress is just so vibrant. Plus the little girls are so darn cute in their miniature versions!

9.   The volcanoes – Volcanoes in Guatemala, which jut aggressively out of the verdant countryside, smoke, erupt and shake on a daily basis. All that volcanic activity is even more intriguing when you climb one yourself.

10.    The Maya village of Todos Santos in the Western Highlands, although we ask you to please not go there.

11.    Yellow House hostel in Antigua – After trying out a few other hostels and hotels in Antigua, we finally found Yellow House, which is the perfect combination of light, spacious rooms, huge free breakfasts and super cleanliness for under $20 a night.

12.    The huge, cheap licuados (freshly blended fruit juices).

13.    The beautiful colonial town of Antigua.

14.    The craziness of a chicken bus rideAlthough some people warned us of their safety, we traveled Guatemala almost exclusively by chicken bus. We will never forget hanging on for dear life, smashed in between families of six on either side of us, marveling at the ‘ayudante’ or helper as he squeezes with ease through the packed bus collecting money, exiting through the back door with the bus still in motion, climbing up the ladder to the top, and getting exactly the right bags down for the passengers disembarking before the bus has even come to a screeching halt in the middle of what appears to be deserted countryside, wondering where the people who got off even live, and also how the helper made it back in the bus so quickly?!

15.    Hiking between villages along Lake Atitlan.

16.    The colorful cemeteries, such as the one in Xela or Chichi.

17.    The Caribbean feel in Livingston, completely unlike anywhere else in Guatemala.

18.    Eating steaming hot Buñuelos.

19.    The way that traditional indigenous life becomes a part of the everyday experience. It is amazing to ‘get used to’ such a different lifestyle, but in the end, we are all very much the same.

20.    D’NOZ antipasti platter & huge bagels in San Pedro La Laguna.

21.    The amazing markets – Guatemala has an incredible market culture, and we love to visit  both the food and handicraft markets to soak up the atmosphere of the busy traders bargaining prices.

22.    Canoeing on Lake Atitlan under that shadow of the impressive San Pedro volcano and the Indian’s Nose mountains.

23.     Cowboys – Most of the men in Guatemala have long ago shed their own traditional ‘trajes’, but the cowboy culture is very much alive amongst the men complete with hats, big belt buckles and horses.

24.    Watching Volcan Fuego erupt from a rooftop terrace in Antigua

25.    Marimba music, the traditional music of Guatemala.

26.    The many fiestas all over the country – including traditional dances, masks, voladores and lots of fireworks.

27.    The ruins of cathedrals and churches in Antigua

28.   The island town of Flores in Lake Peten Itza – With its red roof tops and church on a hill top, Flores seems more like a town in Turkey or eastern Europe. The people in this small island village are some of the friendliest we met in Guatemala.

29.    Lush green gringo-safe, amoeba-free salads and fast wi-fi at Sundog Cafe in Rio DulceThe town itself, also known as Fronteras, is more of a stopping off point for onward travels. If you do stay, eat all the roughage you want here.

30.    The exotic flowers for sale in the markets and along the highway.

31.    Visiting Maximon in Santiago Atitlán – The popular Mayan folk saint who is worshipped in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, and the figure in this Lake Atitlan town is the most celebrated of all those scattered throughout the region.

32.    Guatemalan Coffee.is.the.best.

33.    The Israeli restaurant Hummus Ya, and especially their Shak-shik dish, in San Pedro La Laguna. We think we would go back to the Lake just to have this one more time…

If you found this interesting, why not check out what we love about Mexico and Belize.

Have we forgotten something spectacular about Guatemala? Do you love something we haven’t mentioned? Please add to our list below!

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Top 20 things we miss from home

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Since we began traveling in April 2010, every single day has meant trying something for the first time or meeting someone new. We have had so many new experiences; it has been easy to overlook any cravings for things from ‘home’.  However, seeing our friends and family on Twitter and Facebook bragging about their delicious holiday meals or cool new gadgets got us thinking recently about things we miss about Europe and the United States. So we made a list of the things we miss from home:

  1. Hot Showers – the kind that has water pressure and stays hot for as long as we need at the temperature we choose without somehow ending up standing under cold water with shampoo in our hair.
  2. Bathtubs – what would we give to sink into a hot bubble bath? First born child and one million dollars both come to mind here.
  3. Whole wheat bread – real, healthy whole wheat bread, freshly baked and begging for some delicious cheese.

    Bread selection at Borough Market in London
  4. Oh, Cheese, how we miss you – Camembert, Brie, Gruyere, Stilton, herb or veggie cream cheese, Cheddar, Swiss or Provolone, we want anything but the chalky white mystery lumps or plastic-wrapped ‘American’ cheese slices available in Central America.
  5. Tap water – We shudder to think about how many environmentally-unfriendly bottles of water we have drunk since arriving in Mexico nearly six months ago, and would love to fill up a glass with good old fashioned tap water without worrying about getting amoebas, or parasites, or Montezuma’s revenge.
  6. Chocolate – not so much Snickers or M&Ms, but delicious, rich chocolate like Cadbury or Ritter Sport.
  7. Coffee Refills – Good coffee is hard enough to come by here, but finding a place with free refills is like hunting an urban legend. We have found exactly two such places since the end of our U.S. road trip in July 2010.

    Jess and the biggest coffee ever, Las Vegas Diner
  8. Flushing toilet paper – For those readers out there who have not traveled in developing countries, we should point out that throwing toilet paper in the garbage rather than the toilet is not as disgusting as you might think, and in your own hotel bathroom, it is not stinky in the least. However, we have both seen enough of other people’s shit to last us a lifetime, thanks to public bathrooms and shared hostel toilets where far too many people feel free to throw their stained toilet paper face-up, unwrapped for all the world to see.
  9. Culture – Sure, we are immersed in foreign cultures and learning about past cultures by visiting countless Mayan ruins, but we’ve seen enough natural history and anthropology museums to hold us for months. We miss contemporary art galleries, intelligent street graffiti and theater, both plays and musicals. In countries that have spent decades fighting and surviving merciless oppression, we hoped we would see artistic expression synthesizing these events. We have not seen real contemporary art since Mexico in August, and not a decent play or musical since leaving London.
  10. Salad – Tomatoes, Peppers, Olives, and loads of green leafy stuff, salads are a no-go anywhere down here except for foreigner-friendly spots who follow through on their promise to wash the veggies in purified water. Even then you can’t be sure you’ll walk away without any new life in your stomach.
  11. Doing our own laundry – While it’s great that the ‘lavanderias’ will wash, dry and iron all your clothes for $2.50 a pop, we can’t be sure how often the clothes are washed in actual hot water, and we have a distinct feeling that the detergent is watered down quite a bit. When I’m wearing the same pair of pants 3-5 days a week, I want them practically boiled with loads of thick, all-germ-killing detergent.
  12. Silence –Mega-thin walls, ever present early morning firework explosions and booming music everywhere from bakeries and pet shops to pharmacies, means finding a few minutes of pure silence is a luxury we miss.
  13. Apfelschorle – If you know what this drink is, then you know why we miss it. If you don’t know it, click here. Our most favorite drink in Europe, this is an apple juice spritzer, or apple juice mixed with sparkling water. When we want bubbles, we are limited to a range of Coca Cola products and now that we’ve sworn off Diet Coke, Apfelschorle sure would come in handy.
  14. Multitasking on public transport – we’re so busy either holding on for dear life or holding down our food during the crazy bus rides, there is no time to read a book or newspaper as we so often did in trains and on the tube.

    Chicken buses in Guatemala
  15. Books we would actually choose to read – book exchanges on the road are a great way to keep backpacks light and backpackers entertained, but you are often stuck to other people’s tastes. We’ve sped-read through a lot of contemporary murder mystery paperbacks, a genre  neither of us particularly prefer.
  16. Veggie Sushi – it’s fresh, light, healthy and cheap, and in London we eat veggie sushi by the pound from Wasabi, London’s most popular sushi chain. At the few places we have come across on our travels, there is no vegetarian sushi option.
  17. Sidewalks – Strolling side-by-side down wide, flat sidewalks is a thing of the past. In Central America, you’re lucky to have a narrow side of the road you can safely walk on, and these obstacle courses require constant vigilance to climb up and down steps and around holes.

    Sidewalk in Santa Rosa, Honduras
  18. Breasts in Bras – Do not get the wrong idea, the women of Central America have not all burned their bras. They wear them, alright. But breastfeeding in public is so common that if you stand in the middle of a town square, close your eyes, spin around ten times and then point, odds are pretty good that when you open your eyes, you’ll be pointing at a baby attached to the nipple of a lady’s exposed breast.
  19. Buying clothes that fit – Clothes, especially jeans, are made to fit the stereotypical Selma Hayek Latin beauty – big hips, small waist, and nothing over a size medium. There’s no Old Navy or H&M with ten different cuts and long and short lengths. Here its a few sizes fit all, no matter how much belly spills out over the top.
  20. Our Own Kitchen – not just any kitchen will do. We miss our own. Most hostel kitchens are gross and full of germs, plus no one can convince me that washing dishes in cold water, regardless of with how much soap, can really get the germs off the shared plates. Even in the nicest vacation rental apartment, there are never enough pots or pans, often no oven and no microwave, and since no one travels with a full spice rack in their luggage, we are often stuck with the one or two basic spices we buy, limited to bland food you can cook on a stove top. We miss loads of utensils, Indian, Mexican and Italian spices, using four burners and having a full oven for baking cookies.

    One of the nicer hostel kitchens: La Candelaria in Valladolid, Mexico

Are you currently traveling and miss things from back home? Let’s commiserate! Feel free to add to our list in the comments below.

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11 things we love about Belize

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Belize was meant to be a quick week on the way to Guatemala, but ended up being eleven excellent, adventurous days like none other on our trip. In celebration of our new love of this country, read on for our listing of eleven things we love about Belize, one for each day:

1. 174 miles of beautiful coastline – Belize might be small, but the entire eastern side borders the Caribbean Sea, with many white sand beaches and turquoise waters.

2. Banana Bread – the supersoft Belizean banana bread is unrivaled, especially when it comes fresh out of the oven.

3. The amazing caves in Western Belize: Both Barton Creek and Actun Tunichil  Muknal are home to amazing rock formations, floor to ceiling stalagtites & stalagmites, and fascinating Maya artefacts.

4. The cultural mix – we were surprised by the peaceful mingling of Latinos, the Garifuna, Mestizos, Maya and Mennonites.

5. The beautiful, undiscovered nature – Traveling through Belize, you see green everywhere: woods, fields, meadows, and much of it still seems so untouched. Many of the caves and Maya sites have only recently been found.

6. Belikin Beer, enjoyed ice cold.

7. The laid-back lifestyle on the Cayes – ‘Go slow’ is the motto of Caye Caulker, and that is exactly how life is lived. Stay away from the Cayes if you’re in a rush, because nobody else is (including service staff at bars and hotels).

8. The ‘small town feel’ to the country – Everyone will stop for a friendly chat, and within days, you already feel at home. With a population of 300,000, Belize is small not only in size, but also in population. It is likely to run in to locals you meet in one place while exploring somewhere else way across country.

9. Swimming with sting rays, nurse sharks, turtles, barracudas, and tons of other fish on the Meso-american reef (plus the beautiful corals).

10. The ‘swing bars’ on Caye Caulker make even the longest term travelers feel on holiday.

11. The diversity of the country: from tiny islands, subtropical woods, mountainous rain forests, fruit orchards, cattle meadows, caves and waterfalls – all filled with abundant wildlife.

Have you been to Belize? There are still plenty of places we have left to visit in Belize, so please feel free to join in and share the things you love about Belize in the comments below.

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