The (Unplanned) Road North Part 1: Puerto Natales, El Calafate, Bariloche

After conquering The W and Salkantay within the span of a few weeks we were feeling pretty darn invincible. We were also ready to finally let go of planning for a bit and embrace spontaneity. The last few years we had seen our lives becoming more and more meticulously planned. From well-structured one-week vacations to dinner plans made with friends weeks in advance there was little room for unscripted adventure. A growing desire for more room to explore the world and ourselves was one of the major reasons we decided to take this trip, and so we decided now was as good a time as any to start throwing caution in the wind and see where it took us!
Continue reading “The (Unplanned) Road North Part 1: Puerto Natales, El Calafate, Bariloche”

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Have you heard of Montenegro?

At only 9 years since it’s independence from Serbia and the former Yougoslavia, but with known civilizations dating back to the 6th century, Montenegro is the (second) newest old country in Europe. This blend of old and new could be felt in the historic Old Town fortresses that now housed trendy hotels and restaurants. It could also be seen in the pop-up stands along the roads where locals sold their homemade olive oils and fruits to beach-goers from all over Europe. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) a long history of political and boarder changes, the people we meet seemed rather unfazed by the latest developments.

A church dating back to the 9th century in Kotor's Old Town.
A church dating back to the 9th century in Kotor’s Old Town.

Our decision to visit was initially spurred by Schengen visa regulations — since Montenegro has not yet joined the majority of Europe under Schengen it meant we could spend our time exploring the country without the anxiety of knowing our 90-day clock was counting down. It also checked an important box for me: visit a country that we didn’t know existed before we started out on our trip.

Continue reading “Have you heard of Montenegro?”

Chillin in Cusco, Peru

Our last stop in Peru was Cusco, homebase for our 5-day trek to Manchu Picchu via the Salkantay Trail. We booked 4 nights in Cusco so that we would have time to find and book our tour and adjust to the altitude before we needed to start hiking. It also gave us a much needed chance to recover from the Grape Incident of Ica.

One of the streets we walked frequently
One of the streets we walked frequently

Cusco ended up being a really cute destination in itself and quickly earned a spot as our favorite little city in South America. The picturesque cobblestone streets and colonial architecture are situated in the middle of a valley surrounded by the lush, green Andes Mountains. The two main squares are great for relaxing and people watching: parks surrounded by ornate churches, shops, and restaurants.

Continue reading “Chillin in Cusco, Peru”

Guayaquil: A Tropical Paradise

Malecon Iguana
Malecon Iguana

Ok, maybe “Tropical Paradise” is stretching it a bit. But Guayaquil has such a bad rap that I felt I owed it to this not-so-bad city to help boost it’s ratings.

Before arriving in Guayaquil we did our usual internet research and everything we read seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: spend as little time as possible in Guayaquil. Portrayed as a crime-ridden city with lackluster food and little in the way of entertainment it seemed to fall short on all levels. The consensus was so strong that I was certain we’d be lucky to make it out of the city without getting robbed, mugged, or at the very least coming down with a severe case of boredom.

Maybe we set the bar so low that it was impossible for Guayaquil not to exceed our expectations, but we were actually pleasantly surprised by the city.

When we arrived at the airport customs / immigration was fast and efficient. We were pulling our bags from the conveyor belt and heading outside to the clearly marked taxi area in no time. Moreover, there was a giant sign and airport official directing people to the taxis to ensure that passengers were taking official, licensed cabs. No sign of the sketchy fake cabs that were all over the internet.

El Carmen Hills
El Carmen Hills

Things continued to look promising as we got into our cab and headed for our hostel. A giant monkey sculpture greeted us as our cab drove through the tunnel to downtown Guayaquil. The city itself was pretty drab, aside from the colorful houses that dotted the Santa Ana and El Carmen Hills. However, our hostel was in a great location, right on the Malecon, a pedestrian pathway decorated with trees, flowers, restaurants and street vendors, which stretched a few kilometers along the Guayas River.

bad posture
Working the night away on the balcony.

We only had a few days total in Guayaquil, and much of it was spent catching up on email, blog posts, photos, and dealing with some issues back home. In the time that we did have free, we tried to take in the sights and explore the neighborhoods surrounding our hostel.

One thing that struck me about Guayaquil — it was the first city we had been to where tourism wasn’t a central pillar in the economy. There are pros and cons to this, of course. On the plus side, you can experience what it’s like to actually be a part of this city, outside of the glitzy facade that tourist-centric areas put on; this is one of my favorite aspects of traveling. On the other hand though, we definitely stuck out everywhere we went, and both sightseeing and food options were pretty slim.

In Kyle’s words “It was a city like any other”.

Getting There (and Away)

It was a quick flight from Panama City into Guayaquil, only a couple hours with no layovers. We were a bit anxious on the way to the airport when our taxidriver decided mid-route to drop a friend off at her home and got us stuck in the worst traffic jam, but all turned out alright. Much easier than when we tried to leave…

While in the Galapagos we learned that Carnival is a national holiday in Ecuador and goes from approximately Feb. 13 – 18. Most businesses are closed Monday and Tuesday as Ecuadorians escape to the local beaches for the long weekend. This threw a bit of a wrench in our plans as we had hoped to take Spanish classes in Cuenca, Ecuador that week. When we found out the school was closed for carnival we reassessed our plans and instead decided to head to Peru early to escape the chaos and take classes there instead.

Fresh Flowers
The bathroom at Guayaquil airport had fresh live flowers, one of many niceties not seen in the States airports (electrical outlets also outnumbered people at least 20:1!).

We landed back in Guayaquil from the Galapagos on Thursday 2/17 and immediately hopped a cab to the bus terminal to purchase our tickets for Friday’s overnight bus to Lima. The bus terminal was part of a giant 4-story mall and it took us awhile to find the ticket windows. When we did, we quickly realized that Carnival was going to be a bigger problem than we thought — all direct buses to Lima were booked solid until Sunday afternoon. It takes 22 – 26 hours to get to Lima which meant missing our first day of classes.

Refusing to accept that Carnival once again ruined our plans, we continued asking around and were eventually pointed in the direction of the CIVA ticket window, a company we hadn’t heard of, but at this point we were desperate. After sharing our story with the guy at the ticket window (Necesitamos ir a Lima para clases de espanol en lunes a las ocho de la manana!) he confirmed that all of their buses from Guayaquil to Lima were also full, however if we could get ourselves to Tumbes, Peru they did have a bus that left Tumbes at 4pm on Friday, arriving in Lima around 11am Saturday. Finally! Hopeful, we hurried over to the Cifa (another bus company) ticket window and purchased two tickets to Tumbes, leaving at 7am the following morning.

Back at the CIVA window, feeling extremely proud of ourselves for figuring this all out (in a foreign language nonetheless), we presented our tickets to the guy that helped us concoct this plan only to find out that the Friday bus from Tumbes to Lima was full. Apparently it didn’t occur to him to check this before directing us to purchase our tickets for that day. Luckily there were still a couple seats left for Saturday and we were able to shuffle everything around to make this work. We would have one extra night in Guayaquil, but still make it in to Lima for our classes on Monday.

Stay

Manso Boutique Guesthouse
This cute hostel is located right on the Malecon (waterfront). They have spacious rooms for all types of travelers, from low-cost dorms, to comfortable rooms with a private bathroom and TV. They even offer complementary sea salt scrubs with their bath products, and ear plugs (not that you need them here). Add to that A/C, free filtered water, and great shared spaces with hammocks and it makes for a more than sufficient place to crash for a few days. Breakfast is included and they usually serve lunch and dinner a la carte from their mostly vegan menu.

Do / See

Museo Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneous
A free museum with a surprisingly wide variety of exhibits, this is a great place to spend a few free hours. It’s situated at the end of the Malecon, with a view overlooking the Guayas river. The first exhibit we checked out was a brief overview of Ecuador’s early history, including local artifacts that dated back to pre-Incan times. The second hall featured paintings from an Ecuadorian artist. The entire gallery was dedicated to his work and it was really interesting to see how his style and subject matter changed over time, spanning both local landscapes and everyday life. Next to this were two modern art exhibits, one of which featured work by students and local artists that took shapes and patterns from ancient artifacts and turned them into modern art pieces. All of the exhibits were in Spanish, but we were able to figure out most of it.

Malecon
Malecon 2000

Malecon
It’s obvious that the city put a lot of time into making this a safe, pleasant place to spend time. The gardens were well kept and full of flowers. There were even some land iguanas hanging around! We went for a few walks here and it felt safe day and night.

Guaya River
Floating up and down the tides of the Guaya River.

Being right along the Guaya river you can watch as all the leaves and water plants flow up (and then back down) the river with the tides. At times it was so congested it was hard to tell where the shore ended and the river began.

9 de Octubre
The main avenue in the city, this is a great place to check out if you want to get a feel for what it’s like to actually live / work in the city. This street starts at the Malecon and runs perpendicular into the city. It passes through a couple plazas and a park full of vendors and locals. Along with the usual city park vendors there were (a lot of) clowns, what looked like a school marching band, and photographers with props that included a 3-foot tall lion toy.

Eat

Coffee & Sweets
We visited this Starbucks-clone a few times with consistently good results. It’s an Ecuadorian cafe chain with decent coffee and a pastry section that would put Starbucks to shame. Pie, breads, cakes, flan, mouses, all made fresh on-site. Yum!

Menestras del Negro
A popular fast food restaurant with traditional Ecuadorian food: chicken, fish or beef with rice and beans. It was ok for a quick cheap bite, but not outstanding. I would guess this is what most foreigners would say about McDonald’s or Burger King…

Rasaca’s
This restaurant is located right on the Malecon, near our hostel. Although it was touted in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor as one of the better restaurants in Guayaquil, we were unimpressed. The prices were on the higher side, our server neglected to bring us one of the drinks we ordered, and Kyle ended up with an upset stomach. On top of that the waiter told us our credit card wouldn’t work so we paid in cash, only to find out later that the charge had gone through. My assumption would be that our waiter justo keyed the cash assuming we’d never notice…not cool.

Parilla Grill
We found this grill right around the corner from our hostel and it turned out to be our favorite dinner spot in Guayaquil. Most of the meat dishes come out on mini charcoal grills that are delivered right to your table. While it was also the most expensive both the food and the service were excellent.

Drink

The areas we explored didn’t seem to have much in the way of stand-alone bars. It seemed that most people either had their drinks with dinner or went out to other neighborhoods after. We did try one local brew though, a beer that was made and sold at our hostel. It turned out to be too metallic for our tastes — which was probably a good thing for our wallets!

Tips and Lessons

  • Guayaquil was our first introduction to electric shower heads. Instead of turning on the hot and cold water via taps, you select hot, warm or cold on the shower head which uses electricity to regulate the temperature.
  • Unless you’re going to celebrate Carnival, avoid it like the plague. If you are going to celebrate, book everything ahead of time!
  • Guidebooks, blogs, etc only go so far in preparing you for a place. While its good to do some research it helps to also approach a new place with an open mind, something we’ll continue to work on.

Current Location: Ica, Peru

Panama City: Part II – A bit of Luxury

Our second randevou with Panama City began at 4am when we were unceremoniously dropped off at the bus station. After many confused looks and waking up enough to turn on our cell phones, we confirmed that yea, it was in fact 4am. And we were standing in a bus terminal that wouldn’t open for hours, with all of our luggage. Awesome.

We took a quick inventory of our options:

  1. Go to the hostel we had booked and hope they took pity on us/had a free couch. Nope. Our reservation email confirmed that reception didn’t open til 7.
  2. Find a 24 hour diner and have a looong breakfast. As lovely as this would have been, we didn’t have internet and neither of us trusted ourselves to communicate correctly to a cab driver in Spanish: please take me to a decent 24 hour restaurant in a decent neighborhood.
  3. Were the bars still open?? Wait, right, we have all of our luggage…
  4. Wait it out in the bus terminal. This was where we ended up, in a waiting area that the security guard ushered us to after being told that no, we could not just take a seat on the ground near the taxis.

Once 7am finally rolled around we caught a cab to our hostel in the El Cangrejo neighborhood, one of the trendy areas that bordered the banking district. Luckily, they answered the door and we were able to drop off our heavy packs. Not-so-luckily, we were told to come back at 3pm, the official time of checkin. Sleep-deprived, we stumbled into a near-by diner for some breakfast, before taking a walk through downtown.

After an unsuccessful attempt to go to the mall (opened at 11am) and the movie theater (which was supposedly in the mall), we sat down outside, feeling pretty bummed, and more than a little exhausted. We had barely slept the night before and I was a bit frustrated with myself for pushing us to book our hostel rather than a proper hotel. Granted, the prices were much better, but a hotel would have afforded us an air-conditioned lobby to hang in, and Panama City had some really nice hotels.

I voiced my frustrations to Kyle, and his response was “why not?”. 10 minutes later we were relaxing on the big purple couches at the hotel across the street, checking our email on the free wifi, and enjoying the A/C. Thus began the more luxurious side of our trip, which included a day of lounging at one of the nicest pools in the city, followed by a nine-course tasting menu and a bottle of Argentinian Malbec at one of the top restaurants in the city. A much needed vacation from our vacation!

Getting There

We booked the full transfer from Bocas del Toro to Panama City at our hostel, assuming it would be both faster, and easier. Well, we were right on one account, we realized as the bus sped up and down the winding mountain roads. The bus also ended up being two busses, the first which dropped us and all of our luggage at a one-window bus station down a sketchy-looking road in David at 10:30pm. Thankfully, we were with about 20 other backpacking tourists as well, and one guy helped translate for us, confirming that the bus driver said another bus would be along within the hour.

The next bus arrived and it was definitely a step down from the public bus we took from Panama City to David. They had also double booked our tickets, or so they said after a brief conversation with the exceptionally grumpy looking people sitting in the ones listed on our ticket. So, we ended up stuck in the very back, with the toilet. Overall, not our favorite bussing experience, but we made it!

Stay

Our hostel, Autograph Lodge, came highly recommended on a bunch of booking sites. After the great time we had at Bubba’s we were excited to check it out and meet some of the other guests. We had the back room off of the garden, and while it was quiet and the room was clean, we were a bit bummed to find that the hostel wasn’t really set up with any social areas. The neighborhood was good, but we both agreed that next time we would splurge on one of the nice hotels downtown.

See / Do

Cinta Costa
Walk or jog along Cinta Costa at high tide. Great views of the skyline from this park that follows along the water’s edge. Make sure you catch it when the water is high though, otherwise the smell can overwhelm the skyline views.

Hotels

Legs or hotdogs?
A beautiful pool, thanks for letting us crash…

Hang at one of Panama City’s many high-end hotels. If you can splurge on a room, most are still a much better deal than in the US, and the rooftop pools are the perfect antidote to the heat. If not, most still have bars and restaurants where you can enjoy the atmosphere (and if you’ve packed proper clothes no one needs to know you’re actually staying at the hostel down the street).

Eat / Drink

Best beer in Panama City, good nachos as well!
Best beer in Panama City, good nachos as well!

La Rana Dorada

I believe there are two or three in the city — we ate at the one in El Cangrejo. It’s a brewpub that also does food and we were more than happy with both. We had an enormous plate of nachos and two of their signature beers. It was a cute location with tables outside and seemed to be a popular spot with local 20 and 30-somethings.

Manolo Caracol
We went back and forth on this for awhile on whether to go here because it would be our most expensive meal of the trip at $41/pp, plus taxes, tip, and drinks. However, where else could we get a 9-course menu prepared by one of the city’s top chefs, for that price? We finally decided to go for it and were not disappointed. The food was inspired by traditional Panamanian cuisine, and made with local ingredients. I could go on about the flavors, but I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…

IMG_0178IMG_0182IMG_0183IMG_0177IMG_0176

Tips & Lessons

  • Always ask what time the over night bus arrives, and if there are any middle of the night transfers.
  • Always pack some nice clothes – you never know when you’ll need them, and you don’t want to be caught at a nice restaurant with hiking pants!
  • Even happy budget travelers need a bit of luxury now and the

Current location: Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Island Life in Bocas del Toro

Our first night in Bocas del Toro it finally hit me — we’re really doing this. We had reached the one week mark on our trip, and instead of getting ready to head home, we were settling in.

I was a bit anxious heading out to Bocas. This was going to be our first stay at a hostel, ever, and there was a small part of me that was nervous that I’d hate it. That it would be crowded, dirty, and filled with 20-year-olds partying all night while making me feel way too old for this. So much of our trip (the experience, as well as the budget) was banking on staying in hostels, and yet neither of us had ever done so before. Eek.

Kyle hammock
Kyle spent much of his time in Basti hanging in the many hammocks.

Happily, my fears were completely unfounded and we had such an amazing time. Emy and Laura, our hosts, were super sweet and laid back. Our room was clean with a comfortable bed and windows overlooking the ocean. It was small and sparse in terms of furniture, but it was perfect for what we needed. I’d take the hammocks on the over-water deck over an in-room desk any day.

The other guests were equally great, and we quickly realized that we are definitely not too old for this. Most everyone staying there was around our age or older and had travelled pretty extensively. We met some really cool people from Wales, Chile, Portugal, and the US, and had fun sharing stories over the family-style dinner and $1.50 beers. One of our first nights there I asked about yoga classes on the island and got the response:

“They used to have yoga classes over by Red Frog Beach, but the yoga instructor ran off with the surf instructor awhile ago. They took the paddle boards with them….”

This was followed by a lengthy debate about what day of the week it was. We finally agreed on Friday. Yep, I could get used to this island life…

Getting there

We were happy with our choice to book transport all the way to Bocas with one of the hostels in Boquete. Though it was a few dollars more than taking the local busses it was also a few hours shorter. The scenery was beautiful, with the road winding through the jungle. We saw mountains, waterfalls, and a lot of small houses on stilts. I also got to experience The Worst Bathroom. After that my standards were lowered and any bathroom not literally covered in poop is “not so bad!”.

Our van dropped us off in the small, run-down port town of Almirante, where we caught the first water taxi over to Bocas Town. It reminded me of similar towns in Belize and I was happy to not have to navigate it on our own. Once in Bocas it was easy to catch a quick water taxi to the island we were staying on — Bastimentos (or, Basti, as the locals referred to it).

Stay

Our hostel in Bocas del Toro, Bubba's house.
Our hostel in Bocas del Toro, Bubba’s house.

We found our hostel, Bubba’s House, on Airbnb and I can’t recommend it enough. Good rooms, great atmosphere, nice hosts. The hammocks were perfect for reading or napping, and they had paddle boards we rented, as well as tubing and wakeboarding from their boat.

The town took some warming up, but we got there. It’s a pretty poor community, with standoffish residents, and quite a bit of trash. After a couple days though, we realized that it’s actually a pretty safe place. And while no one is going to go out of their way to say hi to you on the “street” (there are no cars on Basti, the main street is really a small sidewalk), why should they? For most residents, their families have been here for generations. We are just part of the weekly turnover of tourists passing through.

Sunset Basti
Sunset, over the town of Bastimentos.

Do / See

Zapatillas
Our first night in town a couple from Montreal dropped by our hostel inquiring about the Zapatillas tour that was listed. Upon finding out that it was a 4-person minimum to do the tour, we decided to jump on board. This ended up being the only actual tour we did in Bocas and it was perfect. Though it was little more expensive at $35/pp, we definitely felt that it was worth it.

Estrellas del mar (starfish) on the way to Zapatillas.
Estrellas del mar (starfish) on the way to Zapatillas.

The boat picked us up at 10am-ish, and headed out to this area where the water was filled with starfish, large and small. From there, the boat circled a couple inlets at “sloth island”. Hanging out with sloths was one of my “must-do’s” on the trip so I was pretty excited for this part. For a short time we had actually looked into adding French Guiana to the itinerary just for their awesome sloth rescue reserve but ended up passing due to costly flights, rabies vaccines, and malaria meds.

Sloth
Can you find the sloth?!

When we got to the island it was pretty hot out so most of the sloths were taking cover in-land. But we did see a few hanging from the trees!

Next stop was snorkeling where we saw bright coral and a bunch of fish. Then lunch at a nearby restaurant that clearly catered to all of the snorkel tours.

bocas del toro
The water around the island chain of Bocas del Toro was so calm you could see a perfect reflection of the sky.

The last part of our day was spent on Zapatillas, a small island with a walkways that allowed tourists to explore the swampy mangrove landscape without harming the environment, and ended at a gorgeous white sand beach. By the time we arrived it was about 2pm and we were the only boat there, which meant that our tour group had the island to ourselves. We swam in the warm water and got some great photos of the island with a storm rolling just past us. Overall, a fantastic day.

zapatillas
Post-card worthy view from our secluded beach on Zapatillas.

Coral Cove
Another somewhat impromptu trip — we met a girl from Denmark over breakfast who was looking for a budget beach day. She corralled a group of Germans as well, and Emy agreed to take us all out to coral cove for snorkeling, for less than half the cost of a tour. The coral wasn’t quite up to the spot the other day, but we had the small beach completely to ourselves, and the water was warm and clear. The highlight for me though, was finding and opening my own coconut with only a found tree branch and a broken knife. Yum. Maybe I wouldn’t be totally useless in a shipwreck situation?

Fishing
Emy took us out fishing on his boat one night. Kyle brought back 3 fish; one became a ceviche app for the next night’s dinner. He also caught a terrifying 2-foot long needlefish with lots of teeth. Huge thanks to Emy’s fisherman friend for returning that one to the sea without any injuries! I didn’t catch anything, but after seeing the needlefish I didn’t mind.

Hang out
While exploring is fun, arguably the best part of Bocas was the lazy days spent in a hammock over the water, napping, reading, and getting to know other guests.

Kyle wakeboarding
Kyle getting ready to wakeboard.

Eat

Bubba’s
We ate literally every breakfast and dinner at our hostel. The food on their rotating family-style menu was just that good, and reasonably priced.

Alvin’s
A delicious, laid-back lunch spot a short walk away. It’s run by locals, with an over-water dining area, and really good fried chicken.

Coco Hill

Jungle flowers.
Jungle blooms.

A cute little vegetarian restaurant at the top of the island. Luckily there was no rain the day we went because the only path there is up hill through the jungle and can become impossible to navigate in the mud. We split a bean salsa trio with homemade tortilla chips and a pumpkin quesadilla – both were delicious.

Up in the Hill

Arrangement of fresh jungle flowers on the table at the “cafe”.

Another 7-minute jungle trek past Coco Hill is the most unique coffee shop I’ve ever been to (take note, San Francisco). The whole space is outside, a combination of bohemian decor and nature. And you share it with Basti’s famed red frogs, some nesting chickens, and an adorable cat.

Then there’s the coffee/food. They roast their own coffee beans, and make their own organic chocolate from cocoa that grows on the farm. I wish we had room for for a few more pieces of the banana bread in our packs…

Up in the hill
Half jungle, half cafe.

Drink

Since the night-life scene on Basti was non-existen partiers would hop a water taxi to Bocas Town. We opted instead to hang out at our hostel with local beers (Panama and Balboa) and our new friends. We also splurged on a couple of Laura’s delicious piña coladas!

Tips & Lessons

  • Paddle boarding is hard work. Especially in the rain, and when you get a bit too far out to sea. Those ocean currents are no joke…
  • Don’t over-schedule. Our favorite memories came from having an open schedule that allowed us to say yes to an impromptu boat trip, sing along with our guitar-playing hostel-mates, and watch dolphins play in the bay.

Current Location: Puerto Arroyo, Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador;   Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Isla San Cristobal, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador;  Puerto Villamil, Isla IIsabela, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador *

* This one took awhile. Internet has been slow, and the WordPress iPad app doesn’t quite have formatting down yet. Lots of writing my own html!

Kim on the boat
Enjoying the view from the boat, on our way to Zapatillas.

 

Red frog
The island’s famous red frogs, at Up in the Hill. They are really tiny — only an inch or two long!

 

Dog & cat sign
Mysterious signs in the jungle.

 

Zapatillas
Zapatillas, through a piece of driftwood.