Ecuador – A country for nature and peanut butter lovers

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Ecuador – A country for nature and peanut butter lovers

Ecuador is divided into four different regions: The Amazon (el oriente), the Andes mountains (la sierra), the Pacific coast, and the Galapagos Islands. Two out of our three months in Ecuador we spent volunteering in three different places. I loved my time in Ecuador. The stunning mountains, the people I met, the things I learnt while volunteering, the fertile soil, and the possibility to buy peanut butter in many little local stores.

Volunteering in agriculture in Pimampiro

We worked at Santiago’s farm for almost two weeks. He was a kind host with lots of interesting ideas for the future. We worked from Monday to Friday from 8am to 12:30pm. I performed work such as picking weeds, picking fruits and vegetables, painting walls, and helping his mum in the kitchen. It was nice to work in the morning and have the evening off to relax. I enjoyed the time Santiago spent with us outside of work. He took us on a hike, to a zip line, and to the local river. Santiago had issues with people not showing up so he accepted everyone and within a couple of days, there were 16 volunteers and organization fell apart. The food quality went down and we rarely had proteins, fats, or vitamins in the meals. We slept in a cabin with mud walls that was built by previous volunteers. Unfortunately there were holes in the mud wall and the roof. So we got wet at night from the rain. I believe this project has great potential. I loved the other volunteers I met. It is a projects that attracts lovely people.

Quito

Quito surprised me with its beautiful old buildings. Especially the old town, the church San Francisco (full of gold), and La Ronda. A cobblestone street with lots of bars and restaurants that gets crowded at night and weekends. All of it we visited on a free walking tour. Pictures below are from the Govinda’s restaurant.

Latacunga

Latacunga is not really a nice city and most people stay there only one night. We stayed with such a great Ecuadorian couple that we went back a month later for a few days. Like us, Andrea and Diego want to build their own tiny house in the future, grow their own food, like Jazz, love to cook, eat bananas with peanut butter, and live as sustainable as possible. They made us realize that a Ninja blender/food processor would be very useful. Unfortunately hard to clean. We made our own peanut butter. The curry peanut butter was my favourite. It has been a while since we connected so well with somebody.

Hiking the Quilotoa Loop

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The Quilotoa Loop is a self-guided hike for several days through the Andes Mountains, rivers, valleys, and canyons, a volcano with a beautiful crater lake located in Quilotoa, spectacular views, Quechua communities, alpacas, and cosy hostels.

 

In the morning we took a bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa (2.50 USD each, 2.5h). In Quilotoa we stayed in the Alpaca Hostel. Normally the hostels on the loop include dinner and breakfast. But this hostel let us use the kitchen and paying less (8 USD each for a private double). The next morning we got up very early to see the sunset on our way down to the Crater Lake. It took us around 40 minutes. On the bottom we laid down on a jetty and enjoyed the silence, peace, and the warmth of the first rays of the sun. We were the only people there. The path up was more challenging and took us 50 minutes. Before you leave a hostel make sure to get a map. We trusted Maps.me. Something we would bitterly regret later. On our way to Chugchilán we ended up at a river. I knew we had to cross. It was starting to get dark and on the other side of the river we saw a sign, “Chugchilán 1.74 km”. There was not a bridge (anymore) and on the other side was a steep hill with sand. My heart started to beat very strong, I felt foggy-brained, and very weak. I was close to tears. We somehow managed to cross the river. I climbed on a rock that was in the river and jumped from there on the other side. After, my boyfriend threw our backpacks to me. Luckily there were some roots I could hold myself when I climbed up the sand hill. Some of the roots broke. My mouth has never been that dry. It took us around 45 minutes to climb up. Later we found out that this route is considered as very dangerous and not the official way anymore. So instead of 5h it took is 8h from Quilotoa to Chugchilán. In Chugchilán we stayed at the Cloud Forest Hostel (15 USD each for a private double) which is run by a lovely and very helpful family. When we arrived I saw a huge Saint Bernard dog. He looked like Balu (the dog I had seen in photos from the hostel in Isinlivi where we were going to volunteer). It turned out that he was. So on our 4.5h hike from Chugchilán to Isinlivi he followed us, thanks to a bag full of bread the hostel gave us.

Useful information to hike the Quilotoa Loop:

  • The crater rim climbs to 3’915 meters above sea level at its highest point. So if possible stay 2-3 days in Quito or Latacunga before the hike to adjust to the altitude.
  • Leave your luggage you don’t need at a hostel in Latacunga. Most hostels offer this service.
  • If you want to stay at Llullu Llama in Insinlivi it is necessary to pre-book by email as this is it only has limited space available. For the other hostels you will be fine simply turning up each day.
  • It is possible to camp right next to the Crater Lake in Quilotoa and other places on the way. If so make sure to have a very warm sleeping bag.
  • Start hiking early in the morning. It often gets cloudy in the early afternoon.
  • Take enough money. There are no ATMs.
  • Bring snacks and water with you before leaving Latacunga. Food is more expensive in the mountains.
  • Bring all your warm clothes with you as the weather changes rapidly and can get very cold. Especially in Quilotoa.
  • Consider it as part of the adventure to get lost. It is normal. In case of doubt, ask a local.
  • The area is considered as very safe. Dogs are the main hazard.
  • WIFI is hard to come by. Although a couple of hostels in Chugchilán do have access.

Our route: Latacunga > Quilotoa > Chugchilán > Isinlivi > Latacunga

Other options:

  • If you want to have the Crater Lake in Quilotoa at the end take a morning bus to Sigchos (2.5h) and start trekking from there to Isinlivi (3-4 hours).
  • If you want to see the Crater Lake, but you have only one day, catch a bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa. It takes around 4-5h to walk around the Crater Lake. It can be exhausting since the path is along the hilly crater rim.
  • It is also possible to take a bus to Chugchilán, spend the night and then do the 5-7 hour hike from there to the Crater Lake.

Volunteering in Isinlivi

Isinlivi is a tiny indigenous village on the Quilotoa Loop deep in the Andes Mountains at 2,800m. We volunteered there for a month in the beautiful eco-friendly mountain lodge Llullu Llama. Our main task was to make sure the guests are happy, well-informed about the area and feel at home. This included check-in/check-out of guest, serving dinner/snacks, breakfast, serving drinks from the bar, helping with administration on excel, and playing appropriate music.

For our work we got free accommodation and food. Even though we worked every day we felt very relaxed after. The cozy living room, amazing view, the possibility to use the spa, and the comfortable bed definitely played a role. We experimented in the kitchen a lot. A wonderful break from travelling.

Baños

A small magical town high in the Andes. Known for the healing powers of its hot springs and adventurous activities like bungee jumping, rafting, and zip lines.

We decided for the famous Ruta de Las Cascadas (Route of the Waterfalls). A 21 km long mostly downhill bike ride. We rented a bicycle in Baños (5 USD each, lock included). Along the way we stopped at the Manto de La Novia waterfall where we took a cable car ride to see the waterfall up close (1 USD). A fun and a bit of a thrill ride.

Most I liked the impressive Pailón del Diablo waterfall. Entrance is 1.50 USD. After a short hike and some crawling on all fours we could even stand behind the waterfall. Make sure you have either a rain jacket or umbrella with you if you do not want to get wet. The bus ride back was 2 USD each (bicycle included).

Guayaquil

Like many other big cities in South America, Guayaquil has some dangerous places and is not so beautiful. But thanks to a family we stayed with we had a relaxed time. They made us feel at home, drove us around, and the parents joined us to Isla Santay. On the island are an eco-village and some crocodiles. Nevertheless the Parque de las Iguanas was more interesting. The iguanas are very trusting and therefore great to watch. I enjoyed walking along the Malecón. A nice boardwalk along the river. I liked Las Peñas. A lovely neighbourhood with many art galleries. And the Museum of Anthropology and Contemporary Art is worth to check out (free).

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One day we met with a friend of mine from Switzerland, Stephanie. She is working for two years in Guayaquil with cocoa beans. One of the aims is to standardise the fermentation process. Thanks to her we could visit a cocoa farm, the middleman, and the company who exports the cocoa beans. The middleman is mainly a place where the farmers bring their cocoa beans. Those beans ferment there for a week and after get sold to the company. Cutting out the middleman would give the farmer a better price and the consumer a lower one. But often the farmers need the money right now and do not have time another week. It made me think about my mom who buys some of her food directly from a farm instead of from a grocery store. I am much more aware now how important it is to support a farmer directly.

Montañita

Montañita is a surfer’s paradise with laid back beach parties all night long. There are only a few hostels that are immune against the music. Whereas in the mountains the rainy season just finished on the coast it just started (June). Anyway this did not keep us away from going to Puerto Lopez for whale watching (25 USD each). A good time is between June and September. We even saw the blue-footed boobies. A very rare bird species. Unfortunately the sea was very wild that day and I got pretty seasick.

Cuenca

A beautiful city to walk around with colonial buildings and along the river Tomebamba, art galleries (e.g. Art Gallery Miguel Illescas), a free symphony each Friday evening, a huge local market at Feria Libre, and the breathtaking Cajas National Park (especially the Laguna Toreadora) just 30 minutes away by bus. The bus stop is on the left side of the Feria Libre outside the bus station.

Cuenca attracts many expats to retire. We stayed with Stan and his wife Sharyl that we met at the hostel we volunteered. Stan is a wonderful person. He is 83 years old and still goes hiking twice a week. Sharyl is very skilled in creating a very comfortable home. Both of them seemed very interested in our plant-based diet. So we made them a coconut peanut butter curry, guacamole, avocado hummus, bread, Corviche, and Salprieta. The last two are both Ecuadorian dishes. Stan even made us a delicious plant-based banana cake without added sugar. One of the best I ever ate! And he taught me how to make coconut oil. Since he was raving about our cooking in front of his friends we ended up at their places and cooked for all of them as well. I am so grateful that we met, for our long conversations, and his eagerness to learn new things. It was such a great stay. During our stay Stan joined Couchsurfing. In an email he wrote me that now their meals are full of interesting conversation and lots of laughter. Sharyl is very happy even with all the young people coming and going. In the past she has been hesitant to entertain anyone, perhaps due to her depression. She is a changed person, lost weight and seems already to be enjoying better health.

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Vilcabamba

Vilcabamba lies in the Sacred Valley of Longevity. One of those places in the world where people supposedly live to extreme old age. That myth has been debunked. Though through the perfect climate, air, water and growing conditions apparently people are healthier into old age. Vilcabamba attracts a large expat population, including highly spiritual people that speak with plants, trees, water, air, and animals. We volunteered in Tumianuma for three weeks on a biodynamic farm.

Volunteering in Tumianuma on a biodynamic farm

The farm of Walter and Susan lies in a sacred valley 30 minutes walking distance from the closest town, Tumianuma. We helped weeding, ploughing, planting, picking coffee, collecting wood, feeding chickens/cat/fish/dogs, collecting eggs, preparing meals, water the vegetables and flowers, and dig an irrigation system. It was nice to see the seeds we planted starting to grow out of the ground.

We worked from Monday to Friday from 8:30 am till 11:30 am and on the weekends we watched over the farm while Walter and Susan went back to Vilcabamba. Since we were in charge of the food we could make a list of food we would like. In the afternoons and evenings we read a lot, went for walks, took a bath in the river, or observed the thousands of fireflies and the Milky Way in a clear night´s sky. It was a great experience. Walter cares about the people who helps him on the farm and he took time to teach us various methods of farming such as biodynamics, permaculture, traditional Ecuadorian techniques, and vertical gardening systems. He also gave me an old phone since my one broke which I really appreciate. Unfortunately most apps do not work anymore even though the phone is only a few years old. One more reason why I would like to buy a Fairphone when I go back home. My dad just bought one. He told me the camera is not the best but the rest works proper.

Loja

Loja is just another big city. One day was enough to visit the Parque Recreacional Jipiro, the Puerta de la Ciudad, and the Plaza Parque Central. So we left one day earlier than planned to go Peru.

Food

A typical meal includes a soup and a plate of rice with meat. It is possible to get a meal in a local restaurant (almuerzo: soup, a filling main course, and a fresh fruit juice) for around 3 USD. If you do not eat meat they are almost everywhere happy to replace the meat with an egg or sometimes beans. I was very happy when I found a Govinda’s restaurant in Quito and Cuenca (3 USD). Unfortunately the one in Cuenca was not that convincing. But there was another restaurant in Cuenca (Good Affinity, vegan, 3 USD) I really liked.

 

One of my favourite Ecuadorian street food is Cevichochos (1 USD): Chochos, corn, fried plantains, and tomato sauce. In Baños at the Pailón del Diablo waterfall we had a delicious empanada filled with avocado, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, and potatoes (1 USD each).

In the Andes, the food consists of rice, pork and root vegetables. On the coast it is common to get seafood with coconut milk and rice. In the province of Manabí are many dishes that include peanuts. E.g. Sal prieta: A condiment for dishes based on fish, plantain or rice. It contains toasted corn, toasted peanuts, coriander, dried oregano, salt and black pepper. Or Corviche (green plantain, peanut butter, and fish). We learnt how to make them and just left out the fish.

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Other typical Ecuadorian food:

  • Ají is a spicy sauce that contains tomatoes, cilantro, ají pepper, onions, and water.
  • Patacones are the fried green plantains

We bought almost all our food in little stores down the road or at big food markets. Some examples to have an idea: 1 banana (0.05 USD), 1 pound lentils (0.80 USD), 1 avocado (0.50 USD), 1 pound quinoa (0.90 USD), 6 tomatoes (1 USD), 1 carrot (0.10 USD), 1 pound peanuts (1.90 USD), 1 pound peanut butter (2 USD), 3 mangos (1 USD), 1 pound chickpeas (1.50 USD).

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A common theme amongst coffee producing regions in Latin America is that the good stuff is for export. So, Ecuadorians are more likely to serve you weak, instant coffee.

The tap water at most places is not recommended to drink. Although Ecuadorians may do so. Their stomachs are used to it. It is best to boil the tap water. On the beach the water contains chlorine.

Accommodation

  • Couchsurfing is popular in Ecuador.
  • hostels are available for 6 USD per night in a dorm. The only hostels we stayed in was on the Quilotoa loop which are between 15 and 19 each, including dinner and breakfast.
  • volunteering is a nice option to spend a few weeks at one place.
  • Camping is possible at many places (e.g. Quilotoa loop, Cajas National Park)

Transport

  • Ecuador has a very good and comfortable bus system. Long-distance buses typically cost about 1-2 USD per hour. On the coast it is 2.50 USD per hour. Local buses inside a city are usually from 0.25 to 0.35 USD. Buses usually stop whenever you like.
  • If you are travelling by car all 50 km is a toll for 1 USD.
  • We hitchhiked often. It was much easier than in Colombia. Sometimes we waited less than two minutes. Sometimes more than an hour. That is usually the time we took a bus. Only a few people asked for money. Either we waited for another car or we agreed on a price. Often hitchhiking is faster than travelling by bus. Mainly because buses stop very often.img_0478

Things to know

  • Most public toilets are free but do not have toilet paper.
  • Many parks do have WIFI.
  • Child labour is unfortunately very common.
  • Most dogs are only outside, very territorial, and are not used to endearment. Be careful!
  • Most roads are in a very good condition. Much better than Colombia and Peru.
  • Ecuador is run by a democratic government. The people have had much control over the presidents in the past, voting them in and then kicking them out.

Safety

Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. Ask which the neighbourhoods you should avoid are. Petty theft and slashing is very common. Especially in bigger cities (e.g. Quito) and busses. At night time the streets of big cities can be dangerous. It gets dark around 6:30 pm, so from then onwards it is recommended to take a taxi if going out. Smaller cities are safer. I loved to be able to hike in the mountains without being afraid of getting attacked.

Health

Medical care is free for tourists in public hospitals. Also for travellers with no travel insurance. Malaria is present everywhere except the Galapagos and Quito. The Yellow fever vaccination is required if you have previously been in a country where it is present.

 

Climate

Many people picture Ecuador as being a really warm tropical country. Well it is not. Only on the coast and in the jungle it is warm but in the heights of the Andes it can get very cold. Since Ecuador is at the equator there are no seasons like in Europe. The temperature varies only a few degrees at each place over the year. But Ecuador has a very diverse range of climates. There is a distinction between a rainy (summer: October to May) and a dry (winter: June to September) season.

  • The best time to visit Ecuador for beaches is surprisingly the rainy season. The rain only falls in short tropical bursts in the afternoon. The dry season can be too cool as well as cloudy and often overcast.
  • It rains year round in the Amazon, but December to May is particularly soggy, with roads more likely to be blocked.

Language

Spanish is the official language although Quechua is widely spoken across the country. Some other indigenous languages remain in use. English is taught in schools. But most people have only a very basic knowledge of English or none at all.

Currency

Official currency since 2000: US dollar (USD). Ecuadorian coins have the same value as their US equivalent.

Visa

Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries do not require a visa unless they want to stay for more than 90 days in one calendar year (90 days adding every entry in one year). It is possible to extend your stay in Ecuador between 90 and 180 days. This Visa is between 250 and 450 USD. We both did not have to show a return or onward ticket on the border.

Colombia

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Colombia is a country with a brutal and bloody past. Exploitation of indigenous people, Cartagena as Spanish America’s biggest slave port, a civil war, and Pablo Escobar. One of the most powerful and brutal drug dealers in the world. In 1993 he was murdered. Unfortunately, the Farc keep the cocaine business alive. Recently, in June 2016, they signed a peace contract. I hope this will stop the war. Tourists are visiting Colombia since a few years. Many even stay there. Fall in love. I can definitely understand why. Colombians are very helpful, warmhearted, generous, and happy people. Proud to show off what was hidden for so long. During my 7 weeks in Colombia I had only one bad experience (more about it later). I was struggling for a while if I actually wanted to write about it since I do not want to scare people away from Colombia. It was simply bad luck and from a statistical point of view, very rare. This experience in turn made me realise how healing the nature and friends can be. The places I volunteered (guadua house construction) and visited have given me inspiration and courage that it is possible to live in harmony with nature. I also learnt that many Colombians reuse plastic to build houses. Better than to burn it. Best of course would be to not even buy plastic.

Bogotá

The capital has among other things many murals, a botanic garden, the famous museo de oro, and a free graffiti tour.

Santa Marta

From Bogotá my boyfriend and I hitchhiked to Santa Marta (over 1’000 km). It took us two days. The gold museum in Santa Marta is free and I highly recommend. It is a very nice city to walk around. From Santa Marta we visited the Tayrona National Park. We could leave our backpacks at our Couchsurfing host’s place. It was very nice and appreciated.

Tayrona National Park

We took a bus from Santa Marta (bus stop “public market Santa Marta”) to Tayrona (7’000 pesos). Entry was 44’500 pesos. The nicest place to sleep is in Cabo San Juan del Guia. We shared a double tent (60’000 pesos) with a girl from Germany. Hammocks (10’000 pesos) are highly coveted and therefore all rented short after 11 am. It is also possible to sleep in your own tent. Tap water is not drinkable, and like food, quite expensive in the park. I recommend to bring some toilet paper too.

The next morning we hiked to Pueblito. A small peaceful indigenous village on the top of a mountain. The atmosphere was magic. At some points we climbed over boulders which made me face my fear but no harness was needed. The way down was a beautiful path and led us to one of the exits of the park.

Cartagena

Cartagena has an incredibly beautiful, old, and romantic architecture. Some houses are very colourful. Especially in the area where most hostels are. Our hostel: “FriendsToBe” was very clean, had a kitchen to use, and a small pool. The chocolate museum was very interesting and we tried many different chocolate products (e.g. tea, coffee, nuts, body oils). Not the chocolate condoms though.

Monteria

Since we thought hitchhiking all the way from Cartagena to Medellín is a bit too long we stopped in Monteria for three nights. I was surprised about how modern the building were. I felt like I was in Europe. Our host told us the city has a lot of money because of cattle breeding.

Medellín

Medellín is called the “City of Eternal Spring” and considered as one of the most innovative cities in the world. The botanic garden is free, beautiful, and great for a picnic. There is a free walking tour by a company named Real City Tour. The tour is 3.5 – 4 hours and booking is required before meeting for the tour. Booking opens 1.5 days in advance of each tour. Number one on TripAdvisor is the Metrocable. It starts at the Acevedo station. We hopped in one of the cable-car gondolas heading up the mountain (no extra charge if you haven’t left the system yet). It took us over some of the poorest and previously most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellin. There are three stops. At the last stop, Santo Domingo, we had to change to another gondola for 4.600 COP that took us over the forest to Park Arvi. Beautiful for hiking and escaping the city life.

I loved our time in Medellín especially thanks to our Couchsurfing host, John. He made us feel very welcomed and at home with his contagious smile and warm heart. We spent time together playing games, watching documentaries, sharing meals, sharing culture, and an English/Spanish language exchange.

Guatapé

We volunteered here for one week doing guadua construction. On our day off, we kayaked to a small island near our project. It was sunny during the day but gets cold at night. More about our volunteer experiences in a future blog entry.

Pereira

Our host Federico picked us from the bus terminal and took us to his finca hotel. A beautiful and relaxing place where we hiked and learnt about coffee that characterise the area of Pereira. His father, a former university teacher, went out of his way to make us feel at home and treated us as if we were family.
His dad was also very interested in our plant-based diet and wanted to know as many recipes as possible. He highly appreciated the recipes. He later wrote me that he realised the benefits of a plant-based diet and will incorporate the recipes into his diet.

Salento

A little town surrounded by a beautiful green countryside. We went on a weekend so it was full of visitors. But I still very much enjoyed Salento. I highly recommend to visit the Kasaguadua Natural Reserve or even stay there for a few nights (30 mins walking outside of Salento, 25’000 pesos per night). Carlos und Nicolas are a great example of how it is possible to live and coexist with the nature. The guests are only allowed to use a specific home-made soap. Shampoo would destroy the bacteria in the water which they are using to produce the cooking gas. The houses are made out of guadua (indigenous kind of bamboo) and recycled materials. Both are extremly knowledgeble and enthusiastic. I learnt a lot about the ecosystem. For example, that Colombia has compared to Europe still a seed bank that is controlled by a fungus network. Some seeds are saved in the ground for years and pop out when needed. The grass that is all over Colombia actually came from Europe with the immigration of cows. Under the grass is no seed bank anymore. Since Colombia is at the equator there are no seasons and consequently the leaves don’t fall each year. If they fall it is because they are old (15-50 years). The tour starts at 9am, reservation is required, payment is by donation, and it takes 3h.

In Salento are many vegan restaurants and several coffee farms in the surrounding area to see the process from field to cup. Most tourists go for a hike amongst the giant wax palm trees of Valle de Cocora (5h). It is recommended to go in the morning since it is often cloudy in the afternoon.

Other places

Due to hitchhiking we stopped in other cities for a few days.

  • Ibagué: The city has a small but very nice Museo Arte (3’500 pesos).
  • Cali: The mother of Salsa.
  • Popayan: The white colonial town.
  • Pasto

Food

Colombians love to bargain. It is possible to get a meal in a local restaurant for around 6’000 pesos. On Tripadvisor I found a delicious vegetarian and vegan restaurant called Govinda. Located in most bigger cities. The food is very healhy, homemade and has an Indian touch. The portions are big (soup, juice, main dish and desert) and the staff is very nice (9’000 pesos).

Colombian street food is a mix of fried food, creamy drinks, and all types of corn manifestations: Arepas (corn flat bread; e.g. arepas de chocolo are made with sweet corn), Almojabanas (a soft cheese bread), Avena (an oatmeal-based drink), Buñuelos (cheese balls), Churros, Corn on the cob, Empanadas (fried or baked, stuffed pastries with meat or vegetables; popular all around Latin America).

Colombia has an amazing variety of fruits. Some are found only in particular regions of the country. For the first time I tried: Guanábana, Guaba, Lulo, Mangostino, Guayaba, Zapote, Tomate de árbol, and Mamey.

There are many different grocery stores in Colombia: E.g. D1 (cheap chain. No fresh food), Ara, Exito, Olimpica. Some examples to have an idea: lentils 855g (2’400 pesos), chickpeas (5’220 per kg), quinoa 400g (7’400 pesos), curry powder (1’700 pesos), coconut cream (4’950 pesos), corn flour (1’850 pesos), cinnamon (900 pesos), oats 250g (940 pesos), tofu (6’620 pesos).

Vegetables, fruits, and peanuts we tried to buy in little stores. 1 banana (200 pesos), 1 avocado hass (700 pesos), 1 big avocado (2’300 pesos), peanuts 500g (6’000 pesos).

The tap water at most places is safe to drink. It is best to ask somebody or just to cook it.

Coffee is the number one drink. Tinto (a small cup of black coffee, 300 pesos) is available on pretty much every street corner (just look for the people with thermos bottles). A common theme amongst coffee producing regions in Latin America is that the good stuff is for export. So, Colombians are more likely to serve you instant coffee.

Accommodation

  • Couchsurfing is very popular in Colombia.
  • hostels are available for 15’000 pesos per night in a dorm. In Cartagena (more touristic) we paid 30’000 pesos.
  • hotels along the interstate highway are worth to consider if hitchhiking. We paid 40’000 pesos for a double bed.

Transport

Long-distance bus travel is not that cheap in Colombia. I think because there are many tolls. The quality of the bus is generally quite good for Latin America. Some of the prices are negotiable (particularly long-distance and when leaving in the next hour). In most bus stations there are many different bus companies with different prices. Here is a list of some buses we took to have a rough idea:

  • bus from Bogota to Medellin: 55’000 pesos.
  • bus from Honda to Ibagué: 17’000 pesos
  • bus from Ibagué to Girardot: 7’000 pesos
  • bus from Girardot to Anapoima: 6’000 pesos
  • bus from Anapoima to Ibagué: 15’000 pesos
  • bus from Ibagué to Pereira: 22’000 pesos (5h)
  • bus from Pereira to Salento: 7’000 pesos

Buses inside a city are cheap (1’700-3’000 pesos for 30 mins). Bogota has a bus system called TransMilenio. For 2’000 pesos you can change buses as much as you want. But as soon as you leave the system you need to pay again to reenter. With one card (3’000 pesos) you can pay for several people. Medellin is the only city in Colombia that has a metro system. One way is 2’100 pesos (card: 400 pesos).

We hitchhiked often. Most of it in trucks made for two people since there is a lack of cars driving long distances. We met the kindest and most generous people while hitchhiking. Once while waiting a guy crossed the street and gave us two fresh, cold coconuts. Another time a woman invited us to her home where we tried some fruits and homemade wine. The list goes on. Most of them speak only Spanish. So a great possibility for us to improve our Spanish. Many asked if our parents are not worried and when we talked to them the last time. Telling us that they call their parents everyday. Now I will explain our one bad experience in Colombia. Please do not make the same mistake like us and hitchike on an open truck where three young guys are already sitting. We were attacked/threatened with two machetes and a knife. They wanted our backpacks. First I thought they would cut off my boyfriend’s arm. It was so surreal. The driver could not see us and the only car behind us did not recognize the situation. I screamed and tried to persuade the guys. They luckily hurt us only superficially but the situation became more and more dangerous. Fortunately, the truck slowed down in the next town. We jumped down from the tractor trailer with our backpacks. The people there recognized the situation immediately and alarmed the police. We were taken to the hospital and then to the police station. I hurt myself badly when I jumped off of the truck. I could hardly walk for around a week. First I wanted to go back home. But then I thought it would be wrong to be deterred by three guys. If I would have gone home I might have been scared for the rest of my life and never came back to South America. I am still a bit scared. Especially when I see a young guy walking around with a knife. But I am recovering.

I don’t want to promote airplanes since they are bad for the environment but I also don’t want to hide this information from you. A ticket can be as cheap as 20 USD. So many people go by airplane. Which as a consequence makes it harder to hitchhike since there are less cars on the road.

Safety

Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. Ask which are the neighbourhoods you should avoid. Petty theft is very common. E.g. Don’t leave your backpack in the rack above your head (always keep it on your person) when travelling in a bus.

Unfortunately, violent crimes are still happening and definitely do not happen only to tourists. But you need to be very unlucky. Colombians are so amazing that it would be a pity not to go there for that reason.

There are stories of people flagging a taxi on the street only to be driven around to various ATMs, and being made to withdraw large sums of money. To avoid this get somebody you trust to call a taxi for you if you really need one.

Health

Malaria is present in all areas except Medellin and Cartagena. The Yellow fever vaccination is recommended but no required.

Climate

Since Colombia is close to the equator there are no seasons like in Europe. The temperature varies only a few degrees at each place over the year. But Colombia has a very diverse range of climates. There is a distinction between a wet (summer: June to August and December to February) and a dry (winter: March to May and September to October) season. These tropical rains are not permanent.

  • 12-17 degrees: Bogotá (be prepared for rain anytime)
  • 17-24 degrees: Medellín, Salento, Guatapé
  • >24 degrees: Cali, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park

Best time to visit: All-year round destination offering something for everyone.

Currency

Official currency: Colombian Peso (COP).

Visa

No entrance or exit fees. The Visa is for 90 days (free).

Cuba on a budget

Aside

Cuba is one of the most interesting countries I have ever been. It is not only about cigars, beautiful antique cars that are leaving huge rey gas clouds behind, and Havana rum.

On our first day in Cuba my friend from the US and I walk along the coast of old Havana. A Cuban stops us with a big smile and asks for our names and nationalities. After he starts singing “Debora is good, United States is good. Debora is good…”. We are about to leave. Then he asks for money. 
Asking for money is one thing. But what was worse for me was his displeased facial expression of contempt after we said no. Like if we owe him money. I felt worthless.

This pattern repeated many times during our two weeks in Cuba. We started to be especially sceptical when a guy told us he is some kind of a teacher and wants to tell us something about the history. Even when we asked for the way we got asked for money. We met only a few people who did not ask for money in the end. And those are probably the poorest. True hospitability is an alien concept for most in Cuba and real friendship was hard to find.

I understand Cuba is a poor country. But I have been to many poor countries and never experienced that the people were like this. This made me want to learn even more about their situation. The revolution (1959) is still very present. All the advertisement is about the revolution and its heroes Ernesto Guevara (Che), Camilo Cienfuegos, and Fidel and Raúl Castro. Not so long ago (around 1993) Cuba went through a huge economic crisis after their most important trade partner (Soviet Union) ended. So I think now Cuba is in the process to build a new identity. Just because I had this experience it doesn’t mean it will be the same for you. So please visit this country if you thought about going.

The average monthly salary is around 25 USD. A doctor does not get paid much higher than other workers. Today the principal income is tourism. A night for a tourist in a casa particular is between 10 and 35 USD. The owners need to hand off 10% to the government. No surprise both doctors and teachers prefer to work in tourism. A big gab is developing between those who work in tourism and those who don’t. In a country that used to make sure that everybody got the same.

At the moment Cuba does have a lot of tourists. Many people want to experience Cuba before the US has too much influence. Already now many Cubans are wearing clothes from the US. Since a few months it is possible to fly from the US directly to Cuba. Since there is a constant need for material goods Cubans are very happy if you bring them something useful (colours, an instrument, clothes, a game, a toilet seat, spices).

Internet is only unlimited for students. Everybody else has to pay 1.5 CUC per hour (huge line to get the password) and find a spot with wifi (mostly in parks). There exists no free wifi. Yet.

Expenses: We spent around 80 USD each per week.

Tips:

  • Download the app Maps.me (offline). Google maps does not work in Cuba.
  • Scams are common. Always count your change whenever you purchase something. It happened to us at least twice.

Havana

There is a Couchsurfing meeting every Tuesday from 21:00 to 23:30 where you can meet locals and other travellers.

Vinales

Great place for hiking. A very touristic city. In other places where we went it was easy to find restaurants and food stalls where locals go. In Vinales it was not.

Cienfuegos

We liked Cienfuegos the most. A less touristic city on the water.

El Nicho Parque

We took a truck early in the morning from Cumanayagua to El Nicho (5:10 am). The only bus back is at 6 pm. Entrance is 10 CUC. We spent a beautiful day in the nature. On the other side of the street is another waterfall where it is possible to swim. 

Trinidad

It is touristic but the distinction between tourists and locals is not that strict. So there are many options to buy cheap local food. One day we rented bicycles and explored the beaches (4 USD each). It was also nice to walk up the hill and watch the sunset (mirador).

Food

Cuba has a shortage of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other healthy food (It is impossible to buy quinoa and very hard to find oats). The reasons are different depending who I asked: There are a lack of farmers, they do not make a lot of money, and if there is a bad year (e.g. hurricanes, torrid periods) the government does not support them. A lack of seeds, agricultural engines, fertiliser, and pesticides. The last two make Cuba coincidental to a global leader in organic agriculture.

The basis of most dishes are rice and beans. Our host in the vegan hostel told us that even if the food does not contain meat (e.g. beans) Cubans flavour them with bones or pork fat. We ate out once. Rice and salad was the only plant-based option we found. My rice contained meat. Even though I told the waiter that I do not eat meat. Maybe I should have told him that I am allergic to meat.

Since most casa particulars offer food for money (Breakfast 3-5 CUC. Dinner 3-8 CUC) they do not like if somebody uses their kitchen. Some people let us cook beans and a few places let us use the kitchen. So we precooked a lot and sprouted lentils. 

Grocery stores do not have a lot of food options plus do not sell any vegetables and fruits. We bought beans (1.15-1.65 CUC) and water (5 liter are 1.90-2 CUC). At one point we started to boil tap water and drank that.

If you have CUP (just ask locals to exchange) it is possible to buy fruits and vegetables on stalls: E.g. 15 small bananas (15 CUP), 4 sweet potatoes (15-25 CUP), 2 tomatoes (3-20 CUP), 1 pineapple (20 CUP), 1 papaya (3 CUP), 1 onion (2 CUP), 1 pepper (1 CUP).

Many locals eat at cafeterías (very cheap, in CUP). They often offer sandwiches (10-15 CUP), pizza (bread with tomato sauce), spaghetti, and coffee (1 CUP, strong and sweet). I am wondering where this Italian influence comes from. Cubans even use the Italian coffeepot.

Accommodation

  • Couchsurfing is illegal. Cubans use this website to promote their casa particular or hostel. That is how I found a vegan hostel in Havanna (10 CUC per person. Breakfast, dinner, and water included. Address: Máximo Gomez 913, top floor).
  • A casa particular is the most common place to stay. It is a private room in a house of a Cuban family. Recognizable by a blue anchor. In bigger cities are many. Prices vary between 10 and 35 CUC per room for one night. Pretty soon we realised that we can make our own price. So 15 CUC was the most we payed. 5 CUC each was the least (Cumanayagua, unofficial). Unofficial means that our host did not ask for our passport and visa to report us to the immigration.
  • Hostels are rare. The cheapest I found is 5 CUC per person in Havana (Hamel Hostel: 308 hospital street).
  • Independent room. Like an apartment with a kitchen to use. A bit more expensive than a casa particular but less than a hotel.
  • We met some people who did free camping
  • We met a girl who had a hammock and just asked Cubans if she can hang her hammock at their place

Transport

  • Hitchhiking is possible but Cubans are used to asking for money. Sometimes there is a man in a yellow jumpsuit who stops cars.
  • Most tourists take a bus called VIAZUL (very expensive).
  • Mostly we used the local bus. Since most bus terminals refuse to sell tourists a ticket we just went to a bus station on the way. You lose time but also save a lot of money. It was a good way to practice our patience.

Transport we took:

  • Taxi from the Airport international to Havana city centre: 30 CUC per taxi. We shared a taxi with two other people. On the way back we took the bus P12 from the city center to the bus stop “Estación General Peraza” (0.50 CUP) and walked from there 40 mins. It is also possible to take a taxi for 1 CUC from there.
  • Havana to Vinales: Bus P12 to bus stop 100 y Boyeros (1 CUP). Go upstairs and walk to A4 (5-10 mins). Take a bus to Pinar del Rio (30-50 CUP). From there a bus to Vinales (2 CUP). Total duration: 5 h 30 mins.
  • Havana to Cienfuegos: Bus P8 to Vibora (1 CUP). Bus P3 to Barrio Obrero (5 CUP). Bus to Cienfuego centro (6 CUC. 3h). Total duration: 4h.
  • Cienfuegos to Cumanayagua: Truck (camión) to Cumanayagua from terminal de Omnibus (1 CUC, 1h).
  • Cumanayagua to Trinidad: Truck (camión) at 4:40 am to Topes de Collantes. Since it is a very touristic place the trucks didn’t even stop for us. In the end we hitchhiked and payed 5 CUC to Trinidad for both.
  • Trinidad to Cienfuegos: First place where we could not buy a ticket for a local bus. So we went to the end of the city (bus stop for locals) where a man in yellow stops cars. We got in a open dirty truck (90 mins, 50 CUP).
  • Cienfuegos to Havana: Bus to Aguada de Pasajeros (autopista A1, 5 CUP, 2h 30 mins). From there we stopped a bus towards Havana (40 CUP).

Money

Cuba has two currencies: The Cuban Convertible peso (CUC, replaced 2004 the USD and is therefore equivalent to the USD, used for imported products and superior facilities, is not a tourist currency) and the Cuban Peso (CUP, pesos nacionales, for locals). We used the latter kind to buy vegetables and fruits on stalls and for the local transport.

At the airport it is possible to change EUR, Mexican Peso, CAD, CHF, GBP, and USD (10% fee) to CUC (not CUP). CUP we changed with locals. Not all cards (e.g. those from the US) work in Cuba.

Safety

Other than petty theft (e.g. shoes of my friend while we took a short nap in the grass), violent crimes are not common in Cuba. I have read that many Cubans tell you about an awesome party happening at a restaurant or bar. They will take you there and in the end will make you pay for them as well. Walking around at night is safe in most areas.

Health care

Medical treatment is free for Cubans. But they have to pay for medication from the pharmacy. Cuba is famous for having one of the best health care systems in the Americas. But the quality is questioned increasingly. Many medical facilities are decrepit and some medical utensils are outdated. Frequently important medications are missing and waiting time can be long since many Cuban doctors are sent abroad. Cuba (the government) demands a lot of money from the host country (between 2’500 and 4’000 USD per month). The doctors themselves receive often less than 10% of this money. No wonder some Cuban doctors disappear suddenly and never return back to Cuba.

Education

Education is free and school attendance is compulsory. But after university the students have to work in social services for three years. Since the government exchanges teachers to neighbouring countries there is a shortage of teachers.

Weather

  • Coolest and driest season: Middle of November to April
  • Rainy season: May to October
  • Hurricane season: July to November

Visa

My tourist visa at the airport in Cancun, Mexico (flying with InterJet, Swiss passport) was 20 USD (only cash). My friend from the US bought a visa online for 65 USD. Best is to write the airline if it is possible to buy the tourist visa at the airport. 

Mexico – Crystal clear water, caves, and sailing

Aside

Lagos de Colón

San Cristobal de las Casas

My host’s place in San Cristobal was unique. A place where many similar minded people can meet. Some are artists, some helped to build a future hostel close by, some smoked weed all day long, and some just seemed lost. Expenses for water and gas was shared. Best I connected with an Argentinian guy and his eight-year-old daughter. Loved to share meals (especially the lentils burger) with them. We met again a few weeks later on Isla Mujeres.

Most I liked the huge local food market. There I found all kind oIMG_8207_bearbf seeds, nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables. A lot was much less than 20 pesos. Getting lost in the city with many nice churches, powerful murals, and cute coffees was nice as well. Unfortunately in the evenings it got really cold (three layers plus scarf). But during the day I could wear shorts (February). So I stayed only for a few days. During my stay in San Cristobal I got a message from a Swiss friend asking if I am in San Cristobal. Facebook sent him a message that we are nearby. He planned a trip with his bicycle from the USA to the most southern point in Chile. Due to a job offer he went back to Switzerland. Hope he can finish his trip one day.

Laguna Bacalar

Also known as the lake of the seven colours. The water is crystal clear, fresh, and therefore perfect for swimming. I was amazed. Since my host had a sailboat we went sailing, snorkeling at his favorite spot in Bacalar, and I met some interesting people thanks to him.

Laguna Milagros

When I arrived at my host’s place in Bacalar he told me that he rented his house (airbnb) for the weekend. So we went to his family’s house at the Laguna Milagros. A peaceful place. 30 mins by minibus (35 pesos). We went kayaking and I prepared a curry with fresh coconuts from his garden.

Tulum

The city itself was nothing special but there was definitely a lot to do. I visited a few cenotes (over 100). One of my hosts showed me some hidden ones. Cenotes are deep sinkholes in limestone with a pool at the bottom. Great for snorkeling. The beach is a few km away but I was very lucky that I could use the bicycle of my host. The ruins at the beach were ok but I would not recommend (70 pesos). A guy I met through Couchsurfing lend me a surfboard so we could surf together. The waves are very small there.

Isla Mujeres

I arrived on the Island in the late afternoon. My host picked me up at the ferry port and drove us directly to a hidden beach where we watched the sunset. When we walked back an elderly couple that rented a house on the beach invited us spontaneously for dinner. They said they bought too much lobster, it is their last evening, and today is Valentine’s Day. I hesitated for a quick moment since I stopped eating meat. But my curiosity for this two Canadian people was much bigger. The man turned out to be a great storyteller and when we left a few hours later they told us this was their best evening on the island.

The next morning during breakfast something unbelievable happend. One of my best friends from the US just walked by. He surfed my couch in Switzerland a few years ago. Since then we met at least once a year somewhere in the world. He arrived with his sailboat the night before with some friends from the US (4 days). A few days later my friend let me sleep on his sailboat for almost a week. I was a bit seasick in the first few hours. But after eating some ginger I felt much better. We did some snorkeling and explored an island made out of plastic bottles with trees planted on top. Apparently it used to be nice but we found it in disrepair.

Isla Mujeres was my favourite place in Mexico. I am sure the people made the place. But the white sandy beach, great weather, and clear blue water was a nice extra. The hostel Pocna (130 pesos per night) is THE place to be. Free Yoga in the morning, volleyball and workout in the afternoon, live music and a magician in the evening, and dancing till 3am at the beach bar. Every night. After is only the Kokonuts bar opened. The people are very mixed: Families, long term travellers, sailers, and people who just come for the weekend.

Accommodation

  • Couchsurfing is very popular in Mexico.
  • camping is also very popular and cheap. A tent in a supermarket is around 300 pesos.
  • hostels are available for 100 pesos per night

Food

A meal is around 70-85 pesos. In Tulum is a Chinese place where a plate is only 20-40 pesos.

Mexico has many vegetarian and vegan restaurants (most more expensive). On Isla Mujeres: Falafel bar, Poc chuc.

Street food – fresh, spicy, cheap (30-60 pesos), and delicious: corn tortillas, tacos, frijoles, avocado, nopal cactus, coriander, and lime. The tacos is San Cristobal are very colourful (purple, green, black).

The tap water is not recommended to drink. Unfortunately Coca Cola is cheaper than drinking water.

Transport

Either colectivo mini-vans or big buses (more expensive). Very comfortable. Buses travel at nearly every hour. Free wifi at most bus stations (not Bacalar).

Buses I took:

  • ADO bus from San Cristobal de las casas to Bacalar: 668 pesos (13h)
  • ADO bus from Bacalar to Tulum: 214 pesos (2.5 h)
  • Colectivo bus from Tulum to Playa del Carmen: 50 pesos (1 h)
  • Colectivo bus from Playa del Carmen to Cancun: 36 pesos (1 h)
  • boat from Cancun (Puerto Juarez) to Isla Mujeres return: 300 pesos (20 mins)
  • Colectivo bus from Puerto Juarez to Cancun center: 10 pesos
  • ADO bus from Cancun center to airport: 72 pesos

Currency

Official currency: Mexican peso (MXN).

Languages

Spanish is the official language. A number of indigenous languages are also spoken. Only a few people speak English.

Safety

Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. It is safe to walk around during daytime. On Isla Mujeres it is even possible to walk around alone at night. There are some neighbourhoods you should avoid. I did not feel unsafe any moment.

Climate

Mexico is a large country and its weather can vary greatly from one destination to another. The weather and climate in Mexico are affected by a combination of the season, what part of Mexico you are in, and what altitude there is.

Mexico has two seasons. The dry season from November to April to and the rainy season from May to October (it often only rains in the late afternoons).

Hurricane season: June to November

Hottest Months: April and May in the South, and July to September on Pacific Coast, and extremely hot in the Yucatan May to September.

Coolest Months: generally December, January, February; the Yucatan can still experience hot weather.

Visa

Exit: 500 pesos (90 days)

Guatemala – Mayan, romance, and salsa

Aside

Antigua

I truly loved Antigua. A peaceful and romantic little city surrounded by active volcanos that attracts many free spirits. I was lucky to see the Volcan de fuego erupting from the city. I felt welcome in the very beginning. Seems they know how important tourists are for the economy. On the cobblestoned road are still horse-drawn carriages. The restaurants are arranged with much detail which provides the romantic ambience. Even the McDonalds is worth a visit. It has been a while since I felt such a strong mystic energy in a city. I felt so safe that I even walked around alone by night. 

To do

  • Live music: Cantina royal in Uxibal bar and Cafe No Se
  • Art galleries: e.g. la antigua galeria de arte (free)
  • sunset from a hill: Cerro de la Cruz
  • sunset from an excellent roof-top bar (The Terrace): An undisturbed view of the volcanoes and a great place to chill-out.
  • getting lost at the local market (food, toiletries, flowers, cloths, electronic equipment)
  • Dancing salsa: Las Palmas (friday and saturday)

    Organic finca de macadamia (Valhalla)

    A sustainable macadamia farm run by a family. Over the last 15 years they planted 350’000 macadamia trees in Guatemala. The nuts are getting picked and separated out by hand. Many new jobs. Take a chicken bus near the market to San Miguel Dueñas (leaving every 30 mins). Ask the driver to drop you off at the Macadamia farm. The trip is about 10 to 15 mins and costs 4 Quetzal from Antigua. Valhalla is open every day from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm and a short tour is provided to anyone who pops by. A small jar costs 4 USD. Anywhere else you pay at least double.

    Huehuetenango

    Since I wanted to explore another but not touristic place in Guatemala I decided to visit Huehuetenango. It is close to the Mexican border and was therefore on my way. My host and his wife picked me up with a big smile. I felt like an old friend. They showed me the whole city in only a few hours. All with lots of energy and love. The next morning we went to Lagos de Colón in Mexico. Illegal. It would have been too complicated to get a permission to enter Mexico legal for them. In case the police would have stopped us we would just have payed. One of the reasons I love Couchsurfing so much. Never knowing what I will experience. Pictures from those beautiful lakes will be in my blog entry about Mexico.

    Accommodation

    • Couchsurfing is pretty popular in Antigua and Huehuetenango
    • hostels are available for 7 USD per night

    Food

    In Guatemala it was really hard to find a local restaurant or stall that did not offer meat. Everything was already mixed with meat so it was not even possible to take it out. A meal is between 10 and 40 Quetzal. But the local food markets were so cheap and offered a huge variety that I had more than I needed. Some examples to have an idea: avocado (2 Quetzal), banana (1 Quetzal), three potatoes (4 Quetzal), five tomatoes (2 Quetzal). The supermarket is pretty cheap as well (close to the local market): lentils (12 Quetzal), red beans past (3 Quetzal), corn flower (4 Quetzal). An Espresso at a good coffee place is 11 Quetzal. The tap water is not recommended to drink.

    Transport

    Many bus routes do not run after sundown. I used the chicken buses which are especially beautiful painted here. I payed 52 Quetzal (four buses) from Antigua to Huehuetenango. Just go to the bus station and say where you want to go. They will tell you where you need to change the bus.

    Currency

    Currency: Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ)

    Languages

    Spanish is the official language. Antigua offers many language schools and therefore many locals speak also English. There are still over 20 Mayan languages in use. Often those people do not understand Spanish.

    Safety

    Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. It is safe to walk around during daytime.

    Climate

    The weather in Guatemala varies significantly by altitude and season. There are two seasons. The dry season from November to May and the rainy season. It rains only a few hours in the rainy season. It was hot during the day but it got quiet cold in the evening (end of January). A warm sweater is enough. It is best to visit from November until late February. Probably the worst time to visit is between mid March until mid May.

    Border crossing to Mexico

    • bus from Huehuetenango to the border La Mesilla (20 Quetzal, 2 hours).
    • walk downhill to the border (10 mins). Change enough Quetzales into Mexican pesos to pay for the buses.
    • Exit Guatemala: free
    • colectivo (small minibus) to the border of Mexico (Ciudad Cuauhtémoc). 10 mins. 10 pesos. 
    • Enter Mexico: free
    • Colectivo bus to Comitan (leaves every half hour, 50 pesos, 90 mins.)
    • Colectivo bus to San Cristobal de las Casas (55 persos, 2 hours).

    El Salvador – About baked sweet potatoes, safety, and hiking a volcano

    Aside

    Do not go to El Salvador. It is dangerous. You will be mugged. I encountered that attitude a lot. It is a fact that the capital, San Salvador is one of the world´s most violent cities. Murder, rape, kidnapping, and mugging are happening daily. But most of them are gang-related and not to tourists. Tourists bring money into a country. After I met this guy from Denmark in a bus who was raving of Santa Ana my decision was made. I think it is very important to build your own opinion. For me the people in El Salvador were the most welcoming, authentic, and helpful locals I met in Central America. Maybe because there are less tourists yet.

    San Miguel

    My plan was to go directly to Santa Ana. But when I arrived in San Miguel it just started to get dark so I decided to stay in the hotel del centro for the night. It was only 10 USD and felt more like a motel. The next morning I walked through the food markets and found those amazing baked sweet potatoes. That was the moment when I knew I am going to have a great time in El Salvador 😉

    Santa Ana

    I couldn’t have asked for a better host in Santa Ana. He was very thoughtful, smart, and great to talk to. He took me to the most beautiful bar in the city (Tejita), accompanied me for a walk downtown, and drove me to the lake for the sunset. And his mum spoilt me with her delicious cooking. On Sunday I joined them to the church. Many people are religious in Central America. Another day we went to San Salvador in one of those clubs (only accessible if you are a member) where you can eat, swim, play tennis, and do other sports. As a tourist there is not much to do in San Salvador. I felt like a part of the family. Something that is precious if you don´t know when you will see your own family again.

    I had a little accident in Costa Rica. The surfboard hit me on my right shoulder. Nothing serious but there were days the pain was so strong that I had difficulties to breathe. When my host told me that he knows a great osteopath (10 USD) that cured his dad when he couldn’t stretch his arm anymore after dengue fever and that she is blind I knew that she is going to be the right person for my back.

    Volcano Santa Ana

    There is only one bus per day that leaves to the volcano. The bus number 248 leaves at 7:30 am (1.80 USD /duration: 90 mins) and the tour starts at 11:30 am. It is recommended to go with a guide (1 USD) and a policeman. Sometimes there are bandits. Entrance to the park is 3 USD and entrance to the volcano is 6 USD. Bring a sweater, sunscreen and enough water with you. It is very windy up there. It almost blown me off. The hike was 4 hours total.

    Accommodation

    • Couchsurfing is popular in Santa Ana. Didn’t check other places.
    • hostel: between 8-10 dollars

    Food

    Most typical and only in El Salvador: Pupusas (0.35-0.60 USD for 1). Handmade Fried thick tortillas filled with meat and cheese. Very greasy. Also with beans, pumpkin or carrots available. Many locals eat them everyday.

    Very common: fresh coconut water with a piece of the meat in a plastic bag with a straw (0.75 USD).

    Breakfast: 1-1.50 USD
    Lunch and dinner: 2.50-3.50 USD

    My recommendation: Take advantage of the fresh vegetables and fruits (e.g. 3 avodados for 1 USD, 10 bananas for 1 USD) from the local market and cook.

    Coffee: 0.20 USD (instant coffee). Do not drink the tap water.

    Transport

    Around 1 USD per hour. The bus I took from San Miguel to San Salvador was big and directly and therefore more (5 USD).

    Currency

    Official currency: US dollar

    Languages

    Many speak Spanish and English. Mainly because many El Salvadorians studied or brought up in the US.

    Safety

    Do not be afraid of all the people who are wearing long guns. That is normal. Only 25 years ago (1991) ended a big civil war. Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. It is safe to walk around during daytime. There are some neighbourhoods you should avoid. I did not feel unsafe any moment.

    Climate

    El Salvador has only two seasons. The dry season from November to April to and the rainy season from May to October. It was hot during the day but in the evening it got fresh (end of January). It is best to visit during the dry season and to avoid the hottest time of the year (March-April) when humidity levels are particularly high.

    Border crossing to Guatemala

    • bus 210 from Santa Ana to Ahuachapán: 0.50 USD
    • bus to border (Aduana Terrestre Las Chinamas): 0.50 USD
    • exit El Salvador: free. Walk over the bridge and through the markets (10 mins).
    • entrance Guatemala: free
    • bus to Guatemala City (30 Quetzals or 5 USD). Ask to get dropped off for the bus to Antigua. Walk 10 mins.
    • bus to Antigua: 10 Quetzals
    • total duration: 7h

    Spanish for beginner: Basic vocabulary

    Aside

    ​Knowing some words in the language of the country you are visiting is linked to many advantages. As soon as you know the basic it is like playing with lego. But the small ones. They are more fun and can make addicted. For those who would like to learn some Spanish I made a summary of words I heard a lot during the last 3 months.

    Basic

    • thanks = gracias
    • thanks a lot = muchas gracias
    • thank you, likewise = gracias, igualmente
    • yes = sí / no = no
    • you’re welcome = de nada
    • please = por favor
    • sorry = perdón
    • I am really sorry! = Lo siento mucho!
    • OK = vale!
    • enjoy your meal = Buen provecho
    • how much? = cuánto cuesta? / cuánto es?
    • Do you speak English? = hablas inglés?
    • I speak only a little bit spanish = hablo sólo un poquito español.
    • I don’t understand = no comprendo
    • Please speak slower = hable más despacio, por favor.
    • Let’s go! = vamos!

    Conversation

    • hello = hola
    • good morning = buenos diás
    • good day = buenas tardes
    • good night = buenas noches
    • goodbye / see you = adiós
    • How are you? I am very good, thanks. And you? = Cómo estás? Estoy muy bien, gracias. Y tu?
    • What’s your name? My name is… = ¿Cómo te llamas? Me llamo …
    • I’m pleased to meet you! = Mucho gusto!
    • Where are you from? I am from… = ¿De dónde eres? Soy de…
    • Where do you live? = ¿dónde vives?
    • How old are you? = ¿cuántos años tienes?
    • What do you work? = Qué es lo que el trabajo?

    Useful sentences (frases)

    • Excuse me, I have a question = Disculpe, tengo una pregunta
    • Where is…the restaurant, beach, bathroom, airport? = Dónde está…el restaurante, la playa, el baño
      el aeropuerto?
    • Where are…? = dónde están?
    • Where is the bus to Mexico? = Dónde está el autobús hacia México?
    • When does the bus leave? = Cuándo sale el bus?
    • When does the bus arrive? = Cuándo llega el bus?
    • How do you say…in Spanish? = Cómo se dice … en español?
    • I’m going to sleep = voy a dormir
    • What can you recommend to me? = Qué me puede recomendar?
    • It is too expensive! = Es muy caro!
    • I am not from here = No soy de aquí
    • What happend? = Qué pasó?
    • Me too = también
    • Me neither = tampoco
    • Is it possible to change … in …? = Es posible cambiar … en ….?
    • Don’t lie to me = No me mienta
    • The bus comes in 10 minutes = El bus viene en 10 minutos
    • That’s great = Qué bien
    • How beautiful = Qué bonito
    • I invite you = te invito
    • Can I pay with the credit card? = Puedo pagar con la tarjeta de crédito?
    • What is that? = Qué es eso?
    • so? = así?
    • I am ready = listo
    • Don’t bother me = no molestes
    • Can I help you? = Puedo ayudarle?
    • What did you say? = Qué dijiste?

    Personal pronoun

    I = yo
    you = tú, usted
    he = él
    she = ella
    we = nosotros / nosotras

    Possessive determiners

    my = mi
    your (singular) = tu
    his, her, your (formal), their = su
    our = nuestro, nuestra
    your (plural) = vuestro, vuestra

    Verbs (verbos)

    Grammar: In spanish often without the personal pronoun.

    • I have = tengo / you have = tienes
    • I need = necesito / you need = necesitas
    • I am (permanent condition) = soy / you are = eres / it is = es (e.g. soy enfermo = I am a sick person)
    • I am (temporary condition) = estoy / you are = estás / it is = está (e.g. estoy enfermo = I am being sick)
    • I want = quiero / you want = quieres
    • I would like = quisiera (un billete para / una habitación doble)
    • I like you = te quiero
    • I make = hago / you make = haces
    • I go… = voy… a la cocina / al baño / al mar / you go = vas
    • I come = vengo / you come = vienes
    • I cook = cocino / you cook = cocinas
    • I try = pruebo / you try = pruebas
    • I eat = como / you eat = comes
    • I don’t eat = no como
    • I drink = bebo / you drink = bebes
    • I can = puedo / you can = puedes
    • I know = sé / you know = sabes
    • I help = ayudo / you help = ayudas
    • I like it = me gusto / you like it = te gusta
    • I arrive = llego / you arrive = llegas
    • I think = pienso / you think = piensas
    • I walk = camino / you walk = caminas
    • I pay = pago / you pay = pagas
    • I hope = espero / you hope = esperas
    • I clean = limpio / you clean = limpias
    • I play = juego /you play = juegas
    • I look= miro / you look = miras

    Pronomen and Adverbs

    with = con
    with me = conmigo
    with you = contigo
    without = sin
    and = y
    or = o
    mehr = más
    besides, in addition = además
    weniger = menos
    here = aquí
    but = pero
    because = porque
    not = no
    no = ningún
    how, like = como
    now = ahora
    soon = pronto
    later = luego
    never = nunca
    only = sólo
    everything = todo
    for = por
    for me = para mí
    then = entonces
    later, after = después
    before = antes
    close to = cerca de
    always = siempre
    never = nunca, jamás
    every = cada
    so = así
    maybe = quizá
    too much = demasiado
    sometimes = a veces
    many, a lot of = muchos
    few, a little = pocos
    both = ambas
    another = otra, otro
    very, so, too = muy
    a lot, very much = mucho
    too, also, as well = también
    too = demasiado
    since = desde
    until = hasta

    W-questions

    what = qué
    why = por qué
    when = cuándo
    who = quién
    which = cuál
    where = dónde

    Numbers (important for money)

    uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez, once, doce, trece, catorce, quince, dieciséis, diecisiete,…

    1er: uno, once, veintiuno, treinta y uno, cuarenta y uno,…
    5er: cinco, quince. veinticinco, treinta y cinco,…
    10er: diez, veinte, treinta, cuarenta, cincuenta, sesenta, setenta, ochenta, noventa, ciento
    100er: ciento, doscientos, trescientos, cuatrocientos,…

    Colours (color)

    Grammar: most change with gender and number.

    white = blanco / black = negro / red = rojo / blue = azul / green = verde / yellow = amarillo / grey = gris / orange = naranja / brown = café / purple = púrpura

    Adjectives (adjetivos)

    Grammar: usually after the noun / change with gender and number (not all with gender). masculine end in -o or -os, feminine end in -a or -as.

    cold = frío
    hot = caliente
    spicy = picante
    small = pequeño, pequeña
    big = grande
    young = joven
    old = viejo, vieja
    better = mejor
    worse = peor
    much = mucho
    few = poco
    pretty, beautiful = bonito, bonita
    new = nuevo, nueva
    strong = fuerte
    safe = seguro

    I’m hungry / thirsty / cold / hot / tired = tengo hambre / sed / frío / calor / sueño

    Dates and Time

    yesterday = ayer
    today = hoy
    tomorrow / morning = mañana
    in the morning = en la mañana
    What is the time? = ¿qué hora es?
    second = el segundo
    minute = el minuto
    hour, time = la hora
    day = el día
    night = la noche
    noon = mediodía
    afternoon = tarde
    evening = tarde / noche
    week = la semana
    year = el año

    birthday = el cumpleaños
    vacations = las vacaciones
    the date = la fecha
    another time = otra vez
    first time = primera vez

    Day of the week (día de la semana)

    monday (lunes), tuesday (martes), wednesday (miércoles), thursday (jueves), friday (viernes), saturday (sábado), sunday (domingo)

    Month (el mes)

    january (enero), february (febrero), march (marzo), april (abril) may (mayo), june (junio), july (julio), august (agosto), september (septiembre), october (octubre), november (noviembre), december (diciembre)

    Season (la estación del año)

    spring (la primavera), summer (el verano), autumn (el otoño), winter (el invierno)

    People (gente)

    woman = la mujer
    man = el hombre
    sister = la hermana
    brother = el hermano
    mother = la madre
    father = el padre
    parents = los padres
    grandfather = el abuelo
    grandmother = la abuela
    son = el hijo
    daughter = la hija
    baby = el bebé
    boyfriend = novio
    girlfriend = novia
    wife/spouse = esposa
    husband = esposo

    Food (comida)

    breakfast = el desayuno
    lunch = el almuerzo
    dinner = la cena
    salt = la sal
    sugar = el azúcar
    oil = el aceite
    water = la agua
    milk = la leche
    cheese = el queso
    butter = la mantequilla
    meat = la carne
    egg = el huevo
    rice = el arroz
    potato = la papa
    corn = el maíz
    beans = les frijoles (m)
    juice = el jugo
    banana = la banana
    pineapple = la piña
    grapes = les uvas (f)
    onion = la cebolla
    garlic = el ajo
    carrot = la zanahoria
    mushroom = el hongo
    a glass of wine = una copa de vino

    Household

    kitchen = la cocina
    plate = el plato
    fork = el tenedor
    spoon = la cuchara
    knife = el cuchillo
    glass = el vaso
    cup = la taza
    pan = la sartén
    fridge = el refrigerador
    oven = el horno
    table = la mesa
    chair = la silla
    sofa = el sofa
    bed = la cama
    bedroom = el dormitorio
    sheet = la sábana
    room = la habitación
    door = la puerta
    window = la ventana
    mirror = el espejo
    lamp = la lámpara
    washing machine = la lavadora
    soap = el jabón

    Some other words

    party = la fiesta
    map = el mapa
    bicycle = la bicicleta
    airplane = el avión
    ship = el barco
    money = el dinero
    keys = las llaves
    thing = la cosa
    computer = la computadora
    bus = el bús
    train = el tren
    scissors = las tijeras
    camera = la cámara
    backpack = la mochila
    bridge = el puente
    photo = la foto
    cellphone = el teléfono celular
    toilet paper = el papel higiénico
    a moment = un momento
    border = la frontera
    journey there and back = ida y vuelta
    left / right = a la izquierda / derecha
    straight on = recto

    Nicaragua – Colourful colonial cities and horse-riding on an island

    Aside

    Nicaragua is famous for being a budget backpacker’s dream. An ideal place to spend weeks or even months. Less touristic than Costa Rica and thus more authenic.

    San Juan del Sur

    I started in San Juan del Sur. A small touristic place very close to the beach. Known for its Sunday funday parties. My favourite roommate there was a 68-year-old Canadian guy. According to him he used to be a criminal (bike gang, drugs and other related things). When I asked him what exactly he just smiled. He made 7’500 CAD per week and at the end of the week there was nothing left. Seven years of his life he spend in prison. Got tortured. Now he lives from his pension. He might have been a criminal but he was such a sweet and fun person to me. He took me to his favourite coffee place El Gato Negro. Full of books and arranged with much love. Wanted me to meet all his friends, joined me for a short but tough hike (20 mins, stunning view over the beach, Cristo de La Misericordia, 2 USD), helped me to save some fishes who stranded on the beach, showed me the local market (next to the Market Bus Stop), took me to a rock concert in the evening, and offered me besides a joint a lot of unhealthy food (donuts, chicken soup, fish and chips, pizza, ice cream). Almost felt bad that I said no to everything. But he did not seem offended at all and was smiling the whole day.

    Granada

    Next I wanted to go to Ometepe. But it was so windy that no boat or ferry was leaving the harbour. So I went first to Granada. A beautiful, colourful colonial city. Great place just to walk around, observe the local life, and getting lost. Many houses have a little garden in the middle and horse and cart are still common. The Choco Museo is definitely worth a visit. Most I liked the chocolate tea with cinnamon.

    One day I visited Laguna de Apoyo. A thermal crater lake where you can kayak, swim, and relax from the city life. From the local market in Granada I took a bus (every 10-15 mins) with Managua as a destination and asked to get dropped off at ‘la entrada de la laguna’ (Duration: 30 mins. Price: 10 Córdoba). From there I wanted to walk (1.5 h). But after only a few minutes a car with a couple of people stopped and asked me if they can give me a lift. Since my gut instinct told me I can trust those people I said yes. Later my host told me that this was very dangerous and I can be very lucky that nothing happend. I am wondering if when something will ever happen to me if this will change my belief in the good nature of humankind. The Laguna de Apoyo was nice but nothing more. One of the disadvantages of already having seen too much of this beautiful world I guess.

    img_7988

    Laguna de Apoyo

    Ometepe

    My next destination was Ometepe. A beautiful island with two volcanoes in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua. Probably one of the safest places in Nicaragua and great to explore alone. One day I rented a horse. The other days I took the bus and walked along gorgeous empty beaches with wild horses, enjoyed hidden restaurants, natural hot springs, and enjoyed the evenings with a local who did not speak any English. Google translator was our biggest friend.

    Leon

    To get from Ometepe to Leon you need to pass by in Managua (capital). A hectic messy city most tourists try to avoid. Thanks to a Nicaraguan girl I had a nice time. She realised that I was not interested to take one of the taxis to the other bus station, took my hand, and guided me through different local food markets. Leon is the place to learn a little bit more about Nicaragua’s history in its museums (especially about the revolution). Made me realise once more how lucky I am that I was born in a country and at a time with no war.

    Food

    I did not like the diet in Nicaragua. It is very unhealthy. They use half a cup of oil for making only one fried egg. The plantains are fried and look like potato chips. Even the gallo pinto (rice and beans) is very greasy. And they add sugar in many things (juices, coffee). But there is always a chilli sauce on the table. That’s nice. Unsurprisingly I cooked there a lot, went in the more expensive European restaurants or the maid of my host cooked something for us. Be aware that most hostels do not like when you cook beans. It uses too much gas. You can get a meal at a local place starting from 50 till 120 Córdoba. Other restaurants are often double as much. Food at local markets is most cheaply of course. The price is negotiable. If using a supermarket Pali is the cheapest option (e.g. 300 g oat flakes for 20 Córdoba). And you should not drink the tap water.

    img_7963

    Even though Central America exports a lot of coffee beans they do not have a coffee culture. Probably because they do not know how to make really tasty coffee. Moistly you get instant coffee. Unless it is a coffee place for tourists.

    Transport

    The cheapest, longest but most interesting way to travel in Central America is by Chicken buses (old yellow school buses from the US). Often very colourful painted and usually the door stays open during the ride. Sometimes a true rollercoaster, sometimes a disco, and sometimes a local market. The food literally comes to you. The only disadvantage is that after eating people throw out the rubbish out of the window. For sure a great place to see a different side of the country’s culture. If they would have a bathroom I might stay there permanently. It is around 1 USD for one hour. There is not really a schedule and bus stations are rare. Ask locals, wait on the roadside, jump on the next bus and pay on board. There are no tickets you can buy in advance. Often the buses leave when full and are therefore overcrowded.

    Buses I took:

    • San Juan del Sur to Rivas Terminal: 25 Córdoba (45-60 mins)
    • Rivas to Ometepe: bus from Rivas to San Jorge (ferry departure) every 30 mins (7 Córdoba. 15 mins). NO bus on Sundays. So a taxi is your only option. The bus doesn’t leave from the main bus station, but rather from the road running parallel. Boat to Ometepe: 50 Córdoba (60 mins). On the Island are buses running every hour. Sundays only every two hours. If staying in Myogalpa then there is no need to take a taxi. There are many hostels within a 10-minute walk. If you plan on staying on the other side of the island, then there are buses throughout the day but only once an hour (every 2 hour on sundays). I stayed in Altagracia. A lovely city with eight bars.
    • San Jorge to Managua by bus: 67 Córdoba (120 mins)
    • Managua to Leon by bus: 54 Córdoba (90 mins)

    Don’t believe the taxi drivers. They are trying to rip you off and take advantage of tourists. Sometimes some helpful looking young guys come in the bus and tell you that there is no bus to your desired destination, the next bus isn’t for another two hours or the last bus just left. There are buses all the time.

    Accommodation

    • Hostel: I payed between 7 and 9 USD per night.
    • Couchsurfing is not really common yet.
    • It is very rare that there is hot water

    Climate

    Nicaragua has only two seasons: The dry season from December to April and the rainy season from May to October. The Caribbean side does not have a defined rainy season. Be prepared for sun or rain at any time. It is possible to wear short pants during the dry season even in the evening.

    Safety

    I felt safe and nothing happend to me. Especially on Ometepe. But I did not go out alone anymore after it got dark and did not wear any jewelry.

    Currency

    Currency: Córdoba (NIO). ATM available in most midsize towns. USD are accepted, but for smaller items it is better to use Córdoba. If not they just charge 1 USD even when cheaper.

    Languages

    Spanish is the official language. Even in major tourist destinations only a very few locals speak English.

    Length of tourist visa

    Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua have a visa agreement (CA-4). This is a 90-day visa given to you by the first country you enter out of the four. It allows you entry into all of them. After you need to exit to either Costa Rica or Mexico.

    Border crossing from Leon to El Salvador

    • Bus from Leon terminal to Chinandega: 0.60 USD
    • Bus from Chinandega to Border (Guasaule): 1 USD
    • Exit Nicaragua: 2 USD. Enter Honduras: 3 USD
    • Minibus from border, through Honduras, to El Salvador border: 6 USD
    • Exit Honduras: Free
    • Enter El Salvador: Free
    • Bus from El Salvador border to Santa Rosa: 1 USD
    • Bus from Santa Rosa to San Miguel: 1 USD
    • Total duration: 10 h

    Costa Rica – Rich variety of nature, animals, and activities

    Aside

    I am in Costa Rica since around seven weeks now and there is still a lot I could explore. But I booked a flight to Cuba from Mexico end of February. So time for me to slowly move north by bus. After I will fly to Colombia. Hopefully my last flight in Central and South America. There I will work for at least one month. Maybe more. I will see.

    I started in San José, the capital. Not a city I would recommend for more than 2 nights. It is a place where a lot of big companies (e.g. Microsoft, Novartis, Coca-Cola) are. A place to work and live and escape in the nature on the weekend. The criminality is high and the traffic is a big problem. So most tourists avoid San José. I had nice hosts. Especially my second host in San José. He made his own peanut butter. Difficult to find healthy peanut butter in Costa Rica. Together with a banana a delicacy. I was in heaven.

    Jacó

    First I wanted to go on the beach. So I took a bus from San José to Jacó. As the closest beach to San Jose, Jacó is known for its party atmosphere (mostly in the bars). An interesting nightlife. The beach is a long gray arc and the smaller waves are perfect for learning to surf.

    img_7612

    Playa Hermosa

    My host was located in Playa Hermosa. He owned a hostel (Wipeout International Hostel). A famous surf location just eight km to the south of Jacó. I loved that place. The relaxing atmosphere, the possibility to learn how to surf, the beach, the pool, the full equipped kitchen which I used every day, the people I met in the hostel, the fun teasing of my host with everybody, and the time to read and write. The fact that I came back twice (for Christmas and New Year’s Eve) tells a lot. I tried to help as much as possible but honestly there was not so much to help. So I made them a website for their hostel and some promotion on social media.

    Manuel Antonio

    The beach and the town are amazing. I loved the vibe there. But I can’t recommend the Manuel Antonio National Park. It gets very busy during the high season, is overpriced (16 USD), and the well-maintained paths take away the authentic feel of being in the jungle. There exist countless jungles in Costa Rica and most of them are for free, less touristic and as a consequence you might be able to see more animals.

    Tamarindo

    Tamarindo is located in one of the driest regions of Costa Rica. It is not so much a local Tico culture but a busy tourist town. No surprise Tamarindo is one of the most expensive places. There is only one main road and everything is within a short walk or bicycle ride (renting is 20 USD). Tamarindo is a surfing town so if you haven’t learned to surf yet, this is the place to start. Competition keeps lesson prices low and the waves provide the perfect conditions for learning. Loved the sunsets there from the surfboard. The nightlife (bar scene) starts later than elsewhere in Costa Rica.

    img_7748

    La Fortuna

    La Fortuna is located in the hills northwest of Costa Rica. On the streets surrounding the central park lie many restaurants, cafes, hostels, tour operators, and souvenir shops. Most people who live there work in tourism. One of my host was renting mountain bikes and another was a tour guide (zip line). When I was there, beginning of December, the high season just started but it was still not crowded. I liked the atmosphere. One of my highlights was the Free Natural Hot Springs. It is in the jungle, very relaxing, free massages, sometimes 40 degree Celsius, and in the night people light candles. Very romatic. No wonder my host put his arm around me. I kindly took his arm and put it back where it was. Arenal Volcano you can see from almost everywhere if it is not cloudy. Lake Arenal is definitely worth to visit. I also had fun jumping in the Rio Fortuna.

    El Castillo

    El Castillo is a small neighboring village to La Fortuna and has a breathtaking view on Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano. It was raining most of the time I was there. So I used the extra time to read, write, and skype with some friends. I volunteered there for around one week at the Essence Arenal Boutique Hostel. After I went back to La Fortuna to meet a friend from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The work on the organic permaculture farm was not for me. Pulling up weeds for 6 hours a day is tough and the ants loved me more than I could handle. The work in the vegetarian kitchen / restaurant was fun and made me want to work even more than 6 hours. To the mouldy smell of the mattress I could not get used to.

    Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

    After Christmas a friend from Switzerland was visiting me. We went together to Puerto Viejo for a few days and stayed there in a hotel. Puerto Viejo is located in southeastern Costa Rica, close to the Panama border. A laid back small beach town with a Caribbean feel, chill nightlife, and great restaurants. Beautiful beaches, coconut rice, reggaeton, and colorful homes dominate. In Puerto Viejo center everything is within walking distance. But you can also rent a bicycle and visit the Cahuita National Park. Great to observe animals and it is for free.

    I really enjoyed my stay in Costa Rica: The beautiful natural environment, the rich variety of plants and animals (e.g. sloths, monkeys, crocodiles, fireflies, parrots, many different birds, turtles, iguanas), and the different landscapes (jungles, forests, volcanoes, mountains, countless waterfalls, and two seas: to the west the Pacific Ocean and to the East the Caribbean Sea). Animal watching, surfing, kayaking, flying through the sky on a zip line, horseback riding, hiking, yoga classes, canyoneering down waterfalls, catamaran cruises, scuba expeditions are just a few sample of the many activities you can do in Costa Rica. And I loved to wake up at 6 am every morning because of the sun, birds, and monkeys.

    Interesting facts

    • You can drink the tap water.
    • “Ropa Americana” are second-hand (thrift) shops which offer clothes for as little as 1000 colones. The clothes come from the US.
    • Pura Vida: It is a way of life in Costa Rica. A very relaxed, simple way of looking at life. It means being thankful for what they have and not dwelling on the negative. Ticos use this term to say hello, goodbye, and to say everything is great.
    • Ticos: How the Costa Ricans call themselves
    • Most people do not have an address. Maybe a few in San José. So people get their mail via post office box. When I did couchsurfing I just asked my hosts to send me their location on google maps.
    • Mosquitos are worst right after sunset for around one hour.
    • The army was abolished in 1949. As president of Costa Rica, José Figueres announced that the nation’s former military budget would be refocused specifically in healthcare, education, and environmental protection.
    • In 1869, Costa Rica made primary education obligatory for all its citizens, and both preschool and high school free. There are both state and private universities.
    • In May 2007, the Costa Rican government announced its intentions to become 100% carbon neutral by 2021. They use hydropower since years and more recently geothermal power, solar power, and wind power. Thanks to its geographic advantage. As of 2015, 93-99 percent of the country’s electricity comes from renewable sources.
    • The border Costa Rica / Nicaragua closes at 6 pm.
    • Many people live in a house out of sheet metal.

    Transport

    It is possible to rent a car (starting from 40 dollars per day included basic insurance), a motorcycle or a bicycle (e.g. 5 dollars per day in Puerto Viejo). I used the bus most of the time since it goes to even smaller cities and is most cheaply. Or I got a lift from one of my hosts. The only disadvantage is that often you need to go back to San Jose first and sometimes the bus you would like to take is already full. So buy the ticket one day before in case you have a target date. Trips longer than four hours usually include a rest stop as buses do not have toilets. Try to avoid taking a taxi in San José. Other places can be fine. Sadly, there are taxis that take advantage of tourists. The taximeter is often manipulated, they drive around circles and if you ask them how much to a specific place they will stop somewhere else (closer) and asking for more money to drive you to your requested destination. Uber works very well. Or shuttles. But they are most expensive. Or Hitchhiking. It is safe. Also for a woman.

    Timetable for the buses (only partly correct but better than nothing): http://m.horariodebuses.com/cr/index.php

    Prices and point of departure of the buses I took:

    • Juan Santamaría International Airport (Alajuela. Bus stop is just one minute walk from the airport exit) to San José (City center): 540 colones
    • San José (Terminal 7-10) to Jacó: 2285 colones
    • San José (Gran Terminal del Caribe) to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: 5270 colones
    • La Fortuna (Parada de autobuses) to San José: 3000 colones

    Accommodation

    • Hostel: One night is around 10 dollars in San José. More in touristic places like Tamarindo (20 dollars).
    • Couchsurfing is common and I can highly recommend. Used it most of the time.
    • Free camping is allowed. Just watch out animals especially crocodiles if close to a river (e.g. Tamarindo).

    Food

    You can get a meal at a local place starting from 2500 colones. Other restaurants are often double as much. Food at local markets is most cheaply of course. A smoothie is between 1500 and 2500 colones.

    Gallo Pinto is the national dish of Costa Rica. Most people here eat it especially for breakfast. Click here for the recipe.

    Restaurants with great vegan options I can recommend:

    • Playa Hermosa and Jacó: Pizza pata (best pizza I ever ate. Ask without cheese), Las Pitaz (hummus, falafel), and Jaco rustico (cheap and very local)
    • Tamarindo: Falafel bar (delicious moisty big falafels)
    • Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Como en mi Casa Art Café (gluten free options as well)
    • Manuel Antonio: Falafel bar
    • La Fortuna: Organico Fortuna (expensive but very healthy and even gluten free options)

    Climate

    Costa Rica has only two seasons: The dry season from December to April and the rainy season from May to November. The Caribbean side does not have a defined rainy season. Be prepared for sun or rain at any time. At sea level you will find the warmest temperatures and in the mountains the coldest.

    Safety

    Costa Rica is pretty safe for a country in Central America. In San José, Jacó beach, and Limón are a few places that can get creepy after sunset. Just ask locals or your hostel where not to go. Only carry the amount of money you think you will need each day and do not wear valuable jewelry.

    Money

    I am not surprised Costa Rica is called Switzerland of Central America. It is expensive. The currency in Costa Rica is “colón” (plural: colones). USD are accepted at all major tourist destinations. Some of the prices are even in USD. For small purchases it is better to use colones, because some people give you a lower exchange. Major credit cards are accepted at all medium to large size hotels, restaurants and stores. ATM’s are becoming more common (El Castillo does not have one yet).

    Health

    There are no epidemic diseases in Costa Rica. No vaccinations are required if you are traveling from Europe or the USA. You do need a Yellow Fever vaccination if you are travelling from some countries in South America or Africa.

    Visa

    Most people can get into Costa Rica without the need of a Visa and can stay in the country for 90 days. If you want to stay longer in Costa Rica just cross the border for a one minute, pay exit (only USD accepted) and return. Nicaragua is much easier. For Panama most people need to show a return ticket to their home country. But it is possible to fake one.

    Work

    If you work in a bar, restaurant or surf shop you won’t earn a lot of money (e.g. 3 USD per hour in Tamarindo). You would need a working Visa. But most people don’t have one. It is possible to buy a property / house as a foreigner and open a restaurant, hostel or another business and you will earn enough for living. Or work in an international company.

    Other places I have heard are nice: Monte Verde, Samara, Santa Teresa, and Cahuita (close to Puerto Viejo but quieter).

    Border crossing to Nicaragua

    • bus from Liberia to Penas Blancas (border): 1750 Costa Rican Colon, 105 mins.
    • exit Costa Rica: 8 USD
    • enter Nicaragua (only accept USD): 12 USD
    • Go left at the exit to the buses. You need to take two buses to San Juan del Sur. You will get dropped off at the junction in the middle of the road where the two roads split. There is no official bus stop but the bus will stop for you.

    How to live in the moment – A healthy and happy lifestyle

    Aside

    Shooting Debora Dšhrbeck

    Do you take time to enjoy where you are at the moment?

    I used to be very focused on my future. How and where will I live one day? What will I work? Will I have children?
    Sure I do have dreams. But I learnt to live in the moment. I do not worry about my future anymore. No more pressure. Just go with the flow. Listen to my heart. My intuition.
    I also learnt to enjoy not to know what I am going to experience. Getting surprised by the people I meet along my way.

    How I learnt to live in the moment
    One of my friends asked me how I learnt to live in the moment. Well…Since it rarely happens by accident I will try to answer this question below.

    I think one part through travelling solo. That’s where I learnt what I really want, what is truly important to me in life, what makes me happy, and what doesn’t. Independent from anybody else. I believe it is also good that bad things happen to you. If you master them it will only make you stronger. And you appreciate the good moments much more. Then working all kind of different jobs. Realising what are my abilities, talents and that I can actually live from that. Gives me peace and a feeling of freedom.

    Follow your own values
    Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely important to consider the future impacts for your present actions. It is important to follow your own values. If you want to stay healthy a healthy lifestyle is reasonable. If being sustainable is important to you start now. Do your best in the moment and don’t wait another day. Your future reflects the choices and actions you make in the present. You can be the person you are proud to be.

    What would you like your loved ones to say about your character and contributions one day?

    Be mindful to the moment
    Living in the moment is not about ruminating on the past (but reflecting about the past allows us to learn from our mistakes) or worrying about the future. It is about being mindful to the moment. When you eat for example, look at the food, feel the texture, taste and smell the different flavour, and listen to the sound it makes when you chew it. Enjoy this bite of food and you live this moment to the fullest. The more you do it this way the more you will change your brain. You strengthen nerve pathways that make the habit of mindfulness easier and easier.

    Little things that may help
    There are times when living in the moment is just not possible or really hard. Sometimes our thoughts are overwhelmed by regrets about past events, anxiety about the future or we just experience a very stressful moment. There are little things that may help.

    • Don’t judge. For example what other people do, that you have to get up early or the traffic. You can’t change it in that moment. Those judgments only increases stress and frustration.
    • Show you feelings and don’t suppress and justify them. When you are sad, be sad! You are allowed to be sad. Emotions really aren’t bad. Plus it’s more authentical and people will know how you feel and can react appropriately.
    • Focus on the sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel of your daily activities.
    • Practice gratitude. Having to wait for something can be annoying. Start to think about waiting as a good thing. Take that time to observe your surroundings and think about what you are grateful for in that moment. For who you are, how you are feeling in that moment, and for loved ones. Write down one good thing that happened each day. Read your list regularly to appreciate your current life.
    • Forgive. If there is someone in your past that hurt you, forgive. If not you will focuse to the past and suffer. Write the person a letter or talk to the person about how her past actions. You don’t have to send the letter, but it will help you stop blaming this person and help you move toward the present.
    • Focus on happy things. Adapting an optimistic realistic lifestyle has a big influence. Living in the moment can be a challenge if you are in a bad mood.
    • Meditate. Find a quiet spot and get comfortable. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. As you focus on your breathing, try not to get distracted by your thoughts. Just let them happen and pass by. Without opening your eyes, observe the world around you. Pay attention to how you feel as well. What do you hear? What do you smell? How do you feel? physically? emotionally?
    • Start small. Start by incorporating new habits one at a time. Once you feel like you have mastered a habit, add something else.

    Fee free to add any other recommendations? 🙂

    photo: Martin Niederberger