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Rear View Mirror: Colombia Travel Tips After 17 Months Exploring the Country

There is one big reason that we spent 516 days (that’s 17 months) in Colombia, drove 9,923 miles (15,969 km) around the country, and published 150 posts about travel in Colombia: it’s the people. Despite decades of violence from political conflict, drug wars, and, until the peace treaty which was signed in 2017, a civil war with FARC guerrillas, Colombians are consistently ranked as the happiest people on the planet by orgs like Gallup and the Happy Planet Index. We’re here to tell you that Colombians aren’t just happy. They’re proud, smart, and generous and their love for their country is contagious. Here are our Colombia travel tips for this South American country.

Colombia flag Cartagena fort

The Colombian flag flying high above the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fort in Cartagena, Colombia.

Colombia travel tips

A three-day holiday weekend is called a puente (bridge) and there are a lot of them in Colombia.

We were very surprised by how little English is spoken in Colombia. In many areas, even cities that attract tourists, hotel staff, waiters, etc. often speak only Spanish. That is, of course, their prerogative. Colombia is a Spanish-speaking country. However, if you don’t have at least a basic grasp on the language be warned that you could have some communication issues.

Escobar Hippos Colombia

One of the hippos left over from Pablo Escobar’s herd at Hacienda Napoles.

Colombia has the largest population of wild hippos outside of Africa. They escaped from a small herd brought to Colombia by Pablo Escobar. A few hippos remain in half-hearted captivity on Escobar’s hacienda which the Colombian government turned into a weird amusement park called Hacienda Napoles. It’s all part of controversial “Escobar Tourism” in Colombia, something we wrote about in our award-winning story for Roads and Kingdoms and more in our Hacienda Napoles travel blog post.

In Colombia, people can choose to pay off a credit card charge in multiple installments. This will not work with foreign credit cards, so be sure to say una cuota (one total) every time you use your credit card.

Yes, there are lots of soldiers and military checkpoints on the roads in Colombia. These days the soldiers are mainly there to maintain the order, security, and confidence which has slowly returned to the country in recent years. The many soldiers we encountered were always smiling and quick with a handshake and hopeful questions about how we liked their country.

2 million Colombian Pesos COP

Colombian cash.

Davivienda Bank ATMs was the only ATM that did not charge us a fee to use the ATM card issued by our US bank. Davivienda ATMS also had the highest withdrawal limit (720,000 COP) which you could withdraw twice back to back.

Check your mattress before you check in. They love rock hard mattresses in Colombia.

Viva Colombia airlines offers incredibly cheap internal flights. For example, it’s possible to fly from Medellin (our favorite unsung Colombian city) to Cartagena (our favorite famous-for-a-reason Colombian city) for less than US$50 round trip. Yes, service sucks and you pay a bit more for every little thing including checked bags and failure to print out your own boarding pass. However, flying is often a better choice than taking the bus because road infrastructure is not great in Colombia and road journeys take a very long time.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Bogota street art Toxicomano

Gabriel Garcia Marquez immortalized in street art by Toxicomano in Bogotá.

A whole host of internationally famous celebrities were born in Colombia including artist Fernando Botero, singers Juanes, Carlos Vives, and Shakira, actors John Leguzamo and Sofia Vergara, and Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marques who inspired our story about traveling in Colombia in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for Bio.com. Find more about the town where Gabo was born in our travel blog post about Aracataca.

Colombia is also producing major sport stars like soccer star James Rodríguez, bike racer Nairo Quintana who won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and placed second in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015, and race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya who won the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Justin Bieber is also said to have purchased a “mansion” near Cartagena and rumor has it that Lady Gaga and George Clooney have houses in Colombia too.

Colombia for adventure travelers and nature lovers

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon Colombia

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia.

There are currently 59 National Parks in Colombia but only about half of them are open to visitors and more than 80% of travelers to Colombia flock to just two of the parks, including Tayrona National Park which, honestly, we were not blown away by. Branch out and try some of the country’s other parks while you’re there. Go to Los Nevados National for condors and volcanoes. Go paragliding over the enormous Chicamocha Canyon. Or check out the petite Tatacoa Desert which (spoiler alert) isn’t a true desert at all.

Wax Palms Salento La Carbonera, Colombia

A stunning (and semi-secret) stand of was palms, the tallest palm in the world and the national tree of Colombia.

The wax palm is the tallest palm in the world. It can grow up to 200 feet (60 meters) tall. It’s also the national tree of Colombia and most travelers head to Salento to see wax palms in the Cocora Valley. However, found an even better place to see Colombia’s national tree.

Colors of Cano Cristales Colombia

Yes, that color is real (and rare) in Colombia’s Caño Cristales.

Colombia is home to a natural phenomenon that happens nowhere else on earth. For part of the year, a short stretch of a remote river appears to run in a rainbow of colors thanks to a fragile bloom of an aquatic plant. The river is called Caño Cristales (or the Rainbow River, the River of Five Colors, the Liquid Rainbow, or the Most Beautiful River in the World) and it’s worth every bit of expense and effort to see this stunning natural wonder. You’ll find more temptation in our complete travel guide to Caño Cristales and our photo essay about the river for BBC Travel.

And where else can you travel on a road called The Trampoline of Death?

Colombia for culture lovers

Tombs San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia

Tombs and stone statue sentinels at the San Agustin Archaeological Park in Colombia.

There are currently eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Colombia. We can vouch for the mysterious carved stone figures in the archaeological sites of San Agustín, the slow, easy, classically Colombian pace you get in the historic river town of Mompox, and the Colombian cowboy charm of the country’s coffee country with its deep traditions, quality caffeine, and range of terrific hotels.

Tejo Colombia

Karen playing tejo by tossing a metal ball toward explosives…

Colombia’s national pass time is a game is called tejo. It involves heavy metal balls and explosives. It’s fun

Street art Bogota

The street art in Bogotá is breathtaking (and legal).

Yes, street art is becoming a staple of many cities around the world, but the amount, diversity, and quality of the street art in Bogotá stands out.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

The Dinsey-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia.

The Las Lajas Sanctuary, near the Ecuador border, looks like something straight out of Europe. Or Disneyland. The stone church, which is built across a deep ravine, is lavish and steeped in stories of miracles which attract thousands of pilgrims each year.

Salt Cathedral Colombia

Inside the Salt Cathedral.

A totally different kind of church is the Salt Cathedral not far from Bogotá where the stations of the cross and a church have been carved into the walls of a defunct salt mine up to 600 feet (180 meters) underground.

Medellin Flower Festival

Every August the city of Medellin hosts the vibrant Flower Festival.

Every August the city of Medellin hosts the Flower Festival, a week-long, no-holds-barred celebration of the history and culture of the Antioquia province of the country (which is basically the Texas of Colombia). We somehow managed to attend back-to-back Flower Festivals and here’s what it’s all about.

Barrichara Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia

If you ask us, this is the most beautiful town in Colombia.

The Colombian government has established  a network of Colonial towns called Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia. The list currently includes 17 towns and we visited 14 of them including Jardin, Aguadas, Cienega, Giron, Guaduas, Honda, La Playa de Belen, Lorico, Mompox, Mongui, Salamina, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Villa de Leyva, and what we consider to be the prettiest town in Colombia: Barichara.

Colombia for food lovers

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Bogotá is shaping up to be South America’s next food capital. Chefs in all price ranges and food styles are creating exciting, daring dining experienced. There are not two chefs with Michelin stars in town. Cocktail bars are killing it. Craft beer is thriving. Local ingredients are front and center. Food festivals like the Bogotá Wine & Food Festival are thriving. No wonder the awards ceremony for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants will be held in Bogotá in 2017 and in 2018.

 bandeja paisa colombia

Bandeja paisa in all it’s glory.

The most emblematic dish in Antioquia province, and perhaps all of Colombia, is a gut-buster called bandeja paisa. Trust us. It’s big enough to share.

Craft beer Medellin micro breweries Apostle cerveceria

Craft beer in Colombia? You bet.

Colombia is having a craft beer boom. Here’s our guide to microbreweries and brewery tours in Medellin.

Crackeña Colombia

Really?

There’s a brand of crackers called Crackeña, which seems like a bad idea in a country that’s trying to shed it’s “cocaine capital” image.

Aguardiente Colombia

Aguardiente: pick your poison.

Here’s a short list of stuff to eat and drink in Colombia wherever and whenever you find them:

The national drink of Colombia is aguardiente which is made by fermenting and distilling sugar cane juice. It often has a slight licorice taste, but brands and styles vary from province to province. Read about our first sip of aguardiente in our story for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Corozo juice which is made from palm berries and it reminds us of jamaica which is increasingly hard/impossible to find south of Mexico.

Bunuelos Colombia

Buñuelos!

Pan de bono are little discs of chewy, cheesy bread and everyone’s mother makes the very best ones. Another beloved carb bomb is the buñuelo (pictured above) which are light, fluffy, fried orbs best eaten hot and fresh. Some sprinkle sugar on them, which is delightful.

Empanadas come in many forms – deep fried, griddle cooked, baked, etc. They’re so popular that McDonald’s in Colombia sell empanadas.

Technically speaking, sancocho is a soup. In reality, it’s Colombia in a bowl.

Driving in Colombia road trip tips

truck off the road Colombia

Oops.

Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, but much of the country is road less.

In 2016 the World Bank ranked Colombia 96th out of 160 countries in terms of infrastructure–below Burkino Faso and Rwanda. That means you can expect some pretty bad roads and some pretty slow going.

Panamerican Highway sign Colombia

Driving the PanAm in Colombia.

Diesel is called ACPM at the pump.

Road tolls can add up in Colombia. Over the 9,923 miles (15,969 km) we drove around Colombia we spent more than 1,300,000 COP, which was more than US$600 at the exchange rate at the time. And that total represents just the hundreds of toll receipts we had on hand. Many were lost along the way.  For example, the tolls from Medellin to Cali, a route we have driven several times, cost us around US$40 for a mere 265 miles (425 km). One stretch of this route is called the Autopista del Cafe and is probably the most expensive highway in the country. In just 35 miles (56 km) on this Autopista we went through three toll booths where we handed over about US$16. At least the pricey Autopista del Cafe is a modern, multi-lane, divided highway. Often in Colombia drivers pay nearly as much in tolls for the pleasure of driving on narrow, unsafe, single-lane highways in mediocre to horrible condition.

Colombia toll receipts

Here are 125 Colombian road toll receipts adding up to nearly 1 million COP and representing about 70% of the road tolls we paid in Colombia.

Here’s a good resource that helps you anticipate and calculate Colombia’s tolls, which are called peajes.

If you get a two-part receipt from a toll booth, keep the longer half handy. You will be asked to show it at the following toll booth to be exempted from that toll.

waiting for Colombian road block

Eric reading a book on the side of the road during a particularly looooong road block protest in Colombia.

Expect to encounter random roadblocks. Putting tree trunks or burning tires across main roads is a common form of public protest in Colombia. We once spent six hours in stopped traffic on our way from Cartagena to Medellin (a route that came with US$30 in tolls).

Don’t believe us? Here’s what Jalopnik had to say about driving in Colombia.

Colombia Sunset Salento

A Colombian sunset on the road through the Cocora Valley near Salento.

More Colombia information resources

Read the book Unseen Colombia by Andres Hurtado Garcia, an intrepid hiker and photographer who documented most of the amazing natural areas in Colombia, including the most inaccessible areas down in the Amazon.

Longtime expat Richard McColl interviews interesting guests about all things Colombian (including yours truly) on his Colombia Calling radio podcast program.

The Colombia Facil website and micro guidebook is not comprehensive, but it does provide good info, options, and tips.

Colombia Reports is an English language news site that covers all things Colombian with smarts and wit from within Colombia.

And remember: It’s Colombia, not Columbia.

 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

 

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Rear View Mirror: Panama Travel Tips After 7 Months in the Country

We spent 215 days and drove 5,336 miles in this tiny little s-shaped country at the bottom of Central America. Our experiences became nearly 60 posts on our travel blog covering everything from falling in love with Casco Viejo, the hippest neighborhood in Panama City, getting into the nitty-gritty about travel to the country’s top beach destination, including where to stay in Bocas del Toro, exploring the Darien Jungle and driving to the end of the road, sailing through the San Blas Islands,taking you inside the week of madness that is Carnival in Las Tablas, exposing Panama’s best hotels from budget to boutique and giving you the lowdown on how to explore the Panama Canal. As we put the country in our rear view mirror, here are even more Panama travel tips and observations.

Welcome to Panama Paso canoas Border crossing

Panama travel tips

Panama is not the most foreign place we’ve ever been. English is widely spoken and the country uses the US dollar as its official currency. Social customs and things like architecture and fashion seem familiar too. This is not surprising given the fact that the US had a decades-long presence in Panama during the building of the Panama Canal, even establishing a “Canal Zone” that was administered as US territory. The US even invaded Panama in 1989.

Princess Cruise Island Princess exiting Miraflores locks.

In Panama, “summer” is the dry season (basically January to April) and “winter” is the wet season (basically the rest of the year).

Panama is on US Central Time and they never move the clocks forward or back.

Nearly every town square in Panama, no matter how small, has free WiFi thanks to a national program called internet para todos (internet for everyone).

Some locals call Manuel Noriega, the former dictator with the famously pockmarked complexion who is currently in prison in a jail alongside the Panama Canal, la cara pina or pineapple face.

Republican senator John McCain was born in Panama.

Frank Gehry, the Canadian architect who designed the recently opened BioMuseo in Panama City (below), is married to a Panamanian woman.

Frank Gerhy's BioMuseo seen from Panama canal

The lowest temperature ever recorded in Panama City is 68 degrees farenheit (20 degree celsius). You don’t want to know what the highest temperature is.

Despite the fact that Panama grows world class coffee in places like Boquete, the stuff you find in the supermarkets sucks. Virtually the only non-instant brand on the shelves is Duran which tastes burned. If you do a coffee tour or visit coffee producing regions stock up there.

Finca Lerida Coffee Tour - Boquete, Panama

You can buy unlocked cell phones pretty easily in Panama, something that was far less common in any other Central American country. Cell phone service was comparatively cheap too. We put US$3 on our +Movil account and it lasted for weeks and every recharge seemed to come with lots of free time.

Cell phone numbers have eight digits. Land line numbers have seven digits.

Public buses in Panama, called diablos rojos, look like they were decorated by a talented gang of spray-paint-wielding 15-year-old boys (below). Even the wheels are decorated. However, the artistic value of these buses if far better than their value as a form of public transportation. Panama City recently banned all diablos rojos because of safety concerns and pollution issues and replaced them with generic looking (and professionally driven) city buses. We visited the final resting place of Panama City’s diablos rojos as the buses were being taken off the streets of the capital.

Diablos Rojos bus Panama

Unscientific survey: 3 out 3 can openers in hostel kitchens in Panama (including brand new ones) will not work.

The place is obsessed with and full of fake boobs.

Wine is relatively cheap in supermarkets across Panama. A bottle we’d been paying  more or less US$6.50 for in El Salvador and Nicaragua was US$3.95 in Panama for the exact same bottle. Actually, all booze was cheaper and the selection was better in Panama than in other Central American countries because the government doesn’t tax liquor imports, though there is currently talk of re-visiting that policy. For best selection and best prices do your wine and booze shopping at Felipe Mota stores.

Panama Beer - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Though Panama is one of a handful of countries (along with El Salvador, Ecuador, etc) which uses the US dollar as their official currency, the country also has its own national currency. It’s called the Balboa and you often get coin change in both US currency and local currency. A balboa dollar coin looks a bit like a NYC subway token.

Local mass produced beers in Panama include Alta (above), Balboa and Soberana. We defy you to find any real taste difference between them. Luckily, there is also a growing microbrew scene in Panama including outstanding brewpubs from La Rana Dorada (below) and an annual craft brew festival in Panama City. Find out more in our story about Central American microbreweries for TheLatinKitchen.com.

La Rana Dorado microbrewery cerveceria - Panama City

As we reported back in 2011, Panama launched a program that gave all visitors 30 days of free emergency travel health insurance. Sadly, that innovative program has since been discontinued.

Driving in Panama road trip tips

For some reason fuel is about 20 cents cheaper per gallon at the two stations in the town of Anton right on the Pan-American Highway. But be warned: the Texaco does NOT take credit cards and when we were at the station there were no signs to that effect. Also, Panama was in the process of switching station signs from gallons to liters. By now we expect that all gas stations will be listing prices in liters.

In general, the price of fuel varied from station to station by as much as 25 cents per gallon so it paid to shop around.

Welcome to the Darien Panama

It was nearly impossible to find a car wash that had pressurized water hoses.

The roads are not great in Panama but they’re better than the pot hole festivals that pass for roads in Costa Rica. Though stretches of the Pan-American Highway from David to Panama City came close to Costa Rican lows with tons of potholes, wavy, rough, poorly laid asphalt and ridge and gap filled concrete.

Thankfully, speed bumps in Panama mostly take the much tamer form of raised reflectors on the road.

Though diesel prices are often listed on gas station signs in the familiar green color, the actual pump handle is sometimes blue with green being used for regular gas. Read the fuel type carefully before you fill up.

Here’s more about travel in Panama

 

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Rear View Mirror: Nicaragua Travel Tips After 177 Days in the Country

After traveling in Nicaragua for 177 days we’ve produced 24 blog posts about the country in which we’ve revealed our favorite city in Nicaragua, weighed in on the Big Corn Island vs. Little Corn Island rivalry, explored the beauty queen that is Granada, took the hippest cigar factory tour in the world and told you why you really should make it all the way up to the Northern Pacific Coast and out to Ometepe Island. In our final post about the country we present these Nicaragua travel tips from Central America.

Honduras-Nicaragua-borderNicaragua travel tips

Nicaragua  is definitely on our “go now” list. The country is making eco travel and adventure travel headlines, showing off a small but impressive crop of new luxury hotels that could hold their own anywhere in the world and producing some of the best rum in the world. It remains very, very affordable, it’s not yet over run by travelers and it’s one of the safest countries in Central America. Here we go.

Nicaragua for food lovers

Cold Toña Beer Nicaragua consistently served up the coldest beer we had in Central America and it seems to be a point of pride to only sever beer that’s truly bien fria. Sometimes the glass was frosty too and the refrigerators in most bars and stores had stickers on them promising beer under 0 degrees C (32 F). That’s noticeably colder than the norm in other neighboring countries.  Also, it’s practically unpatriotic to hike up the price of a cold Toña, the national beer of Nicaragua, so the price doesn’t vary by much (it’s a little more than US$1 for per liter) whether you buy it in the supermarket or at a fancy bar.

 

Nicaragua is not a foodie destination but two local dishes you’ll be grateful for are fritanga, usually served from basic street vendors and including a grilled meat, gallo pinto (spiced beans and rice) and a small salad. The best fritanga in the country, if you ask us, is found in the town of Masaya (below).

Fritanga in Masaya

Vigoron is another national dish which will please pork lovers with succulent pork cubes and chicharon (fried pork skin with some meat still on) served over cooked yucca slathered with a vinegary cabbage salad (below).

Gourmet Vigaron

Then there are street snacks like guiliras which are made with sweet corn masa cooked on a griddle between squares of banana leaves. They’re like a cross between a thick tortilla and corn bread and they taste great on their own or served “servicio” with a hunk of salty cheese called cuajada on top. Guiliras are not found everywhere. In fact, the only place we ever saw them was in Matagalpa, so snag ’em when you see ’em.

Award-winning Flor de Caña rum is proudly made in Nicaragua and is even cheaper in most stores than it is in the Duty Free shops at the borders, especially when it’s on sale which is often. The distillery is located just north of León and we recommend taking their fun and informative distillery tour.

Flor de Cana Run, Nicaragua

Nicaraguans are crazy about beets which turn up in salads all the time and are even used to tint and flavor white rice.

Driving in Nicaragua road trip tips

Nicaragua has far better roads than Costa Rica and most of their other Central American neighbors too thanks to serious petroleum contributions from fellow socialist country Venezuela (petroleum is a key ingredient in asphalt). There are still some dreadful stretches of road through small towns, so don’t get lulled into a false sense of smoothness.

Nicaraguans are also crazy about paving roads using interlocking cement bricks instead of black top. We suspect this has something to do with the fact that relatives of politicians own paving brick companies, but maybe that’s just us. Anyway, when done well, it’s a pleasure to drive on roads paved this way and if a pothole develops workers can just replace the broken/missing bricks by interlocking new ones in their place.

Pedestrians, pedi-cabs, horse-drawn carriages and cyclists rule the road and will not move for you even if you’re driving a great big pickup truck like ours.

You must have local liability insurance to drive in Nicaragua, but the best advice is to simply not have an accident. We were told that in Nicaragua if you have an accident in which blood is drawn you go to jail until the official fine is worked out and until a personal settlement (usually US$1,500 to US$3,000) is worked out with the victim and your liability insurance isn’t going to help you.

Nicaraguan drivers are very horn-happy, even by Central American standards.

We could get our truck washed for less than US$3 but finding a car wash with a pressurized water gun was difficult.

New, much stiffer traffic laws and fees are currently being considered.

Money, baseball and other random observations

The La Prensa newspaper, whose publisher was killed in 1978 after a long career of criticizing Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, refers to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega as “the unconstitutional President” almost every single time he is mentioned in print.

Speaking of Daniel, as the Nicaraguan president chummily refers to himself, his FSLN party recently got a re-branding at the hand of Rosario Murillo, the woman he secretly married then publicly married. Murillo, who is the government’s spokesperson and is with Ortega at nearly every appearance, is a fascinating character – like a cross between Stevie Nicks, a voodoo mistress and your long-lost crazy Latin aunt. Anyway, she thought the FSLN’s traditional black and red color scheme was too aggressive and in 2011 she swapped it for the color pink and tossed in peace signs and hearts for good measure. You will still see the random light pole or roadside rock sporting the old red and black bands, but most FSLN campaign message are now cheery and rosy, like the one below.

Daniel Ortega pink FSLN billboard

Baseball is huge in Nicaragua. It’s the official national sport (not soccer) and there are currently four Nicaraguans playing in the US Major Leagues. Extremely popular Sunday games are played as double headers but with only seven innings in each game as we learned when we caught a baseball game in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua versus Cuba National baseball teams

Though Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Americas (behind Haiti) we saw less evidence of homelessness, hunger, begging or shanties here than we did in Guatemala or Honduras.

You need to show your passport when you change money at banks, though there are official, regulated money changers on the streets who carry don’t require your passport and often give a slightly higher rate.

Electricity and water regularly cut out in Nicaragua. If you can’t work around that, make sure your hotel has a functioning power and water backup system. Many do.

1,000 córdoba bills from the Sandinista administration are out of circulation and worthless though “coyote” money changers may still try to give them to you.

Our ATM cards never worked at any ATM anywhere in Nicaragua.

Start getting your bearings by reading the Nicaragua Dispatch online English language news site even before you get here. It’s top-notch. And check out the Moon Handbooks Nicaragua Guide written by our friend Joshua Berman.

Here’s more about travel in Nicaragua

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Rear View Mirror: Costa Rica Travel Tips After 170 Days in the Country

Like most travelers, we had high expectations for Costa Rica which has been in the eco tourism game for decades now. Many of the “usual suspect” destinations, including superstars Arenal and Monteverde, disappointed. However, we persisted and here are our top Costa Rica travel tips for this Central American country. After nearly six months of traveling in Costa Rica we managed to find some remarkable beaches, parks, bird watching and more just off the beaten path. Don’t miss Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Rincon de la Vieja National Park area, the Southern Caribbean Coast, San Gerardo de Dota and SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Cocos Island.

Costa Rica travel tips

The tap water is drinkable almost everywhere in Costa Rica but there’s also a growing craft brew industry, including Witch’s Rock Brews on tap in Tamarindo (below), that you won’t want to miss out on either so save up some thirst.

Volcano Brewing Company Witch's Rock Pale Ale Tamarindo Costa Rica

The Costa Rican government recently announced that it will close its national zoo and release as many animals as possible as part of a “no cages” policy, though animal experts have expressed doubts about the likelihood of release for many of the animals.

Terror-cleaning-product

 

Eighty percent of Costa Rican hotels have 20 rooms or less.

The capital, San Jose, was one of the first five cities in the world to have electricity.

Supermarkets sell a cleaning liquid called Terror (left).

Pura vida (pure life) is the official slogan of Costa Rica and Ticos, as citizens call themselves, really do say it all day long–usually instead of goodbye. Somehow it’s charming, not hippie dippie.

 

 

It’s illegal to plant Robusto coffee in Costa Rica because it’s considered inferior to Arabica and growers are afraid Robusto plants could cross-pollinate with existing Arabica plants and affect the quality of Costa Rican beans.

Coffee growing

In January of 2013 the Costa Rican government also banned “sport hunting.” The country is not a major sport hunting destination nor is it full of recreational hunters (though they exist) and it’s unclear whether or not this new ban, which allows subsistence hunting by indigenous groups and culls to control overpopulation, will help reduce poaching in parks and other protected areas.

The-city-of-witches-1_newsfull_v
The official seal of the city of Escazu (a swanky suburb of the capital that is sometimes called the city of witches) features a black witch on a broomstick.

Costa Rica really did abolish its military in 1948.

Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) ATMs don’t charge a transaction fee.

 

US dollars are accepted throughout Costa Rica almost as commonly as Costa Rican colones and dollars are dispensed right from the ATMs at no additional charge.

Costa Rican money colones

Smoking is not common but we were surprised that in Costa Rica until May 2012 you could still light up on buses, at work, in restaurants, etc. though all neighboring Central American countries had long since banned all indoor smoking.

Chifrijo Costa Rica

Costa Rica is not known for its cuisine but chifrijo (left) is a delicious stand out. Created in San Jose, chifrijo is a bowl of white rice with red beans, a bit of tangy broth, chopped onion and tomoto, cubed pork, a squeeze of lemon and chicharon (fried pork skin) sprinkled on top.  up on top. We had excellent chifrijo near Playa Jacó and in Cahuita.

Costa Rica has better radio stations than neighboring Central American countries. We heard LCD Soundsystem, Mumford & Sons and classics like Nirvana and Pearl Jam on a regular basis.

 

The Costa Rican President until 2014 was a woman. Her last name is Chinchila.

Foreigners pay US$10 per person to enter Costa Rican national parks. If you’re planning on visiting a few parks consider getting an Amigos de los Parques Nacionales pass which is good at 12 national parks including Poás (pictured below), Tortuguero and Corcovado (check the list to make sure the parks you want to visit are covered). Choose from passes that are valid for up to 14 days (US$40) or for 14 days or more (US$100). Card holders also get 20-50% discounts at select hotels and attractions.

Poas-Pano_01-04-06

Adult prostitution is legal but that doesn’t mean the industry is without exploitation.

They call flaky puff pastry filled with potatoes or chicken or beef enchiladas. They’re delicious, but not even vaguely similar to Mexican enchiladas.

A comedor (a local cheap restaurantis called a soda in Costa Rica.

They call pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes, onions and spices) chimichuri in Costa Rica.

Zip Line - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is much more expensive than any other country in Central America. For example, you’ll pay around  US$20 for a dorm bed in a hostel. Meals average US$6 in the cheapest sodas or market stalls. We paid nearly US$5 per gallon for diesel and gas is even pricier.

You can actually get a passable slice of pizza in San Jose.

There are at least 70 different zip lines in Costa Rica.

The whole country is the size of West Virginia.

 

Costa Rica has announced that it is aiming to be a carbon neutral country by 2021. Nobody we talked to was really sure exactly what that means or how such a goal would be achieved but we think getting the belching buses off the streets would be a good start.

Start planning! Get your bearings in Costa Rica and see where some of the best surfing, whale and dolphin watching and turtle nesting spots are located with these handy maps.

Get our top tips for planning a Costa Rican Road Trip

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica

 

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Rear View Mirror: El Salvador Travel Tips After 66 Days in the Country

El Salvador definitely gets the award for Biggest Pleasant Surprise of any country we’ve traveled through so far on our Trans-Americas Journey, delivering great food, the warmest people since Mexico and one of the best boutique hotel finds in the region. Here are some El Salvador travel tips which we picked up during our travels throughout El Salvador including volcanoes, beaches (for surfing or not), coffee plantations, hot springs, and more. Did we mention that El Salvador has a national park named El Imposible? Oh, and a growing craft beer scene (thanks Brew Revolution)?

Cows on the beach El Salvador

El Salvador travel tips

Unlike every other country we’ve visited (so far) on our Trans-Americas Journey, there are no entry fees, not even any vehicle importation fees, when entering El Salvador. Yep, totally free.

You do have to be careful about the tricky CA-4 visa regulations to which El Salvador adheres. We got tripped up by the rules and were denied entry into El Salvador the first time we tried to cross the border.

A division of the Salvadoran police force, creepily called Politur (short for Policia de Turismo), provides free escort services to tourists. It reminds us of the ProAtur (formerly Asistur) program that the tourism department of Guatemala offers. After being warned more than once not to visit the Los Tercios waterfall near Suchitoto on our own, we got a lift with the local officers. One of them hiked down to the falls with us and then they drove us back to town. For free. With smiles on their faces. Yes, it would be better to be able to ensure that all locations are completely free of thieves, but if you know you can’t accomplish that this is a great way to keep destinations open to tourists. A free Politur escort is also mandatory when you hike up the Santa Ana Volcano.

Police escort hike Santa Ana Volcano Itzalco, El Salvador

Karen enjoying her free Politur police escort up to the top of Santa Ana Volcano.

 

Christy Turlington is part Salvadoran. Yes, that Christy Turlington…

We were very surprised by the number of really good hotels in El Salvador, lead by Casa ILB in San Salvador.

Since 2001 the official currency of El Salvador is the US dollar. It is slightly weird making purchases in Spanish but paying in US money. The Salvadoran colón is allegedly still in circulation but we never saw it.

El Salvador is the only country we know of in which the people eat their national flower, the izote which blooms out of a yucca plant.

Motmot national bird of El SalvadorThe national bird of El Salvador is the long-tailed mot mot also called a torogoz. They don’t eat it.

Wi Fi is spotty in most of the country. Sigh.

The 2011 winner of the World Barista Championship, Alejandro Mendez, is from El Salvador. Last we heard he was plying his craft at Viva Espresso in San Salvador.

El Salvador is the first place we ate loroco, a flower that’s harvested before it blooms. The green buds taste like asparagus and are delicious along with fresh cheese in pupusas, the scrumptious national dish of El Salvador.

In El Salvador a quesadilla is a dense white cake with grated dry cheese mixed into the batter (delicious)—NOT tortillas folded over with melted cheese inside.

October is usually the coolest month with the clearest skies thanks to the something everyone calls “October winds.” Though October brought Tropical Storm 12E when we were in El Salvador, dumping up to five feet (1,500mm) of rain over nine days, just one foot (300mm) shy of the country’s average annual rainfall. The President of El Salvador called it the worst storm in the country’s history (even worse than Hurricane Mitch) but you’ve probably never heard of it. Because the storm was never classified as a hurricane it never made it on international TV or on aid organization radar.

Salvadorans really, really like Worcheshire sauce which is called Salsa Inglesa and is found on nearly every table.

Salvadorans also love cream soda. Who knew they still made that stuff?

Most ATMs don’t charge a withdrawal fee and they dispense reasonably sized bills ($10s and $20s mostly).

El Salvador is, generally speaking, about 30% more expensive than Guatemala but far cheaper than Costa Rica.

El Salvador volcanoes lakes and boats

 

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, roughly the size of Massachusetts. This, coupled with the fact that it has one of the best road networks in the region, makes it very easy to explore the whole place.

Lonely Planet no longer publishes a guide book for El Salvador. El Sal info is now just crammed into their Central America on a Shoestring guide. Pity.

Eating at beloved regional chicken chain Pollo Campero in El Salvador is about 50% more expensive than it is in Guatemala and they do NOT refill your soda. You have been warned.

For a cheap thrill, take the bus in San Salvador. The drivers are insane and the fare is only $0.25.

El Salvador is home to the only falconer licensed to take tourists along on his hikes with hunting birds of prey. His name is Roy Beers and he runs Cadejo Adventures. Eric’s stop-action photos of us enjoying an afternoon of falconry with Roy and his harris hawk are really cool.

El Salvador beach sunset

Here’s more about travel in El Salvador

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Rear View Mirror: Honduras Travel Tips After 89 days in the Country

Honestly, Honduras has not been our favorite country in Central America. It lacks the culture and food of some of its neighbors and some of the roads really do suck. Still, the Copán archaeological site totally lived up to the hype and after 89 days traveling in the country we uncovered other highlights too like an awesome microbrewery and the best national park infrastructure and camping in the region. Here are our Honduras travel tips so you can hit the ground running.

Honduras travel tips

Salva Vida Beer, HondurasThe most commonly found Honduran beer is called Salva Vida which means “saves lives” in Spanish. That’s indisputably an awesome name for a beer. However, the stuff doesn’t hold a candle to the fantastic small-batch beer being made at Sol de Copán, Honduras’ only microbrewery.

If you think all Spanish is created equal, think again. Every Spanish-speaking country we’ve been to has put its own slangy, subtle twist on the language. For example, snacks, called boquitos or antojitos in the other Spanish-speaking countries we’ve traveled in, are called golosinos in Honduras. And tiendas (small stores) are called pulperias.

A friendly, soft whistle often takes the place of saying hello. It’s charming once you get used to it.

 

 

Honduras went through a coup in 2009. It’s a piece of turbulent, recent history that’s worth understanding and we can think of no better crash course than this smart, cool comic strip about the coup. It will explain everything quickly and easily. Honest.

Before the coup in 2009 (see above) Honduras issued traveler visas governed by the CA-4 Border Control Agreement which restricts travelers to 90 days total in any combination of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua. After the coup Honduras has suspended CA-4 rules, issuing its own visas without regard for the amount of time you’ve spent in other neighboring countries. This is not a problem if you’re only visiting Honduras. But be advised that El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua still count your time in Honduras against the 90 days allowed under CA-4 regulations. This discrepancy is what lead to our problems at the El Salvador border.

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

The Lempira Day Parade in Gracias, Honduras was a cultural highlight of our time in the country.

 

Generally speaking, the toilet paper in Honduras is WAY nicer than in Guatemala or Mexico. Even in cheap rooms it’s quilted and everything.

Most purchases incur a 12% sales tax on top of already barely-bargain prices. It’s just not as cheap in Honduras as you think.

Prices are rarely displayed on gas station signs, which only adds to the sticker shock. We paid more than US$4 a gallon for diesel and gasoline is even more expensive.

Honduran license plates say: cuidemos el bosque (protect the forest) even though they don’t really.

Stela A - Copan, Honduras

Stela A at the rightfully famous Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

You can practically drink what passes for “hot sauce” in Honduras.

Don’t be surprised if you ask for directions and the person you’re speaking to purses his lips and juts his chin in a vague direction. It looks like he’s blowing a kiss, but he’s actually trying to tell you where to go.

Cops in Honduras are sticklers about seat belts (we love this) and will also pull you over to make sure you’re carrying reflective triangles and a fire extinguisher in your car. Both items are required by law in Honduras and much of Latin America. Also required by law is a front and back license place and they didn’t like our lack of a front plate but they never hassled us about it.

Highlights: Copán archaeological site, Gracias de Dios, Sol de Copán beer and the infrastructure and camping area at Cerro Azul National Park

Skip it: Roatán  Island

Roatan white sand beaches - West End

The white sand beaches of Roatán Island in Honduras are at risk from all-inclusive resorts and increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers.

Here’s more about travel in Honduras

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