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Top Travel Gear of the Year 2015

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

We’re still using (and loving) the travel gear we’ve told you about in previous Travel Gear of the Year posts and Product Reviews, including our Hydro Flask insulated stainless steel water bottles, Karen’s Dell laptop and, of course, One Drop. Now it’s time to present our travel gear of the year 2015 including our hardcore coffee savior, Eric’s favorite pants, and our Phantom 3 Pro drone. All road tested. All road approved.

Here’s what earned the right to be called…

Travel Gear of the Year 2015

Top travel clothing of 2015

 prAna Stretch Zion pants

 

Karen has to practically pry Eric out of his prAna Stretch Zion pants. They’re good looking, tough, comfortable and easily transition from trail to town. Eric loves the slight stretch and his only complaint is that the front pockets are a bit small. Also, we have no idea what the crotch vents are all about…
– Buy them on Amazon

 

 

Colombia Sun Goddess II Long Sleeve shirt

After having a melanoma removed in 2015, Karen got even MORE serious about sun protection. A new tool in her no-more-melanoma tool box is a Columbia Sun Goddess II Long Sleeve shirt with SPF 40 protection. It’s cool (in both senses of the word) and easy to put on alone or over a tee for an instant boost in UV protection.
– Buy it on Amazon

 

 

Lowa Tempest Hiking shoesEric has been wearing New Balance sneakers for years. In 2015, lured by a seemingly endless stream of glowing reviews, he got his first pair of Lowa Tempest low hikers. He’s never looked back. These shoes bridge the gap between trail running sneakers and hiking boots, look good enough for city wear and they last way longer than his New Balance sneakers ever did (which makes the heftier price tag worth it).
– Buy them on Amazon

 

Kaikuna Hoodie

Hoodies have become a ubiquitous wardrobe staple and that includes your travel wardrobe. There are hundreds of hoodies on the market but only one that’s made from sustainable fabrics and designed by experienced travelers (we know because we traveled with founders Alan and Julie years ago in Nepal – that’s Karen and Julie, above, reuniting in their hoodies in California recently). That would be Kaikuna. The Kaikuna hoodie for women (sorry guys, you’re gonna have to wait for yours) fits slim but doesn’t ride up on your hips, has cool thumb loops to keep sleeves in place no matter how active you are and plenty of hidden pockets and other features to accommodate cell phones and audio gear right in the jacket. The bamboo/cotton mix fabric is way kinder to the planet than cotton or poly and it’s so soft that you’ll want to use your hoodie as a pillow on long bus rides.

 

Mahabis fireplace

What do you think of when you think of slippers? Forget all that. Our wool Mahabis slippers keep our feet warm without making us feel like we’re shuffling around a nursing home. Plus they can be squished into our luggage without doing any permanent damage. Find out more in our full review of our Mahabis slippers.
– Shop the Mahabis collection and get 10% off if you sign up for their newsletter.

 

We don’t advocate packing jeans on a normal backpacking trip. They’re too heavy and they take too long to dry. But we’re not on a normal backpacking trip and jeans play an important part in our road trip wardrobe. When Eric’s not wearing his prAna Zion pants (see above), he’s probably in his Cool Vantage Wranglers. They fit just like his regular cowboy cut Wranglers (slim and comfy), but these jeans are made with a combination of cotton and polyester that allows them to breathe which keeps Eric cool and dry in warmer climates.
Buy them on Amazon

 

Costa del Mar sunglassesWe’ve worn Costa del Mar sunglasses from day one of our Trans-Americas Journey because they’re well-made and have lenses with 100% polarization that protect our eyes from the full spectrum of UV rays. Also, Eric’s Costas now have prescription lenses (which made our list of top travel gear in 2014). However, we don’t always want to look like we’re about to head out into the jungle so Karen was delighted when Costa del Mar added a line of more fashionable frames for women. Same great construction, same protective and scratch resistant lenses and same great warranty, just a lot cuter.

 

Top travel gear of 2015

 InCase ICON laptop BackpackOur Trans-Americas Journey is a working road trip which means that along with the usual clothing and toiletries we also lug laptops, power cords, external drives and research materials with us into and out of hotel rooms. Finding a computer bag that’s roomy, protective and easy to carry is a challenge. Karen’s new InCase ICON Backpack is all of that plus the construction of the bag means it stays compact and trim, not bulgey and sloppy, even when fully loaded. It also has a fleece pocket for my Dell XPS 13 Touch laptop and lots of doo-dad pockets for pens, files, etc and the straps are very comfortable. Karen also loves the bright red color.
Buy the InCase ICON laptop backpack on Amazon

 

BonJour insulated French Press We felt a little ridiculous packing our Bonjour Insulated French Press coffee maker (right) when we left New York City and embarked on our Trans-Americas Journey back in 2006, but, well, coffee.  It’s turned out to be a prized possession. The non-glass construction is very durable and it’s served us well in campsites and during house sits or rentals where no coffee maker (or a crappy coffee maker) is provided. The model we have is not in production anymore and for some reason, the Bonjour website only shows glass models. However, Bonjour does still make a fancy stainless steel insulated French Press  and you can buy it here.

 

 Renee Rouleau Daily Protection Moisturizer SPF 30 with zincWe’ve been wearing KINeSYS SPF 30 sunscreen products for years and we will continue to do so. But after Karen’s melanoma removal in 2015 we decided to add some heavier hitters to our arsenal to use when we’re at altitude (and, hence, closer to the sun and more prone to damage), on the water or in any other high UV situation. Lucky for us, KINeSYS recently debuted a new SPF 50 spray and it’s fantastic: non-greasy, fast-absorbing, non-stinging, water-resistant and long-lasting. Zinc is one of the best ingredients for ultimate sun protection but it can be goopey to use and can leave a weird white patina on your skin. Not so with our Renee Rouleau Daily Protection Moisturizer SPF 30 with zinc. It’s a bit thick, but it does fully absorb and does not leave a white film behind. Plus, Colombian actress Sofia Vergara swears by it…

 

Top travel tech of 2015

Steiner binoculars at Cotopaxi National Park Ecuador

What’s the point of traveling to wildlife rich areas of the world if you don’t have the gear to see what’s out there? In 2015 we upgraded to Steiner Optics Navigator Pro 7X30 binoculars and, so far, these waterproof, high-powered babies have helped us see all sorts of creatures in places like the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador and the Amazon in Peru. To get smart about getting your own quality binoculars check out our post about how to buy the best binoculars for travel.
Buy them on Amazon

 


2015 was the year that the Trans-Americas Journey got airborne with the addition of a DJI Phantom 3 Pro. So far, Eric’s flown 56 flights totaling more than nine hours of flying time covering a distance of more than 52 miles (84 km). He’s captured aerial footage of gorgeous locations including Guatape in Colombia, the massive San Rafael Waterfall in Ecuador (watch that drone footage, above) and the Ceiba Tops Canopy Walkway. Coming soon: a full post about all the tips and tricks we’ve learned about traveling and filming with a drone.
Buy your Phantom from the DJI store
Buy this from Amazon

Uber logoDuring our recent extended stay in Bogotá, Colombia we finally got hooked on Uber like the rest of the world. We used Uber to get around the city (it’s impossible to park our big truck in big cities like Bogota) and the service was convenient, prompt and often cheaper than regular taxis. The Uber cars were always cleaner than taxis and though crime is down and safety is up across Colombia, it’s still a good idea to avoid flagging down a random taxi and hopping inside. Using Uber was reliable and provided the extra security of a verified driver and a record of our ride at a great price. Rides varied in price from around US$1.50 to a whopping US$3.75 for a 7.5 mile (12km) 30 minute ride that took us clear across the city. If you’re the last person on earth without an Uber account, sign up. You’ll get a bonus and we’ll get a bonus for referring you

 

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The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua

 

Read more about travel in Central America

 

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Check In Checklist: How to Choose the Best Budget Hotels

One of the beautiful things about traveling in Latin America is that travel expenses like accommodation can be very, very affordable. However, budget hotels can also be fraught with hidden disappointments from toilets that don’t flush to grungy, ill-fitting sheets to missing shower heads. Hotel bargains are certainly out there, but no matter where you’re traveling, it pays to run through this handy check in checklist to make sure you choose the best budget hotels before you settle in.

Economy Inn Motel

 

17 point budget hotel checklist

Besides basic cleanliness and security issues, we mentally run through this checklist before we check in.

  • Is there a seat on the toilet and does the toilet flush? If you’re a dude, or you’re traveling with a dude, also ensure that the toilet seat will stay up on its own and doesn’t just flop down.
  • Do the faucets work?
  • Is the bathroom light bright enough to shave by?
  • Is there a shower head or just a bare pipe?
  • Is the mattress really just an amateurishly-disguised torture device? Go ahead. Sit on it.
  • Exactly how lumpy and stained are the pillows? Go ahead. Take off the pillow cases to see for yourself.
  • Are the sheets clean and at least partly cotton? Ever since we moved into a room that turned out to have curly black hairs in the bed we are not above throwing back the covers to get a better look at the bedding.
  • Does the fitted sheet or base sheet actually stay on or are you going to wake up with your body directly against that mystery mattress?

motel-room

  • If there’s a mosquito net, check it for holes. Are they patchable? PACKING TIP: We always travel with plenty of white thread and a sewing needle. Why white? Because most nets are white and if you darn them with colored thread each colored repair will look like an insect against the white net.
  • Are the light bulbs bright enough to read by or just a tease?
  • Does the fan work and is it quiet enough to sleep with when it’s on? If the hotel runs on generator power, be sure to confirm that the generator runs all night or you’ll lose the fan just when you need it most.
  • Are the ceiling fan blades above the light source? If the blades are below the light you’ll get a crazy-making mild-strobe effect when you turn them both on at the same time.
  • Do the curtains close well enough to provide privacy? Do they blow open when the fan is on? PACKING TIP: We travel with a metal clamp like the sort used to keep papers together in an office and this works like a charm to secure unruly or ill-fitting curtains.
  • Do the windows have screens on them and are they (relatively) free of holes?
  • Is the TV (if there is one) in a position where it’s actually viewable from bed? We’ve been in a disturbing number of budget rooms in which the TV is placed in a corner behind any form of seating.
  • Are there any electrical outlets and are they in locations that are actually accessible?
  • Does the Wi-Fi signal (if there is one) reach the room? The pat answer you’ll get to this question is always “yes” so we find it’s also helpful to locate the actual router to make sure your room is within range.

Relax Inn motel

Check out our tried and tested list of 9 Best Budget Hotels in Central America to make your travel budget go further in Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.

A version of this story was originally published on the Travel+Escape website which we’ve contributed to frequently.

 

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Rear View Mirror: Panama Travel Tips & Observations 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 & observations

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.

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.

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Travel Gear Review: Hydro Flask Insulated Water Bottles & FREE Giveaway

As loyal readers know, we do everything in our power to avoid buying bottled water as we travel through the Americas. Since the beginning of our little road trip we’ve poured water into re-useable plastic vessels (CamelBak bottles or Nalgene bottles) and used our SteriPEN to purify the contents. This saves us money and has meant we’ve avoided leaving tens of thousands of empty plastic bottles in our wake as we travel. But as the health news about plastic bottles goes from bad to worse we’ve finally ditched the plastic and shifted to stainless steel Hydro Flask insulated bottles – and we’ve got 10 of their new 32 oz. bottles to give away to you too.

Hydro Flask

The growing line up of BPA and BPS free stainless steel Hydro Flask insulated water bottles. Want one? Keep reading for details about our exclusive Hydro Flask water bottle giveaway.

Ditching our reusable plastic water bottles (finally)

A few years ago warnings emerged about bisphenol A (aka BPA) which is a chemical that’s been used to manufacture all sorts of plastic products since the 1960s. New research showed that BPA can seep into food or beverages stored in containers made with BPA. Once in your body, some studies have shown that BPA can lead to cancer, miscarriages and other medical problems.

The plastic-making industry, including makers of water bottles like the type we’ve used for years, shifted to a new formula with no BPA. However, the chemical that replaced the BPA, something confusingly called BPS, has been shown to disrupt hormones and wreak health havoc as well.

We drink out of our water bottles every day so, yeah, clearly it was time for us to ditch our reusable plastic water bottles once and for all. Plenty of stainless steel and glass water bottles are now on the market, in part as a response to fears about BPA and BPS. We chose Hydro Flask after reading this piece from Outside magazine which convinced us that these things were tough enough for our Journey.

Hydro Flask in the truck

Our Hydro Flask 18 ounce wide mouth stainless steel insulated bottles with sipping tops keep us hydrated while driving and they don’t spill no matter how rough the road is.

But we need our water bottles to be more than just tough. We need to be able to drink out of them in the truck while we’re driving without ending up with water spilled all over us.  They need to be portable and leak proof so we can take them on the trail. And they need to accommodate our beloved SteriPEN.

We chose two different sizes of wide mouth Hydro Flask stainless steel water bottles so our SteriPEN would fit inside them. Here’s how they’ve stacked up.

Hydro Flask stainless steel insulated water bottle PROS

No BPA or BPS. Duh. And, incredibly, that includes the plastic lids and straws. That’s because BPAs and BPSs are used in polycarbonates and epoxy resins, neither of which are used in the manufacture of Hydro Flask lids or straws.

The lids are dishwasher safe on the top shelf, but the bottles must be hand washed.

Because stainless steel doesn’t get dinged up allowing germs and gunk to grow inside the bottle our Hydro Flasks always seems perfectly clean.

The wide mouth bottles are large enough to take in regular-size ice cubes.

Three lid styles are available which turn each bottle into a regular screw-top bottle, a straw-style sipper (which is what we use in the truck) or a slide-top hot beverage sipper and anything that does triple duty is a great thing when traveling.

Hydro Flask’s happy guy water droplet splash logo makes us smile.Hydro Flask Happy Guy water droplet splash logo

The double-walled, vacuum-insulated construction really keeps contents cold or hot which means we can fill our Hydro Flasks with cold water and it’s still cool even after leaving the full bottles inside our hot truck for days. No more forcing down hot water from a funky plastic bottle left inside the sauna-like cab.

Hydro-Flask-Insulated-Bottle-Hot-Cold

Hot or cold, Hydro Flask insulated bottles can take it and keep it that way for hours.

We love the matte, tactile look and feel of the bottles and the old-school, canteen-like clanking sound they make.

It was super easy to cut the straw for the cold beverage sipper top to fit our bottles perfectly.

The bottles do not sweat so there are no more puddles in the cup holders in our truck.

The ring which holds the standard Hydro Flask lid onto the bottle is secure, but easy to remove if you want to switch to one of the two other lid types.

The straw-style sipping top and straw is super easy to drink from without the need to bite down on a mouth piece.

The lids are totally leak proof except for the slide-top hot beverage sipper top.

Dirinking from Hydro Flask

Working on our truck is dirty, sweaty work and it’s important to stay hydrated.

Every Hydro Flask bottle comes with a lifetime warranty.

Five percent of the purchase price of every Hydro Flask bottle goes to your choice from a long list of charities including the Surfrider Foundation, WWF, Special Olympics and many more.

Hydro Flask stainless steel insulated water bottle CONS

The 32 ounce bottle was too fat for the cup holders in our truck because the insulated construction adds girth. As of this writing there is no 24 or 21 ounce wide mouth Hydro Flask bottle so that left us with 18 ounce wide mouth bottles to use while we’re driving. These bottles are a bit too small for the cup holders so they wobble around a bit as we drive. Also, 18 ounces isn’t a lot of water.

Hydro Flask bottles are a bit pricey. For example, a 32 ounce Hydro Flask bottle (like the ones we are giving away – details are below) is US$31.99 while a 32 ounce plastic Nalgene bottle is US$10.99.

Hydro Flask bottles are a bit heavier than the plastic bottles we’d been using.

The bottles are not dishwasher safe or freezer safe, but that’s not much of a con since we don’t have a dishwasher or a freezer anyway.

Hydro Flask water bottle giveaway

We’re giving away 10 – 32 oz. Hydro Flask stainless steel insulated wide mouth bottles (a US$31.99 value each). This bottle is the latest addition to the Hydro Flask lineup and we’re using one on our Journey. Want one? Input your email in the entry form below so we can notify you if you win. To get earn multiple entries, like our Facebook page, like Hydro Flask and send a Tweet about the giveaway with a just a few clicks in the entry form. Some entries can be repeated every day, so come back for more.

One entry option is a special favor for us: vote for us as in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards as your Favorite Couples Travel Bloggers. Simply follow the link in the entry form and select us ( “Trans-Americas Journey – Karen & Eric”) from the list of bloggers, then click VOTE. You’re allowed to vote once per day.

The contest ends on Friday August 8, 2014 at 5:00 pm eastern time and 10 winners will be chosen at random. Winners will be notified via email shortly after that. The entries of winners (liking pages, tweets, etc.)  will be confirmed before prizes are awarded.

NOTE: Anyone can enter, but bottles can ONLY be shipped to addresses within the continental USA (sorry Alaska and Hawaii).

 

 

Hydro Flask supplied us with water bottles to use and review on the road.

 

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Rear View Mirror: Nicaragua Travel Tips & Observations 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 and observations.

Honduras-Nicaragua-borderNicaragua  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.

Eating and drinking in Nicaragua

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

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.

Read more about travel in Nicaragua

 

 

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