Do you love to turn a corner and see something unexpected? I sure do. That is why I love street art. It may be beautiful, weird, thought-provoking, or whimsical, but it always feels like a gift.
These are 24 of my favorite examples of European street art from our first year of full-time travel listed by city. I have also put the location where possible and the date. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
We didn’t discover the next three murals until the last day of our Paris stay on a walk in the 19th arrondissement.
This big cat is one of my favorites:
Can’t help loving this one too:
I’m not sure what it is this lizard is trying to catch, but I hope he got it:
And this girl was just hanging out in the 10th arrondissement:
When deciding where to visit in Bulgaria we read that Plovdiv, the second largest city, was preferred over the capital of Sofia.
Plovdiv is the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe (8,000 years, can you imagine?) The city is full of ancient ruins including a Roman amphitheater that is still in use.
The first two murals were found in the Kapana district, a revitalized arts and crafts section of Plovdiv.
Talk about side-eye. What did the gramophone do to her?
This regal guy was in an underground passageway. The lion is the national animal of Bulgaria. The colors behind him represent the Bulgarian flag.
The next three murals were found in the Central District (Centyra).
Apparently, she was studying way too hard:
And she definitely wasn’t:
Sometimes you need a little creepiness in your life:
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. We hadn’t planned to visit here but had to go there to fly to Portugal. While we didn’t enjoy it as much as Plovdiv, it was definitely worth a visit.
This colorful fella is protecting the Oberishte district of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia.
I’m pretty sure he was helping the lion by keeping an eagle eye on the Oberishte district.
Wouldn’t you love to know the story behind this mural in the Sredets district of Sofia?
Another one of my favorites. It’s hard to believe this beautiful creature is made of trash. You can find him near the Belem Cultural Center.
Learn more about the artist, Bordalo II, and his Attero Exhibition here.
I love the bright colors of this mural in the Cais do Sodre district:
Another Cais do Sodre beauty:
We found the next mural at the LX Factory. This area was an industrial complex that has been repurposed as a trendy area full of restaurants, bars, and shops. If you head there be sure to visit the bookstore Ler Devagar.
This girl and her teddy bear hang out in the Alges Parish:
Barcelona was our first stop as newly-minted nomads. There was so much to take in and street art wasn’t high on the list. That just means we’ll have to go back.
Storefront shutters are often decorated. Here we see Betty Boop and her dog Bimbo.
While not officially street art, I couldn’t resist adding this sign we spotted strolling around the Gracia neighborhood.
In the fall of 2019, we spent eight weeks in Buenos Aires. The original plan was to spend four weeks but we liked it so much we decided to stay longer. The positive side of not planning too far in advance.
In a previous article titled “10 Things to Love About Buenos Aires” I talked about 10 things that we really enjoyed during our visit. But my list was longer than 10 things, so here are 10 more things to love about Buenos Aires.
Is this the most beautiful bookstore in the world? Many people think so. It was built in 1919 during a prosperous time for Buenos Aires.
The building was first used as a theater for tango performances. Later it was a cinema. Then it fell into disrepair but was saved from the risk of demolition when it was reincarnated as a book store in 2000.
The first part of the name is from a national bookstore chain. The second part refers to the building whose original name was Teatro Gran Splendid.
In addition to basking in the splendor, you can enjoy refreshments in the cafe. You might even be lucky enough to be there while a pianist is playing. You can also relax in a comfy chair in one of the theater boxes.
The store is located at Avenida Santa Fe 1860 in the Barrio Norte section of the city in the Recoleta district.
Cafe Tortoni is the most famous historical cafe in Buenos Aires. It has been in operation for more than 160 years. Once a meeting place for the artistic and the elite, it is now a mecca for tourists.
There is often a line outside even though there are tables available inside. You can go there to see a tango show or stop in for a bite to eat. Either way, be sure to check out the huge Tiffany glass ceiling along with the other elegant decor.
Cafe Tortoni was founded by a French immigrant named Touan. He modeled it after his favorite cafe in Paris by the same name. Cafe Tortoni opened in 1858 and has been at its current location since 1880.
Cafe Tortoni is one of many historic cafes (bares notables) in Buenos Aires. They are protected by law, but I was unable to find out anything specific about the law. Check out this article published by The Guardian in 2018 to learn more about bares notables.
Cafe Tortoni is located at Avenida de Mayo 825 between the National Congress Building and the presidential palace (Casa Rosada).
Chacarita Cemetery (Cemeterio de la Chacarita) is a lesser know and less-visited cemetery than Recoleta. It was founded in 1871 as a place to bury victims of a yellow fever epidemic.
When it was founded it covered only 12 acres (5 hectares). Today it covers 230 acres ( 93 hectares). It takes up almost half of the territory in the Chacarita barrio where it is located.
Chacarita is more than 16 times the size of Recoleta This means you will not find the crowds here that you will most likely encounter in Recoleta. You can learn more about Recoleta in “10 Things to Love About Buenos Aires.”
In Chacarita you will find many beautiful tombs and fascinating catacombs. You will also see some sad situations.
Do be careful if you visit this cemetery. We were cautioned more than once to stay aware of our surroundings while we were there because its seclusion increases the risk of theft. Even so, we did not feel unsafe. Here is an interesting article by Will Byers about Chacarita.
Chacarita is located in the Chacarita district. The main entrance is on Avenida Guzman.
I wasn’t too excited about visiting a museum of decorative arts, but I am glad we did. If you enjoy being surrounded by beauty be sure to check out the National Museum of Decorative Arts (Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo).
This neo-classical home was designed by French architect Rene Sergent. It was built with materials imported from Europe. Design began in 1911 but the home wasn’t completed until 1917 because of delays caused by WWI.
It was the home of the Matias Errazúriz and Josefina de Alvear. After they moved in, the couple filled the home with a wide variety of fine art and exquisite decorative pieces. The rooms are decorated in different period styles.
Mr. Errazúriz bequeathed the home and its contents to the Argentine government upon his wife’s death in 1935.
Throughout this museum, you will see wonderful examples of European and Oriental furniture and art. The best way to enjoy this museum is on a tour. They are available in English at set times. We had a guide to ourselves which made for a very informative tour.
This museum is at Avenida del Libertador 1902 in the Recoleta district.
This National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) is worthwhile for any art lover. In it, you can enjoy international art from the Middle Ages through the 20th century. It has 3 floors and 30 exhibition rooms. Because of its size, we broke it down into two visits.
This museum is also located in the Recoleta neighborhood at Avenida del Libertador 1473. It is within walking distance to Recoleta Cemetery.
Whatever you do, don’t make the same mistake we did. This spectacular 100-year-old building was right around the corner from our apartment and we had no idea how special it is. Just one more reason to go back!
The building was designed by Mario Palanti for Luis Barolo who made his fortune in knitted fabrics. The building is based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Its 22 stories are divided into hell, purgatory, and heaven. Be sure to arrange for a tour to learn all about it.
Theater Colon is one of the top opera houses in the world with some of the best acoustics. You can enjoy this opulent theater by taking in a show or taking a tour. Tours are offered in English and Spanish.
The theater was closed for refurbishing from 2006-2010. The results are as spectacular as you would expect.
During our tour, our guide pointed out something I had never heard of, widow boxes. These are seating areas on either side of the theater that are covered with screens. This allowed women who were in mourning to attend a show without being seen in public.
The Theater is located at Cerrito 628 in the Microcentro district.
In my post “10 Things to Love About Buenos Aires” I talked about the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. They are a group of women whose adult children were disappeared by the Argentine government from 1976-1983 during the Dirty War.
You can learn more about this dark period of Argentine history by visiting the ESMA Memory Site Museum (Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA). Photos and stories of the disappeared and survivors help keep the memory of this time alive.
Prisoners who were pregnant were allowed to give birth but their babies were usually given to families who supported the government. Then the women were killed. There is a movement to locate the people born in the detention camps.
These words in the museum translate to “How was it possible that children were born in this place?”
This is not a stand-alone museum, but a complex of buildings. We did not allow enough time for our visit. Please don’t make the same mistake.
The museum is at Avenida del Libertador 8151
9. Steak and Malbec
Argentina is famous for its beef. It is lean, flavorful, and nutritious. There are several reasons beef from Argentina is so good:
The cattle are grass-fed, which leads to higher omega 3 fatty acid content. This means less risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
Because the cattle eat a healthy diet there is less need for antibiotics and growth hormones.
The steak is slow-cooked on a parrilla (a grill heated with wood or coal)
You can learn more about why Argentine beef is the gold standard in this article.
This article explains the use of a parrilla and the concept of the asado.
In Buenos Aires, you can partake of the best cuts of beef for a very reasonable price. One of our favorite restaurants was La Cabrera. To make your visit even better check out their early bird special (don’t worry, it starts at 6:30 p.m.).
You might want to pair that delectable steak with a glass or two of dry, red malbec wine. Even though malbec grapes originated in France, Argentina currently produces 75% of the world’s malbec wine. The grapes are grown in the Province of Mendoza in western Argentina.
10. The Neighborhoods
There are 48 official neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, so if you find yourself getting confused don’t feel too bad. As you would expect, we spent most of our time in those that have the most to offer tourists. Here are the six you are most likely to visit as a tourist.
This is the largest neighborhood in the city and has been divided into Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood along with other smaller sections. This is the area we stayed in for our first four weeks and it worked out well.
Words like trendy, chic, and nightlife are currently associated with this area. There are plenty of restaurants and shops and it is easy to walk around.
This is the greenest area of the city. This is where you will find Tres de Febrero Park, Jardin Botanico Carlos Thays, and the Japanese Gardens. There are also many peaceful, tree-lined streets.
I had a little confusion here. The area we stayed in during our second four weeks was usually referred to as Congreso due to the proximity of the National Congress Building. A prime example of the use of informal names for neighborhoods.
This area had a completely different feel from Palermo. For one thing, we didn’t see a lot of dogs, and very little of their leavings.
This is the political center of the country. Both the National Congress building and the Presidential Palace are within walking distance.
There are also a lot of Subte (Metro) stations here, and taxis are plentiful.
This affluent and elegant neighborhood is adjacent to Palermo and it really walks the Parisian walk. You will find one stately building after another. This area also houses the famous Recoleta Cemetery and the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as several other museums.
Described as a “brightly painted ghetto” by Culture Trip, this working-class neighborhood is considered a must-see for any tourist. Football fans can visit the La Bombonera stadium in this neighborhood. The area is also popular for street art.
Considered to be the most authentic of neighborhoods San Telmo is well-known for its street market. It is also a good place for antiquing.
This neighborhood is considered safe during the day, but visitors are cautioned to be careful at night.
This is the upscale, modern part of the city. If you are looking for a change of pace from the traditional Buenos Aires vibe, check out this area.
A port was built here at the end of the 19th century but had a very short life. Within fifteen years it was virtually obsolete.
The area spent most of the 1900s in neglect. Efforts to revitalize the area were started in the 1990s. Now you will find high rises, high-end hotels and restaurants, and warehouses-turned-apartments.
In this area, you can also visit the Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve, 865 acres of low land on the Rio de la Plata. It is a great place for a nature walk or a bike ride.
These are just ten of what we feel were the best parts of our time in Buenos Aires. Of course, there are many other ways to enjoy this very vibrant and cosmopolitan city. No matter what you look for when you travel, you are sure to find it here.
Boisterous and beautiful. That is Barcelona. This city in northeast Spain is a sight to behold and a privilege to visit. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems.
Here are 6 things you should know before visiting (or revisiting) Barcelona.
1. Gaudi’s Creations Grace the City
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was a Catalan architect and a master of the Modernisme (or Catalan Art Nouveau) style of architecture. Modernisme is characterized by organic and botanical motifs, symbolism, rich ornamental details, and curves as opposed to straight lines.
Here is information on 21 sites in Barcelona where you can admire Gaudi’s talents. These are three of the most-visited Gaudi sites:
La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) is Gaudi’s masterpiece and the culmination of his life’s work. It was so important to him that he chose to be buried inside it. This Roman Catholic minor basilica is the most visited sight in Barcelona.
Stepping into the basilica is a magical experience. The sunlight shining through the stained glass bathes the interior in vibrant colors.
Be warned, La Sagrada Familia will most likely spoil you for all other churches.
The exterior is as astounding as the interior. Its three facades represent three phases in the life of Jesus: nativity, passion, and glory.
Construction began in 1882. The estimated year of completion for all but some decorative elements is 2026. If that deadline is met it will have taken 144 years to build. The year 2026 marks the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death by being run over by a street tram at the age of 74.
La Sagrada Familia gets over 3 million visitors a year. You are unlikely to get in unless you book your visit in advance. You get a 15-minute window to enter the basilica.
Services are held in the crypt every Sunday and can accommodate about 200 people. Mass is held at the main altar only on special holidays.
Here is some information about the structure and symbolism of the basilica.
Casa Mila is another Gaudi work in the Modernisme style. This was built in the early 1900s as a home for husband and wife Pere Mila and Roser Segimon. The locals thought it was ugly and nicknamed it La Pedrera, which means the stone quarry.
The owners lived on the main floor and had apartments above that they rented out. There are people living in some of these apartments today. The building is currently also used as a cultural center, a foundation headquarters, and for commercial space.
The whole building is interesting, but the roof is a true delight. These are examples of some of the chimneys that grace the top of Casa Mila.
No visit to Barcelona is complete without a stop at yet another Gaudi creation, Park Guell.
This was built in the early 1900s at the behest of Count Eusebi Guell as a luxury planned community. Of the sixty houses planned only two were built. It became a public park in 1926.
The park has two parts; a Monumental Zone and a Free Zone.
The Monumental Zone covers 5% of the park. You must buy a ticket to enter and visitors are limited to 400 every half hour.
It is here you will see the iconic dragon stairway. Be sure to visit the Hypostyle Room. It is an open space featuring a multi-domed, tiled ceiling and 86 Doric columns. I missed the opportunity to get some fab photos. Please don’t make the same mistake.
In this zone you will also see gingerbread-style buildings like the one pictured below, the colorfully tiled Greek Theater (or Nature Square), and the laundry room portico.
The other 95% of the park is free to visit. It consists of many paths through lush vegetation. Warning, this is not a place for a leisurely stroll. It is hilly and very crowded and street vendors take up a good part of the walkway with their wares.
If you persist upward, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Barcelona.
You can find many non-Gaudi things to entertain you as well. Stroll the beach at Barceloneta, visit the Montserrat Monastery, shop at La Boqueria, or take a day trip to Cadaques to visit the Salvador Dali House Museum.
Here are four of our favorite non-Gaudi attractions:
Labyrinth de la Horta
Our favorite place in Barcelona was the little known Labyrinth de la Horta. This 22-acre park was once a private residence. The park was established in 1791 and donated to the City of Barcelona by the Desvalls family in 1967. It opened to the public four years later.
As the name suggests it includes a labyrinth. As you stroll through the park you will be surprised by unexpected scenes. Each one is a delight.
We recommend this park if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona for awhile. For most of our visit we did not see another person.
Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau
A hospital wouldn’t usually be high on our sightseeing list but we’re glad we didn’t miss the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau. The complex of 16 buildings was constructed from 1905-1930. It showcases the work of Modernisme architect Lluis Montaner.
Montaner believed in the therapeutic properties of nature, color, and form. This belief is reflected in the wealth of details both inside and outside of the buildings, and in the gardens.
The hospital was in use until 2009. A new hospital was built in 2003 and in 2014 this one became a museum and cultural center.
Sitges is a beach town on the Mediterranean Sea 26 miles (42 km) southwest of Barcelona. We first visited it on a tour with included a stop in Tarragona (below). Even though we were there on a drizzly day we found Sitges to be captivating.
Sitges will beguile you with stately mansions along the promenade, as well as twisty side streets and quaint shops. It also has a sassy side as seen in some of these photos. It has just under 30,000 residents, but in the summer the number of people is close to 100,000.
We were charmed enough to visit it again on our own.
Tarragona is 51 miles (82 km) southwest of Barcelona. It is known for its well-preserved Roman ruins.
Cava is the Spanish equivalent of Champagne. Almost all of it is produced in the Catalonian region of Spain.
Cava can be used to make cava sangria. It is especially enjoyable while overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on a sunny day. Be sure to give it a try when you visit the area and let me know what you think.
I tried to make it when we returned to Florida, but it just wasn’t the same. I guess I’ll have to return to Catalonia.
4. It’s Really Crowded
There are simply too many people in Barcelona. One reason is that it is very densely populated. Only 1.6 million people live in the city. However, the population density is 16,000 people per sq. km. (compare this to New York City’s density of 10,700 people per sq. km).
A second reason is that over 30 million people visited Barcelona in 2017. Of these more than 2/3 were day-trippers including cruise passengers visiting the city as one of their ports of call.
Cruise passengers come into the city by the thousands yet usually only visit for the day. They tend to go to the most popular sights like the Gaudi attractions listed above.
In an effort to control tourism the city passed a law in 2017 that forbids the building of new hotels even if they are replacing existing ones. You can read more about that here.
Because Barcelona is so crowded it is also very noisy. The noise is due to the large amount of traffic. Many people ride motorcycles which adds significantly to the road noise. It is not unusual to see people slowly ride their motorcycles onto the sidewalks.
Even with our windows closed we never got a break from the traffic noise.
6. Pickpocketing is a Persistent Problem
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, take it seriously.
A quick Google search of several websites show Barcelona is the city in which you are most likely to be pickpocketed, followed by Rome.
While these petty thefts can happen anywhere, the Metro and any crowded tourist attraction or area (think La Sagrada Familia and Las Ramblas), are especially worrisome.
It is not uncommon to see people walking with their backpacks on their chests to keep them safe. Simply put, you can’t be too careful or too paranoid about pickpockets in Barcelona.
Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket it would be safe. During our first week in Barcelona Steve was pickpocketed on the Metro.
Because Steve’s passport and several bank cards were taken we had to file a police report. That was easier said than done.
The first police station we went to was permanently closed and the second one was closed for renovations. The third time was the charm.
Fortunately, there was an English speaking policeman there and he took our information. But, when it came time to sign the report it was in Spanish. We couldn’t read it, but Steve had no choice but to sign it.
We were shocked when the officer told us that they process 400 reports a day. That isn’t including people who don’t report petty theft because they only lost cash.
A few days later we were notified that Steve’s passport had been found. That saved us the $145 replacement cost.
The thieves tried to use one of our credit cards to buy $900 worth of shoes. Thankfully the credit card company denied the charge. Our loss was 40 Euros (about $44 USD) and a lot of time.
Our Personal Take on Barcelona
In two years of travel one thing has been constant. That is the warmth and kindness we have been met with. The one exception was in Barcelona.
For example, we visited a nearby supermarket nearly every day and used our basic Spanish, but never got a smile out of the cashiers. We did not take this personally. As we watched the crowds from our balcony we did not see many smiles.
We enjoyed learning the history behind the famous sights and taking in the beautiful architecture and street art but we didn’t love Barcelona. Were our expectations too high? Were there too many unfriendly people? Did listening to the constant street noise get old really fast? Probably a little of all these things.
We feel fortunate to have experienced Barcelona. In light of the city’s serious issues with overtourism, we will probably not return soon. If we do, it would be to visit nearby towns combined with a shorter stay in Barcelona. And definitely a return trip to Labyrinth de la Horta.
As full-time travelers, my husband Steve and I can’t have any pets but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy meeting random cats and dogs during our travels.
Here are 24 delightful dog photos from around the world that showcase dogs we have enjoyed meeting over the last two years. I hope you enjoy meeting them too.
This fella lives in Zagreb, Croatia. He’s a little bit scruffy, a little bit dapper. I just hope that wasn’t his cigarette.
One of my favorite pictures. A man and his buddies in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica.
This happy fella was hanging around a restaurant in Bucharest, Romania. He decided that the spot right next to Steve’s chair was the best place to be.
I have no idea why this guy in Cuenca, Ecuador was holding an umbrella over the dog, but what a photo opportunity.
Don’t worry, he’s just sleeping. There were so many dogs on the streets in Paracas, Peru that you often had to walk around them. None of them were threatening and all seemed well cared for.
We met this scrappy little dog on a tour of District 13 in Medellin, Colombia. He was running into the street to chase every car and motorcycle that passed by. Then he would retreat to his doorway. His bark was definitely worse than his bite.
We saw many dogs in Peru that were wearing what looked like blankets turned into dog coats. Some were even wearing people clothes. This lucky one is labeled correctly.
I wasn’t joking about the people clothes. Apparently this guy from Cusco, Peru is quite the hoop star.
This is Bigote (Spanish for mustache). She, yes she, is an older dog we met at a restaurant in Huacachina, Peru.
This dog was hanging out at the train station in Cusco, Peru. He had it all figured out. He would approach a stranger with one front paw held up like he was hurt in hopes of getting some food and sympathy. What a little con man.
Just a man and his poodles in Buenos Aires.
Look at the happy face! He sat outside the gate to the Superpark amusement park in Cordoba, Argentina. I just know he wanted to ride the roller coaster.
Meet Negro, a celebrity in Cordoba, Argentina. Every afternoon he joins a tour group as it works its way through the city. His name means black in Spanish. Not very imaginative, but accurate.
After the tour he joined Steve and me for dinner before going home to his family for the night.
A common scene in Buenos Aires, especially in the Palermo neighborhood. The dog walkers have to tie the group to a fence or pole as they pick up and return their charges.
What a fantastic dog. He was walking down the sidewalk towards us. When he got to the street he sat down and waited for his master to catch up. And he was kind enough to pose for this photo.
We had so much fun playing fetch with this guy in La Cumbrecita, Argentina.
Another La Cumbrecita beauty.
A typical scene throughout Latin America. We were astonished by how well trained the dogs were.
Just chillin in Medellin, Colombia.
This is Betty. She was one of the resident dogs where we stayed in Bucharest. It was a gated property and when you approached from the road she and her cohort would bark warnings like crazy. But once you were inside, she was a sweetheart.
This photo doesn’t show how lively this dog was. He was visiting some ruins with his master and exploring everything and everyone.
I love the joy on this girl’s face as she runs with her dog and her dad on Taboga Island off Panama City, Panama.
These two really wanted to see what was going on in Huacachina, Peru.
This is Bansko, my playmate in Bansko, Bulgaria while Steve was recovering from his skiing injury. I thought Bansko was a girl, but a man came by and informed me that Bansko is a boy and he doesn’t understand English. I’m not sure how he determined that (the language part, not the boy part).
It was love at first sight. Within a day or two of arriving in Buenos Aires, we knew we wanted to stay longer than the four weeks we had planned. We ended up staying for eight weeks and we still didn’t want to leave.
These are many reasons we fell in love with this amazing city and we think you will love it too. Here are 10 things to love about Buenos Aires:
1. It’s Paris Without the Price Tag
Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as theParis of South America. Granted, there is no Eiffel Tower, no Louvre, and everyone speaks Spanish. But the city, with its turn of the century architecture, has the ability to make you think you are in the city of lights.
Buenos Aires is full of wide boulevards, stately buildings, and massive monuments. Several times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in Paris. I wasn’t even in Europe.
From the 1880s through the 1920s Buenos Aires was one of the richest, fastest-growing cities in the world and this is reflected in the magnificent architecture. Many neoclassical, art nouveau, and art deco masterpieces grace this city.
Click to view five more examples of beautiful Buenos Aires architecture:
For those of you who don’t know us yet, my husband Steve and I are nomads. Since we don’t have a permanent home we can’t have pets and having a warm ball of fur nestled in my lap or curled against me as I sleep is one of the few things I miss. Fortunately, we have met many cats and dogs during our travels and got in some welcome cuddle time.
Here are twenty cats from around the world that we were fortunate to meet during our first two years of travel:
This cutie was enjoying a neck scratching. I asked the lady if it was her cat and she said it wasn’t. She was just another cat lover like me.
How cute and comfy is this kitten? She was one of the many feline residents at our hotel on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos.
We spotted this sweetie on our way to the grocery store in Lisbon, Portugal. Not to worry, the window behind her was open.
Don’t you wish you could be this chill? This was another resident at our hotel on San Cristobal Island.
One of the many sweet cats at the Cat Caffe in Zagreb, Croatia.
We were intrigued by the pigeons. Apparently, this cat was too.
The unofficial welcome cat at Quinta da Regaleira, one of the coolest places to explore in Sintra, Portugal.
Curious (or hungry) cats in a small park in Lima, Peru.
Another resident of the Cat Caffe in Zagreb, Croatia.
One of my favorites. This cat lived in an apartment near ours in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She would hang out on the roof next to our kitchen window all day and go home at night. As you can see, she couldn’t get enough lovin’.
Phoebe was the resident cat at the Pastrami Bar Restaurant in Cordoba, Argentina. I don’t know which was the bigger reason we visited there several times, the food or Phoebe.
When I saw the sign for a cat show in Buenos Aires I knew I had to go and get some kitty cuddles.
What a life. This cat resides at a pet store in Quito, Ecuador. Here he is saying hello to our travel buddy Hedgie.
Cemeteries are a great place to spot cats. This one was obviously very comfortable at Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
The first time we saw this cat she came trotting towards us from her yard. Since we had to pass her house quite often we got to be good friends, although we never did learn her name.
This is a very well-loved cat. While Steve and I were strolling through the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia we stopped to admire some cats. A man in a nearby house heard us and invited us in to see his cat.
More cemetery cats, this time in Cemetery Prazeres in Lisbon, Portugal. It appears as if they aren’t speaking to each other.
An early morning stroll in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos led me to this beautiful but not cuddly cat.
While exploring the Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra, Portugal this cat came up to me and sat down by my feet. Talk about feeling special.
Last, but definitely not least, this cat lived by our apartment building in Bucharest, Romania. We met her on our first day there and quickly became friends. Then she disappeared for a while. She reappeared right before we left to head to a new city. Apparently, she had been taken away to be spayed.
I hope you enjoyed meeting some of the cats that have brightened our travels over the last two years. You can read about how we quit the rat race to travel full-time on our Welcome page at windandwhim.com.
I could picture it so well. The crisp air, the snow-covered pines, the stillness of a landscape blanketed in white. Days spent swooshing down the mountain until exhaustion set in. Nights snuggled up in a cozy apartment watching the snow gently falling outside.
After living in Florida for thirty years I couldn’t wait to spend some time in a winter wonderland. After some research, I found the ski town of Bansko, Bulgaria. Three weeks of skiing there would cost about the same as five days at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort.
We made plans to head there in early January 2020 as the first stop in our third year of full-time travel.
Reality Rears Its Ugly Head
When we arrived in Bansko the winter wonderland was woefully absent. The daily highs in town were in the forties and not a flake of snow nor patch of ice could be found. The mountainside ski slopes fared a little better, but not much. Damn you, global warming!
Throughout our nine weeks there we watched the weather freeze and thaw repeatedly which made the ski slopes very icy.
Even so, we tried to make the best of it. On our first day of skiing, we woke up to rain. The folks at the ski shop assured us that it was not raining on the mountain and they were right. There was a very welcome light snow all day.
Over the first several days we each had a lesson to refresh our skills and a chance to ski on our own. Then we made plans to put our rejuvenated skills to the test by taking a long but easy run together.
A Turn For the Worst
We weren’t more than ten minutes into it when I hit a steep icy section and found myself sliding quickly down the mountain. With repeated reminders to myself to snowplow, lean forward, and remain calm I made it down that part. I stopped to wait for Steve but did not see him.
After a little while, I figured he either passed me and I missed him or he was taking his time and would catch up. When I reached the town at the bottom of the run he was nowhere to be seen. After some hunting, I found him in the doctor’s office with a fractured pelvis! This diagnosis meant he would be hospitalized for about a week then require complete bed rest for two more weeks.
After being checked out by the doctor at the ski resort Steve was transported by ambulance to the hospital in the nearby town of Razlog. He ended up spending nine days there. You can read about that less than ideal experience in Hospitalized in Bulgaria!
Since Steve would need to be transferred to our apartment lying flat we had to leave our Airbnb and I had to find a place that would allow him to be brought in by paramedics.
That was no easy task because virtually every apartment and hotel had either stairs or an elevator that was too small for the stretcher. It took three days but I finally found a place about 10 miles from Bansko at the Redenka Holiday Club. They had the perfect first-floor one-bedroom apartment.
We stayed there for four weeks. It is in the country (my taxi was held up by a herd of cattle crossing the road one night), but it has a spa, indoor pool and hot tub, and a fitness room. Oh darn!
We were able to get the half board, so breakfast and dinner are included. Whoopee, no cooking or dishes!
The staff was friendly and helpful and always asked about Steve. I joked that he was a celebrity even before anyone had met him.
We appreciate all the help the staff gave us and are honored to have left there with several new friends.
Even when things don’t go as planned, there is always something interesting or beautiful to see.
I left the hospital to go to the Telenor store to top up Steve’s SIM card. It was a short walk, and up until then I had only seen the seamier side of Razlog. On my way back I came across this charming scene in a small park.
As I returned to the hospital the road was filled with people in native dress and furry costumes. They were having a grand old time dancing and banging their drums.
A little research told me this is a Kukeri festival. It occurs between New Year’s Day and Lent. Its purpose is to drive away evil spirits and provide a good harvest, health, and happiness during the coming year. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to hold it in front of a hospital is beyond me.
By the way, I didn’t get the SIM card. The store was closed even though Google said it would be open.
We made several friends during this time including this four-legged sweetheart.
Bansko is a dog that hangs out at Redenka but knows better than to enter the buildings. I thought Bansko was a girl. One morning I was telling her what a good girl she is when a guy came by and said: “it’s a boy and he doesn’t understand English”. What ?!?!
No matter what language he understands he is well-loved and well-fed by the staff and guests at Redenka.
In a case of serendipity, I met a physiotherapist one morning at breakfast when I uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with him by asking if he spoke English. It turned out the Dimitar not only spoke English very well but was also incredibly helpful with advice while Steve was still bedridden. He also worked with Steve once he was up and about.
While Steve was in the hospital a young woman who was also a patient struck up a conversation with me. Aleksandra is a student in Bulgaria and a thoughtful and delightful young lady. After Steve became mobile we enjoyed a delicious dinner with her.
And last, but certainly not least, we were privileged to get to know Anna and Tommy Orhan at Succuk Burger House and Cafe. The food is excellent, but the service is what kept us coming back. These two, along with the rest of their family, really care about their customers.
Seeing the Sights
Bansko is a small town ski town (pop. 8,600) so attractions are somewhat limited. However, beauty is everywhere as I discovered on a Sunday morning outing.
A visit to the Neofit Rilski House Museum taught me about this Bulgarian renaissance man. He was a monk, an artist, a translator, and a teacher. He was also the founder of Bulgarian secular education.
The best sight by far in Bansko is the Pirin mountains that surround the town. It seems that wherever you go you can see them.
We had an amazing view of them from both the living room and the bedroom at our third apartment and frequently commented on how much we were going to miss them.
When I researching a place to ski for several weeks in January I wanted a place that was affordable and where you don’t need a car. Bansko was one of those places.
The town is compact. You can walk practically anywhere, and taxis are readily available. You also can’t beat the cost. A daily lift ticket is $38 USD and ski rental including a helmet is $30 USD per day. Lodging is also a bargain. We booked an Airbnb for three weeks for less than $900 USD.
Unfortunately, there was so much I didn’t know about skiing there. While the infrastructure is good with well-groomed runs and modern lifts, I found several negative things about it.
As a disclaimer, all my previous skiing had been on the East Coast of the U.S. on very small mountains. It may be that what I found in Bansko is common in Europe. Either way these are the things that made the experience less than ideal:
You have to take a twenty-minute gondola ride up the mountain to get to the ski resort. The gondola itself is not bad, but getting to it is a hassle. Not only are the lines often very long, but you have to go up a long set of stairs to get to the loading area. Not easy to do in ski boots.
The line works well until you get towards the top of the stairs and try to get into a gondola car. At this point it becomes a contact sport, everyone for himself.
The rudeness continues at the entrances to the lifts. There are no lines, only surging crowds.
The other thing I found odd was that the entrances to the lifts were raised up so everyone was trying to move up and into a slot while being pushed and crowded.
I also did not see any information on ski conditions. The only way to see the conditions is to go up the mountain. One day I went up and between the ice and the huge number of inexperienced skiers on the slopes, I felt unsafe and cut it short. Bansko is very popular with new skiers from Europe and the U.K. partly because of the low cost. That also means that the slopes get very crowded.
As Steve’s accident showed, there was no warning of dangerous conditions and runs were kept open even when they had significant icy patches.
The last thing that was frustrating was how lift passes were handled. The company I rented from only sold you a pass if you booked two or more consecutive days with them. I was told to buy one at the bottom of the gondola station.
The gondola starts running at 8:30 a.m. and on a busy day the line is already quite long by that time. The ticket booth doesn’t open until 8:30, so you stand there watching the line to the gondola getting longer by the minute while waiting to get a lift ticket.
But that isn’t inefficient enough. A sign clearly says they accept VISA so I chose to pay that way. The clerk rang up my purchase and I paid. Then she asked if I had 5 leva in cash for the deposit on the lift card. I did, but it was tucked away in my money belt so she rang up a separate charge. All while the line to get the lift ticket was growing and growing. Why they don’t charge it all at once is totally beyond me.
Our trip to Bansko did not turn out as we anticipated, but even so, we left with many warm memories. As we often find, it is the people we meet as we travel that have the greatest impact on us. Hopefully, the feeling is mutual.
Steve has skied his last slope. I, however, intend to try again next winter. I welcome any suggestions about great ski resorts that don’t require you to have a car.
Our next stop is Budapest, Hungary. The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc in parts of the world and we expect some stumbling blocks because of it.
2. Spending Three Days in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
We took the bus from the capital of San Jose to the Caribbean coast. When we arrived in Puerto Viejo our first thought was “where the heck are we?” This place looked kind of rough. The name translates into “old port”, so that should have been a clue.
It didn’t take us long to see the charm. By the afternoon we were in love. The beach is just yards away from a wooded hiking area where you can see wild howler monkeys and sloths.
Many restaurants line the beach and embody the phrase “pura vida” (pure life).
We enjoyed a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center. The name is misleading because they rescue and rehabilitate many species. We learned that many sloths are injured or killed when they chew through electric wires.
The sloth above, who lives at the center, was just hanging around in the open.
Puerto Viejo is the most laid back place I have ever been and I hope to visit it again someday.
This is the only tourist attraction to make my top ten. I am not a big fan of Pre-Colombian history, so I questioned whether it would be worth the hassle and cost to get there.
It definitely was. There is something magical about this place.
It is not quick or easy to get to Machu Picchu. You have two choices, hike for about four days (definitely not for the couch potato) or make your way to the town of Cusco, Peru then take a train to Machu Picchu Town (or Aguas Calientes).
If you chose to get there through Cusco you need to become acclimated to the altitude to avoid altitude sickness, which I was surprised to find out can be deadly. While Machu Picchu is only 8,000 feet (2,400 m) above sea level, Cusco sits at 11,200 feet (3,400 m) above sea level.
The train ride to Machu Picchu Town from Cusco takes a little over three hours and passes through the Sacred Valley of the Incas where you will be dazzled by one breathtaking view after another.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” Martin Buber
How true this quote so often proves to be. While in Cordoba, Argentina we decided to take a side trip to a German-inspired hamlet called La Cumbrecita.
The day started out foggy but turned out to be sunny and temperate.
We spent some time playing fetch with this sweetheart in the Rio del Medio.
We loved spending time climbing (carefully) on the rocks in the river.
The reward for hiking down a rocky trail.
We saw people every now and then but were often alone on the trails. It was so peaceful and picturesque. It reminded me of how we would spend hours in parks or on nature trails when we were young. Time spent in nature can make you feel like you don’t have a care in the world.
Imagine a hiking trail, a zoo, and a conservation organization in one. That is Amaru Biopark.
This park is built on a hillside and houses animals who have been rescued but cannot be returned to the wild. Because of its location, you will get quite a workout as you make your way through the park.
You will see so many beautiful animals, including African lions, which really made me scratch my head.
I would have loved to hear these animal’s stories, but I didn’t see any programs like that when we were there.
Squirrel monkeys roam free in the park.
The aviary lets you get up close to many beautiful birds.
If you go, don’t make the same mistake we did. Our first visit was in the afternoon. We were slowly working our way around and thoroughly enjoying the animals when we looked at the map and realized that in several hours we hadn’t even reached the halfway point.
We backtracked so we could get out of the park before dark and returned earlier on another day so we could enjoy all it had to offer.
You can get some amazing views of the city from the entrance to the park.
District 13 (Comuna 13 in Spanish) is a poor neighborhood in the foothills of the Andes that less than 20 years ago was the most dangerous neighborhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Many people associate the violence in Medellin with Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, but urban militia like FARC were also causing extreme problems, especially in District 13.
In 2002 the government initiative called Operation Orion freed the district from the scourge.
While it is still poor, it is now a popular tourist stop due to an abundance of street art like this colorful lizard:
There are many small, tourist oriented businesses and young people form dance troupes to earn cash.
A series of escalators carry people up the mountainside. At every step, you are greeted with smiles and warm hellos.
At first, Steve was a little apprehensive because of the area’s past reputation. He kept his camera in its case for a while. Then he slowly started taking pictures but would quickly put the camera away after each picture.
At one point I turned around to look for him and he was surrounded by several children and was sharing his pictures with some local children.
Seeing the positive changes to this once forsaken neighborhood impacted me in a way that very few of our travel experiences have.
This memory is not a typical travel memory. We love to explore cemeteries for the history and art. Early in our travels, we went to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris and it was so compelling that it ruined us for other cemeteries.
That doesn’t mean we’ve stopped visiting them, but we haven’t found another one that comes close to Montmartre.
So we approached this visit as something to do. What a shock. This cemetery is in bad repair and you can see below:
As we continued exploring we were shocked to see open crypts with either cloth bags or exposed bones. Perhaps the saddest and most bizarre sight was a tomb with a skeleton lying on top.
Even with the disrepair, there was beauty to be found.
Many years ago I read about a family with young children who visited the Grand Canyon. The mother was a little dismayed when they returned home and all the kids could talk about were the ants they had seen in the hotel parking lot.
Thinking about this I realized that it is sometimes the little things, things that you can’t anticipate and could happen anywhere, that stay foremost in our minds after a trip.
I have started to refer to these as “ant stories” and here are two of my favorites from 2019:
9. Come In and See My Cat
One day Steve and I went to the neighborhood of Getsemani in Cartegena, Colombia. This neighborhood was once plagued with drugs, prostitution, and violence. It is now a safe, authentic neighborhood that attracts many tourists, often looking for street art.
While I was taking these pictures a local man heard Steve admiring a cat outside his door, and invited him in to meet his cat (below).
10. Maybe Later
In several touristy areas, we have been annoyed by people who stand in front of restaurants and try to get you to go inside. They are referred to as bringers.
Even when you say “no, gracias” or indicate that you just ate they won’t leave you alone.
It took a while but we finally discovered the magic words that make them happy and gives us some peace.
While walking through Machu Picchu Town we were being bothered as usual. When we said no to one bringer he said: “maybe later”. We replied, “maybe later”. He broke into a huge smile.
We looked at each other with glee. We had found the magic words. We would never be driven crazy by bringers again!
That’s Not All Folks!
I hope you enjoyed this look back at our ten months in Latin America. These memories and many others have enriched our lives beyond our expectations.
A rental from Airbnb gives you more than a hotel room for less money. What’s not to love?
Steve and I are currently in our twenty-fifth Airbnb rental since beginning our worldwide travels in April 2018. Overall our experiences have been very good. Even so, we have identified ten things Airbnb hosts can do better.
For even more information you can read about our Airbnb experiences during our first year of travel in Lessons From Airbnb.
Much More Good Than Bad
Now that we have our groove on we can quickly identify apartments that meet our needs. Since we typically rent for four weeks we look for a full kitchen with a range, a full-size refrigerator, a separate bedroom, a clothes washer (a dryer is a plus but not common in many cities), and of course wifi. We also look for a living room that looks comfortable to relax in after having stayed in one place with a very cheap sofa that sat low on the floor in front of a TV that was only a foot below the ceiling. Seriously, you haven’t seen anything until you see the weird ways people chose to decorate.
Most of our hosts have done a great job of providing a clean and pleasant environment. Many have provided welcome food. Wine is definitely appreciated but we really appreciate having a few bottles of drinking water available, especially in places where the tap water isn’t safe to drink. We have found the linens to be clean and in good repair, and there is usually at least one flat-screen TV.
I could go on and on about the pleasure of staying with hosts who care about the quality of their guests’ experience. But this article is about the things hosts can do better. We have repeatedly found hosts coming up short in these ten areas:
Little Things Mean a Lot
1. More Hangers Please
Our rentals have always had clothes hangers. They have almost always had too few hangers. Six seems to be the number of hangers hosts feel their guests will need. I can tell them right now, we need more hangers! At least six per person. Preferably more. We have begun carrying our own hangers but would prefer not to.
2. And More Than One Mirror
We usually have only one bathroom. Not always fun if you are traveling with another person (if you get my drift). We carry a bottle of Poo~Pourri for this very reason. Even so, you don’t always want to enter that room immediately after someone else has used it.
This can be a problem if you are getting ready to go out and need a mirror. Or maybe someone else is trying to get ready at the same time. That leads to our second request. A mirror outside of the bathroom. Extra points if it is a full-length mirror.
3. Speaking of Bathrooms
Maybe because we are staying in one place for so long we are sensitive to storage space. Many bathrooms have an under sink cabinet where you can store toiletries. Most of them also have wall space above the toilet that is usually filled with a cheap picture. How about some shelves there instead so guests can have their toiletries visible and easily accessible?
4. Damp Towels Are No Fun
Hosts are expected to provide one bath towel for each guest. A few will go the extra mile and provide more. This is usually not a problem. However, if the rental is in a building with a swimming pool or a hot tub it would be nice for the hosts to provide two towels per guest. It isn’t fun to dry off at the pool and then have to dry off from your shower with the damp, chlorine scented towel.
5. One More Bathroom Suggestion
Another thing that is often lacking is a mat to use in front of the shower or tub. Guests really don’t want to be drying off with the same towel that was just on the floor.
6. Decent Beds, So-So Sofas
We usually find the beds in our rentals to be roomy and comfortable. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about the sofas. It is rare that we have one that is really comfortable for stretching out after a busy day of sightseeing. Too often the sofas are little more than cheap futons. Not a plus.
We realize furniture isn’t cheap and you are hosting an Airbnb to make money, not get into Architectural Digest. Even so, you can’t put a price tag on a comfy sofa. One that guests can stretch out on. Like this:
7. Vacuum Maintenance Sucks
Many units have a vacuum for the guests to use. Steve is the vacuum handler in our house, and I can’t remember the last time he used a vacuum without having to empty it, or even unclog it, first.
Since most units have hard floors rather than carpet, a broom and a dustpan are preferable to a clogged vacuum.
8. Help Us Find Our Way
Yes, we have Google Maps but it isn’t foolproof. We really appreciate it when a host provides an up-to-date street map of the area. We recently stayed in one apartment where they had several copies (like about 20) so we didn’t feel bad about taking one and writing on it.
I know we can buy a paper map, but it is getting harder and harder to find them, and who wants to spend their travel time map shopping?
The Two Biggies
9. We Have Spring Cleaning For a Reason
It is a pleasure to stay in a new listing. Everything is freshly painted and color-coordinated. Appliances are out of the box shiny and have the latest bells and whistles. But nothing stays new forever. One thing that seems to be lacking is deep cleaning. Yes, the kitchen and bathroom get wiped down after each guest. The floors get washed and the bedding and towels laundered.
But what about the dust on the woodwork, the calcium deposits on the showerhead, or dirty air conditioning filters? An annual deep cleaning would go a long way towards keeping the unit like new for each guest.
10. This is the Big One
This is where hosts or their cleaning people drop the ball big time. I can’t tell you how many times we have had to scrub pots and pans or kitchen utensils because a previous guest did not clean it well and the person who cleaned up after the guest left never thought to check on the items in the kitchen cabinets and drawers.
Occasionally an item has been so rusty or crusty that we chose to buy our own instead of using it.
Heads up to all hosts and cleaning people. Please keep an eye on the kitchen tools and appliances!
A Quick List
Here is a list of the things we would like to see more hosts provide:
More clothes hangers A mirror outside of the bathroom Shelves in the bathroom Extra towels if there is a pool or jacuzzi A bath mat A comfy, cozy sofa A clean vacuum A current local street map
And two things we wish they would do a better job of: Spring cleaning Checking the condition of kitchen appliances and tools
Thank You Hosts
Overall Airbnb is a godsend for travelers. Every host who is making a sincere effort to provide a safe and comfortable place for his guests is to be commended.
Hopefully, this can be a wake-up call to those hosts who are coming up short on the last two items and maybe, just maybe, some wonderful hosts will step up on the first eight.
Happy traveling, Linda
Featured image by Pineapple Supply Co. on Unsplash.com
With our second year of full-time travel under our belts, it is time for a recap. This post details our Latin America travel costs from February through November of 2019.
When Steve and I first toyed with the idea of traveling the world full-time I was very grateful to Never Ending Voyage and A Little Adrift along with other bloggers who generously shared their travel costs on their blogs. It is my hope that seeing how affordable and attainable full-time travel can be will inspire you.
Why We Picked Latin America
After returning to Florida in December 2018 we assumed we would spend 2019 continuing to explore various cities in Europe. Then we watched the stock market take a nosedive during the month of December to finish the worst year in ten years.
Knowing that many parts of Europe and the U.K. can be expensive I checked out Price of Travel for an alternative. You can see their list of 137 cities ranked by how costly they are to visit.
The first half is dominated by cities in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The bottom half contains cities primarily in Western Europe, the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. and Canada.
We decided that Latin America would be a fiscally responsible choice for 2019.
Since our travel philosophy is to go with the flow (hence the name Wind and Whim) we did not detail the locations or related costs. We knew we would start in San Juan, Costa Rica then visit Panama City. After that, it was anyone’s guess.
We traveled internationally for eight months (243 days) in 2018 and spent $38,900. This averaged to $160 per day. You can read the details in this article.
We decided on a budget of $45,600 for 2019. This came out to $148 per day for the 309 days we were traveling.
We have been scheduling our stops in four-week intervals for the most part. Our basic four-week budget breaks down like this:
Four Week Basic Budget
Transportation & Activites
In addition, we have annual costs like evacuation insurance, vaccinations, and international drivers licenses. You can see the total budget in the next table.
So What Did 10 Months Cost?
Here are the cities we visited with the actual and budgeted costs:
San Jose, Costa Rica
Panama City, Panama
Galapagos Is., Ecuador
Various Cities, Peru
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Flight back to U.S.
As you can see we came in $700 under budget at $44,900. This is just over $145 per day.
General Expenses are items that cover the year or aren’t related to a specific place. This includes things like: Evacuation insurance from MedJet $1,100 Vaccinations $600 Supplies $500 Virtual mailbox subscription $200
Here is a breakdown of our costs by category:
We not only spent less per day than in 2018, but we stayed in budget!
A few notes about this analysis:
* All costs are in U.S. dollars. * All costs are for two people. * It only includes expenses directly related to travel.
The following items are not included: * Stateside medical insurance * Routine medications and visits to doctors * Base cost of our AT&T cell phone plan * Storage of our possessions in the U.S.
Our style of travel was higher than backpacker level and definitely under luxury level. I would classify it as three-star.
Our lodgings were clean and comfortable, often stylish, and almost always had a kitchen and a separate bedroom. Most of them had a clothes washer. Our meals were either cooked at home or eaten in mid-level restaurants.
Cost By Location
Cost per Day
San Jose, Costa Rica
Panama City, Panama
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Flight to U.S.*
* The flight back to the U.S. was inexpensive because we used points from our Chase credit card. The full cost was $600 including baggage costs.
Notes On Budget Variances
We were over budget in:
San Juan, Costa Rica – because of two side trips We took two side trips to beaches while we were San Juan. One was to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast and the other to Jaco on the Pacific Coast. We enjoyed the change of pace at both of them. The total cost for 6 days was $1,600 or $267 per day.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador – because of a side trip While visiting the islands we spent most of our time in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz. In order to see more of the famed wildlife, we spent a few days in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.
The water taxi trip to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno was a bit of a nightmare. The captain was trying to avoid an approaching storm. In spite of his best efforts about half of the 40 people on the boat got seasick. Fortunately, the trip back to Santa Cruz Island was much smoother. Even so, the experience made us decide not to visit any more islands.
In spite of the rocky boat ride, we enjoyed our three days in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno which included two hikes to secluded beaches and a few cool experiences in town.
These 3 days cost $688 or $229 per day
It is well known that visiting the Galápagos Islands is expensive so we budgeted extra for it. We spent four weeks there and feel that it was far too long. You can read about our experiences in Is A Land-Based Galapagos Trip Right or You?
Peru Tour – because of a bus tour, a visit to Machu Picchu, and the flight from Cuenca to Lima
Our four weeks in Peru cost $6,100, $600 more than our four weeks in the Galapagos. The reason for this was that we started in Lima, spent 19 days visiting various towns in Peru, and went to Machu Picchu.
At $900, our flight from Cuenca to Lima was the most expensive we have had since we started traveling. From there we took a Peru Hop tour bus which went from Lima to Cusco, a distance of 685 miles or 1,100 km.
The Peru Hop tour lets you chose among several routes and spend as little or as much time as you want in each city. We spent 18 days in a total of 5 cities before heading to Machu Picchu.
The tour took us to several towns we would never have visited on our own including Paracas and Huacachina, an oasis town that introduced us to dune surfing.
Even though we ended up spending sixteen hours in a decrepit little town in Peru because of a protest I would recommend Peru Hop. You can read about our experience with the protest, which included using the worst restroom we have ever seen in Stranded on the Road in Peru.
Peru Hop and Machu Picchu Costs
Flight to Lima
Peru Hop bus
Train to Machu Picchu Town
Machu Picchu tour
The remaining time in Peru was spent in Lima and averaged $160 per day.
We were under budget in:
Panama City, Panama – because of a great deal on lodging The cost was lower here because we got a great deal on an apartment in a new complex. We paid only $700 for four weeks in a one-bedroom apartment with a washer and dryer in a golf community.
The downside was that it was about 15 minutes from the city and we had to take a taxi everywhere even the grocery store.
Quito, Ecuador – because of illness Both Steve and I felt a little ill not long after we arrived in Quito. At first, we thought it was altitude sickness, but when it lingered for more than a week we determined it was intestinal. I love being under budget, but not for this reason.
Cuenca, Ecuador -because of an inexpensive apartment, low transportation costs, and low activity costs
Since we went to Cuenca from Ecuador the flight was inexpensive ($100). From what we saw, flights within a country were inexpensive, while flights between countries were not.
We found the town to be very walkable. Tours, taxis, and food were all inexpensive. Cuenca is a popular place for U.S. citizens to retire, partly because the cost of living is low.
Buenos Aires – a two-month stay meant lower transportation costs
Both lodging and food were considerably less expensive than you might expect in a city that is nicknamed the Paris of South America. There wasn’t anything in Buenos Aires that we considered expensive.
Our time in Buenos Aires we took a side trip to Iguazu Falls. At $400 per day, this was our most expensive side trip because it involved flying from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu. Even so, it was well worth it.
Cordoba, Argentina – because of low food, transportation, and activity costs
The first reason our expenses were low in Cordoba was that we ate most of our dinners at home because almost all the restaurants closed from late afternoon until 8:00 or 9:00 pm. The second reason is that we went to Cordoba from Buenos Aires so the cost to fly was low. And the third reason was that our activity costs were low because quite frankly there wasn’t a lot to do in Cordoba.
While in Cordoba we took a five-day side trip to the small towns of La Cumbrecita and Villa General Belgrano. The daily cost was only $130 and included 3 days at a spa.
Was It Worth It?
Latin America was not at the top of our list before December 2018, and in the beginning, we didn’t love it. But we stuck with it and fell in love with several places including Buenos Aires and Medellin.
Machu Picchu was an experience of a lifetime and worth the effort and expense to get there. It is truly a magical place.
Even the places we didn’t love so much had many positives and I am glad to have experienced them.
We came home with many happy memories and a few scary ones. Best of all, we met so many friendly and inspiring people along the way.
In January of 2020, Steve broke his pelvis while skiing and had to be hospitalized in Bulgaria. It was a painful, frustrating, disappointing, and eye-opening experience.
Our Take On Bulgaria
Before I get into the details I must say this:
Bansko was the fifth city or town we have visited in Bulgaria. In 2018 we enjoyed the capital of Sofia, the second-largest city, Plovdiv, and the smaller towns of Byala and Varna.
All of our experiences in Bulgaria until Steve’s hospitalization have been positive. The people are warm and welcoming, the accommodations and restaurants are clean, and the food is delicious. Many people speak English which we never expect but always appreciate.
That is why our experience in the hospital was a shock.
The Doctor At The Base of The Mountain
As Steve and I were waiting in line to get on the gondola to go up the mountain I noticed a door at the end of a hall. The sign on it said Doctor.
Little did I know that just a few hours later I would be walking through that door to see if Steve was in there after we got separated while skiing and I couldn’t find him anywhere else.
He was lying on the examination table after having x-rays. We were told he had fractured his pelvis.
We were very happy with the care here. The doctor and staff spoke English and explained everything that was going on. They took three x-rays for a cost of $118 USD. Everything else up to this point was covered by the mountain insurance we had as part of our ski rental package.
Given the professionalism of this office, we didn’t balk when the doctor suggested Steve be transported to the hospital in the next town, which is Razlog.
Things Take a Downward Turn
Razlog is a town of 13,000 people about 4 miles (6.2 km) from Bansko. Bankso’s population is 8,600.
When Steve arrived at the hospital he was taken to the emergency department. The area was very run down with tiles missing from the ceiling, holes in the sheets, and what looked like a piece of linoleum laid across the foot of each bed.
It took quite a while for the doctor to be located and for Steve to be registered.
He had been put on a stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while being transported. He had to lie on this board for several hours after he arrived at the hospital before he was put in a bed. All this time he did not receive any pain medication.
In addition, he was slipping to one side badly enough that I feared he would fall so I stood alongside the stretcher pressing into his side to keep him from falling. No one seemed to care that he was incredibly uncomfortable.
When it finally came time for Steve to be put in a bed there were only two men to do it. It ended up being quite painful for him as he was basically dropped onto the bed.
Things Aren’t Much Better Here
Luckily the floor Steve was transported to from the emergency department was in better shape, though far from what we expect in a hospital.
Even though many people we met in Bansko spoke English, most of the hospital staff did not. Fortunately, one of the doctors treating Steve did.
The only time we were able to get information about Steve’s condition was the few minutes every morning when the doctors came in. The nursing staff was not the least bit helpful and seemed impatient when we stopped them and used Google Translate to ask questions.
This was particularly frustrating because they were not very busy. There were only a few patients on the floor and often when I went looking for help several nurses would be eating, chatting, and watching TV in the break room. Yet they never made any effort to do more than the basics.
I was shocked that patients in the hospital were kept in their own clothes. Unless they change their clothes themselves or have a family member help they are left in the same clothes day after day.
Patients and their families were also on their own for basic care like washing, brushing teeth, and tending to more personal needs.
I fear for anyone who should find himself in this hospital without someone to help him.
I realized that the only way to get the nurses on our side was to kill them with kindness. It worked with some of them but not all.
I walked into Steve’s room on his second day there and he proudly showed me his newest possession. A long piece of PVC pipe.
Unlike U.S. hospitals where the patient is tethered to multiple machines, the only thing Steve had was an I.V. He was lying in bed the first night watching the fluid in the I.V. bag getting too close to the end. He wanted to alert a nurse, but the call button was on the wall a few feet away from his bed. Fearing an air bubble entering his bloodstream, he threw the I.V. bag to the floor and used the stand to hit the call button.
After this, he got a pole so he could reach the button. You can see it in the first photo. That pole came in handy for many things. I am still amazed that someone was able to get the pole for him.
Most shocking to us was the lack of hygiene. Steve was in a room with three beds, but until the last few days, he was the only patient. The room didn’t have its own bathroom, but it did have a sink. However, there wasn’t any soap or towels so I brought some from home.
There were three restrooms on the floor. The women’s room did not have toilet paper or soap. The second one was not marked male or female and surprisingly it had soap. But it was still BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I didn’t check the men’s room.
Then there was the food. Breakfast consisted of two slices of bread with a large blob of butter but nothing to spread the butter with. It sometimes came with a hard-boiled egg or some cheese.
Lunch was soup and bread, but no spoon to eat the soup with. And even if he had a spoon Steve would not have been able to eat it since he was lying flat and could not sit up.
Even worse than the lack of utensils or care about being able to eat was the fact that the bread that came with the soup was not on a plate, it was carried in by hand and set on the bedside table.
Dinner was, you guessed it, more bread, this time with cheese, both wrapped in a plastic bag.
At one point Steve watched a nurse drop a piece of his bread on the floor and return it to the table
Needless to say, he did not eat the food they provided. What little he ate during his stay was all brought from home.
There’s Always Something Positive
While dealing with the hospital situation was unpleasant, there were good things as a result.
While in the hospital I met a lovely young woman named Aleksandra from Razlog who had recently had surgery. She is a university student who wishes to visit the U.S. someday. We will stay in touch through Facebook.
I also got to meet Anna and her family at Succuk Burger House and Cafe in Bansko where I enjoyed the cheeseburgers and fries way too much. They were so gracious in helping me with taxis and even arranging a ride to the hospital one day. If you are ever in Bansko make sure to visit Succuk Burger House and Cafe and meet these wonderful people.
Our luck with people continued once we settled into our new apartment. I struck up a conversation with Dimitar at breakfast one morning and it turns out he is a physiotherapist. He has already offered several helpful suggestions.
For the life of me, I don’t understand why the hospital personnel are lacking in the friendliness and hospitality the most everyone else around here has in abundance.
A Goodbye Argument
Release day finally arrived. We knew Steve would be transferred by ambulance to the apartment where he would be recuperating. We requested four people to help because he is a large man and we didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when he was transferred into the bed.
Around lunchtime, two men arrived with a stretcher. We were surprised that they did not have the stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while they lifted him. We really don’t know how they intended to move him from the bed to the stretcher without causing pain or aggravating his injury.
We used Google Translate to let the paramedics know that we were expecting four people and we wanted Steve on a stretcher board. This request led to a ten-minute discussion with four paramedics and two nurses all talking at once.
After getting everyone to quiet down we said Steve was not leaving unless he was on a board. They finally brought a board in and we were on our way.
Thankfully the ride was only about eight minutes long. Not only was Steve not strapped to the stretcher, but the stretcher was also not locked down in the ambulance.
You know the old saying “you get what you pay for” meaning if something is inexpensive you can’t expect much. This has not been true for anything we bought in Bulgaria except for the hospital care.
We had no frame of reference as to what a nine-day stay would cost. I was pleasantly surprised when I paid the bill. It included the ambulance ride to the hospital, nine days of “care” including X-rays, two ultrasounds, and medications and the ambulance ride home from the hospital. The cost for all of this was just under $2,000 USD!
We do not carry a medical travel policy because in most cases medical care outside of the U.S. is very affordable by our standards. We do however have evacuation insurance through Medjet to get us back to the U.S. in case of a serious accident or injury.
We didn’t expect much when we submitted a claim to our U.S. medical insurance company since our treatment was out-of-network. We were delighted to receive a check from them for $1,800 USD, leaving our out-of-pocket hospital and doctor costs at $300.
What Could We Have Done Differently?
I have read several accounts of U.S. citizens’ experiences with medical care while traveling abroad. They were all positive, but none of them had taken place in a small town in Bulgaria.
Once we saw the situation at the hospital I asked Steve if he wanted to be transported to Sofia on the assumption that the hospitals in the capital would be superior to this one. He was adamant that he did not want to be moved because he was in so much pain.
Looking back, I wish that I had asked the doctor what the different options were and where he would send one of his family members.
So the only other thing we could have done differently would have been to not ski in this area. I doubt that any warning about the lack of quality medical care would have deterred us. No one expects to get hurt.
Our travels have taken us to some off the beaten path places and will no doubt continue to do so. In order to keep exploring we have to believe that things will work out for the best.
All’s Well That Ends Well
It was a challenge to find a place to stay for four weeks while Steve recuperated. We needed somewhere that would allow him to be brought in on a stretcher and placed in bed. I spent several days looking online, sending emails, and visiting hotels before I found a suitable place two days before he was due to be released.
We ended up at the Redenka Holiday Club about 6 miles (or 10 km) from the center of Bansko. Luckily they weren’t particularly busy and had some first-floor apartments available.
Our four-week stay includes not only the apartment but also breakfast and dinner every day for about $2,000 USD. There is also a gym, indoor pool with jacuzzi, and a spa. Hopefully, Steve will have a chance to enjoy them like I have been doing.
As of this writing, Steve is recuperating well. He has been improving every day and has just been able to be upright with crutches for a short period of time. We are thankful that he left the hospital without becoming sick.
His spirits have remained high and he is looking forward to seeing something besides the ceiling.
Eighteen months (and counting) of full-time international travel has taught us a few things. I’m happy to say that they are mostly positive. We’ve learned about international safety, other cultures and the people in them, and ourselves. Here are the top twelve things full-time travel has taught us.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT SAFETY
1. Take Warnings With a Grain of Salt
There will always be people who are quick to tell you how unsafe it is in other countries. In our experience, these are usually people who have never left their own country.
As we were preparing to leave the U.S. and head to Europe several people pointed out the threat of terrorist attacks. My response was two-fold:
1. Europe may have more terrorist attacks, but they also have fewer mass shootings.
2. The odds of anyone being a victim of either of these situations are incredibly tiny.
The probability of dying in a terrorist attack is 1 in 20 million! Even if they became twice as prevalent the odds would be 1 in 10 million. Not even worth thinking about in my opinion. If you want to worry about something, worry about auto accidents. You are so much more likely to die that way.
Of course, there are countries, cities, and neighborhoods you should avoid. But it really isn’t that scary out there.
In addition to reviewing the Department of State website (with a few grains of salt), we Google the heck out of potential destinations if we have any doubts, and we talk with fellow travelers.
The best protection is your common sense and your “spidey sense”. The biggest danger is probably to ourselves.
If Steve hadn’t been paying attention while we were on a tour bus in Quito, Ecuador, I would very likely not be here writing this. We were on the upper level and I was facing the back taking photos. I was totally unaware of the low overpass we were about to go under. We were going fast enough that the impact would have almost certainly killed me.
So avoid the really dangerous places, enjoy all the others, and for God’s sake stay seated on that tour bus.
2. Unless They’re About Pickpockets
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, take it seriously!
During our first week in Barcelona, the first city we visited on our journey throughout the world, Steve was pickpocketed.
Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket it would be safe.
It happened on a crowded Metro car on a Friday afternoon. First one woman bumped into him. While she was apologizing another woman bumped him on the other side. As the door closed they jumped off the car, taking his passport, forty Euros, and three bank cards with them.
Fortunately, his passport was found and the 900 Euros worth of shoes the thieves tried to charge was declined by our credit card company. We only lost 40 Euros in cash and had to cancel and replace some bank cards. And because this happened at the beginning of a month-long stay it didn’t interrupt our plans.
After this Steve bought a camera bag that he refers to as his purse and his first-ever money belt. We no longer carry all of our bank cards in the same place. The main one goes in the purse/camera bag, and the other two go in the money belt with the passport.
3. We Are Going to Look Like Tourists
You may have read articles about how to stay safe while traveling. One thing many of them tell you is to try not to look like a tourist. I think this is the most ridiculous advice because you are going to look like a tourist. The way you look, sound, and walk all give clues that you are not a native.
Not only can people peg you for a tourist, but they can do it quickly. I can’t count the number of times Steve and I have walked into a restaurant and been handed a menu in English even before we opened our mouths. Store clerks and museum personnel have also spoken to us in English before we had said a word.
So we are going to continue to walk down unfamiliar streets with our camera ready, taking in all the new sights and desperately looking for street signs and landmarks because most people aren’t a threat and it’s what we do.
Since we started traveling we have been amazed at how friendly and helpful most people are. Is it because people outside of the U.S are nicer than those who live there? Or is it because we have slowed down and find ourselves in much more need of help that when we lived in the U.S?
I believe it is the latter. A prime example of this is shopping for medicine. In the U.S. we call in our refill and pick it up when it’s ready. We may or may not have some friendly exchange with the pharmacist and staff. In a country where you aren’t fluent with the language and the names of medicines may be different, making sure you get the right stuff becomes quite the process.
Steve and I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When we are greeted by waiters in restaurants and they see that we do not speak the language they often have a little attitude. Nothing nasty, we just get the feeling that they are thinking “oh brother, I have to deal with these foreigners.”
We do our absolute best to be gracious and modest, use the local language as much as possible, and say thank you often (in the local language). Quite often we leave these restaurants with smiles from staff and sometimes even handshakes and air kisses.
This also happens with other interactions like buying bus tickets. Humility, patience, and gratefulness are the key.
5. People in Other Countries Don’t Hate Americans (or America)
Throughout my life I had heard about how the rest of the world disliked people from the United States and refer to us as Ugly Americans. While preparing for a life of full-time worldwide travel I wondered: would we face animosity overseas?
Even with this uncertainty, I vowed to never hide where I was from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.
My experiences with international travel have led me to believe that the Ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support. You can read more about that here.
In 2018 and 2019 Steve and I visited thirteen countries in Europe and Latin America. I never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. In fact, just the opposite. We have found most people to be friendly and helpful. Many people we met seemed delighted when they heard we were from the U.S. and either shared their wonderful memories of visits there or expressed a desire to visit. That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have negative feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or kept their thought to themselves.
I do find myself going out of my way to be gracious, courteous, and patient. I don’t make assumptions based on how we do it in the U.S. and I always try to speak the local language (“try” being the operative word here).
And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American, I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.
6. There Will Be Unpleasant Things You Have No Control Over
The streets smell of urine (Paris).
Nose picking is more prevalent than you are used to (Europe and South America).
Protests pop up on a regular basis (Buenos Aires).
An apartment that advertises hot water may only have it in the shower.
We all know that travel means sometimes having to deal with unpleasant and inconvenient situations.
Our worst experience during these last two years was being delayed for 16 hours because of a protest. We were on a bus tour in Southern Peru when this happened. Fortunately, we did not have any pressing plans since we were scheduled to spend several days in the next town before heading to Machu Picchu. Many people on our bus were not that lucky since their tighter schedules meant they missed some highly anticipated and costly experiences.
The best thing you can do is realize that you have absolutely no control over these events although travel insurance and credit card benefits may ease some of the financial pain.
Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes a darn good story.
7. Using A New Language Will Feel Awkward
It’s one thing to sit at home going through your Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. It’s quite another to go out and actually speak a foreign language to a person who is a native speaker of that language.
Some things start to come naturally like please and thank you. But often I have found myself missing a few words to complete a sentence.
One trick is to use an online translator to help you learn the sentence before you start the transaction. Sometimes though you will have to resort to using the online translator as you are completing the transaction. That’s OK too.
We have found everyone to be very patient while communicating with us. If anything, I am the one who tends to get impatient when I say a simple sentence, I am confident I am using the right words and a reasonable approximation of the pronunciation, and I am not being understood. UGH. I have to try very hard to hide my frustration.
8. People In Other Countries Don’t Eat At “Normal” Times
The first city we visited was Barcelona. We arrived on a Sunday morning and after we got settled in our Airbnb we went looking for a restaurant and grocery store. As we passed place after closed up place we became concerned that we would not find food. “We’re going to starve to death” we cried.
Eventually, we found a small store that was open so we could at least get the basics. That experience led to one of our travel rules: never go to a new city on a Sunday.
It is not uncommon for restaurants in Latin America to close from mid-afternoon until 8 or 9 p.m. when they open for dinner. We found this to be extremely widespread in Cordoba, Argentina. We adapted by eating lunch at the restaurants we were particularly interested in and having a light dinner at home.
When we visited the tiny hamlet of La Cumbrecita in Argentina we stayed at a hotel that provided dinner. We were not thrilled when we checked in and were told that dinner will be served at 9 p.m. Even so, we accepted this and were quite amused when at 9 on the dot a cowbell was rung to let the guests know that dinner was now served.
Even though we prefer to eat dinner earlier, we survived.
I have occasionally seen articles written by visitors to the U.S. that have pointed out that portion sizes there are too large. Guess what. Portion sizes have been large everywhere we have visited in Europe and Latin America.
9. Tipping Customs Vary
You get the bill at the first restaurant you’re visiting in a new city. Now, what about the tip?
A quick Google search can tell you if it is customary to tip and if so, how much. You can also gather information about tipping other service providers like taxi drivers.
Beware that in some countries it is common to add the tip or “propina” to the bill. You are free to refuse to pay it, but would probably not do that unless the service was truly abysmal.
We ate at one restaurant in Medellin where our waiter disappeared and it took 45 minutes for my salad to arrive. The make matters worse, Steve’s cooked meal arrived before mine. We were not happy and would not have paid the propina that was on the bill, but the manager provided a huge and delicious piece of flan as compensation, so we called it even.
Also, keep in mind that some places will not have the ability to add the tip to a credit card charge. Therefore it is wise to carry small bills or coins in the local currency.
No matter how careful you are, if you travel long enough you will make mistakes. I detailed the mistakes we made during our first year of travel in Oops! Did We Do That?
We have done a much better job during our second year. Our first travel mistake didn’t occur until our ninth month of travel. We had booked a flight to go from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, Argentina. The cost was $114 USD for both of us. I was updating our itinerary when I noticed that our flight didn’t leave Buenos Aires at 9:30 am it left at 9:30 pm!
Steve and I always double-check with each other before we book anything to make sure the days and times are correct yet we both missed this.
We could have kept the flight, but it would have meant leaving us with a whole day to fill without anyplace to stay or to leave our luggage and arriving at our Airbnb around midnight.
We decided to change our flight. It was easy and worked out well, but ended up costing an additional $175 USD.
11. Less Really is More
The most sure-fire way to get control of all your stuff is to sell (almost) everything and adopt a nomadic lifestyle.
That pile of papers on your desk that never seems to get smaller? It will be diminished to almost nothing when you cull it every time you change locations (about once a month for us).
The disorganized closet with items you forgot you own? It is easy to keep track of what you have when it all fits into a suitcase or backpack. The downside is that you will be wearing the same things over and over and over and over……
Tired of housework and yard work? It is amazingly easy to keep things neat and organized when you stay in a small apartment. Total cleaning time: less than one hour. Time spent on yard work: 0 hours because – no yard.
Looking back over how much time, money, and effort went into maintaining a suburban life I wish we had downsized decades ago.
Do I miss buying cool clothes and awesome shoes? Yes, but not as much as you might think. And I get to play dress-up every December when we return to the U.S. for several weeks.
12. Adaptability and Flexibility Are Indispensable
No apartment is going to have everything you are used to, no Airbnb host can anticipate your every need, and stores won’t necessarily carry your favorite brands (or maybe not any brand). You will learn to make do on the road.
In every city we visit we end up buying something we need to make our life easier for the four weeks. We have bought wheeled shopping bags, plastic pitchers, and a non-slip shower mat to name a few. These items usually cost only a few dollars and we often leave them behind.
These lessons can be summed up quite succinctly:
Most places are safe.
Most people are nice.
You will screw up.
Other people will screw things up for you.
You will discover another side of yourself.
And most importantly, full-time travel is worth it!
Are you looking for a city that will leave you impressed and inspired? Look no further than Medellin, Colombia.
Yes, that Medellin. The city that was named the most dangerous in the world in 1988 by Time Magazine.
The city that spawned Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.
The same city that remained dangerous even after the death of Escobar in 1993 due to the presence of many guerrilla groups including FARC.
In 2002 a government military initiative called Operation Orion successfully removed the left-wing rebels. This did not mean that Medellin was trouble-free, but it was a step towards the safe, progressive, cosmopolitan city it is today.
We visited this phoenix of a city in November 2019 and fell in love with it. Maybe you will too.
Here are 10 things to love about Medellin:
1. The Art of Fernando Botero
You have most likely seen some works by Fernando Botero featuring voluminous people and animals. The painter and sculptor was born in Medellin in 1932 and many of his works can be seen in the city.
Plaza Botero in the center of the city boasts 23 of his larger than life sculptures.
And if that isn’t enough Botero for you you can see dozens of his paintings at the Antioquia Museum which overlooks Plaza Botero.
But the city isn’t done with Botero yet. Head over to nearby Plaza San Antonio to see the Botero Birds.
The first bird was severely damaged in 1995 during a bombing the killed 30 people and injured hundreds. The guerrilla group FARC claimed responsibility saying the bombing was meant to send a message to Botero’s son who was then the Defense Minister.
As the clean up progressed the mayor demanded the ruined statue be discarded. The elder Botero heard this and immediately called the mayor. He demanded that the statue remain as a reminder of the bombing and a memorial to the victims. He promised to donate an identical statue.
When a city is referred to as thecity of eternal spring you can expect pleasant weather. And that is what you will get.
Medellin is just over 400 miles north of the Equator and 4,900 feet above sea level. Because of this the daily temperature averages 72.5 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year.
Be warned though that Medellin does get a fair amount of rainy days. The two rainy seasons are April-May and September–November. During this time you can expect rain for at least 21 days per month.
But do not despair. The rain tends to be in the form of short showers. We visited in November and had afternoon showers on many days. We simply planned our excursions for the morning and early afternoon and made sure we had our rain jackets with us.
You can thank the rain for a city full of lush and vibrant vegetation. That was a nice change from the parched ground we saw all around us in our previous stay in Cordoba, Argentina.
Because Medellin is nestled in the Aburra Valley with the Andes Mountains majestically rising up on both sides the scenery is never boring. Thousands upon thousands of homes dot the sides of the mountains as well.
I won’t soon forget our morning drive to the airport as we were leaving Medellin. I was still in awe of the captivating views after four weeks.
Parque Explora – This is an aquarium (the largest freshwater aquarium in South America), a vivarium, planetarium, and an interactive science museum all in one. We spent hours playing with all the activities and only stopped when we got too hungry to continue. Luckily there are several tasty and economical places to eat right on site.
El Castillo – Is it a castle, a home, or a museum? It’s all three.
El Castillo was originally built in 1930 by physician Jose Tobon. In 1943 it became the family home for Diego Echavarria, his wife Benedikta (Dita), and their only child Isolda. In 1967 Diego and Dita lost their daughter to Guillain-Barre Syndrome. You can see some of the drawings she did as a child in her bedroom.
The couple faced more misfortune when Diego was kidnapped by Pablo Escobar in 1971. Some accounts claim that the family paid the requested ransom while others say that Diego had instructed his wife not to pay a ransom if he were ever kidnapped. Either way, Diego was killed. Dita decided to return to her native Germany and donated the house to the city of Medellin.
The house is a treasure trove of the family’s belongings and the gardens are lovely. This is a must-do for anyone who loves beautiful homes and grounds.
Santa Fe Zoo – We had a great day exploring the Santa Fe Zoo. This zoo is not too big and it’s very easy to find your way around. The grounds are full of lush vegetation and the animal enclosures are in pretty good shape.
The squirrel is an Andean Squirrel. Similar to the Eastern Grey Squirrel but with a distinct reddish tint to its fur.
The Scarlett Macaw is also known as the flag macaw in Colombia because its colors are the same as the Colombian flag.
Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden – You can find this garden right across the street from Parque Explora. Since we were there in November there weren’t too many plants blooming, but we did have a pleasant walk along the various paths. Admission is free.
A restaurant called In Situ is located within the garden grounds. The food and service were excellent and they had the most beautiful menu I have ever seen. It was like a book and each page had a gorgeous photo of one of the dishes.
I would recommend this restaurant even if you don’t intend to visit the garden.
It’s hard to imagine a better walking tour than the two we had in Cordoba just a month before. But our tour with Real City Tours was the absolute best one we’ve had so far.
Our guide Edgar told memorable stories and talked openly about the city’s troubled past. He also spoke passionately about the city’s commitment to democratic architecture and the belief that you should give the best to those who need it the most.
We didn’t have a dog accompanying us on this tour as we did in Cordoba. However, we did have several locals stop to talk to our group. One man even ended up in our group picture.
Imagine walking through what was less than 20 years ago the most dangerous neighborhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Now imagine that this neighborhood is thriving. That is the story of District 13 (locally known as Comuna 13).
This poor neighborhood in the foothills of the Andes is a popular tourist stop due to an abundance of street art.
Young people form dance troupes to earn cash.
A series of escalators carry people up the mountainside. At every step, you are greeted with smiles and warm hellos.
There are many tours to District 13. We opted for a private tour with a taxi driver we had gotten to know.
At first, Steve was a little apprehensive because of the area’s past reputation. It did not take long for us to feel very safe and welcome here.
One thing that is credited with advancing Medellin is the metro system. It not only provides much-needed transportation for the city’s 3.7 million inhabitants and 550,000 visitors annually, but it has also changed the lives of the poor who live on the mountainside by cutting hours off their commuting times.
Cable cars that are part of the metro system take riders up the steep mountainside in Districts 1 and 2.
Unlike many cities, the residents of Medellin respect their metro system, which is clean and graffiti-free.
Even with this system, the roads are jam-packed. Motorcyclists weave their way through traffic with no regard for traffic laws or safety. However, without the Metro and the motorcyclists, I can’t imagine how any traffic would move through the city.
A two hour bus ride will get you to the town of Guatape, dubbed the most colorful town in the world because all of its buildings are decorated with colorful bas-reliefs called zocalo.
There isn’t very much to do in town after you’ve checked out the buildings and perhaps taken a boat tour. But a short drive will get you to El Penol.
El Penol is a 720-foot tall rock surrounded by water and small islands. The view at the bottom of the rock is amazing, but if you climb the 740 steps to the top you will be rewarded with even more breathtaking views.
The climb isn’t bad and there are markers every 25 steps so you can see your progress.
In both Medellin and Cartegena which we visited earlier in the year, we found that we enjoyed the food immensely. It didn’t matter if it was traditional or not, it was tasty and the ingredients were top notch.
Exceptions to this are patacones and arepas. Patacones are deep-fried squashed plantains and arepas are patties made from corn meal. We could not seem to develop a liking for either of these. The other food that never excited our taste buds was the ubiquitous white cheese that accompanied many meals. I have never tasted such a bland cheese and hope never to again. I don’t like to waste food, but this remained untouched on our plates every time.
That being said, I would be hard-pressed to think of a bad meal we had in Medellin.
During our 10 months in Latin America, we have been impressed with the friendliness and helpfulness of the residents but the people in Medellin take this to a new level.
Perhaps it is because the city is out of the grips of the terrorists who held it hostage for far too long Perhaps it is the positive changes including vastly improved transportation and the growth of the city. Perhaps it is pride in being able to share their city with the tourists who have deemed it a worthy destination.
Whatever the reason(s) we found that people were not only willing to help, they went out of their way to look out for the tourists. They would not only give you directions, but they would also walk you to where you were headed. If a beggar was bothering you, they would chase him away.
We have enjoyed most of the cities we’ve visited, but we were possibly saddest to leave the impressive and welcoming new Medellin. I believe that it was the impact of the changes that have taken place in recent years that made Medellin special to us.
I hope you will consider visiting Medellin and that you will leave with as many fond memories as we did.
October 2019 found us in Cordoba, Argentina’s second-largest city. We had just spent two months in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital and most populous city. It was our favorite Latin American city so far. We wondered how Cordoba would compare.
Cordoba didn’t steal our hearts the way Buenos Aires did. Even so, we had some good experiences and an awesome side trip to two little Alpine inspired villages. More on that later.
Our Favorite Thing in Cordoba
One of the coolest places in the city is the Sacred Heart Church of the Capuchin Fathers (pictured above at dusk).
We visited La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona last year and often feel that it ruined us for other churches. However, the Capuchino Church delighted us for hours. In addition to the beautiful pastel colors and a multitude of statues, there are gargoyles and numerous animals.
Tours of the church including the tower are available in Spanish and English. I highly recommend that you take one for a chance to see more of this beautiful church up close.
When we first arrived in Cordoba and I heard the name Capuchin Church I thought it had something to do with monkeys. This fountain right across the street definitely had something to do with that. It turns out that the Capuchins are an order of friars that are an offshoot of the Franciscans.
Here is a cool video of the church by Lucas Nobile.
For more information about the Capuchin Church see this article by Albom Adventures.
Walking Tours and Bus Tour
When we arrive in a new city we like to take a hop-on-hop-off bus tour to get the lay of the land. We also like to take a free walking tour to learn some basic history and hopefully hear some good stories. Cordoba was no different.
What was different was the extremes in the quality of the tours. We took two walking tours with La Docta Tours. These were the best free tours we have ever had. The guides were very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English.
If you are not familiar with the concept of a free tour, you take the tour and pay what you think it was worth at the end. Not really free, but they are usually very well done.
The afternoon tour had a little something extra. A dog named Negro joined us. According to our guide, he roams the city during the day and returns to his home each night. He is well known throughout Cordoba and loves strolling along with the afternoon tour. He even stayed with Steve and me while we ate dinner.
As good as the walking tour was, that’s how bad the hop-on-hop-off tour was. As usual, we were given earbuds so we could tune into the English version of the tour. However, the bus played the Spanish version over speakers so it was very hard to hear the explanations coming through the earbuds. Annoying music filled the downtime. We do not recommend this tour.
We had high hopes when we headed to Cordoba’s largest park, Sarmiento Park. They didn’t last long. The park has so much potential but is in disrepair.
Despite this, the park was busy on the spring-like day we visited. There is a multitude of restaurants in the park for you to choose from.
Our favorite part of the park was the Super Park. This small amusement park was full of mostly happy kids and tired parents the day we visited. Well worth a visit of the young or the young at heart.
What Are Those?
Not far from Sarmiento Park you will find a park full of large, colorful rings. This is Plaza del Bicentenario. It celebrates the country’s 200 year anniversary which occurred in 2010.
There are 201 rings in the park, one for each year and one that represents the future. Each ring has a date and an engraving of a notable event from that year.
This is certainly an eye-catching park. You can have fun photographing the rings from different angles.
Some Really Good Eats
Be warned: the vast majority of restaurants close for several hours in the late afternoon and don’t open for dinner until 8 or 9 p.m. Since we like to eat dinner around 6 o’clock we visited several restaurants for lunch instead.
Our three favorites were:
The Pastrami Bar – This casual restaurant is located in the bohemian neighborhood of Guemes. It has a charming outdoor area and tasty down to earth food including, surprise, surprise, a wide variety of pastrami sandwiches.
There is a chance you won’t be able to eat at this restaurant in the near future. According to our waitress, they will be closing because of the high cost of rent.
The reason I’m including it here is to share this with you:
This lovable cat lives at the restaurant. Don’t worry, if they close she has a home to go to. And maybe they will find a way to stay open.
Sibaris – this classy place in the Hotel Windsor is not far from Plaza San Martin, the main square.
Not only was the food amazing, but you are served a small taste of an appetizer and one of dessert free with your meal.
El Celta – this restaurant specializes in fish and seafood but has plenty of other choices. It is quite a few blocks north of Plaza San Martin, but within walking distance, if you love traveling on foot as we do.
We enjoyed these restaurants so much we visited each of them twice. In each case, the staff was wonderfully welcoming and often spoke English.
During our stay in Cordoba, we decided to visit the Calamuchita Valley, particularly the alpine-inspired villages of La Cumbrecita and Villa General Belgrano.
Our experiences in these two villages were quite different from each other, but both were wonderful.
La Cumbrecita is very small. Its population is less than 200 people! It is also a pedestrian town. Visitors are not allowed to drive in the town. Not to worry though. It is small enough to walk everywhere.
Knowing how small it was we only planned to stay for two nights which gave us one full day in town. We spent that entire day exploring the countryside. There are numerous paths just minutes from the center of town that will lead you to memorable views.
You need to take two buses to get to La Cumbrecita. The first stops in Villa General Belgrano. The total travel time is about three hours plus time spent between buses at the Villa General Belgrano station.
We traveled with Buses LEP and Pajaro Blanco. The buses were very clean and comfortable.
Once you arrive at La Cumbrecita you will be only a few minutes’ walk from the center of town. Our hotel, Hotel Las Cascadas, was just a four-minute walk from the bus station. Reservations at this hotel include half board. The food was very good and we were called to dinner by the ringing of a cowbell.
From Nature to Luxury
The second part of our side trip was spent at the Chamonix Posada and Spa in Villa General Belgrano. Our room was spacious and clean. The staff was very friendly and helpful. The restaurant serves three meals a day with a wide variety of very good food.
Since it was too cold to use the outdoor pool I spent many hours relaxing in the indoor pool. I usually avoid indoor pools because I find them to be dismal and cold. The indoor pool at Chamonix was warm and the room was full of light.
This is also a good place to indulge in spa treatments. They are much less expensive than in the U.S. An hour-long massage is $20 U.S.
Our Take On Cordoba
Cordoba is a compact and very walkable city. Like all the places we have visited in Latin America, the locals are friendly and helpful.
We spent four weeks in Cordoba minus five days for our side trip. Two weeks would have been enough since there is a limited amount for tourists to do.
However, if we hadn’t visited Cordoba we would have never experienced La Cumbrecita. In fact, we wouldn’t even know it exists.
All in all, we are glad we made Cordoba a stop on our itinerary.
Where To Next?
We’re off to Medellin, Colombia. Time Magazine named this city the most dangerous in the world in 1988 due to the extraordinary power wielded by cocaine king Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. While the extremely high crime rate dropped after the death of Escobar in 1993, the city continued to be plagued by violence perpetrated by various guerrilla groups including FARC. The government managed to demobilize the guerrilla groups in the early 2000s. Medellin is now safer than many cities in the U.S.
As we left the breathtaking oasis of Huacachina, Peru to head to Arequipa, we had no idea that we would be stranded on the road for 16 hours.
Are We There Yet?
Our tour bus was making good time through southern Peru on our sixteen and a half hour overnight trip from Huacachina to Arequipa. The bus stopped at 5:30 am and we were all awakened. We thought we were at our destination. We soon found out that we were still one hour away, and that most likely that hour would become many.
What The Heck Is Going On?
The reason for the delay was a strike by the residents of La Joya and other towns in the Tambo Valley in southern Peru. The residents were protesting the granting of a construction permit by the Peruvian government to the Southern Copper Corporation for their proposed Tia Maria copper mine. The protesters are concerned about the mines effects on the environment and the agriculture of the area. You can read more about the issues here.
Unfortunately, they decided the best way to make their point was to block roads into and out of towns along the Pan-American Highway. Large rocks and small boulders were strewn across the roads for many miles. Hundreds upon hundreds of protesters lined the roads, making the option to remove the obstacles unwise.
We heard that the protests could last for up to 72 hours and that most of the local businesses were remaining closed in support of the protesters. We wondered where we would get food and water.
We Have Priorities People!
But there was a bigger problem. There was a restroom on our luxurious double-decker bus, but it was only to be used for urine. Where would we go if Mother Nature had other ideas? We looked around. There was a sign that said “bano”. This is Spanish for what we needed most. Several of us walked over and encountered a young woman who indicated that she would open up for us. Part of her business was providing a public restroom for 1 peso (about 30 cents U.S.). The other part was a restaurant. Eww. Especially since there wasn’t a sink between the restaurant and the toilet.
This is where it gets interesting. She opened the half-sized door that is so common in Latin America and led us in. The dark, narrow hallway led to a very primitive toilet. A young woman ahead of me was the first to enter and quickly announced that it was just a “hole in the ground”. Actually, it was more than that but very little more. There was no seat and or flushing mechanism. Once you were finished you had to get a bucket of water from a huge barrel and hopefully flush what you had produced.
That poor woman used three buckets of water then gave up, apologizing to her friend who was next in line. By the time it was my turn I learned a valuable skill. You must thrust the water into the toilet if you hope to force anything down. I am happy to report that I perfected my technique that day.
And Now We Wait
The rest of the day was not nearly as eventful as our early morning experience. We read and dozed on the bus, walked the streets aimlessly, and kept our ears open for news, any news. Our tour company arranged for a large restaurant in town to provide lunch for all of us. This was no mean feat since virtually every business remained closed throughout the day.
On The Road Again
After fourteen frustrating hours, the roads were clear enough for trucks and buses to pass. However, they had to go slowly to avoid the remaining rocks and small boulders still left in the road. We arrived in Arequipa sixteen hours behind schedule. Most importantly we never felt like we were in danger and we did eventually arrive at our destination.
When you set out on the road you know things like this will happen. If you are fortunate they will happen infrequently and will not prove to be dangerous or costly.
We are very fortunate that our travel plans allow a lot of flexibility. Many of the people on the bus had planned to ride straight through to Cusco, an additional twelve-hour drive, to start their Machu Picchu adventures. Because of the delay, many of them missed out on pre-planned and often quite expensive activities.
It appears as if the protests had the desired effect. Here is an article about the status of the mine permit as of July 25, 2019.
Happy traveling, Linda
Featured image by Ronaldo Oliveira on Unsplash.com
We’ve all heard about ugly Americans. Tourists from the U.S. who talk too loud, wear garish clothes, compare things in other countries to how it is done in the U.S., and expect everyone to speak English.
A Case in Point
Many years ago I was sitting at my daughters’ soccer practice when a very loud man told a story of his experience in Paris. When he and his wife arrived at their hotel, their room wasn’t ready. They expressed displeasure about this and were upgraded to a suite. The hotel manager told them to help themselves to anything they wanted from the minibar.
He then bragged about how they consumed everything in the minibar. He was proud. I was appalled.
I Am What I Am
At this time the only foreign country I had visited was Canada. But I had heard about ugly Americans and how the rest of the world disliked us. I had also heard that some U.S. citizens who visit foreign countries imply that they are from Canada to avoid being painted with the ugly American brush. Again, I was appalled.
I vowed to never hide where I was from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.
And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American, I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.
Maybe We’re Not So Ugly After All
The good news is that after traveling internationally for more than a year I believe the ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support.
In 2018 Steve and I visited seven European countries. I never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have those feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or were very good actors.
Many of our conversations were with Uber drivers. The vast majority of them were fluent in English and loved to talk about the U.S. They knew a lot about our politics and separated their feelings about the acts and options of our president from their opinions of us.
Not to be too mushy, but I often felt like we were welcomed with open arms.
Pleasant Paris Peeps
We met a wonderful pharmacist in Paris. Like most of the Parisians we interacted with during our month there, I found him to be friendly and helpful.
I had lost my mouth guard, and he spent quite a lot of time trying to track down a replacement. He also patiently helped us with other medical issues.
On one visit he disappeared into the back room for quite a while. When he came out he was carrying a small travel bag and several perfume samples as gifts to us. What a wonderful feeling to know that two groups of people who are often stereotyped, ugly Americans and snooty Parisians, saw only the good in each other.
Making Friends is Fun
We also met wonderful people in Bucharest, Romania when we attended a series of group talks at a local hostel. Again we got only positive feedback from the Europeans we met, and are happy to have added several of them as Facebook friends.
We’ve also made friends with several people we met in restaurants and one young woman we met on the grounds of a church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
The Trend Continues
Our 2019 travels took us to Latin America where we found more positive reactions. Although far fewer people in these countries speak English, we never felt ignored or unwelcome.
In Quito, Ecuador we stayed in a building that had 24-hour security. All the guards were friendly and helpful, but one stands out.
Daniel always had a smile on his face and insisted on taking heavy items up for us even though we had an elevator. He enjoyed answering my faltering question of “como estas?” with his equally awkward “very good”.
I will not soon forget the way he waved like a little boy one evening when he saw us coming back home. His openness and good vibes are characteristic of what we found in Quito.
You Get What You Put Out
I was reading a blog in which the author complained that the people in Quito, Ecuador were very rude, and bashed the city he had spent only four days visiting. Someone responded that he did not have that experience as a tourist. The author then replied that because tourists bring money, the locals are nice to them, but are rude to each other.
I did not see this rudeness during the four weeks we spent in Quito. The locals were extremely polite to us, and to each other. They often went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.
I felt compelled to add a comment of my own stating that I totally disagreed with the author’s opinion and you get back what you put out.
Putting In Extra Effort
I do find myself going out of my way to be gracious and not make assumptions based on how we do it in the U.S. We were in one apartment where the neighbors were throwing loud parties every day beginning in the afternoon and lasting through the night. People were coming and going at all hours and had no consideration for those who were sleeping.
I could have gone to the guard complaining about the noise. Instead I asked what the rules about noise were in the building. Fortunately, he said any noise that bothers other tenants is not allowed. He knew exactly who was causing the problem.
He was our go-to guard as the partiers continued to disobey the rules until that wonderful day when they were evicted! We showed our appreciation for all that guard’s help with a bottle of scotch.
Except When We Don’t
I did have an ugly American moment of my own. We were in Panama City waiting for a prearranged Uber to take us to a ferry dock. Since we were staying in a gated community I had sent directions, in Spanish, on how to get to us.
We used the app to watch the Uber driver pull up to the guard gate, then we watched him turn around and drive away. Repeated messages to him to turn around and to come back, again in Spanish, went unanswered.
I became frustrated because we had a time constraint. As I called for a replacement Uber driver I exclaimed “and he probably won’t speak English either”.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew how entitled they made me sound. Luckily Steve was the only person who heard them, and it has not become one of our inside travel jokes.
What a Wonderful World
We have found most people to be friendly and helpful. Perhaps it is because we are seldom rushed and therefore more patient, Uber tantrum aside. This makes us more pleasant to be around.
Perhaps it is because we try very hard to be gracious and courteous, and learn some basic phrases in the local language, that has resulted in many positive experiences.
Seeing famous sites, strolling through great museums, and enjoying the vibe of each city are some of the rewards of traveling. But some of my best memories are of the interactions with the people we have met along the way. I hope that we have left equally positive impressions.
Have you dreamed of visiting the Galápagos Islands? I certainly did. It was right at the top of my bucket list. Then in the spring of 2019, Steve and I spent four weeks as land-based visitors to these famed islands. This was one of our most anticipated trips and our most expensive to date. In spite of having many wonderful adventures, it did not live up to our expectations. We found ourselves counting the days until we flew to Quito.
Here I will discuss a few of our wonderful experiences and illustrate what life is like in the largest town, Puerto Ayora. Hopefully, it will help you in deciding if a land-based Galapagos trip is right for you.
A Little Background
Do you know that there are two ways to visit the Galapagos, ship-based and land-based? Ship-based tourism is tightly controlled by the government and is currently steady at about 73,000 visitors per year.
Land-based tourism is not controlled and has grown to over 200,000 visitors in 2018.
Since Galapagos cruises are notoriously expensive, and we would be there for four weeks, we chose to be land-based.
I had never given any thought to the fact that there are towns in the Galapagos, let alone seen a picture of one. We arrived in Puerto Ayora with no idea of what to expect.
From our home base in Puerto Ayora, we were able to enjoy many of the wonders the islands have to offer. These are just a few of our memorable experiences:
Walking down secluded paths flanked by large lava rocks and cacti to arrive at nearly deserted postcard-perfect beaches alive with marine iguanas and sea lions.
Riding electric scooters to El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve to see some Galapagos tortoises. The coolest thing about them is that each one has a unique look on his wrinkled old tortoise face.
Seeing blue-footed boobies perched on a cliff and later sharing the waters of the Pacific Ocean with them. Their numbers had been declining but are now on the rise. This article from the Galapagos Conservancy, Inc. explains the reasons.
Watching the pelicans and frigate birds looking for handouts at the fish market. The pelicans waited patiently for scraps. The birds took every opportunity to dive down and peck at unattended fish.
Heading into the highlands (again by electric scooter) to discover a privately owned lava tunnel. We explored the one-kilometer long tunnel, climbing over piles of rocks that had fallen from the walls and ceiling.
We then headed further down the road to a corny little family-owned attraction that featured an edge of the world swing, a petting zoo, and a working sugar cane press powered by a donkey. I don’t remember the name of this place and I haven’t had any luck finding it on the internet. If you are interested in visiting it while on Santa Cruz I’m sure some local folks could steer you in the right direction.
The Positive Side of Puerto Ayora
The people were very friendly and accommodating. As long as you had a smile on your face you were greeted with numerous “buenos dias”, “holas”, and even a few “hellos” while walking down the street.
The town is small enough that you can walk anywhere. If you don’t want to walk a taxi costs only $1.50 anywhere in town.
Laundry services called lavanderias will wash, dry, and fold your clothes for peanuts. Seriously, we spent $8 a week to have clothing for the two of us laundered. This and the taxis are about the only bargains you’ll find.
There is a wonderful bike path that travels the main road out of town to the highlands town of Santa Rosa, 13 miles (21 km) away. This is where the tortoise reserve is.
The hostels and hotels all appeared to be well built, clean, and relatively comfortable, at least from the outside. And of course, if you’re willing to pay the price, you can stay at five-star hotels like the Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel for more than $400 per night or the Hotel Angermeyer Waterfront Inn for $300 per night.
The Other Side of Puerto Ayora
Despite the high price tag associated with a Galapagos trip, this is a poor area. Buildings alternate from being well kept to ramshackle, often on the same street.
Sidewalks and street are dangerously uneven. It is not unusual to have to avoid holes a few feet deep.
Air conditioning is a luxury. We were lucky to have it in our bedroom. Not even stores, restaurants, or gyms are air-conditioned.
Litter is everywhere. The beaches and natural sights we visited were pristine but the town was not.
The word that kept coming to our mind was squalor. We realize this comes from our experiences as middle-class Americans and in the context of Puerto Ayora, this is normal. None the less, it was a sharp contrast to the image we had of the Galapagos.
Another thing that surprised us was the strong smell of car exhaust on the main streets. Even though traffic is light compared to most towns, there is a constant parade of white pickup trucks, the local taxis, circling the town. Most of the time 80% of them are empty. Great if you need a taxi, not so great for the environment.
An Internet search will lead you to many articles outlining the pluses (financial) and the minuses (environmental impact) in the growth of land-based tourism. The area, like many, is struggling to find the sweet spot of tourism.
In 2017 Fodors published this article telling people not to go to the Galapagos in 2018. I am not sure if seeing this article or others like it would have led us to make different plans, but I would like to think it would have.
This New York Times article from June of 2018 asks if land-based tourism is threatening the islands.
My advice is to do what we failed to do. Find out as much as you can about the islands and the type of trip you plan to take beforehand. We fell for the romantic idea of the islands but got a lot the unromantic reality.
This trip taught us something about ourselves. We are city folks who love being where there is action, art, parks, and all the services we have grown accustomed to. A day trip here and there to a wild area satisfies our nature yearnings. Toward the end of our trip, we had run out of things to do and were actually counting the days until we headed back to the mainland.
I am glad we got to visit one of the places that has called to me for so long. However, if we had been more aware of the impact of land tourism and what life is like in the towns we either would not have gone or would have taken a much shorter trip.
You may be wondering what it costs to travel the world full-time. I think you will be surprised to learn that it can be less costly than you think.
When Steve and I first toyed with the idea of traveling the world full-time we thought it might be a pipe dream. Our main concern was that it would be unaffordable. Then we researched world travel costs and found that many people are living a nomadic life and are generous enough to share information about their costs.
Seeing how affordable travel can be was the difference between having a dream and having a goal. Three and a half years later our goal became a reality.
Now we are happy to share our full-time travel costs in the hope that it will help others take the first step toward turning their dreams into reality.
We originally set our budget at $3,000 per month. We then tacked on an additional $4,000 a year for general expenses such as supplies, travel insurance, and virtual mailbox service. This put our original budget at $40,000 per year ($36,000 + $4,000).
This budget included an average cost of $1,000 per month for lodging. After our experience with our Paris apartment, which you can read about in Lessons From Airbnb, we upped the lodging budget to $1,500 per month. This put our monthly budget at $3,500 and our annual budget at $46,000 ($42,000 + $4,000).
All costs are in U.S. dollars. It is important to note that we are only including expenses that relate directly to travel. The following items are not included: Stateside medical insurance Routine medications Base cost of our cell phone plan Storage of our possessions in the U.S. Gifts
It is also important to note that we do not have many of the expenses of daily life that we had when we lived in the U.S. We sold our home and our cars, so we don’t have insurance, maintenance, or property tax expenses. We have no mortgage, rent, or car payments. For the most part, we are spending the money we would have been living on in the U.S. on travel.
The Reality: Costs by Category
Our 2018 travels included a fifteen-day Transatlantic cruise with five ports of call and stays in fifteen foreign cities over eight months. As you can see, we spent $38,900 (just under $4,900 per month) during these eight months. Annualized this comes to $58,300. This was $12,300 higher than our annual budget of $46,000.
This is where I should write about how bad we feel for going over budget and vow to do better. But we don’t feel bad. If we were putting our finances in jeopardy we would be expressing remorse. Steve and I are working closely with a financial advisor and he’s not worried, so neither are we. We made some conscious choices to spend more in certain cases, and we made a few mistakes. The bottom line is we reached our level of comfort and it costs $58,300 per year.
Our style of travel was higher than backpacker level and definitely under luxury level. I would classify it as three-star. Our lodgings were clean and comfortable, often stylish, and almost always had a kitchen and a separate bedroom. Most of them had a clothes washer. Our meals were either cooked at home or eaten in mid-level restaurants.
That being said, I believe a couple could travel for a year on $40,000. However, it would not be three-star all the time and would not include a Transatlantic cruise.
What These Expenses Include
Lodging – The cost of the cabin for the cruise is not included here. The entire base cost of the cruise is included in transportation because we chose this method to get to Europe in lieu of flying.
Transportation – This includes all costs to get to each destination and fly back to the U.S. in November. It also includes the cost to travel within each city and the cost of a rental car for two weeks in Byala, Bulgaria.
Supplies – The largest cost here was a MacBook Air and accessories for $1,000. It is included as a travel cost because we would not have bought it if we weren’t traveling since we had a perfectly good desktop computer at home. This category also includes $350 for shoes and hiking boots. You can’t put a price tag on foot comfort. Clothing, in general, is not included, but if something was purchased specifically because we were traveling it is included. We also spent $54 to mail several items home from Strasbourg. According to other nomads, it is not uncommon to take too much when you start out.
Medical – This entire cost was for annual Medjet travel insurance coverage. This provides evacuation services in case of serious illness along with other protections. You can read a little about Medjet’s services in Travelers’ Little Helpers: Our Favorite Services and Apps or visit their website at https://medjetassist.com/. Vaccinations and medications needed for travel would be included here but we did not need any for this trip.
Office Related – The largest cost here was $199 for our annual virtual mailbox subscription and $34 for scanning overage charges. You can learn about this service at https://my.travelingmailbox.com/. We spent $125 for additional internet service on the ship. This was necessary since we were in the process of selling our house in the U.S. Website hosting for one year was $71, AAA membership was $66, and a Rosetta Stone subscription was $55. The remainder was for printing, postage, notary service, and office supplies.
Telephone – This was for the purchase of SIM cards and any additional charges we incurred using our AT&T international day plan. It does not include our base cost for AT&T since this is not directly related to travel.
Other items – We spent $200 for laundry for those times we did not have a washer available, $200 in currency exchange costs due to the dollar being weaker than the Euro, and $100 in money lost to theft.
Where We Went Over Budget
Three items contributed to this overage: The cruise, our short trip to London, and moving around too much during the second half of our eight months abroad.
In deciding to take a two-week cruise from the U.S. to Europe to begin our adventure we made the conscious choice to spend the extra money. Even though the cost of $4,300 for fifteen days was more than double our budget, we are glad we did it.
We opted for a cabin with a balcony and probably would not do that again. A couple of cruise company-sponsored tours also added to our cost. Now we are confident enough to explore on our own. We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the ship and plan to do other one-way cruises again.
In July our daughter Laura and her friend Ashley visited us as part of a two-week tour of several European cities. We decided to take a short trip to London with them. The three-night trip was fantastic and we look forward to seeing more of London. It was also extremely expensive. This short trip ended up costing $700 per day for a total of $2,100. This included $230 to reissue our Chunnel tickets because we missed the check in time. Ouch!
Staying in Airbnb apartments for twenty-eight days or more provides deep discounts. We visited fifteen cities in these eight months, not including the ports of call on the cruise. We spent twenty-eight days or more in five of them and were only slightly over budget for these five combined. Considering that two of them were in France, this was not bad at all.
Our stays in the other ten cities were shorter which drove up the daily cost of lodging. We also chose a few more expensive places like a sailboat in Lisbon.
Moving between cities also increased our transportation costs. We were able to use the very economical trains and buses in Portugal but opted for a personal driver when going from Bucharest, Romania to Byala, Bulgaria. The total cost for this was $225 ($175 plus a $50 tip for our driver who went above and beyond in helping us secure our rental car). We used the rental car for two weeks in Byala then drove it to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The total cost including gas was $426.
Costs by City
Cost per Day
U.S. to Spain
General costs include $1,700 for supplies, $1,000 for Medjet coverage, $500 for office-related expenses including $200 related to our virtual mailbox, $200 for loss on exchange rates and $100 for international driving permits.
You Can Do This Too!
Right now you might be thinking that you could never afford to do this. Guess what? You probably can. We are in our early sixties and are living on money we have saved over forty years of marriage. But you don’t have to wait until your old(er) to travel the world.
Thanks to the Internet you can meet people of all ages who are living a nomad life. Some of them save up for a year or so of travel and others work on the road as digital nomads. You can certainly see many of the world’s wonders and have exciting experiences on considerably less than we spent.
If the idea of traveling full-time is appealing to you Google the heck out of it. There are so many resources that planning has never been easier.
What’s the worst that can happen? You spend all your money and return home with wonderful memories, funny stories, and far too many photos.
Was It Worth It?
I could say that you can’t put a price tag on the experiences we had, but I just did. We met wonderful people, were exposed to different ways of life, and saw sights that we had only read about. We made friends with several cats and ate way too much. History came to life, we enjoyed wonderful art in museums and on the street, and we learned the difference between Bucharest and Budapest.
These eight months have enriched our life beyond words and dollars. And that is really what this whole dream was about in the first place.
Find out what we spent for 10 months in Latin America in 2019 here.
Happy traveling, Linda
Featured image by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.com
Steve and I are pictured above with English language students in Strasbourg, France.
There is nothing like foreign travel to make you examine your beliefs. It used to annoy me when businesses offered a Spanish option on their phone menu. I was even more annoyed when they asked me to press one for English. I felt like many Americans. Why should I have to press anything? English is our language. If people want to live here they should speak English.
A Happy Surprise
Then Steve and I spent eight months in Europe and much to our surprise English was everywhere. From large cities like Barcelona and Paris, to the Bulgarian cities of Plovdiv and Byala, many people, especially those in the tourist and service industries, spoke English.
It was good thing too because being able to communicate in the language of each country we visited would have required us to learn six different languages.
Even though English was virtually everywhere we made sure to learn and use basic words like hello, please, and thank you.
What surprised us the most was how well many of the Uber drivers spoke English. I’m not talking about the basics here. Many were able to hold intelligent conversations about politics and travel in English. This made me wonder how many people in the U.S. can converse intelligently in a foreign language. So I Googled it.
According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 25% of Americans can speak a foreign language compared to 66% of residents of the European Union.
Common travel advice is to learn to say “hello” and “do you speak English?” in the language of the country you are visiting. If the person replies that they do you can switch to English. We found this quite unnecessary. Apparently we look American. Quite often clerks and waiters would begin speaking English to us before we Even said hello. Almost every restaurant we visited either had English on its menu or a separate menu in English. These would often be handed to us before we said a word.
One place where we really appreciated an English option was with SIM cards. These have been the bane of our existence, with sometimes sporadic coverage and confusion on our part on how to make outgoing calls. Although one company that claimed to offer English phone support, but chose to tell us this option in very quickly spoken Spanish, did nothing but add to our frustration. Even with the easy to work with companies we still struggled a little, but is anything related to phone plans ever easy?
Other times we were thankful to see or hear English were in museums, grocery stores, and pharmacies. We were especially thankful for the strangers who stepped in to help us communicate, often without being asked
The Tables Have Turned
Our second year of travel has taken us to Latin America where English as a second language is far less common. Even in tourist areas we have had to rely on Google Translate to communicate.
Since we plan to spend 10 months in Latin America I have started learning Spanish through Rosetta Stone. It’s slow going, but also great to be able to communicate on a very rudimentary level in the local language.
Food for Thought
The fact that English is so prevalent in European counties makes me wonder what those of us in the U.S. are afraid of. From what I can see, being multilingual and offering services and menus in multiple languages hasn’t hurt our European friends at all. The more people you can communicate with the richer your life will be.
I do think if someone chooses to live in a foreign country he should make every effort to learn the local language. But a little help along the way benefits those learning English. And don’t forget, not everyone who is in the U.S. and doesn’t speak English is planning to stay. Some are tourists like us!
Many years ago I was picking out pastries in a bakery in Paris with my older daughter Stephanie. When the clerk pointed to a pastry I confidently replied “por favor”. My daughter quietly said, “Mom, that’s Spanish”.
Mistakes like this are the makings of cute stories and fond memories. As Steve and I prepared to travel full-time we knew that mistakes would be made, and some of them would be more serious than using the wrong words.
Stay on the bus
We started our journey on a Transatlantic cruise from Florida to Barcelona. Being new to cruising we opted for a cruise company sponsored hop-on-hop-off tour in Funchal, Portugal even though it was more expensive than doing it on our own.
One of the things we wanted to do was ride the wicker toboggans. We hopped on the bus and two stops later saw the sign for the gondola to take us to the toboggans. The gondola ride up the mountain was breathtaking, and the fast ride back down was exhilarating. The rest of the walk down the very steep hill as we looked for a hop-on-hop-off stop was not so enjoyable. We ended up spending about $80 to go two stops on the bus.
By the second month of our travels, we thought we had SIM cards all figured out. After getting off the plane in Paris we headed straight to a kiosk to buy a SIM card. The clerk wasn’t the least bit helpful, so we left. We headed to the post office, which was also in the airport, and spent 40 Euros (about $45 US dollars ) for 2 SIM cards. The man who helped us did not speak English, and as I demonstrated above, I do not speak French. Even so, we managed to get our SIM cards installed.
We quickly discovered that they were only good for making calls and didn’t include data. They were quickly replaced with less expensive cards that included everything we needed. We never used them, but carried them around for several months until we finally threw them out.
Slow Down and Read the Email
In order to receive our mail while out of the U.S. we subscribe to a virtual mailbox service. When the service receives our mail they post a picture of the envelope in our account and we direct them to forward it, destroy it, or open and scan it.
One of the first items we received was an insurance contract. I opted to have them open and scan it. They sent an email letting me know it was very thick and would be costly to scan, but I did not read that email. Instead, I verified that I wanted it scanned.
I was not happy to find out that this cost us $35 since scanning it put us well over our monthly scan limit.
Also Read the Train Ticket
The most costly mistake in our first year of travel involved the Eurostar train from Paris to London. We were heading to London with our daughter Laura and her friend Ashley and I had arranged for all of us to get there via the Chunnel.
Our experience with train travel was limited to two short journeys within France. In both cases, we showed up at the station about fifteen minutes before our train was scheduled to depart. There were no security checks and no one asked to see our tickets. These two experiences made us lackadaisical about the train trip to London.
Armed with our Chunnel tickets the four of us traveled from Strasbourg to Paris without any problem. We arrived at the Paris station with an hour and a half to spare before our train to London would leave so we went out for a delicious breakfast. We arrived back at the train station to find that we had missed the check-in time for our journey and we would have to book a later one. The cost was $230 US.
This was totally my fault as I had neglected to read the fine print on the tickets that clearly stated the check-in cutoff time. As one lady nicely pointed out the train was entering a different country so the requirements were similar to airline travel.
Actually, the difference was that we were leaving the Schengen Area, which encompasses 28 countries that have joined the Schengen Agreement. This agreement allows for movement among these countries without border checks. The United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen Area.
Luckily the trains from Paris to London run every hour so it didn’t set us back too much timewise, but our wallet sure wasn’t happy. In addition to reading the ticket (Linda), in the future, we will check in as soon as possible and then eat.
Close Call in the Schengen Area
Occasionally things work out in spite of our ignorance and tendency to procrastinate. We only had three months to go before we set out for our travels when we first heard of the Schengen Agreement and the Schengen Area. We discovered that we would only be allowed to spend 90 days in this group of 28 countries and would then have to leave the Schengen Area for 90 days.
Cue the cold sweats. We had already booked three months’ worth of nonrefundable stays in Barcelona and Paris. I quickly broke out the calendar and started counting the days. Then I let out a huge sigh of relief. We had booked a total of 89 days!
The fact that we had procrastinated in deciding on the destination after Paris saved us. We had been thinking about Prague. If we had booked a monthlong stay there or anywhere else in the Schengen Area through Airbnb we would have lost that money.
All’s Well That Ends Well
As you can see from this map of the Schengen Area we were left with very few choices for the next three months since we wanted to stay close to Europe so we could re-enter the Schengen Area after 90 days. Our choice was between the United Kingdom and Ireland and some countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We chose Central and Eastern Europe because of the much lower cost. We ended up loving our time in Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Some of you would probably be very uncomfortable with having things so open-ended, but it fits in with our travel philosophy that you shouldn’t plan too much because some of the best experiences happen by chance.
Near miss with Booking.com
We were able to avoid a very costly mistake thanks to the goodwill of Booking.com. We had booked an Airbnb for a one month stay in Strasbourg, France. The host canceled the reservation only eleven days before we were due to arrive.
It was the height of the tourist season, and we were not having any luck finding a place to stay for a whole month. We were able to piece together three hotels through Booking.com that would provide housing for a month. Then we found a great Airbnb that was available for the month. We canceled two of the hotel reservations in time but missed the third by one day. This would have been our most costly mistake at $934.
We requested that they waive the fee, saying we had overbooked. We were so thankful when we woke up the next morning to find that Booking.com had waived the penalty.
Warnings Are Warnings For a Reason
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, TAKE IT SERIOUSLY!
It happened to Steve while we were boarding a crowded Metro car in Barcelona. First one woman bumped into him on one side, then another woman bumped him on the other side. They both jumped off the car as the doors were closing. That’s when Steve realized that they had taken his passport holder from his front pocket. They got away with his passport, several bank cards, and 40 Euro (about $45 US).
This mistake was more costly in time and frustration than in money. It involved treks to three police stations and a trip to the U.S. Consulate.
Imagine our relief when we were told that Steve’s passport had been found, which saved us the $145 replacement fee. Our bank cards were replaced within a few days, and our credit card company denied the $900 shoe purchase the thieves attempted.
After this Steve carried a camera bag which he insisted on referring to as his purse.
The Rules Are Going to Get You
Our daughter Laura and her friend Ashley visited us in Strasbourg and then traveled with us to London. From there they spent another week in Dublin and Paris. During their trip to the Paris airport to fly home they learned that if you travel enough, something will trip you up.
They chose to take the Metro from their hostel to the airport. The Metro Police stopped them and told them they did not have the proper tickets for the zone they were in. The cost of this innocent mistake was $80 each.
A word of warning for Paris travelers: the Paris Metro Police are vigilant. Be sure you keep your ticket on you for the entire journey and understand the zones and related fares.
It’s All Worth It
Let’s face it, mistakes happen. That’s life. Why would travel life be any different? Given the fact that we spent eight months traveling to fifteen cities in 2018, I think we did a pretty good job. We made all our flights, only missed one train reservation, always had a place to stay in advance, and never went hungry. We also had luck on our side.
And what doesn’t kill you makes a darn good story.
There are many helpful services and apps that are making travel easier and more affordable than ever. Although we aren’t getting paid (yet) to publicize them, we want to share our favorites with you.
Since April 2018 we have stayed in fourteen Airbnbs. We got off to a rough start and were about to give up on Airbnb. Instead we learned to make it work for us. Read about our first year’s experiences here and get some helpful tips from Lessons From Airbnb.
With a monthly budget of $1,500 for accommodations we are able to get an apartment with a separate bedroom, a kitchen, and WiFi. There is usually a clothes washer, and we often have a balcony. At $50 per night this is the bargain of the century. Many hosts offer discounts for stays of more than 7 days, and even deeper discounts for stays of 28 days or longer. We find the site very easy to use, and we have had relatively good support.
For short stays and side trips we prefer booking three-star hotels since that does away with the need to coordinate check-in with an Airbnb host and we aren’t looking to set up house. In these cases we have used Booking.com and we have been very happy with them. They also offer apartment options similar to Airbnb and conversely Airbnb greatly expanded its hotel options in February 2018, although we have not booked a hotel though them yet. A little competition is a wonderful thing!
Booking.com has a loyalty program they call the genius program. It kicks in automatically after you have booked five reservations through them. The program gives you 10% off future bookings with properties that choose to participate as well as other perks like free airport transfers and late check-out. The discount percent increases as you book more.
Book a great accommodation at Booking.com and be the genius you always knew you were.
We can’t say enough good things about Uber. Although we are big fans of public transportation, it isn’t always an option. With Uber we get door-to-door service, all done electronically. No payments to deal with at the end of the trip, no fumbling for tip money, no worries about being ripped off. In one year’s time we only had one billing problem. It was an overcharge due to a technical problem in the browser. By using the app’s help option we were able to quickly get a refund. And in case you didn’t know, Uber’s app will also let you schedule a ride for a later time.
Our cell phone provider is AT&T. They have an international option that allows unlimited use for $10 per day, charged only if you use it at least once in a 24 hour period. That is fine for short trips. However, that would cost $600 per month for the use of two phones if we used it every day.
For longer trips our best option is a local SIM card. A quick online search tells us which providers are available in our location and what prepaid plans they offer. Plans can be as short as one day or as long as one month. After we pick a provider and a plan we go directly to the store and have them insert and register our cards. Be aware that this requires an unlocked phone and ID. And for some reason we still don’t understand it can take up to an hour to get two cards installed.
Our average cost for a SIM card good for one month is $20 US. This includes data, SMS, and local calls. We have found it more economical to use our AT&T international plan when calling U.S. business.
For personal calls to the U.S. we use WhattsApp. It is a free service owned by Facebook that you can use to send test messages and make voice and video calls.
One service we would be hard-pressed to do without is our mailbox service. Without it the best option would be to have mail sent to our daughter. She would then have to open it, scan it to us, forward items we need hard copies of, and deposit any checks received. Traveling Mailbox does all of this virtually. They notify us via email when we receive mail. We then log in to see our mail and tell them what we want done with it.
They will forward mail anywhere in the world and deposit checks for you. Both of these have small fees attached. There are several virtual mailbox providers, but when we researched them in the Spring of 2018 this was the best for our purposes. We have used them since then and couldn’t be happier with their service. This service costs us $199 per year and is definitely worth it.
Medjet is an air medical transport and travel security membership program with two tiers of coverage: MedjetAssist will transport you to a home-country hospital of your choice if you have a medical emergency while traveling. The insurance also covers the transfer of mortal remains. MedjetHorizon covers the above situations and adds guidance and evacuation services in cases of terrorism, natural disaster, political threat, pandemic, and violent crime. They also provide crisis response services if you are a victim of a crime such as kidnapping or extortion, or if you disappear. You can purchase coverage for one trip or for a full year.
Medjet offers a discount for AARP members. Our cost after the AARP discount for a full year of coverage with Medjet Horizon is $1,078 for both of us.
World Nomads travel insurance comes highly recommended. We opted not to use them because some of their coverage would be duplicating coverage we have though our Chase Sapphire Credit Card. Their policies cover emergency medical and dental care in the country you are visiting as well as medical evacuation in certain cases. They will also transfer your mortal remains. World Nomad policies also include things like trip cancelation and delayed or lost luggage coverage.
We use the free MyCurrencyConverter&Rates app by jRuston Apps but a quick look at the App Store shows that there are many to choose from. This is indispensable when grocery shopping and eating out. You can quickly see that your 80,140 pesos meal in Colombia costs you only $25.60 US.
We try hard to learn basic phrases in the local language, but sometimes we just have to resort to an online translator. As with the currency converter there are many apps to choose from. We like that Google Translate allows you to type, speak, or take a photo to get a translation. We have found the photo option is very helpful for translating cooking directions.
Of course when you are traveling in a new city you need a map. Our go-to is Google Maps. However we did have some problems using it in Europe. It would often reroute us, thereby sending us in circles. The lack of street signs in some European cities added to the problem. We have learned to carry a paper map and when possible we plan the trip before we leave home so we have a mental picture of where we are going. Google Maps seems to be working better in Latin America.
This card is on many lists as one of the top cards for worldwide travel. While I can’t compare it to other cards, we have been very happy with this card. It has a great sign-up bonus, no foreign transaction fees, and offers double points on all travel and restaurant spending. There is a $95 annual fee, but if you use this card for virtually all your purchases you will get so much more back in rewards. Reward points used for travel are valued at 1.25% so you get an even greater benefit.
A note about our thoughts on credit cards. Many years ago we discovered finance guru Dave Ramsey and worked hard to become debt free. This is the main reason we were able to retire early and travel full-time. One cornerstone of his program is using cash for all purchases. The main reasons are that with cash you can only spend what you have and research has shown that people spend more when they use credit cards as discussed in the article from Forbes.
We have now switched to using the Chase card. By using our card we get an accurate record of our expenses. We have found that when we use cash while traveling we often can’t account for all of it. You would think it would be simple to keep a record of cash expenditures, but being in an unfamiliar environment and not speaking the language means we often fail to get a receipt or record what we spend while we are on the go.
Because I keep a careful record of our spending, comparing our ongoing costs with our budget, and I pay the balance everyweek, we are not putting ourselves in the position of getting back into debt.
The Chase Sapphire card is our primary card but we also carry a AAA MasterCard, a Chase debit card for withdrawing cash, and the debit card from our credit union in Jacksonville, Florida. We are very careful not to carry all the cards in one place in case of loss or theft.
In this post I will share some of our Airbnb experiences and the lessons we learned from them. If you are in a hurry you can scroll to the last section The Big Lesson (in table of contents below).
During the eight months that we traveled in 2018, we stayed in twelve Airbnbs. The option to rent apartments at reasonable rates helps make full-time travel affordable. While Airbnb is not the only place to book short-term accommodations, it is probably the most well-known. We have relied on it and continue to do so. However, it was not without some bumps. One host misrepresented his apartment, leaving us with a curtain in place of a bathroom door. Another host canceled our reservation 11 days before our arrival date. But possibly the strangest thing was the solid block of ice in the freezer in our rental in Croatia. Despite these and some other issues, we learned to make Airbnb work for us, and you can too.
A Not So Smooth Start
After our first three months on the road, we were losing faith in our go-to accommodation booking site, Airbnb. We were initially drawn to Airbnb because of the wide range of choices worldwide and the fact that many hosts offer deep discounts for stays of 28 days or more. This fit in perfectly with our plans to spend one month in each location.
We got off to a less than promising start. Our first booking was an apartment in Barcelona. It was an instant book. Just push the button and your stay is scheduled. So we booked it and immediately posted this milestone to Facebook. We were on our way!
The next day we got a message from Manuel, the host, saying the price was wrong. He didn’t name a new price but asked us to make an offer. We said no and asked him to cancel the reservation. If you cancel an Airbnb reservation of 28 days or more (long-term in Airbnb land) you are liable for the first month’s fee. But Manuel wouldn’t budge.
After waiting several days for Manuel to cancel the reservation I called Airbnb and they said the best thing was for us to cancel and there would be no penalty.
With that taken care of we were able to book another apartment in Barcelona for $500 more than the first one. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a small balcony, and I kid you not, a washing machine on the rooftop patio.
Lesson learned – do not instant book.
We now communicate with the host before booking. We verify the dates and price and ask any questions about the accommodation at this time.
Next Stop – Paris
We were so excited to find a studio for $1,000 US per month. From the description, we knew it was small and we knew that $1,000 per month was very inexpensive for Paris. We planned to spend two months in Paris, so we grabbed this baby. The minute we walked in we knew that there was no way we could spend two months there.
There is small, and there is microscopic. The whole place was about 100 square feet. In addition, two things in the posting were misleading. First, there was a picture of a Murphy bed with shelving on either side. There was a Murphy bed, but no shelving because there wasn’t room for any. Second, there was a review stating that the bathroom didn’t have a door, with a reply from the host saying there was a door. Unless door has a different meaning in France this was a lie. There was a curtain separating the bathroom/kitchen area from the living/sleeping area. And it didn’t even go all the way across. Because of these two issues, the host agreed to let us out of the second month without penalty.
Lesson learned – never book a place for more than one month. We can tolerate most places for that long.
Secondlessonlearned – always verify that there is a door on the bathroom. Only half kidding here.
With the second month’s Paris lodging canceled we decided to go to Strasbourg, France for one month. We had to scramble because it was tourist season, but we found a place. We practiced the first lesson by communicating with the host before booking and came to an agreement with the host.
Eleven days before we were scheduled to arrive she asked for an increase of 54%. We said no. She replied by saying we should cancel the booking. She wanted to avoid the penalties Airbnb imposes on hosts when they cancel a reservation. These include financial penalties and a review stating that the host canceled. We told her that since she had changed the terms she would have to cancel it, which she eventually did.
I was surprised that she did not get a review that said she had canceled. When I asked Airbnb support about this they said they didn’t post a review about her canceling because she had a good history. Great way to support your customers, Airbnb.
We ended up finding a place in Strasbourg that turned out to be nearly perfect. It was clean, spacious, and uncluttered. It was a little higher than our budget but we were happy to pay the difference because it had a real door on the bathroom. Even if it was a sliding door that tended to open on a whim, requiring the use of a doorstop to guarantee privacy.
Lesson learned – do not book with any host whose comments show that they canceled a reservation unless the host provides a good reason.
We realize that emergencies happen. Airbnb gives hosts the option of responding to a cancellation post. If they don’t respond we can only assume that they did not have a very good reason to cancel on a past guest.
During this time we had three more reservations booked through Airbnb, two of them long-term. We were feeling a little trapped but knew we had to make the best of it. I am happy to report that all these apartments had good, solid bathroom doors. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t other issues.
The next stay was three nights in London. We found what appeared to be a lovely two-bedroom flat, but it turned out to be quite dirty. The problems included food left in the sink, odor in the refrigerator, mold in the shower, stains on a curtain, and cooking supplies that belonged in the garbage.
I immediately messaged the host to let him know. I suggested he might want to see the apartment’s condition since he worked only two doors away. He did not respond to this. He did offer to have the cleaning crew come back. We declined. Since we only had two full days in London we didn’t want to spend them waiting for and watching cleaners and we weren’t comfortable leaving them with our belongings. And what assurance did we have that they would do a better job since he was not taking responsibility to check on them?
Since it was a short stay we decided to make the best of it. Because of the condition of the kitchen, we ate all meals out. Oh, darn! We were amused that his review of us included that “the apartment was returned clean and tidy”. What?????
No new lesson here. Sometimes you just chalk it up to experience and move on.
On to Zagreb, Croatia
Our next stop was Zagreb, Croatia. We booked a spacious apartment for only $813 US. It had air conditioning and was relatively clean and very comfortable. And it had a real door on the bathroom. There was only one problem, a solid block of ice in the freezer.
We were shown into the apartment by Mladen, a friend of our host. He did not speak English, and we don’t speak Croatian. Steve set about looking around the apartment. He opened the freezer door and saw the ice. Mladen quickly ran over signally “no” and firmly shut the door. OK, so we didn’t have use of the freezer, no big deal.
Shortly after he left we had a message from our host telling us that we must not use the freezer to cool the apartment and if the refrigerator breaks we will be charged for it.
The next day Steve offered to defrost the freezer. Our host’s response was quite chilly. She told Steve not to touch it. She ended up sending Mladen over to take care of it. It turned out the entire freezer was a block of ice, so this problem had been going on for a while. We couldn’t understand why it wasn’t taken care of earlier.
Aside from this issue we had a great stay in this apartment and managed to put this issue behind us when dealing with our host.
Lesson learned – take pictures of any problem areas as soon as you arrive, and discuss the big ones with the host.
We’ve actually been doing this from the beginning. The other thing we do is take pictures before we move any items so we can put them back before we leave.
While in Zagreb we took a side trip to Split, a small beach town on the Adriatic Sea. This time we rented from a Superhost. We were there for three nights and this was a wonderful Airbnb experience.
Superhosts are Airbnb hosts who have met several requirements including receiving high scores from guests, having no cancellations by the host except in extreme cases, and having a high rate of response to inquiries.
Lesson learned – Rent from Superhosts whenever possible. You may still encounter a problem, but it is less likely.
All’s Well That End Well
The seventh apartment we stayed in was in Bucharest, Romania. The host of this one was not a Superhost because we booked it before we instituted that policy. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a very good stay. The apartment was as advertised and the host was readily available even though she was out of the country. And the bathroom had a real door. We were on quite a roll.
During the rest of the year, we stayed in six more Airbnbs including a sailboat in Lisbon. All but one host was a Superhost. Except for some mild seasickness on the boat, all of these stays were wonderful.
The Big Lesson
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We got off to a less than great start with Airbnb, but it has some serious pluses for long-term travelers. It offers affordable places to stay, it has a very user-friendly search experience, and it has very good support response.
Through trial and error, we learned to make Airbnb work for us and you can too by using these five rules:
1. Do not instant book. Communicate with the host before booking to verify the dates and price and get answers to any questions or concerns you have.
2. Do not book one place for a longer period of time for which you can deal with a less than ideal situation. For us it’s one month, for you it might be different.
3. Avoid hosts who have unexplained cancellations.
4. Document problems upon arrival.
5. Book with Superhosts whenever possible.
Happy traveling, Linda
Featured photo by Deborah Cortelazzi on Unsplash.com
During the eight months that we traveled in Europe during 2018 we’ve taken thousands of photos. As you might expect, we have a lot of pictures of cathedrals, monuments, and palaces. But those aren’t the pictures that I find myself going back to repeatedly. It’s the slice of life photos, the unexpected scenes, that really speak to me. I hope you enjoy these photos as well.
Super sweet cat on Isle de St. Louis, Paris, France
Cooling off on a hot day in Place Kleber, the main square in Strasbourg, France
Students learning English at Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France
Celebrating the World Cup win in Strasbourg, France
One pair of very tired shoes
Every time I see this photo of the charming street art in Lisbon, Portugal I have to smile. It’s one of my favorite pieces of street art I have seen so far.
I have no idea why the tables are in the Plaza Real, Barcelona, Spain but I think they look cool.
Along the Seine, Paris, France
Bike at the Memory Restaurant in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
A curious cat in Faro, Portugal
The Seagull, a romantic restaurant overlooking the Black Sea
A new friend at Quinta de Regalaria, Sintra, Portugal
Hedgie 1 on the St. Martin Canal, Paris, France
Domaine de Marie Antoinette, Versailles, France
Shakespeare and Company English language bookstore, Paris, France
Boot shine, Seville, Spain
A cafe near the cruise ship docks in Funchal, Madeira Island, Portugal
A bachelor party in Sitges, Spain
Then there are the pictures I can only carry in my memory. The ones that got away like the two slim, blue suited men sharing one scooter on a Paris street at midday. Or the adorable young woman merrily riding her bike through the streets of Strasbourg unaware that the back of her dress was flipping up and down in the wind, showing her modest undies. Sometimes the camera just isn’t fast enough.