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Wind and Whim’s 2019 Travel Costs: Latin America

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.

The Budget

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:

ItemBudget
Lodging$1,500
Food$1,300
Transportation
& Activites
$1,000
Total$3,800

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:

LocationActual CostBudgetOver (Under)
San Jose,
Costa Rica
$4,200$3,500$700
Panama City,
Panama
$2,900$3,500($600)
Cartagena,
Colombia
$3,700$3,800($100)
Galapagos Is.,
Ecuador
$5,500$5,000$500
Quito,
Ecuador
$2,400$3,100($700)
Cuenca,
Ecuador
$2,800$3,800($1,000)
Various Cities,
Peru
$6,100$3,800$2,300
Buenos Aires,
Argentina
$7,200$7,700($500)
Cordoba,
Argentina
$3,100$3,800($700)
Medellin,
Colombia
$4,000$3,800$200
Flight back to U.S.
$100$400($300)
General
Expenses
$2,900$3,400($500)
Totals$44,900$45,600($700)

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:

CategoryCost
Lodging
$15,400
Food$13,600
Transportation$8,800
Activities$3,400
Supplies$500
Medical$2,200
Office Related$200
Telephone$500
Other$300
Total$44,900


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.

A modern living room opened to a balcony
Our fantastic apartment in Medellin had two bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, and a huge balcony. It was only $1,350 for four weeks.
Cost By Location
LocationTotal CostDaysCost per Day
San Jose,
Costa Rica
$4,20028
$150


Panama City,
Panama
$2,900

28$104
Cartagena,
Colombia
$3,70028$132
Galapagos
Islands,
Ecuador
$5,50028$196
Quito,
Ecuador
$2,40028$86
Cuenca,
Ecuador
$2,80027$104
Peru Tour$6,10029$210
Buenos Aires,
Argentina
$7,20056$129
Cordoba,
Argentina
$3,10028$111
Medellin,
Colombia
$4,00028$143
Flight to U.S.*$100
1$100

Subtotals
$42,000309$136
General
Expenses

$2,900309$9
Totals$44,900
309$145

* 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.

A sloth with a baby hanging from a branch
Mama and baby sloth hanging out at our hotel in Puerto Viejo.
Man and woman throwing shaka sign
With my instructor in Puerto Viejo for my very first surf lesson.

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.

A woman and a sea lion on a beach
A morning hike led us to La Loberia where it was just us and the sea lions.

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.

A small lake surrounded by palm trees and sand dunes
We had never seen anything like the oasis town of Huacachina, Peru.

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
ItemCost
Flight to Lima$900
Peru Hop bus$400
Train to Machu
Picchu Town
$300
Machu Picchu tour$300
Accommodations
$1,400
Food$1,000
Total$4,300

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.

Sunrise over a golf course
Sunrise over Panama City and the Panama Canal as seen from our balcony.

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.

Crowds of people on a boardwalk at Iguazu Falls, Brazil
Our side trip to Iguazu Falls was definitely 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?

Absolutely!

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.

Further Reading

You can see what we spent during our first 8 months of full-time travel in Europe in 2018 in Wind and Whim’s 2018 Travel Costs – Europe.

Also check out Our Top 10 Latin American Travel Experiences.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Jason Leung on Unsplash.com

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Hospitalized in Bulgaria: A Wind and Whim Travel Story

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.

One of the Bansko ski chalets
The beautiful scene as we headed off to ski.
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.

Sunset over the mountains in Razlog, Bulgaria
The view outside the hospital was much better than inside.

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.

Lie Still and Carry a Big Stick

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.

Appalling Hygiene

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.

A plate with a slice of bread, a pat of butter, and a hard-boiled egg.
Breakfast time.

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.

Children performing a Kukeri ceremony in Razlog, Bulgaria
I happened upon this Kukeri festival on my way back to the hospital.

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 Get What You Pay For

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.

Indoor pool and spa at the Redenka Holiday Club
The indoor pool and spa at the Redenka Holiday Club, not a bad place to spend four weeks.

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.

Happy (and safe) traveling,
Linda

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12 Things Full-Time Travel Has Taught Us

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 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
Woman hiding under a sheet
Don’t be afraid. It isn’t that scary out there. (Photo credit Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash.com)

There will always be people who are quick to tell you how unsafe other countries are. In my experience, these are often 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.

Information from the Cato Institute discusses how unlikely it is for someone to die in a terrorist attack. We are talking about odds of 1 in several million. Not even worth thinking about, in my opinion. If you want to worry about something, worry about auto accidents. You are much more likely to die that way.

And if you check out the country information on the U.S. Department of State website, you may walk away feeling that the world is a dangerous place.

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 and 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 unaware that we were about to go under a low overpass. We were going fast enough that the impact would have almost certainly killed me.

So my advice is to avoid the dangerous places, enjoy all the others, and for God’s sake, stay seated on the 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. They jumped off the car as the doors were closing, 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.

You can read more about that experience, including our difficulty finding an open police station in Pickpocketed in Barcelona.

3. We Are Going to Look Like Tourists
Two children in a city looking at a phone.
Photo credit Tim Gouw on Unsplash.com

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 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 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 will continue to walk down unfamiliar streets with our camera ready, taking in all the new sights and desperately looking for street signs because most people aren’t a threat, and it’s what we do.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE
Man and woman standing on a porch in Medellin
This woman in Medellin’s District 13 really wanted to be photographed. The man, not so much.
4. Most People Are Nice (If They Aren’t Driving)

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 than 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 waiters greet us in restaurants and 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 best to be gracious and modest, use the local language as much as possible, and say thank you frequently (also 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 gratitude are the keys to receiving great customer service.

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 referred to us as Ugly Americans. While preparing for a life of full-time travel, I wondered: would we face animosity overseas?

Even with this uncertainty, I vowed never to hide where I am from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.

My international travel experiences 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. Many people 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.

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.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER CULTURES
6. There Will Be Unpleasant Things You Have No Control Over
Protesters with a huge sign in Buenos Aires
This was an everyday occurrence when we were in Buenos Aires.

The streets smell of urine (Paris).

Nose picking is more prevalent than you are used to (Europe and South America).

Protests pop up regularly (Buenos Aires).

An apartment that advertises hot water may only have it in the shower (our apartment in the Galapagos Islands).

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.

I have shared the details of that experience in Stranded on the Road in Peru.

The best thing you can do is realize that you have 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 speak that language to a native speaker.

Some things start to come naturally, like please and thank you. But I often find myself missing a few words to complete a sentence.

One trick is to use an online translator to learn the sentence before you start a transaction. Sometimes 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. After we got settled into 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.

We eventually 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 widespread in Cordoba, Argentina. We adapted by eating lunch at the restaurants we were 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 would 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.

A cow in a field of grass
Chow time (Photo credit Anshu A. on Unsplash.com)

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 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 to get our food. We were not happy and would not have paid the propina on the bill, but the manager provided a huge and delicious piece of flan as compensation, so we called it even.

During our travels in Europe and Latin America, we did not eat in any restaurants that would allow us to add the tip to our credit card payment. Therefore it is wise to carry small bills or coins in the local currency.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OURSELVES
10. Mistakes Will Happen

No matter how careful you are, 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 from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, Argentina. The cost was US$114 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 check with each other before we book anything to ensure the days and times are correct, yet we both missed this.

We could have kept the flight, but it would have left us with a whole day to fill without anyplace to stay or leave our luggage, and we would have arrived at our Airbnb around midnight.

We decided to change our flight. It was easy and worked out well, but ended up costing an additional US$175.

11. Less Really is More
Woman with a small suitcase
Photo credit @Brandless on Unsplash.com

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’s 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 lifestyle, 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 will 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 lives easier. We have bought wheeled shopping carts, plastic pitchers, and a non-slip shower mat, to name a few. We don’t mind leaving these things behind because they are inexpensive.

CLOSING

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, you will cherish all of your experiences!

Happy traveling,
Linda

Feature photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash.com

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10 Things to Love About Medellin, Colombia

Are you looking for a city that will leave you impressed and inspired? Look no further than Medellin, Colombia.

Yes, that Medellin. The city named the most dangerous in the world in 1988 by Time Magazine.

The city that spawned Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.

The city that remained dangerous even after the death of Escobar in 1993 due to the presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

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. Many of his works can be seen in the city.

Painting of dea Pablo Escobar
Pablo Escobar Dead by Fernando Botero

Plaza Botero in the center of the city boasts 23 of his larger-than-life sculptures.

Two large statues in Plaza Botero
Two of the many Botero statues in Plaza Botero.

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.

Bombed Botero bird
The remains of the bombed bird

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 the Defense Minister.

As the cleanup progressed, the mayor demanded the ruined statue be discarded. The elder Botero heard this and immediately called the mayor. He insisted that the statue remain as a reminder of the bombing and a memorial to the victims. He promised to donate an identical statue.

Intact Botero bird
The second Botero bird
2. The Climate

When a city is referred to as the city 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, Medellin does get a fair number 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 during our previous stay in Cordoba, Argentina.

A colorful cow statue with lush vegetation
Plants are everywhere, sometimes with cows

Budding meteorologists can learn more about Medellin’s climate here.

3. The Scenery

Because Medellin is nestled in the Aburra Valley with the Andes Mountains majestically rising up on both sides, the scenery is never boring. Thousands of homes dot the sides of the mountains.

View of mountains from Medellin
One of the multitude of breathtaking views

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.

4. The Activities

Parque Explora – This is an aquarium (the largest freshwater aquarium in South America), a vivarium, a 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.

Man on gyroscope
Steve on a gyroscope. You’re never too old to have fun.

El Castillo – Is it a castle, a home, or a museum? It’s all three.

Photo of the exterior of El Castillo
A view of El Castillo from the garden

El Castillo was built in 1930 in the Medieval Gothic style
for physician Jose Tobon. In 1943 it became the family home for Diego Echavarria Misas, 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 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 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.

Andean Squirrel on tree.
The colorful Andean Squirrel

The Scarlett Macaw is also known as the flag macaw in Colombia because its colors are the same as the Colombian flag.

A scarlett macaw
The Flag Macaw or Scarlett Macaw
Peacock on dining patio
You might even have lunch with a peacock

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 with a gorgeous photo of one of the dishes on each page. I would recommend this restaurant even if you don’t intend to visit the garden.

5. The Best Walking Tour Ever

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.

6. District 13⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

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.

Street Art in Medellin
One of the many examples of the captivating street art in District 13

Young people form dance troupes to earn cash.

Street dancer
Great local entertainment

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.

Man sharing photos with children
Steve sharing his photos with local kids
7. The Metro That Made a Difference

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.

Metro cable cars in Medellin
The view from the cable car station

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.

8. A Colorful and Captivating Side Trip

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.

Colorful building in Guatape
A prime example of a Guatape building

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.

View of islands
360 degrees of beauty

The climb isn’t bad. There are markers every 25 steps so you can see your progress.

9. The Food

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 always tasty, and the ingredients were high quality.

Exceptions to this are patacones and arepas. Patacones are deep-fried squashed plantains, and arepas are patties made from cornmeal.  We did not 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.

 

Bowl of tomato soup with chicken and avocado
The best tomato soup I have ever had
A traditional Colombian lunch
A traditional lunch⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
10. The People

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 tourists who have deemed it a worthy destination.

Boy dancing in the street
This boy couldn’t wait to share some of his dance moves

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 were bothering you, they would chase him away.

We Hated to Say Good-Bye

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.

Trip Details

Dates: November 11 – December 5, 2020
Days: 28
Total cost for 2: $4,000
Cost per day for 2: $143

Find Out More!

Medellin was our last stop during the ten months we spent in Latin America in 2019. You can learn about some of the other places we visited in Our Top 10 Latin America Travel Experiences.

You can also find out how much these ten months of travel cost in Wind and Whim’s 2019 Travel Costs – Latin America.

Happy traveling,
Linda

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Visiting Cordoba, Argentina’s Second Largest City

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.

Detail of Capuchin Church
Animals flanking their patron saint, Francis of Assisi
Cat and mouse detail on the Iglesias de los Capuchinos
The delights never end

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.

fountain with monkeys
Perhaps you can understand my confusion

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.

photo of the Cathedral in Cordoba
You will see the Cathedral in Plaza San Martin on the morning tour.
Ferris wheel
You will see the Rueda Eiffel, a defunct ferris wheel many believe was designed by Gustavo Eiffel, on the afternoon tour

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.

A dog named Negro
Negro, the tour-loving dog

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.

Sarmiento Park

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.

Pond and bridge in Sarmiento Park
Sarmiento Park has so much potential

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.

Two boys on bumper cars, one is crying
Someone didn’t like the bumper cars
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.

Colorful rings in a park
Just some of the 201 rings in Bicentennial Park

This is certainly an eye-catching park. You can have fun photographing the rings from different angles.

Linda standing in a large ring
A beautiful day to play in the bicentennial rings
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.

Sandwich and chicken wings
Steve’s pastrami sandwich and my wings; health food not

The reason I’m including it here is to share this with you:

Calico cat
Phoebe, the resident cat at the Pastrami Bar

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.

Steak and vegetables
Tenderloin with roasted vegetables; I wish there was a way to put taste in a blog.
Flan
Flan with dulce de leche and whipped cream

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.

Seafood and potato platter
This seafood platter with roasted potatoes for two was more than enough

We enjoyed these restaurants so much we visited each of them twice. In each case, the staff was wonderfully welcoming and often spoke English.

One Of Our Best Side Trips Ever

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.

Four people on horseback
Quaintness overload

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.

photo of a pond
One of the many rewards of our hike
Steve and I with a horse in the background
An impromptu photo, you can’t tell here but Steve was nervous about the horse because he had been bitten in the past

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.

Me under waterfall in indoor pool
I loved the indoor pool at Chamonix Posada and Spa

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.

Young men in a pickup truck celebrating
Recent graduates celebrating; a common scene on the streets

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.

Trip Details

Dates: October 10 – November 11, 2019
Days: 28
Total cost for 2: $3,100
Cost per day for 2: $111

Safe and happy traveling,
Linda

Stranded on the Road in Peru: A Wind and Whim Travel Story

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.

Large sand dunes
From this…
A street in La Joya, Peru on the Pan American Highway.
to this.
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.

A street with remnants of burning tires.
Remnants of burning tires on the Pan American Highway.

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.

A long line of trucks standing still on the Pan American Highway.
And we wait. At least we had nice weather.

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.

An idle tour bus
Our very dirty bus

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

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Is The Ugly American Dead?

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 full-time internationally for more than two years I believe the ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support.

During our ten months in Latin America and fifteen months (and counting) in Europe, there were only two times that Steve and I only felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. (more on that below).

Most of the people we strike up conversations with have positive things to say when they find out we are from the U.S. Many have spent time in the U.S. and speak of it fondly. Others talk about how much they would love to visit it.

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 have been with Uber and taxi drivers, who are often fluent in English and love to talk about the U.S. They know a lot about our politics and separated their feelings about our leaders from their opinions of us.

Not to be too mushy, but I often felt like we were welcomed with open arms.

Pandemic Unpleasantness

It wasn’t until we were in Budapest, Hungary during the COVID-19 pandemic that we experienced any negativity for being from the U.S.

The first time was when Steve went to get a haircut after businesses were allowed to reopen after being shut down for several months. When the barber and a few men who were in the shop found out he was from the U.S., they were understandably cautious and quickly putting on their masks. Then they discussed how poorly the U.S. was handling the virus.

The second time was a few days later when we were taking a walk. A few street cleaners stared at us and one woman coughed in our direction.

Neither was a big deal, but I am including them here to show how quickly positive feelings can turn negative because of something outside of our control.

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.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash.com

 

 

Is a Land-Based Galapagos Trip Right For You?

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.

Land-based Activities

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.

The author and a sea lion on San Cristobal Island
I had hoped to swim with the sea lions but had to settle for a beachfront visit.

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.

A Galapagos Tortoise with grass in his mouth
One of the residents of the tortoise reserve

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.

A pelican eating a fish
A pelican and his reward

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.

Steve with a tropical drink
Steve enjoying a fresh sugar cane drink
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.

A horse walking near the road
We met this free-range horse on the bike path

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.

A front porch with plants
A well-kept apartment building at the end of our street
Piles of building materials in front of an unfinished building
A construction supply depot at the other end of our street

Sidewalks and street are dangerously uneven. It is not unusual to have to avoid holes a few feet deep.

A brick sidewalk with a deep hole in the middle
A sidewalk on our street – seriously!

Air conditioning is a luxury. We were lucky to have it in our bedroom. Not even stores, restaurants, or gyms are air-conditioned.

A gym in Puerto Ayora
Bodywell gym. $3 per visit, no air conditioning

Litter is everywhere. The beaches and natural sights we visited were pristine but the town was not.

A dilapidated boat under trees
Litter big
Two children walking by a litter-strewn lot
and litter small

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.

Tourism’s Impact

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.

In Hindsight

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.

Trip Detials

Dates: April 25 – May 23, 2019
Days: 28
Total cost for 2: $5,500
Cost per day for 2: $196

Happy traveling,
Linda

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Wind and Whim’s 2018 Travel Costs: Europe

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.

The author’s daughters at a wedding reception
Leaving our daughters, Stephanie and Laura, was the hardest part.
The Budget

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 French Pavilion at Versailles
Mow the lawn or visit the French Pavilion at Versailles?
The Reality: Costs by Category

CategoryCost
Food$11,500
Lodging
11,100
Transportation8,000

Activities4,000
Supplies1,800
Medical1,000
Office Related700
Telephone300
Other500
Total$38,900

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.

Five people in silly costumes walking on a boardwalk
You can see sights like this one in Sitges, Spain for free.
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.

Two young women in traditional dress in Seville, Spain
Young women in Seville, Spain, one of our ports of call

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!

Huge statue of Jeff Goldblum in front of the Tower Bridge in London
Jeff Goldblum and the Tower Bridge in London

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.

A marina in the Belem area of Lisbon
Our short-term home 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

CityCountryTotal CostDaysCost per Day
CruiseU.S. to Spain$4,30015$287

BarcelonaSpain3,60031116
ParisFrance3,80028136
StrasbourgFrance3,70028132
LondonUK2,1003700
ZagrebCroatia3,20028114
BucharestRomania2,6002893
ByalaBulgaria1,80014129
PlovdivBulgaria1,7001894
SofiaBulgaria7005140
LisbonPortugal2,80014200
AvieroPortugal5003167
PortoPortugal7005140
SintraPortugal1,30010130
LagosPortugal5004125
FaroPortugal6004150
LisbonPortugal7004175
FlightTo U.S.8001800

General3,500
Totals$38,900
243$160

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?

Absolutely!

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.

Ponts Couvert in Strasbourg, France
Oh, the places you’ll go, the beauty you’ll see (Ponts Couverts in Strasbourg, France)

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.

Steve and Linda at Plivites Lakes National Park
Steve and I enjoying the beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

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

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Press One for English

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.

Unnecessary Advice

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.

Thankfulness

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!

Happy traveling,
Linda

Travelers’ Little Helpers: Our Favorite Services and Apps

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.

Accommodations
Airbnb

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.

Find the perfect place to stay with Airbnb.

Booking.com

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.

Transportation
Uber

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.

Communication
Local SIM Cards

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.

WhattsApp Messenger

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.

Mail Service
Traveling Mailbox

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.

Let Traveling Mailbox make your life easier.

Travel Insurance
Medjet Travel Insurance

Medjet is an air medical transport and travel security membership program with two tiers of coverage: Medjet Assist 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. Medjet Horizon 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.

Explore your Medjet options here.

World Nomads Travel Insurance

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.

Learn what World Nomads can do for you.

On-The-Go Apps
Currency Converter

We use the free My Currency Converter & 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.

Google Translate

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.

Google Maps

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.

Bank Cards
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

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 every week, we are not putting ourselves in the position of getting back into debt.

Find the perfect Chase credit card for you.

Other Bank Cards

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.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured photo by Rob Hampson on Unsplash.com

 

 

Lessons From Airbnb

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.

A small living room with a sofa, a table with two chairs, and a refrigerator
The living room of our apartment in Barcelona. It was safe and clean, but nothing special. And yes, the refrigerator was in the living room.
Two chairs and a smaill table with a stuffed hedgehog on a balcony
Our tiny balcony in Barcelona. Hedgie loved watching the action from up there.
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.

Are with a shower door, toilet, small sink, and towel warmer
The bathroom area in our Paris apartment. Note the tiny sink above the toilet. It did have an amazing shower though.
A foldable table and chair set in front of a shower stall and toilet
A foldable table and chair that became my early morning workplace while Steve slept.

Lesson learned – never book a place for more than one month. We can tolerate most places for that long.

Second lesson learned – always verify that there is a door on the bathroom. Only half kidding here.

Now What?

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.

Airbnb in Our Future

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.

The bottom of a stained curtain
Stains on the curtain of our London rental. Yuck!

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.

A frozen solid freezer
At least the freezer was cold.

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.

Lesson reinforced – You can’t make this stuff up.

Discovering Superhosts

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.

A white sail boat at dock
Our temporary floating home in Lisbon
A toy hedgehog sitting at a sailboat’s wheel
Hedgie settling into life at sea
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