Bansko, Bulgaria: Not the Trip We Bargained For

Oh, The Dreams

I could picture it so well. The crisp air, the snow-covered pines, the stillness of a landscape blanketed in white. Days spent swooshing down the mountain until exhaustion set in. Nights snuggled up in a cozy apartment watching the snow gently falling outside.

After living in Florida for thirty years I couldn’t wait to spend some time in a winter wonderland. After some research, I found the ski town of Bansko, Bulgaria. Three weeks of skiing there would cost about the same as five days at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort.

We made plans to head there in early January 2020 as the first stop in our third year of full-time travel.

Reality Rears Its Ugly Head

When we arrived in Bansko the winter wonderland was woefully absent. The daily highs in town were in the forties and not a flake of snow or ice could be found. The mountainside ski slopes fared a little better, but not much. Damn you, global warming!

Gondolas and melting snow
Receding snow at the bottom of the mountain

Throughout our nine weeks there we watched the weather freeze and thaw repeatedly which made the ski slopes very icy.

Woman walking through the snow in Bansko
Each snowfall raised my hopes, only to have them dashed when it melted.

Even so, we tried to make the best of it. On our first day of skiing, we woke up to rain. The folks at the ski shop assured us that it was not raining on the mountain and they were right. There was a very welcome light snow all day.

Over the first several days we each had a lesson and a chance to ski on our own. Then we made plans to put our rejuvenated skills to the test by taking a long but easy run together.

A Turn For the Worst

After Steve and I each had a separate lesson we decided to head down a long, easy run. We weren’t more than ten minutes into it when I started down a steeper part only to be sliding on ice.

With repeated reminders to myself to snowplow, lean forward, and remain calm I made it down that part. I stopped to wait for Steve but did not see him.

After a little while, I figured he either passed me and I didn’t see him or he was taking his time and would catch up.

When I reached the town at the bottom of the run he was nowhere to be seen. After some hunting, I found him in the doctor’s office with a fractured pelvis!

This diagnosis meant he would be hospitalized for about a week then require complete bed rest for two more weeks.

After being checked out by the doctor at the ski resort Steve was transported by ambulance to the nearby town of Razlog where he ended up spending nine days. You can read about that less than ideal experience in Hospitalized in Bulgaria!

He still needed to be flat for two more weeks then slowly become mobile over two more weeks. We had to leave our Airbnb and I had to find a place that would allow him to be brought in by paramedics.

Steve hospitalized in Bulgaria
The day Steve left the hospital. I was amazed by his positive attitude in spite of the pain and the less-than-ideal hospital experience.
A Great Place to Recuperate

That was no easy task because virtually every apartment and hotel has stairs or elevators that were too small to bring him in. It took three days but I finally found a place about 10 miles from Bansko at the Redenka Holiday Club. They had the perfect first-floor one-bedroom apartment.

We stayed there for four weeks. It is in the country (my taxi was held up by a herd of cattle crossing the road one night). I chose it for the accessibility, but it has a spa, indoor pool and hot tub, and a fitness room. Oh darn!

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

We were able to get the half board, so breakfast and dinner are included. Whoopee, no cooking or dishes!

Photo of a salad
This was just the first course of dinner.

The staff was friendly and helpful and always asked about Steve. I joked that he was a celebrity even before anyone had met him.

We appreciate all the help the staff gave us and are honored to have left there with several new friends.

Unexpected Delights

Even when things don’t go as planned, there is always something interesting or beautiful to see.

I left the hospital to go to the Telenor store to top up Steve’s SIM card. It was a short walk, and up until then I had only seen the seamier side of Razlog.

On my way back I came across this charming scene in a small park.

Man and woman statue in lake
A little greenery in the winter landscape

As I returned to the hospital the road was filled with people in native dress and furry costumes. They were having a grand old time dancing and banging their drums.

People dancing in furry costumes
A Kukeri celebration

A little research told me this is a Kukeri festival. It occurs between New Year’s Day and Lent. Its purpose is to drive away evil spirits and provide a good harvest, health, and happiness during the coming year.

Why anyone thought it was a good idea to hold it in front of a hospital is beyond me.

By the way, I didn’t get the SIM card. The store was closed even though Google said it would be open.

Making Friends

We made several friends during this time including this four-legged sweetheart.

Dog bowing in play
Bansko loves to greet the folks who visit the Redenka Holiday Club

Bansko is a dog that hangs out at Redenka but knows better than to enter the buildings. I thought Bansko was a girl. One morning I was telling her what a good girl she is when a guy came by and said: “it’s a boy and he doesn’t understand English”. What ?!?!

No matter what language he understands he is well-loved and well-fed by the staff and guests at Redenka.

In a case of serendipity, I met a physiotherapist one morning at breakfast when I uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with him by asking if he spoke English. It turned out the Dimitar not only spoke English very well but was incredibly helpful with hints while Steve was still bedridden and worked with Steve once he was up and about.

While Steve was in the hospital a young woman who was also a patient struck up a conversation with me. Aleksandra is a student in Bulgaria and a thoughtful and delightful young lady. After Steve became mobile we enjoyed a delicious dinner with her.

And last, but certainly not least, we were privileged to get to know Anna and Tommy Orhan at Succuk Burger House and Cafe. The food is excellent, but the service is what kept us coming back. These two, along with the rest of their family, really care about their customers.

Four people in a restaurant
Enjoying our last visit with Anna and Tommy
Seeing the Sights

Bansko is a small town ski town (pop. 8,600) so attractions are somewhat limited. However, beauty is everywhere as I discovered on a Sunday morning outing.

Bulgarian girls dancing in Bnasko
A Sunday morning show for charity

A visit to the Neofit Rilski House Museum not only taught me about this Bulgarian renaissance man. He was a monk, an artist, a translator, and a teacher. He was also the founder of Bulgarian secular education.

Room in an eighteenth century house
One of many comfortable looking rooms in the Neofit Rilski house
Kitchen in an eighteenth century home
The bread baking room

The best sight by far in Bansko is the Pirin mountains that surround the town. It seems that wherever you go you can see them.

Ski mountain in Bansko
Ski mountain teasing us with her inadequate snowfall

We had a great view of them in from our third apartment and frequently commented on how much we were going to miss them.

Clouds in the Pirin Mountains
The view from our balcony
Why I Won’t Ski Bansko Again

When I researching a place to ski for several weeks in January I wanted a place that was affordable and where you don’t need a car. Bansko was one of those places.

The town is compact. You can walk practically anywhere, and taxis are readily available. You also can’t bet the cost. A daily lift ticket is $38 USD and ski rental including a helmet is $30 USD per day. Lodging is also a bargain. We booked an Airbnb for three weeks for less than $900 USD.

Unfortunately, there was so much I didn’t know about skiing here. While the infrastructure is good with well-groomed runs and modern lifts, I found several negative things about it.

As a disclaimer, all my skiing previously had been on the east coast of the U.S. on very small mountains. It may be that what I found in Bansko is common in Europe. Either way these are the things that made the experience less than ideal:

You have to take a twenty-minute gondola ride up the mountain to get to the ski resort. The gondola itself is not bad, but getting to it is a hassle. Not only are the lines often very long, but you have to go up a long set of stairs to get to the loading area. Not easy to do in ski boots.

The line works well until you get towards the top of the stairs and try to get into a gondola car. At this point it becomes a contact sport, everyone for himself.

The rudeness continues at the entrances to the lifts. There are no lines, only surging crowds.

The other thing I found odd was that the entrances to the lifts were raised up so everyone was trying to move up and into a slot while being pushed and crowded.

I also did not see any information on ski conditions. The only way to see the conditions is to go up the mountain. One day I went up and between the ice and the huge number of inexperienced skiers on the slopes, I felt unsafe and cut it short.

Bansko is very popular with new skiers from Europe and the U.K. partly because of the low cost. That also means that the slopes get very crowded.

As Steve’s accident showed, there was no warning of dangerous conditions and runs were kept open even when they had significant icy patches.

The last thing that was frustrating was how lift passes were handled. The company I rented from only sold you a pass if you booked two or more consecutive days with them. I was told to buy one at the bottom of the gondola station.

The gondola starts running at 8:30 a.m. and on a busy day the line is already quite long. But the ticket booth doesn’t open until 8:30, so you stand there watching the line to the gondola getting longer by the minute while waiting to get a lift ticket.

But that isn’t inefficient enough. A sign clearly says they accept VISA so I chose to pay that way. The clerk rang up my purchase and I paid. Then she asked if I had 5 leva in cash for the deposit on the lift card. I did, but it was tucked away in my money belt so she rang up a separate charge. All while the line to get the lift ticket was growing and growing. Why they don’t charge it all at once is totally beyond me.

Moving On

Our trip to Bansko did not turn out anything like we anticipated but even so, we left with many warm memories. As we often find, it is the people we meet as we travel that have the greatest impact on us. Hopefully, the feeling is mutual.

Steve has skied his last slope. I, however, intend to try again next winter. I welcome any suggestions about great ski resorts that don’t require you to have a car.

Our next stop is Budapest, Hungary. The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc in parts of the world and we expect some stumbling blocks because of it.

Stay safe and healthy,
Linda

 

Featured image by Ben White on Unsplash

Our Top 10 Latin American Highlights: 2019

When you are heading to a new location you think about the famous sights you plan to see. But often your best memories are of the little things that no trip planning could have anticipated.

From February through November of 2019 we traveled throughout Latin America. These are our top ten Latin American highlights in no particular order.

1. Riding Scooters in the Galapagos Islands

Woman riding an electric scooter

I may look like a nerd, but I just don’t care. This was the best day we had in the Galapagos.

We rented scooters in town and rode them into the countryside to visit the El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz Island.

Galapagos tortoise with grass in his mouth

We ran into this adorable guy at the reserve.

Galapagos tortoise crossing the street

This fellow couldn’t be contained. We saw him crossing the road on our way back to town.

Horse standing in the road

We also saw this free-range horse just walking down the road.

Read more about our four weeks in the Galápagos Islands here.

2. Spending Three Days in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

We took the bus from the capital of San Jose to the Caribbean coast. When we arrived in Puerto Viejo our first thought was “where the heck are we?” This place looked kind of rough. The name translates into “old port”, so that should have been a clue.

It didn’t take us long to see the charm. By the afternoon we were in love. The beach is just yards away from a wooded hiking area where you can see wild howler monkeys and sloths.

A beachside restaurant

Many restaurants line the beach and embody the phrase “pura vida” (pure life).

Sloth hanging upside down

We enjoyed a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center. The name is misleading because they rescue and rehabilitate many species. We learned that many sloths are injured or killed when they chew through electric wires. Continue reading “Our Top 10 Latin American Highlights: 2019”

10 Things Airbnb Hosts Can Do Better

A rental from Airbnb gives you more than a hotel room for less money. What’s not to love?

Steve and I are currently in our twenty-fifth Airbnb rental since beginning our worldwide travels in April 2018. Overall our experiences have been very good. Even so, we have identified ten things Airbnb hosts can do better.

For even more information you can read about our Airbnb experiences during our first year of travel in Lessons From Airbnb.

Much More Good Than Bad

Now that we have our groove on we can quickly identify apartments that meet our needs. Since we typically rent for four weeks we look for a full kitchen with a range, a full-size refrigerator, a separate bedroom, a clothes washer (a dryer is a plus but not common in many cities), and of course wifi. We also look for a living room that looks comfortable to relax in after having stayed in one place with a very cheap sofa that sat low on the floor in front of a TV that was only a foot below the ceiling. Seriously, you haven’t seen anything until you see the weird ways people chose to decorate.

Most of our hosts have done a great job of providing a clean and pleasant environment. Many have provided welcome food. Wine is definitely appreciated but we really appreciate having a few bottles of drinking water available, especially in places where the tap water isn’t safe to drink. We have found the linens to be clean and in good repair, and there is usually at least one flat-screen TV.

Basket of flowers
One host left these pretty flowers along with chocolate and wine.

I could go on and on about the pleasure of staying with hosts who care about the quality of their guests’ experience. But this article is about the things hosts can do better. We have repeatedly found hosts coming up short in these ten areas:

Little Things Mean a Lot
1. More Hangers Please

Our rentals have always had clothes hangers. They have almost always had too few hangers. Six seems to be the number of hangers hosts feel their guests will need. I can tell them right now, we need more hangers! At least six per person. Preferably more. We have begun carrying our own hangers but would prefer not to.

2. And More Than One Mirror
Monkey looking in a mirror
Photo credit Andre Mouton on Unsplash.com

We usually have only one bathroom. Not always fun if you are traveling with another person (if you get my drift). We carry a bottle of Poo~Pourri for this very reason. Even so, you don’t always want to enter that room immediately after someone else has used it.

This can be a problem if you are getting ready to go out and need a mirror. Or maybe someone else is trying to get ready at the same time. That leads to our second request. A mirror outside of the bathroom. Extra points if it is a full-length mirror.

3. Speaking of Bathrooms

Maybe because we are staying in one place for so long we are sensitive to storage space. Many bathrooms have an under sink cabinet where you can store toiletries. Most of them also have wall space above the toilet that is usually filled with a cheap picture. How about some shelves there instead so guests can have their toiletries visible and easily accessible?

Bathroom shelves
Photo credit Andrea Davis on Unsplash.com
4. Damp Towels Are No Fun

Hosts are expected to provide one bath towel for each guest. A few will go the extra mile and provide more. This is usually not a problem. However, if the rental is in a building with a swimming pool or a hot tub it would be nice for the hosts to provide two towels per guest. It isn’t fun to dry off at the pool and then have to dry off from your shower with the damp, chlorine scented towel.

5. One More Bathroom Suggestion

Another thing that is often lacking is a mat to use in front of the shower or tub. Guests really don’t want to be drying off with the same towel that was just on the floor.

6. Decent Beds, So-So Sofas

We usually find the beds in our rentals to be roomy and comfortable. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about the sofas. It is rare that we have one that is really comfortable for stretching out after a busy day of sightseeing. Too often the sofas are little more than cheap futons. Not a plus.

We realize furniture isn’t cheap and you are hosting an Airbnb to make money, not get into Architectural Digest. Even so, you can’t put a price tag on a comfy sofa. One that guests can stretch out on. Like this:

L-shaped sofa in a living room
Photo credit Sven Brandsma on Unsplash.com
7. Vacuum Maintenance Sucks

Many units have a vacuum for the guests to use. Steve is the vacuum handler in our house, and I can’t remember the last time he used a vacuum without having to empty it, or even unclog it, first.

Since most units have hard floors rather than carpet, a broom and a dustpan are preferable to a clogged vacuum.

8. Help Us Find Our Way

Yes, we have Google Maps but it isn’t foolproof. We really appreciate it when a host provides an up-to-date street map of the area. We recently stayed in one apartment where they had several copies (like about 20) so we didn’t feel bad about taking one and writing on it.

I know we can buy a paper map, but it is getting harder and harder to find them, and who wants to spend their travel time map shopping?

The Two Biggies
9. We Have Spring Cleaning For a Reason
Clean house sign
Photo credit Jonathan Francisca on Unsplash.com

It is a pleasure to stay in a new listing. Everything is freshly painted and color-coordinated. Appliances are out of the box shiny and have the latest bells and whistles. But nothing stays new forever. One thing that seems to be lacking is deep cleaning. Yes, the kitchen and bathroom get wiped down after each guest. The floors get washed and the bedding and towels laundered.

But what about the dust on the woodwork, the calcium deposits on the showerhead, or dirty air conditioning filters? An annual deep cleaning would go a long way towards keeping the unit like new for each guest.

10. This is the Big One

This is where hosts or their cleaning people drop the ball big time. I can’t tell you how many times we have had to scrub pots and pans or kitchen utensils because a previous guest did not clean it well and the person who cleaned up after the guest left never thought to check on the items in the kitchen cabinets and drawers.

Occasionally an item has been so rusty or crusty that we chose to buy our own instead of using it.

Heads up to all hosts and cleaning people. Please keep an eye on the kitchen tools and appliances!

A Quick List

Here is a list of the things we would like to see more hosts provide:

More clothes hangers
A mirror outside of the bathroom
Shelves in the bathroom
Extra towels if there is a pool or jacuzzi
A bath mat
A comfy, cozy sofa
A clean vacuum
A current local street map

And two things we wish they would do a better job of:
Spring cleaning
Checking the condition of kitchen appliances and tools

Thank You Hosts

Overall Airbnb is a godsend for travelers. Every host who is making a sincere effort to provide a safe and comfortable place for his guests is to be commended.

Hopefully, this can be a wake-up call to those hosts who are coming up short on the last two items and maybe, just maybe, some wonderful hosts will step up on the first eight.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Pineapple Supply Co. on Unsplash

Our 2019 Latin America Travel Costs

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:

Four Week Basic Budget
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.

Photo of a living room
Our fantastic two bedroom, two and a half bath apartment with a huge balcony in Medellin 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.

Mother sloth with baby
Mama and baby sloth hanging out at our hotel in Puerto Viejo.
Woman and man throwing shaka sign
My first surf lesson in Puerto Viejo

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.

Woman and sea lion on 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 lake surrounded by sand dunes
We had never seen anything like the oasis town of Huacachina

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.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil
A side trip to Iguazu Falls is 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.

Happy traveling,

Linda

 

Hospitalized in Bulgaria!

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.

Bansko ski chalet
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 mountains in Razlog
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, the doctor was training his son to be a general surgeon (the son was already a cardiologist) and the son spoke English so he became our translator.

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 took the I.V. bag off the stand and hit the call button with it thereby summoning a nurse.

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.

Plate with bread, butter, and an 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 just happened upon this Kukeri 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!

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.

The staff is helpful and accommodating. Steve has become a minor celebrity without having ever left our apartment.

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 Redenka Holiday Club
The indoor pool and spa at the Redenka Holiday Club; not a bad place to be detained

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

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 international safety, other cultures and the people in them, and ourselves. Here are the top twelve things full-time travel has taught us.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT SAFETY
1. Take Warnings With a Grain of Salt
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 it is in other countries. In our experience, these are usually people who have never left their own country.

As we were preparing to leave the U.S. and head to Europe several people pointed out the threat of terrorist attacks. My response was two-fold:

1. Europe may have more terrorist attacks, but they also have fewer mass shootings.

2. The odds of anyone being a victim of either of these situations are incredibly tiny.

This data gathered by Life Insurance Quotes from multiple sources bears this out: http://www.lifeinsurancequotes.org/additional-resources/deadly-statistics/.

The probability of dying in a terrorist attack is 1 in 20 million! Even if they became twice as prevalent the odds would be 1 in 10 million. Not even worth thinking about in my opinion. If you want to worry about something, worry about auto accidents. You are so much more likely to die that way.

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 very 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 if we have any doubts, and we talk with fellow travelers.

The best protection is your common sense and your “spidey sense”. The biggest danger is probably to ourselves.

If Steve hadn’t been paying attention while we were on a tour bus in Quito, Ecuador, I would very likely not be here writing this. We were on the upper level and I was facing the back taking photos. I was totally unaware of the low overpass we were about to go under. We were going fast enough that the impact would have almost certainly killed me.

So avoid the really dangerous places, enjoy all the others, and for God’s sake stay seated on that tour bus.

2. Unless They’re About Pickpockets

When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, take it seriously!

During our first week in Barcelona, the first city we visited on our journey throughout the world, Steve was pickpocketed.

Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket it would be safe.

It happened on a crowded Metro car on a Friday afternoon. First one woman bumped into him. While she was apologizing another woman bumped him on the other side. As the door closed they jumped off the car, taking his passport, forty Euros, and three bank cards with them.

Fortunately, his passport was found and the 900 Euros worth of shoes the thieves tried to charge was declined by our credit card company. We only lost 40 Euros in cash and had to cancel and replace some bank cards. And because this happened at the beginning of a month-long stay it didn’t interrupt our plans.

After this Steve bought a camera bag that he refers to as his purse and his first-ever money belt. We no longer carry all of our bank cards in the same place. The main one goes in the purse/camera bag, and the other two go in the money belt with the passport.

3. We Are Going to Look Like Tourists
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 the most ridiculous advice because you are going to look like a tourist. The way you look, sound, and walk all give clues that you are not a native.

Not only can people peg you for a tourist, but they can do it quickly. I can’t count the number of times Steve and I have walked into a restaurant and been handed a menu in English even before we opened our mouths. Store clerks and museum personnel have also spoken to us in English before we had said a word.

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

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE
Man and woman posing on a porch
This couple in Medellin wanted to be photographed
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 that when we lived in the U.S?

I believe it is the latter. A prime example of this is shopping for medicine. In the U.S. we call in our refill and pick it up when it’s ready. We may or may not have some friendly exchange with the pharmacist and staff. In a country where you aren’t fluent with the language and the names of medicines may be different, making sure you get the right stuff becomes quite the process.

Steve and I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When we are greeted by waiters in restaurants and they see that we do not speak the language they often have a little attitude. Nothing nasty, we just get the feeling that they are thinking “oh brother, I have to deal with these foreigners.”

We do our absolute best to be gracious and modest, use the local language as much as possible, and say thank you often (in the local language). Quite often we leave these restaurants with smiles from staff and sometimes even handshakes and air kisses.

This also happens with other interactions like buying bus tickets. Humility, patience, and gratefulness are the key.

5. People in Other Countries Don’t Hate Americans (or America)

Throughout my life I had heard about how the rest of the world disliked people from the United States and refer to us as Ugly Americans. While preparing for a life of full-time worldwide travel I wondered: would we face animosity overseas?

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

My experiences with international travel have led me to believe that the  Ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support. You can read more about that here.

In 2018 and 2019 Steve and I visited thirteen countries in Europe and Latin America. I never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. In fact, just the opposite. We have found most people to be friendly and helpful. Many people we met seemed delighted when they heard we were from the U.S. and either shared their wonderful memories of visits there or expressed a desire to visit. That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have negative feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or kept their thought to themselves.

I do find myself going out of my way to be gracious, courteous, and patient. I don’t make assumptions based on how we do it in the U.S. and I always try to speak the local language (“try” being the operative word here).

And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American, I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER CULTURES
6. There Will Be Unpleasant Things You Have No Control Over
Protesters in Buenos Airea
This was a common 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 on a regular basis (Buenos Aires).

An apartment that advertises hot water may only have it in the shower.

We all know that travel means sometimes having to deal with unpleasant and inconvenient situations.

Our worst experience during these last two years was being delayed for 16 hours because of a protest. We were on a bus tour in Southern Peru when this happened. Fortunately, we did not have any pressing plans since we were scheduled to spend several days in the next town before heading to Machu Picchu. Many people on our bus were not that lucky since their tighter schedules meant they missed some highly anticipated and costly experiences.

I have shared the details of that experience in Peru Protest: Stranded in La Joya.

The best thing you can do is realize that you have absolutely no control over these events although travel insurance and credit card benefits may ease some of the financial pain.

Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes a darn good story.

7. Using A New Language Will Feel Awkward

It’s one thing to sit at home going through your Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. It’s quite another to go out and actually speak a foreign language to a person who is a native speaker of that language.

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

One trick is to use an online translator to help you learn the sentence before you start the transaction. Sometimes though you will have to resort to using the online translator as you are completing the transaction. That’s OK too.

We have found everyone to be very patient while communicating with us. If anything, I am the one who tends to get impatient when I say a simple sentence, I am confident I am using the right words and a reasonable approximation of the pronunciation, and I am not being understood. UGH. I have to try very hard to hide my frustration.

8. People In Other Countries Don’t Eat At “Normal” Times

The first city we visited was Barcelona. We arrived on a Sunday morning and after we got settled in our Airbnb we went looking for a restaurant and grocery store. As we passed place after closed up place we became concerned that we would not find food. “We’re going to starve to death” we cried.

Eventually, we found a small store that was open so we could at least get the basics. That experience led to one of our travel rules: never go to a new city on a Sunday.

It is not uncommon for restaurants in Latin America to close from mid-afternoon until 8 or 9 p.m. when they open for dinner. We found this to be extremely widespread in Cordoba, Argentina. We adapted by eating lunch at the restaurants we were particularly interested in and having a light dinner at home.

When we visited the tiny hamlet of La Cumbrecita in Argentina we stayed at a hotel that provided dinner. We were not thrilled when we checked in and were told that dinner will be served at 9 p.m.  Even so, we accepted this and were quite amused when at 9 on the dot a cowbell was rung to let the guests know that dinner was now served.

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

Even though we prefer to eat dinner earlier, we survived.

I have occasionally seen articles written by visitors to the U.S. that have pointed out that portion sizes there are too large. Guess what. Portion sizes have been large everywhere we have visited in Europe and Latin America.

9. Tipping Customs Vary

You get the bill at the first restaurant you’re visiting in a new city. Now, what about the tip?

A quick Google search can tell you if it is customary to tip and if so, how much. You can also gather information about tipping other service providers like taxi drivers.

Beware that in some countries it is common to add the tip or “propina” to the bill. You are free to refuse to pay it, but would probably not do that unless the service was truly abysmal.

We ate at one restaurant in Medellin where our waiter disappeared and it took 45 minutes for my salad to arrive. The make matters worse, Steve’s cooked meal arrived before mine. We were not happy and would not have paid the propina that was on the bill, but the manager provided a huge and delicious piece of flan as compensation, so we called it even.

Also, keep in mind that some places will not have the ability to add the tip to a credit card charge. Therefore it is wise to carry small bills or coins in the local currency.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OURSELVES
10. Mistakes Will Happen

No matter how careful you are, if you travel long enough you will make mistakes. I detailed the mistakes we made during our first year of travel in Oops! Did We Do That? 

We have done a much better job during our second year. Our first travel mistake didn’t occur until our ninth month of travel. We had booked a flight to go from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, Argentina. The cost was $114 USD for both of us. I was updating our itinerary when I noticed that our flight didn’t leave Buenos Aires at 9:30 am it left at 9:30 pm!

Steve and I always double-check with each other before we book anything to make sure the days and times are correct yet we both missed this.

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

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

11. Less Really is More
Woman with 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 is amazingly easy to keep things neat and organized when you stay in a small apartment. Total cleaning time: less than one hour. Time spent on yard work: 0 hours because – no yard.

Looking back over how much time, money, and effort went into maintaining a suburban life I wish we had downsized decades ago.

Do I miss buying cool clothes and awesome shoes? Yes, but not as much as you might think. And I get to play dress-up every December when we return to the U.S. for several weeks.

12. Adaptability and Flexibility Are Indispensable

No apartment is going to have everything you are used to, no Airbnb host can anticipate your every need, and stores won’t necessarily carry your favorite brands (or maybe not any brand). You will learn to make do on the road.

In every city we visit we end up buying something we need to make our life easier for the four weeks. We have bought wheeled shopping bags, plastic pitchers, and a non-slip shower mat to name a few. These items usually cost only a few dollars and we often leave them behind.

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, full-time travel is worth it!

Happy traveling,

Linda

 

Feature photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash.com

 

 

 

 

 

10 Reasons You Should Visit 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 that was named the most dangerous in the world in 1988 by Time Magazine.

The city that spawned Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.

The same city that remained dangerous even after the death of Escobar in 1993 due to the presence of many guerrilla groups including FARC.

In 2002 a government military initiative called Operation Orion successfully removed the left-wing rebels. This did not mean that Medellin was trouble-free, but it was a step towards the safe, progressive, cosmopolitan city it is today.

We visited this phoenix of a city in November 2019 and fell in love with it. Maybe you will too.

Here are 10 reasons Medellin should be on your travel itinerary.

1. The Art of Fernando Botero

You have most likely seen some works by Fernando Botero featuring voluminous people and animals. The painter and sculptor was born in Medellin in 1932 and many of his works can be seen in the city.

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 then the Defense Minister.

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

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 though that Medellin does get a fair amount of rainy days. The two rainy seasons are April-May and September–November. During this time you can expect rain for at least 21 days per month.

But do not despair. The rain tends to be in the form of short showers. We visited in November and had afternoon showers on many days. We simply planned our excursions for the morning and early afternoon and made sure we had our rain jackets with us.

You can thank the rain for a city full of lush and vibrant vegetation. That was a nice change from the parched ground we saw all around us in our previous stay in Cordoba, Argentina.

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 upon thousands of homes dot the sides of the mountains as well.

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, 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 originally built in 1930 by physician Jose Tobon. In 1943 it became the family home for Diego Echavarria, his wife Benedikta (Dita), and their only child Isolda. In 1967 Diego and Dita lost their daughter to Guillain-Barre Syndrome. You can see some of the drawings she did as a child in her bedroom.

The couple faced more misfortune when Diego was kidnapped by Pablo Escobar in 1971. Some accounts claim that the family paid the requested ransom while others say that Diego had instructed his wife not to pay a ransom if he were ever kidnapped. Either way, Diego was killed. Dita decided to return to her native Germany and donated the house to the city of Medellin.

The house is a treasure trove of the family’s belongings and the gardens are lovely. This is a must-do for anyone who loves beautiful homes and grounds.

The El Castillo garden
What a beautiful view from the garden

Santa Fe Zoo – We had a great day exploring the Santa Fe Zoo. This zoo is not too big and it’s very easy to find your way around. The grounds are full of lush vegetation and the animal enclosures are in pretty good shape.

The squirrel is an Andean Squirrel. Similar to the Eastern Grey Squirrel but with a distinct reddish tint to its fur.

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 and each page had a gorgeous photo of one of the dishes.

I would recommend this restaurant even if you don’t intend to visit the garden.

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 and 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 tasty and the ingredients were top notch.

Exceptions to this are patacones and arepas. Patacones are deep-fried squashed plantains and arepas are patties made from corn meal.  We could not seem to develop a liking for either of these. The other food that never excited our taste buds was the ubiquitous white cheese that accompanied many meals. I have never tasted such a bland cheese and hope never to again. I don’t like to waste food, but this remained untouched on our plates every time.

That being said, I would be hard-pressed to think of a bad meal we had in Medellin.

 

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 the 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 was 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Month in Cordoba, Argentina

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
Carved cat and mouse facing each other
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.
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
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.

Me standing in one of the rings
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.

Pick up truck full of celebrating graduates
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.

Where To Next?

We’re off to Medellin, Colombia. Time Magazine named this city the most dangerous in the world in 1988 due to the extraordinary power wielded by cocaine king Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. While the extremely high crime rate dropped after the death of Escobar in 1993, the city continued to be plagued by violence perpetrated by various guerrilla groups including FARC. The government managed to demobilize the guerrilla groups in the early 2000s.  Medellin is now safer than many cities in the U.S.

Happy traveling!

Linda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stranded on the Road in Peru

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.


Sand dunes in Huacachina, Peru
Photo credit Koen van Gilst
Pan American Highway in La Joya, Peru
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.

Street with remnants of burnt tires
Remnants of burning tires

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.

Line of trucks standing still
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.

Idled 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

 

 

 

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 internationally for more than a year I believe the ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support.

In 2018 Steve and I visited seven European countries. I never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have those feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or were very good actors.

Many of our conversations were with Uber drivers. The vast majority of them were fluent in English and loved to talk about the U.S. They knew a lot about our politics and separated their feelings about the acts and options of our president from their opinions of us.

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

Pleasant Paris Peeps

We met a wonderful pharmacist in Paris. Like most of the Parisians we interacted with during our month there, I found him to be friendly and helpful.

I had lost my mouth guard, and he spent quite a lot of time trying to track down a replacement. He also patiently helped us with other medical issues.

On one visit he disappeared into the back room for quite a while. When he came out he was carrying a small travel bag and several perfume samples as gifts to us. What a wonderful feeling to know that two groups of people who are often stereotyped, ugly Americans and snooty Parisians, saw only the good in each other.

Making Friends is Fun

We also met wonderful people in Bucharest, Romania when we attended a series of group talks at a local hostel. Again we got only positive feedback from the Europeans we met, and are happy to have added several of them as Facebook friends.

We’ve also made friends with several people we met in restaurants and one young woman we met on the grounds of a church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

A delicious dinner with our new friend Maya in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
The Trend Continues

Our 2019 travels took us to Latin America where we found more positive reactions. Although far fewer people in these countries speak English, we never felt ignored or unwelcome.

In Quito, Ecuador we stayed in a building that had 24-hour security.  All the guards were friendly and helpful, but one stands out.

Daniel always had a smile on his face and insisted on taking heavy items up for us even though we had an elevator. He enjoyed answering my faltering question of “como estas?” with his equally awkward “very good”.

I will not soon forget the way he waved like a little boy one evening when he saw us coming back home. His openness and good vibes are characteristic of what we found in Quito.

You Get What You Put Out

I was reading a blog in which the author complained that the people in Quito, Ecuador were very rude, and bashed the city he had spent only four days visiting. Someone responded that he did not have that experience as a tourist. The author then replied that because tourists bring money, the locals are nice to them, but are rude to each other.

I did not see this rudeness during the four weeks we spent in Quito. The locals were extremely polite to us, and to each other. They often went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.

I felt compelled to add a comment of my own stating that I totally disagreed with the author’s opinion and you get back what you put out.

Putting In Extra Effort

I do find myself going out of my way to be gracious and not make assumptions based on how we do it in the U.S.
We were in one apartment where the neighbors were throwing loud parties every day beginning in the afternoon and lasting through the night. People were coming and going at all hours and had no consideration for those who were sleeping.

I could have gone to the guard complaining about the noise. Instead I asked what the rules about noise were in the building. Fortunately, he said any noise that bothers other tenants is not allowed. He knew exactly who was causing the problem.

He was our go-to guard as the partiers continued to disobey the rules until that wonderful day when they were evicted! We showed our appreciation for all that guard’s help with a bottle of scotch.

Except When We Don’t

I did have an ugly American moment of my own. We were in Panama City waiting for a prearranged Uber to take us to a ferry dock.  Since we were staying in a gated community I had sent directions, in Spanish, on how to get to us.

We used the app to watch the Uber driver pull up to the guard gate, then we watched him turn around and drive away. Repeated messages to him to turn around and to come back, again in Spanish, went unanswered.

I became frustrated because we had a time constraint. As I called for a replacement Uber driver I exclaimed “and he probably won’t speak English either”.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew how entitled they made me sound. Luckily Steve was the only person who heard them, and it has not become one of our inside travel jokes.

What a Wonderful World

We have found most people to be friendly and helpful. Perhaps it is because we are seldom rushed and therefore more patient, Uber tantrum aside. This makes us more pleasant to be around.

Perhaps it is because we try very hard to be gracious and courteous, and learn some basic phrases in the local language, that has resulted in many positive experiences.

Seeing famous sites, strolling through great museums, and enjoying the vibe of each city are some of the rewards of traveling. But some of my best memories are of the interactions with the people we have met along the way. I hope that we have left equally positive impressions.

Happy traveling,
Linda

 

Featured image by Ayo Ogunseinde

 

 

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.

In this article 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 being 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 Activites

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.

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.

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. Surprisingly they don’t seem to be manmade.

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 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. Then heading 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.

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 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 well kept apartment building at the end of our street.
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 sidewalk on our street – seriously!

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

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.

Litter big
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 compelling 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 I got to visit one of the places that has called to me for so long. However, if I had been more aware of the impact of land tourism and what life is like in the towns I either would not have gone or would have taken a much shorter trip.

Happy traveling,

Linda