– In general pedestrians do not have the right of way unless you have an actual green walking man symbol.
– The bus system in Costa Rica runs less frequently and is less reliable that the bus systems in other Central American countries AND the cost is higher. One would hope that if you were going to pay more you would actually get more out of the situation. Sadly, this is not the case in Costa Rica. If you’re traveling with multiple people or plan to visit several locations during your trip, especially if remote, consider a rental car as a transportation alternative just know that you will end up paying more than the advertised price (see my other blog entry regarding this issue). For a week’s rental from Nu Rental Cars, we ended up paying $231USD but were told that it would cost less than $50USD for the rental.
– Know that any transportation that you undertake will take longer than you were expecting. Plan accordingly and add about 50% to your travel time.
– Uber does operate in San Jose but under the radar of the government. Sit up front with the driver to avoid issues with police. Use caution when using Uber though as we had a 50% rate of the drivers trying to take us the long way to charge us more. This is the same complaint I have read about regarding the taxis that do not have or use a meter.
– Bring your own alcohol as it can get expensive. You can legally bring in up to 5 liters of alcohol per person if you are over 18 years old.
– There were a lot of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options in the towns I visited. Enjoy the alternative-diet friendly atmosphere.
– Most hotels and hostels that I stayed at during this trip did not have A/C so it’s prudent to consider reserving rooms that have fans.
– I visited at the tail end of the dry season, which made most of the access to trails, rivers, etc. very accessible and in some cases, even just possible. Conditions are likely much different during the wet season and in some cases we were told that some trails (and even roads) become impassable.
– If you speak Spanish and are on a budget, I would recommend going to Nicaragua instead. You will save a lot of money and can see a lot of the same natural wonders. If you do not speak Spanish, do your research and try and save yourself some money in Costa Rica.
We headed down to Costa Rica for our nephew’s Spring Break which also happened to be Holy Week. While we would not have chosen this time frame, it’s what we had to work with. Over the next few weeks, we bounced back to San Jose to say goodbye to family and say hello to a friend who was joining us for the second half of our trip. In total, we spent six nights in San Jose.
We spent our first two days wandering the city and getting a feel for the place. We ate in the central mercado which was pretty tasty. It’s not a huge market but was fun to wander through and find a crowded soda to eat in. We also wandered through the artists’ mercado a few blocks away which was worth a look.
We took the free walking tour that begins in front of the National Theater at 9am, rain or shine. It was not one of the best free walking tours we have been on, but we received some interesting history about Costa Rica and the capital.
For our first few nights in the city, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Aurola on reward points and while the hotel was incredibly nice and we really enjoyed our stay there, I cannot comment on its cost and value. Note to those who might stay at this Holiday Inn; there seem to be multiple hotels in San Jose called ‘Holiday Inn.’ When we typed the name into the Uber app, multiple locations popped up. I would recommend using the location of Park Morazan which is in front of Holiday Inn Aurola.
We we returned to the capital a week later and checked into a small hotel called Kekoldi Garden Hotel. It is located a few blocks north of the Holiday Inn. We had a lovely stay with a cost of $50USD for a double room. Our room was modest but comfortable. The real draw of the hotel is the enclosed garden which most of the rooms face.
I think the only draw back to staying in this area of the city is that most restaurants and shops closed around 8pm leaving very few options of things to do at night.
On our last visit to San Jose, we chose to stay in the upscale barrio of Escalante. While the bars and restaurants in the area are not budget friendly, it was a nice change to have somewhere to go in the evenings. We stayed at the Hotel Finca Escalante which is located just steps from some amazing bars and restaurants.
Of all of the options in the neighborhood, I definitely enjoyed Impar and Apotecario the most. While neither were what I would call cheap, they both had delicious options and were a nice change from standard Costa Rican food. At Apotecario, we had the chile con carne, a deliciously flavored soup, the Mediterranean plate, and a round of drinks for about $20,000CRC. We grabbed lunch at Impar and shared a few appetizers. And while the food totally hit the spot (octopus tostadas, mushroom lasagna, and meatballs with spinach), our meal cost about $17,000CRC.
We also decided to splurge a little more and check out some of the many beer bars around Escalante. I think our favorite was Casa Brew Garden as the setup was pretty interesting and the beer list was very extensive. We also visited Wilk Craft Beer and Lupulus Beer Shop. We stopped by the Costa Rica Beer Factory but left when we looked at the menu. The prices were just too astonishing for us to stay. We drew the line at an appetizer of bacon wrapped dates for $11USD.
We also checked out Mercado Escalante. It’s a collection of stalls serving different foods and drinks. I definitely recommend the pork sandwich stall in the back corner. Just pay attention and order under the Orden Aqui sign. There is another similar “mercado” down the street called El Jardin de Lolita. Both places are worth a visit.
While walking around during the day, we did notice that there were a lot of small restaurants with menu del dias on 9th Avenue right around a hospital. If I had more time, I would definitely check out some of these small coffee shops and restaurants as well.
Getting around San Jose is pretty easy on foot and Uber does operate in the capital. Now, if you want to leave San Jose, here’s where things get tricky. The bus system is incredibly decentralized. It seems like every bus line or destination has its own terminal which becomes very confusing. We took a bus out to the town of San Isidro and had a hard time finding the bus station because the bus that goes to San Isidro (in the province of Heredia) is not the same bus station for the buses that goes to Heredia.
We wanted to visit the Toucan Rescue Ranch which is just outside of San Isidro. While the center itself was very interesting and the animals were well cared for, I’m not sure if the cost ($35USD per person) and the frustration of getting there were worth it. But I will pass on my knowledge so others can make their own choice.
Once we got off the bus in San Isidro, we grabbed a quick lunch at soda La Amistad. All the food was delicious but the server did not speak English. After lunch we asked a few people in town if there is a bus that goes down the main road, 112, so that we could take a bus closer to the rescue center as it is located about a 1.5 miles from town. Multiple people told us that no bus goes down the main road which seemed odd. We ended up taking a taxi which was about $2,000CRC. But of course once the tour was over and we started to leave, we realized that there are buses that go both ways down this major road. Here’s what I figured out: The route to and from San Jose to San Isidro is a loop. You enter town from one direction and the bus leaves going another direction. The buses that go toward the Toucan Rescue Center eventually make their way back to San Jose. So, when you take the bus to San Isidro, you can pay again and head down Route 112 in the direction of the rescue center and San Jose. If you are at the rescue center and want to head back to the city, just stand on the opposite side of the street and a bus will come get you.
To get even more complicated, the bus terminal to get to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of the country is the North Atlantic terminal. This should not be confused with the bus station that is called Gran Caribe. Because it was Holy Week we bought bus tickets a day in advance. I am not sure if this was necessary but the schedule posted showed there was a bus every two hours but when we arrived at the bus station 20 minutes early, there was a bus leaving for our destination.
If you’ve done any other research on Costa Rica then you have already read that every bus trip will take longer than expected. This is exactly what we experienced. Our 4.5 hour bus ride ended up taking 6.5 hours from San Jose to Puerto Viejo with only one bathroom stop. On the way back, the bus broke down for two hours with no information from our driver. I secretly think Pura Vida acutally means have patience.
-Unless a price is specifically written out (and sometimes even then) know that almost everything is negotiable.
-Before ordering any food, ask the price and make sure that you understand what you are getting for that price. We had many vendors who would show us the bill corresponding with the cost when we would ask “how much?” (bao nhiêu in Vietnamese, pronounced bow n-you)
-We were occasionally quoted a price that was inflated tremendously. When we countered with a lower price they would usually take it immediately. I read that the Vietnamese expect and appreciate a good negotiation. They do not consider it rude. We found this to be true. In some countries, the negotiation seems like a way to try in a rip you off, but here it is seems more like it’s what they think they can get away with. When you press them, they’re fine with a lower price. This is not to say that you won’t run into people whose plan is to try and separate you from your money. Be cautious and always ask questions.
-Most of our taxi drivers spoke very little English, so we were thankful for the small amount of Vietnamese that we had learned. The taxi drivers also do not seem well versed in explaining what they are doing or where they are taking you.
-Only ride in taxis with meters and tell them to turn it on. We used the taxi company Vinasun exclusively as they have a great reputation and an app for your smart phone.
-When researching this trip I came around many accounts of travelers renting motorbikes (motorcycles, Vespas, etc.) even though it is technically illegal to do so. What I didn’t grasp until we were in the country was that motorbikes were the only real option for independent travel outside a city. While I am glad that we did not rent motorbikes as we had no prior experience riding them (and we met far too many travelers with motorbike injuries and accident stories to tell), I did not like that this limited in our transportation options. In Hoi An and Tam Coc, we were able to rent bicycles cheaply, but could not cover the distances that a motorbike could. On Cat Ba, the hills were too much for a mere pedal bike and the only other option for getting around the island was by tour bus. Before I visit Southeast Asia again, I would take the time to become more familiar with motorbikes and how to ride them safely.
– Taking domestic flights within Vietnam was definitely worth the money to save some time. We flew VietJet Air three times with the average price for a one-way flight at $53USD. Beware that the site is buggy and it took me multiple tries to book tickets on each attempt. The trains take too long when trying to cover long distances. The sleeper bus is doable if you’re short in stature and small in build, but if you taller than 5’8” you’ll have a hard time fitting in the reclined seat.
– Consider using a trip to Vietnam as a cheap shopping opportunity. Need new t-shirts and flip-flops…why not get them there? If you’re looking for custom dresses, suits, etc., it might be worth more of a look than we gave it. Even for everyday things (sandals, umbrellas, etc.), it’s usually way cheaper to get them in Vietnam than at home. Also, the pharmacies in Vietnam offer most pharmaceutical drugs over the counter. When we needed Cipro and cough medicine we bought it there and the prices were cheap.
– It was easier to find triple rooms in Vietnam than it has been in other countries. This was great since we could usually split a hotel room three ways and it was only a bit more expensive than all three of us staying in a dorm together (along with others).
– As a traveler you cannot drink the tap water in Vietnam. Thankfully, you can find bottled water everywhere. Just shop around in each town or city you visit to find the going rate. The best deal we came across was 6,000VND for 1.5L of water.
-Vietnam is an amazing country to travel in when you are on a budget. The cost for my husband and I for this three week trip was just under $2,000USD which includes all of our flights, food, transportation, etc. We definitely could have spent even less than we did in Vietnam, but we wanted a few creature comforts once in a while; privacy, a clean bathroom, imported wine, and hassle free transportation in the form of taxis and faster ferries.
– As Americans traveling to Vietnam, you need to have a visa to enter the country and it is advised that you obtain the visa before you get to Vietnam. When we went looking for visa information, we were directed to a website (http://vietnamembassy-usa.org/consular) and email address (email@example.com). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.
During our stay on Cat Ba, we stayed in two separate hotels. First, we stayed at the Hai Long Hotel. We had a spacious room with a view of the water and breakfast was included. At 600,000VND (for a triple room) per night, it was one of the more expensive places we stayed yet still under budget. This hotel was really nice by Vietnamese standards but it still had some oddities. For instance, our bathroom had a bathtub but no shower curtain, making it essentially still a wet bathroom. Also, the elevators smelled like gasoline and the hot water was heated with coal brought in by the employees through the lobby. Overall, it has a great location in town and was a better option than other hotels we looked at (and better than the other hotel we stayed in).
We spent one night at Le Pont. While the amenities at Le Pont are wonderful (great views, 20% off already affordable food and drinks, and a less congested location but still walking distance to town) the rooms were another story. Kyle and I splurged for the bungalow, which was nice since it had its own bathroom, but the bed was really hard (much like most beds we slept in while in Vietnam). Also we weren’t given any sheets and the pillows had mold growing on them. Because the bungalow is located near reception and a lounge area, light poured into our room throughout the night. For $22USD, we expected more given that our usual room cost about $27USD a night for all three of us.
Rheanna had a similarly bad experience with her private room ($10USD). It was separated from the dormitory by only a slatted wall, which did not block sound at all. She was pretty sure that her bedding had not been changed between her and the previous guest. Also her room was located right behind the bar at Le Pont, which sometimes has music blaring into the wee hours. Le Pont has great reviews online, so if you still want to stay there I would give this advice: in the low season, arrive before booking a room and only stay on the left side of the reception area. There is a ramp up to the bar area on the right and that is where most of the dorm rooms and private rooms are located. The left side was significantly quieter when we were there then the right side. The views from Le Pont are beautiful, so if you are going to stay there, spend some time enjoying it. We had two day tours planned and therefore really didn’t get to enjoy the view.
While on Cat Ba, we took two day tours around Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays. We had saved some money by staying on land at night and going on different tours during the day. Plus, the weather was not amazing while we were there, so the overnight on a boat would not have been clear or warm. We took our first day tour with Asia Outdoors because we’d heard they were the best and worth the extra money. On the tour of Lan Ha Bay, we boated for about an hour, kayaked for 1.5 hours, then had a delicious lunch. After lunch, we boated around for another hour and then kayaked for one hour. Our guide for the day was named Fouk and while he was nice and he answered our direct questions, he was not very forthcoming with the history and make up of the nature surrounding us and provided minimal instruction on how to kayak . He also didn’t have a commanding presence over our group. The tour was fun and I felt safe on the boat, but I expected more out of the tour. At a cost of 495,000VND per person for a double kayak and 600,000VND for a single person (which did not necessarily mean you would get a single kayak if you wanted it), it wasn’t the stellar experience I hoped for. Maybe I have been spoiled by great guided tours in the past (see blog entries for Canada and Maine).
The next day, we took another day tour (one that was offered at Le Pont Hotel) which included boating, kayaking, a visit to Monkey Island, and lunch on the boat. For $16USD per person this tour did not include an English speaking guide but the plan for the day was just as unexplained as the day before with Asia Outdoors. We were first dropped off on Monkey Island for one hour with no mention of the fact that the monkeys are somewhat aggressive and will try and take your objects out of your hand. Thankfully, we knew this ahead of time and were prepared to guard our belongings closely. We then boarded the boat again and later kayaked for the first time with the guide for about an hour. The afternoon kayaking session was 40 minutes long and our guide did not join us in the water. Lunch was provided and was just as tasty as the lunch we had with Asia Outdoors. All in all, it was roughly the same tour for a lower price. We were just happy to be out on the water for day.
It did not seem like we could haggle the tour price at Asia Outdoors though we definitely had to discuss the price that we saw on their website versus the price they were quoting us. As for the other tour, we definitely got a discount from Le Pont but found out that others on the tour were able to get it a bit cheaper ($15USD per person instead of $16USD per person). I’m not sure what you can get away with in high season, but we definitely tried to haggle down prices everywhere we went.
The Vietnamese food in Cat Ba wasn’t amazing but if you do a little searching (and get off the main street near the water), the options get better and cheaper. We did eat and drink at a restaurant/bar called the Flightless Bird Bar. The drink prices were good (Vietnamese liquor and soda for 28,00VND) and the pizza was delicious. Just past the Flightless Bird Bar there is a little Vietnamese place with phở, bún, and rice dishes that were really tasty and the prices were great, about 35,000-40,000VND per bowl.
–While in Australia, keep in mind that pedestrians do not always have the right of way in crosswalks. Cars will not stop for you when you crossing in a crosswalk unless it is striped. If driving there, be aware that the driving lanes seem to be more narrow than in the U.S. I felt like we had a few close calls with semi-trucks while on the highway.
–Lunch is served from around 11:30am – 2pm in most towns and cities. As you get into smaller towns, most restaurants and cafes close or stop serving food after these hours. We ran into this more than once. Thankfully, we had snacks in the car to sustain us. Also, Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.
–Alcohol is quite expensive in Australia. I recommend bringing some with you. Allotment information can be found here.
–Pharmacies (chemists) can provide you with many over-the-counter options for basic medical issues (colds, aches and pains, etc.), but these remedies are not cheap. A bottle of cough suppressant can cost around $20 AUD. Obviously, illnesses cannot always be predicted but taking a basic first aid kit and OTC medicines with you can save you some money.
–Each state has its own tourism website which has lots of helpful information. Be aware that each Australian state is rather vast, so sometimes the site will recommend towns or attractions that are nowhere near your chosen location. Still, it was a great resource for National Parks, accommodations, and attractions. Here is the website for New South Wales.
–For those of us with credit cards issued by American banks, beware of Australia’s rules regarding credit cards. Most credit cards have a chip and a PIN making them more secure for the credit card companies, the merchants, and the users. Currently, the United States does not offer chip and PIN cards, rather we use a signature to validate our use of the card. While visiting Australia in November 2014, I had multiple merchants deny my credit card because I did not have a PIN. It seemed as though this was a new rule change because I did not encounter it everywhere. Eventually, I began asking if my credit card with signature would be accepted before the purchasing process began. U.S. banks are slated to offer credit cards with chips by October 2015, but most will be chip and signature, not chip and PIN. Check with your bank prior to travel and be prepared to use cash. Click here for a news article discussing this issue.
We headed out of Sydney and drove down through the Royal National Park. We were hoping to get close to the coast on this route, though that turned out not to be the case. The drive through the park was green and lush, but no sea view was had. I think if we were to do this again, I would take the M1 to the town or Waterfall or Helensburg and then cut over to the coastal road from there. Once we made it to the coastal road, we drove through quaint little towns right on the water. Most had beaches and parking tended to be free.
Enjoying the tidal pool
We eventually made it as far as Wollongong before we looked for a place to stay. Along the way, we searched Airbnb.com and were lucky enough to find Jack’s place right near the beach. At $161 USD per night for four people, the apartment was a great deal. Street parking was free and we were right across the road from not only the water, but also from a public pool and a man made tidal pool. For dinner, we ate at The [M]eatery. We decide that if we couldn’t be home for American Thanksgiving, we would gorge ourselves on multiple meats instead of the traditional turkey. We had been told that is was a pricey restaurant, but I thought it was reasonable for what we received and how full we were when we left. At about $40 AUD per person, we ordered a shareable platter of meats, a few appetizers, desserts, and drinks.
While we weren’t in town long, but we did enjoy some time at the Crown Street Mall. In the afternoon, we stopped in a little bar and restaurant called His Boy Elroy for happy hour. It’s a small joint with great drink options and a diverse menu. We returned to the mall the next morning (a Friday) for a craft fair which was set up right between the two main buildings of the mall. I thought combining a traditional shopping mall with booths for handmade crafts and produce was a wonderful idea.
Also while in Wollongong, we visited the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple. This is not just a single building, but an entire complex of breathtakingly beautiful structures. As I was not dressed appropriately (I was wearing shorts), I did not go into the prayer halls or other buildings. Instead, I peered in from the doorways and wandered the grounds which are beautiful and serene. The visit was free and was a calming change from the hustle and bustle of Wollongong.
Nan Tien Buddhist Temple in Wollongong
Continuing south along the coastal road, we finally made it to our first real destination of this roadtrip-Murramarang NationalPark. This park is off the main road and is not so much a national park as it is a publicly owned coastal area. When driving in, keep an eye out for kangaroos bouncing about. This is one of a few places where you can see kangaroos grazing on or near the coast, sometimes even hanging out on the rocks near the water. Keep in mind that kangaroos are nocturnal so going early in the morning or in the early evening is best. We arrived around 4 p.m. and were able to watch them hangout in a large grassy area behind some homes. We got as close as they would allow (about 50 feet) though we kept in mind that they are wild animals. According to Wikipedia, they don’t tend to be aggressive, but we didn’t want to take a chance.
While visiting Sydney, a local told me, “Sydney is a great city to be in if you have some money in your pocket.” Without it, it’s a tough city to enjoy since your money doesn’t go very far. We stayed in the Rocks area of Sydney for our first few days. We used points to stay at the Holiday Inn on George Street. We only stayed one night here and since it would have cost us a pretty penny (about $400 USD a night), we took advantage of being so close to the action and the sites. We also took at advantage of their rooftop pool and hot tub with amazing views.
View from the rooftop pool at the Holiday Inn
While in Sydney, we took a free walking tour which was advertised everywhere. It took about 3 hours starting in Hyde Park and ending just under the bridge in the Rocks. It was informative and helped us to understand the area. Our guide also gave us recommendations on things to do, things to skip based on price, and an overview on how the buses, trains, and ferry systems work.
I also took the tour of the Sydney Opera House and while the building itself is inspiring, I don’t think the $37 AUD tour was worth it. You are told of the history and shown a handful of the theaters inside but I think my money would have been better spent towards a ticket to see a show.
The Sydney Opera House from afar
After two days of sightseeing, we headed south for a few days but returned later in the week and stayed this time at the Holiday Inn in Pott’s Point. While the hotel (paid for on points again) was further from the Central Business District and some of the sights, it wasn’t too far from Hyde Park and had much more affordable restaurants and bars that actually honored the practice of happy hour. The average bar offered $5 AUD beers and glasses of wine during happy hour. There were also a lot of lunch deals for around $10-12 AUD. Once of these was Boca Grill on the corner of Victoria Street & Liverpool Street. I ordered a glass of wine and an empanada that was enormous for a total of $10 AUD. We took the obligatory trip to Bondi Beach which is beautiful and the place to be seen. Public parking at the beach costs $7 AUD per hour. When we headed back into town a few days later, we also visited Manly Beach which was much more laid back and not as built up.