We arrived in Puerto Viejo during Santa Semana so the town was definitely busier than normal but was still a great place to visit. We stayed at Casitas La Playa next door to Rocking J’s hostel. We enjoyed being a bit further from town, about 20 minutes walk as the center could get pretty crowded. Rocking J’s plays music late into the night but it was nothing earplugs couldn’t fix. The staff at Casitas La Playa were friendly and helpful and we really felt at home there.
There are multiple small beaches up and down the coast to choose from (including one just a few minutes walk south that has more sand then rocks though it is very shallow). In general, it’s a very rocky coast but there are areas where the water is calmer but does not get deep unless you go out past the rocks.
We found some delicious food while we were in town though the prices were higher then we were expecting. One of our favorites was Soda Shekina for tasty home cooking. The average plate with a drink cost about $5,000CRC.
We also really liked Monli’s (not to be mistaken for Monti’s next door). We had a few of the fish specials and drinks so the bill definitely added up quickly. But the food and the service were lovely. The mahi mahi special was around $10,000CRC.
For a change of pace, we checked out Soul Surfer for burgers one night. The change was a nice one and we were all happy with our options. They even had two different vegetarian options.
We were also able to eat at the Colombian empanada and arepas place that is right next to Soul Surfer. We came by a few times and they’re weren’t open but we finally connected and it was worth the wait. One arepa is definitely big enough for a light meal as we found out the hard way when we also ordered empanadas and two arepas. We had a heavy lunch but it was very delicious and cost about $9,000CRC for 2 people.
While on the Caribbean coast, we visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Cocles. For around $20USD per person, we were given a tour of the grounds and introduced to a wide array of animals. We really enjoyed our time there though had to walk there from Puerto Viejo due to the lack of buses and taxis.
Once again, it’s the buses that really mess things up. This is the first time that I have been in a town in Central America that did not have frequent local bus service or use colectivos or combis to shuttle people from town to town or from one side of a bigger town to the other. The fact that the bus only ran every two hours was very frustrating. I’m not sure if this is a way to force tourists to rent bikes or pay for taxis (which were hard to find) but sadly that is what I would recommend. When the bus would come by, it was a great, cheap option (and the price is based on how far you travel on the bus) but it was so frustrating to try and time it right. Shockingly, the buses didn’t exactly run on time. There are buses that will take you south to Manzanillo and Punta Uva (as well as up north to Cahuita) but catching one was such a pain. So I would recommend renting bikes. We rented bikes for $3,300CRC for the day.
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.
We had a crazy travel day getting to the town of Tam Cốc. We took a morning train from Hue to Da Nang (70,000VND for a one-way ticket). Next, we took a Vietjet Air flight from Da Nang to Hai Phong. The plan was to then take a taxi from the airport to the bus station and, if we could, get a bus to Ninh Binh that night. If not, we’d stay the night in Hai Phong.
We hopped in a taxi at the airport and told the driver to take us to the bus station that would get us to Ninh Binh. While in the end he did get us to the correct bus station, we thought he was taking us on a wild ride instead of to the bus station. After arguing with the driver about the metered fare, we made it just in time to hop on the bus going to Ninh Binh. We arrived in Ninh Binh around 11:15 p.m. I want to point out that I am by no means recommending this route; I included it so others know that it’s possible.
We had booked a hotel while en route since it was going to be late when we arrived. (Did I mention it was also raining?) We chose the AIQ Hotel because it had the best reviews of the budget hotels in Ninh Binh (around $20USD a night), but the hotel was not nice at all; smelly bathroom, mold on the walls, and hard, moldy beds. Thankfully, we were only there to sleep. The next morning we took a taxi to Tam Cốc.
We stayed at a hotel called Tuấn Ngọc Hotel in Tam Cốc. It’s located just outside of town with wonderful views of the karsts. A triple room with a small private balcony, a large common area balcony, air conditioning, and breakfast cost 468,000VND per night. We stayed in Tam Cốc for three nights and made the best of our time there even though the rainy weather tried to hold us back.
During our time in Tam Cốc, we walked to some of the pagodas, temples, and caves. Our favorite day by far was when we rented bikes from our hotel (40,000VND per bike) and rode out to Thung Nham (also known as the Bird Sanctuary). We rode through the amazing beauty of this place and hiked when bikes wouldn’t do (like when entering the three caves near the front of the park). The entrance fee was 110,000VND per person. While in the bird sanctuary, we took a short boat trip into a cave. It lasted about 20 minutes and cost about 20,000VND plus tip. We decided to take this boat trip instead of taking the one that leaves from the middle of Tam Cốc. We did not have a single clear day while in Tam Cốc so we passed on paying the 390,000VND for two people because we were already getting the same views of the karsts on our hiking trips and our bike ride.
The food in Tam Cốc was not amazing though was reasonably cheap as it is a hot spot for day tours from Hanoi. Shop around and find a cheap option or you could be surprised by a large bill.
When we left Tam Cốc, we headed to Cat Ba Island. To get there, we booked a bus and ferry combination from our hotel in Tam Cốc. It cost 350,000VND per person and while it was expensive it seemed like the best option. We had read that ferries heading to Cat Ba Island left from the Ben Binh port in Hai Phong, but in actuality only the fast ferries leave from Ben Binh and arrive in the port at the center of Cat Ba Town. The slow ferry (which is what we paid for) leaves from another port in Hai Phong and arrives on the Bến phà Cái Viềng port on the west side of Cat Ba Island. Returning to Hai Phong from Cat Ba, we took the fast ferry (180,000VND instead of 130,000VND for the slow ferry) which dropped us off at the Ben Binh port.
I spent three days in Athens so I definitely didn’t cover the entire city. It is a city full of ruins and history but also full of lovely restaurants, shops, and cafes around every corner. We took a free walking tour while in Athens which lasted about three hours and we saw a lot of site. Our guide Marija was very helpful on explaining the history as well as what modern day life is like there.
The best souvlaki we had in Athens was at a little place called Souvlaki Kostas. The line was out the door and we definitely had to wait about 15 minutes to order, but it was worth it. Also, a handful of Greek words definitely helped though the man cooking and taking orders did speak English to me (I was the only foreigner in the joint).
While I was only in Athens for three days I would love to return and spend more time seeking out the hidden bars and quaint restaurant to see what the nightlife in Athens is really like. Here are a few websites that I found helpful.
Note: If you are flying in or out of Athens’ airport during the day, take Metro to and from the airport to save yourself a lot of money. The average cost of a taxi from the city to the airport is about €50. There is, however, a bus that runs 24 hours a day. Here is the link for the stops and schedules. At €5 a person, it is well worth waiting for the bus. But, note that it only makes stops going in one direction so check the bus stops on both sides of the street before waiting.
Haifa was a bigger city than I expected. I also was surprised by the mountain in the middle of town that makes it hard to get anywhere without walking straight up hill or taking buses everywhere. We rented an apartment on airbnb.com that was near the train station. The location was really helpful for taking day trips from Haifa but the area seemed to shut down at night. The German Colony was not too far away (a 10 minute walk) but it seemed very touristy with its chain restaurants. We took the bus around town to save our legs and at 7NIS per ride, it was well worth it. We also took the cable car up to the top of the hill for 28NIS round trip, but I would not recommend doing this unless you want to go to the Stella Maris Monastery.
As I left Jordan, I had to say goodbye to my travel buddy, Katie, as she had to return to the States, but I gained another travel companion in my sister-in-law, Kim, who had joined us late on our Jordanian adventure. Together, we made our way to Israel. Crossing the border from Jordan to Israel was more time consuming but not nearly as frustrating or unnerving as we expected. We took a pre-arranged taxi from our apartment to the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge (which is not really a bridge). This cost JD20. We got dropped off at what looks like a bus depot. We went in the gates and around the corner into the office to fill out paperwork to exit the country. We handed over our passports and were asked to pay JD10 each for the exit tax. Once we paid, we waited for enough people to amass so that a full bus could drive us over to the Israeli side of the border. The bus ride cost a total of JD8 per person which included a fee for our luggage. On the Israeli side, we were given two stickers, one for our bag and one for the back of our passports. Our luggage (not our personal bags) were sent through security while we went through security in the adjoining building. After security, you will show your passport to a border control agent. This is where you can ask that your passport not be stamped. They will ask for a reason and you must provide them one, but the officer I spoke with didn’t seem to take issue with my reason (a future visit to Kuwait). After this, we went through another checkpoint in which someone looks at our passport again. Note that this is the point that if they want to hand check your luggage, you will be asked to take a seat and wait until your name is called. They will already have your passport if they are going to hand check your luggage. We were not subjected to the luggage check, so we went on to grab our bags off the carousel. We’re almost there, I swear. We walked outside to buy tickets for shuttles that will take you to either Jerusalem or to Jericho in the West Bank. There are two ticket stands, one for each. We were heading to Jerusalem so we paid a total of NIS42 per person which covered our luggage and our ticket. The ticket takers will accept any type of currency you have (technically you cannot bring Israeli shekels into Jordan therefore we had no shekels. We paid in US dollars) and they will give you appropriate change in Israeli shekels. We waited around for the shuttle to fill up and started off on the 45-minute trip to Jerusalem. In total, the border crossing journey took seven hours.
Here are two other sites that I found helpful in my own research for this border crossing and trip.