San Jose, 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.

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The garden is a small oasis in a bustling city.

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.

map san isidro bus station

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.

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Note that the star in the top left corner is the actual location of the Toucan Rescue Ranch. The two stars on Route 112 are bus stops for the bus that will take you back to San Jose.

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.

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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.

 

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San Jose, Costa Rica

Roadtrip stops through Romania

When we flew into the Bucharest airport, we immediately rented a car and toured the country. For the most part we stayed in the Transylvania region. We used the freedom of a rental car to visit small towns and to reach trailheads for hiking.

We came upon a cave near Rasnov fortress on the way to Brasov. The short tour that was given was very informative. And at $15RON per person, it was definitely worth a visit.

We visited the Rasnov fortress which is not very well preserved but I think that’s why I liked it so much. Tickets were $12RON and while there is not a ton of information about the fortress, the views are spectacular.

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The Deva fortress was free to enter though you must pay for the funicular if you ride it. Since we had a car, we drove to the top and parked. There is no information about the fortress but the views of Deva belong were amazing. Plus, the day we went there were only a few other people in the fortress.

The Rupea fortress was probably my favorite of the fortress we visited. It sits atop a hill overlooking the small town of Rupea and the fields outside of town. There were many signs with information to help you understand the history of this place. The tickets cost $10RON which made it a great and cheap stop off. Also, if you are looking for lunch or dinner while in Rupea, check out Casa del Gusto. While the name makes you think of Italian dishes, the Romanian dishes are what we ate and they were delicious.

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The Libearty Bear Sancutary was another place that we could not have accessed easily without a car (or being on a tour). The tour guide tells you about the lives of the bears who have been rescued from carnivals, zoos, etc. and what their lives are like now. Visiting this sanctuary was an amazing experience to see bears (and some wolves) returned to nature with the help of their human friends. The tickets were not cheap, $40RON (and to take photographs with a camera costs extra) but I am so glad that were able to visit. Tours are only given in the morning so plan accordingly.

The Fortified Evangelical Church in Harman was a wonderful side trip from Brasov. For about $10RON per person, you can wander around the church, the grounds and the fortified walls of this compound. This was the first of many fortified churches we visited throughout the country. Keep an eye out as you wander around the country as they are everywhere and they each some something to offer those who love history.

 

 

 

Roadtrip stops through Romania

Brasov, Romania

We booked an apartment on the edge of the city center via Booking.com. The price was right and the apartment was well furnished. Also, the location for parking was perfect. When we were looking to book a hotel, all of the hotels stated that parking was included but then when you would read reviews it was not explained very well that the parking available is actually public parking. When you’re in the very the middle of the city center, you must pay for parking. This is difficult because the parking meter machines only take coins which are very difficult to get your hands on. You can pay by SMS but only if you have a Romanian cell phone number. What we found was there if you park on the edge of the city center, parking is 100% free but finding a spot is difficult. If you are on a block with no parking signs or parking meters, then it is free.

We sent three nights in Brasov and while you could definitely see the highlights of the historic center in one day, it was nice to have the extra time to hike around the city walls and see all that the city has to offer.  Due to bad weather, we did not have an opportunity to hike up to the famous Brasov town sign but we did get some time walking around the trails in some of the parks on the edge of the city.

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The majority of our time in Brasov was spent wandering around the town and eating. While most of the restaurants we visited were in the center of town, they didn’t feel like tourist traps. Our favorites were Pilvax, La Ceaun, and Vino e Sapori. For drinks we frequented Cafe Central which had cheaper drinks than some of the bars closer to the center of town.

Brasov, Romania

Sibiu, Romania

The historic city center in Sibiu is lovely but quite small. We spent two nights in the city but we could have spent one day and easily wandered through the Old Town. But because we had the extra time, we kept wandering and really enjoyed ourselves. Sibiu seems to have a lot of festivals and city events going on (at least in September when we visited). We were able to attend Cibinfest which is their local version of Oktoberfest. The website for purchasing VIP tickets was very confusing so we just went and grabbed a seat in the open section and had an amazing time. There was also a theater festival going on as well as a street music festival which was highlighting ragtime music while we were there. The town of Sibiu gives visitors a lot to do and see which is why I recommend spending a few days there if you have the chance.

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The colorful town of Sibiu.
Sibiu, Romania

Busteni, Romania

After flying into Bucharest a few weeks ago, we rented a car and made our way north to the small town of Busteni. We stayed for two nights in this beautiful little guest house. It is at one end of a narrow town but was still walkable to cafes, restaurants, the supermarkets in town. While in Busteni, we spent a day hiking and walking around town to a few of the sites. We visited the Cantacuzino Castle and took the tour (though did not call ahead to set up a touring English). We only visited the first floor as you have to pay more to visit the second floor.

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The view of the Carpathian mountains from the Cantacuzino Castle.

After visiting the castle, we walked to the Caraiman Monastery nearby which is relatively new so not as interesting in a historical way but lovely just the same. From there, we hiked to a waterfall (Cascada Urlatoarea) which was small but still beautiful. The following day, we visited Peles Castle in nearby Sinia. Although it was closed, we enjoyed the views of the architecture and grabbed a drink at one of the cafes nearby.

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The monastery we visited had great views of the mountains.
Busteni, Romania

Stonehaven, Scotland

Towards the end of the trip (after having to say goodbye to most of our travel buddies), my friend Jackie and I made our way out to Stonehaven for two nights. We stayed in an adorable Airbnb right in town. It was a great place for us to unwind after the roadtrip and handful of days in Edinburgh.
There are some tasty restaurants in town; we found two that really hit the spot for us. We popped into Graingers Delicatessen for a light lunch. The sandwiches were tasty and substantial. Priced at £3-4GBP each, it was an affordable option in town.
We also visited The Bay Fish & Chips takeaway shop. We went for dinner and while there was a line, we only waited about 15 minutes. There’s no indoor seating but we were lucky enough to snag one of the picnic tables out front. We split the extra large fish and chips which was more than enough food. We could have easily split the regular sized-option and still been stuffed. At £10GBP, it was a very cheap meal and some of the best fish and chips I had while on the trip.
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We devoured our meal so quickly that there was no time for photos.
I think my favorite part of Stonehaven was the coastal walk to Dunnottar Castle. There is a path from the south end of town that continues to the castle. It was one of the most breathtaking hikes we took on this trip. We didn’t go into the castle as it was closing soon after we arrived so we sat and enjoyed the view instead. We also walked along the beach in town and out on the harbor. Stonehaven was a lovely last stop in Scotland.

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Stonehaven, Scotland

John o’ Groats, Scotland

We stayed in a collection of pre-fabricated, albeit poshly decorated, holiday rentals right in John O Groats. Natural Retreats has a great location right near the coast, though their website makes it seem like there are far less of these rentals than in reality. This means some of the rentals don’t have the best of views but being so close to the water was a perk nonetheless. The rental was $58USD per person per night and though that is a little higher than my average nightly budget, it was a lovely apartment with everything we needed.

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Sunset on holiday rentals at John o’ Groat.
There isn’t much in John o’ Groats other than tourist shops (knicknacks, a coffee shop, and a fish n’ chips shack), but the scenery was lovely and it’s a great base to explore the area from. There is also a ferry dock within walking distance that can take you to the Orkney Islands. There are a handful of ferry ports near John o Groats so make sure to pick the one that fits your needs and schedule best.
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We visited Skara Brae while on the Orkney Islands. Note the beach in the background. This place is stunning in so many ways.
While at the top of the Scottish mainland, we toured the Queen Mum’s castle, sampled some local gin at Rock Rose distillery, and chatted up the locals at the Seaview Hotel bar.
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We sampled some tasty gins and one vodka at Rock Rose distillery.

 

John o’ Groats, Scotland