– 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 said goodbye to El Castillo and headed north to Rio Celeste. The drive was smooth sailing which surprised us. The roads were in good condition and we didn’t encounter any traffic or other issues. We stopped off at a roadside soda and had some of the most delicious food including pan fried tilapia.
We stayed two nights at Hotel Catarata Rio Celeste and visited the National Park Volcano Tenorio during the day. We booked two nights in anticipation of being muddy after the hike. With hindsight, we could have stayed only one night but it was good to have some down time after hiking.
The following day, we drove up to the park entrance, paid about $1USD to park and $12USD per person. We arrived just after it opened to beat the crowds and to have the hiking trail to ourselves. We hiked in about 30 minutes and then took the stairs down to see the waterfall. It was very impressive and stunning. We were happy to have arrived early and have the place to ourselves for awhile.
We then ascended the staircase and continued the easy hike further into the park where two rivers meet and the water turns a celestial blue. While seeing this sight was interesting, it definitely was a let down compared to the waterfall. If you are not an avid hiker, I would recommend skipping the hike and just marvel at the waterfall.
Swimming in the park is not allowed but there are many points on the river outside the park that you can access. Just park on the side of the road and hop in the water. The water is cold but can be very refreshing after hiking.
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 really wanted to rent a car and drive to the coast, so after getting screwed by Europcar we went to Alamo. We had car rental insurance from our credit card company and had proof that they covered car rentals in Mexico. But this concept doesn’t seem to exist in Mexico. Multiple car rental companies wanted us to have a specific document that no one would give us. And when we asked where to obtain this document, no one could or would tell us. I would advice others not to believe the cheap rental car prices that are advertised for Oaxaca as the insurance is not included in the price advertised. A six day rental at Alamo was $200USD. We wanted to be on our own schedule and while the rental car was not cheap, the cost was offset, for us, by the five nights in Oaxaca City that were free on hotel points (thanks Holiday Inn).
We were nervous to take the bus after hearing so many horror stories of people getting sick and it being such a long drive up and down mountain sides (hence paying for the expensive rental car). But in hindsight, and after being on the twisty-turny mountain road all the way to the coast and back (and with all of the other experiences that I have had with twisty-turny mountain roads), I don’t think that we needed to have a rental car. The roads were not as treacherous as people had suggested. While it was a long drive, around 5.5 hours each way, the roads were in good condition and there was not a lot of traffic. If you do drive yourself, definitely beware of all of the topes (speed bumps) that are not always marked on the roads. Also, the buses that make the trip to and from the coast are the smaller colectivo-sized buses that only seat about 14 people not the massive tour buses that I would have expected.
The first stop on our roadtrip was Monte Alban which was lovely. It was also a lot larger than we expected so it was wonderful to be able to take our time and not feel rushed.
We then drove to the ruins at Yagul. These were just as interesting and informative (both sites have informational plaques in Spanish, English, and a local language). Yagul was completely empty when we arrive and it was lovely to have the place to ourselves. At $65MXN per person, it wasn’t much cheaper than Monte Alban ($70MXN), but still a great stop to make.
We stayed the night in Mitla so that we could get to Hierve del Agua early the next morning. We found a few hotels in town including a brand new place called Hotel Carmelita. We had a double room with a private bath, hot water, tv, and wifi for $500MXN a night. The staff was very helpful and friendly. We asked for a dinner recommendation and were pointed towards a restaurant on the main square. We had a mole dish which was very tasty and the best chile rellano I’ve ever had. Our total bill for two entrees and one mezcal was $220MXN with tip.
The next morning we drove to Hierve del Agua. We paid the local entrance fee of $10MXN per person and then paid the federal entrance fee of $25MXN per person. Check out this blog for more information on driving there.
Once we parked, we hiked down for 20 minutes to the pools of sulfery water. We then hiked around to the top of the other petrified waterfall, the one in most of the photos. The path was mostly made of stone steps and was not difficult. It probably took us 25 minutes to get there and the views along the way were definitely worth it. There are free changing rooms as well as bathrooms ($3MXN) near the pools. If you can get there on your own, I would recommend getting there early. It opens at 9a.m. and from what we heard, the tour buses start arriving around 1p.m.
We left Hierve del Agua and headed south. Because we were getting a late start, we decided to stop somewhere along the road for the night. With a little bit of research we found a place which was just perfect for us; La Puesta del Sol. They have a little collection of bungalows and rooms for rent just a one-minute drive outside the town San Juan del Pacifico. The room we stayed in was nice and cozy with satellite TV, hot water, breakfast, and a lovely view of the mountains. Wifi was extra and we opted to be off the grid for the night. At $400MXN for the night, we couldn’t have been happier.
Along the road to the coast, there were a lot of small hotels and posadas that are not listed on the internet. I felt confident that if we couldn’t get a room at La Puesta del Sol, we could have found a room somewhere else along the way.
For our first night on the coast, we stayed in Zipolite. When we arrived, we parked in town and walked up and down the beach price-checking a handful of different hotels. We found prices ranging from $200MXN to $1200MXN and finally settled on Hotel El Paraiso which was $500MXN per night which included a private bathroom, hot water, wifi, parking, and a balcony that overlooked the ocean. It was definitely the best option for us.
The beach was clean and not overcrowded while we were there. But be warned, or informed, that Zipolite is a nude beach.
The next morning we drove down the coast to the town of Mazunte. We had booked a room at Posada Ziga Playa for two nights. It was definitely the nicest place we stayed on the trip ($1000MXN per night) and our room included a private terrace with a hammock. But in hindsight, I think I would have rather stayed somewhere that was not as upscale but had beach chairs and umbrellas down on the beach (as Posada Ziga Playa had neither of these). Also, the hotel is situated up on a small hill so you have to walk up and down stairs to get to the beach.
My advice while visiting this part of the Pacific Ocean in Mexico is to be careful when swimming in the water. When we first checked into our hotel in Zipolite, we were given a full briefing of the undercurrent and the water conditions that day. And I’m thankful that they took the time to warn us. After our first slightly treacherous day in the ocean, my husband walked up and down the beach to find a less rough spot to swim in. We lined ourselves up with a few large rocks about two hundred meters out into the water. These rocks were able to break up most of the waves coming in and therefore the current and waves were not as forceful.
While in Mazunte, we went to the turtle sanctuary which was very interesting though there didn’t seem to be an option for a guided tour. And while we enjoyed looking at a lot of different turtles, we did not learn very much. But for $32MXN per person, it was a nice little outing. We also went out for dinner and drinks in town a few times including a great little Italian place called Alessandro’s where I was able to get a $9USD steak that was delicious. We also came across a handful of small bars and restaurants that had live music and offered two for one drink specials.
After a few lovely days at the beach, we made the long drive back to Oaxaca City starting out early in the morning. Traffic was light which was a blessing on the winding roads. I was concerned that we would have to pay a lot of tolls to and from the coast but we really only drove on one toll road near Mitla. My suggestion would be that if you are going to rent a car know that everything will take longer than you expect. Also, I would not recommend driving at night due to the twisting roads and all of the speed bumps. Finally, the gas stations we went to did not take credit card but there was always a gas station attendant to pump the gasoline for you.
-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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
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.