Mérida, Mexico

I spent a handful of days with friends in Mérida and really enjoyed the town. We stayed at the Nomadas Hostel to save a little money. If the hostel didn’t have a pool, I can’t say I would stay there again. The rooms were acceptable but the free breakfast was not good and the customer service at the front desk was poor. Also, we had to wear wristbands while staying there. People kept asking us if we were staying at an all inclusive or if we’d been at a rave.

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Wristbands, seriously?

We spent our days wandering around town, eating and drinking, and lounging by the pool at the hostel. We visited Mercado San Benito a handful of times for some cheap food.

We also took a cooking class with Urban Adventures. We toured the market with Gustavo then went to his aunt’s house for a cooking lesson. Once all the food was ready, we ate an amazing meal together as a group. This was definitely a highlight of my time in Mérida.

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Photo credit: Pamela Dawn

Thanks to the lovely and talented Pamela Dawn for sharing her amazing photos with me. Find her Instagram feed here.

Along with the cooking class with it’s delicious local dishes, we kept eating (and drinking) our way around Mérida.

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One of the many delicious spreads while visiting Mérida.

We stopped by Huevos Motuleños twice for breakfast. The food and the service were outstanding. The main dining room is small but there is additional seating and an outdoor terrace upstairs.

We popped into La Negrita Cantina for drinks and enjoyed the lively atmosphere. We also visited Mercado 60 for a drink and some food. It was fun but more expensive than I think it’s worth.

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When we needed a light snack or meal, we’d walk down to Gorditas Doña Gorda. The gorditas are small; one is a perfect snack, 2-3 work for a light meal. Each gordita costs around $15MXN. Also, they have a handful of vegetarian options on the menu.

For delicious tacos, we visited Wayan´e. There are a handful of locations but we went to the one on Calle 59. I ordered three tacos and a Coke. They were filling and my lunch only cost $42MXN.

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In between eating, we visited the cathedral and learned about the city and its history.

We stayed in town for most of our visit but did spend an afternoon at the beach in Progreso. We hopped on a bus ($38MXN roundtrip) and were there in about 45 minutes. The beach was clean and not too crowded for such a hot day.

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Buses to Progreso leave from the Auto Progreso station.
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Mérida is filled with color and texture.

When I started planning my next move, I wanted to know all of my bus options. As I’ve mentioned in a past blog, the bus companies in Mexico (ADO and and it’s subsidiaries) are getting organized and a little more expensive. In Mérida there are two different bus stations one for the 1st class buses; another for the 2nd class buses. They are near each other so that makes it easier. And while they offer the same routes, the departure times, trip lengths, and, of course, prices are very different. To get from Mérida to Campeche, I chose to take a 1st class bus (but not the Platinum option) which cost about $127MXN one way. ADO also has an app that you can download but the ticket prices are a tad higher, maybe an extra $1-3USD per ticket. This is also true of purchasing tickets through their website. If you have the option, I recommend buying tickets at the bus station so you can save a little money and this way you know exactly where you need to be. I found another blog that covers the ADO bus system in more detail. I recommend checking it out if you plan on taking a lot of buses around Mexico.

bus stations
Choose your bus station; but choose wisely.
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Mérida, Mexico

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent had so much more to offer than I was expecting. I thought it would be a sleepy, little town where I would get bored after a few days. But that definitely was not the case. After five days, I kept finding more places I wanted to check out and I couldn’t fit everything in. I also found that the tourism website was very helpful, more so than I expected. I recommend visiting it for practical information as well as recommendations around town.  

For the first two days, I was on my own and stayed at the Kaba Hostel. While I had a great stay there, it was further from the city center than I would have liked. But it also gave me a chance to check out the Southeast side of town before I moved to an Airbnb with a friend on the North side of town. 

While in town, I took advantage of the good weather and wandered and meandered everywhere. I also took a boat tour, a free walking tour, and even rented a kayak from Hostel Uppelink.

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Kayaking the calm canals of Ghent. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

I also took a free night walking tour. The guide, Ben, had a lot of very interesting history and knowledge about the city. And he timed the tour to end just at midnight.

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I visited all of the churches in town and, of course, the Ghent Alterpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb). For art lovers, this is essential. For everyone else, it’s also essential. Pay the €4, listen to the audio guide (offered in a bunch of languages), and learn about the incredibly interesting history of this artwork. 

I also visited the Museum voor Schone Kunsten for an exhibition called Women of the Baroque. The entrance fee for both the permanent exhibit and the temporary exhibits was €14. All of the exhibits were wonderfully curated. I was also able to see the panels from the Ghent Alterpiece that were being restored. 

But more than anything, I enjoyed the food in Ghent. The city has fully embraced the local and organic food movements. There are food co-ops, farm to table restaurants, and vegetarian options galore. My favorites where Lokaal, Soep Plus, and Le Botaniste. Note that Le Botaniste looks really fancy from the outside but is actually very casual.  All three of these restaurants were affordable, healthy, and delicious. 

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I ordered a trio of hummuses at Le Botaniste. Yum!

I also checked out a few of the organic markets. My favorite was the Beo Markt. They do have a restaurant thought I didn’t eat there, I did buy delicious fruit and vegetables.

For drinks, I found a great little wine bar called Baravins. I liked the place so much I stopped by a second time during my visit. The bartender was friendly, helpful, and generous with the snacks.

I also ate some delicious Italian food while in Ghent. My friend and I had dinner at Shazanna after grabbing drinks at Baravins. Our pizzas were amazing and filling. My dinner and a glass of wine cost €22. I ate more Italian food a few days later when I visited Firenze for lunch. It is a cozy restaurant with a great family feel. If you are in the area, check it out.

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Firenze was a delicious place to pop into after a visit to the art museum. The olives and wine tided me over until my pasta arrived.

On my way into town, I didn’t use public transportation when leaving the train station and hoofed it all the way to my hostel with my backpack in tow. But on my way out of town, I decided to take the tram to the train station. The cost for one ticket on the Lijnwinkel tram was €1.60. Later, I found out that this same transit system is in Antwerp, and possibly other cities in Belguim. 

Ghent, Belgium

Ljubljana, Slovenia

We spent a long weekend in Ljubljana and really enjoyed our time in this small European capital. We rented an Airbnb apartment near the city center which was quaint and well-equipped. At $72USD per night, the apartment was not as affordable as I would have liked but we enjoyed our time there nonetheless. Parking the rental car was a little confusing but we figured it out. There seem to be a few different parking zones. We were able to find parking near the river for Friday afternoon and then didn’t need to pay over the weekend as it is free.

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Street parking must only be paid for Monday through Friday, 7am until 5pm.

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We strolled though the car-free city center enjoying the architecture. Later, we took a free walking tour and learned a lot about the history of Ljubljana. We also took a relaxing boat ride on the river. We picked one at random and had a lovely time for €10 per person.

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We ate some delicious food while in Ljubljana though most of it was enjoyed at two outdoor food festivals; the Beer & Burger fest and the Open Kitchen food festival which happens on most Fridays. However, when we dined out, we visited Gostilnica 5-6 kg and the food was excellent, though not budget friendly. For two drinks and two entrees our bill was €55.

We also found some great little bars. We stopped by the Sax Hostel & Sax pub twice for drinks. The bar’s vibe was very laid back, the prices were reasonable, and the service was friendly. Ljubljana has so many great bars, restaurants, and shops to return for; too many to fit into just a few days.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Postojna, Slovenia

We drove from the Venice airport directly to the Skocjan Cave in Slovenia. We were lucky to arrive just before the next scheduled tour started (see their website for tour times). The tickets cost €18 per person but was well worth it. The guided tour was very informative and the experience was amazing. Note that there is a lot of walking as well as stairs involved in visiting this cave. 
 
We stayed at one of the many guesthouses in Postojna. The owners of Grmek Apartments were very hospitable and the room was delightful at a cost of €48 per night. The apartment was a bit of a walk from town but close enough to walk to dinner at Štorja pod Stopnicami. This was one of my favorite meals in Slovenia. Though not budget friendly (dinner for two with drinks cost about €62), I can’t recommend it enough. The food was delicious and the service was friendly and inviting.

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Octopus over roasted carrots and pureed potatoes with a green pea sauce.

 
The following day, we visited the Postojna Cave which is more built up and fantastical than the Skocjan Cave. They have installed train tracks and small trains to take you through the cave. It was a fun experience but definitely more expensive at €28 per person. If mobility is an issue, I recommend visiting the Postojna Cave as there isn’t nearly as much walking as in Skocjan Cave.  
 
After visiting the cave, we drove back into town to get a kebap. This little restaurant has delicious, cheap, and filling kebaps for about €5 each.
 

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Kebap with all the fixins.

On our way out of town, we visited a small park which has two natural bridges. If you enjoy hiking, this is a great place to explore nature. 
 

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Kyle posing in front of the larger of the two natural bridges.

 

Postojna, Slovenia

Venice, Italy

We visited Venice in late September and were lucky to have warmer than average weather for the few days we were there. We stayed at Ca’ San Vio for two nights and spent our days wandering the city and enjoying the scenery with a glass of wine in hand. Our room was very small but breakfast was served in our room. The staff was very friendly and welcoming. 
 
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We found a few delicious places for biccari but found out the hard way that they tend to close around 9pm. 
Our favorites were Osteria Al Squero and Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi.

We also ate at Trattoria Bar Pontini for lunch one day. We arrived just in time to grab the last available table outside. The seafood dishes were delicious and fresh. Our total for two entrees and two glasses of wine came to about $46USD. Also, I was able to ask for (and receive) free tap water, acqua del rubinetto.

 

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To get to and from the airport, we took the airport shuttle (€15 roundtrip) and then walked from the bus depot into the heart of Venice. Later in our trip, we returned to Venice with a rental car and stayed in the town of Mestre for the night at the Camping Village Jolly. While the accommodations were sparse and dated, the location and amenities (free parking, a pool, and a shuttle to Venice) were very well priced at $24USD a night. If you want to visit Venice of a tight budget, this is my recommendation instead of staying on the islands.
Venice, Italy

El Castillo, Costa Rica

We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.

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The view of Arenal from our hotel in El Castillo.

There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.

While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.

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We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.

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Here we are scrabbling down of the many hills on our way up Cerro Chato.

We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.

Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.

El Castillo, Costa Rica

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