Rio Celeste, 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.

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If you see this sign, eat here. Do not pass up an opportunity to eat their dishes food.

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.

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We definitely spent some time enjoying the hammocks at our hotel.

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.

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We crossed a few bridges on the way to where the two rivers meet.

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.

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Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

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.

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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.

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We got to meet this little guy. He was snuggled in a basket with his other sloth friends.

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.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

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

Glasgow, Scotland

I recently spent a handful of days in Glasgow with my cousin David. We didn’t have much planned but definitely found things to do to occupy our time; mostly eating.
The city itself is not what most would call beautiful but it has an edgy, raw feel without the hint of crime. We walked through George Square, toured the City Chambers and visited the Kelvingrove Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (all for free, no less). But I think what really made me enjoy this city was the food. I did not have a bad meal while I was there. From the kebap shop to Ubiquitious Chip; everything was delicious, fresh, and relatively affordable. Here are some of the highlights.
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A view of the Cathedral from the Necropolis.
It serves some tasty, strong cocktails as well as some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.
This was the perfect Italian style thin crust pizza. It was worth the wait at the West End location. You can also check out their other location in the city center. At about £9GBP per pizza it’s an affordable and delicious lunch or dinner option.
Check this place out in the West End for live music and an amazing array of whiskies to taste. We spent an evening drinking whiskies that the knowledgeable bartenders recommended.
They serve up a tasty and authentic bowl of pho but I also heard very good reviews for a place called Hanoi Bike Shop.
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A delicious bowl of pho.
This is an elegant, yet affordable restaurant which was lovely as expected. Right in the heart of the city center is this traditional gem that has stood the test of time. We had the set lunch menu and at £25GBP (which included a glass of wine), my two course meal was delicious and worth the splurge.
This place is actually two restaurants in one. I had lunch in their upstairs terrace restaurant. I did not choose from their set lunch menu but opted for the delicious mussels and a small pork pie which was wonderful. At about £15GBP, my lunch was cheaper than the set lunch in the downstairs restaurant.
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Mussels with chorizo and hearty bread to soak up the savory broth.
I am still thinking about this place and it’s food. It’s another restaurant worth the wait (or make a reservation). I had two dishes and a glass of wine for £20GBP. I highly recommend the beet hummus and whipped feta dish. I even tried to return later during my trip. Part of me was sad because I couldn’t get a table but the other part of me knew that there were other amazing places to try instead.
This is where I ended up when Ox & Finch couldn’t take me and I was not disappointed. I had their Thyme for Gin cocktail to whet my appetite followed by a beet salad and a gnocchi dish. I could not have been happier nor fuller. Once again, a delightful meal for under £25GBP.
After all that eating, we spent a few of our days wandering the streets of Glasgow, grabbing a drink at a few local bars (my favorites were Inn Deep and the bar in the Centre for Contemporary Arts), and enjoying the comfort of our room at the Charing Cross Guest House. What I really liked about this was the location (walking distance to both the city center and to the West End), the free breakfast (with your choice of continental or full Scottish breakfast), and the hospitality of the front desk staff. At $54USD a night for a double room, it was well within my budget.
While staying in Glasgow we took two separate day trips. The first was to Loch Lomond. It only took about an hour by train to the town of Balloch which is walking distance to the water. We choose not to take the scenic ferry ride but went hiking along the water’s edge instead.
We also took a train and ferry to the Isle of Arran. We spent our day hiking around the isle. If given the chance, I would love to return to see more of this beautiful part of Scotland.
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Here I am at the top of our hike on the Isle of Arran.
Glasgow, Scotland

Guadalajara, Mexico

Guadalajara is not a pretty city in the conventional way but it has a lot to offer visitors. The city is large and sprawling. And in the four days that I was there with two friends, I did not get to see nearly as much of it as I would have hoped but that means I have lots of exploring to do when I return.

 

We stayed at an Airbnb near Parque Alcalde. The apartment was very nice and had a balcony which we took full advantage first thing in the mornings and then again in the afternoons when we needed a rest from wandering the city streets. I cannot recommend this Airbnb host enough. He was so accommodating, helpful, and gave us some great information on the city. And he has multiple properties in Guadalajara to choose from.
We had originally planned to stay near Avenida Chapultepec Norte and thus found bars and restaurants to check out in that neighborhood. We dined at El Sacromonte and I would highly recommend it. I had steak in a delicious sauce for around $250MXN.  We also wondered down the way and split a bottle of wine at Romea. It was very chic and a bit on the expensive side (our bottle of wine cost $730MXN) but a nice treat to sit outside on a nice evening and enjoy some delicious wine. Later during our long weekend, we went to Pigs Pearls in the same neighborhood. We needed a break from traditional Mexican food and grabbed burgers. Lunch (a burger and a glass of wine) was perfect change of pace and only cost $85MXN.
We definitely ate a lot of food while we were in Guadalajara and it seems as though the street food was easier to find at night than during the day. Much like anywhere else, I would recommend if you’re eating street food find vendors that are busy with locals, saddle up, and eat everything. We did eat in the mercado in the city center one day for lunch and it was delicious. Also, we are here during Lent in the Catholic faith and there were a lot more fish options than I would have thought we’d find. Hopefully this is not just during the Lenten season but is all year round.
Usually when I sit down at any sort of food vendor in which prices are not listed, I ask what the prices are. But I found in Guadalajara that when I didn’t ask first, all of the prices were perfectly acceptable and I never had any issues with people over charging me. This might be because I speak enough Spanish to order food and ask questions. Everyone was very friendly and helpful. And while a lot of people here do speak English, I think that it was easier for everyone when I used my small amounts of Spanish.
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This torta ahogada (the drowned torta) included pork, cabbage, onions, and a tart tomato sauce.
We also ate at a little place called Casa Mitote which serves Oaxacan dishes. It was so delicious and were so glad that we caught them on a night when they were actually opened.
We attended a performance by the Jalisco Philharmonic while we were in town. The music was just lovely and tickets were very affordable. We had wonderful seats in the center of the theater for $220MXN each.
We also visited Tlaquepaque on a Saturday which was a nice break from the city. It was also a great place to shop for locally-made crafts. Some of the items that we found here were very similar to other items we found in Oaxaca but at cheaper prices.
Few locals had amazing things to say about taxi drivers so we opted to use Uber when we needed to get around the city and could not walk the distance. We took one from our Airbnb to the city center and it cost about for $2USD one way. There are currently two train lines that serve parts of Guadalajara but since we were not here very long and we tend to walk a lot of places, we did not take advantage of the public transportation.
I also visited the Panteon de Mexquitan cemetery one afternoon. The architecture and stone work of the mausoleums was beautiful though some where in sad states of repair. I really enjoyed wandering the quiet paths and reflecting on this cities history and its people.

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Guadalajara, Mexico

General Notes on Vietnam

-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.

 

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Here I am in a sleeper bus seat. I am 5’3″ tall so I fit but my husband and our friend (who are both much taller than I am) did not fit comfortably in their seats.

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– 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 (dcconsular@gmail.com). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.

General Notes on Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

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).

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The scenery of Lan Ha Bay was stunning.
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One of the many floating villages we passed while out on our boat tours.

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.

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Seeing monkeys up close was fun but also nerve-racking as they had no fear of humans and were very interested in taking the things that belong to us.
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Here we are returning from an hour of kayaking. Back to the junk boat for us to eat some tasty lunch.

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.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam