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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My friends and I drove from Glasgow, up into the highlands to John o’ Groats, and then back down to Edinburgh. During this long road trip, we found some great little spots to stop and break up the drive.
-We visited the town of Oban for a visit to the whisky distillery. While trying to figure out what to do about lunch, we realized that Dunstaffnage Castle was on a bluff overlooking the water not far from Oban. We popped into Tesco, picked up some picnic items, and drove to the castle.
-We took an afternoon to hike to Sandwood Bay Beach on our way to John o’ Groats. The hike was not difficult but was longer than expected. We estimated it to be 4.5 miles from the parking area all the way to the beach. The hike was nice but not as spectacular as the views of the beach. If you have the time, I highly recommend it. Also, here is a link to a video of the beach.
-We stopped in Inverness for lunch at the Kitchen Restaurant which was very delicious and well priced. After lunch, we walked to Miele’s Gelateria which totally hit the spot after an amazing lunch.
-When we visited Aberdeen for the afternoon, we had a recommendation to go to Slains Castle for lunch. While the inside of the bar and restaurant is quite interesting, the food was only mediocre. I would recommend going in for a drink and to wander around but find your meal someplace else.
-We stopped off in Perth one day to stretch our legs and eat lunch. We stumbled across this quaint little French inspired place, the Tabou Bistro. Everything was amazing from the homemade soup to the salmon salad to the charcuterie platter. For lunch under £12GBP, it was a great find.
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.
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.
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 (email@example.com). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.