Wednesday 8 July 2020

What is Where is Bron

In 2011-2012, I travelled to North, Central and South America without a fixed itinerary. It was my third out of an eventual four trips to the area between 2009 and 2013. I set up a blog called Where is Bron to document the trip. It ended up being part travel journal and part bits and pieces of advice I picked up along the way. 

After spending a bit over a year in the US and Latin America over those four trips, I decided it was time to stay put in Sydney for awhile. Slowly but surely, life changed. I started to get back into the things I was doing before I went travelling, mostly running and coaching, and did a few new things, like getting married and having a baby. While I still travel, the days of picking up my backpack and jetting off for months on end are likely behind me.

This year, I decided not to keep paying for hosting on my travel blog. With my focus on other things, it wasn’t getting the attention it once did. But I have reposted some of my favourite articles here to look back on. I’m glad to always have those memories!

To see what I’m up to now, check out my personal blog or my coaching website

Thursday 2 July 2020

Why it's worth stopping in Liberia

This post was originally written in 2012

Costa Rica isn't known for having amazing cities, and anyone who has been to San Jose usually agrees that it's best to spend as little time there as possible. Liberia in the north western part of the country is a lot smaller, very hot, not overly attractive and used mostly by travellers as a transport hub. Liberia has connections to the beaches in Guanacaste and north to Nicaragua. I changed buses there when going from Monteverde to Tamarindo, Tamarindo to San Juan del Sur and San Juan back to San Jose.

But with two of the country's most worthwhile attractions in close proximity to the city, it is worth staying a few days.

Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja
If you are looking for a picture perfect volcano, Arenal is your best bet, towering spectacularly over La Fortuna when its head peaks out of the clouds. But going to Arenal in the hopes of seeing volcanic activity may end up being a disappointing experience, it's been quiet the last 3 times I went through Fortuna in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

For a multitude of volcanic encounters, Rincon de la Vieja is the place to go. The walk to the crater was closed when I visited for safety reasons (Jan 2013), but there are plenty of other things to do and see. I entered the park in the Las Pailas sector, which is the starting point for two major trails. The group I was with decided to begin with the trail to the waterfall, saving the volcanic loop for after lunch.

A rainy morning meant we set off through a wet forest, trying not to slip on the muddy path while dodging berries the monkeys hanging out in the trees above us were throwing in our direction. As it cleared up, the path opened out into a grassy clearing, with views stretching out to the Golfo de Nicoya. We reentered the forest before arriving at the stunning falls. The waterfall spilled over a tall cliff covered in forest plants, which wrapped around the edges of a perfectly formed pool. The water was cool, but was balanced out by the natural hot spring running over the rocks on the side of the pool. The warm water that gathered in the small rock pools was perfect to sit in and relax, but swimming through the cold water again to get back to my bag was less fun!

In the afternoon we ventured on to the loop trail that explores the volcanic area of the park. Despite being a third of the length, I think it took us longer to complete. After going past another impressive waterfall, we started to smell sulfur and pass signs warning us of extreme temperatures. The rain started up again, as did the howler monkeys (which sound like dinosaurs). This, combined with the forest we were walking in, made the location feel a lot more remote than it actually is.

Our first volcanic encounter was a cluster of fumaroles, emitting so much sulfurous steam and gas we could barely see the trees surrounding them. The smell was so overpowering, I could only stay for a few minutes. There was another natural spring nearby, this one so hot the water was bubbling. As the path continued towards a volcancito (small volcano), we noticed bursts of steam sneaking of out much smaller holes in the ground we were walking on. When our thought process lead to what that meant we were walking above, we were torn between hoping the ground didn't give way and surprise that we could even get that close.

My favourite part of the trail was the bubbling mud pots. A collection of large holes filled with mud doesn't sound very exciting, but watching them spit mud into the air was strangely hypnotising. The temptation to wander off the path and get closer was tempting, as the fences were definitely not designed to keep people out. But hearing the popping sounds they emitted was a good reminder of what was under the ground below us and that safety is important.

Getting there: I booked a transfer through my hostel in Liberia for $20. Park entry is $10, bring ID.

Llanos de Cortes
Even though Lonely Planet describes this as the waterfall to see if you only have time for one, it's still easy to think it's "just another waterfall". There are plenty of waterfalls in Costa Rica; often visited ones in Fortuna and Montezuma and ones you see on tours run eccentric conspiracy theorists in Puerto Viejo (that's another story).

A lesser known falls near a small town near Liberia might not be a the top of your list, but it's worth every bit of effort you put in to get there.

Located just outside Bagaces, about half an hour from Liberia, the waterfall is accessed by walking (or driving if you have a car) along a short dirt road off the Interamericana. Marked only by a small store on the corner, you would miss it if you didn't know what you were looking for, but the bus drivers that route are familiar with the turn off. When you get on, tell them you want to go to "la catarata" and they will stop there.

The road leads to a small station where you pay a donation (mil colones is sufficient) that goes to local schools, and then continues to the falls. A short path next to the carpark takes you down to a small clearing in the forest, where a sandy beach joins the large pool at the bottom of the waterfall. The height of the waterfall is impressive on its own, but the added bonus of being able to climb behind the curtain of water and enjoy the falls from a different angle sitting inside a rocky cave makes for a unique experience.

A different trail leaving from the carpark takes you to the top of waterfall. For a Victoria Falls moment in Costa Rica, if you are brave enough you can climb out onto the fall and look over the edge at the pool below.

Getting there: Buses from Liberia to Bagaces leave frequently from the local terminal, the cost should be no more than mil colones. Tell the driver that you are going to la catarata to be dropped off at the road. There is no food at the waterfall, so bring anything you want to eat with you. There is a bakery in the bus terminal that sells sandwiches. To get back, wave down any of the buses going along the Interamericana to Liberia.

In Liberia, I recommend staying at Hospedaje Dodero. Jesus and Shawn are amazing and have a wealth of information about the area. Ask about the path to the other waterfall when you visit Llanos de Cortes. There is a kitchen and common area with hammocks at the back. For anyone who likes dancing, Jesus always knows the best places to go.

A tip I received from another traveller is that Playa del Coco is a good day trip from Liberia. The buses to that beach leave from the Pulmitan terminal, where the buses to San Jose leave from.

How to do Iguazu

This post was originally written in 2012

One of the highlights of my trips to South America was visiting Iguazu Falls (or Iguaçu in Portuguese). Although I don’t pay a lot of attention to the various “Wonders of the World” lists, simply because there are too many to remember, it’s not hard to see why Iguazu made it on to one of them. The long stretch of falls set in lush green forest makes for a picturesque location, while its overwhelming power has to be seen to be believed. Situated on the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Iguazu Falls is a considerable distance from most major cities. Getting there takes some time, but it is absolutely worth the effort.

Figuring out the best way to explore this mammoth icon might seem a bit daunting; which country is best to view the falls from, which is the better experience, should you just go to both? With so many variables, the option of booking a tour might seem appealing. But there a few simple tips that make doing it yourself fun and easy, and guarantee a memorable experience.

The first thing to determine is where you are approaching the falls from. For most travellers, this will be somewhere in Brazil or Argentina. If you are in Brazil, you will be heading to Foz do Iguacu. If you are arriving from Argentina, your destination will be Puerto Iguazu. Both are located very close to the border and the falls in their respective country, and are easy to travel between.

If you book early enough, internal flights within Brazil to Foz do Iguacu may be similar in price to bus fares. For those that are planning as they go, a night bus is your best option. I arrived in Foz on an overnight bus from Bonito, and left on an overnight bus to Sao Paulo. Each bus took about 16 hours, highlighting the remote location of the falls. On the other side of the border, the fastest, and most expensive, way to get to Puerto Iguazu is to fly. I've never done an overnight bus journey in Argentina, but I’ve been told that their buses are the best in South America, with seats that recline so far they are practically beds, decent food and even local wine. I was impressed with the long distance buses I took in Peru, so I’m imagining the Argentine ones to be something like business class. Make sure you take the first class bus (bus cama), as it is a long journey and it’s worth being comfortable. The trip by bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu takes about 18 hours.

If you are taking a night bus anywhere in South America, I recommend having a small blanket with you. Some buses provide them, but it’s a necessity the on ones that don’t. I got a few funny looks from other travellers when they saw that I had squashed one into my backpack, but after seeing locals in the know take doonas onto an Antarctica-esque  bus in Venezuela I never go anywhere without it. It’s also worth remembering that bus travel in South America often takes an hour or two longer than the advertised time.

When you get to your destination, the question becomes whether you should see the falls in both Argentina and Brazil. The good news is that you don’t need to make a difficult choice between the two. Public buses travel across the border, making a day trip to the other side easy and ideal. After you cross the border, you will arrive at the terminal in the neighbouring town, where you change to a bus going to the falls. The trip shouldn’t take more than an hour in total (assuming there isn’t a long line at the border). Taxis will also be happy to drive you across, but you will pay a lot more for the convenience.

So is it worth visiting both sides? The answer is absolutely, as they are both completely different experiences.

The Brazilian side offers panoramic views of the falls, with an easy to follow trail running along the river. There are a series of spectacular viewpoints along the way, perfect for your landscape photos. It is not until you reach the end of the trail that you experience the full magnitude of Iguazu. A boardwalk leads you across the water to peer over the edge of a steep drop below. To your left, water is rapidly spilling over the pinnacle of the falls, Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat), plunging with massive force into the river that forms the border between the two countries. Looking downstream to your right, the water seems to flow calmly in comparison.

A helicopter tour over the falls is also available on the Brazilian side; the cost is US$100 for a 10 minute flight. Bring your passport with you. This side of the falls can be explored in about half a day.

Entering the park on the Argentine side felt like Disneyland for a moment, with its gift stores, food outlets, train and choice of activities. But the added tourist infrastructure doesn't take away from the experience. This side takes you closer to the falls through a series of waterside trails. Winding through Iguazu’s jungle fringed surroundings, the trails allow you walk up next to, and sometimes even above, the thunderous white water flowing over lush green cliffs. On this side of Iguazu you can take a boat underneath the falls (US$60) and across to a small beach on the river. The free train that runs through the park will bring you to the main attraction, where you can feel the mist on your face as you look down into the Devil’s Throat - an experience not to be missed.

Like most places in South America, rain is always a possibility. Even though you do get wet on the boat under the falls, you will find yourself pretty cold if you are stuck without a rain jacket if there is a downpour later in the day. If the activities available on the Argentine park are within your budget, it’s worth spending a full day on this side of the falls.

However you choose to get there, Iguazu Falls is a “must see” part of your South American journey, and worth every moment spent on the freezing night bus that gets you there.

Seven days in Medellin

This post was originally written in 2012

When I think of the big cities I have travelled to, there are a few that always come up as my favourites. Rio. San Francisco. New York.

Then there are a few that I love that sometimes surprise people. One is Panama City, the other is Medellin.

Medellin may have a reputation as being a dangerous city from its days of being home to a large scale drug war; however I think it is the most fascinating city in Colombia. Named as the world’s most innovative city in 2012 in a competition run by The Wall Street Journal, Medellin is going places. While sometimes overlooked as nothing more than Pablo Escobar’s birthplace, it has so much more on offer and truly defies all common stereotypes about Colombia.

I spent 7 days in the city in November 2012, and found there was no shortage of things to do and see.

Day 1 - I caught the Metrocable to visit Parque Arvi. Situated high in the mountains surrounding Medellin, it was easy to forget we were only half an hour from a big city when spending the day in the forest, ziplining over lakes and trying local snacks.

That night, when trying to get to the stadium to buy football tickets, a friend and I were treated to an impromptu city tour by the world's friendliest taxi driver. Not only did he take us to the stadium and point out some highlights of the city along the way, he got out with us at the stadium, helped us buy tickets and checked they were legitimate. And he only charged us the return cab fare!

Day 2 - I did a city tour, including a visit to one of Pablo Escobar’s houses and the Monoco building, which was bombed by the Cali Cartel.

That evening was the city’s most important football game “El Clasico de la Montaña” played between the two teams from Medellin. It wasn't as high quality football as another game I have seen in South America (Boca), but the winning goal being scored by DIM in the last minute made half of the stadium erupt in celebration. After the game ended, the supporters from each team left in opposite directions, but it wasn't as extreme as being locked inside for half an hour while the opposition fans leave (Boca). We got some street food and beer, then headed to Calle 70 for a taste of Medellin's nightlife outside the Zona Rosa.

Day 3 - I attempted to visit Parque de las Aguas, but got lost and ended up shopping and having a typical Paisa meal for lunch in a small town about an hour out of Medellin.

After getting back to the city, I spent some time exploring the free museum and art gallery in the Palacio de la Cultura in downtown Medellin near the Parque Berrio Metro station. When climbing the the top of the building, we came across a free movie screening in what we thought was a bell tower. We were intrigued for about 20 minutes, but left when the story became too hard follow with the dialogue in German and subtitles in Spanish.

That night, I got dressed up for Medellin’s glamorous nightlife in Parque Lleras.

Day 4 - I visited the Botanic Gardens and Planetarium, and spent some time exploring the markets surrounding the Parque Berrio metro station. Later, I stumbled upon a free outdoor concert next to one of the city’s universities. That night it was back to Parque Lleras to dance salsa, merengue and vallenato until the early hours of the morning.

Day 5 - I explored the famous sculptures in Plaza Botero and headed to Sabaneta, south of Medellin for dinner.

Being a Saturday night, it was back to Parque Lleras for more dancing. Medellin's nightlife is fairly quiet on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but picks up for the weekend with Saturday being the busiest night. The bars that are full on other nights of the week have people spilling out onto the street, and dance clubs you wouldn't know exist when walking past during daylight are crowded with couples grinding "perreo" style to reggaeton.

Day 6 - I took a day trip to Guatape, about 2 hours by bus from Medellin. Buses leave from the city’s north bus terminal, which is connected to the city’s world class metro system and easy to navigate. I got off to climb El Peñol, the giant rock which towers over the picturesque lake below. Weekends in this area are busy, with Colombian families taking trips to the lake famous for it's water sports.
The bus ride to the town is an experience in itself, winding through the mountains and passing small Antioquian towns and roadside food vendors.

Day 7 - I took the metro to Estacion Exposiciones, and climbed Cerro Nutibara for stunning evening views of the city. Built on top of the hill is Pueblito Paisa, a replication of a small Antioquian town.
After a failed attempt at seeing the city's famous Christmas lights, I caught the metro to one of Medellin's fancy malls for arepas con pollo for dinner. For my last night in the city, it was back to Parque Lleras for Mexican food and live music.

Getting to and from Medellin
There are two bus terminals in the city, the north and south terminal. The north terminal is connected to the metro system, making it easy to travel downtown (Parque Berrio station) or to Poblado. If you are arriving at the south terminal, is it best to a take a taxi to your destination.
The airport is about a one hour drive from the city. Buses run from the airport to Medellin, make sure you tell the driver you want to go to "Centro" (cost is 7500 pesos). The bus drops you off near Hotel Nutibara, which is a few minutes walk to the Parque Berrio station. Buses returning the airport leave from the same place.

Where to stay
I recommend the Black Sheep Hostel in Poblado (near the Zona Rosa).

Why backpackers love Colombia

This post was originally written in 2012

When talking with other travellers in South America about the best country they have visited, I have found that the answer is almost always Colombia. The recent slogan that has appeared in Colombian tourism advertising, “the only risk is wanting to stay”, couldn’t be more accurate, however the news that it is a favourite with backpackers still comes as a surprise to a lot of people. Even the immigration official I encountered on my most recent entry to the country couldn’t believe it when I told him it was my fourth visit. So why so much love for Colombia? There are many reasons, but I’m going to start with something simple; food.

There is no shortage of street food in Colombia, with vendors offering hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, empanadas, and my favourite; arepas. Wikipedia will tell you that an arepa is a flat, round food made from flour or corn that can be filled with various other foods, which might leave you wondering what is so exciting about this particular street snack?

Looking for a quick dinner one night, I ventured out to see what I could find, and it was then that I discovered “arepas con todo”, which translates to “with everything”. I’m not entirely sure what was included in everything, but it tasted amazing. Not just a cart filled with food that was cooked hours earlier, Colombian street food vendors are more like a portable restaurant, complete with gas bottles, cooking plates, utensils, plastic chairs and a drink fridge. After we ordered, we took a seat and our drinks were delivered to the makeshift table (a plastic stool). Our food was cooked while we waited and served with 3 huge bottles of different types of sauces, which we could pour on our arepas in unlimited amounts. I never would have imagined that eating on the side of a hectically busy road could be that much fun, but the whole experience was so worthwhile that we went back the next night.

No two trips to Colombia are alike, and every location has something different to offer. My first time here included wandering through colonial streets, exploring a fortress, taking a dip in a mud volcano and sleeping in a hammock at the beach. On my second visit I danced salsa all night and took the cable car to Monserrate for the best views of Bogota. My third trip, I visited one of Pablo Escobar’s houses and enjoyed the excitement of a local football game.

I would love to spend a few days relaxing on the shores of Rio Claro, take the ultimate 6 day trip into the jungle to discover the secrets of Ciudad Perdida (the lost city), head north to San Andres to visit a Caribbean island without leaving Colombia, explore the coffee region, experience the exhilaration of adventure sports in San Gil and witness the stunning rainbow colours of Caño Cristales. Even though Colombia often forms a part of a larger Latin American journey, it could easily be a trip of its own.

Getting there (or away) is half the fun!
With flights between Panama and Colombia on the expensive side, a long time favourite of travellers on the journey through Central and South America is to sail between Panama and Cartagena. The trip spends 3 days in the tranquil San Blas islands, then 2 nights sailing on open sea to Cartagena.

Consisting of just under 400 islands, of which only 49 are inhabited, and scattered in the Caribbean waters along the Panamanian coast, San Blas is a haven of stunning beauty. In the first 3 days of my sailing trip, we visited 4 different islands. The first day was spent snorkelling and exploring the small island. On the second afternoon we met some Kuna people who lived on a nearby island and were selling handmade bracelets and our dinner – fresh lobster. Our final day in San Blas, we stopped in the middle of 3 islands, all within swimming distance of the boat. That night we left for Colombia, with nothing but ocean surrounding us for the rest of the trip.  Arriving in Cartagena was both exciting that a real shower wasn’t far away, and sad that an amazing journey had come to an end.

Panama to Colombia sailing trips are booked through hostels in Panama City, and also in Cartagena if you are doing the trip in reverse. Prices vary slightly depending on which boat you are taking. There is no set schedule, so flexibility is important. You may need to wait a few days until a boat is available. Immigration formalities are taken care of at both ends of the trip, and all meals are included.

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo
When looking through the photo album of every traveller I have met who has been to Colombia, there is one picture that is guaranteed to show up in all of them; that person covered from head to toe in mud. Some suggestions for what I had been doing when I posted mine were “mud wrestling” and “POW camp”. It is actually Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, the one thing that seems to be on everyone’s to-do list while in Cartagena.

A day trip includes entrance the volcano and lunch, and we were told to bring extra money for photos, a massage and having our clothes washed. When we first laid eyes on the volcano, it looked like a giant ant hill made from mud. Not really sure what to expect, we climbed the steps set on the side of the volcano, handed over our cameras and climbed into the crater. The 15m mound is filled with mud, but despite the depth we were surprised to find out we couldn’t sink, and spent the whole time floating around in the top. We were in for a surprise after we climbed out and wandered down to the nearby lake to wash off the mud. I was expecting a quick swim to clean it off, but the ladies who wash your clothes had different ideas; taking off our swimwear to wash it thoroughly and leaving us sitting in the water wearing absolutely nothing. All I can say is that I’m glad it was murky!

Salsa Caleña
Before I arrived in Colombia, I had learnt to dance LA and Cuban style salsa, neither of which helped me when attempting the complicated style that is unique to Cali. Nicknamed “running salsa” by a friend because of the fast footwork involved, everything about this style was new to me; new basic steps, a new count, a new turn structure and most importantly a new way to move your feet. It was a challenging dance to learn, and after a week of classes I only managed to master the basics. I think it would take about a month of daily classes to properly understand the dance, but Cali is one of those places where you can have a blast hanging out for a long period of time.

A typical morning in my week there involved sleeping in, making brunch, then going to a private salsa class with a local instructor. In the afternoons we went around the corner for ice cream or took a Spanish class. Nights started with eating dinner, then piling into taxis to go to that night’s best salsa club, dancing until dawn, and then doing it all over again the next day.

Trekking Tayrona
Situated on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Parque Nacional Tayrona features a series of stunning beaches set away from the big cities of the country’s north. It is possible to visit Tayrona as a day trip, but given the travel time (1 hour from Santa Marta) and cost of entry (approx US$20) it is better to stay overnight in the park. The bus from Santa Marta drops you off at the entrance to the park, and after paying the entry fee you board another bus to the trailhead. After walking for about an hour across boardwalks, up reasonable size hills (make sure to stop for photos at the highest point overlooking the beach) and through some muddy patches, you will arrive at Arrecifies, the first of two main places offering camping and hammocks. The beach at Arrecifes is not safe for swimming because of strong rips, so most people continue on to El Cabo. The trail to El Cabo follows the water, starting on the beach then moving into the forest covered hills that run along the coast.

For those without tents, El Cabo offers hammocks for approx US$5 per night. There is a restaurant at the campsite, but the prices are on the higher side. It’s a good idea to buy whatever food you can carry and doesn’t need to be stored in a fridge before you leave Santa Marta. Once you make it to your destination, activities in the park include football games, hiking and swimming. The electricity is turned off around 9 pm, which encourages a relaxing, early night, where after checking you hammocks for spiders, you can fall asleep to the sound of the nearby waves in what is essentially paradise.

Defying stereotypes
While it is important to note that there are still some risks involved with travelling in parts of Colombia and caution should be exercised, overall it is one of the countries I have felt safest in. Medellin has a reputation as being a dangerous city from its days of being home to a large scale drug war; however I think it is the most fascinating city in the country. Named as one of the 3 most innovative cities in the world in 2012, Medellin is going places. While sometimes overlooked as nothing more than Pablo Escobar’s birthplace, it has so much more on offer and truly defies all common stereotypes about Colombia.

I spent 7 days in Medellin in November 2012. Day 1, I caught the Metrocable to visit Parque Arvi. Situated high in the mountains surrounding Medellin, it was easy to forget we were only half an hour from a big city when spending the day in the forest, ziplining over lakes and trying local snacks. Day 2, I did a city tour, including a visit to one of Pablo Escobar’s houses. That evening was the city’s most important football game “El Clasico de la Montaña” played between the two teams from Medellin. Day 3, I attempted to visit Parque de las Aguas, but got lost and ended up shopping and having lunch in a small town about an hour out of Medellin. That night, I got dressed up for my first taste of Medellin’s nightlife in Parque Lleras. Day 4, I visited the Botanic Gardens and Planetarium, and stumbled upon a free outdoor concert next to one of the city’s universities. That night it was back to Parque Lleras to dance salsa, merengue and vallenato. Day 5, I explored the famous sculptures in Plaza Botero and headed to Sabaneta, south of Medellin for dinner. On day 6, I took a day trip to Guatape, about 2 hours by bus from Medellin. Buses leave from the city’s north bus terminal, which is connected to the city’s world class metro system and easy to navigate. I got off to climb El Peñol, the giant rock which towers over the picturesque lake below. Day 7, I took the metro to Estacion Exposiciones, and climbed Cerro Nutibara for stunning evening views of the city. Built on top of the hill is Pueblito Paisa, a replication of a small Antioquian town. For my last night in the city, it was back to Parque Lleras for Mexican food and live music.

South America’s best colonial city
In a continent where there is no shortage of colonial cities, Cartagena is the standout. Complete with forts and a city wall lined with canons for protection from pirates, Cartagena is one of a kind. Inside the city wall, the colourful colonial buildings of Cartagena’s old town feature beauty unmatched by any other city. Castillo de San Felipe is the biggest fortress in Cartagena, the stone structure took over 100 years to build and features a series of tunnels used for bringing supplies in and out of the fort.

The Palacio de la Inquisicion is also worth visiting, home to a museum that features instruments of torture and interrogation methods used to determine witchcraft. Cartagena’s annual festival is in the days leading up to November 11. The city comes to life with concerts, dancing and a beauty pageant. Travellers in the city at this time should be ready to party, and be prepared to be the target of locals spraying shaving foam!

Travel made easy
Need to take a bus? Most cities have one or two major bus terminals serving all destinations. They are easy to navigate, with destinations and prices listed clearly. Services are frequent and buses are of a good quality. Prefer to fly? Colombia’s new lost cost airline, Viva Colombia, offers cheap tickets to destinations all over the country. Other carries; LAN, Copa and Avianca also fly throughout the country and offer reasonable fares. Want to make a phone call? You can’t walk more than a few meters in any of Colombia’s cities without encountering a street vendor selling cell phone minutes. Usually costing between 100 and 200 pesos per minute (approx US$0.10), this is a great way to make local calls without using global roaming or purchasing a sim card.

Need a pharmacy, ATM, coffee, travel agent, groceries or even some new clothes? The Exito supermarket chain offers all of these things and more in the one location, and can be found all over the country. On a budget? Hostels cost around US$10 a night, often with breakfast included. Typical meals, including soup, rice, beans, plantains, salad, chicken or beef and dessert cost US$3-6. Looking for a hostel? Each place I have stayed in Colombia has had a wall of business cards for hostels in other cities, making it easy to find your next place to stay. In Bogota, I stayed at the HI property La Pinta Hostel, which was close to restaurants, shops and the Zona Rosa.

Costa Rica on a budget

This post was originally written in 2012

It's no secret why people visit Costa Rica; stunning beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, active volcanoes, diverse wildlife, waterfalls and unique cloud forest. Its popularity means that travelling here is never going to be as cheap as its northern neighbors in Central America. But with a few key ways to stretch your dollars, it's possible to visit the many amazing places the country has to offer without maxing out your credit card.

Take public buses
The fastest, easiest and also most expensive way to get around Costa Rica is by private shuttle. These operate between most major towns, and are easy to book through hostels and tour agencies. However they cost up to 5 times as much as travelling by public bus. From San Jose, direct buses run to almost every town in the country, with the longest trip I have taken about 5 hours. When travelling between other cities and towns, it can get more complicated with multiple changes required, but with some music, snacks and a bit of patience, it's worth the money you will save. A recent trip from Monteverde to Tamarindo with 2 friends was going to cost $50 per person in a shuttle, and we did it for about $10 per person on public buses.

Eat Local
Restaurants in Costa Rica can be expensive, especially in tourist destinations. As a general rule in beach towns, the closer to the water a place is, the more expensive it is. Local restaurants called Sodas are a great alternative for trying typical Costa Rican food and saving money. Casados (a typical meal), include your choice of chicken, beef or fish, with rice, beans, plantains and salad.

Make the most of Happy Hour
Most bars in beach destinations offer 2 for 1 specials at different times, usually in the afternoon or evening. For the girls, Ladies Night generally rotates between different venues on different nights of the week, with no cover charge and free drinks. On karaoke night at Sharkys bar in Tamarindo, free shots are the reward for anyone brave enough to sing!

Choose your activities wisely
A lot of things to do in Costa Rica (aside from laying on the beach) come with a decent price tag attached. In some cases, the same activities are offered in multiple places, so it's worthwhile to check where the best place to do them is. Canopy tours are available all over the country, with prices at the beach approx. $60 per person. The tours in Monteverde are by far the most spectacular, where you will be soaring above the canopy and only paying $45. Volcan Rincon de la Vieja is a good alternative to Arenal, with more volcanic activity and an abundance of wildlife in the park. Without giving away secrets, it is also always good to ask locals about free things to do, such as the tree climbing in Monteverde and hidden hot springs near La Fortuna.

Pay with Colones
While it's convenient that most places in Costa Rica will accept US dollars, there are times when it is a lot better to pay with local colones. Hostels, souvenir shops and some restaurants that list prices in dollars will almost always be using the exchange rate of 500 colones to 1 dollar. This isn't always the case for smaller vendors; bus ticket offices, grocery stores, local restaurants, where you will usually end up paying more if you choose to pay with dollars.

Research hostel options
Almost all hostels in Costa Rica offer free wifi, hot water and common areas, however some also include free breakfast and communal kitchens. My favourite hostel in the country is Vista Serena in Manuel Antonio, where I stayed for New Year's Eve. Located on the hill overlooking the ocean, Vista Serena has a large balcony perfect for relaxing and watching the sunset. It also has a restaurant, kitchen, free breakfast and flat screen TV with an impressive movie collection. The owner, Conrad, is extremely helpful. I highly recommend staying there!

My general tips for Rio

This post was originally written in 2012

Since I am currently in Rio and just had my "How to do Rio on a Budget" article published on, I decided to write a follow up post with some more generic tips. I considered doing a "What to do in Rio in the Rain" post, as it has been pretty much non-stop this week, but I don't think that going to the cinema and getting a pedicure would have made for an interesting read. I'm sure there are more things I could still learn about this amazing city, but here are some things I picked up from my second visit.

Getting around by public bus
Taking public buses in South America can be a confusing, intimidating and sometimes unsuccessful experience. Often a crowded bus will stop at unmarked place on the road with people yelling destinations you have never heard of. Some buses will only accept coins. Some will tell you the bus goes to your destination when it actually only goes "close" to your destination.
When I used Rio's public bus system to visit Cristo Redentor earlier this year, I thought it was fairly easy to use. I remember now that a friend staying in my hostel told me the number of the bus to take, which took out the step of working that out, but it was still pretty straightforward. Buses display a number and destination with rotating digital screens. Bus stops have maps showing your locations, a list of buses that stop there and their destination.

When I was trying to figure out which bus to take to Pão de Açúcar from Copacabana yesterday, all I knew was that I was positive I had seen a bus that displayed it as a destination last time I was here, but couldn't remember the number. There were countless buses going downtown, but since that didn't help me I had to look a bit closer at the bus stops, and noticed this incredibly helpful system on the back of each one.

The main attractions in Rio are shown with a symbol and their location. Each bus stop also has a list of all the bus numbers, and next to them the symbol of any attractions it will take you to. All you need to do is match a symbol to a bus number to find out which one to take. For me, it was number 511 to Pão de Açúcar. FOr Cristo Redentor, you are looking for bus 583. It didn't take long to for my opinion of the bus system in Rio to go from "fairly easy to use" to "this is the smartest thing ever!".

One thing to note is that not all buses stop at each stop. Bus 511 was listed as part of the group "BRS2". I had to find a stop where these buses stop, but it was just a case of being every 3rd stop on the main street in Copacabana. The price is listed on the front and inside the bus. You don't pay the driver, there is another person who sits at the front of the bus that you pay when you get on (coins or notes are fine, bus 511 to Pão de Açúcar was R$2.85). When I got on the bus today and earlier this year when I visited Cristo Redentor I checked with the driver I had the right bus, and they also announced when we arrived at the stop to get off at.

To get back from Cristo Redentor, I went to the stop on the opposite side of the road and caught the same bus going in the other direction. To get back from Pão de Açúcar I caught one of the mini buses that also run in Rio (and many other South American cities). They are operated by a driver and someone who collects the money. It arrived to the bus stop, and dropped me off at the street of my choice near my hostel for R$2.50.

Getting to and from the airport
My flight into Rio on Sunday night (Monday morning) landed at 1 am, so I took a taxi from the airport. When I left last time, my flight was at 6 am, so I booked a transfer through my hostel. Each of these options cost about R$70.00 each.

When I leave on Sunday, my flight is at about 5 pm, so I will finally get to make use of the bus I have seen running along Avenida Atlantica. Real Auto Ônibus runs bus number 2018 (a blue, premium bus that will display Aeroporto at the front) to and from the airport between 5:30 am and 10:30 pm. The cost is R$12.00 each way.

Street food
I mentioned this briefly in my "How to do Rio on a Budget" post, I have tried some interesting street food in this city. The street food vendors tend to arrive at the beaches around sunset, but you can find others throughout the day. Popcorn is a popular one I have seen at varying times, and today I tried an interesting (in a good way) hot dog at Praia Vermelha. But if you only try one thing from a street vendor, make sure it's the corn! It's amazing.

Best views of the city
Earlier this year, I thought it would be hard to top Cristo Redentor for the best views of Rio. After visiting Pão de Açúcar today I can say I was definitely wrong. With its stunning location next to the beach, Pão de Açúcar looks back over the city for stunning views of Cristo Redentor, downtown Rio and Copacabana beach. The entry and two cable cars to the top of the mountain cost R$53.00 for an adult.

Until Rio 3.0!