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!

The islands of Panama

This post was originally written in 2012

Most travellers who visit Panama go to Bocas del Toro. Those who stop over in Panama City usually visit the islands of San Blas. The Pearl Islands on the Pacific side of the country have been featured in multiple seasons of the TV show Survivor, but are the least visited of the three.

When I decided to go to Panama last year, getting to all 3 was on the top of my "to do" list.

When speaking to other travellers in Latin America, it seemed that there was always time when something that was once exciting became "just another handcraft market/Mayan temple/colonial building/volcano/monkey", the list goes on. By the time we arrived in Cartagena after sailing through the San Blas islands, everyone who was on my boat decided to skip over Playa Blanca because we had just been spoiled with beaches. On a side note, it was me who made the "volcano" comment in an attempt to convince myself that it didn't matter that I'd missed Pacaya because I would see active volcanoes in Costa Rica. I can say now, it definitely mattered that I missed Pacaya! Arenal has been quiet each time I've been to La Fortuna, and by the time I made it back to Guatemala, Pacaya had erupted and there was no more flowing lava. The moral of the story, don't drink too much the night before you plan to do something really unique.

Back to Panama, despite being being located in the same small country, I could never use the phrase "just another island" about Bocas, San Blas or the Pearl Islands. They each offer a completely different experience, and really have nothing in common aside from being a mass of land surrounded by water.

I had been to Bocas (officially called the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, in the Bocas del Toro province on the Caribbean coast of Panama) once before in 2009, that time I flew there from San Jose. Getting there by bus involves a bit more adventure. A bus from San Jose will take you to the border, where a long wait and a trek across a precarious looking bridge are followed by purchasing a fake bus ticket to confirm you are leaving the country. I couldn't help but laugh when the immigration officer checking our documents before we got to the window was scrutinising the completely legitimate airline tickets most people had, and barely glanced at the ticket I'd just purchased from the dodgy looking booth set up at the border, even though he knew there was no way I'd be taking that bus out of the country.

After getting through immigration, a shared van ride then a boat will get you to Bocas. It takes a bit of effort, but the end result is worth it. There are 8 main islands in the group, but most of the action is in Bocas Town, on Isla Colon. The town is small enough that most places are within walking distance, but not so small that you will see everything in one day. The surrounding islands have plenty to offer, and most people seem to stay longer than they had planned. Island life in Bocas is casual and laid back, with days spent snorkeling, diving, surfing, zip lining or at the beach, with Red Frog being one of the most famous.

After sunset, to put it simply, Bocas is a party town. The nightlife on the islands is popular with locals and travellers, who spend their time dancing above the water on the decks of Barco Hundido (there really is a sunken ship visible in the water under the club), over on Isla Carenero jumping off the trampoline into the water at Aqua Lounge, or at one of the many other bars or clubs on the islands. Transport between the islands is a short trip in a water taxi, that will usually cost $1 per person. One of the first things you learn when travelling in Latin America is that you have to be flexible and go with the flow, because things often operate a little slower than you might be used to at home. When it rains in Bocas, water taxis don't operate at all. If you find yourself stranded in a bar during a storm, my advice would be to settle in for the long haul and play drinking games because you won't be leaving anytime soon.

The party atmosphere in Bocas is not for everyone. Some people choose to stay on Isla Bastimentos, which is a little more low key. However for something completely different, San Blas is worlds away from the sounds of reggaeton pumping out of Barco Hundido in Bocas Town.

The San Blas islands are most commonly visited on sailing trips, either by boats on their way to or from Cartagena, or on shorter trips that start from and return to Panama City. This is the first of many difference between a visit to San Blas and a visit to Bocas. In Bocas, you are likely to stay in a hostel, in San Blas you are sleeping on a yacht. In Bocas, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, in San Blas the crew on your boat prepares all your meals. In Bocas, you can party all night if you want to, in San Blas the only alcohol you will encounter is any that you bring with you. Most of the San Blas islands are uninhabited. The ones which are, are home to the Kuna people, who have a completely different way of life to those living on the mainland.

The islands which are uninhabited offer postcard perfect pictures, with white sand, palm trees and clear blue water. When visiting the islands that are home to the Kuna people, there are no restaurants, shops or internet cafes, instead a way of life based around hunting and fishing that has been passed on through families living on the islands since the Spanish arrived in Panama. When sailing between the islands, especially the ones that are uninhabited, it is common not to see any other boats or people. When you get off the boat on your own "private island", it is very easy to forget that the rest of the world is out there.

The Pearl Islands had been on my list of place to visit since I saw Survivor All Stars in 2004. I couldn't get there when I first went to Panama, but last year it was a "must do" as I was going to be in Panama City. The islands are reached by a 25 minute flight from Panama City, or a 2 hour boat ride. The boat doesn't operate every day of the week, but since I prefer to avoid to small planes when I can, I decided that was the best way to get over there. I stayed on Isla Contadora, and realised as soon as I started looking into it that it doesn't offer one thing that is common everywhere else I have been; options for budget travellers. It turns out the island is mostly used by rich families or celebrities, who have their second (or third) homes there, and the cast and crew of Survivor when filming is happening. But this was about ticking a box for me, so I went ahead with my plans.

I ended up going with a friend I met travelling, so was able to split the cost of the room. We stayed in a bed and breakfast place, which was located about a 15 minute walk from the beach. The island is very small, about 2 km from end to end, and most people use golf carts as transport. The hotels are in the centre of the island, so you always need to walk or be driven to the beach. There are a few restaurants, which are all again, pretty expensive, and nothing in the way of nightlife. There is one small supermarket that sells snacks, drinks, beer and does amazing local food for lunch (which was reasonably priced).

After the first day, it seemed like the only good thing about the experience was the nice beach and the cheap lunch. But in a lessons not to jump to conclusions, our second day there turned out to be amazing. We hired a boat, and the driver took us to the "Survivor islands", Chapera and Mogo Mogo. We had the beach at both to ourselves to swim and snorkel. It feels like a cliche to say it was "the most beautiful beach I've seen", but it definitely has to be up there. I have always liked the beaches on the Pacific coast of Central America, because the jungle meets the shore. The combination of thick vegetation, white sand and sparkling water is hard to top.

On the way back to the main island in the afternoon, we said the only way the day could be more perfect was to see whales. A few minutes later, we spotted a mother and a calf no more than 10 meters from our boat. We watched them for about half an hour as they swam past the island. The calf was playful, constantly surfacing and splashing. We were extremely lucky to get to see it, especially because it was so unexpected.

We braved the 25 minute flight back to Panama City. The 12 seat plane was the smallest I have been in. It was a smooth flight, but I don't want to push my luck. Next time, I think the boat would still be my first choice!

The three groups of islands off the coast of Panama all have unique qualities that set them apart from the others. If you can only visit one, Bocas is the best choice if you are looking to hang out somewhere with a party vibe, San Blas can't be beaten for tranquility and the Pearl Islands has what I believe are the most beautiful beaches. One thing I can for sure, is that if you visit all 3, it won't be a case of "just another island".

Sailing from Panama to Colombia

This post was originally written in 2012

The pieces of information that you pick up from other travellers can be invaluable. Sometimes it's a recommendation on which town to visit and which to avoid, where to stay, or in this case how to get from one place to another. During my trip to Central America in 2010, I was given the name of a hostel that organises sailing trips from Panama to Colombia.

The trip leaves from Portobelo on the Caribbean side of Panama and goes through the San Blas islands before 2 days on open sea to get to Cartagena. It turns out there are two hostels in Panama City that can organise the sailing trips to Colombia, Luna's Castle which was the one recommended to me and Mamallena where I ended up staying.

In November last year, I left Panama City for Puerto Lindo to sail on the Perla del Caribe. I met up with a friend who was on the trip in 2010, and we were both pretty excited having been anticipating this for about a year. The trip was 5 nights in total, including 3 nights in San Blas. Our captain's name was Sebastian, and he along with his girlfriend Brenda and their dog would be taking us to Cartagena.
We arrived in Puerto Lindo around 11 am after getting a lift from the owners of Mamallena. The night before they had taken us to a Pearl Jam concert - definitely a highly recommended hostel! In true evidence of "Latino Time", we spent the entire day hanging around in Puerto Lindo waiting for Sebastian to be ready to leave, and made the best of the time by drinking just about all of the beer available in pretty much the only restaurant in the town.

When we finally made it on the boat, our first night was spent having dinner at twilight in the harbour, before starting what would be become our favourite (and only) night time activity for the next 5 days, Uno. We sailed overnight to our first stop in the San Blas. I was in no hurry to head inside and ended up falling asleep on the deck. It wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep, but the cool air, clear sky covered with stars (I was trying to locate the Southern Cross on the horizon) and gentle rocking of the boat made it a perfect night.

The next morning we woke up to paradise, we had stopped next to a small, uninhabited island which was our stop for the day. After breakfast, we had a short moment of "now what?" before we realised that we didn't need to do anything other than swim, relax and enjoy the island. Consisting of just under 400 islands, of which only 49 are inhabited, scattered in the Caribbean waters along the Panamanian coast, San Blas is a haven of stunning beauty. Over the next 3 days, we visited 4 different islands. The first day was spent snorkeling, jumping off the boat and sun baking. On the second afternoon we were visited by some Kuna people living on a nearby island who were selling handmade bracelets. After we bought a few things, we also realised they were selling our dinner - fresh lobster. With all our meals prepared for us on the boat, we were definitely spoiled!

Our final day in San Blas, Sebastian brought us to a quiet location and stopped in the middle of 3 islands, all within swimming distance of the boat. The hot nights we had on the boat were made worthwhile with perfect weather during the day. I decided it was time to get a tan, but if you ask me if I got sunburnt my answer will probably be less than the truth. We headed for the closest island first and spent the morning lying in the shallow water and discussing plans for when we got to Colombia. Looking back now, I'm not really sure it was necessary to be doing anything that involved forward thinking!

In the afternoon we swam to a different island, and things got interesting one of the guys on the boat mentioned that he felt like running around the island. We tried to guess how far it was, and I volunteered to run with him to find out. We could tell he was quietly competitive, and I didn't mention that I'm a runner. The aftermath of me beating him gave us some alternate entertainment to Uno! (For the record, it took me about 1 min and 5 seconds to run, some of these islands are tiny!).

That night it was time to sail to Colombia, and we woke up the following morning surrounded by nothing but open sea. By about half way through the day we were really missing San Blas. It was extremely hot, but that problem was easily solved when the boat was stationary by jumping into the water. When someone on the boat accidentally dropped a cushion into the water and we had to go back and get it, we were all fighting to volunteer to jump in and get it. In the end, we all went swimming, trying not to think about how deep the water was and what could be down there.

Our final night on the Perla del Caribe, we got an epic storm. We were told we would all have to go inside when it started raining, but I didn't realise how bad it was until the next morning. I had been sleeping on one of the chairs in the kitchen section of the boat, and was woken up suddenly when I felt cold water bucketing down on me. The window in the roof above me was open, and in my half-asleep state I didn't give too much thought to how it got inside, instead just dried off, closed the window, ignored everyone laughing at me and went back to sleep. The following morning, Sebastian told me it was the result of a wave crashing over the front of the boat. I'm pretty glad I didn't know!

Making our way into Cartagena was both exciting and sad. It was my first time in South America after 3 times in Central America, and I'd heard so many great things about Colombia. But after 5 days I feeling kind of attached to our boat, the crew and especially their dog. That feeling disappeared pretty quickly when I put my feet back on dry land, and realised that a real shower and bed weren't too far away! I probably shouldn't mention that Sebastian was taking care of our immigration formalities, but since the offices were closed on the day we arrived, we were technically illegal for about 24 hours.. Oops!

Sailing trips can be organised through hostels in Panama City and Cartagena, and cost approx. $450 per person including meals.

My top 3 things to do in LA

This post was originally written in July 2011, and updated in June 2016.
Because there is much more to LA than Hollywood!

Farmers Market Food Tasting Tour
If you like to eat, this is the best thing to do in LA. It was recommended to me by a friend, and it definitely didn’t disappoint! The tour starts at Farmers Markets and walks down 3rd St to the Beverly Centre, stopping along the way to sample food from cafes, bakeries and restaurants. I can be a picky eater, but there was nothing I didn’t try. My favourites were the tasty meats from the Brazilian BBQ restaurant in the markets, with the monkey bread from Thee's Continental Pastries and doughnuts from Bob's Doughnuts close behind. I loved this tour so much, I think I ended up doing it two more times with different friends, and booking it for my sister.

I also later did their East LA Latin Flavours tour, which explored some of the city's best dining secrets. We were treated to amazing tamales and pupusas, toured a tortilla factory and tried some unique desserts. The best part however, was meeting the people who ran the restaurants, and hearing their stories about living in Los Angeles and how the meals that had been passed through their families for generations became their way of life. This tour might have been even better than the Farmers Market tour!

These tours are run by Melting Pot Tours. My experiences are from 2010 to 2013, they might visit different restaurants now.

Ocean Rafting at Catalina Island
Technically not in LA, but pretty close, I went to Catalina Island during my second US trip. I went for a day, taking the ferry from Long Beach in the morning and returning later that night. I got lunch at one of the restaurants when I arrived, and had booked an ocean rafting tour for the afternoon.
The tour started by departing from Avalon Harbour, and went around the island to a nearby snorkling spot. The water was a bit cold, but I got some great photos with my underwater camera. Next we headed out from the island in search of dolphins, which we were lucky enough to see, then finished the afternoon with a stop at Two Harbours before returning to Avalon. The tour I did in mid 2011 might not exist anymore, but looking at the website while updating the post, I think they actually have better tours now!

Catalina Ocean Rafting

Runyon Canyon Park
I love this park! I think I have been there on every visit to LA since I originally wrote this post. Accessed from the top off a quiet street off Hollywood Boulevard, you wouldn't stumble on it by accident. This was something I decided to do after I had visited the city a couple of time and was looking for an alternative things to do. Best of all, it’s free!
I first visited the park one afternoon when I had a few days in LA on my way home from Central America. It was a clear day, so the views of the city and the sign were great. The leafy open space at the entrance of the park and the dirt trails leading up leading up through hills can trick you into believing you are no longer in a big city. I walked from the N Fuller Ave entrance to Mullholland Drive, it’s definitely something I would recommend to anyone visiting the city.

How to do Rio on a budget

This post was originally written in 2012

Whether you arrive in Brazil at the start or the end of your South American journey, one thing that is unavoidable is that it will be more expensive that every other country you visit. Some travellers like to start there so everything gets cheaper after they leave. Others (myself included) leave it until the end, and even though we know it’s going to cost more than we have been used to living on in the likes of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, don’t really realise how much until we get there.
The place in Brazil where prices are notably highest is Rio. When I arrived there in January of this year, it was my last stop in South America and I was running very short on money. After 3 months of paying $10 a night for a hostel, I knew I was going to struggle with paying closer to $30 a night in Rio. And when some of my friends were going for steak dinners and I was saving extra bread rolls from the free hostel breakfast to eat for lunch, it could have been a very long week.

As it turned out, I had an amazing time in Rio and it didn’t matter at all that I didn’t have a lot to spend. There a lot of ways to see and do the many amazing things on offer without spending a great deal, especially if you know some basic Portuguese and do a bit of planning in advance.

Where to stay

The hostel that I paid approx. $27 USD a night for a 9 bed dorm was in Ipanema. With its shady, tree covered streets, spectacular sunset and abundance of restaurants and bars, Ipanema is the most ideal place to stay in Rio, which also makes it the most expensive. If you want to stay at the beach and save a bit of money, Copacabana is a great choice. Boasting its own long stretch of sand, views of Pão de Açúcar and vibrant nightlife, you will have an amazing time here.  The two beaches are within walking distance of each other, and the bonus of staying in Copacabana is that hostels here are a few dollars cheaper a night than the ones in Ipanema. If staying at the beach is not high on your priority list, or you don’t mind taking public transport to get there, hostels in Lapa and Santa Teresa (downtown Rio) are cheaper once again. Most hostels in Rio include free breakfast, which is often fairly basic, but will save you eating out.

What to do for free

Rio’s beaches are a flurry of activity and are utterly fascinating. A walk along Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana beaches is as much about people watching as it is about soaking up the sun. You will encounter runners, cyclists and skateboarders, and can watch people playing volleyball, footvolley and paddle boarding. When you venture down onto the sand, hiring beach chairs and umbrellas is popular but optional, and not really necessary if you bring a towel and a hat. If you are hungry, thirsty or feel like buying a new Brazilian style bikini, wave down one of the many people who wander the beach selling snacks and drinks, and in some cases swimwear and clothes. At the end of the day, hundreds of people gather at Ponta Do Arpoador on the eastern side of Ipanema to watch the sun set over the water at the other end of the beach.

A short bus trip from the beaches will bring you to downtown Rio, where you can visit the famous Lapa steps, see the cathedral in the city centre or walk to Santa Teresa.

The “Do It Yourself” city tour

For sightseeing in Rio, a full day city tour includes all of the highlights; Lapa, Cristo Redentor, Pão de Açúcar and Santa Teresa for about $100 USD. However, it’s also possible to visit all of these places yourself for the cost of a bus fare and entry fees. The public bus system in Rio is modern and well organised, and most importantly provides access to the city’s sights at a much lower price. It is easy to navigate with all buses displaying numbers and destinations, and route information shown at bus stops. The use of some basic Portuguese would be beneficial if you want to check you have the right bus or ask the driver to tell you where to get off. Buses from Ipanema and Copacabana go downtown for Lapa and Santa Teresa, and to the entrance points for Pão de Açúcar and Cristo Redentor. A trip to Cristo Redentor by bus cost me approx. $20 USD including the bus fare and tram to the top of the mountain.

Weigh your food

Because my money situation was so precarious in Rio, most of my dinners were from street food vendors after watching the sunset in Ipanema. It was great food that I highly recommend trying, however for something more substantial there is nothing better than Brazil’s unique “weigh your food” restaurants. As with accommodation, restaurants are cheaper in Lapa than at the beaches, and there are plenty to choose from with competitive prices. I stumbled across one when trying to escape the rain before visiting the Lapa steps, and had a fantastic lunch. You will be given a plate, and can fill it up with whatever you think you can eat from the buffet. When you are done, you bring your plate to the cashier who will put it on the scales, subtract the weight of the plate, and tell you the price. Most restaurants offer a rate per 200 grams of food. It’s a great way of making sure you only pay for what you eat – as long as your eyes aren’t bigger than your stomach!

Friday nightlife

A trip to Rio is not complete without visiting Lapa on a Friday night.  Clubs in the area, including the city’s best samba clubs and the famous Rio Scenarium, charge about $20 USD cover, but the best party is outside. The streets are closed to cars, which are replaced by vendors selling street food and drinks, and hundreds of people walking, dancing and taking in the atmosphere. Start the night by getting a drink (approx. $1 USD for beer from the street vendors), and then wander up to the Lapa steps. Squeeze through the crowds and pick a spot on the steps to listen to the samba band that is playing nearby, or try to master the quick footwork by joining in with those dancing. Often the intention to go to a club in Lapa on a Friday night is quickly forgotten when you step out of the taxi and the first sounds of samba drums meet your ears. The Carnaval like vibe of the outdoor festivities and the passion for the music that is the heart and soul of the city make for an unforgettable (and cheap) night out.

Football fever

One of the most popular things to do when visiting Rio is to go to a football game. Hostels will commonly arrange group trips with transport and a guide. Most games are held at Maracanã stadium, but it was closed for World Cup renovations when I was there. There was a game between Flamengo and Botafogo at a different stadium, and I went with some friends. Following the theme of saving money, we decided not to go with the hostel because it was cheaper to buy tickets at the stadium. Getting there was no problem, we caught a subway then a train, and there were trilingual stadium staff to help with buying tickets. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, but was still a lot of fun. The crowd were enthusiastic throughout the whole game, singing, dancing and cheering. Trying to get back after the game was less smooth sailing, and although we made it eventually, things did get a little scary. While saving money is always important, safety ranks higher, so in this situation in the future I would always pay a little bit extra and book through the hostel.

All in all, it's definitely possible to have a GREAT time in Rio on a budget. When I go back later this year it will be at the start of a trip, but I'm still going to pick the cheapest options. However if you want to go hang gliding, there is no way to avoid forking out the $170, enjoy!

Grand Canyon: rim to river (and back) in one day

This post was originally written in 2012

I don’t really have a bucket list, but walking to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is something I have been thinking about since I first came here in August, 2009. That year I decided to helicopter tour in the morning, which didn’t leave enough time to do the trip to the river in the afternoon. I didn’t regret the decision to do the helicopter trip; I just knew it meant I would have to come back, so here I am.

Summer in the Grand Canyon gets very hot, last time I was here it was over 40 degrees celsius when I started walking. There are a few rules posted at various points around the canyon; stay hydrated, eat often, avoid walking between 10 am and 4 pm, rest often in the shade and do not attempt to walk to the river and back in one day. I was only planning to break a couple of those.

My aunt and a friend have both done the round trip to the river in one day, so I knew I would be able to make it. If there was anything I considered dangerous, it wasn’t the distance or staying hydrated, it was the loose rocks I could potentially slip on and fall over the edge.

The distance from the rim to the river on the Bright Angel Trail is 9.5 miles or 15 km, making it a 30 km round trip. On my previous trip I walked to the Indian Garden, which is half way to the river. That took 1.5 hours down and 2 hours back to the top. I was estimating it would take 3.5 hours to get down, and 5 hours to get back up. I told Christina if I wasn’t back by 6 pm she could start worrying. I packed 4 bottles of water, my lunch and a few snacks that I brought the day before, and started walking just before 6 am. The sun was up, but most of the path was still in shade and it was quite cool. I was at the first rest point by 6.20 am.

It's not exactly a secret that I am not great with animals (not counting my dogs). There are squirrels everywhere in the Grand Canyon, and even though I don’t really like them, you get used to them running around. I can’t say the same for the first animal I saw on the trail; a ram that was eating a plant on the edge of the path. I managed to sneak around it without any problems while some people were taking photos.

A little further on, I wasn’t so lucky when I got stung by a flying bug, and it only got worse from there. I arrived at the 3 mile rest point at 6.50 am. The number of people walking up from the river who had camped overnight was starting to increase and the number walking down was getting a lot smaller. I wasn’t far from the Indian Garden when I almost stepped on a snake that was sunbaking on the trail. I had a bad experience with a snake when I walking with my family in Tasmania as a teenager, so I like them even less than squirrels, rams and flying stinging bugs. I had obviously startled it because it started moving across the path, blocking off where I needed to walk.

A few minutes earlier I had passed someone on the path (whose name I later found out is Mark), so I decided to wait until he got there and could solve the snake problem. I wasn't planning to go anywhere until it was well out of the way. He told me it was a rattlesnake, and after it moved off the path we (okay just me) passed it quickly before it could do more damage than the bug. Mark wasn't scared of the snake, and took a few photos. He is rafting for 6 days down the river, but said he will email them to me when he gets back. I’ll post them when I get them.

After that I had someone to walk with, and we arrived at the Indian Garden at 7.15 am. It was a bit earlier than I was expecting, and was still quite cool in the canyon. It's not recommend that you walking past the Indian Garden in summer, and there were a few warning signs about the heat and possible dangers of continuing further. A thermometer in the garden said the temperature at that point was 78 F.

The landscape for the few kilometres after the garden were quite lush and beautiful. We passed a small stream running through the canyon; it was surrounded by trees and rocks jutting out from the walls.

The protection from the trees soon disappears, and the trail resumes cutting through the rocky walls of the canyon. It wasn't long before we were looking over the Devil’s Corkscrew; a section of switchbacks taking you further down into the canyon. It was in shade at the point, but I realised it wouldn’t be by the time I was coming back up. Even though it was still quite early, I could feel the heat setting in. We had a fantastic view of were about to walk, and it put the depth of the canyon into perspective. We were past half way, but I couldn’t see the rim anymore and I couldn't see the river. It was hard to fathom the enormity of the of the whole canyon when I remembered that we were only in one small portion of it.

When we reached the bottom of the Devil's Corkscrew, the trail flattened out. I knew we had to be close; the sound of running water was getting louder. We rounded a corner and the river came into the view, I don’t know if I was happy to have made it or was blown away by how beautiful it was. Probably a bit of both! It was 8.35 am, so my estimation of 3.5 hours was over by about an hour.

We walked onto a small beach by the river and we met PJ, who had walked down from the rim the same morning. I was surprised how cold the water was, but would appreciate it later during the hot walk back up. The current seemed quite strong, I don’t know it if was possible to swim, but I was happy to just get my feet wet.

It felt a bit early for lunch at 9 am, but I hadn’t eaten breakfast so I ate my sandwich anyway. Mark was staying at the river for his rafting trip, but PJ was walking back up. Wanting to avoid as much of the heat as possible, we headed back around 9.10 am. The section between the river and the Indian Garden was supposed to be the hardest part, having to go up the Devil’s Corkscrew which was then in the sun. We made quite good time, and even with a stop to cool off in a small stream, we were at the Indian Garden by 10.30 am. The highest the temperature had gotten was 38 C in the sun, 31 C in the shade.

The Indian Garden is a beautiful part of the canyon. Historically it was used a resting point for tribes that inhabited the area, because of the tall trees protecting it from the heat and the cool breeze that passes through. The garden also has a small pool called Victor’s Oasis, which is surrounded by rocks you can sit on a put your feet in. It was a refreshing spot to sit and relax before the rest of the climb out (and also has taps for those who are running low on water!).

We stayed for almost an hour, and despite feeling pretty good at the time it got a lot harder from there. The last time I walked out from the Indian Garden I felt good the whole way, but the extra 7 km of walking up from the river was starting to take its toll. I was also a lot fitter in 2009; it was only 2 weeks after my best City to Surf. This year I haven’t done any running since May, and even that was nothing impressive.

We pushed through the 3 mile rest point, but stopped at the final one before the rim to refill our water. The top of the canyon still looked fairly far away to me (though PJ said it seemed close!). We estimated about another half an hour of walking, but we were going so slow it seemed a lot longer. I could feel blisters on the bottom of my toes, though we were so close that the excitement of almost having made it overshadowed any pain. We arrived back at the top at 1.45 pm; which was about 4 hours of walking time on the way up. Exhaustion kicked in later that afternoon after the most important thing, a celebratory drink, had been taken care of.

The experience was amazing, and even though it was tough I'm glad to have done it. The river was beautiful and the canyon itself is stunning. I’m not sure any words or photos can do it justice, I think it is something that can only be explained by seeing it yourself.
Would I go back? Absolutely. Would I walk to the river and back in a day again? Once was definitely enough! If I go back, I would camp at the river overnight, or walk to a waterfall or springs in a different part of the canyon.

Now for my disclaimer: the official advice from the Grand Canyon National Park is not to attempt a trip to the river in one day. The warnings should be taken seriously. The Bright Angel trail is a 30 km round trip to the river, including 15 km of walking uphill, most with little or no shade. The people I know who have done the round trip in a day are experienced runners, bushwalkers or riders. If you are unsure, it is better to camp overnight at the river. This blog is a description of my experience, not a recommendation to attempt the trip.

Conquering Cerro Chirripo

This post was originally written in 2103

Ever since bad weather prevented me from climbing Volcan Baru in Panama in 2011, I've been thinking about going back to do it. There is something special about the idea of ascending a peak so high that on a clear day allows you to see the ocean on both sides of the country.

In January this year, I got the chance to do one better, Cerro Chirripo, the highest peak in Costa Rica. At 3800m, 400m higher than Baru, this was always going to be a challenge. I wasn't worried about the altitude because I had been higher in Peru with no problems, but was trying to determine the possibility of making the trip to the summit and back in a day. The recommended way is to climb the first 14 km, and stay overnight at the lodge that is situated there, then do the remaining 5 km the following day.

This presented a few challenges; the limited number of park permits meant reserving space in the lodge well in advance or camping at the ranger station to attempt to get one of 10 last minute passes. This, combined with a recommendation I had been given not to attempt it in a day, led me to do the exact opposite.

After picking up our day passes and buying snacks to take with us, my dad and I got an early night so we could begin our trek at 3 am the following day. Officially 38.2 km return (I'd say it was actually closer to 40 km) and 2.5 km of climbing (starting at 1300 m and going up to 3800 m), this would surpass the Grand Canyon and the toughest thing I've ever done.

Racing against the clouds to make it to the summit before the view disappeared, we arrived at the lodge (14 km) just before 8 am. The first 5 km had been mostly uphill, before it leveled out slightly, then started an intense, unrelenting climb for about 4 km between 8 and 12 km. We were walking in the dark until about the 9 km mark, and were treated to amazing views of the Southern Cross just above the horizon (in the northern hemisphere!).

The last kilometre before reaching the lodge was the hardest part of the whole climb. After a strenuous climb to reach 3000 m, the trail does a cruel descent after the 12 km mark. It was disheartening as all our hard work was seemingly undone, and we knew we would have to do it all over again. I don't think that what I was doing after the 13 km sign appeared even counts as walking, it was more like plodding, and took everything I had to get to 14 km.

After stopping for breakfast and checking in with the ranger, we started the last 5 km (I'm sure it was really 6 km), to the summit. The race against the clouds was truly on, we could see them coming in our direction from the Pacific side of the country. Following multiple incorrect guesses about which peak we were climbing, the summit finally came into view. After a few quick photos, we made it up the last, almost vertical, 100 m by 10 am and we were rewarded with near perfect 360 degree views.

There were a few clouds on the Pacific side, but we could see the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Panamanian mountains to the south, and as far as the active Volcan Irazu in the north, which was sending thick, white smoke into the sky. We also had a great view of the lakes nestled on either side of the peak.

We took pictures, signed the guestbook and chatted with the locals who had also made it to the top. At only a few meters wide, and higher than anything else we could see around, the summit was a magical spot, and we ended up staying there for about an hour. There was something extremely peaceful about eating an early lunch in this isolated place, with only the falcons whizzing by for company. It was a surreal feeling that we were alone, standing on the highest point in Costa Rica, worlds away from the rest of the country bustling below us. We were the last people who made it the summit that day, and with the cloud increasing as we left I wouldn't have wanted to arrive any later.

The way back down started off easier. With no need to worry about the clouds, we took our time and stopped for several rest breaks. With about 8 km to go, I could feel blisters on the side and underneath my toes. From that point on, it was an increasing form of torture, even harder to deal with than the most challenging uphill sections.

I couldn't get back fast enough, for no other reason than to take off my shoes, and arrived back at 4:30 pm, making the day a 13.5 hour round trip. I haven't run a marathon yet, but when I do and I'm feeling tired, I'm going to think of Chirripo. I don't think I will ever find a physical activity more challenging, and that was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.. I am never doing it again!

Accommodation: Hotel Uran (located in San Gerardo 50 m from the trailhead)
Getting there: Bus (2 hours, 1,500 colones) or taxi (half an hour, $30/15,000 colones) from San Isidro
Passes: Stop at the ranger station at the entrance to San Gerardo, cost is $15 for 2 days or $10 for one day (per person). Overnight passes and lodge reservations must be done a few days in advance