Sunday, October 14, 2018

Costa Rican Summer


      It was summer of 2018 I had just been expelled from the country of Nicaragua and deported back to Panama City, Panama (cordially with all due respect to the Nicaraguan Government). I had a few hours to figure out how to get to Costa Rica. I had a few hours to figure out how to get to Costa Rica, the original plan was a short bus ride from San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, a bus option now was over 15 hours, so I decided to splurge and got an expensive last minute ticket to San Jose, which was not my final destination, but made for a good transit spot. I found an Airbnb with a nice old couple in a very questionable neighborhood near the airport for $15 and got a good night's rest after a long day in transit to and immediately from Nicaragua. The next day after some thought I decided to stay on target and just head to Tamarindo my final destination earlier. After some bad breakfast in San Jose I hopped on the bus to Tamarindo. The sad detour from Nicaragua made for the best ending to a summer trip I could have imagined though. Here's my tips and advice for Costa Rica!

  • Where to stay is going to be your biggest decision, in my opinion it's the beach, now what beach is of course negotiable. And I would not be against staying a night in Arenal or a night in the Costa Rican jungle, but for the best holiday possible, set up your main base in the beaches!
  • For me this was Tamarindo, which the locals nickname Tama-Gringo for all the expats. The expats have certainly boosted up the prices of things, but Costa Rica is still a smoking deal for the budget traveler compared to other expensive world countries.I started my journey in a 3 star hotel right on the beach next to a famous night club there as I knew I'd need a few drinks after the Nica leg being swept out from under me. After I upgraded to an Airbnb I already had reserved for later in the week. My one bedroom Airbnb on the main strip of town was only $50 a night, a 5 minute walk to the beach, and a 1 minute walk to the main area of town.

    Rio Celeste, or the day I went  Rio Marrón :-0
  • The jungle and zip line tours are great but my favorite tour despite weather was the Llanos waterfalls and Rio Celeste falls (which despite brown muddy rain I still loved going). You can only do the tour solo if you have a rental car as no buses will go there at the time of this writing. Bring some cash for restaurants and incentives credit card is widely accepted in the towns and cities but not so much on the rest stops on the road.


  • Speaking of waterfalls, jungles, and nature, get on a horse while you are there. I was lucky enough to be the only rider that day with my guide, who was an absolutely gorgeous Tica woman. I showed up unshaven and hung over looking like a dirt bag, lesson learned on that one.

                         
  • Traditional foods are harder and harder to come by as the main stay tourists foods (burgers, pizza, and sushi) invade the main tourism cities  But local beer was definitely on point. ¡Mas imperial por favor!
  • Speaking of beer, and drink. Nightlife is where things really come alive. For my first night I had gotten a last minute tip from a co-worker to go to the Crazy Monkey on Friday nights in Tamarindo, this advice proved to be very accurate. Other notable places were Sharky's at night and Tamarindo Beach Club by day.
  • Don't do what I did and not bring a great underwater camera if you are diving, I did without a doubt my best scuba dive ever in Playa Flamingo and my word and the great memories is all I have to show for it. If you don't dive the snorkeling there is still pretty damn good!
  • While I am the type of guy that loves to be on the go and do tons of things, some of the best parts of this trip was to sit on the beach for a few hours and do nothing but look at this....

                      
       Going into this journey to Central America which was Panama, Nicaragua, and of course Costa Rica, I knew of the 3 countries Costa Rica was "the popular place for American tourists". And to me, this was a slight turn off, while I love popular places I also love the unknown and wanted to make Costa Rica just a small part of the trip rather than the main event. The events in getting kicked out of Nicaragua changed the tides on that and made it a 50/50 split between Panama and Costa Rica.  

     As a budget traveler nothing goes as planned so we must plan on nothing going as planned. I had read a lot about both Costa Rica and Nicaragua and within a few hours I was able to go from being escorted out of a country with no hotel, no flight, and no travel plan for a few days to sitting in a night club knocking down an imperial with a beach front room and an adventure ready to set in motion for the rest of my time in this beautiful country.  I had an amazing time in this beautiful country and am so glad I got to spend more time there than planned, and I do plan on going back to Nicaragua regardless of the bad events (if they let me!). I left off social media with the same quote I will leave off with now....

"Adiós América central y muchas gracias por el viaje, 
fue mi primer vez pero no va a ser mi última vez!"
"Goodbye Central America and thank you for the trip. It was my first time but it will not be my last!"




 Choose the continent!!!!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Panama, Getting Kicked Out Of Nicaragua, & My First Journey To Central America




      It's a huge region of the world that sit's right below me, I speak the language of all the countries, I eat the food, I am friends with the people from them in my city, and I knew of the greatness that is so close to my home, yet for whatever reason it was not until Summer of 2018 that I finally hit the region of central America.

     The plan was to tackle 3 countries in 2 weeks, Panama, Costa Rica, and a quick weekend in Nicaragua who was in the midst of civil unrest during the trip. I used my usual strategies to get a kick ass flight which included a free layover in Fort Lauderdale which oddly I have never been to despite countless times in Miami. I landed late in the country of Panama and immediately the humid hot jungle air hit me. It was the start of the two best weeks of that entire summer.

First here's my go to info from my experiences in Panama:

  • Panama City is of course mandatory, I searched high and dry both online and in person walked a significant part of the city and came to the conclusion most people will advise, Casco Viejo is the place to stay. It's central, it's easy to get around, heavily guarded by PD/military for tourism and the president, great food, great drinks, great roof bars, and mind blowing views of Panama City Skyline.

                 
  • I tried the $9 Geisha coffee, extremely over rated in my opinon.
  • Panama uses dollars, so that made it super easy for me and other American tourists. Credit card was also almost universally accepted, a change I'm seeing more and more in travel. Make sure you have a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees for when it's not the dollar or your home currency!
  • You are not going all the way to Panama without seeing the canal, no need for a tour guide, it's easy to get to by Uber, or Taxi.. but make sure you know the Uber rate first as Taxi's tend to hike the price significantly sometimes!

            
  • A day or overnight trip to Anton Valley is great, but don't waste money on a tour group, the bus ticket cost me $4 vs. $100 for a tour!

                       
  • Tours of Soberania National Park however are worth the money!


     
  • Now even though I said stay in Casco, the only thing I did not like was the lack of local food! So for a good Panama Dish you will have to get out of the main tourist area, a good day would be coupled with walking the beautiful promenade. 





  • Next came the tough choice for me and all travelers short on time, Bocas Del Toro or San Blas Islands? I went with Bocas for 2 reasons, price and Cocovivo. Coco Vivo is a nature resort on a secluded island a half hour boat ride from Bocas. I stayed in an over the water cabin with a diving board into the ocean. It also included fresh cooked meals, a bar onsite (it was me and 3 other guests on the whole island!), free kayak, free paddle board, I paid $20 bucks or so for a jungle hike, free snorkeling with the reef just under your feet, I can't say enough good things about Cocovivo, I think it gave me the isloation and beauty of the San Blas Islands and at the end I even had about 3 hours to roam around the Bocas Town a little.



   

     After that I headed back for 2 more awesome days chilling in Panama through a wicked rain storm which made the friends I made even funner to be with. The time was done and it was time to head to Nicaragua. At the time of this writing there was civil unrest, I was told a lot of warnings about safety, advice about where not to go, which roads not to use, where to stay etc. But I was not told about the good old Yellow Fever Card (which I admit I should have known!).

    As I embarked out of the Panama Airport I said goodbye as I always did wondering when I would come back (not knowing it would be less than 3 hours). I landed in Nicaragua and arrived at customs, I speak fluent Spanish and it went something like this after the standard immigration questions...

Immigration Officer:  ¿Tienes una tarjeta de fiebre amarilla?
Me: ¿Que?
Immigration Officer:  ¿Tienes una tarjeta de fiebre amarilla? (louder)
Me: ¿Que?
Immigration Officer: Do you have a yellow fever card? (now in English)
Me: No, I understand what you are asking for, I just don't understand why you are asking me for this?

   A brief argument ensues, I tell them I have been all over the world and have never been asked for this, I've worked in emergency medicine for 15+ years, I'm healthy etc. But at some point when you are in a foreign country, have only $100 or so cash, a phone that doesn't work, and you have no idea what they are doing with your passport, you give up. I was kicked out. I have been kicked out of a few bars in day, but I never was kicked out of a country before. I was politely and cordially escorted up to the terminal and placed back on a plane to Panama City regardless of the fact that they have not had a yellow fever outbreak since the 80s or so. Oh well lesson learned. I had heard many times in travel and read many times including this one on having the yellow fever card, but since I was stupid I didn't get one, lesson learned for a cost of about $500, which was the flight I lost, a last minute flight to Costa Rica, and 2 nights hotel I lost. Oh well! My first trip was still a blast for Central America!



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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Dirty South Road Trip


     So earlier this year I made a list of every state I have ever been to with the ultimate goal of hitting all 50 states in the United States. I'm somewhere around half. But as a conscious traveler that tries to make the most of every trip I divided the remaining states in to 8 possible trips trying to combine neighboring states as best I can. We will see how the other 7 trips go but since it was summer and I love the beach as much as anyone I decided to do the Dirty South Road Trip first.

In geographical order me and a buddy hit:

Memphis, Tennessee
West Memphis, Arkansas
Tupelo, Mississippi
Orang Beach, Alabama
Mobile, Alabama
Biloxi, Mississippi
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Baton Rouge, Louisiana  

    First thing first, I got lucky to catch free flights using points so that was also how the starting point Memphis and final point Baton Rouge were chosen. Renting a car was astronmically cheaper than flying between cities and with two people also cheaper than going by bus. We stayed mostly in Airbnb's which is always  my preference to hotels but did stay in a hotel in Biloxi only because it was cheap and had great ocean views. 

 

     Memphis was the start and probably my favorite spot on the trip. Seeing the blues live in BB Kings Blues club, visiting the death place and Civil Rights Museum of Martin Luther King, partying on Beale St, eating some great food, and just plain old walking in Memphis was a great experience.

     West Memphis was just a stop for dinner, the locals encouraged us to get out as it was boring and just go to Memphis.


     Tupelo we made a quick stop to visit Elvis's house! Then continued about an 8 hour drive day to Orange Beach, Alabama. Orange Beach was a confusing place for me to say the least. On booking it was apparent that this place was expensive. I have visited San Francisco, Zurich, Dubai, grew up in NYC, have well-off friends that live in the high rises of Vegas or the wealthy suburbs of London... But now I can say Orange Beach Alabama was the most expensive place I have ever stayed at $350 a night. Now $350 a night is by no means a record, NYC has suites that go for $3,000 a night, Paris a nice pad with an Eiffel tower view can easily fetch the same. But what bothered my about Orange Beach was there are no other options. NYC you can stay off Broadway for 100 dollars if you search hard enough. And in Paris I have stayed in the 6th arrondissement for less than 100. But Orange Beach there were no deals, it's littered with high rises, mediocre food, crappy night life, mildly amusing beaches, but at least I will say good people. I don't know why Orange Beach is so expensive where there is no budget accommodation, but it was an okay stay. I don't plan on going back.

 

    We hightailed it out of the redneck riviera and drove to Mississippi next stopping off in Mobile Alabama for a good lunch and quick self tour of the city. Our next stop was Biloxi. Biloxi is a cool town, but to really get a feel of the area go a little east or a little west of the casinos to see what the area was like before they were built. The casinos and that area were fun for night life and pool parties though.  We also paid our respects to a small hurricane Katrina memorial here and talked with some of the locals about the effects of the hurricane on the region. A nice stop in the smaller Ocean Springs, MS was a cool way to say goodbye to Mississippi on the way out. 


                            
 
    The final stop was mainly to get our free flight out but Baton Rouge nonethelss provided the best meal we had on the trip at Elsie's plate and pie!


    My main budget savings here was going with a friend, this is somewhat obvious but techniques I usually can use to reduce budget such as a hostel, or a guest room on airbnb were not easily available as a lot of the Dirty South is still old school with travel. And of course having airline frequent flier points was great to save coin as well. 1 of 8 USA trips complete! We shall see when I make the next 7!



 Choose the continent!!!!



Monday, July 9, 2018

New Year's In Chicago


    New Year's eve or day is by far my favorite holiday. I think maybe this is because for a long stretch between being a bartender and a cop I wasn't allowed to have the holiday off. But now for the last 11 or so years I have spent New Year's in a different city or country every year. Australia is the only continent I have not spent New Year's on and that is soon to change ;)

   Anyway, I decided to ring 2018 in by going to Chicago. I had done a big NYE the prior year in Egypt and wanted to do one small/domestic. Like many of my trips I was told by some friends and of course tripadvisor trolls DON'T GO TO CHICAGO FOR NEW YEAR'S IT'S TOO COLD!!! Well, one, I love to go places in off peak season to see the real city vs the tourist city, two, it's a lot cheaper this way, and three, I don't decide what day New Year's can fall on.


    Now going in I had a tough guy attitude about the cold, I mean, I grew up in New York City, I've been to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the winter time. Iceland, the Swiss alps, Alaska etc... how cold can it be? I will say here for the record, to this stay standing at 44 countries and thousands of cities, Chicago New Years was by far the coldest place I had ever experienced. I could not walk a few streets without having to walk into a store and pretend to be interested in buying something just to warm up! But that aside, I can also 100 percent say to this day, Chicago was by far my best domestic New Year's ever.

    Here's my points on what made it awesome for me, where I saved a ton of money and where I decided to spend a little more than usual!

  • One of my friends was awesome and got me the Chicago CityPASS, you definitely want to pick it up as there are several packages, this one covered all my museum visits, and of course the must do in Chicago the visit to the top of the  Willis Tower.

                                           
  • Luckily summer was several months away because my diet fell off the wagon like a case of booze during prohibition, deep dish pizza, and Italian beef sandwich are must eats. Make sure you request the sandwich wet. I will say for the deep dish I ate at 3 places Pizzeria Uno which reminded me of my childhood at the one in Brooklyn which tasted exactly the same, Lou Malnati's which tasted exactly the same as the one in Phoenix, and Giordano's which tasted exactly the same as Uno's and Giordano's. I'm not knocking any of these, they were all delicious, but what I am saying is don't worry too much over which one you pick. It will be a great pie any which way. 

 

  • Night life does not stop in minus what feels like 50 degree weather. Every night there is a bar or club to find great drinks, dancing and people after you ate too much pizza.
  • By going off peak season I saved a ton on the hotel, and yes hotel! I rarely book hotels but The River Hotel was significantly cheaper than Airbnb, had a gym, laundry, and free coffee/cappuccino/snack bar at only $75 a night! It's over $250 a night in peak season!
  • Another benefit of peak season I had heard from my friends for years about the shopping/visitor area Navy Pier, it's one thing to go when everyone is there but it was also such a unique and completely free experience to go there and be the only guy standing there, breathing in the cold air and admiring the beauty of the frozen lake Michigan in front of me.

             
  • Of course visiting most place over New Year's will have some great Christmas sightings and decor as well for free. I stopped by the good old bean this day and later their big Christmas tree.





                              
  • Touring the museums, eating the great food, drinking too much at night, and seeing the famous places were all great, but to finish out 2017 I wanted to do something really special, so to splurge on the trip December 31st I took my first flight lesson for about $300. I went through Windy City Aviation and did everything except land! I had originally not wanted to do it on the 31st to not screw over the pilot's holiday but cold weather rescheduled us and he said it worked out better for him anyway, I gave a good tip too of course. The photos will not explain the feeling of flying over downtown Chicago and seeing this beautiful city on the last day of the year. Needless to say money very well spent! 


  • And last but certainly not least, anyone who has been in my house knows my all time favorite painting in this world is The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso 1904. A replica hangs in my living room and it had been my dream for over 20 years to see it in person. That dream became a reality the same morning of my flight. It was bigger than I expected both in size and in awe it struck on me. I had 2 hours or so to spend in the museum and spent 30 minutes on one painting out of the thousands there. To be able to see the fine details of the strokes, to feel the sadness of the blue period, see the hidden painting underneath which doesn't show in photos, and feel the spirit of Picasso himself right there was like no other art experience in my life. 2018 would bring so much into my life, what a great way to start it.




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Friday, May 25, 2018

Journey To Monument Valley



    I've always known about this epic place since I moved to Arizona, but I also knew it wasn't close to me at a 5 hour drive. Now of course I've gone to places much further, but for some reason or other this trip was put off for a long time. Finally a string of events in planned wrong my work week and life week led to two free days off unexpectedly. What do I do I thought?



    I lived in New York City for 25 years before I became a traveler, I had a few domestic trips under my belt to close by places but even in New York I didn't get the benefits that I could get today in 25 days of sightseeing and exploring. Since I've left New York I've found out about a good 20 spots I'd love to check out either in the city or in the general area, some of which I vaguely knew of, some of which I had no idea were right under my nose, that being said, that was my inspiration to just kick out to Monument Valley, I took New York City for granted with exploring when I had the chance. I won't be in Arizona forever so I must enjoy all of it's beauty while I still can.



     So I got in my car (which I was afraid may not make it) and drove. I decided to break it up since it's at least a 5 hour drive, I didn't wanna drive 10 hours in one day. But I will tell you don't listen to reviews, a 1 day trip is totally possible leaving early and coming back same day. It will just suck driving that much in one day. I stayed overnight at Tuba City which seemed to be the only place relatively close that had a hotel. I paid a whopping $150 to stay at an American chain hotel. Very against my credo as a World Traveler but again it was the only thing I could find in the 2 hour window I had to decide if I was even going to be able to do the trip and again I thought about things I missed in New York because I made excuses.



     Now if you don't go last minute as I did, there are some great options on Airbnb to stay in traditional Native American huts that you wake up with the Monument Valley monoliths staring at you. They are a little pricey for no water, but no more than I paid for the American chain hotel if you plan ahead. On a lower budget you have the campgrounds also on site.


     You pay a fee to the reservation to enter, if you were REALLY in a rush you can see good stuff from the road for free like the photo above, but I can't imagine being right there and not paying $20 to see this amazing place a little closer. There is a guest center/restaurant and hotel as you enter. Mandatory to either have a coffee before or after you leave on the deck. I was mind blown how many people sat in the restaurant on a good weather day with a totally empty deck.


    Now the road, you will read reviews on hiring a guide or not if you don't have 4 wheel drive... I saw plenty of 2 wheel drive cars driving on the dirt road at least at the beginning of the 17 mile trail. So it's doable... but I personally didn't wanna pay for a tow truck to get my car off the reservation, plus remember I said I didn't know if my car was going to make it on the freeway to start as it's getting older!



    So what did I do? Well I'm not a big fan of guided tours, as I usually prefer to self tour, and I didn't wanna drive my car on the dirt, so I just walked it. And I mean walk, not hike. It's a very easy walk. I didn't do the full 17 miles as it will be very repetitive and honestly you can just go to the guest center and get a great experience. But it was nice to walk the path and feel the soul of the Native American spirit still alive and well in this amazing and historical place. 


     Then the good old drive back. A bit boring but I listened to almost the whole U2 catalog round trip as I was going to see my favorite band that very weekend in Las Vegas. Now here I will note, the drive was boring for me, it won't be boring for everyone. I've lived here for 11 years so after extensive research I saw that I had pretty much done everything I could on this drive. For someone who has never been there's a lot of great places to stop on the way, Flagstaff being a mandatory. But if you have been here forever like me, and just wanna see the Monuments, go. It was so worth it! 



 Choose the continent!!!!