A Travellerspoint blog

Boquete, Panama

Mountain Fresh Coffee

sunny 75 °F

We headed for the hills of Boquete where high in the mountains the air is fresh and the city is surrounded by the elusive quetzal birds! We hiked the infamous Quetzal Trail, which had a grueling 300 meter accent up a natural staircase and a few river crossings. In the cloud forest we enjoyed a full serenade of bird calls.
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Among many other hikes in the area we enjoyed our trip to Cangilones de Gualaca where the river carved out a gorge creating a perfect spot for practicing rock climbing over deep water and swimming against the current in a natural fresh water flume.
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Boquete has the perfect climate and altitude for growing coffee and is famous for its many coffee farms (finca de café). We paid a visit to Finca Dos Jefes which is now owned by a fellow ex-Berkeley resident. On our tour we learned a whole lot about growing and harvesting the cherries according to the lunar cycle.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 19:33 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Panama City, Panama

Peligroso

sunny 90 °F

Besides the initial excitement of stepping foot into North America, we found Panama City to be one of the most dangerous feeling cities so far on our travels. It also didn’t help that on our first day while walking out of Casco Antiguo we unknowingly strayed just two blocks into the red zone of San Filipe and were luckily told off in Spanish by a local to turn around immediately (aka get da frak outta here). This put quit a damper on how we usually enjoy exploring a city (walking or running through the neighborhoods). Once back on track we couldn’t help but notice that everywhere we went there was about a 2:1 ratio of heavily armed tourist police to tourists. It’s a shame because even though panama’s skyline is growing fancy, almost every other building is abandoned and in rubles.
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Luckily, we were more than impressed by our visit to the Miraflores Locks and the Panama Canal Museum. We really enjoyed the interactive displays in the museum and the live commentary on the viewing platform that gave us a blow by blow of what was going on with boats passing through the canal. In the museum we took a virtual voyage through the canal in muy rapido speed.
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Fortunately, our hotel was located near a pedestrian walkway along the Balboa street waterfront that appeared to be safe (based on the tourist police at every cabana and the ATV patrols). Everyday we’d stop in the Marcodo de Mariscos for the most delicious ceviche we’ve ever had (aka only)! One adventurous morning we veered from the path and managed to run up to Ancon Hill for an amazing view of the city on one side and the canal on the other.
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We planned on being in Panama for the Easter celebrations because of the huge number of followers and events that we read about. We didn’t end up finding a church that performed a sun rise service; however we did make it to a Good Friday candlelight procession that carried around different stages of the cross.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 17:34 Archived in Panama Comments (3)

To budget or not to budget…

…that is the question

People we meet tend to ask about how we afford traveling for so long and how we budget and manage our money. While we wish we could give a magical answer or some sort of amazing spreadsheet but the truth is, unlike most other travelers, we don’t actually budget. Our philosophy on this trip (and for most of our lives) has been that if you really want to do it, then do it… but if you can do something cheaper without sacrificing much, then do it cheaper!

Saving daily on the small stuff, allows us to go big on the adventure. We didn’t ever worry about saving for expensive must do’s like Carnival, Tour de France, Oktoberfest, the Galapagos or the Olympics because we are automatically saving on a daily basis. Below is a small list of a few things that we do at home and while on our trip to consistently save money. Some only save small amounts, but when you consider how many times we have saved… well, the numbers add up. So, without further ado…

K&R’s Top Money Savers:

1. Never go out for Breakfast! In our opinion, eating out for breakfast yields the least value (and nutrition) for money. Instead, we carry a gallon Ziploc full of homemade muesli and a smaller Ziploc of instant coffee. To complete the meal we pick up a yogurt and some fruit from a local shop. Tip: try dry soy/milk powder when shops aren’t available and adding cinnamon or coconut flakes to spice it up.
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2. Drink Tap Water! In some restaurants bottled water can be more expensive than beer or soda! On average we see 500ml being sold at newsstands for $1-$2. If you find a grocery store you can get a 1.5L for about the same price. Between the two of us we usually drink between 5 and 6 liters a day… so being conservative we’ve easily saved over $2,000 so far on this trip alone. Tip: Carry around an empty bottle and fill it where ever you can.
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3. Wash Your Own Laundry! We’ve met travelers who waste a day of vacation because they have to pick up their laundry at a certain time. We estimate that over the course of traveling through Europe and Asia, the conservative average of a typical load of laundry would be about $5. We wash out our drawers at least four times a week, so we’ve already saved upwards of $1000 on laundry fees on this trip alone.
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4. BYOB! Buying alcohol at bars or restaurants is always at a premium, so this is an easy fix. We buy roadies from the grocery store and take ‘em to the park, or enjoy homemade cocktails before heading out to eat. We once watched how a bartender made a $12 cocktail, and then went to the store and bought a $6 bottle of the same liquor and had cocktails all night!
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5. Pack a Lunch! We limit the amount of times we eat out by booking accommodation that includes kitchen access, and if we don’t have a kitchen we prepare simple and easy meals. Remember, food vendors at events sell crap food with enormous mark ups so try preparing something healthy and pack it in! Tip: This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the local delights; instead try eating OUT for lunch and eating IN for dinner.
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6. Use Local and Alternative Transportation! It’s easy to drop cash on a Taxi, and even more when they rip you off. We would rather spend a little time planning to save a lot of money using public or alternative transportation our bicycles! Example: Lots of cities have expensive hop on hop off bus tours that take you around to all the sights, however some cities have local buses or trams that do the same thing at a fraction of the cost. Instead of a €19 bus tour in Lisbon, Portugal we used city tram 28 to go on the exact same route for only €2.85.
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7. Shop Around for Accommodation! We don’t sacrifice safety or cleanliness when looking for a place to stay. However, we modify our accommodation spending to beat the market rate for each city. We do this by doing a quick compare of hostel sites, hotel sites and home away sites like airbnb. Tip: hostels aren’t always the cheapest option, and booking on line is usually more expensive.
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8. Tour It Yourself! We avoid paying a premium for tour packages. We have found that local knowledge can easily be found through a multitude of channels on the internet whether it be from suggested itineraries on travel blogs to actually emailing our questions to local people through community sites like couchsurfing. Here is an example of how to save big by doing it yourself (we will spare the bad advertising for the tour companies we compared with by keeping their names off the blog, but by all means please ask us for the links).
Tour package: 10 days, 9 nights, 4 islands: $4,5001
Do it yourself: 10 days, 9 nights, 4 islands: $13782

Both of the above options include the exact same itinerary (i.e snorkeling tours, hikes, places of interest, etc...) To be fair, the more popular way to tour the Galapagos is on a cruise ship that comes in at anywhere between $150 and $400 per person per day. Our trip cost us $50 per person per day and covered the same itinerary as the budget cruise ships.
1 for 2 people without dinner and only some lunches
2 for 2 people including all meals (with the option to add an all-inclusive 5 day volunteer stint for only $285)

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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 07:57 Comments (3)

Cuenca, Ecuador

A breadth of fresh air

One thing that we have come to realize on our “endless summer” of traveling is that we both prefer mountain air to heat and humidity. We met some folks who had moved from California to Cuenca and they suggested we go for a visit… so we did! This beautiful safe mountain town sits over 8,000 feet high with a blend of Ecuadorian old town feeling mixed with a growing expat community. We instantly fell in love.
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We ‘bandited‘ a free 6.8k family run not expecting it to be that popular but we were shocked to find 8,000 Ecuadorians running alongside us. It was a tough run at altitude after being at sea level for the past few weeks, but it was soooo much fun to have a tour of the city by running through its streets!
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We headed out of the city near the Ecuadorian part of the Inca trail for a half day horseback ride with Carlos. We must have fooled him with our riding skills, because he had no problem cantering us around the steep mountainsides. Note to male beginners who want to someday start a family: never, ever, ever try to ride western with boxer shorts!
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After the running race and holding on for dear life to a horse, our muscles were in need of some serious rejuvenation! So, we rented bicycles and headed to some natural hot springs in an adjacent town called Baños. We spend the day relaxing in 40C (104F) swimming pools and stretching out our beaten muscles.
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Cuenca has a growing number of Americans who have retired and now call Cuenca their home. We can feel the lure and can actually imagine ourselves living there one day (you heard it here first). There are endless numbers of free activities put on by the city. One night, we even went to listen to an orchestra and choir in the Sucre Theater. Nice work Cuenca, we heart you.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 20:03 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Nonstop nature

sunny 93 °F

Santa Cruz is the most inhabited island of the Galapagos, so our initial thought was that it would be the least desirable. However, it turns out that there is a ton of fun activities to do, so much that we changed our flights to add more days on the island! The thing that made Santa Cruz so nice was that we could do a lot of day trips on our own. For example, walking to Las Grietas for some cliff jumping…
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…or Tortuga Bay for some body surfing! Each destination had a well-defined path which made for nice nature walks full of Darwin’s finches and crazy looking cactuses that live on the water’s edge.
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Our day trip to the ‘uninhabited’ North Seymour Island turned out to be inhabited by an enormous population of frigate birds, land iguanas, and blue footed boobies! All of which weren’t the slightest afraid of our group walking around their nests. It was a unique experience to get so close to the strange males who puff up their red pelican like throats to attract females.
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One of our most memorable snorkels was near the Canal del Amor by Punta Estrada, where we snorkeled for ages with a family of sea lions who were just as curious about us, as we were about them! It was quite the experience to swim so close to creatures twice our size.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 20:01 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Isabela, Galapagos

Volcanos above and below the sea

sunny 90 °F

Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, yet it is hardly inhabited. The main city is Puerto Villamil where we stayed with a family in their pension. We were there when the island’s founding celebration was happening in the highlands; they had ‘big’ parties in the town, a rodeo in the highlands, and a big Ecua-Volley tournament right near our pension. Ecuadorian rules volleyball is about as awkward to watch as netball if you are a basketball fan, but it drew big crowds!
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One of the places to explore there is an active volcano called Volcano Chino. After hiking through a forest of invasive guava trees, we landed on what could have been mistaken for mars. The landscape turned bare and crumbled below each step. There were lava tunnels and jagged basalt craters everywhere. Kneeling down we could stick our hands into steamy holes to felt the steaming heat of mama Earth.
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We have to hand it to the underwater volcanic tunnels called Los Tuneles for the awesome snorkeling. The sea life was supersized from the 12 foot wide manta rays, the 7 feet long sea turtles, and the lurking sharks inside dark caves, we just couldn’t believe our eyes!
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We had the best time on a short boat trip to Islote Tintoreras for a snorkel/hike combo that packed in huge amounts of wildlife including penguins! After our snorkel we walked through what was like the kindergarten for marine iguanas, with a million little juvenile iguanas piled on top of each other right next to a shark cove that we could look straight down into. Then after walking through a lichen covered lava rock field with the adult iguanas, we reached a sea lions breading beach. The walk was probably only about 45 minutes, but there wasn’t a single minute without some amazing wildlife and scenery being right up in our personal space. If there is one place in the Galapagos you go to, it should be here!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 14:02 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

San Cristobal, Galapagos

Volunteering in the Galapagos

sunny 93 °F

Armed with only a machete and half of a fence post hole digger we combed the highlands of San Cristobal in search of invasive blackberries (‘mora’ in Spanish). The battle between native plants and blackberries is easily being won by the blackberries. However, places like Hacienda Esperanza are clearing large areas of blackberries and replanting the native species to then hand over the groomed land back to the giant tortoises (tortugas).
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We initially wanted to volunteer as a way to offset the environmental stress that we cause as tourists in the Galapagos, but then realized that it was much more of a learning experience for us. Our week in the highlands gave us a chance to experience real country life in the Galapagos far from the travel agencies and restaurants. Each day we awoke to roosters at 6am, had breakfast, then hiked for 45 minutes to the top of the mountain for a grueling day of mountain gardening. Our evenings were spent tagging along with Jose and his family’s activities, including soccer with the neighborhood, his 5 year old nephew’s bautizo, and harvesting food for us and the tortoises from his brother’s plantation.
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Jose’s nephew, Dyana, acted as our tour guide one day taking us to Puerto Chino and Largo Junco. It was a great way to practice our Spanish and learn a few things about the giant tortoises.
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In the rest of our time off, we explored the tourist sites of San Cristobal including swimming with the marine iguanas and having our first glimpse of the infamous blue footed boobies…
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…and deep water snorkeling with sharks at Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock)!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 18:19 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Quito, Ecuador

Escaping the heat in the mountains

We have now been the two highest capitals in the world: Quito, Ecuador (9,350 feet) and La Paz, Bolivia (11,942). We were very excited to step off the plane in Quito and for the first time in a LONG time, feel the fresh cool breeze without any humidity. We walked through the city to our hotel and the simple fact that our shirts weren’t drenched with sweat amused us immensely. We attempted to go for a run and found a network of stairs up to the Itchimbia park. We aren’t sure what took our breath away more, the altitude or the stunning view of the city!
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We explored both the old city and the new city combing the parks, old colonial buildings, and sampling the ice creams and meriendas – the menu of the day that always comes with fresh jugo (juice)! Best of all it turns out that some Ecuadorian dishes require peanut butter for the sauce, so there was plenty of bulk crema de maní (peanut butter) to be found!
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Quito has an interesting ‘subway’ system that is composed of buses that have their own lane, and subway like stops. Opposite of the 6+ footers in Eastern Europe, the people here are relatively small and stout. We couldn’t help but be amused with being able to see over everyone in the bus and straight out the windshield.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 10:32 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Manaus, Brazil

The Concrete in the Jungle

overcast 86 °F

Manaus is an interesting city because it is really in the middle of nowhere, yet, it is big enough to be hosting some of the World Cup Football matches in 2014. It sprung up out of nowhere due to the rubber trade but when a synthetic replacement for rubber was developed, the city kind of fell back in time. The fish market and the theater were over rated, but luckily we were able to stay with Davide and Lillian to see another side of the city. . . including a trip to the Beautiful Bald Man’s Juice Shack! Where drinking some of the 60 different juice shakes make you beautiful! So, we tried a few fruits that we had never heard of, and of course some açai. What really made the night memorable was when the Bald Man himself came out on his microphone and started to talk to all the customers. He then repeated all 60 different fruit shakes within 1 minute from memory and challenged the customers to do the same for a free 7 years of shakes.
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Now that rubber is no longer needed, one of Manaus’ number one exports is bananas. They come in many different sizes, shapes and colors and are all dropped off at the municipal market in an area designated for bananas. This so called banana market was an incredible site to see…
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Since we didn’t see one in the jungle we thought we’d try to see a sloth at the zoo. This turned out to be quite an adventure mainly due to the fact that we didn’t have enough cash to pay the $3 entry fee. After trying every bank in the city, we finally found one that would accept a visa ATM card without a security chip (which the rest of the world has, but not the USA). Once we had had the necessary equivalent of $3 for the zoo entrance, we raced there only to get in about 45 minutes prior to closing. The zoo in Manaus is run by the military and is quite different from most zoos. First, there are no big signs to tell you where to go, or what animals are inside each cage. So we frantically walked around the zoo looking for cages with trees inside hoping to catch a glimpse of a sloth. Sadly, there wasn’t one, but lucky for us we spotted something special! Life found a way to blend the city of Manaus and jungle the amazon into a hybrid Cement Bug!

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 12:58 Archived in Brazil Comments (2)

Juma Lake, Amazonas, Brazil

Diverse Flooded Forests

all seasons in one day 98 °F

One of the most fascinating things about visiting the Amazon is realizing how much water there is. The river/lake water level fluctuates by as much as 12 meters (40 feet) and since we visited in the middle of the rainy season we were canoeing through already flooded forests yet we could still look up about 15 feet and see the water marked line on the tree trunks.
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We stayed in a family lodge on Juma Lake and spent a night camped out in the jungle in hammocks. Juma is a 3 ½ hour journey from Manaus by ferry across the meeting of the waters, to a taxi on a military road and then a speed boat through a sunken mangrove forest. Trail blazing through the jungle was like living inside an episode of Lost, with thoughts of The Medicine Man and the Hunger Games flowing through our minds. At any moment we felt like we would turn our heads and see Yoda making an X-Ray rise!
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We ate so many new things from bright juicy fruits of the tree to juicy white grubs from the middle of huge nuts.
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What impressed us the most about the Amazon was the sheer variety and diversity of the jungle flora and fauna. When our boat brushed against the leaves of a tree top (literally) or the floating rice, our boat would fill with critters of all sizes… including supersized snails, mini jumping spiders, caiman (think crocodile) and of course piranhas!
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The heat, rain and mosquitoes were not as bad as we were expecting and we had a packed schedule full of surprises and adventure. All and all the trip blew our expectations away!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 08:30 Archived in Brazil Comments (1)

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