Jamaica Public Transport Experience

Whenever I travel, I'm drawn to skip the air-conditioned plush tourist buses in favor of whatever transportation the locals use. I tell myself it is to get to know the place better, to mingle with the locals, but I imagine cost plays no small role. But whatever my motivations, it is a travel habit I'm glad to have as it leads to some wonderful experiences. On our recent trip to Jamaica, these local transport adventures proved to be among the most memorable from the whole trip!

The two dominant non-tourist transport options were route taxi and mini-bus, both variations on the same concept: pack a regular old vehicle as full as possible with people going from here to there. When I say full, I mean FULL. Think of a regular sized car, like a Toyota Camary. Put 4 full-sized adults across the backseat and 3 adults plus the driver across the front (with additional cushion for the middle person to span the e-brake). Now drive that vehicle at a million miles an hour around curvy mountain roads and you've got an idea.

We chose Christmas day to venture from the north of Jamaica down to the south, a 77-mile journey through the less inhabited center of the island. While there was some fear about transpo not running, we found that with the exception of 1 leg of the 6 leg journey, we were in luck. Each leg took us from one small town to the next, about 45 minutes to an hour, costing about $1 or $2 per person. After each leg, you'd hobble out, try to get feeling back in your butt and legs, and then cram into the next rig.

By the end of our time in Jamaica, I truly felt like I had grown accustomed to the experience of getting nice and friendly with your neighbors and riding in companionable silence (albeit with the Reggae blasting). I won't say I loved it, but it wasn't the hardship it was on that first mini-bus.

In chatting about the mini-buses to a local friend, he casually mentioned "Yep, like two white girls on a mini-bus". In quizzing him, he told us of a once popular song that recounted the public transit experience from the perspective of a non-local. Della and I looked it up and found it couldn't be more accurate. So I'll leave you with this, Two White Girls on a Mini-Bus.


Saturday January 13 2018File under: Jamaica, travel

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To Do the Tour or Not Do the Tour

One of Della's and my favorite things to do while traveling is to find a deal, to save money. It's what's led us on the cruises we taken, to the countries we been, and it guides our every day choices. And we get great joy out of it.*

But this deal/savings seeking leads us to a frequent dillemma: do we take the tour or not? Tours are usually lots of fun and frequently are the only way to see something, but they almost always cost a lot of money so we often end up skipping out, instead opting for the free activities like exploring, hanging out on the beach, and juggling.

In the interest of expanding our horizons, after much hemming and hawing, yesterday we took a tour. The tour promised three-fold adventure: dolphins (35% chance), the Black river and crocodiles, and a stop at the Pelican Bar, a bar on stilts in the middle of the bay.

In short, it was totally awesome! We saw both dolphins and crocodiles, the Black River was amazing with its mangroves, nesting snowy egrets, and truly jungle-like vibe, and we can now say we've been to the world famous(?) Pelican Bar. Beyond the three-fold promise, there were lots of other great perks: meeting other travelers, a neat swimming hole/rope swing/jumping tree into the river*, an adventurous boat ride, and lots of great information that we might never have gotten otherwise.

Our super successful tour will no doubt help encourage us to penny-pinch less when the next opportunity arises. And I look forward to it! But in the meantime, we'll be keeping an eye out for deal. Old habits do die hard.
Thursday December 28 2017File under: travel, Jamaica

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Financial Recap of Costa Rica-Nicaragua Trip


Money is one of the reasons often cited by people who want to travel more but don't. While I understand this, I also like to offer up some of the details of my trips to let them know that travel can be done on the cheap and still be very rewarding. Della and I just had an awesome trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua—23 days of beaches, exotic animals, good food, new culture, and lots of time together—for just under $2000, flights and all!*

As part of our daily journaling (to keep track of what we did, where we stayed, etc.), we also captured what we spent and on what. Just as a fun exercise*, I threw all that data into a spreadsheet to see what came out. And as always, data proves to be fun!

So, excluding flights, but including everything else, we spent $1,521. That breaks down to about $66/day. I split expenses into lodging, food, internal transportation, ice cream, and other (a category that included national park entrance fees, visa fees, souvenirs, zip lining, etc.).

TotalPer DayPercentage
Lodging*$584$25.39
38%
Food$451$19.61
30%
Internal Transportation$178$7.74
12%
Ice Cream*$36$1.57
2%
Other$272$11.83
18%
Numbers are for 2 people. Divide in half for per person numbers

While it wouldn't be fair to say that we traveled like kings, we also didn't only go for the cheapest options. We almost always got a private room (vs. dorms), had occasion to take a taxi a time or two, ate out almost exclusively, and didn't forgo much in the way of activities. Basically, we traveled much like we live here at home—on the cheap, but not stupid cheap.

As for flights, I benefited from a friend working in the industry and got my flight for just the cost of taxes and fees ($68 total) (THANKS MINDY!!). For Della, we found two cheap one way flights in and out of Liberia, a small city in the north of Costa Rica (cheaper than flying in and out of San Jose). Her flights came to $400.

So yeah, $2000 total for the both of us for a wonderful adventure to a foreign land seems pretty dang reasonable. In fact, comparing it back to some of the previous "Financial Breakdown" posts I've done (here, here, and here), it ranks as just about the cheapest trip I've ever taken! Whatever the details, I hope this helps to show that travel doesn't have to be super expensive. All you need is a spirit for adventure, a little patience and know-how, and the world can be your oyster!
Tuesday January 3 2017File under: travel

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Easy Days on the Boardwalk


(Drinking a homemade batido while evening happens around us on the boardwarlk

At the beginning of a trip, I always want to do stuff—explore, zip-line, be proactive to feast on the culture and place I am in. At the end of a trip, however, I find myself more looking to chill out. With the end of this trip drawing near, chilling out is exactly what Della and I have on our agenda. We're in San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, the perfect town for just hanging out. Our days involve walking the beach, searching the streets for loose change*, eating, and chilling on the boardwalk while the sun goes down (as seen in super high speed above).

Occasionally, we'll take a break from chilling to visit a monument, get a geocache, or something else proactive. But mostly, it's time to bathe in the good life before returning to the real world back home (not that the real world ain't pretty damn good in its own right).

So, without further ado, back to chilling. Someone pass me that batido!
Tuesday December 20 2016File under: travel, Nicaragua

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Our Ometepe Mini-Adventure

Ometepe is an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua consisting of two volcanos, one extinct and one not-so-extinct. It is also a bit of a tourist mecca, owing to its chilled out vibe, its beautiful scenery, and its cheap cheap cost of travel. So while it wasn't on our original itinerary, we had a few days to spare and decided to head out and have a look for ourselves. Between a couple of lazy days of catch up computer work and reading in hammocks, we rented a scooter and had a bit of an adventure!

Driving in a foreign country is always an adventure in itself. Because Ometepe has more bikes than cars and really only 2 intersections, it could have been much worse. The cow traffic jams, bursts of weather, and surprise speed bumps, however, kept us on our toes. Luckily, all that Scoot Scoot time made me an expert Scooter-er, so we felt about as comfortable as could be expected.

Our first stop was a search for a geocache. I feel obliged to get a cache in every country I visit*, which sometimes is a hassle but this time turned out to be great. It took us to an out of the way National Park that held ancient petroglyphs. We snagged the cache and then wondered around the completely deserted park for a while before meandering back down towards civilization.

To dodge an incoming squall, we ducked into a little restaurant in a not-even-a-town only to find it to be a Southern Californian's dream. Farm-to-table is a term that is kicked around all the time, but this place was serious: coconut milk hand made from trees on the property, lettuce and tomatoes from their garden, fresh pasta hand made with egg from their chickens, beef from the neighbor's grass-fed cow, and coffee from local (like within 100 yards) beans roasted over a sustainable wood fire. Finish it off with tiny cacao num nums (grown on property sweetened with honey from their land) and you might as well be a millionaire in Santa Barbara. Just about the only thing not hyper-local was the beer Della treated herself to, the first of the trip. Bill total on this splurge of a meal with dessert, drinks, and stuff-you-to-the-gills goodness for two: $15.00.

With the squall past and darkness not far off, we decided to head back, but figured we had enough time to go the long way 'round to complete our circumnavigation of the Concepcion volcano. What we didn't count on was 1) the main highway turned to rutted dirt road for 8km and 2) the sky would open up and dump on us. But despite all that, we loved seeing the even less populated parts of the island and even were treated to a nice howler monkey show.

Once back to town, safe and dry, we moseyed to our now favorite dinner place for our usual fare. Amazing chicken, beans and rice, smashed fried plantains, and a salad served by the sweetest little lady totaling $6 with tip (for both of us!). Totally the right price for an awesome meal and a great way to wind down our little Ometepe adventure day.

If you ever find yourself in Nicaragua with a few days to kill, I can't think of a better way to do it than checking out Ometepe!
Tuesday December 13 2016File under: travel, Nicaragua

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Della and the Animals of Costa Rica

From the moment our plane touched down in Liberia, Costa Rica and the pilot had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting a giant iguana, this trip has been about animals. Costa Rica is a great place for animals! You can't seem to go 10 miles without seeing a National Park. It makes for some convenient tourist-ing, that's for sure.

I don't know if you knew this, but Della likes animals. I mean, she really likes them. Like really likes them. So this has been great being able to see all the animals through her eyes. Everything is so cute from the gecko to the howler monkey and pretty much everything in between*.

And while we haven't been able to get a photo of her with every animal we've seen, we thought it might be fun to try. So, without further ado, here're a few picture of Della with animals in Costa Rica. (Be sure to read the caption for the story.)



It's not only the native and wild animals that are of interest.


Friday December 9 2016File under: travel, Costa Rica

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Pura Vida


Hear the words "Pura Vida" and you know you're in Costa Rica. It's pretty much their mantra. You hear it from the cashier at the mini-mart, you hear it from your waiter, you hear it from a passing local on the street. It means "pure life" or something along those lines, at least for a literal translation. But it means so much more.

After only a week here, I know I haven't grasped the full meaning, but I'm starting to get it. It means no worries, enjoy yourself, welcome, isn't this amazing?, namaste, and so much more. Over the next couple weeks, I look forward to learning more about Pura Vida from the super friendly locals and the lovely vibe that this place permeates.

Besides our lexicographical endeavors, Della and I have been up to pretty much what you might expect folks in Costa Rica to be up to: ziplining*, frolicking in the ocean and on the beaches, seeing lots of good wildlife, and just taking in the good life. Pretty standard, really. But since a picture is worth a bunch of words, here are a few snaps from week 1.

Sunday December 4 2016File under: travel, Costa Rica

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Serendipity in Budapest

After spending 3 weeks across 5 countries in the Middle East, Della and I find ourselves in the decidely non-Middle Eastern city of Budapest...AND IT'S AWESOME! (This is not to say that the time in the Middle East wasn't great, because it was, but there's just something about a good old European city.)

The city itself is a treasure enough. Like any guide book will tell you, there are beautiful buildings, the Danube River (and its spectacular bridges), statues, and of course the city's thermal springs fed baths. After a visit to these baths*, we could see why they are so popular, esp. after Della and I nearly froze our buns off sightseeing our way around town.

But what made our visit to Budapest so much better was having wonderful hosts, Horge and Isabel. They housed us, fed us*, showed us the city and taught us everything we could possibly want to know with one exception...

Me: Hey, do you know if there is a circus in town?

Isabel: Uh, I think there was an Italian circus that came through a while ago, but probably not currently.

---Flash forward no more than 3 minutes of walking through the park---

Budapest International Circus Festival Poster: On now...and tomorrow's the last day!

Click, beep, boop, bop, click

Me: Arlight, Della, we've got tickets to a 3.5 hour awesome circus show tomorrow

Della: *shiver*

So, on our last day of our whirlwind 10+ country semi-unsuccessful-but-still-totally-awesome-winter-dodging adventure, we unexpectedly found ourselves enjoying a world class circus show with full bellies and full hearts. (It served as a nice bookend together with the world class Big Apple Circus we saw on our very first day of this adventure.)

Our brief stop in Budapest was just what good travel should be: new sights and experiences, good good people, and a little bit of magic*. Super thanks to Horge and Isabel for making our time great (and for being the reason to stop through). And thanks to Lady Luck for providing excitement along the way!
Thursday January 21 2016File under: travel, Europe

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Wadi Rum - The Desert Oasis

Wadi Rum in southern Jordan isn't an oasis by the "look at these date palms and bountiful spring in the middle of the desert" sense. It's dry like you would expect a desert to be dry. But after the less than stellar experiences in our short visit to Jordan, the serenity and comfort of Wadi Rum felt like an oasis to us.

For our visit, we booked a night at a Bedouin camp along with a 4x4 tour of the area, with all meals and transportation included*. Our goal for the trip was to just spend the night in the desert, so we were a hard sell on the 4x4 tour, but it turned out to be awesome. We rode around in the back of a pick-up from site to site. We stopped at sand dunes, Lawrence of Arabia's "house", great rock formations, and, in general, just enjoyed the beauty of it all.

Since we were there off season*, our camp was practically deserted*, just us and 1 other traveler. Our tents were super comfy and we spent the evening around a fire inside a communal tent listening to the desert silence. The evening treated us to a gorgeous sunset. We went to bed very happy.

They say the desert has healing properties and I can see why. The calmness and beauty helped us wash away (or at least get the larger chunks off) our other Jordan experiences. If time and budget permitted, I would have stayed another week, spending the days meandering around the rock outcroppings and sitting and listening to the natural world. But, alas, we had a plane to catch, so back to the real world it was (with a stop along the way to look at camels). But the short time out in the desert at Wadi Rum refilled my precipitously low traveler's tank with wonder and excitement readying me for the final leg of this epic adventure. Thank you Wadi Rum!
Friday January 15 2016File under: travel, Jordan

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Questioning the Value of a Visit to Petra

There's no doubt about it: Petra, that lost city in Jordan of buildings carved into stone amongst narrow picture-esque canyons, is amazing. It's beautiful, magical, breath taking, and one of a kind. You can't go and not come away with some amazing pictures (see below). And you'll probably remember your visit for the rest of your life. But despite all that, I can't say for certain that I'm glad I went. There were just too many downsides to the experience. In short, it was a bad value.

Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason. But it the most expensive UNESCO World Heritage by a long shot—more than the pyramids, Angkor Wat, and the Taj Mahal COMBINED! Sure it's just money, and if it were money that felt like it went to something good, it would be different. But the way it seems to me, Jordan just uses Petra as a built in ATM machine, gouging cash from tourists to be spent on anything but maintaining, preserving, and policing the site.

After our visit, Della and I made a list of grievances we plan to pass along to the park. It includes such things as poor treatment of animals, heavy [and rude] harassment by the vendors, extra charges for supposedly included features (bathrooms for example), lack of any sort of authoritative presence (to report abuses to), local hucksters running amok (playing their boom-boxes while donkey racing through the streets, climbing atop the priceless monuments), and, of course, the exorbitant fee.

What does all this mean? I can't, in good conscience, recommend that you go out of your way to see Petra. If you do, you'll see some spectacular buildings carved into stone, bedrock of amazing colors, narrow canyons that were traversed for millennia, and bits of history that are better preserved than maybe anywhere else on earth. But you also might go away feeling like you've just supported something that you don't feel good about, and that's not fun.



Wednesday January 13 2016File under: travel, Jordan

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