Tag Archives: Travel

A Month in Ecuador

Ecuador. According to the tourism board, it’s all you need. I came into the country from Colombia, which lies to Ecuador’s north, and left via the coastal boarder crossing to Peru in the south. During my month in Ecuador I made my way through all sorts of incredible places, from cloud forests to crater lakes to capital cities to the coast, and even hopped over to the magical Galápagos Islands. It all proved to show me that the tourism board was right… You can’t help but love life while traveling in Ecuador.

Ecuador

 Coming in, I crossed the boarder from Ipiales, Colombia to Tulcan, Ecuador. My first stop was a uniquely manicured cemetery of all places! I spent an hour walking around and admiring the hedges trimmed to look like ancient Gods before I caught a bus to Otavalo, a city famous for its indigenous market.

Ecuador

 I spent one luxurious night in Otavalo at the Rincon de la Viajera and seriously considered spending another night for the bed alone. The next day I explored around Otavalo. My first stop was the market, which was a site to behold, from the distinct clothing of the indigenous people, to the beautifully woven tapestries to the knitted handbags and colorful trinkets. My one purchase was a colorful “cinta” which the women use to wrap their hair in a “trenza”. After the market I hiked over to the Peguche waterfall, where I had a bit of nature time before I caught an early evening bus to make my way 3.5 hours to the capital city of Quito.

Ecuador

 I rarely say a city is a highlight of a trip for me, but I really enjoyed Quito’s old town, and the people I met while in the city. I spent two days exploring around, visiting the churches and the art galleries and even accidentally bumping in to the President of Ecuador.

Ecuador

 From Quito I took a quick trip up to the cloud forest of Mindo. This was lovely and lush, with many waterfalls and birds, which are two of my favorite aspects of nature. While I was there, the “Tarabita” tour of the waterfalls was closed for maintenance, but I managed to meet a local who took me on the same trails, chasing after waterfalls and spotting birds along the way. He taught me that boys in tourist towns are not to be completely trusted, but I was still able to enjoy a fantastic afternoon in the nature with him before hightailing it back to Quito, to then continue on to Quilotoa.

Ecuador

 Quilotoa was spectacular. People visit to hike down to the crater lake or to walk around the magnificent crater rim, both of which are absolutely breathtaking, literally and figuratively. The town was cold and deserted, and full of indigenous people fully decked out with skirts, sweaters, ponchos, top hats and layered necklaces in the case of the women. It was a dry, almost desert-like landscape, and two nights was plenty for me, but the fact that we stayed at a place called Hosteria Alpaca, which had delicious community style breakfasts and dinners, 5 star beds, and personal wood stoves in each room made it a pleasant experience.

Quilotoa Ecuador

 From Quilotoa I continued on to Baños, a place known for extreme adventures and waterfalls. I had a rainy few days there, but a cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition, and I enjoyed my visit nonetheless. Biking from waterfall to waterfall, soaking in thermal baths so hot they were literally cooking me alive, swinging into the great unknown at Casa del Arbol, and standing next to the powerful hurricane-like waterfall of El Pailon del Diablo, were all things I will never forget about my time there.

El Pailon del Diablo

 After Baños I took a night bus and made my way to the Ecuadorian coastal town of Puerto Lopez. It was the time of year to see humpback whales migrating, and although I didn’t take an official boat tour, I did see them spouting up water when I was running along the shoreline. My favorite part about Puerto Lopez was meeting a wonderful German travel buddy, visiting the Los Frailes entrance of the National Park, and drinking delicious coffee at a cafe called Etnias. My least favorite part of the coastal town was the constant leering men.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador

 From Puerto Lopez I made my way down the coast to spend one night in a calm town called Olón, which had a beach that stretched out for miles. It was a beautiful place for my morning run and yoga practice. While there I caught a parade of all the locals kids dressed in their gym uniforms and it was absolutely precious to watch them march throughout the town chanting their class anthems.

School Pride in Olon

 Montañitas was my next stop, and it was just five minutes up the road from Olón. This was the loudest town I have ever visited in my entire life. It is known for being a party town, and it lived up to the reputation. The music would start around noon and blast until 5am or beyond. I am lucky I can sleep through just about anything, but I could literally feel the bass vibrating in my chest. I was told that if you stay “across the bridge” it’s a calmer atmosphere, and that might be true, but where I stayed (Hostel Moai) was in direct line of the clubs. Although it was a really nice place, it was anything but quiet.

Montanitas Ecuador

 After Montañitas I continued down the coast to Guayaquil and spent a day there getting to know the iguana park, the malecón (boardwalk) and hiking up the colorful Cerro Santa Ana. Guayaquil is home to the airport that brought me to my next stop: the Galápagos Islands.

Cerro Santa Ana

 The Galápagos Islands were the true highlight of my time in Ecuador. The sheer quantity of exotic animals was amazing and the fact that they were so curious and playful was a true delight. I never expected to have penguins and seals literally look me in the eyes while snorkeling, or to have schools of hammerheads and golden rays swim by while scuba diving. Every day on the islands was special and full of surprises.

Blue Footed Boobies

 After a week on the Galápagos I flew back to Guayaquil, and spent a day at the home of my Couchsurfing host in the nearby town of Naranjal, eating delicious home cooked bolon soup and playing with kittens before continuing on to Cuenca.
The city of Cuenca is full of things to do, places to see and people to meet, however when I got there I was tired, and learned that a package I had been waiting for had finally arrived in Guayaquil. I decided to head back and get it personally, but first I spent one day touring around the city admiring the graffiti, the galleries, the ruins, the churches, the architecture, the markets and the hat making shop.

Cuenca Hats

 Back in Guayaquil I was happy to reunite with my German friend from Puerto Lopez and to be back in the house of my Couchsurfing host. It felt a bit like “home” after being on the go for nearly a month straight.
Overall my month in Ecuador was pretty incredible. The country has a bit of everything: jungles, cloud forests, volcanoes, mountain ranges, historical cities, ruins, beaches and the incredible Galápagos Islands. I saw more wildlife here than in Colombia, and also saw more people dressed in beautiful traditional indigenous clothing.

Quechua kids

 As a traveler, Ecuador is more expensive than Colombia when it comes to food and lodging, although to a normal vacationer $2.50 for a meal or $15 for a room is typically considered extremely cheap. However the transportation in Ecuador is incredibly inexpensive due to the fact that they have the third-largest oil reserves in South America. Overall, it is extremely easy and affordable to spend a month in Ecuador.
One thing I loved about the country is that the people speak more slowly, so having conversations is typically quite easy, but one thing I detested was that the men were constantly coming on to me, trying to take my hand or charm me with lies. After I came back from the Galápagos I had been planning to spend another week or so exploring the southern areas of Ecuador, but when it came down to it, I was really ready to move on, so I did. One month in Ecuador was just right.
From Guayaquil we caught a bus to Huayaquillas to cross the boarder into Peru, saying, “Hasta luego!” to Ecuador.

Boarder Crossing to Peru

San Cipriano Colombia is an Adventure Unlike Any Other

“You know you’re in Colombia when your jungle guide is 15 years old and he tells you to walk faster so that he can have more time to play at the waterfall with his younger cousin and brother,” said my mom, as we laughed and reflected on the incredible day we had just spent exploring around San Cipriano, Colombia.

San Cipriano Colombia

The adventure began with a ride on the “brujitas”, which are essentially wooden bench-carts on train tracks, being pushed from behind by motorcycles.

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We piled onto the benches with about 15 other people, and before we knew it we were speeding down the tracks with nothing to hold on to and nothing to hold us in.

San Cipriano Colombia

As we sat there with the wind whipping our faces and the scenery rushing past us we couldn’t help but laugh with excitement. It was unlike anything we had ever experienced!

San Cipriano Colombia

Up until about 12 years ago people were actually powering these carts with man-power, pumping a stick lever to move them along the train tracks. As the need for speed grew, motorcycles were incorporated and now locals and tourists alike fly through the lush jungle.

San Cipriano Colombia

To catch the brujitas you start in a town called Córdoba and for 10,000 Colombian Pesos each way you can pile onto the brujitas to be pushed over rivers and across bridges deep into the jungle to find the town of San Cipriano.

San Cipriano Colombia

A fresh, crystal clear river flows through San Cipriano and many people come to swim and refresh in the deep river water. People climb up the rocks and trees on the banks and jump into the depths of the river with a crowd observing and cheering them on. It is also possible to rent inner tubes and walk up the road in order to float back down the river.

San Cipriano Colombia

The town of San Cipriano has a lot of Afro-Colombian influence and the food is distinct and delicious, with fish from the river as a main option on all menus.

San Cipriano Colombia

While there we enjoyed flavorful “sancocho” fish soup served in mix-matching bowls, with big chunks of sweet plantain and potato, and a fried fish lunch, as well as “torta de coco”, which are sweet coconut muffins served in half the shell of a coconut.

San Cipriano Colombia

As you walk the streets you will also see many locals selling a creamy white liquid in whatever recycled plastic container they happen to have. This is supposedly an aphrodisiac, but then again the Colombians seem to call everything an aphrodisiac, from goats milk with honey to various fruits and vegetables.

San Cipriano Colombia

As we were enjoying our lunch, a warm afternoon rain shower passed through and we watched several local boys start a game of soccer in the field across from the restaurant. It was a mix of splashing in puddles and chasing each other around the field in pursuit of the ball, but it was so cute to observe.

San Cipriano Colombia

We happened to be in San Cipriano during a national holiday, so there were many visitors and all the children were free from school. Apparently the town is usually quite quiet during the week, but because of this holiday it was extra alive and festive.

San Cipriano Colombia

After lunch we decided to search out some waterfalls, and this is when we were connected with our local 15 year old guide, Jhonny. As we walked down the street we got to know about him, and even met his younger cousin and brother, who joined us on our hike to the waterfalls. They had very limited English, and kept trying to engage my mom in a rapid-fire Spanish conversation, in between searching for river shrimp. They were amusing to say the least.

San Cipriano Colombia

Just as we were about to cross the river an old local man asked us if we were going to the waterfalls. When we told him yes he laughed at our sandals and told us we needed boots… All three of our little guides had them, but we decided to continue on, hoping for the best.

San Cipriano Colombia

As we hiked the muddy, root-ridden path, climbing up steep waist-high step wells we realized what kind of trek we were in for. Several groups of people passed us, going the other way, and they were caked with mud from their hands to the toes. It was around this time that Jhonny told me that we needed to hike faster, to make it to the waterfall and avoid nightfall in the jungle. It was only 3pm, but the shade of the thick vegetation foreshadowed just how dark the place would be come sunset.

San Cipriano Colombia

We started to get worried, but Jhonny assured us it was just “dos bajadas más” or about 15 minutes more, down two more steep declines, and we really wanted to swim in the waterfall so we persevered. In the end it was worth it. After another short walk up a river, we could hear the thundering of the water from the falls, and soon we walked up on a solid green wall, with mist hitting us before we were even to the swimming pool.

San Cipriano Colombia

There was another family there, celebrating the free day together, and we all decided to head back to the main area at the same time. Somehow the walk back only took us 30 minutes in comparison to the walk there, and by the end, the mother of this family of strangers was inviting me to stay at their home and get to know her kids. The Colombian people are truly some of the kindest and most hospitable people I have met in all my travels.

San Cipriano Colombia

After some final relaxation in the river it came time to catch the final 6pm brujitas to leave San Cipriano. Once back to the drop off point, we found a mob of people waiting to leave the jungle village. We came to understand that we needed to get a number which would give us our order for boarding the brujitas and when they finally called “80” we climbed up to the train tracks, selected our seats and prepared for takeoff.

San Cipriano Colombia

We rode back with the sun setting behind the lush jungle, creating gorgeous palm tree silhouettes on the horizon. By the time we got back to the station, I had made yet another friendly Colombian host-friend, and as we said our goodbyes I was simply in awe at the incredible adventure we had experienced in San Cipriano, Colombia that day.

San Cipriano Colombia

Have you ever experienced San Cipriano or anywhere like it? I am pretty sure it is a one-of-a-kind place. If you ever make it to Colombia, definitely take a day and check it out. You will never forget it!

Don’t Let Your Doubts Get in Your Way

The most memorable week of my life started out with a day full of doubt. I was returning from the beautiful lakeside mountain town of Pokhara, Nepal to the country’s dusty capital city of Kathmandu. As our bus wound through the lush mountain roads back to “civilization” I wondered to myself, Do I really want to head back to city life? After all, wasn’t this what caused me to run away from India only a few short days before? I let myself forget my worries and get lost in the scenery as we passed village after colorful village.

Once we arrived to Kathmandu, I had yet another moment of doubt. My friend who I had traveled with was heading back to her cushy, safe, $25 a night American-approved guesthouse, but I had opted to stay with a local Couch Surfing host, and he wasn’t at the bus station yet. We were 40 minutes early, and the phone number he gave me didn’t work, so I had no choice but to wait and hope that our plans held strong. As my friend pulled away in her taxi, I continued to fend off on-coming taxi drivers. “No, thank you, I have a friend coming.” After half an hour of waiting on the curb, trying to read my book, but secretly wondering if this host would indeed come through, he showed up, with an entourage of 4 colorful friends.

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It was Holi in India, a religious “festival of color” and the streets were packed, but nearly every store was shut up tight. We were lucky that one store was open, and we proceeded to drop off my massive bag with this local shopkeeper friend before heading out to walk the streets. Armed with plastic bags of color, we skipped around, singing, “Happy Holi!” as we marked other people celebrating the holiday. There was music and festivity all around, and a generally good vibe in the air. However, while we were dancing in large crowds, the boys would encircle me for protection against unwanted gropes from passing men, and when we walked the streets they fended off water throwers on my behalf. I was happy to be with them, experiencing Holi like a true local, but safely.

As the night wrapped up, we retrieved my big backpack, and headed back to their home. To most Americans, the neighborhood would feel like a ghetto slum, with houses stacked upon houses, and hundreds of electricity lines dangling haphazardly about, but to anyone on this side of the world it’s just a normal neighborhood. As I ducked down to follow them through their gate, and hiked up the stairs, they told me I would have my own room and bathroom. It was obvious that I was taking someone’s sleeping place, as they tidied up the tangle of covers on the bed, but I wasn’t going to argue. They showed me the shower, jimmy-rigged to keep the water off with a wire wrapped around the handle, and told me the bathroom light didn’t work. I realized I was about to have a very cold shower…in the dark… Again, I had moment of doubt, thinking to myself, Are you sure you don’t want to spring for a hostel?

I decided to stay on this path, and proceeded to set up a flashlight in the bathroom and washed the colored powder off my body, jumping in and out of the water, telling myself, “It’s not cold! It’s refreshing!” Upon conpletion, I bundled up in my warmest clothes and came out of “my room” to find my host vacuuming the floor and cleaning the house. He told me I could watch tv, but the other boys were upstairs starting to cook dinner. I’m on a mission to improve my cooking skills, and I’m always looking to learn something new in the kitchen, so I ascended the pitch black stairway towards the rooftop and kitchen area, and that is when everything really came together to let me know I was exactly where I needed to be.

All these boys come from the same rural village, a few hours outside of Kathmandu. They have grown up together their whole lives and have basically formed a “village away from the village” with this apartment. Everyone is welcome, everyone helps one another, and everyone contributes, taking their turn cooking dinner or cleaning the house. That first night I was merely a spectator, but in the nights to follow I would help to cut and clean the vegetables, and even become familiar with their local vegetable vendor, learning how to say various vegetable names in Nepali.

As I sat in the kitchen, observing the preparation of rice (bhat), lentils, (dal) and vegetables, the boys started to engage me in conversation. All understood English, but some were less confident than others in their conversational abilities, so they would look to one another for help with their responses. Two boys really took me under their wing and started teaching me some useful phrases like “shuva bihani” (good morning), “shuva din” (have a good day), and “shuva ratri” (good night). My use of these simple phrases, and my willingness to learn Nepali, would prove to help make me quite popular with the locals in the weeks to follow.

That night, I remember feeling such a happiness in my heart as I stood in the kitchen, watching these young men work together, and listening to them sing various songs, like John Legend’s “All of Me” and some old romantic Nepali classics. I was so grateful that I hadn’t let my fear of the unknown scare me out of this amazing, authentic experience of living like a local in Nepal. From day one, I knew my bond with these boys (ages 22-25) was something special, but I had no idea how fond we would all grow of one another in the coming week. By the time I left, they gushed, “You are the best Couch Surfer we have ever had! Your presence adds something special to the group!” My cheeks flushed, but my heart melted.

In Nepal they say that the “guest is God”, and these boys lived up to this saying, treating me like a queen. My stay extended for more than a week, and was full of incredible experiences: a trip to their rural mountain village, a local wedding, time spent working in the fields, a motorcycle road trip to Chitwan National Park, and regular wonderful days commuting to and from the city for work.

I will forever remember my week spent with these boys, and I will hold the memories we created together near and dear to my heart for years to come. Another win with Couch Surfing, and another experience that taught me not to let moments of doubt get in the way of a good time.

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23 Surprising Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Costa Rica

Costa Rica, literally meaning, Rich Coast, is one of the most culturally appealing countries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting, and after living there for more than two years, I proudly call this place my second home. During my time in Costa Rica, I was constantly learning new and interesting facts about this little country and their wonderful way of life. Here are 23 fun things you probably didn’t know about Costa Rica until now…

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1. Costa Rica is smaller than Lake Michigan. 

I always knew Costa Rica was small, but one day I was looking up the stats and was astounded to find out that Costa Rica measures in at only 51,100 square kilometers, whereas Lake Michigan measures in at 57,800 square kilometers. Despite the fact that this whole little country can fit inside the the Great Lake which boarders my home-state of Michigan, it is packed with amazing things to do and beautiful places to see.

2. Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s biodiversity and around 20% of the land is protected in the form of National Parks or Nature Reserves.

Come to Costa Rica and there is no question you will see more exotic and colorful plants and animals than you have ever seen in your entire life.

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3. Costa Ricans are called Ticos and Ticas.

Following the masculine and feminine endings, a male is a Tico and a female is a Tica.

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4. Pura Vida is a popular saying, as well as a way of life.

How are you doing? Pura vida. Thank you! Pura vida. I’ve been waiting for hours…Pura vida. When you come to Costa Rica, you will quickly learn that “pura vida”,  which literally translates to “pure life”,  is basically a way of living happily and brushing away your worries.

5. Costa Rica is rated as one of the happiest places in the world.

Perhaps due to the laid back pura vida lifestyle, Costa Rica has been rated as one of the happiest places to live for several consecutive years. The fact that it is nearly always sunny and 80 degrees doesn’t hurt either…

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6. The Ticos are some of the friendliest and most helpful people you will ever meet.

However, sometimes in their willingness to help, Ticos might not tell you that they don’t really know the answer, and this can end up leading you in circles…Especially with directions!

7. There are 7 provinces which make up the country.

These provinces are as follows: San Jose (where the capital is), Cartago (where the capital used to be), Alajuela (hot and in the center), Heredia (beautiful and mountainous), Guanacaste (where you will find the best beaches on the Pacific), Limon (often recognized as the most unsafe area but home to beautiful Caribbean beaches) and Puntarenas (where you will find more beautiful Pacific beaches).

8. Addresses as we know them in the United States do not exist. You must use a point of reference, sometimes referring to a place that hasn’t existed for the last 10 years. 

“100 meters south of the old Suzuki dealership” or “300 meters north of the Red Cross” or “50 meters west of the big Roble tree”… When I first set off to travel Costa Rica, I expected to plug an address in to my GPS and go, however I quickly learned that I needed to use the province, then a “point of reference”, and then hope for the best. Also, there are many duplicate cities in Costa Rica (example: there are four “Playa Hermosa” beaches…) so it is important to know which province you are looking for, and then work from there.

9. “Mae” is the Ticos way of saying “Dude”

Open your ears and you will hear this being said in nearly every sentence.

10. The national dish is the Casado and consists of a piece of protein, a salad, rice, beans, and a fried sweet plantain. 

The word “casado” actually means to be married, and this is how the term came to be used for food, because once a man was “casado” he would have food for life.

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11. When women get married, they do not take the last name of their husband. 

Everyone typically has two last names- the first last name is from their father, and the second last name is from their mother.

12. Couples refer to their partners as their “media naranja” or the other half of their orange. 

The first time I heard someone use this term, I was beyond confused…

13. Dogs roam about freely. 

Sometimes they have owners, other times they are community pets. They are almost always friendly, and will often adopt you for a walk along the beach.

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14. You can’t flush toilet paper. 

They say it’s because their pipes are old and small and clog easily…I didn’t want to test it, so I followed suit and threw the TP in the trashcan like the locals.

15. Many celebrations include mascaras. 

Mascaras are traditional paper mache headdresses, and people put them on and dance around during various celebrations like birthday parties and city anniversaries.

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16. There are unlimited parties during a Presidential Election, and the winner must win by at least 40%.

While I was living there in 2014, there were at least 13 people competing in the Presidential Election, and when the top two candidates nearly tied, they had to go into “overtime” and have another election day between the top two candidates in order to determine an official winner. Also, it is fairly easy to have the opportunity to meet the President. Here I am with Luis Guillermo Solis, winner of the 2014 Presidential elections.

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17. The police (“policia”) drive around with their lights on all the time, just to show their presence, however they cannot pull you over for traffic violations.

However, the Transito (dark blue vehicles with yellow writing), typically sit along the side of the road, and can wave you over with only their hand, then write you a ticket.

18. They money is called Colones and the colorful bills come in the form of 1000’s.

You can look like a millionaire, but really only have a few hundred dollars to your name.

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19. Costa Rica can have snow.

This was shocking to me, but it is true. Near Chirripo, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica, there are times where there is ice and even snow.

20. It is pitch black by 6 pm, year round. 

Costa Rica is close to the equator, giving the country a solid 12 hours of daylight year round. The upside to this, is that the sun always rises by 5:45am, but the downside is that the sun sets by 6pm, year round. Side note: Costa Rica has the most breathtaking sunsets ever.

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21. Milk and eggs are sold unrefrigerated, and people wash their eggs before using them. 

Funny story about washing the eggs… The word for eggs is “huevos”. People also refer to men’s testicles as “huevos”. When one of my friends was learning Spanish, she innocently started a conversation with her co-worker about how she was shocked to find out that Ticos washed their “huevos”.  The poor man sputtered in surprise at the statement until he finally understood that she was referring to eggs, and not testicles… Needless to say, my friend was beyond mortified, and this deterred her from practicing Spanish for quite some time.

22. A “Soda” is  small restaurant where you can buy typical food.

They often look like a hole in the wall, but don’t let the appearance fool you- the food is always delicious.

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23. People brush their teeth after nearly every meal

Even in the corporate world, after breakfast, lunch, or the afternoon snack, all of my co-workers would flock to the bathrooms with their toothpaste, toothbrush, and sometimes even mouthwash or dental floss and clean their mouths before they would even consider attending a meeting. This was a custom I appreciated and embraced, and I now go everywhere with a toothbrush.

Now it’s your turn…Have you ever visited Costa Rica? What were some surprising things you learned during your visit?

 

Make the Most of Your Visit to Monteverde Costa Rica

Tucked away towards the center of the country, you will spend several hours driving to arrive in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Despite the fact that it is one of the country’s top tourist destinations, the roads remain unpaved, and they curve along the mountainsides as they climb higher and higher into the luscious cloud forest that awaits you. Take it slow, and enjoy the journey. The drive is worth it- Monteverde is amazing.

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When most people say “Monteverde” they typically mean the whole area around the actual National Park of Monteverde. Santa Elena is the city which is a “hub of activity” with restaurants, hotels/hostels, supermarkets, shops and the Amigos bar. Although the area is quite small, it is brimming with things to do. If you love to hike and be out in nature, this is the place for you.

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If you decide to take the trek to Monteverde, the following list will help ensure that you make the most of your time in the area…

1. Go zip-lining or walk the suspension bridges

Monteverde is known for its magical cloud forest, and two great ways to experience this forest are either to zip-line through it, or to walk in the sky while crossing the incredible suspension bridges. Zip-lining will take you zooming through the canopies and across open expanses where you feel as if you’re a bird, soaring through the open sky. The suspension bridges will also take you to amazing heights, but with these you will walk through at your own pace, which lets you look around longer and soak in all the details. Both experiences will get your heart beating and will leave your mouth dropping open in amazement…and if you’re really gutsy, be sure to try the Tarzan swing towards the end of your zip-lining experience. This swing will be one of the most terrifying, yet exhilarating, experiences of your time in Costa Rica.

There are several places which offer these services, and you can book a tour ahead of time while walking through Santa Elena. I chose Selvatura Adventure Park and was 100% satisfied with the experience.

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2. Hike Curi Cancha Nature Reserve

Curi Cancha Nature Reserve is full of wildlife, easy walking trails, and spectacular scenery. The trails are well-marked and the rangers at the entrance will help you select the route that’s best for you. Every time I have visited this park, I have been lucky enough to see the cute pizotes (they look like a raccoon’s cousin) hanging out around the picnic tables, as well as dozens of hummingbirds buzzing around the feeders in the trees. Curi Cancha is up a small dirt road just to the left of the Monteverde Cheese Factory. You can always stop here before or after your hike for a sweet treat or something more substantial to eat.

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3. Climb the hollowed out strangler trees

While hiking around, you will see many tangles of vines covering trees. If you get closer and stick your head into the vines, you may be delighted to find out that some of these masses are hollow within, and very easy to climb. “Strangler trees”, as they are called, start out as a seed in the branches of existing trees, and over hundreds of years they grow down and cover the tree, suffocating it until eventually the tree within dies and decomposes, leaving behind a natural tree-ladder. If you decide to climb up these central tunnels, you can look out the “windows” at the forest beyond and depending on the tree, you may be able to climb all the way up to the top and emerge out in the canopy above for the view of a lifetime. There are strangler trees all around the area’s cloud forests, but I found at least half a dozen to explore in Curi Cancha alone.

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4. Take a night tour

A night tour offers a whole new perspective on the  beautiful forests you have already explored during the day. It is incredible to see the different creatures which come out at night, and to also find the daytime creatures curled into a ball and sleeping in the branches. There are many places which offer night tours in both English and Spanish, and they typically start around 6pm, just after sunset.

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5. Stop at Stella’s Bakery

Stella’s is an absolute must if you are anywhere near Monteverde. Located shortly before the Curi Cancha Nature Reserve, it offers a delectable menu with both savory and sweet items, as well as juices, teas and coffees. The best part about Stella’s is the wide variety of birds which come to the feeder just outside of the main eating area. In the time it takes you to drink a coffee, you will probably see over a dozen different exotic birds right outside the window!

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6. Catch your own fish dinner

If you’re up for a bit of an adventure, continue past Monteverde towards the town of San Luis and go catch your own fish dinner at the Rancho de Lelo. On the drive, you wind down into the valley and see the San Luis Waterfall in the distance, before eventually passing the school and curving towards the right to find the sustainable Rancho, which is actually a project in conjunction with the University of Georgia. The drive is only about 15-20 minutes beyond Monteverde, but as we made our way there, my passengers began to exclaim that we couldn’t possibly be on the right track… until we came upon the sign below, and then entered our own personal paradise. One thing I learned from my two years in Costa Rica is that you can’t judge a place based on the appearance.

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Places to stay:

Santa Elena / Monteverde has many options of places to stay, ranging from hostels to bed and breakfast hotels. Two places I highly recommend, due to their hospitality and wonderful owners, are the Monteverde Rustic Lodge, and Cabanas Valle Campanas. Both are owned by Costa Rican families, and have beautiful accommodations which are only about a 5 minutes drive from the city center.

Many visitors spend a few short days in Monteverde, and if you are one of them, make sure to keep this list in mind. These six suggestions will help you have a unique and memorable experience, and when you leave you will know you have made the most of your visit to Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Have you ever been to Monteverde? What were some of your favorite things you did while there?

 

5 Reasons Why You Should Try Traveling on Your Own

Many people tell me they wish they could travel the world, but oftentimes they cite fear of loneliness as a reason high on the list as to why they don’t go for it. I’m here to tell you, yes, of course you will have moments where you feel alone, but these moments will force you to become stronger, more adaptable, and more independent than you have ever been, and these moments will pass, just as all moments in our lives tend to do. Everyone should give solo travel a try at some point, whether it is a weekend away in a neighboring city, or a trip half way around the world. As I prepare to embark on another round of solo travel, I find myself thinking of a few of the best reasons to travel alone. 

1. You will develop your accountability and your decision making skills. 

When you travel alone, there’s no one to turn to who can take a difficult decision for you. There’s also no one there to remind you when you need to be somewhere or get something done. You realize you are responsible for yourself and you are in charge of your course, and this puts just the right amount of weight on your shoulders to get you moving in the right directions. 

2. You will actually meet more people when you’re traveling alone. 

People always ask me, “Holly, don’t you get lonely??” Well yes, sometimes I do, but you can feel lonely even when you’re at home. When I’m on the road, I find that I am constantly meeting new and interesting people who open my world to different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things. When you travel with someone else, you have a built in safety blanket, someone who will always be around for conversation. In contrast, when you’re on your own, you’re more likely to strike up conversation with the stranger next to you on the bus bench. And then, who knows where that conversation will lead. I can only tell you that by traveling solo, it has opened my eyes even more to how many genuinely good people live all over the world. I now have connections I never imagined would form, and I am able to maintain them through Internet communication. How cool is that?

3. You learn that you are responsible for your own happiness. 

As you’re out there traveling by yourself, you might be in unfamiliar places, struggling to understand what is being said and what is going on, but as soon as you learn to look within and understand that you are the one who can bring yourself joy, your world will shift. You learn to take charge of your feelings and to find the bright side of whatever situation you may be experiencing. Remember, a cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition, so find your inner sunshine…then share it with the world!  

4. You learn more about yourself.

As you’re embracing the world on your own, you will not only learn about other people and other cultures- you will learn more about yourself. You will see the types of places and situations that attract you, and you will be surprised. You will tap into interests you never knew existed. You will let go of characteristics that no longer serve you, and you will find new traditions that you may carry with you forever. It is eye-opening to find out who you are without the influence of others, and it is even more interesting to find out who you may become when you remove yourself from the “norms” of your homeland.

5. You can enjoy your own company, and do what you want to do. 

When you travel with another person, you constantly have to take that person’s needs into consideration. However, when you’re on your own, you can go with the flow and do whatever strikes your fancy. You want to hang out in the park all day, people watching and soaking up the sun? Okay, go for it. You want to read every sign in the museum over and over and over? No problem, you’re not holding anyone else up. You want to spend a week volunteering with local kids instead of checking out every “must see stop” in the Backpacker’s Bible? Go for it! Because it is your trip, and you can do what you want! You can change your course of direction on a whim, and you don’t need to answer to anyone but yourself. It’s a beautiful thing.

Whatever the length of your solo travel expedition happens to be, you will learn and grow immensely in that period of time. You will find out that just because you’re traveling alone doesn’t mean you will always be alone. You will meet people along the way, and you will discover things about yourself that you didn’t know before. You will emerge more confident, because you will see that you’re capable of overcoming obstacles and doing whatever you put your mind to. Yes indeed, solo travel is a good thing. 

If you haven’t given it a try yet, go for it! And if you have traveled on your own and lived to tell the tale, let me know about it! Where did you go? What did you do? 

Live Each Day to the Fullest, Toastmasters Edition

For as long as I can remember, I have always strived to make each day count. I am not a sit-on-the-couch kind of girl, I’m a get-up-and-get-out-there kind of girl. I love to see the world. I love to explore new places, or even go to familiar places but with a fresh set of eyes. When I travel, I apply this same mantra of “live each day to the fullest” as I make my way around the world.

The first time I lived outside of Michigan, it was for one summer working as an intern in Dallas, Texas. There, I embraced another one of my mantras, which is to “be a traveler, not a tourist“. While in Texas,  I got to know a lot about Dallas and the surrounding areas, and when I wasn’t working, I was immersing myself in the Texas culture.

A while back, I was going through boxes of old things, and I came across a speech I had written for a Toastmasters group I participated in while living in Dallas. Toastmasters is a group which helps people improve their public speaking skills in a fun and safe environment, and the group is always looking to reach potential new members. At the end of the summer, the interns in Toastmasters decided to put on an event for other co-workers to come and see if they may potentially want to join the group…Below is my speech for the event, and although some parts are kind of silly out of context, it still reminds us all to live life to the fullest, and embrace life as travelers, not a tourists.

“Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist”

Holly Haveman, Summer 2009

When I first found out I was going to be interning in Texas, I didn’t know what to expect. A scorching summer and a whole bunch of cowboys were the first things that came to mind. Whatever it was, I knew I was going to make the most of it.

I knew I wanted to positively impact my work environment, to meet new people, explore new places, and learn as much as I could about everything in the process. In a nutshell, I knew I wanted to live each day to the fullest.

I got a letter from my friend in the mail the other day, and in it was a bottle cap. Now, it wasn’t a Snapple cap, but I know you still would have liked it, Mr. Christopher Rose.

On the inside of the cap were words of wisdom, and they said, “Be a Traveler, not a Tourist.” I immediately knew I liked what this cap was telling me.

I started thinking about my time here in Texas, and I realized that quote perfectly described how I lived my summer, as a traveler, not a tourist.

Travelers must immerse themselves in their surroundings, get out of their traditional comfort zone, and see what the world has to offer. 

I have learned to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, and to seek out things that don’t necessarily find you on their own.

As a traveler I was able to do so many amazing things this summer. Throughout the summer, I actively sought to find local events that were happening, and jumped on any opportunity to experience something new. I have been told many times that I have seen and done more in Texas than some people who have lived here their whole lives.

This summer I have done things I never would have imagined doing… I watched an Indy race, shot a gun…in fact, I shot more than one gun! I rode a bull…just kidding! but I did watch bull riding, and I did ride a dirt bike through the desert all on my own!

I helped build a house, and I’ve eaten down-home cookin’ like fried okra and chicken fried steak- which I didn’t even know existed until I came here… I also learned how to country western dance, as well as dance like a flapper in the ’20s.

I fed a donkey, and a zebra, and a cow…I killed a cockroach outside of my hotel…I mean, I am really impressing myself with this list!

Now, before this summer, I had never worked in a “corporate” setting, so coming here was a huge step outside of my “comfort zone”. Through my first project, I met many people in different departments and positions. Every worker has something to contribute, and I tried to take away what I could from each person I came across.

Toastmasters was a big help in easing me into the corporate workplace because it helped break up my day and it introduced me to all you fine people! I am sitting in a room full of intelligent and creative minds, and I am extremely glad I was able to be part of this group.

When we first started Toastmasters, many of us were unaware of our Um’s, Er’s, Ya Know’s and so on. We didn’t know that a “broken arm” didn’t necessarily need a sling or cast, that the “fig leaf” wasn’t only found on trees or Greek statues, and that badges could serve as distracting play tools.

We quickly learned from the rattle of the posturologist, and eventually even started making up our own names for distracting things like, “playing the bongos”, “the hugger”, and “scoliosis”.

Toastmasters has been a wonderful opportunity to grow and learn from each other, while at the same time learning about each other. I’ve absolutely seem improvements in all of our public speaking skills, and I know we consciously take what we learn from Toastmasters and apply it to our everyday lives.

This whole summer has been a learning experience, and that was what I was hoping for. I met new people, made new friends, explored my surroundings, and I found out there is more to Texas than cowboys and extreme heat.

I want to end this speech by reminding you all to live each day to the fullest! Go into everything with an open mind and a fresh set of eyes, and strive to do your best. Tasks may seem daunting and some jobs may seem unconquerable, but give everything a fair shot and I know you will surprise yourself.

I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to speak to you today, and to meet and learn from you this summer. I can now add this summer spent in Texas to the list of things I’ve done as a traveler, not a tourist.

Kicking Off World Travels with Couchsurfing in Croatia

There is nothing better than coming to a completely foreign city or country and already having a local friend there waiting for you.  After quitting my job to travel the world, I decided I would embrace each and every one of my destinations by meeting the locals and getting to know the culture, the hidden gems, and the day-to-day life through their eyes. But how do you go and pick up a local friend without knowing anything about the area you are visiting? The answer is Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing helps make a big world a smaller place. It allows you to travel, but with the comfort of coming home to a friend. Through couchsurfing you are exposed to many different people, all with something new and interesting to offer, and all with the commonality of a love for personal growth through new friendships and world travels.

When I kicked off my travels in Croatia, I wasn’t having much luck connecting with any hosts until a New Zealand Kiwi named Glen reached out to me. He had seen my couch request for the area and told me that he had been residing in Split for a month, and could offer me a room to myself and the opportunity to explore the historical seaside city with him. I was slightly skeptical at first, until I looked at his profile and saw dozens of glowing references, along with a personal description stating that he “lived for Couchsurfing”. I figured if nothing else I could learn from this Couchsurfing veteran and enjoy some sun at the same time.

Glen turned out to be an incredible host. From the moment I arrived until the day I departed he made me feel comfortable and welcome. We shared home-cooked meals, long walks along the waterfront, hikes to breathtaking lookout points, and many hours of swimming in the salty Adriatic Sea. Having already spent several weeks in the city, Glen was able to navigate like a pro, bringing us to pick up free wifi in the public square and showing me where I could find the best-value chocolate dipped gelato cones around. We finished each day with an outing to one of his favorite local pubs, where we shared stories and laughs over a local drink. In our two days together we became fast friends, and by the end of my visit I knew Glen would be someone I would like to cross paths with again, whether in his homeland of New Zealand or elsewhere in the world.

Kicking off Couchsurfing with a hike up the hill in Split

After leaving Glen in Split, I was on my way to meet my next Couchsurfing host in Šibenik, another seaside town of Croatia. I was fairly clueless about my next host, Bobo, as his personal details were the bare-minimum required by Couchsurfing,  but I knew that he too had dozens of glowing references from his guests. He came to meet me at the bus station and immediately took me to his local coffeeshop hangout. It felt like an episode of “Friends” as I sat there sipping my espresso with Bobo and his buddies, laughing and learning about one another. In our first few moments of knowing each other, I witnessed Bobo pause and buy food for a hungry stray cat, and at that moment I knew I was in the presence of a truly genuine and caring guy.

Bobo’s generosity didn’t stop with the cats- he treated me as a guest of honor throughout my entire stay. He was able to secure a bike for me to borrow and we explored the city and its peninsulas, pausing along the way to take in the views, admire details, and say hello to his countless friends in the small city. Each night Bobo cooked us incredible dinners; one night we enjoyed a local octopus salad and another we indulged in dozens of lime-zested crepes. We talked late into the nights, listening to music and playing with his incredibly affectionate cat. When it was time to go, I knew I had met another wonderful individual who I would never forget.

Biking around the peninsulas of Šibenik

My third and final couchsurfing host in Croatia accepted my request very last minute, and with the conditions that we were going to be sleeping in his living room as he was also hosting his mother. Upon my late arrival, he made me feel right at home, offering me a shower, a cup of tea, and a delicious veggie dinner. He invited me to go out with him and his friends to an outdoor bar. After a walk around the city, a few drinks, hours of laughter, and an impromptu stop at a dance club, I felt I had seen the best of what Zagreb had to offer. The next morning I said my goodbyes to my host and his sweet dog Lola and made my way to the train station only to find a surprise there waiting for me- one of the friends from the night before! We shared a morning coffee and croissant before I took off for Budapest, but exchanged contact information to stay in touch. That is another pleasure of Couchsurfing- sometimes you not only meet your hosts, but their friends and family as well.

 Exploring with newfound friends from Zagreb

As I continue on with my travels I know I will continue on with Couchsurfing. This site is a perfect example of how the internet has helped to make a big world feel smaller by fostering connections and breaking down barriers. The people I have met through Couchsurfing in Croatia have added a whole different dimension to my travels and I can’t wait to see who else I will encounter as I continue to make my way around the world.

Traveling with the Squirtle Squad to the Bone Church, or when you put it more commonly, A Day-Trip from Prague to Kutná Hora

As I rushed to catch the train from Prague to Kutná Hora I felt a little bit like Harry Potter when he searches for Platform 9 and 3/4… Does it exist?? Am I going to make it?? The reason behind my confusion started with the fact that my platform had a weird “S” behind it’s listing. As I asked around, someone told me the S stood for south, so I should go to the “left side” of the station, but as I hurried up the steps to the platform I was confronted by just about all letters other than S…

It was around “D” where I found an attendant who confirmed for me that I was indeed in the correct location… and it was around “E” where I ran into a group of English-speaking travelers asking the same question: Is this the platform for the train to Kutná Hora?!

They called themselves the “Squirtle Squad” and immediately welcomed me.

“You’re lost too?? Come with us! Join our family!” said a guy I would later come to know as “Ohio”.

A minute later the train pulled up and all ten of us piled inside a single cabin. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it would be interesting to say the least.

On the train I learned how these 9 travelers had come to be connected, and how they had partied their way through Europe, bumping into one another in various locations along the way. Now they had all come together to stay in the same hostel dorm of the cleverly named Czech Inn. The Squirtle Squad was a group of partiers, with the lead girl having had her “last beer of the night” only hours prior to our AM train to Kutná Hora, but they were all interesting and fun-loving folk. The group was made up of four Aussie girls, one Aussie guy, two guys from Uruguay, a guy called Ohio, a girl called Alaska, and myself, Michigan.

Two of the girls had already been to the bone church of Kutná Hora, so upon arrival they served as our guides to navigate to the area. As we walked the streets, we had a “soundtrack to our lives”, thanks to portable spekers and Uruguay 1’s great taste in music. We were all smiling and walking with swag, when Ohio burst out and exclaimed, “You know those moments in life when it’s just like, ‘I’m exactly where I am supposed to be right now..’ Yeah, this is one of those moments…”.

We made it to the Ossuary of Kutná Hora and learned about the history of the place. A guy (Henry, the abbot of Sedlec) had gone over to the Holy Land of Jerusalem and brought back a handful of dirt from Golgotha. He sprinkled it on the cemetary’s ground outside the church, making it a desirable place to be buried. During the years of the plague in the 14th century and the Hussite wars of the 15th century more than 30,000 people died and were buried there. Years later, after running out of space, some monks removed the bones and started piling them around the church, and later eventually started making designs from the bones within the church. There are 4 pyramids of arm and leg bones, many arches of skulls, a chandelier made with every single bone of the human body, as well as many other designs. It is estimated that there are bones from over 40,000 people in the church, and it was incredibly impactful, and bizarre, to see these human remains stacked so artfully.

As the time came to move on, the Squirtle Squad raised their Squirtle hands and did a role-call to make sure no group member had been left behind. We made our way towards the main train station, but this is where my path split from my newfound friends. I wanted to explore the small town of Kutná Hora more, and the group was heading right back to Prague. With a Squirtle salute we fondly parted ways. As I walked through the town on my own I came to the city’s edge and walked along a river, then up a hill overlooking a vast expanse of trees starting to show the signs of autumn. I enjoyed my moments of solitude and nature, then made my way on to visit the beautiful St Barbara’s church before making my way back to catch an afternoon train to return to Prague. 

Can you see the face on the wall?

While waiting on the platform to head to Prague I made one more wonderful connection for the day. I met a sweet pre-teen girl on her way to the city for violin practice. We talked and talked, and slept, and talked some more. She loved the opportunity to practice her English, and I loved hearing what she had to say about the small cities outside of Prague. We now follow each other on Instagram and the way she describes herself is charming- “A little girl in a big world”. It is exactly these types of connections that make me smile and help quench my thirst for exploration. You never know who you will meet, but the important thing is that you are open to whatever the connections may bring.

When I arrived back to the bustling city streets of Prague I felt rejuvenated in my travels. The wonderful conversations with the people of the day left me buzzing with positivity, but the time spent in nature added a sense of purity. With less than an hour of sunlight left in the day, I made my way to listen to the music on the infamous Charles Bridge. There, surrounded by strangers, I settled into the crowd, admiring the bridge’s sculptures and watching the sun sink below the skyline, leaving a warm afterglow. The jazz of the musicians floated in the air around me as I reflected on the day and welcomed whatever the night would have in store…

Living Life on a Scale of 1 to 10

My family has always classified things on a scale of 1 to 10, starting with my brother and his ratings for our outfits. I remember growing up and getting ready to go out, trying on different clothing combinations and relentlessly asking my younger brother to rate them. His straightforward, no hesitation, honest reactions were always a good gauge to see where I stood. So when I set off to travel the world it came as no surprise when my mom asked me, “Holly, how scared are you for this trip, on a scale of 1 to 10?”

My answer was perhaps the surprising part. When I thought about it, I really wasn’t scared at all. Fear barely registered on the 1 to 10 scale. I had already taken the scariest steps; quitting my job and wrapping up my comfortable life in Costa Rica had not been easy, but these were a necessary part of the process in order to pursue my dream of traveling the world.

As I set out on my travels around the world, I receive a constant stream of questions …What am I going to do? Where am I going? How will I get there? Where will I stay?  Do I have a boyfriend? Am I doing this alone? What do my parents think about this? Am I scared?…

There are so many people in the world who make decisions strictly out of fear of the unknown. They let their fears limit their potential. I don’t want that for myself. If you would ask me, “On a a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you for this trip?” my answer would undoubtedly be 10. I am embracing the unknown as the opportunity that it is. I love that my canvas is blank and I am in charge of painting it in whatever form I would like.

 Each day I meet new people who bring new possibilities to my life. My path for the coming days, weeks and months changes daily, sometimes hourly. However a personal motivation that serves as a guiding force is that each day I learn something new about the world, explore a different place, and leave a positive impact on those I come into contact with along the way. I am excited to be traveling the world, and I hope you can come along and enjoy it with me, whether as a co-traveler or a follower from afar.

I wonder what my brother would rate this outfit?  :) This was taken while trying on an extravgantly expensive drindl dress in Vienna, Austria.