Tag Archives: safety

Travel Tips

20 Apr

With a new wave of travelers on the horizon, I wanted to share a few tips that made our life on the road easier. This is not really a “pack list” but more of a collection of helpful ideas, that may or may not be helpful to you. Everyone’s experience on the road is different but hopefully these gems will make your experience the best possible.

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General living
Document your days. I cannot stress this enough. I created a simple excel spreadsheet and wrote every day: where we ended for the night, the route we took to get there, how much we spent, a brief description of what we did, what we paid to camp and any exceptional circumstance we encountered. It takes 5 minutes to do. Not only does it keep you mindful of expenses, it was really fun for us to go back and see where we were 6 months earlier. And years from now, we’ll have this awesome list of everything we did.

Pack light and minimally. You can find anything on the road you forgot (clothes, sunglasses, kitchen items…) unless you like a very specific shimmering silky body wash (ahem).

Use quick dry camping towels. Real towels get smelly really fast. All 3 we had kinda sucked but the Aquis Adventure Microfiber Towel lasted the longest. Buy a few varieties before your trip and test which you like best. They are all really different with varying textures. And pricey.

Be a smart shopper. Grocery store prices south of the border are higher than the open air markets, mainly because you can’t barter. Produce was often better at the markets too. Bring a calculator (or your cell phone) into the store and do the math–a lot of times it’s cheaper to buy 24 individual cans of beer than 2 12 packs (stupid packaging).

The first few months south of the border were spent filling our water tanks with purified water. That proved to be both annoying and difficult because the purification centers were usually on tight one way streets. We quickly learned that the easiest place to fill up our water tanks are at a gas station or fire station. Fire stations typically had good drinking water.
Banking
Budget $100 a day but you’ll spend a bit more in the U.S. and less south of the border.

Find a bank that reimburses you for ATM fees, as you will accumulate a ton of fees living on the road. We banked with Charles Schwab. A person always answered our calls, it’s very easy to deposit with the mobile app and just all around a great bank. We were reimbursed hundreds of dollars in ATM fees over the course of our adventure.

Because ATMs south of the border are unreliable (they aren’t in every town or out of cash, especially on holidays or max you out after 2 transactions), keep about $400 cash on hand, but not on your person, in case of emergencies. No one takes checks.

Use a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. We used Capital One and got cash back for our purchases.
Safety
Make a copy of everything important from your passport to credit cards and hide them. If you are privileged enough to be pulled over, NEVER present your original documents. That’s just setting you up to have to pay a bribe to get it back. Always give a copy (or say you lost it or left it somewhere a few towns away).
Techie
Get an unlocked iPhone, download the iOverlander app, and thank me later. You really can’t beat the ease of an iPhone on a trip like this. iOverlander was created by fellow travelers Song of the Road and tested by yours truly, among others. It is a map database with camping locations and other helpful landmarks GPS marked. Some other useful apps were Whatsapp (free, text over data so you can text any phone number in any country), magicJack (another free app that uses data and allows you to call the US for free, worked much better than Skype calls), Google earth and Google translate. With the cell, just load local SIM cards (about $2) when you arrive in a new country.

A wifi extender is a must! We had the Alfa extender and it worked fabulously at grabbing a far away wifi signal.

Put all your movies on a hard drive (DVDs take up so much space). The drive also is key at backing up your travel pictures. We bought a 1T hard drive before we left and that was plenty of space for our thousands of pictures and hundreds of movie, music and tv files.

Bring a small thumb drive to easily grab movies from a friend’s computer to yours. Because not everyone has a Mac (oddly enough).

I am a huge fan of my Kindle. While Hani is partial to paper books, they really just take up so much space. A Kindle or eReader is much more practical and an easy way to store guide books. Except the Church and Church Guide to Camping in Mexico. That book is a must for Mexican camping. And paper maps if you are lucky to find good ones. We didn’t.

Get a good camera and learn how to use it BEFORE you go.

Now you are all set! Happy travels!

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The Costa Rica breakdown

24 Sep

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We spent a total of 88 days, from May 31 to August 19, 2014 and then from September 16 to 22, 2014 in Costa Rica. We began our journey heading south on the Pacific coast in Penas Blanca and ended on the Caribbean in Sixoala. We traveled through Panama and reentered Costa Rica in Paso Canoas to spend the next 7 days driving north along the Pacific coast and exiting where we first entered, in Penas Blanca. We could have easily spent longer but are only granted a 90 day vehicle permit which can’t be extended. For every 90 days a foreign vehicle spends in Costa Rica, it must be out for the next 90 days before it can come back. Otherwise you have to nationalize your car which is crazy expensive. So as we drove south, we had to leave enough time to drive back north after finishing Panama. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

Love love LOVE Costa Rica! We visited 5 years ago for a few weeks, spent nearly 3 months this time around and would definitely come back again. We stayed 6 weeks in the Nicoya peninsula on just about every beach possible. We spent some time around Lake Arenal, Monteverde cloud forest, the touristy cities of Jaco and Manuel Antonio National Park, passed through San Jose and then enjoyed the beaches and towns on the southern Caribbean coast. On out way north, we spent 4 days on a peninsula on the Golfo Dulce just outside the Panamanian border. Each place was better than the next.

The country is very Americanized, most prices are in dollars, people speak English and it’s not hard to find things you get stateside at US prices. Most travelers race through because it is more expensive than it’s neighbors but the beaches here CANNOT compare. Gor-ge-ous!! Sure everything is tourist driven and you’ll be annoyed with all the whiteys but the wildlife is spectacular and topography is super diverse. You can see monkeys swinging from trees are you drive down the road, red macaws flying over a beach and a sloth settled above you as you dine. And there are so many pristine beaches it’s not hard to have one all to yourself. Part of this is because the government prohibits building up to 200 meters from the high tide mark.

And even though this is the most traveled country in Central America, the roads stink. Potholes galore. Uneven patches. A lot of roads are still unpaved. The bridges are only built for a single car to pass at a time. In the rainy season, roads are washed out and river crossings become necessary. Nightmare.

Though it is the most expensive country in Central America, it was surprisingly the cheapest country for us. We spent a total of $5,061 while in the Costa Rica, coming out to $57.51 a day. That month long rental in Potrero is what made this country so inexpensive for us. We rode the motorcycle around and weren’t tempted too much by the 5 restaurants in town. Our major expense in Costa Rica was food, which is priced similar to US prices.

BORDER
When we entered in Penas Blancas, got fumigated (free) and then had to beg the visa guy to grant us each the maximum of 90 days in the country. We drove right past the sign telling us what to do next so we ended up driving around in circles and backtracking to complete the process. Asking workers where to go is futile. Vehicle insurance is required so after buying that ($63 for three months) we showed the dogs paperwork to the agriculture guy and made our way to pretty much where we started to have the truck inspected. The best part of this process was when another car pulled up to get inspected and a drunk passenger stumbled out of the car–still drinking his beer–in a 420 shirt. Our inspection consisted of an old man leaning into the back of the truck and taking a crooked picture on his personal cell phone. Strange. I don’t remember how long this nonsense took because it was so irritating but probably close to the typical 2 hours.

We left Costa Rica in Sixoala on the Caribbean side. It was a complete breeze. The one office has the only two windows you need. First, you paid the $7 a person exit fee. Apparently this is new within the past few months. They slide your passport in an ATM like machine and ask for a credit card to pay the fee. The problem is your bank will treat this as a cash advance and fine you $10 (or more) per transaction. I didn’t know this until we got our card statement. There was no option to pay in cash at the machine but I would press the cash payment next time to avoid the card fee. In the next window, we suspended both the truck and motorcycle permits. That way we have some days to drive back through the country. The whole thing took a painless 20 minutes.

As we headed north and reentered Costa Rica, we crossed on the pacific side at Paso Canoas. The entrance was fairly simple: get fumigated (free), visa stamp (free), and reactivate your vehicle permit. Two things annoying about this: first, even thought we suspended our permit, the mandatory vehicle insurance cannot be suspended. It continues to run. So you have to get new insurance. And they cannot prorate the amount for the days you have left to drive through the country. I know because I asked. Thankfully, part of the insurance that was paid when we entered initially is a once a year fee and since we weren’t going to use the motorcycle, I didn’t buy insurance for that. Second annoyance, they slowly input allllll your information into their system yet again, asking for the original documents to make their copies. We were given a 10 day vehicle permit, paid $16 for the mandatory insurance for the truck, showed the agriculture guy the dogs papers, they stepped into the truck to do god knows what and we were done an hour and ten minutes later.

Exiting from Penas Blanca was pretty much like our entrance: unnecessarily irritating. We paid the exit fee at the Finca we camped at the night before, so that was one less hassle to go through at the border. Exit stamp was no problem. BUT we drove past the building where we needed to cancel the vehicle permit. And just in case you are wondering, yes, we are dumb, but nothing is marked. You have to figure out which building is for what by asking a bunch of people who know nothing. So I hiked to the place to cancel the permit and they say Hani must do it because everything is in his name. Totally not an issue in ANY other Central American country but here, they must be official. Bs. I marched back to the truck pissed and tell Hani to just go, it will cancel automatically and who cares. He wants to do right so annoyingly turned around and HE went back to the office I just cursed out. 45 minutes later and with a bad taste in my mouth, we left Costa Rica for the last time of this trip.

Total: $109–$79 vehicle insurance (twice) and $30 exit fee (twice)

SAFETY
A complete non-issue in Costa Rica. There is no military so it was nice to enjoy the absence of armed guards on the walk into the grocery. Although we’ve had our only incident of theft in Costa Rica (both pairs of flip flops were stolen), it was our fault for leaving them outside at night. The country thrives on tourism so locals want to make sure everyone is always safe. Local police drive around just to let you know they are there if you need them. And you won’t.

Total: $0

CAMPING
Our month long house rental in Potrero was $500, the going rate during low season. So for the remaining 2ish months, we only paid to camp a handful of times, totaling to $22. We paid $2 a day to park in Montezuma so we would have piece of mind leaving the truck in a secure place as we explored on the motorcycle. We also paid to park in Manuel Antonio to be close to the park entrance and beach and paid our last night in the country to camp at a cool farm that had tons of wildlife.

Total on camping (including 1 month house rental): $527

FUEL
So so so expensive, just like everything else in the country. Diesel cost more than $5 a gallon and was cheaper than regular gasoline. But because we didn’t drive the truck for a month, fuel costs were low.

Total: $1,003

SKYHORSE REPAIRS
We got a flat on one of the back tires. Thankfully a $10 patch did the trick. We also had the thermostat on our small fridge replaced. We bought a bunch of parts hoping something would work and eventually one did.

Parked at the secluded beach of Punta Uva, we noticed oil leaking from the back tire. It needed to be fixed right away because it meant that we weren’t braking on that side. So in the small nearby town of Puerto Viejo, we had the rear axel oil seal replaced. It definitely cost more to have it done there because it was a smaller town and our options for mechanics were limited. Also, they charged more because they had to drive an hour to Limon to pick up the part we needed. That repair cost $205.

Total: $329

ENTERTAINMENT
Outdoor adventures are a must while in Costa Rica but can be expensive. There are ATV tours, zip lining, hot springs, scuba and snorkel trips, great fishing, white water rafting, canopy adventures and a bunch of national parks. We went zip lining, explored Manuel Antonio National Park, visited an animal rescue center, and found free hot springs.

Total: $120

LAUNDRY
I’m including this category because I’m proud to say that in the 3 months we spent in the country we didn’t pay to have our laundry done at all!! For the first month, we relied on the generosity of friends and had our own accommodations while at the house the second month. Towards the end of our time in Costa Rica we were at the beach and wore swim suits everyday.

Total: $0

FOOD
All food–groceries and in restaurants–were the same as what you’d pay in the states. Expensive for us. Street food isn’t really a thing here and I missed the local markets of other Central American countries. Grocery stores were decently stocked with the local Pali stores being cheaper than the more American Mega Super. In the beach towns, we bought fresh seafood right from the fishermen.

As usual, I cooked mostly but we did have our moments when we were dying for a pizza or the experience of a restaurant (or McDonalds in Hani’s case). Sodas (local restaurants) are plentiful serving casadas, typical plates with meat, beans and rice, salad and plantains for around $4. We spent $1,523 on groceries, $136 at the bar and $938 eating out.

Total on food and bev: $2,597

WATER
The beauty of Costa Rica is you can drink the water from the tap. Finally!! No need to buy purified or bottled water. We would simply go to a gas station or find a spigot and fill up both our tanks and garafone. Perfect! (And none of us got sick:) )

Total: $0

PHONE/INTERNET
Costa Rica has 3 competing companies: Claro, Kolbi and Movistar. We opted for Movistar and had pretty spectacular coverage, even on the most remote of beaches. For one month, it cost $18 for 3 gb. But, like with most other countries, wifi was pretty easy to come by in caf√©s, bars, restaurants you name it because every place caters to tourists. So buying a SIM card isn’t necessary since free Internet is easy to come by.

Total: $51 for a local SIM, 3 months of Internet and some extra local talk/text time

DOGS
The girls needed some dog food so we bought yet another overpriced giant bag of crummy quality dog food.

Total spent on the dogs: $62

NOT TO MISS
The Nicoya and southern Caribbean beaches. Neither are centrally located so most people bypass both areas but they really are the gems of the country.

The Nicoya peninsula: Playas Brasilito, Carrillo, and Islita and Bahia del Pirates were our favorites.

The Caribbean coast: Cajuita, Playa Negra, Puerto Viejo and Punta Uva beach.

The beaches around the Golfo Dulce/Panama border are pretty special too, Playa Pavones and Punto Banco.

The Monteverde cloud forest is truly unbelievable. Outdoor adventures in this area are a must. Even though we had been zip lining here the last time we came to Costa Rica, we had to do it again. Sailing through the clouds with the lush forest below suspended by only a thin cable is quite exhilarating. Watch our zip lining video to get the full effect.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY
Don’t do vehicle repairs in Costa Rica unless absolutely necessary! While the cost of labor wasn’t horrible, parts are expensive.

Maybe it’s best not to travel here during the rainy season. It can really downpour, which ruins a lot of the outdoor activities. We welcomed the rain most of the time because it cooled us off but I can see how it would get old if you are wanting to be outside.

And we’d spend more time on the Caribbean beaches.

MOST TYPICAL SITE
Every community, no matter how tiny, has their own full sized soccer field on prime real estate with immaculately mowed lawns. They don’t mess around here. Soccer is some serious business.

NEXT TIME WE GO TO COSTA RICA
Long term rental is definitely the way to go. When we come back, I think the plan would be to park it in a small surfing town around Pavones or Puerto Viejo and learn to surf.

BEST MEAL
Our best meal was the spicy garlic mussels at Sobre Las Olas in Playa Negra. Our best breakfast was at Bread and Chocolate in Puerto Viejo (they had real bagels!!). The best brownies were at Agua y Sal in Potrero (we ate like 15). And the best ice cream (heavenly Italian gelato) was in Potrero as well.

THE BEST BEACH
The practically unreachable Playa Zapotal in northern Nicoya. Don’t know how a truck would fair on this road because it’s so awful. SO FREAKING AWFUL! The road, if you can even call it that, is extreme uphill and downhill, pure gravel with large rocky crevasses broken in the road. We were able to reach this ridiculously remote beach on the moto only once. We had the entire bay to ourselves. No businesses, or people for that matter, were anywhere around. The water was extremely clear and beach clean because no one can get out there. It was truly paradise. The second time was when we lost traction and slid down the first big hill. The third and final time we attempted to reach Zapotal we got a bit farther down the road than the second time but since it hadn’t rained in a while, the ground was super dry and cracked and we were slipping and sliding everywhere. I hiked up and down the majority of the way because I was scared we were going to spill like the last time.

FOR YOUR OWN COSTA RICAN ADVENTURE:
+ dip in the free local hot springs outside Arenal
+ surf! Oodles of awesome surfing beaches up and down the county
+ zip line in Monteverde
+ visit Manuel Antonio National Park
+ explore the beaches on the Nicoya peninsula and Caribbean coast
+ go to an animal rescue center. They are all over the country. Kinda like a zoo but for injured animals. You’ll see animals up close you won’t see in the wild. But prepare yourself for tiny cages.

The Nicaragua breakdown

16 Jun

We spent 22 days–May 9 to May 31, 2014–in Nicaragua, beginning our journey in Somotillo and ending in Sapoa. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

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We were pleasantly surprised by Nicaragua. It’s one of those countries no one ever really talks about but we saw a lot of tourists throughout the country. The topography is very diverse– ranging from mountains and volcanoes to lush lake towns and pristine beaches.

We found long stretches of remote beaches similar to what we experienced in Baja, cool towns, good food, and was relatively inexpensive. I say relatively inexpensive because they accept both cordobas (local currency) and dollars. Many things, especially in the tourist-run towns, are priced in dollars. Since everyone uses a different crummy exchange rate, it’s necessary to always have dollars on hand to get the best deal. Gratuity is added on to your bill and a fee is imposed when you use a credit card. Because of this, stuff is more expensive but you can still find a good deal and cheap produce at a local market.

We spent a total of $1702 while in the country, coming out to $77.36 a day. Our major expense was medical and without that, we would have spent very little in Nicaragua.

BORDER
When we entered in Somotillo, it was already dark out. Because of this, it was our best/fastest/easiest crossing yet. Everything you needed to do to enter the country was in sequential buildings and windows (so rare!). In 50 minutes, we were fumigated, paid $12 for mandatory vehicle insurance, and got our visas stamped. Getting the vehicle import permit was cake too. No one went out to look at the truck or verify VIN numbers. All they needed were my original documents and NO COPIES–a first! And since no one came outside to look at Skyhorse, the dogs entered unnoticed.

We left Nicaragua in Sapoa, coming from San Juan del Sur. This exit was unnecessarily chaotic. The buildings looked like an abandoned bus depot with no signs directing you so you are forced to rely on officials to stop you and tell you where to go or ask. We drove through the vehicle exit permit stop unnoticed (is that even possible??) only to be told later we had to get some paperwork there to cancel our permit. I waited in the longest line ever just to pay (yes, pay to leave Nicaragua) and get our exit stamps.

Then I walked back to where we drove unnoticed to sweet talk the vehicle permit guy into filling out forms without Skyhorse being in front of him. I refused to drive the truck back for him to see and he refused to stand and walk the 5 steps to his left to see where it was parked. He eventually caved. (It was hot out ūüôā )

After tracking down another (ununiformed) guy who filled out some form and bringing it all to a lady in a window, I then had to find a police officer in the mass crowds to sign off on all the paperwork. 1 and a half hours from beginning this nonsense, we had officially left Nicaragua.

Total: $32.60 (we were gifted the majority of our entrance fee into Nicaragua)

SAFETY
I include this category in every country recap because people think Central America is SO unsafe, but it really isn’t. We had no problems in Nicaragua. Completely, totally safe the entire time we were there, though many told us not to leave the truck unattended without security on the streets overnight. We didn’t see as many armed guards as we had in other countries but I don’t know if that means Nicaragua is safer or they just aren’t as fanatical as other places.

Total: $0

CAMPING
Another hot hot hot country. Supposedly, May is the hottest month in Nicaragua. We would have easily maxed out our 30 day visa had it not been so hot, but hurried through a few cities we could have spent more time in. We spent 6 straight nights in hotels in Leon and Chinandega to avoid the heat.

In Leon, the hottest city in the county, air conditioning seemed to be a luxury in hotels and not a necessity. $40 a night got us a nice room with 2 beds, a/c (so the dogs could enjoy some coolness while we volcano boarded during the day), private bath, tv with cable, wifi, parking with 24 hour security and a hearty breakfast.

In Chinandega, a city to restock and get great medical care, $25 a night got us a smaller room than in Leon but still with a/c, private bath, tv with cable, wifi, and parking with 24 hour security.

We got another room in San Juan del Sur, a cool American-type surfer town, again, because it was so hot and we wanted a place to get some good cheaper eats before crossing into pricey Costa Rica. We spent $25 for an even smaller room than Chinandega but whatever. It had air conditioning and accepted the dogs.

The other nights we boondocked, trying to find a location with as much breeze as possible. We parked in town in Masaya one night and caught the breeze from a storm but our stay in Granada parked at the Red Cross was sandwiched between two chicken buses and was stifling. Up and out when the sun rose.

The best spot we found in Nicaragua was on Lake Apoyo, on a private lot paying $4 a night for an awesome view and right on the lake with our own private access way.

Total on camping (including hotel stays): $233– $205 on hotels and $28 for the rest

FUEL
Pretty much the same as what we were spending in the other countries. We didn’t fill up often because it just wasn’t needed. The country is small and you can cover a lot of ground on little fuel.

Total: $268.57

MEDICAL
Medical care in Nicaragua was exceptional. As I wrote before, Hani had a cyst removed ($100) and a fatty mass removed ($300) by a dermatologist and plastic surgeon. The remaining costs were for the initial visit with the dermatologist, a few different rounds of antibiotics before and after the procedures and antibiotic creams. All in all super cheap compared to what it would have cost stateside, even with insurance, and just as good if not better care. Minimal scars remain and both doctors answered their cell phones whenever we had questions. Ten thumbs up and worth every penny!

Total: $485.32

FOOD
I cooked the majority of the time we were in Nicaragua, mainly to counter the amount we were spending on hotels. Produce and meats were cheap but the American products (PB, chips, canned stuff) was pricier because it was only available in tourist towns and they knew tourists would pay. Beers averaged a dollar a can, which was par. We spent $121.35 eating out (none of which was typical Nicaraguan fare), $352.96 on groceries, and $36.88 at the bar.

Total on food and bev: $511.19

PHONE/INTERNET
Down to 2 companies in Nicaragua: Movistar and Claro. After much debate, we opted for Movistar because they were having a special that day, I think it was like quadruple what you put on the phone. The SIM card was $2 and I put $9 on the phone for 2 weeks of service to use 1 gb plus a lot of local minutes and texts. Here, Movistar only gave you the option of putting money on your phone by the hour, day, week or two weeks. It’s kinda annoying to monitor and recharge the phone that frequently so when the data ran out, we just used any wifi we came across.

Wifi was very easy to find. Every restaurant, cafe, bar, hotel, hostel, you name it had wifi so we had no problem keeping in touch for the last few days just relying on wifi. All the networks are locked but it was pretty necessary to beat the heat by sipping a smoothie or iced coffee while sitting in a cafe for hours using their wifi.

Total: $11

DOGS
The ladies ran out of food so we bought another giant bag of crappy food for them, which Shae decided she doesn’t like. Also we found a small growth on Shae and brought her to a vet in Granada. Turns out it’s nothing, she’s healthy and fine and we had the vet look at Olivia too, just because. The visit was $6 and they sold Heartguard for…….$10.88 a 6 pack. It’s like triple that in the states. So I stocked up.

Total spent on the dogs: $66.80

NOT TO MISS
Lake Apoyo was phenomenal! The small crater lake is pretty tranquillo with day visitors and silent at night. The water was lovely and weather was cooler than the rest of the country. Just stock up on groceries before landing there. Or plan on burning a pretty penny eating out at the hostels and restaurants that line the lake.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY
Definitely not visit when it’s so hot. The country was awesome and we would have liked to spend more time walking Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur. Also, we should have surfed but didn’t because Hani needed to recoup. We landed on some awesome surfing beaches. Lessons and rentals were very cheap and plentiful.

PROUDEST MOMENT (for us)
Winning at trivia in Granada. It was just Hani and I on a team competing against 11 teams of 4+ and somehow we won when we thought we had come in last. Guess we’re not as dumb as we think. Tastiest bottle of rum yet!

PROUDEST MOMENT (for me)
Being able to recognize ODB’s “Baby I Got Your Number” after hearing 3 seconds of the intro during a rousing game of Name That Tune in San Juan del Sur.

TIMES PULLED OVER
1, for nonsense, simply to make us pull over and we were back on the road a minute later.

TIMES COPS ATTEMPTED TO PULL US OVER
1. After the above incident, we figured we could just avert our eyes. The cops stand on the side of the road and wave people to pull over. No thank you.

BEST MEAL
La Lancha’s seafood in San Juan del Sur. For $6, we got a few small lobsters in a creamy garlic sauce, plantain fries, salad with an awesome dressing and tasty rice. De-lish!

FOR YOUR OWN NICARAGUAN ADVENTURE:
+ find a beach and call it your own. There are so many stretches of untouched water
+ swim and lounge at Lago Apoyo
+ learn to surf!!
+ volcano board…if you dare
+ eat your face off in San Juan del Sur

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The El Salvador breakdown

17 May

We spent 12 stifling days–April 27, 2014 to May 9, 2014–in El Salvador, beginning our journey in Las Chinamas and ending in Santa Rosa de Lima. We would have driven through the country faster to avoid the uncomfortable heat but I flew to NY for 5 days in and out of San Salvador airport and then we had some maintenance done on the truck that lasted 2 days. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

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El Salvador was pretty cheap and rightfully so. We didn’t think there was much to see or do there, thus, cheap to stay and eat. Even the maintenance we did on the truck was inexpensive. We paid $235 for 9 hours of work on new rear brake pads, a new muffler hose and attachment piece, a new coolant thermostat,¬†new rear slack adjusters and replaced part of the air brake system. We spent a total of $708 while in the country, coming out to $59 a day. It would have been less had we not got a room while at El Tunco beach but it was just too hot not to.

BORDER

This was by FAR the most disorganized country when it came to entering and leaving. It was as if it was their first day letting people in.

We entered from Guatemala at Las Chinamas around 4pm and it took about 2 hrs to enter the country. Once you check out of Guatemala, there is a long bridge and we had to wait on the Guatemala side because there was supposedly not enough space for us to park on the El Salvador side. I walked the bridge to try to expedite the process. And, of course, there was plenty of space for us to park. I got the run around and was pointed in one direction after another until I went in a complete circle around the property without accomplishing a thing. Had we just been allowed to drive¬†across the bridge, a person would have come up to the car and started the vehicle permit process. Since I was walking over, I was trying to explain to the un-uniformed customs people I needed the vehicle permit for my truck across the bridge. It was like I had 3 heads. “But you are walking, not driving.” “Where’s ¬†your car?” “We need your car.”

Eventually, I convinced a nice man to make the copies we needed just as Hani crossed the bridge into El Salvador. Then man inspected the outside of the truck and motorcycle, got our VIN numbers, filled out the permit paperwork by hand (ignoring the dogs) and said it wouldn’t be much longer. He gave his handwritten notes and our copies back to the guy who had initially made the copies for me. That guy imputed our information into his computer at a painfully slow speed. It’s now starting to get dark and as I tried to have this man hurry up, he made typos, which then made everything even slower because he had to reprint the corrections.

With all our vehicle documents in hand, I ran to Hani and we were off with a quick flash of our passports to an agent (they don’t stamp your passport when you enter or leave El Salvador). We were trying to beat sundown at this point because we don’t like to drive in the dark and of course, there were¬†more hoops to jump through¬†to enter. We were stopped 2 other times within 5 feet of each other to inspect¬†our vehicle permit paperwork, with each stop being about 10 minutes. And then we were allowed to officially enter.

We left El Salvador at Santa Rosa de Lima at 11:30 in the morning. It took 2 hrs to leave the country. TWO HOURS–by far the longest we’ve spent trying to get out of a place. Totally absurd. There was an insanely massive line that stretched 2km+ from the border exit. We drove around half the line of parked semis until a police officer flagged us into a lot¬†and said we had to wait in the line to exit the country. A “helper” approached us and we got the impression that would be the only way to bypass this line. Helper Jose asked for a bunch of our original documents and left to make copies–um, no. I ran after him and trekked in the blistering heat to the front of the line with Jose. He had me make a bunch of unnecessary copies and hung around the cluster of “helpers” drinking a coke, not making any attempts to show our paperwork to anyone. Then Jose told me I shouldn’t stand with him while he talks to the border agents because they don’t want to look like they are accepting bribes. Annoyed, I stood in line and Jose walked away. With our paperwork. So I followed him back to Hani. Jose lamely tried talking to the cop to let us pass but nothing happened.

An hour had past and we hadn’t got any closer to leaving El Salvador so I told Jose that if he got us out of there in an hour, he’d get a big tip. Then things started rolling. We walked-ran back to the front of the line where I waited and he went back and brought Hani and the ¬†truck. Immediately a border officially started processing our exit paperwork, inspected the truck and bike and we were off. Happy the long part was finished, I tipped Jose $10, which he was less than pleased with. From there, we drove like 2 miles through ¬†a city to the actual El Salvador exit where¬†I stood in a short line to get a scrap paper stamped and passports inspected.

Even though I hate using a helper, I think we’d still be parked in the long line of trucks waiting to leave. But, money talks. I should have pulled the money card much sooner, especially on a hot day. Lesson learned.

Total: $11.50 LEAVING the country-$10 tip and $1.50 for a hundred copies. Free to enter.

 

SAFETY

Like every other country so far, we felt completely safe while we were in El Salvador. We never felt threatened and didn’t see any violence, gang activity or exceptional police¬†presence, even though locals kept telling us this was the most unsafe country in Central America. We weren’t pulled over and didn’t even see any police checkpoints. The officers¬†we did approach (for directions) were nothing but helpful, as were all the locals we interacted with.

Total: $0

 

CAMPING
This category should be titled “hoteling” as we stayed in a hotel on the beach for 7 days in El Tunco and boondocked 5 days. The hotel was simple but met our needs–a/c (the reason we got a room), wifi, private bathroom, dog approved and had parking for Skyhorse. Our boondocking began with parking in a hotel parking lot the night we entered because it was dark and ended with parking for 2 nights at the mechanic’s while they worked on our brakes. Not exactly exciting boondocking though one place we landed was. Outside of Playa Los Cobanos, we parked¬†with Toby and Chloe on a local’s property and had our own private beach to our side. This was definitely the loveliest place we camped in El Salvador.¬†And it was free ūüôā

10374512_833766546652245_5515656609797780229_n Photo courtesy of Carpe Viam

Total on camping: $160 for 7 nights at a hotel

 

FUEL
Not much to say about this except that¬†fuel was expensive. We filled up once, and it was only like half a tank–25 gallons or so.

Total: $105

 

FOOD:
We ate out a lot in El Tunco. The food was good and cheap, with a nice variety ranging from smoothies to Italian to an awesome Asian noodle bar. And I got my pupusa fix at the local market in Suchitoto. We spent $94.74 eating out, $54.75 on groceries, and $30 at the bar.

Total on food and bev: $179.49

 

PHONE/INTERNET:
There are 3 companies in El Salvador: Tigo, Movistar and Claro. Since we had a great experience with Tigo in Guatemala, we decided to stick with them. And this turned out to be the cheapest phone plan yet. The new SIM for our phone cost $3, which included 250mgb and I think some minutes to use in 7 days. For our second week, I put $5 on the phone for 500mgb of data and some texts and minutes.

Total: $8

 

DOGS
No issues with Shae and Olivia at all. No one asked to see their paperwork, acknowledged them at the border, or at any time we were in El Salvador.

Total spent on the dogs: $0

 

NOT TO MISS:
If you surf, El Tunco is supposed to be the spot. Since I wasn’t feeling well during my few days there, I wasn’t able to give it a shot but the waves looked huge and there were a lot of surfers in the water. The people were very friendly but it just didn’t seem like there was much to see in the country. Otherwise, drive right through. Sorry. Just being honest.

 

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY:
Maybe we would have had a different experience if we visited when¬†it wasn’t so hot…

 

STRANGEST THING:

I was pretty surprised that so many people spoke English. In a region where it doesn’t seem like there are oodles of tourists (like Guatemala), I was impressed with the amount of English I heard.

 

BEST MEAL:
The pizza at El Tunco. REAL PIZZA!! It was awesome. And I forgot the name of the restaurant.

 

FOR YOUR OWN EL SALVADORIAN ADVENTURE:
+ see and surf the beaches around El Tunco to La Liberdad

…and then you are on your own

The Guatemala breakdown

8 May

We spent a total of six weeks–March 12, 2014 to April 27, 2014–in Guatemala, beginning our journey in El Ceibo and ending in Valle Nuevo. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

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Things were similarly priced to Mexico with the exception of diesel ($5/gal, but that’s cheaper than gasoline) and park/museum admissions. Entrance into Tikal was $40 for both of us. Crazy! Food and groceries were cheap though.

In the 6 weeks in Guatemala, we spent a total of $3,600, which came out to $78.26 a day, a little less than what we spent per day in Mexico.

BORDER
We entered at a small crossing in El Ceibo on the border of Mexico and northwestern Guatemala. Small borders are good because there’s little traffic but bad because there’s no oversight. We got a taste of each. No one else was entering or exiting this border. Nevertheless, it was a gigantic production and unnecessarily time consuming.

It took about 2hrs to cross into Guatemala and we were the ONLY people going through the process. No one wore uniforms and no signs indicated that the dilapidated trailers were the customs offices. When we stopped to ask where the border offices were, some guys put cones in front of our truck and said here.

Hani stayed with Skyhorse and the pups and I just walked into the first trailer (which had a/c!) and asked a nice man what I was supposed to do. This guy became my buddy for the day. He directed me to another trailer where our passports were stamped. I then went back to the nice guy who started generating our vehicle import paperwork. I needed to make copies and pay in Guatemalan quetzales so I needed to find the copier and bank.

The copier was all the way in the Guatemalan side. After the hike there and back, I needed to find the bank. The “bank”– a drunk guy that was supposed to be in a trailer but hiding somewhere else–had no money. I exchanged pesos for quetzales from a tuktuk driver (apparently this is the accepted means to get money at a border) and went back to the nice guy and told him I didn’t trust the bank. From then on, when I needed to pay some fee, I had the nice guy accompany me to ensure the bank processed my payments correctly and gave me the right change.

While this was going on, Hani was sitting in the truck. Some guy (apparently a semi-official border person) was telling Hani there was a fumigation fee and a fee for the dogs. The truck was fumigated and the guy told us 2 different prices. When I asked to see proof of what the fee for fumigation was, he showed me a paper attached to his clipboard that said a lower cost. Oh yeah, that’s the price you have to pay. At that, I wasn’t believing a word he said. The costs for the dogs went from 150Q per dog to 300Q per dog and he didn’t even ask to see their paperwork, just wanted money. When I called the guy out on his bullshit (yes, I really called what he was telling me shit), he flipped out and stormed away.

I went to talk to nice guy only to find liar already there tattling on me. After rounds and rounds inside and Hani outside revving his engine, moving cones and shoving some guy out of his face, I paid 150Q (about $20) for both dogs and we got the hell out of there. I was completely frustrated and upset that I caved and paid anything at all. Hani thought the experience was funny. At least it was over.

We exited at Valle Nuevo, Guatemala into Las Chinamas, El Salvador. Leaving Guatemala was a pretty simple process. As you drive to the border, there’s a big building to your left and the offices you need to go to are in order. What makes this so confusing and hectic are the groups of “helpers” swarming you to aid and ease your crossing and convert your money. I just put my hands up and told everyone to back away and they left me alone. The process was MUCH easier on my own, though if I didn’t speak Spanish, a helper would have been necessary as none of the border agents spoke English.

We opted to cancel our vehicle import, thereby mandating 90 days outside of Guatemala. Otherwise, we’d have to rush and drive back into Guatemala before our initial 90 days ran out on June 10. The guys in this office were very patient with us, explaining our options and the penalty fees if we drove back sooner than 90 days. They even made my copies for me free of charge. So we didn’t pay anything to leave the country.

In another room, we waited in a short line to get our exit stamp and a scrap paper with a stamp to show the border agent in El Salvador.

Once outside and back in the truck, we had to show our cancellation paperwork again and then were able to drive across the bridge to enter El Salvador.

Total on crossing the border: $71.66 (because we have to import 2 vehicles–Skyhorse and the moto)

SAFETY
As was our experience in Mexico, we felt completely safe in Guatemala. We were never stopped by police, even during “random” security checkpoints along the highway. We had no interactions with police at all.

We did, however, cross a very poor mountain town during our drive from hell from Rio Dulce to Semuc Champey. Some teens had propped up a plank of wood on some blocks and asked for money “for the community.” We laughed and gave them the equivalent of .70.

Total: .70

CAMPING
We didn’t boondock all that much. Kinda sad. We were intent on seeing cities while in Guatemala and didn’t want to park on some random small street if we knew we’d be out running around town all day. Or be inconvenienced by parking somewhere remote when we wanted to be in walking distance to a fun town. We free camped 9 days (when we first entered, when we got stuck on that hell road and were fixing the truck outside Semuc, when we were at the mechanic in Coban, when we were parked outside the Guatemala City airport) but they weren’t adventurous or cool spots. We then were able to free camp some more in Antigua at the Tourist Police lot for 6 days, one day beyond the limit, after we bought them soda and chips.

Total on camping: $210

FUEL
Diesel was pretty pricey in Guatemala, almost $5 a gallon. Luckily, since the country is small, we didn’t have to fill up all that often. We also road the motorcycle a bunch, which saved on fuel.

Total: $460

FOOD:
Because we wound up in a lot of American influenced towns (Panajachel, San Pedro, Antigua) for extended stays, we ate out a ton! It’s a tough call between cooking and eating really cheap (and good) schwarma or pasta or BBQ. The whooping $642.82 was well spent, but we could have budgeted better and ate in more often. I did cook, spending $433.78 on groceries. Since we were closer to towns, we often went out at night, spending $144 at bars.

Total on food and bev: $1,220.60

PHONE/INTERNET:
We splurged in Guatemala and went with the more reliable and slightly more expensive Tigo for phone and Internet service. Coverage was excellent, a nice change from the crappy service we had in Mexico. The SIM card came preloaded with data, minutes and texts and if you recharge your phone on triple saldo days (you’ll get a text on those promotional days), you get triple the amount you pay. Pretty sweet.

There are two competing companies, Movistar and Claro. The coverage is not as good but prices are cheaper and they do the triple saldo days as well.

Like Mexico, free wifi was easy to come by, especially in the touristy towns. Every restaurant/bar/coffee house/you name it had wifi. It is easy to get along without an Internet plan but again, having one makes life easier.

Total: $38.86

DOGS
Shae and Olivia are angels and continue to be visions of perfect health. No vet visits and no one seems to care that their paperwork is in English.

I’ve been looking for good quality dog food to no avail. In Coban, they laughed when I asked for a store that sold all natural or organic dog food. I bought the best looking brand but it cost like $60 for a 20 pound bag, much crappier quality than what they were eating at home and far more expensive. It’s completely insane. When that ran out, I caved. Yes, I’m that bad mom feeding my dogs the McDonalds of dog food, all fillers and grains. And even that was pricey! I guess locals feed their dogs table scraps because there’s no way they are paying $100+ on big bags of dog food.

I have to say, Shae and Olivia love their new generic dog food. Shae, who can sometimes be a picky eater, gobbles her food up. They seem fine and no problems with their stomachs or coats since the food change. Guess organic dog food isn’t all that after all.

Total spent on the dogs: $250.53 (dog food plus they needed more heartguard and flea meds)

NOT TO MISS:
The ruins at Tikal were pretty amazing. Our favorite ruins so far. It’s a mission to get out there because it’s so far away from every other town or site but completely worth it. You can actually enjoy the ruins (and climb them!) without hordes of tourists or locals selling you crap.

We loved Lake Atitlan and would definitely go back. It was so easy to fall into a comfortable routine in any of the lake towns. San Pedro was the best.

Antigua was also a favorite. Hani says it’s his favorite colonial village. This colonial town was very tanquillo, easy to navigate and not filled with gringos, even though there was a great diversity of food. The local food market was great and the artesian market next door would make it easy for a traveler to find all the textiles possible to then bypass the town of Chichi for the country-known market. The town is nestled in a valley between mountains and volcanoes, picturesque from any location.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY:
Not drive a road that no one’s mentioned driving before, especially when everyone takes a similar route but goes the long way. Just because a route is less than half the distance of the longer route doesn’t mean it’s faster!!

We could have bypassed Semuc Champey. It just wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before. And I said it before, the road driving in just wasn’t worth it.

We could have also gone without seeing the Chichi market. Granted it was only a cheap bus ride and an “event” for the day, but we saw the same goods in mass quantities for the same prices in other parts of the country.

STRANGEST THING:
For the amount of travelers that make their way from town to town, I would have expected the roads to be better. They were AWFUL! Seriously, the worst roads of our trip to date were in Guatemala. We saw tons of chicken buses and microvans just get pounded on the pothole laden roads.

BEST MEAL:
The best food was in San Pedro La Laguna, with a tie between the all you can brunch at El Barrio (we hit it twice and stayed from the start at 10am to close to finish at 2pm) and the amazing pasta at Alfredo’s, a tiny restaurant run out of this woman’s home. Her living room doubles as a dining area when they are full. We ate there two nights in a row.

The best coffee was in Panajachel’s Cafe Loco. Delicious innovative flavors, super cheap, and artistic. Can’t beat that!

FOR YOUR OWN GUATEMALAN ADVENTURE:
+ visit Lake Atitlan and any of the surrounding towns.
+ explore the textile markets and buy buy buy because you’ll never see fabulous fabrics like this again.
+ find the hot waterfall around Lago de Izabal. Heavenly!
+ soak in the traditional dress of both the women and men in a small village.
+ wander Antigua. It’s not as touristy as you think.

The Mexico breakdown

16 Mar

We spent a total of 4 months–from November 13, 2013 to March 12, 2014–stuffing our faces with tacos and churros and Modelo in Mexico. We started our Mexican journey in Tecate, Baja and ended in El Ceibo, Tabasco. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

OVERALL COST
Everything was definitely cheaper in Mexico from groceries to fuel. In the 4 months here, we spent a total of $9,421 which came out to $2,355 a month. That was on average $1000 less a month than we were spending in the US. Now I understand why everyone heads south first. Your dollar definitely gets you much farther south of the border.

BORDER CROSSINGS
Since we entered and exited in small towns, our crossings were pretty uneventful, thankfully. In Baja, we were the only vehicle there and the woman barely looked inside the truck. Dogs were ignored. It took about 5 minutes to get our visas and stamps and pay the fee. We did the vehicle import in La Paz, Baja before we boarded the ferry to mainland Mexico. That was pretty painless as well, where all they needed was the vehicle title and info on the main driver.

Leaving Mexico, we opted for another small border town mainly because it was the shortest distance between where we were in Mexico (Palenque) to where we wanted to go in Guatemala (Tikal). I randomly found the border at El Ceibo while googling potential crossings. This border is pretty new, opened in 2009, and seemed pretty unvisited. The buildings were immaculate and had air conditioning!! It took the guy 10 minutes to cancel our vehicle imports for the truck and motorcycle and take pictures of the plates and VINs. After showing proof that we payed the fee entering the country, our passports were stamped and we were good to go.

Total on crossing the border: $159

SAFETY
The entire time we were in Mexico we felt 110% safe. Seriously. At the start of our trip, hell even before we left, everyone said not to drive through Mexico. But we, and all the other PamAm travelers we know, made it through without incident. The good aspects of a country are never newsworthy, only the bad. We came across both the local police (when we got stuck in the mud) and the federales (at random check points) and they were all nothing but nice and helpful. On one small beach, the local police came over just to introduce himself and tell us that he was patrolling the area if we needed anything. We did not encounter any roadblocks either. So everyone reading out there– as long as you are as cautious of your surroundings are you are normally, travel in Mexico is safe.

Total: $0

CAMPING
We camped for free more than half of our time in Mexico. Most of that was at a scenic random place we found. The other (small) part was on convenient quiet streets or outside new friends’ houses. The rest of the time we relied on the Church’s Guide to Camping in Mexico to find the ideal paid campsite. We did this typically in bigger cities where we’d be leaving the dogs all day and wanted a secure spot. I feel like we relied too heavily on the Church’s book and could have found just as nice of spots for free. But, a lot of times with these campsites, you’re paying for the security and piece of mind that you and your stuff are safe. We don’t hook up so we never used the electric or water that few of them offered. We did, however, always use the wifi when campsites had it. That was often worth the cost of staying there.

Total on camping: $499

FUEL
One fuel company runs the country, Pemex. Prices are fixed, which is really nice because we didn’t have to run from station to station finding the cheapest fuel. The stations are clean and equipped with a slew of attendants who eagerly want to pump. But the machines aren’t calibrated accurately so you never know if you’re actually getting a liter of fuel or less. Diesel cost us about $3.78 a gallon.

Total on fuel: $2,118

FOOD
I would say I cook about 80% of the time. All food here is really cheap. The produce is always super fresh and very very inexpensive. But it’s just as cheap to eat out. When we go out to eat, it’s usually to a cart on the street. Rarely will we actually sit down at a restaurant for a meal. In Baja, since we were typically in the middle of nowhere, we cooked practically every meal. Once we hit the mainland, we’d do lunch or snacks out and dinner in (we spent about the same on groceries in mainland as we did eating out). We spent $1,764.41 on groceries, $172 at bars (we didn’t do much bar hopping) and $1,286.93 on restaurants.

Total on food: $3,223.34

PHONE/INTERNET
Before we left the states, we had our iPhones unlocked and put them on seasonal standby (so we can keep our numbers/plan for when we return but pay a fraction of the regular plan price now). The day we crossed, I got a SIM card with Movistar. The service was cheap and sucked but you get what you pay for. The main Internet company in Mexico, Telcel, has much better coverage and is more expensive. I went with cheap Movistar because I’m cheap. It was fine for what it was. In smaller cities and on the beach, mainly in Baja, we didn’t have service but it forced us to disconnect. In bigger cities, I had slow, extended service. A few times I had 3G!

Many of the cafés, restaurants, and campgrounds have wifi so staying connected was easy and we probably could have done without the SIM card. But it did made things more convenient.

Total: $107.39 (less than a 1 month plan in the states)

DOGS
Thankfully, we’ve had no issues with Shae or Olivia. We didn’t take them to the vet before we got to Mexico for that silly USDA health certificate so we’re still traveling with their paperwork from our Key West vet. No one asked for their paperwork in Mexico.

We did run out of their fancy organic all natural American dog food in Guadalajara. A Petco had just opened a few weeks earlier (the first and only in Mexico) and we headed there to buy more food. A 40lb bag of almost as good quality dog food cost as much as it would have in the States. Apparently the price of dog food just increased at the start of the new year. We rode on the motorcycle with this insanely gigantic bag sandwiched between us. It was hilarious.

Total spent on the dogs: $85.86 for the bag of dog food

NOT TO MISS
Baja! But not the Cabos part of Baja. Bahia Concepcion and Todos Santos were our favorites. The state is lined with gorgeous beaches that are completely uninhabited and you can find a beach all to yourselves that has interesting rock formations and peaceful blue waters.

The mainland beaches were just as spectacular, La Manzanilla and Playa Zipolite, being a few of our favorites.

I am obsessed with the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. It was such an unbelievable site seeing millions of butterflies swarming the space before you. It was a trek to get there but so completely worth it.

Another favorite was Agua Azul, just south of Palenque. It was completely magical! Blue pools and waterfalls tucked into the jungle are as far as the eye can see.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY
We started the Mexico part of our trip filling our water tanks with purified water. This meant finding an agua purificado, which was always on a narrow one way street when we were coming from the opposite direction. It was cheap to fill our tanks–around $10 for 100 gallons, but got to be a hassle finding the places and then halting traffic and getting a long enough hose with the right fitting to make it happen. After 2 months, we just started filling up with whatever water was easily accessible, usually at a Pemex, and buying garafones of drinking water. It’s what we did in the states and works best. We shouldn’t have even bothered with the purified water system.

STRANGEST THING
The strangest thing we saw in Mexico was not people drinking juice from plastic bags with straws or magnifying mirrors sold on the side of the road. It was auto hotels or “no-tell hotel.” These hotels are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by high concrete walls and have 2 car garages attached to each room. All this to aid in concealing elicit relations. They are everywhere! And so creepy!

BEST MEAL
San Miguel de Allende had the best food by far! Since there are so many gringos in town, there was an insane array of diverse cuisines. The best was a tie between the Italian Cafe Firenze and Argentinean La Virundela. Both were equally amazing!

Tacos were definitely a staple of our Mexican meals. The best fish/shrimp tacos were in Sayulita at the Real Fish Taco stand. The best taco-tacos we ate were found our last night in Mexico at a hole in the wall in downtown Palenque.

FOR YOUR OWN MEXICAN ADVENTURE
+ find a secluded beach
+ taste mezcal
+ listen to a mariachi band
+ eat as many churros as possible
+ participate in a turtle liberation, they happen in most coastal communities
+ explore and don’t be shy! Locals love sharing their favorite aspects of their towns

A holey situation

7 Jan

With still so many more projects left to complete, Hani decided to create a walkway between the cab and the living area. Cut, cut, cut. Another big setback, but the end result will be so worth it.¬†¬†It definitely adds more open space and is an important safety feature. Now just need to make a door so we aren’t soaking the entire place when we shower!

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