POLAND

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About six and then again two years ago I took two separate trips to Germany where I was able to see the dorfs (villages) where my grandmother and grandfather lived before they immigrated to the United States in the 1920’s. My mom still keeps in contact with some of her cousins and relatives there, so we were able to see them, and I was able to see some cool family history like the house where my grandfather lived before he moved to the United States and the house of my great-grandparents. It was a very cool experience to see your family history come alive and be in the actual place where your recent ancestors lived.

The other (mostly) half of me is Polish, so I wanted to do the same for Poland. Unfortunately the family history there is not as simple/known, so it was a bit more tricky to pinpoint an exact location. Regardless, I still wanted to go and that is what prompted my cousin and I (and our partners) to take a vacation to Poland!

Poland was a wonderful place to visit. There is enough to do that you won’t be bored, but also not so much to do that you’ll be overwhelmed by everything you need to see. There is a tourism infrastructure in the larger cities, but it’s not overrun by tourists. Poland gets around 15 million tourists a year, while somewhere like France gets 85 million. The people are friendly and many in the larger cities spoke English. If you greet people with a “Dzień dobry!” (Hello!) you will probably get spoken to back in Polish, which is a great thing! By the end of the trip I was able to do some very basic communications…aka mostly ordering food and saying hello/thank you. Poland was also so, so cheap. It’s a member of the EU, but still uses its own currency, the złoty, which currently has an exchange rate of 1 złoty to $.25 USD. Prices are not inflated and you can get a full meal + beer and water for around $8 USD.

The easiest place to fly into if you’re coming from the US is probably Warasaw. We all flew into Warsaw, traveled to Przemyśl (which is where our great-grandfather is from and five hours southeast from Warsaw), Krakow (2 hours west from Przemyśl) and parted ways. My cousin and her husband went to Austria, while my fiance and I went to Zakopane (2 hours south from Krakow). We drove back up to Warsaw (5 hours from Zakopane) to get our departing flight. Because of our stop in Przemyśl and the fact that there was four of us, we decided to rent a car at the Warsaw airport the day we were departing Warsaw to go to Przemyśl. Driving in Poland was pretty simple, but people do drive very fast and will be on your bumper if you don’t move out of the left lane fast enough!

Because this post is so long, check out my other post solely about Polish food and all the yummy food we tasted on our trip!

Warsaw

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We stayed in Warsaw for two nights and one full day. I felt this was enough to see everything I wanted to see in Warsaw (except the Neon Museum – was a little bummed to miss that), but I could have stayed another day to see ALL the main points of interest. Unfortunately Warsaw was 80% destroyed during WW2, so in terms of history, there is not much to see. The city itself is very modern and there are plenty of parks, museums, and the public transportation is excellent.

What To Do

Old Town, Royal Castle & St John’s Cathedral – Old town was fun to walk around and the Royal Castle and church were really beautiful. There are lots of restaurants you can eat outside at or grab a drink. I tried Polish wine here and it was the only place we went to where I saw Polish wine on the menu (vodka is more their thing).

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Inside the Royal Castle

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Fotoplastikon Musuem – very small and cheap museum that uses an old machine to show you old pictures in “3D.”

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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River Walk – simply walk along the river. By our hotel on Saturday night there were a bunch of food trucks and people playing music outside

A few things we didn’t get to see – Łazienki Królewskie Museum & Park – Church of the Holy Cross – Neon Museum- Warsaw Uprising Museum – Palace of Culture and Science

Where We Stayed

We stayed at Warsaw River View. It was a very simple city hotel, which is what we wanted. You get a wonderful breakfast included and it was clean and in a good location.

Przemyśl

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Przemyśl isn’t exactly the hottest tourist destination in Poland, although it does have its own tourism app and public wifi! It’s essentially on the boarder of Poland and Ukraine and we decided to go here because it is the hometown of our great grandfather. Not only that, Przemyśl was really cool because it’s one of the oldest settlements in Poland and it’s clearly not heavily visited by non-Polish tourists. This is what made it one of my favorite parts of the trip because I felt like we got to see what “real Poland” looks like. We arrived in the late afternoon on Sunday and left for Krakow Tuesday morning.

What We Did

Fort Borek – This is a pre-WWI fort that you can walk around. It was very quiet and we had the entire thing to ourselves which was pretty cool. On our quests to find these forts and in search for another fort we ended up driving through a legit cornfield for wayyyy longer than we should have. They were doing road work on the normal route, so we decided to take a different way that Google maps had mapped as roads, but they were definitely not real roads. So don’t be fooled. To get to Fort Borek I think you do have to go on a dirt road for a little, but it’s not long and also is a normal dirt road, not through corn 🙂

Przemyśl Underground – These are 15th and 16th century tunnels. The whole thing will take you around 30 mins and is in the center of town. It’s an interesting part of Przemyśl’s very old history.

Franciscan Church in Przemyśl – Baroque church right in the town square. I was surprised at how ornate it was inside given the fact that Przemyśl is a smaller city.

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Casimir Castle – Not much to see inside, but you can go up to the top and see really nice views of the city.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at this Airbnb. I would highly recommend. It was a really nice Airbnb and was about a 10 minute walk from the city center.

Krakow

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What We Did

Main Market Square (Rynek Główny) – There are lots of restaurants where you can sit outside (I’d recommend only getting a drink though; they are most likely very touristy), get an obwarzarnek, and do some shopping. We also did a vodka tasting and visited the famous Polish chocolate company’s store E. Wedel. It’s worth a stop! You can also see traditional horse drawn carriages and do all your souvenir shopping in the yellow building in the middle of the square. In this huge building there are tons of vendors with all kinds of Polish handicrafts. Out of all the places we visited, I would recommend getting souvenirs here. Zakopane also has a decent market, but I thought the one in Krakow was the best.

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Obwarzarnek in Krakow’s Old Market Square. There are many small carts selling these!

Plac Nowy – really cool if you like flea markets and street food. Here is where we got our zapiekanka in Krakow. There’s also a meat stand with kielbasa as well as an ice cream stand. There’s a variety of different vendors selling things from carved rolling pins (so your pin will make a design in the dough) to traditional flea market type stuff, including some very “interesting” WW2 memorabilia (German stuff…if you catch my drift).

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St Mary’s Basilica – I’ve been to a million churches in Europe at this point and I must admit, this one is pretty cool.

Wawel Royal Castle – We didn’t end up going inside, but walked around. There is a legend of a Krakow dragon that if you go inside I’m sure you’ll learn more about because he allegedly lives in the castle. Outside the castle on the water-side, there’s a iron statue of the dragon that randomly spews fire! We saw the fire, but when we waited around for a few minutes, he didn’t do it again.

Polish Aviation Museum – this is a bit outside the city so we saw it on our way out. It was a really comprehensive Aviation Museum with a gigantic outdoor lot filled with old planes. Kevin said it was the best aviation museum he’s ever been to because it had a bunch of old WW2 era planes, new planes, and a bunch of design failures, so you got to see plane designs you wouldn’t normally see.

Auschwitz-Birkenau – Auschwitz-Birkenau is an intense place to visit, but it’s also an important part of history. Words cannot describe visiting a place like this. It is solemn, sad, and shocking, but there’s also a juxtaposition that it was a beautiful day, with trees and green grass. But then you go inside and see the rooms filled with hair, shoes, and other possessions of the victims as well as their pictures on the walls with their arrival and death dates, and it brings the reality back that this happened. It’s extremely important to remember what happened here and to keep this part of history preserved, albeit dark and devastating, so future generations understand that this happened.

You can take day tours, but we had a car so we were able to drive ourselves. I believe you need to reserve a tour in order to see the entirety of the monument and museum. A few tips – plan to get there at least a half hour before your tour. Your tour will leave on time and if you’re late, they will make you catch up to that tour. You’ll miss some important parts and also be “those people” in a place you definitely do not want to be “those people.” We were running a little behind because of traffic and road construction that caused us to miss our exit and instead of letting us join the next tour, they had someone find our tour guide and walk us through to meet them. Considering it was very crowded, it was kind of a long and awkward walk/push through a ton of people.

You also have to go through a security line that includes a metal detector and are only allowed to bring a very small bag. Think like a 12” thin bag. I had to check my bucket bag I usually travel with.

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Other things to do we didn’t get to: St Francis’ Bascilica – Oskar Schindler’s Factory -Wieliczka Salt Mine – Kościuszko Mound

Where We Stayed

Because we were traveling as a group, we decided to stay in an Airbnb again. Personally if I’m traveling with a group of people, I prefer to stay at a place where we can hang out and decompress together for at least a few of the nights. This Airbnb was in Kazimierz, which is Krakow’s historic Jewish Quarter. It’s right by the Plac Nowy flea market and a bunch of cool restaurants. It was large and clean. If you have a car in Krakow, you can easily park it on the street. It was a little confusing at first to figure out where exactly you can park it (since all the signs are in Polish), but we mostly just followed the lead of other cars by parking in between people who were already parked. You need to pay for the day to park, but the good news is you can pay for a few days in advance and just put the ticket on your dashboard. I think it was around $10 USD/day to park.

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Zakopane

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Zakopane wasn’t actually my first choice of mountain destination in Poland because it seemed a little built up and touristy. The original plan was to visit the Table Mountains, but Kevin requested air conditioning and absolutely reliable wifi, so I compromised and we visited the Tatra Mountains in Zakopane instead. It reminded me a bit of Poland’s Lake Tahoe or Yosemite. It wasn’t as touristy as I thought and we quite enjoyed it. We were able to get some hiking in and overall enjoy the scenery. If you’re going in the winter and are into skiing, there is also plenty of skiing in this region as well.

What We Did

Siklawa Waterfalls & Tatra National Park – It’s about a 50 minute hike to the foot of the waterfalls into the Tatra Mountain National Park. I’m not sure if there just wasn’t enough rain, or we just didn’t get close enough to see them. It was still a nice two hour total hike and we got to see some beautiful views and scenery. For the more serious hiker, there are TONS of hiking trails further into the mountains as well.

Gubałówka Cable Car – It will take you up to the top of the mountain so you can see some really beautiful views. There are also restaurants as well as a bunch of souvenir stands. (The souvenir stands are better at the bottom of the mountain though.) There’s another cable car on the opposite side of Krupówki Street as well – Mount Kasprowy Wierch Cable Car – but I read that one can have very long waits, so I decided to with Gubałówka. There was essentially no wait and it went very quickly.

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Market & Krupówki Street – Krupówki street is great for shopping. There are a bunch of regular clothing stores, restaurants, and souvenir shops. At the food of hill (by the Gubałówka cable car) and Krupówki Street there is a huge market that has a bunch of things like traditional scarves, crocheted lace, wood carvings, blankets, and lots of oscypek.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at Villa Belweder. It was definitely one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed at. (I think its rival is the resort I stayed in in Nha Trang, Vietnam.) The room was huge and decorated with unfinished pine. It was quiet, the breakfast was delicious, and there was a free spa you could use in the evenings. They were also very accommodating for a minor request I had regarding room choice, which I appreciated. It is about a 25 minute walk from the town center/happenings, but the walk is so nice that we didn’t mind. In fact, I walked it round trip four or five times over the course of our two days in Zakopane.

Back to Warsaw

After our time in Zakopane we drove on Sunday for most of the day to get back up to Warsaw. We stayed at Airport Hotel Okecie this time since we planned to get back to Warsaw around 8pm and our flight was the next morning at 6am. They have a shuttle and also a really nice restaurant where I had a mouth-watering udon noodle curry.

We really loved Poland and I think you will too. It’s cheap, has all the charm of Europe, but with a little bit more edge. We went around Labor day and the weather was great around that time.

Souvenirs

Knowing a lot about Polish culture, I had an aggressive souvenir list. I typically try to stick with jewelry, a piece of art, and/or a Christmas ornament or food as things to bring back for myself or others. There are a lot of cool things you can get in Poland, so here’s my list. I was ready to purchase everything, but realized that my grandparents and parents have a lot of these things already, also from Poland. As dark as it sounds, I’ll eventually inherit these one day, so I took it easy on certain things, like the wood carvings. For instance, I saw a carving of the Polish eagle and my Dad pretty much has the same exact thing.

Painted and/or carved wooden eggs – these are displayed in homes around Easter. I only saw these at a few stands in Krakow’s Main Market Square, so get them there.

Wood carvings – there are a TON of beautiful wood carvings all over Poland. You can get boxes, sculptures, plates. These are really popular in Krakow and Zakopane. I got a carved and painted plate, which is something my grandmother had also brought back for my mom.

Ceramics and Crystal table settings are very popular. There were a lot of these in the Krakow main market square.

Amber jewelry is all over the Krakow market. I already have some of this, so I didn’t get any while I was there.

Anything that says “POLSKA” – I really wanted a hoodless sweatshirt that said one of the cities we visited, but I wasn’t able to find one (not even at the airport!), so I left a little disappointed. There were lots of tshirts and hats though. We did get a really cool beer glass that says “Krakow: Satisfaction Guarantee” (yes, that is exactly what it says) at the Plac Nowy flea market.

Dolls – There are these Polish porcelain dolls (or plastic, too) dressed in traditional Polish outfits. Are you surprised to hear that I already had these as well? You can also get Polish nesting dolls – they are very similar to the Russian and Ukranian ones you are probably familiar with.

Ornaments – For some reason I was expecting a lot more Christmas stuff (even though we went in September), but there wasn’t much. A few places in the Krakow market had really nice ornaments, but there were NONE in Zakopane.

Traditional Polish outfits! These looked like they were mostly kid sized, but there were definitely some adult ones too. My cousin and I’s grandmother used to dress us and our brothers up in these as kids (our parents were also subjected to this as children)!

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Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts.  As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine.  Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me.  Please contact me if you would like to use them.

COLOMBIA

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Colombia has long been on my list of adventures!  I love South and Central American culture and want to continue exploring more of those regions.  I also traveled to Peru in 2013 and want to see more! Colombia only solidified my belief that this part of the world is one of my favorite places to travel.  I went with my friend Charlotte in the beginning of December, and it was a fun time to go because there were Christmas decorations everywhere! Charlotte also speaks fluent Spanish and traveled extensively through Colombia a few years ago, which made the trip a lot easier and felt more authentic.  Our itinerary consisted of Bogota, Manizales (in the coffee triangle), and the Caribbean coast.

Bogota

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Bogota is huge.  It might not be as “cool” of a tourist destination as Medellin, but there is still plenty to do!  We stayed for two days and I thought that was enough to see everything I wanted to see there. We mostly explored La Candelaria and Usaquén neighborhoods.

What to Do

Mount Monserrate – Take the teleférico (cable car) up to the top!

Gold Museum – Inexpensive, unique museum

Botero Museum – Free!  Great museum with a lot of Botero’s works.

Plaza Bolivar – Not much to do, but it is a bustling place with lots of people. In the vicinity and the road leading up to it, there’s lots of artisan goods, snacks, and street performers.

Usaquén Market – We spend the larger part of the afternoon at this market.  It. is. huge. Great place to purchase art, jewelry, and other handmade souvenirs.

Graffiti Tour – We didn’t take one of these, but I wish we did.  There’s so much cool graffiti in Bogota, and a lot of these tours are “free” (they ask for tips only)!

 

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Views from Mount Monserrate

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Graffiti in Bogota

Where We Ate

El mejor ajiaco del mundo – We ate here for breakfast on the first day – get the hot chocolate with melted cheese (sounds weird, but it’s a Colombian must-try!).

La Puerta Falsa – There is usually a line since this is the oldest restaurant in Bogota!  We had the changua (milk and egg soup) and tamale for breakfast.

De Una Travel Bar – very good Peruvian restaurant

Bogota Beer Company

Anywhere you go in Colombia make sure to get fresh juice, all the breads at panderias (bakeries), and arepas!  Most popular breads are Pan de Queso, Pan de Yuca, Almojábanas, and Pandebono. You also must try the guava paste with cheese as well!

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Happy at La Puerta Falsa!

 

Where We Stayed

Graffiti Hostel in La Candelaria – Great location.  If you’re looking for a hostel with a social scene, I wouldn’t recommend as it was pretty quiet, but it was great for me because I’m not really into nightlife or socializing (#sorrynotsorry).  The room was very clean, but the bathrooms really needed to be cleaned more often. La Candelaria is definitely a great area to stay in.

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Getting Around

We took a taxi from the airport and short distances around Bogota, and we took an Uber TO the airport.  Uber technically isn’t allowed at the airport I believe, so our driver said if anyone asked, we were dropped off by a friend.  Colombia still has a weird relationship with Uber – read more here if you’d like to know more.

We also took the public bus when we went up to Usaquén since it’s a ways north of La Candelaria (like 30+ minutes by taxi).  It worked out in the end, but it wasn’t very clear and everyone kept giving us different directions. I couldn’t tell you how we got there or back to the hostel; it just kind of happened.

Manizales

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We took a flight from Bogota via EasyFly to Manizales.  Note that the EasyFly terminal (as of the time of writing this post) is not in the main terminal, but in a smaller terminal.  Our Uber driver was very sure we were in the correct place, but we were not. We had to get on the airport shuttle bus which literally goes around the entirety of the airport and it was not very clear to us where to get off.  However, a few friendly people on the bus helped us and we made it. Luckily there were like five people in the terminal and we were still early.

Apparently it can get cloudy enough in Manizales to delay or cause issues with landing, so keep that in mind.  We didn’t have any issues, but we did have to circle the area twice before landing.

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Even height with this outrageously high mountain!

Where We Ate/What to Do

After we landed in Manizales we got breakfast at Delicia’s De La Catolica.  It was a delicious breakfast with nice outdoor-open seating. We explored the town for a little, visited a chocolate shop called Chocolates Artesanales, saw the Torre de El Cable, and rode on the teleférico.  The teleférico is right at the bus terminal, and really cool and very cheap.  We simply rode it to the top and rode it back down to enjoy the views.

 

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Manizales Teleférico

Where We Stayed

We stayed at Hacienda Venecia Coffee Farm, which is a bit outside of the actual city of Manizales, so you have to take a bus to this random restaurant, Las Palmas, that is on the side of the highway and then the hotel will come pick you up. We stayed in the main house area of the farm and it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever stayed!  There was a pool, the grounds were perfectly manicured, and SO MUCH wildlife. There were different species of chickens, peacocks, iguanas, butterflies, so many birds, and more. The room and building were beautiful and open. I was a little concerned about the open-ness of the room and lack of fan/AC because I’m paranoid about mosquitoes, but we were only there for one night and I came prepared with my permethrin, bug spray, and citronella oil.  While I did see some mosquitoes, they didn’t bother me.

 

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Since it’s not easy to get out of the coffee farm, expect to eat there.  It’s extra money, but is a delicious home-cooked Colombian meal served family style with the other guests.  There is hiking around the grounds as well, and you can take a number of tours that the hotel provides. We did the coffee tour in the morning and learned a lot about how coffee is produced in Colombia and got to taste some directly from that farm.

 

Getting Around

After spending our time at the Hacienda coffee farm, we made our way to Pereira, a larger city in the coffee triangle, so we could catch our flight to Cartagena.  There were no direct flights from Manizales to Cartagena, so we opted to travel the hour to Pereira. Hacienda Venecia was kind enough to drop us off at the highway (about a 15-20 minute drive from the hotel).

I’m not quite sure how to describe what happened next but I’ll do my best.  I noticed that in Colombia everyone will tell you a different way to do something or get somewhere.  And, although everyone tells you different things, somehow it works out even if it’s not the advice anyone gave you.  Our original plan was to get a bus back to Manizales and get a bus there to Pereira. But then some people told us we could get on a bus directly to Pereira on the highway near Las Palmas.  Apparently sometimes they stop, sometimes they don’t. I had read that it’s actually illegal for buses in Colombia to stop at unauthorized stops and pick people up, so either this isn’t the case or people ignore that law.

Anyway, we first decided to wait on the side of the highway for a bus to *maybe* stop for us to take us back to Manizales.  The highway was sparsely populated, so at this point I’m casually thinking “this is where it ends; I’m on the side of the road with all my belongings.  Someone is just going to drive by, say ‘I want your stuff’ and I’ll be standing on the side of the road with nothing except the clothes on my back.” Luckily that didn’t happen.  There was actually a transit checker on the other side of the highway going toward Periera (so maybe this was a bus stop?) who was counting the number of people in the buses. We asked him and he said they do stop and one could take us directly to Pereira.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, a bus did come and stopped for us.

After a very beautiful bus ride that included a rainbow, we arrived at the Pereira bus terminal.  Since we were only there for a stop-over, we decided to get dinner at a Colombia fast food restaurant called Frisby.  Not gonna lie, it was pretty good.

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Our airport experience was…interesting.  It’s a new airport, but it’s very small and very crowded and we were concerned driving up that our taxi had driven us to the correct place.  Apparently our flight to Cartagena was stopping in Cartagena, letting people off, but also having more passengers join to continue to the US.  Because of this, the security was crazy. They took everything out of everyone’s bags, and took shot glasses from us because they were “sharp objects”.  Employees were constantly patting each other down, there were police dogs everywhere and they were doing random checks inside the terminal as well. Right before the plane was closing its doors, a woman and her young son got off the plane without telling everyone.  They brought on a whole security team to thoroughly check the area and bathrooms. According to the US Dept of State, there is some domestic terrorist activity in Colombia, so after all that we were a bit nervous! NOTE: We had a normal experience in Bogota when boarding a flight to the US, so IDK what was happening in Periera.

We survived the plane ride and made our way to Cartagena only to find that our Airbnb had not notified the doorman that we were coming, so he couldn’t let us in.  We finally got in touch and the doorman was able to let us in. If that wasn’t enough, the Airbnb wasn’t ready and the sheets were lined up to dry, and it wasn’t necessarily up to the same standards as the picture explained.  It wasn’t BAD, just wasn’t quite the same. It was a whole thing. We finally figured out the wifi and were finally able to get some sleep after a long day.

Cartagena

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What to Do

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – fortress built in the 1500’s

Beach – I was not very impressed with Bocoagrande, the main beach in Cartagena.  They have very fine, darker sand, so it’s almost like dirt and the apartment/hotel towers started to shade the beach at an early hour.  There were also a LOT of people walking around selling things, the beach wasn’t super clean, and they have “cabanas” but they are just plastic chairs with a tarp over them.  Apparently if you want nicer beaches, you can take a 45 minute boat to the Rosario Islands.

Walk around and enjoy the colorful buildings and surroundings!  Be aware of your surroundings because someone told me that apparently if you’re going to get scammed in Colombia, it’ll be in Cartagena.  One lady randomly started braiding Charlotte’s hair and was trying to convince us to come find her later so we could continue.  A police officer came up and told her to stop and then told us basically not to talk to strangers (they might be distracting you and steal your things) and that it was illegal for them to do hair braiding outside of the beach.  Overall it was a pretty funny experience though.

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Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

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Bocoagrande

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Catch a free show at night!

Where We Ate

Malanga – very colorful ceviche and juices!  But don’t get the pulpo (octopus); it wasn’t good.

La Esquina del Pandebono  – great for a quick breakfast of bread and juices.

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Always get yourself some bag water when in South America!

Where We Stayed

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Airbnb we stayed at, but we did stay inside the Walled City, near the San Diego neighborhood.  That was a great location to see all the city has to offer.

Getting Around

Lots of stuff in Cartagena is walk-able, but we took taxis when we didn’t want to walk.

In the afternoon on our second day in Cartagena we made our way via Marsol bus to Santa Marta.  To reserve the Marsol bus, I had to WhatsApp them to make a reservation.  Even then I don’t think they cared if we had a reservation, but it’s always good to make one. We took a taxi to the Marsol office in Cartagena and Marsol dropped us off very close to our hostel in downtown Santa Marta.

Santa Marta

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Things to Do

Scuba/snorkeling – We snorkeled in Tagana (about a 15 min taxi drive from downtown SM) with Ocean Lovers Tagana.  I was hoping to scuba, but unfortunately I had developed a cold, so I wasn’t able to.  The snorkeling was really awesome though and I’m glad we did it. After snorkeling we had lunch by the beach.

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Visit Tagana – There is a beach in Tagana that I thought was a ways away, but apparently it’s only a 10 minute walk if you cut through the large hill.  I was not aware you could do that until we were already back in Santa Marta. There’s not much to see in Tagana or Santa Marta, but there’s A LOT of nature in the area.

Tayrona National Park – We decided to take a tour as it was the last day of our trip and we were pretty tired.  It was about $40 USD. The tour company we went with, Samaland Tours, doesn’t really have an internet presence; we found them in the city center.  Tayrona National Park is amazingly gorgeous. To get to Cabo San Juan beach, it is a 8.4 mile hike total (to go there and back). You can take a boat there or ride horseback, but we opted to hike because it’s part of the experience.  It was truly an amazing hike, but I was soaked with sweat toward the end.  We saw a ton of wildlife, including a crocodile hanging out a few yards from us at the beach.

 

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Where We Ate

There is a bustling row of restaurants and live music each night, and I would recommend eating there because there’s a lot of variety and you can sit outside at most of the places.  Hopefully The Funky Band is playing!

Lulo – Really good.  We had what we called “hipster arepas” meaning they were arepas but with a bunch of other stuff you don’t normally find on arepas piled on them.

La Muzzeria – We had these bowls called kokiyas.  They kind of were like chicken pot pie type things without the top.  I’ve never heard of these, nor has google, so I think they’re something unique to the restaurant (but please correct me if I’m wrong here).  Very rich and very delicious.

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Arepas at Lulo’s

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The Funky Band

Where We Stayed

We stayed at Mauricio Babilonia hostel.  It wasn’t in the nicest area of town ever, but it did have air conditioning.  The room we stayed in (“Budget Room”) was on the ground floor and there was a large window that went to the floor.  While you couldn’t see in and it was barred, it wasn’t totally sealed at the bottom so there was a lot of dirt and dust and a giant roach visited us in the night.  Maybe stay elsewhere or in a different room.

General Info

Because I only do this for fun, I didn’t write down all the places we ate at and had a hard time tracking them down, so I just wrote down what I remembered.  Don’t be afraid to eat at the street vendors! I have used Travelan on two international trips and have avoided getting sick on either (may be the Travelan, may be luck).

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Biggest arepas we have ever seen in Cartagena

Beaches – I know a lot of people assume that Caribbean coast = beautiful.  I didn’t really find that the case in Colombia. I was unimpressed with the beaches that were easily accessible, and the ones that are special are either very far from city centers or hard to get to.

Safety – Just be smart.  Overall if you’re street smart and pay attention, you’ll be OK.  Other than a few instances that could have happened anywhere (see: the bus stop and airport) I felt comfortable throughout the trip.  Also, just say no to drugs. You will be offered them in Cartagena.

Mosquitoes – I did see mosquitoes in Manizales and the Caribbean coast, but I was covered in 800 kinds of repellent so they didn’t bother me.  Our bus driver told us about this scary bug that will burrow into your skin at Tayrona Park that can only be repelled with vitamin A, so we asked a pharmacist about it.  I think she gave Charlotte strong vitamin B tablets and said that would protect against some kind of bug. I was already taking a heavy dose of vitamin B + garlic pills, so I didn’t buy it.  Apparently it’s kind of an old wives tale that vitamin B and/or garlic repels against mosquitoes, but I figure it can’t hurt so I take it anyway.

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Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts.  As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine.  Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me.  Please contact me if you would like to use them.

Whirlwind Week Through Vietnam

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Vietnam is a bustling, vibrant, beautiful country with a rich history.  My friend Jennifer and I went on a week long trip during the first week of October 2018.  We had an aggressive itinerary – 3 cities + 3 day tours – there is just so much to see in Vietnam!  Our main hubs were Saigon, Nha Trang, and Hanoi. Fortunately, Jennifer speaks some Vietnamese, which helped a bit. However, even if she hadn’t spoken Vietnamese, we would have still been able to easily get around. Vietnam has a mix of unique cities, beautiful beaches, and stunning nature.  It’s a wonderful country with a lot to see and AMAZING food.

Ho Chi Minh City

We started off our trip flying into Ho Chi Minh City and stayed there for three days.  No one really calls Ho Chi Minh City by its name; it’s almost always referred to as Saigon, the original name.  Saigon is fast paced, lush, and somehow gritty yet elegant at the same time. You can definitely see the French influences on the city in the layout, parks, and architecture.  

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Lil guy at Jade Emperor Pagoda

What We did in Saigon

Admire from outside/walk around – Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Post Office

Take tours – Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum

Jade Emperor Pagoda – beautiful Buddhist temple, busy with people in the morning stopping to pray

Ben Thanh Market – crazy huge market with food, trinkets, and lots of fake bags, sunglasses, and shoes.  This is where Jennifer’s Vietnamese helped the most by haggling to get amazing discounts!

Bitexco Financial Tower (Saigon Skydeck) for views of the city and also has a swanky top floor bar with equally spectacular views.

Mekong Delta Day Tour of Mỹ Tho through Asiana Link Travel – This tour was jam packed with a variety of activities.  While I felt it was a little “touristy”, it was still fun to take a few boat rides on the Mekong Delta, see a honey farm, and have a delicious lunch.  We also got a refreshing fresh coconut on the way back! Plus, on the way there you stop at a Vĩnh Tràng Chùa, a temple with huge Buddha statues.

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Honey + bee pollen tasting

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Vĩnh Tràng Chùa

Food

We had pho at both Pho 2000 (multiple locations) and Pho Hoa Pasteur – 260C Pasteur, Ward 8, D3.  Pho 2000 was better in my opinion.  We also drank a lot of Vietnamese iced coffee, milk tea (my favorite was peach), and ate a ton of bun cha, bahn mi, and lots of spring rolls, washing it down with some Tiger beer!  We stayed at Bay City Hotel, which was a clean, business-y hotel with a rooftop pool.  It was down the street from lots of restaurants, so the location was pretty good. Another notable place we ate at was Secret Garden – it is a rooftop restaurant and you have to go up a few flights of dingy stairs to get there, but it’s worth it!

Getting Around

We felt safe walking around Saigon.  We were on the hunt for a dessert shoppe one evening and failed to find it, and after walking around for about a half hour in the dark, we decided to hail a taxi and go home.  

I enjoy walking around cities, but we used taxis in Saigon more than I usually do since they were very cheap ($3ish USD for a ~15 min ride) and our time was limited.  One caveat – use Vinasun only.  We found those were the cheapest and the most reliable. We got in a different brand taxi and the price was 2x what we had been paying in Vinasuns, even with the meter. Most taxis go by the meter, so they are fairly reliable, and you can hail them on the street or the hotel can call you one.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang was once a sleepy fishing town, but it’s transformed itself into a bustling beach club city.

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We stayed at Mia Resort. It was a bit outside the city (a taxi ride into the city was about $20-$30 USD, so pricey!), but it was one of the few resorts in Nha Trang that are actually ON the beach.  And let me tell you, it was STUNNING.  I’m not usually a resort person, but this place was impeccable – the pool, the beach…all of it. The food was amazing (they have a Vietnamese buffet a few nights a week), as were the drinks.  For about $180 USD (we were kind of on a shoulder season), we got a huge room with an outdoor patio area, an in-room breakfast fit for a king, plus the gorgeous grounds.

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We were able to enjoy the resort, and the second day we went into the city of Nha Trang in the afternoon to see the Po Nagar Cham temple towers and have dinner.  

Hanoi

We made our way to Hanoi on VietJet and unfortunately did not arrive to our Hanoi hotel until around 2am because of flight delays.  It was very frustrating because both the flights we booked on VietJet were delayed in some form, so it made us arrive a few hours late to Nha Trang and at an obnoxiously late time in Hanoi.  The flights were outrageously cheap, but there apparently are overnight and regular trains from Saigon to Nha Trang as well.

What we did in Hanoi

We used Hanoi as a hub for two day tours – one to Nihn Binh and the other to Ha Long Bay.  We were able to see Hanoi by night and the morning before we left. We stayed at the Pearl Hanoi Hotel, which was in a great location in the old town and the Hanoi weekend night market was a short walk away, as was Hoan Kiem Lake Park and many restaurants.  The night market was super crowded with so many different things to purchase, ranging from clothes to handicrafts to snacks, and seemed to go on forever! If you are traveling around Vietnam, I would recommend waiting to get your souvenirs in Hanoi.  There seemed to be a lot more of that stuff there than the other areas.

Nihn Bihn Tour – Nihn Bihn is still a bit off the beaten path, and rightfully so.  It’s basically the middle of nowhere, but is described as a landlocked Ha Long Bay.  It’s absolutely gorgeous. On this tour, we went to a temple in Nihn Bihn, took a boat ride on river/canals in Tam Coc, and had a bike ride through the countryside.  I appreciated this tour because the bike ride was substantial and we really got to experience the town. Fair warning, the bikes suck and our tour guide was biking like he was in the Tour de France, which made me a little frustrated.  However, once he made it clear he was not going to leave me and a few other slow riders to fend for ourselves and was realizing how awesome the experience was, I was less annoyed.

Ha Long Bay via IndoChina Junk – What can I say about Ha Long Bay?  You gotta do it. It is a long, long day (the bay is 4 hours from Hanoi).  I would suggest if you have the time to stay overnight on the boat or stay closer to the bay in a city like Hai Phong, you should do it.  But, if you can only do one day, Ha Long Bay is still doable. I always find tours and driving nice because, you do get to see a lot of countryside, even if it is from the car.  Unfortunately it was a bit overcast during our tour, but it was a beautiful experience and I enjoyed the boat ride. We also got to kayak, and saw a stingray jump out of the water and a really beautiful jellyfish.

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Food

Hanoi is famous for its street food and we tried some pho at Pho Ga 26. It was amazing.  It was interesting to experience the regional differences of pho – beef in the south and chicken in the north.  We also finally got the dessert we were searching for in Saigon – coconut ice cream with toppings inside a giant coconut!   I’m not quite sure if the place had a name, but the address was at 29 Hang Than in Ba Dinh District.  We also ate at Highway4, which has a few locations.  It was a bit fancier and had some interesting Vietnamese dishes that are meant to be shared, and a cool atmosphere.  Craft beer is having a “moment” in Vietnam right now and I was able to enjoy a really delicious mango cider there.

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Overall the coffee was SO AWESOME in Vietnam.  It is typically served iced + condensed milk.  I topped off the trip with a Hanoi favorite, egg coffee! It’s basically coffee, but with an egg yolk to make the coffee super rich and creamy.  It’s surprisingly delicious.

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Other Things:

Visa – If you live in the USA, don’t forget your visa, you need one to enter Vietnam.  We got ours through the Vietnam Consulate rather than do the visa on arrival.  While more expensive ($100), it is quicker upon arrival and seemed like there would potentially be less problems.

Weather – I was honestly expecting it to rain at least once a day when we were there, but it didn’t rain once.  October is kind of a shoulder season for the north and south and I found the weather hot and humid (worse in Saigon), but overall tolerable.  It’s the start of the rainy season in Nha Trang.

Bugs – Jennifer got one bite on her foot, but we were also lathered in bug spray.  I think we saw a few mosquitoes, but didn’t really have an issue with them.

Wifi – the hotels had great wifi and many restaurants did as well!

Getting around – to get from city to city we flew (more on our VietJet experience above), and getting around cities we either walked or took taxis. Sometimes we hailed them from the street, and in some instances we booked them in advance (usually when we were to be arriving/department the airport at a weird time).  We used Hanoi Airport Transfer in both Saigon and Hanoi.  While it was a bit more expensive than getting one of the street, it was nice for a 1am arrival time at Hanoi airport to have a taxi waiting. 

In Nha Trang, the closest airport (Cam Ranh) is about 45 mins away from the city, so be prepared for a hefty bill if taking a private taxi.  They had group minivans at the airport for cheaper than a private taxi at 100,000 VND (~$4.30 USD). The only weird experiences we had with taxis (other than the 2x the price one in Saigon) was in Nha Trang. Our driver going into the city screamed obscenities at two women on a motorbike…for a very long time (we had no idea what they did wrong, but Jennifer could decipher a little).  He also at one point pulled off the main road into a neighborhood, got out of the taxi and left us there for about 5 minutes. He came running back, got back in the taxi, and we kept going. We think he had to pee.

Lastly, anywhere crossing the street in Vietnam you are basically taking your life into the hands of everyone around you.  Cars and motorbikes are everywhere and traffic lights are few and far between. It’s a steady flow of traffic, so the cars/bikes don’t necessarily stop for you if you are in the road, you have to eloquently dodge them and they do the same.  It’s kind of nuts, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it. Follow a local is the best tip I can give. There were a few instances where very nice women helped us cross the street. Hanoi was worse than Saigon, but have been in Saigon first we already had some practice!

Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts.  As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine.  Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me.  Please contact me if you would like to use them.

One Week in Belize: An Island and Jungle Adventure

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My dad approached me last year with the idea of a 2018 family vacation.  I was all about it, but finding a place that would suit all five of our travel desires proved not easy.  My dad, brother, and boyfriend prefer to relax on a beach for a week (plus the first two really want to scuba dive), while my mom and I enjoy going out and doing things.  For my dad and brother living on the east coast, that usually means traveling to the Caribbean. Unfortunately the Caribbean is typically not very easy to get to (and expensive) from the west coast. I immediately thought of Belize, since it’s a little cheaper for us west coasters to get to, and about the same price for the east coasters.  In Belize I found that there is a nice combination of both beaches and mainland things to do.

We stayed for a week, with most of our time on Ambergris Caye.  My mom and I went inland to San Ignacio for two days and one night.  Here’s my Belize rundown of what we did and some helpful hints.  I will talk about money later on, but all $ is USD.   We had a great time and I loved Belize.  The people were friendly, I felt very safe, and it was a beautiful country with a wide variety of things to do.

Getting places

Ambergris Caye

To get to the Caye from the airport, you can grab a taxi to the water ferry terminal.  The taxi price for two people was $25 and I believe $5 for every subsequent person. Ferry prices are on the website.

Once at Ambergris Caye, you can take a taxi to your accommodations if you are not staying in town.  Our condo owner organized one for us and it was $30 for two people, $40 for all five of us. Once you’re at your hotel/condo/house, you can rent a golf cart.  We found that Avis was the least expensive at $190 for 6 days (not including taxes). They will even deliver/pick it up for you!  If you plan to cross the bridge on Ambergris Caye, it is $2.50 each way.  Sometimes they’re there to collect the toll, sometimes they’re not.

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Trying to figure out how to use the golf cart.

San Ignacio

We used Ron’s Belize Shuttle to get to San Ignacio.  They can pick you up from a variety of locations, and we were picked up from the water taxi terminal in Belize City.  Our drivers were very nice and it was really easy to coordinate. One driver even helped us organize a taxi to get to Xuantunich.  Price varies by how many people they have and I booked through the Belizing website (which, to be honest, was not the easiest platform to use).

Accommodations

Ambergris Caye 

We stayed at an Airbnb, about 2 miles across the bridge.

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San Ignacio 

We stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse.  It was right in the center of town, which was great for our short trip. It was very clean and the room was really cute!

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Things To Do

Ambergris Caye

Diving – The diving at Ambergris Caye is unbelievable.  The Belize barrier reef is the second largest reef system in the world (after the Great Barrier in Australia!).  We dived on this for one day and went to the Hol Chan Marine reserve for our second day. I was super impressed with the reef and I have never seen so many fish (of all different varieties) in my life at Hol Chan.  For Hol Chan, you typically do a shallow (30-40 ft) dive at the reserve and then they take you to Shark Ray Alley to snorkel. If you don’t scuba, you can also snorkel the first part, so it is great for mixed groups.  We all went on the same boat. At Shark Ray Alley, you can see some fish, but mostly very large nurse sharks, where you can get up close and personal with them. We used Sea Star Belize, and I would recommend.  The crew and divemaster were friendly and very knowledgeable.

You can also dive the Big Blue Hole, but it is a very long trip to get there (3-4 hours) and a very short dive (8-10 minutes).  We did not do this because it’s a very long trip for a short dive, and also very expensive. My dad had heard mixed reviews from other divers about it as well, so we skipped.

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Secret Beach – Secret Beach is not really a secret anymore, and it’s becoming a popular spot.  There are beach bars and it was pretty crowded (for the off-season).  It is a bit of a trek to get to though. You basically take the main road all the way until you can make a left.  Then you keep going on that road and finally you’ll hit the beach. From our condo location (which was 2 miles after the bridge), it took about 30 minutes via golf cart.  Although a lengthy and bumpy trip, it was really cool because you can wade out into the warm water for at least 100 yards. You can take your drink in the water and they have some games there as well.  

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Go into town/Belizean Arts – Town was nothing special to be honest.  We ate a few times in town and walked around a bit for souvenirs, but at night it gets a little crowded with people and golf carts.  Belizian Arts was a really nice art shop that I would highly recommend making this your first stop for significant souvenirs (aka things that are not shot glasses, magnets, etc).  I got a beautiful handmade pot.

San Ignacio

Xuantunich – My mom and I went here by ourselves (although you can take a tour).  As I said, our shuttle driver arranged a taxi for us, but you can also find taxis in the city center.  The taxi driver will drive you from San Ignacio straight to the Xuantunich parking lot (which involves crossing a really cool hand cranked bridge!).  Ours waited for us while we walked around the ruins (about an hour and a half) and then drove us back to San Ignacio for $35 total. The whole thing took about 2.5 hours.  Very cool experience and you can climb the ruins!

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Ignaua Hatchery – At the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (which was a short 10 minute walk from Martha’s Guesthouse), there is an iguana hatchery/sanctury.  They run tours on the hour and plan to spend about 45 minutes with the iguanas.  You learn a lot about them and can even pick them up and feed them!

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Barton Creek Cave tour – My mom and I took this tour and it was fantastic. We went through Kawaii Tours, and it was $85 each.  Our tour guide was Pedro and he was great! It involves a very cool drive on a very bumpy dirt road to get to the cave.  He picked us up around 8am and we were back in San Ignacio by 12:30pm. You go completely into the cave via canoe.  Might not be good for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark.

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Butterfly sanctuaries – We did not have time to see these unfortunately, but there are two outside of the city that I read were very cool – Green Hills Butterfly Ranch & Chaa Creek Natural History Museum.  (Note: Google maps says Chaa Creek is a 15 min drive, but our taxi driver said it is more like 45 mins because of the roads.)

Tours, tours, tours!  – There are a whole bunch of tours you can take in San Ignacio.  The most famous being the ATM tour, which is a day long trek into a famous cave.  Possibly one of the most famous things to do in Belize. While my mom and I only did the Barton Creek Cave tour, the tour company we went with, Kawaii Tours hosts a whole variety of tours out of San Ignacio.  

AJAW Chocolate and Crafts – In town.  We did not take a tour, but stopped in for some chocolate.  SO GOOD.

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PS it was so hot/humid that this chocolate melted before we could even finish eating it.

Walk around San Ignacio – San Ignacio is pretty small, but the town is beautiful and very colorful. There is also a market that has fresh produce and other handicrafts.

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Places to eat

I found there were a lot of Mexican influences in a lot of Belizan food, and there was also a lot of seafood on Ambergris Caye.  Stewed chicken, Belizian fried chicken, and Belizian rice and beans are must-try dishes as well.  Try it all with some Marie Sharp’s hot sauce and be sure to wash it down with a Belikin, Belize’s famous beer!  Apparently another “must have” drink is the Panty Rippah, but I only saw it on the menu at Palapa’s.  It’s a simple, but delicious drink – pineapple juice and coconut rum.  Yum! I won’t review all the places we ate at unless there is something to note.  They were all delicious!

Ambergris Caye (over the bridge unless noted otherwise)

Paco’s – great quesadillas! 

The Dive Bar

Croc’s

Aji

PUR Tacos

The Truck Stop – we only had ice cream, but they also do fun things like have live music and trivia nights

Wild Mango’s (in town)

Palapa Bar and Grill (in town) – probably my least favorite food-wise, but they have a really cool bar and area where you can float on the water in tubes and drink!

(from top left: Dinner at Wild Mango’s, drinks at Aji – no shortage of tropical drinks on the Caye!, Belizian rice and beans at The Dive Bar, The Truck Stop, Palapa’s from a distance)

San Ignacio

Pop’s – great for breakfast

Ko-Ox Ha Na (Let’s Go Eat)

Erva’s

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Stewed chicken with rice and beans at Ko-Ox Ha Na

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Belizian fried chicken + a coke at Erva’s

A Few Things to Note:

The Belizian dollar is tied directly to the US dollar and has been for many years.  The cash conversion rate is two Belizian dollars to one USD in cash. Pretty easy.  When it shows up on your credit card the conversion is a little more precise.   I found that food and drinks were more or less the same prices as they are in major cities of the US on Ambergris Caye. San Ignacio was significantly cheaper. All places in Belize take USD or BZD in cash and most places take Visa credit cards. If you pay in USD, you will probably get BZD back.

We went the last week of July/first week of August.  It was definitely the low season and not crowded at all, which was great.  There was also a nice breeze (although two days were windy enough to cancel diving), and almost no bugs.  With the exception of my boyfriend claiming a few potential bites, no one got bit.

Ambergris Caye has this stuff called sea grass that washes up on shore.  From what people told us, there’s really no rhyme or reason to it; it just kind of happens year round, randomly.  It can be stinky and may put a damper on your beach or swimming time.

If you read forums as recently as a few years ago, you’ll notice it seems that Belize has had some of the world’s worst WiFi.  However when we were there I found that almost all places had WiFi, and solid WiFi at that. They have made great strides to increase their internet reach.  Our condo particularly had great WiFi that my boyfriend was able to use to do work while we were there. San Ignacio also had surprisingly good WiFi as well at our hotel.

Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts.  As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine.  Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me.  Please contact me if you would like to use them.