We paid $0 in flights, $0 in hotels, and $0 in hotel/airport transport. We did have to bribe/black-market our way into Costa Rica, we saw Crocodiles, spider monkeys, zip-lined across the rain-forest, and celebrated Independence Day with thousands of locals in Guatemala City.
Carrie’s favorite was Costa Rica, and then Antigua Guatemala. Mine would be Cali, Colombia and our time in Guatemala. Sorry Panama. Also, the entire trip was in InterContinental hotels on IHG PointBreaks – a sale where you get hotels for 5,000 IHG points. And we used 17,000 Lufthansa miles to get down, 20,000 United miles to do Panama – Cali – San Jose – Guatemala, and used 17,500 AA miles to get back to the US.
- $0 Trip to Latin America: Introduction
- $0 Trip to Latin America: Booking the Flights
- $0 Trip: Why MS is Boring but Free
- $0 Trip to Latin America: The Travel Credit Cards
Let me work backwards to tell you about the trip…
We stayed at the InterContinental Guatemala City, which appears to be in the business district. Safer, I assume, but not quite as interesting as the old city.
September 14th and 15th were full day celebrations for Independence day. The streets where filled with people running around in groups, like marathon runners, but with less organization. Something about running through the streets with the torch of liberty. But my spanish is poor and I couldn’t understand that part.
But the main events were in the old city square. Just so many people. For blocks surrounding the giant square; the streets were packed. And the best part of any event like this is all the food. Booth after booth of food I’ve never heard of, plus the typical tacos. It was packed and every corner was blaring music. But the main square itself was filled with more organized ceremonies and one involved the president and his wife lighting a giant torch. Can’t say I understood a word being spoken during this time, but it was still a blast. I honestly didn’t see another westerner the entire time. Not one obviously tourist, and that summed up Guatemala City.
On the way to the hotel we asked the taxi driver what we should see while we’re in Guatemala City (that’s how I plan things) and we did some of those things. But he went on and on about Antigua. Antigua is an hour away, although one bus we were on managed to get around the mountain and around traffic and back to Guatemala in less than an hour. But that’s another story.
The bus is 10Q or $1.25. Super cheap, and you just catch it at “Trebol” in Zona 3. Say “Trebol” and I’m sure any taxi could get you there. Anyways, it was a straight shot on the chicken bus (a must ride for any traveler in Central America), so we made it a full day trip.
Antigua is beautiful although it was mostly cloudy the entire time in Guatemela. Still, the bus ride on the way back provided great views. Incredible being in the mountains and looking out at sunset and seeing 3 volcanoes. And there’s an active volcano that produces more smoke than a refinery in Houston. Sometimes we could see it smoking from our room too. That to say, the view even on the way there is great.
But Antigua itself reminds me a lot of Cusco, Peru. A smaller, less crappy, version of Cusco – with the old time squares and spanish styled churches and buildings. It’s quaint, picturesque, and there are really neat hotels. Now, I hate to encourage people to go blowing so much money on one trip, but there are some cool buildings there that are museums that are worth the fee. The fee for a museum is 60 cents. Big money, I know. But after going hog-wild with the $1.25 bus fare, I figured, “what the heck”. YOLO. The two main ones that I’m aware of are the one connected to the main square (the east side) and a church a few blocks east and 2 south of the main square. I think the name of the second is San Francisco, and It has wonderful views from the room of the old ruins, of both the city and volcanoes.
It got me thinking after seeing so many old ruins. Ya know, Vienna is actually older than Antigua, but one is in ruins and one isn’t. Interesting how ruins, which inspire curiosity and wonder, are just a matter of upkeep and preservation, or a lack of it.
Would I recommend Guatemala: Guatemala City? While the festival was fun, visiting old city a couple days before was nice but not really anything any Latin America city doesn’t have. So no, I woulnd’t recommend it. Guatemala the country? Absolutely. The views of the volcanoes alone make me want to come back and explore the area. Actually, next time I’ll go see Tikal.
Besides all the trouble we had, with black-market vaccinations and car rental hidden fees, we made it to our hotel in one piece. Now the InterContinental San Jose is at a mall. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t fly to other countries to see western styled malls. Nothing to me could be more lame. But I kind of predicted such and thus, had extra incentive for the car rental.
I basically, just picked two National Parks that Tara recommended and did that. Now, if you ever need advice for wildlife stuff, I know no one else more qualified than Tara (Miles to the Wild). From what I can tell, she spends very large ammounts of time chasing obscure birds and wildlife all over the world, in the most exotic parts of the world.
So, in her comments she recommended Parque Nacional Braulio Cariilo and Carara National Parks. The first day was a rain out. Don’t go in rainy season, btw. The jungle, the views, the mountain… it was cool. But still ended up being a short day. We did do a zipline for $10 across the jungle, which is probably one of the cheapest zip lines I’ve seen.
We then went to Carara, which had a $10 entrance fee as well.
“First $1.25 bus fares and $0.60 museum tickets. Now $10 ziplines and national parks? Did you win the lottery? Making it big? Selling out? What’s next, buying $2,000 in miles to fly first class?”
No, I wouldn’t buy miles like that. Geez, wait a second and I can explain…
We had a great time at Carara. Now we didn’t pay for a guide (see, staying to my frugal roots) but we did see a lot. Uh, that yellow bird, the red bird, the funny mamal with a tail, and the funny mamal without the tail.
Okay, I’ll be honest. I don’t know a thing about what I saw, and in that way a guide would be cool. But I’m too cheap and even more impatient than to listen to a guy stop and tell me about his favorite bugs. I don’t care dude, show me something that kills other things.
Also, my friend was borrowing our camera and lens that can actually zoom. Turns out, this is critical for getting pictures of wildlife. Also, autofocus in the jungle where there are 50 layers, is not so critical. That to say, my pictures suck.
But I saw these things well, and went back to find their names:
Yellow bird, red bird.
We saw toucans, macaws, iguanas, poison dart frogs, spider monkeys, an agouti, and what I’m pretty sure must have been a coati.
Then we headed to a couple beaches on the pacific side. Which, meh. We went to the beach at the DoubleTree actually. I can’t imagine staying too long here, or why people are staying here. It’s really in the middle of nowhere, and water was nothing but murky. Maybe it was because of rainy season. Maybe I needed to head around to the peninsula and see the actual pacific. And I’m sure the Caribbean side is nice, but I can’t confirm.
This town is just cool. It’s fun being out in the parks at night. Randomly a bunch of 20-somethings broke out into salsa dancing to music on the boulevard. It was incredible, you’d swear they were professional dancers. And they were having a blast singing along and hanging out.
Meanwhile a very old, very drunk, very friendly man with his friendly wife kept telling us to dance. They also spent about 20 minutes straight talking to us even though we didn’t understand a thing they said. Just kept going and going and going. I did get a few things, for instance that we needed to dance. It was odd that after a bottle of liquor the one thing he wants is to see us dance, but hey people watch that stuff on TV. Well, no one would watch me dance.
Also, we walked all over this city. I would hate to find out there’s something in the city that I didn’t see, because we must have walked right past it.
It helps that the hotel was in the center of town. You just cross the street and you’re on the main boulevard.
I get the impression that there is a ton to see in Colombia and based on Cali, I bet it’s a cool country. The government is trying to promote tourism and I heard they are studying Costa Rica and trying to figure out why they have so much more tourism. Like, WOW. This is no mystery. I could have saved them a lot of money if they had just asked me. While I don’t get freaked out by much, a lot of people won’t go to Colombia because of the many news pieces that have come out over the last few decades of drug cartels kidnapping people. You don’t need more ammenities or better advertising. You need less drug cartels.
That being said, the drug cartels have kidnapped people alone in the middle of the freaking jungle. Most of the reports (I saw while browsing Wiki) seemed to be journalists and people out in the jungle. One went out to interview the drug cartel. *facepalm*
Thus, I think exploring Colombia could be done safely, although could require some basic smarts.
Panama City was definitely the most modern destination on this trip, although it was the one place we had briefly seen before. I like the skyline, I liked the hotel, I love the boardwalk with hundreds and hundreds of people every night excersizing. Super cool. Although, it wasn’t inherently as adventureous as the others, simply because it’s slightly more familiar.
You’ll notice a theme: walking. We walked every night for dinner from the InerContinental to the old city (Cosco Viejo) and ate there as well as… walked around. There was a little joint there where we’d get a big meal for $2. A lot cheaper than the hotel.
The InterContinental Panama gave us a big suite and lounge access for being Royal Ambassadors. It was probably the most lacking lounge food I’d ever seen. But I shoudln’t go on and on about that because it was fantastic. A corner suite with a view of the skyline and old city. Plus I feel as though it’s pretty typical in Central America to have cheap frozen food in the lounge.
Would I recommend Panama?
On a layover, it’s pretty simple and you can take in the views and what not. If it’s more than a few days, then you must be going out and doing other things. Tara recommended the Soberiania National Park. Obviously there’s the Panama canal and there’s a ton of beautiful islands on both the Pacific side and Caribbean side. In other words, a day or two is enough for Panama City, but there is a lot to see in Panama itself. And it’s not very far from the west coast to the east coast, or to really anywhere in the tiny country.
- Wildlife in Costa Rica
- Antigua, Guatemala
- Festivals in Guatamela City
- Cali, Colombia in general
As of right now, I like the Caribbean coast better than the Pacific. Not because it’s better but because it’s more consistent. That being said, I would love to see the Colombian coast. I hear there are some pretty amazing places up there.
It’s funny, because we travel slow, because I value really getting to know a place. However, I also want to see the entire world. I want to know what the Colombian cities look like, the jungles, the deserts, and the coast. To do that slowly for every part of the world could take a while.