Quito, Ecuador: Walks & Views

Quito, our first taste of Ecuador, became all about long walks and beautiful mountain and city views. It’s a massive place, being the country’s capital with a population over 2.6 million. It happens to be the highest capital city in the world at 2850 metres above sea level and is also the closest to the equator. We spent our time in “Old City” and the neighbouring districts of La Mariscal and La Floresta. These areas being the most popular with travellers.


We heard rumours about the presidential elections currently happening in Ecuador. However we didn’t pay much attention to it. Turns out we arrived the weekend of the elections. Apparently there was no ideal outcome as the population is split on the two candidates. A win for either one could mean protests in the streets, potentially getting violent and posing issues for travellers. Just to be safe the government placed a city wide ban on alcohol….nice.



Election signs and political graffiti were easy to spot all over the city

As soon as we left the airport and caught some glimpses of the city we were pretty excited about the exploring that laid ahead of us. Quito is a stunning city, nestled in the Andes, featuring amazing architecture. Quito proudly possesses one of the most extensive and best-preserved historic centres of Spanish America.

The walking and the views got better each of the three short days we stayed. Day one the view was from the rooftop terrace of our new temporary home, Quito Backpacker Guesthouse. The rooftop offered 360 degree views of the Old City, highlighting La Virgin del Panecillo, a massive aluminum statue overlooking the city and a dark looking gothic cathedral, we agreed we would get a closer look tomorrow. Quito Backpacker Guesthouse was easily one of the coolest places we’ve stayed. It’s like an old colonial mansion, with four floors full of rooms and plenty of common areas to hang. The staff is amazing. $20 got us a private room with a bathroom and a decent breakfast each morning.


The rooftop terrace at Quito Backpacker Guesthouse


Day two boasted views from that gothic cathedral we spotted the day before from our rooftop. We learned the proper name too, Basílica del Voto Nacional. What ended up being really cool about this place is that for $2 we could explore the whole church, we climbed to its highest point, across a plank bridge above the main hall and up steep metal stairs to the tower. We took in the views and spent the rest of the day walking around the Old City, which eventually led to our crazy pickpocket story you can read here.


As if Quito wasn’t high enough from sea level, on day three we went another 2000 metres high on the Teleferico, a cable car that ascends to one of the highest mountain tops, just a few kilometers out of the Old City. This is a must do for visitors to Quito. The views are awesome and you can do a hike while at the top, downhill bike the trails to the bottom or just spend a few minutes wondering around and catch the next car down like we did. We took a cab to the base of the Teleferico but we decided to walk around ourselves after. We zig zagged through the city streets for hours until we literally got shin splints and our feet were too sore to continue.



A plumbing supply store, Jeff had to stop and take a pic

To top off our final night in Quito, we joined a couple other guests and staff on the rooftop for an amazing BBQ feast. We had unlimited amounts of marinated chicken, pork, beef and sausages and some tasty sides prepared by the staff.


The rooftop BBQ

The good thing was the elections didn’t effect our time in Quito, things stayed safe overall, no new president was announced during our stay. We may have even enjoyed the odd illicit drink, thanks to the locals that hooked us up!

How to Become a Pickpocket Victim in Quito, Ecuador

We did so much reading about potential dangers and risks traveling Colombia that we didn’t really bother a whole lot with Ecuador. If we did do some more research we would have learned about the prominent thefts, bag snatching/slashing and pick pocketing in Quito. That being said, other than this incident we felt completely safe and comfortable in Quito, night or day. Feeling this safe is probably what led to us getting a bit lazy and becoming a target for thieves.


This was a few blocks away but same type of street it happened

It was our second day and we were wandering the streets of the Old City around 11:00am. We had just left the Basilica of the National Vow and were headed towards the La Virgin del Panecillo. If you want to know what the heck either of those places are, read our full Quito blog here. The streets weren’t very busy, maybe ten people for every city block. We felt safe. Jeff had his wallet in an unzipped pocket and a backpack on with some random valuables. Britt had a camera around her neck and cell phone in the front pocket of her sweater. If we had we been at a market, bus station or another place known for higher crime rates we might have been more cautious.

We remember a group of three teens walking towards us, each looked to be around eighteen years old. We didn’t pay much attention at the time but after they walked past us, they exchanged some words between each other, we heard this and turned around to notice they were walking back towards us again. Still no major reason to worry, they came close to Jeff and showed him some posters of random cartoon characters asking him to buy. We said “No” but two of them stayed persistent with Britt and were touching her, tapping her shoulder, getting a little too close. We quickly got annoyed and when Jeff said “No” for a final time they carried on. Seconds later, Britt felt her pockets and knew her cell phone was gone. The piece of technology we use for pictures, to navigate city streets, communicate with people back home etc… It sucks to lose a phone anywhere, let alone while traveling.

Our initial instinct was to doubt ourselves. Or at least Jeff was doubting how certain Britt was that she just lost it. The fact was these kids were already a block away from us and the whole encounter was super suspicious. So, we decided to chase them. They didn’t run, but were trying to maintain the space between us. We caught up and stopped them. Obviously there was some serious language barriers but they knew we were accusing them and they strongly denied it, even turning there pockets inside out to prove they took nothing. They tried to leave but we threatened “Policia” and continued to follow them. This ordeal started to garner some attention from local shop owners and other people on the street. We did our best to communicate to them that the teens we are following stole from us. Finally, we had the teens stopped again on a street corner and we were accusing them, telling them to give the phone back, all the while keeping a look out for police or someone to give us a hand. Minutes later a local whistled at a cop on a motorcycle. He stopped and we explained to him as best we could that we think they pick pocketed us and took our phone. He lined them up on the wall and they continued to deny it. One teen got mouthy and said something like “stupid Gringo’s” and this got him a good smack across the face by the cop. It was clear he agreed with us.

It didn’t take long before we were surrounded by a group of at least 20 locals and more police kept arriving to the scene. They took this act of petty theft on tourists very serious. Eventually all three of the teens were loaded into the back of a cruiser. The police asked us to hop on the back of motorcycles with them and we sped off to the station.

The police asked us to wait while the searched the teens. A few minutes later one of the police asked us to come with him, they found our phone. We were relieved. Not only to have it back but to know for sure these little punks actually took it. They brought us back to a corner of the police station, and took a few pics of them returning the phone to us. Whether the pic was for files or bragging rights we still don’t know. Jeff could see they had the teens lined up on the ground, being forced to hold a push up position. One cop stood over them with a huge stick, about 3 inches in diameter and 5 feet long. The police asked us if we wanted to file a report. We have read that usually its a good thing. However we left it up to the police. They didn’t tell us specifically not to but explained in the best english they could that due to the current political situation, and the fact the thieves were younger it may not be a good idea. We still don’t know exactly why. Maybe they don’t like the paperwork. What we do know is the teens didn’t go unpunished. The police told us we could go and the teens would also be released about 5 minutes after us. Based on what we heard while walking away, the big stick was put to use.

The whole situation was a bit overwhelming. Of course we were happy to get our phone back and help catch some thieves. But, it was clear these teens were seriously disadvantaged. Obviously poor, lacking health care and proper education. Thieves are opportunists and we gave them an opportunity. We hope they learned a lesson and made some better choices but reality may be different.

This is why its important to take steps to avoid being a target while traveling. Not only is it for your own safety and belongings, but if everyone does then the career of a thief is a lot less lucrative and these kids might choose something else.

We learned that in addition to selling posters, another front for pick pockets in Quito is flowers. The “mustard trick” is another where the thief discreetly squirts you with mustard or another sauce than approaches, and offers to wipe it off, while taking your wallet. The pick pockets are skilled in Quito. Everything from these stealthy methods to outright cutting the bottom out of you bag and taking off (bag slashing) happens daily. Any belongings you do need to carry are best in a zipped pockets or a hidden pouch. Dont give anyone a reason to think you have valuables or a lot of  money on you and we bet you will find Quito perfectly safe.

Colourful Cartagena

We arrived to Cartagena from Medellin by plane in the evening, and took the 20 minute taxi ride to the backpacker area of Getsemani. Dropping our bags in our windowless (but air-conditioned) room at Hostal Jet-Set, we wandered our neighbourhood for the evening, settling in to our surroundings and acclimatizing to the hot and humid weather, and big change from Medellin’s spring-like temperature.


A popular evening hangout in Getsemani, where travellers and locals come to chill, eat street food, and listen to live music.

After breakfast the next morning, we decided to continue wandering, and found ourselves outside the gates of the Old Town.


Cartagena is a port that sits on the northern coast of Colombia on the Caribbean ocean. The Old Town is a walled neighbourhood that was built next to the sea in the 16th century and consists of beautiful squares and parks, cobblestone streets and colourful colonial buildings. Getting lost within the walled city is a popular pastime, walking the streets and taking in all the sights and sounds it has to offer.

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By noon the sun was almost unbearable and we were ready for some refuge from the heat, so to the beach it was. We rented bikes and took the highway to Bocagrande, an upscale neighbourhood known as one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the country of Colombia. The beach is filled with cabanas you can rent for the day (not really cabanas, but tarps). Bocagrande is definitely not the prettiest beach in the area, but it was close to where we were staying and the swimming was good, so we weren’t too picky.


The beach in Bocagrande.

By late afternoon we were starving, and being on the coast we thought it would be a good place to get some seafood.


And no day is complete in Cartagena without climbing the walls of Old Town and enjoying the sunset and a cerveza, so of course that’s what we did.


By this point our time in Cartagena was running low, and we only had one more full day to spend. We decided to book a day trip to Playa Blanca, a beach about an hour drive from the city. We booked a tour that included the bus there and back and lunch, for around $20 bucks a piece. We set out on the bus around 9am to the beach, with a short stop at a roadside checkpoint to get our bags searched by military police carrying shotguns, making sure we weren’t smuggling drugs or illegals.


Playa Blanca is one of the best beaches in the area, and for good reason. The soft, white sand and turquoise water so bright it doesn’t seem real make it one of the prettiest places we’ve seen. Unfortunately, like most places with natural resources so special, it is only a matter of time before these places get exploited by tourism, which is exactly what’s happened to Playa Blanca. The beach is filled with hundreds of people there to enjoy the beauty, which takes away from the beauty. Vendors wander up and down the sand selling jewelry, drinks, food, massages, you name it, they got it. You have to pay to sit in the beach chairs, and every two minutes there is someone trying to sell you their treasures/services. But if you can past all that, you’ll have a good time. It’s hard not to have fun in a place that looks like this.

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Our time in colourful Cartagena may have been short, but we made the most of it! Our last Colombian stop, on to Ecuador!






Medellin: Our time in the “Reinvented City”

Our four days were up in Bogota and we were on to our next destination – Medellin. After reading about Medellin and all that it had to offer, we had decided that we were going to rest our weary travellers feet here for a bit. Our options to arrive in the city were to take a one-hour flight or a 9-hour bus. Trying to keep things cheap and wanting to see the country side, we opted for the bus. The windy roads through the mountains and jungle views did not disappoint. Read more about the bus from Bogota to Medellin here.

Coined by Time Magazine “The Most Dangerous City in the World” in 1988, Medellin wasn’t a place people wanted to travel to. It was headed by the world most notorious and violent drug cartel, controlled by (one of) the world’s most notorious and violent drug lords, Pablo Escobar. In 1991, there were 17 murders a day in Medellin, the city was named the “murder capital of the world”. Fast forward a couple of decades, Medellin has taken a huge leap from murder capital to model city, now named one of world’s most innovative cities. Medellin is known as “The City of Eternal Spring”, as the weather is a perfect 20-23 degrees Celcius all year round.


We arrived in Medellin at dusk, and shared a cab to the area of El Pablado with another traveller. El Pablado is said to be the backpacker area of Medellin, but in our opinion is more “flashpacker”. Boutique-y and upscale, fancy hostels, restaurants, and bars line the streets. We had booked our first three nights at a hostel notoriously known for its party vibe, the Happy Buddha. Or so we thought. After another look at our booking confirmation, it wasn’t the Happy Buddha we had booked into, it was simply Buddha Hostel, which was a 15 minute cab ride away in the neighbourhood of Laureles, a much quieter area popular among expats and working professionals. A tad disappointed, we checked into Buddha and were pleasantly surprised to find our private room housed a king-sized bed with a memory foam mattress, by far the comfiest bed since Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo. At the reception desk was a fridge stocked with beer that ran on the honour system. Maybe Buddha Hostel wouldn’t be so bad after all…


Courtyard at Buddha Hostel

We decided to make the best of our time at Buddha Hostel, and spent our days wandering around the area of Laureles, and taking a couple yoga classes at Flying Tree Yoga, a studio that Britt had read about months before travelling to Colombia and was conveniently located a five minute walk from the Buddha. Meant to be! We found Laureles had a lot to offer as far as bars and restaurants, but not much else. It’s a good neighbourhood to wind down and relax in. Our time here concided with the 11th anniversary of when we became an item, so keeping with tradition we decided to check out Chef Burger, which claims to serve the best burgers in the city, which was also convieniently located a five minute walk from Buddha. Now it was really meant to be!


A must-do activity while in Medellin is to see a football game, which wasn’t on our radar initially as neither of us are huge sports fans. Forgetting our lack of knowledge of soccer and deciding to take it as an experience, we decided to go with our friends. And an experience it was! Read about how to survive a football game in Medellin here.

Our three days were up at the Buddha Hostel and it was time to move on. We wanted to be a little bit closer to El Pablado, so we checked into Montanita Hostel. A decent, cheap place to lay your head. Not much in way of common space to hang out it, no breakfast and our room didn’t have an outside window, just a window into the kitchen where the light would shine in every time someone went for a late night snack, which was pretty much 20  times a night, but the bathrooms were clean and the showers were hot.

Medellin has an impressive metro and cable car system, and the residents of the city are very proud of it. You’ll never find any graffiti on the walls or litter on the ground, there is a common respect for the systems. The MetroCable attaches to the metro system and was built in 2004 as a way to connect some of the cities poorest residents to the main city below. Not just an innovative mode of transportation for the locals, the MetroCable has become a great way to see the city and the neighbourhoods up the mountain. We took the cable car up to the area of Santa Domingo, which before the MetroCable was a serious no-go. We paid the fare, hopped in a cable car, and began the ride up the mountain.

DSC06895.jpgThe day we visited Santa Domingo was the day before St. Joseph’s Day, a national holiday in Colombia, and there was a carnival going on in the neighbourhood. We exited the cable car to find families enjoying food and activities, a bouncy castle for the littles, and a spectacular view of the city below.


The following evening we had to say goodbye to two of our friends, so we celebrated with a fancy dinner out.


By this time we were ready for an excursion out of the city, and Guatape seemed to be the ticket. Guatape is a colourful town about an hour and a half outside Medellin. We decided to twin it in with a tour, which included paint balling, lunch, a boat ride to the town of Guatape, a ticket to climb the lookout rock, and a bus back to town for about 160,000 COP a person. A bus took us about an hour out of town to a little tourist service stop with a beautiful view of the lake below. At this point we were instructed to pile into Jeeps, our crew decided to ride on top – not a great idea on bumpy roads, but we managed.

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The Jeeps took us to La Manuela, what used to be one of Pablo Escobar’s over five hundred homes, which now consists of overgrown foliage and decaying structures. In 1993, the property was destroyed by a vigilante group called Los Pepes, eight months before his death. At the time of Pablo’s death the property was turned over to the gardener, and is now a popular visiting spot for tourists. The property has a paintball field, which is located in the area of the guest house and stables. We were all given suits, guns, and paintballs, and the fun began.


After paint balling we had time to explore the property. When it was in it’s glory, species of trees and birds from all over the world thrived here. It is clear that the property was once a luxurious space. Now however, it sits as a somewhat eerie reminder of Colombia’s dark past. The main house and outbuildings are barely standing. Covered in graffiti, with some parts of the roof collapsed. The pool is green with algae, little fish inhabiting it. The only structure of the property that is still usable is the bar.


After lunch in the bar, we were loaded onto boats and driven across the lake. We arrived in the town of Guatape, and were given an hour to mosey about. We walked through the quaint streets and stopped in a couple shops before we met up with the rest of the group to go to the rock.


El Peñon de Guatape,  or the Rock of Guatape in English, is a 10 million ton rock rises 200 metres and is visible for miles. Just a small staircases of 650 steps will bring you to the very top of the rock, where you can take in the view of Guatape Lake and the surrounding countryside. The views are gorgeous, if you are able to make it to the top without passing out!


The following day we were checking out of Montanita Hostel and checking in to our Airbnb, where we were going to be spending the remainder of our time in Medellin. We were longing to do some cooking and relaxing, and we figured this would be a great spot to do it. For $22 bucks a night we got a room with a private bathroom in an apartment that we shared with four other guests. The apartment had a kitchen, laundry, a living room and a balcony to chill on. Great value for sure!


We had read all about “The Real City Walking Tour”, and after our awesome experience in Bogota with GranCol Tours, we decided to check it out. The walking tour was free (donations accepted), and took us through downtown Medellin, an area of town travellers don’t typically visit. Our guide gave us a code to talk about the different levels of safety which he called the Papaya Level. Papaya level 1, totally safe, no need to worry much about your belongings or well being. Papaya level 5, keep your shit on lockdown, wear your backpack on your front, keep things out of your pockets, etc. We learned a lot of Medellin’s history, and found out some of the places to eat if you want good, traditional Colombian fare.


We visited Iglesia de la Veracruz, a Catholic church, one of the oldest in Medellin, and were surprised to learn it was a popular hang out for the local prostitutes. The explanation our guide gave us is some of the seediest behaviours happen close to a church, as forgiveness is not far away. Another example would be the Colombian Narco hitmen, most being religious, would justify their killings by saying “I only pull the trigger, God decides if they live or die.”


Our last stop on the tour was to Parque San Antonio (Papaya Level 5). In June of 1995, during a music festival, a bomb was placed in a sculpture of a famous Colombian artist named Fernando Botero (his work is all over Colombia, and his sculptures depict people and animals in large, exaggerated figures). No one ever claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed 30 people and injured more than 200, but the Cali cartel and the rebel group FARC were suspected in the bombing. In the year 2000, Fernando Botero created an identical sculpture and placed in next to the one that was destroyed, as a symbol of peace and to honour those who lost their lives. The damaged one was left as a reminder of the hard times that Medellin has been through. A plaque with the names of the people who were killed is displayed on the damaged statue.


The following day, this time on our own, we took the metro back downtown to a restaurant that is famous for its Bandeja Paisa, a traditional Colombian meal that consists of fried pork belly, blood sausage, rice, beans, powdered beef, a fried egg, chorizo, an arepa, and an avocado. And while we were on the topic of traditional food, we also tried a Colombian dessert, which was kind of like a fruit cake with icing. Delish!


And the last, but definitely not least activity was took part in in Medellin was paragliding. We booked through Latin Hosts, and for about $80 bucks a person we were picked up at our apartment, driven the hour outside town to the flying site, and were given all the gear we needed for our flight. The flights are tandem (you are strapped on the front of someone, and they do all the work). When it was our turn, we walked to the take off point, put on the gear, and were instructed to start walking, then running, and all of a sudden you are in the air. You are flying through the clouds, up with the birds, and everyone and everything on the ground keeps getting smaller and smaller. It was an amazing experience, definitely worth the money! You are in the air for about 20 minutes, which in our opinion was plenty. Watch the video below.


Britt and Adam signing their life away


Britt coming in for landing

Holy, that was a wordy blog! We figured Medellin deserved a long one, considering we were there for almost two weeks and accomplished so much. Medellin has so much to offer, and if you are in Colombia it cannot be missed!


Surviving a Football (Soccer) Game in Medellin! w/ GoPro video

We never thought we would end up going to a professional football (soccer) match in South America. The fact that we are Canadian and haven’t even attended an NHL game speaks to our general interest in sports entertainment. In South America, football isn’t just a sport, it is everything, arguably more important then religion or governement… people live and die for football. Medellin, Colombia as we found out is one of the best places to see a game. If you’re ever drinking at a hostel bar in Colombia and your new German friends ask you if you want to go to a football match with them tomorrow, you say “YES”.

Medellin has two home teams, Deportivo Independiente Medellín and Atlético Nacional (previously owned by Pablo Escobar). Atletico Nacional has the most local support by far, green and white jerseys can be seen all over town. Although the red team (Deportivo Independiente) seems to have fewer fans they are not lacking in passion. Watching either of these teams play is an intense experience. But, when they play against each other it is literally insane! The two local teams hate each other, its a longstanding bitter rivalry, red vs. green. Risk levels increase at these games, police give full pat downs when entering the stadium and its not uncommon to see tear gas used to disperse the crowds when the game ends.

As fate would have it, this was the game we had just bought tickets for…

We signed up for a package deal from the Happy Buddha Hostel which included pre game drinks, a jersey, shuttle to and from, a local guide and of course the ticket. This cost 85,000 COP. We were informed the day of that all the extras were cancelled, we would only get the ticket and a 5000 COP refund. We probably ended up over paying for the ticket only but it was suppose to be in a safer seating area and we were pretty stoked about going regardless so didn’t mind paying. We were a bit concerned to lose the local guide but we talked to some people and learned a few basic safety tips that put our minds at ease. As an added feeling of security we ended up rolling with a decent sized crew, made up of some of the classiest new travel pals we’ve made, Adam from U.S., David, Robin and Vanessa from Germany and  Stephen and Danielle from Australia.


The Crew!

Some useful tips are:

  • Wear neutral colours (don’t appear to support either team)
  • Ask where safer seating area is for tourists
  • Attend the game with a larger group or local guide
  • Dont hang around stadium after game
  • Don’t wear or bring flashy/expensive items

We took an Uber down to the stadium and found a local place to have some drinks before entering, these games are alcohol free. We did as the locals do and got primed up good beforehand. After making it through the two phases of security lines we made our way to the seating area. Assigned seats don’t really apply, as long as you are in the correct area. Our area was the buffer zone between red and green, a small strip of seats that separates the two, right in the crossfire… really Happy Buddha? This is the safe zone? Hmm.  We laughed it off, got some snacks and prepared ourselves for the game. Turns out we felt comfortable pretty quick, the locals were very friendly and welcoming, it wasn’t overcrowded and it gave us a good view of the opposing fans. The people are as much fun to watch as the game in our opinion. For all the hatred that exists between the two fans, our section had a comical mix of spouses and family members sporting opposite jerseys and enjoying themselves together despite their obvious differences.

The game kicks off with loud music and cheering, both sides with their own percussion section, clouds of green, white and red smoke bombs fill the air. The crowd excitement never stops throughout the whole game, its a continuous shit show of dancing, singing, cursing, yelling and even crying. We’ve never witnessed anything like it.

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The game ended 3-1 for Atlético Nacional (Green). We opted to wait a few extra minutes for most of the crowd to disperse before attempting the exit ourself. A lot of words were exchanged between the opposing fans and fighting was provoked but we didn’t see any violence…yet. Police in riot gear helped to tame the scene inside the stadium.

Outside the police presence was still strong but as we were discussing where to have some post game drinks, a man pulled out a machete and attacked someone nearly 25 feet from us. He was taken down by police seconds after attempting to slash another fan. We weren’t sure if anyone was hurt. After that we all agreed we would get the hell out of the area and have drinks somewhere else. It was a scary moment but its worth mentioning again that we did feel safe and comfortable for the majority of the experience, 99% of the locals were super helpful, friendly people and we would recommend seeing a game to anyone.

We had to bring the GoPro along and we were glad we did, check out this footage of the game.







Bogota to Medellin by Bus (w/ GoPro video)

Bogota was our first taste of Colombia, and being the nations capital with the largest airport it is for most travellers. After spending a few days in the La Candalaria (read about that here), we were ready to move on.  Some online research and talking with other travellers would help us decide on Medellin for our next stop.

Then came the bus vs. plane decision…

Plane: Cost 130,000 COP ($65 CAD) per person when we looked. Takes about an hour actual flight time. Does not include baggage and taxis to and from the airport (which is located farther out of central Medellin).

Bus: Cost 50,000 COP ($25 CAD) per person when we looked. Takes 9+ hours. Includes baggage and taxis are cheaper from the bus stop.

Given that we are traveling as cheap as possible and can afford the time to spend a whole day sitting on a bus, we opted for land travel. If money wasn’t an issue and we only had a week or so to see the country we would have flown.

Taking this bus is too easy. It was a 20 min taxi ride to the bus terminal in Bogota from La Candalaria District (about 12,000 COP). We went inside and looked for the Bolivariono wicket. We read it is best to book with them as they have the nicest buses. They are also a company that apparently pays off the right people to make sure the bus arrives safely, on time, with all luggage intact (this fact may be out of date given the leaps and bounds Colombia has taken in safety over recent years). At the wicket we bought two tickets for the next bus, leaving in about 20 minutes. Total cost of 102,000 COP.  We walked to the terminal and boarded the bus after a short wait. As described the bus was clean, had comfortable reclining seats, on board movies, wifi, air conditioning and a bathroom. Not bad!

Buses leave on this route at least every hour and nearly 24/7. We opted for daylight travel and arrived at the terminal around 8:00am.  There is no need to book a ticket in advance.

The bus ride took nearly 11 hours, we stopped once for about 30 minutes to have lunch. The ride is 90% twists and turns up and down steep mountain roads, with a small section of flat, straight road about half way, leaving just enough time for our stomachs to settle from lunch. We arrived at the bus terminal in Medellin and took a cab to our hostel in the Laureles district (another 12,000 COP).

For our decision to to save a few bucks and sit on a bus for a whole day, feeling queasy from all the twists and turns, we were rewarded by the most amazing views of Colombian country side, we wouldn’t trade that for a plane ride in a million years.


Bogota: Our First Stop in Colombia

Arriving to a new place brings apprehension, excitement, and maybe a little bit of fear for most people. This is exactly what we felt arriving at the El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia, after leaving the comfort of a place we know, Costa Rica.


Bogota is the capital of Colombia and the largest city in the country. It sits among Andean mountain peaks and boasts some of the most impressive street art we’ve ever seen. In the past, Bogota had a reputation for being an extremely violent city where one wouldn’t dream of travelling to. Fast forward ten years – the city of Bogota has become a popular destination to visit, is (relatively) safe, and offers many activities to do and sites to see. We spent four days exploring the city, here are some of our favourite things to do in Bogota:

Drink Coffee

This one is a no-brainer…when in Rome, right? Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee beans in the world (behind Brazil and Vietnam). Some of the world’s most delicious coffee is made here, but 90% of it is exported to other countries. Thankfully, they still keep a little bit of it for themselves (and us!), so finding a good coffee shop and sipping on a tinto (black coffee) was a favourite activity of ours.


Try Chicha

Those of you who read our blog regularly know that sampling the local booze is something we partake in everywhere we go. Its a must-do. Most South American countries have their own variation of Chicha, although it is typical of the indigenous people from the Andes. In Colombia it is made of fermented corn and sugar or honey. It has a funky taste to it, similar to that of kombucha. Consumption of Chicha isn’t widespread in cities anymore, mostly rural areas, but some local bars still serve it.


Visit a Coca Cafe and Sample Some Coca Leaf Products

The legal kind! Bogota has coca cafes where you can sample the leaf itself, buy products infused with coca (like soaps, chocolate, basically anything), drink coca tea or take a shot of coca infused alcohol. Coca – in its purest form, is said to produce many health benefits like increased energy and can even ward off altitude sickness.


Take the Cable Car To Monserrate 

Twenty-thousand Colombian Pesos (about $10.00 CAD) will get you a ride up the side of a mountain in a train that feels like the cable could let go at any second to the site of the “Church on the Mountain”. The money is totally worth it and offers the most stunning view of the city and surrounding mountains. Some adventurous travellers attempt to walk up the mountain, and find themselves lost or get robbed on the way up. Be lazy like us, take the damn train.


Bike Tour

Gran Colombia Tours offers the best tours we’ve ever had the pleasure of being on. The organization was started by a guy named Julian only a few months ago and the tours are based totally off donations. We took his Free Walking Tour our first day in Bogota, where we experienced some of the activities you read about above, like the coffee lab, chicha drinking, and coca shop. The tour is based in La Candelaria (the backpacker district in which we stayed), and runs about 2.5 hours. The walking tour also included fruit tasting and some amazing facts about the history of Bogota and Colombia. The next day we took his Free Biking Tour in which you bike around Zona Rosa, an upscale neighbourhood in northern Bogota. The tour includes transfer from La Candelaria to Zona Rosa, your bike/helmet, a salsa lesson, a visit to a museum, a street food snack, a visit to a flower market, another visit to a coffee lab for tasting, and more history. Both tours are fantastic, Julian is extremely knowledgable and passionate about Colombia and it’s history, is an outstanding tour guide. If you are in Bogota, you have to check them out!


Roam the Streets/Chat With the Locals/Meet New Friends

Our favourite things to do! We love walking the streets of a new place and taking pictures, and Bogota, specifically La Candelaria, a historic neighbourhood with a Spanish Colonial feel, makes it easy to do just that. The streets are all numbered and navigating is easy. And while most major cities frown on graffiti, Bogota has taken a different approach – and building walls are covered in intricate tags and elaborate murals, making the city one the of world’s trendiest showcases of modern street art.



The man walks around in the mornings serving from his cart, a herbal tea made of lime, honey and if you wish, Aguardiente (a popular liquor in Colombia).


Amazing people we met on the walking tour: Adam, Tasha, David, and Robin.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

The last activity in Bogota is more of a not-to-do. The city has made major progress in safety in the last ten years, and during the day we were totally comfortable. Lots of hustle and bustle, and a heavy police presence. Different at night, most places in La Candelaria roll down metal barricades over doors and windows and the majority of police disappear from the area. A new friend noted similarities to the movie The Purge while we had a drink in a bar around 9pm and watch the neighbourhood lock up for the night, although we are sure it’s not that bad. But, you are advised not to walk unless you are in a bigger group, as robberies are common (Also a good tip: download the app “Tappsi”  for taking registered cabs rather then hailing them). Just weeks before our arrival the rebel group ELN (National Liberation Army) set off a bomb targeting police, killing one and injuring more then 20 others, this was not far from our hostel. Although this type of incident is not common it speaks to the hurdles this country is still working to overcome. Being aware of the potential danger is key, enjoying yourself but not getting too comfortable that you make risky decisions, or become a target.


Police with Rottweilers in muzzles on almost every corner.


In conclusion, we loved Bogota. The city is beautiful and prices are cheap. It’s amazing to see how much progress a place can make after so much turmoil. Our four days were up, and we were ready to move – on to Medellin!

Driving in Costa Rica: San Jose to Caribbean

Getting around Costa Rica is fairly easy. There are a few key options and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. We’ve been to Costa Rica three times and each time journeyed to the Caribbean Coast from San Jose. We are by no means experts but we’ve had a positive experience with most of these popular options,

1) Public Transport

By far the cheapest and a great way to meet people. It can feel crowded and is probably the slowest option. From San Jose to Limon can take 3-5 hours, add another hour for Cahuita or Puerto Viejo. But for $10 you can’t go wrong. In 2014 we booked ahead online for a couple friends who were meeting us in Puerto Viejo and for about $15 a taxi picked them up from the airport, dropped them off at the bus stop and handed them their tickets. Too easy.

2) Hired Driver

We hired a driver for our first time in Costa Rica. If you are lucky like we were, you will get a great driver, who stocks his comfy van with snacks and cervezas, makes multiple stops for you, all the while teaching you about his country. Thanks Wilson! This option is great if you want to be more comfortable, but aren’t quite confident driving on your own. It is expensive, about $175 in our experience (San Jose to Puerto Viejo), but manageable if you are traveling with a small group. Our friends booked this in advance through a travel agency suggested on Puerto Viejo Satellite (a great resource).

3)  Rent a Car

Our personal favourite! As Canadian drivers we found the learning curve was fairly quick. Costa Ricans drive similar vehicles and drive on the same side of the road as us. They may be a little more aggressive and all the motorcycles take a bit of getting used too, but it’s all part of the fun. We have used Poas Rental and Alamo and would suggest either. Rentals for a small to medium sedan cost about $40 per day including insurance. We’ve had no issue taking a car to the Caribbean Coast but have heard an SUV is necessary for other parts of the country. We struggled with additional insurance options like waiving the deductible, windshield and tire protection, etc….but ended up relying just on the third party liability through the rental company and whatever was offered by our credit card. Its a good idea to check with your credit card company to see if any coverage is included for international car rentals. We always add the GPS for about $10 per day, we wouldn’t go without it. Because we only rent for one day (24 hours) and we drop it off at our destination we have to pay an extra $50 fee. So our whole rental ended up being about $120, plus $20 in fuel (gas is relatively cheap and prices are regulated by the government so no need to price shop). A $1000 deposit was required at Alamo via credit card. Jeff likes to take a video of the car when doing the pre and post inspection with the rental staff. It offers some security if they claim any damage was caused by us.

Here’s all the details about our latest drive to Puerto Viejo from San Jose,

We woke up from our one night stay at Hotel Brilla Sol in Alajuela, San Jose. Its only 10 mins from the airport, its not the cheapest option but its a little hidden paradise within the city. Good food, drinks and a nice pool and garden for hanging out. A nice option if you are eager to feel like your on vacation right after landing. We always seem to arrive in San Jose late, so a one night stay is necessary to give us as much daylight driving as possible. Its not nearly as beautiful or safe to drive past dark. We picked the rental up the day before at the Alamo office, they shuttled us for free from the airport, and we finally got the car at about 5pm, so we had until 5pm the next day to make it to Puerto Viejo. The GPS tells us 4 hours if we drive non stop. It would take us almost 7 hours by the time we stopped to take in the views, eat some roadside snacks at the many sodas and of course refuel with some cervezas. As far as we understand you can have open alcohol in the vehicle but the driver cannot be intoxicated, no problem! Other then that, the vehicle laws are very similar to western countries. We left at about 9:30am. The new-ish Toyota Corrolla fit all 5 of us and all the luggage in the trunk. On this leg of the trip we had some family join us, you can read about that and more on Puerto Viejo here.


Trying to capture the view out the windshield, don’t GoPro and drive!


Britt behind the wheel


It took us about an hour to get out of town, our first trip in 2015 was a lot less but this time we hit some traffic and the GPS routed us through another part of town. It was nice to see more of San Jose and we could afford the time. Soon after weaving through city traffic, dodging motorcycles and pedestrians the scenery opened up and things started looking much more rural. At this point its a single road all the way to Limon, about 170 kms away, no more need to stay glued to the GPS. We hit a road side soda for some empanadas and Imperial before heading into the jungle.


The whole crew

The next hour or two of the journey is breathtaking, the single road twists and turns through the lush jungle, walls of trees, plants and vines cover one side of the road reaching hundreds of feet high. The other side of the road offers view of rolling valleys and mountains that seem to go on forever, the steep cliffs on this side offer a reminder to enjoy the views but keep your eye on the road!


Occasionally the road widens to two lanes allowing us to pass the slow fruit trucks or transports struggling to climb the hills. Daring drivers attempt last minute passes that made our heart skip a beat. This is one of the highlights of our trip. The freedom of driving yourself. The element of risk. The beauty out the windows.

When we felt the view was prime we pulled over and took some pictures. Another fun stop was a bridge where you can see two rivers combine. One fresh, blue, clean mountain water, the other golden brown from iron, sulphur or some other natural contamination.


After the jungle hills we spent the next couple hours cruising long, straight rural roads passing through small towns, not hesitating to stop for more refreshments.

We reached Limon around 3:00pm, a shipping port town about an hour from our final stop, Puerto Viejo. We planned to visit the Black Star Restaurant again while in Limon, we’ve been on previous trips and hear its the best typical meal around. We have to agree! The typical Caribbean meal is chicken, rice and beans, usually served with plantain and a fresh salad. We were bummed to find out that the Black Star burnt down. After talking with some locals we learned that Taylor’s, across the street from where Black Star once stood is now the spot to go. It was just as delicious as we remembered. The typical meal is usually the cheapest option, its also served the quickest and tastes the best in our opinion. Eat local!


Britt enjoying her typical meal at Taylors


Another Typical meal from a roadside stop on the way home

By now we were really feeling the heat, getting out of higher elevations and closer to the coast means rising temperatures and humidity. We couldn’t wait to get in the ocean, which was now visible as the remaining drive follows the coast line. Banana Plantations line the side of the roads and narrow bridges make for more cautious driving reminders on this last stretch. Here is a quick video shot from the GoPro during the drive,

We arrive in Puerto Viejo around 4:30pm, just in time to return the car. The drop off process is quick and easy. We throw our bags over our shoulders and walk through town to check in at Rocking J’s Hostel. An amazing first day. Another successful drive across this beautiful country complete. Renting a car in Costa Rica, highly recommended!



Puerto Viejo: Our Favourite Place (Budget Tips!)

We were apprehensive to add Costa Rica to this year’s trip. We’ve always surpassed our budget here (Costa Rica is one of the more expensive countries in Central America), and this year being on a six-week, three country backpacking trip, blowing through our savings at the first stop wasn’t an option. But, we decided that we would try our hardest to stick within our means, and enjoy the first week at one of our favourite towns in the world – Puerto Viejo.


Our friends Carson and Chantal introduced us to Puerto Viejo in 2014, we’ve now been back twice since, but this is the first time without them.

It was our turn to be the tour guides this time, we had a few family members join in on the fun. Jeff’s mom, Cheryl, his Uncle Chris, and our sister-in-law Shelby booked some last-minute flights and we couldn’t have been more excited to share this place with them.


The newbies (Chris, Shelby, Cheryl)

Puerto Viejo sits in southern Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast. It has an amazing rasta vibe, vibrant with colour, music, and food for every appetite. A hippie haven, drawing diverse travellers, some for a night and some who never leave. Expat run restaurants, hostels, bars, and shops line the streets, offering a wide variety of culture to immerse yourself in.


After our little hiccup of a cancelled flight (Read about that here), we arrived in San Jose, spent the night, and in the morning made the trek through the mountains out to the Caribbean Coast. Read about driving from San Jose to the Caribbean Coast here.

As you read above, we planned to do Puerto Viejo on the cheap, which had proven to be quite a feat in the past. We were determined to make it work, and even with the company we were hosting, we weren’t planning on changing our budget much. We booked in at Rocking J’s hostel to spend our nights sleeping in hammocks, and our adventurous family gladly did the same.

Rocking J’s is like no hostel we’ve ever been to, and you have to see it. Mosaic tile and art done by the guests who have stayed there adorn pretty much every square inch of this place, and its beautiful.


Our mosaic from when we visited Rocking J’s in 2015 – of our cat Miguel.


Our friend Nate’s mosaic.

Its known as a great place to party, with daily drink specials, theme nights, and a party that spills out to a campfire on the beach after quiet hours (for a party hostel it can actually get pretty quiet past 11pm, thankfully). There are a wide variety of accommodations to fit any comfort level – hammocks, tents, dorm rooms, and private rooms, some with their own bathroom. Our hammocks set us back $7/night, which included access to the shared bathrooms and cold water showers (hot water showers are not needed in the Caribbean, its 35 damn degrees out). Its basic and bare bones, but recommended if you want to meet cool people and try something new.


Sea of hammocks.

On to the food – and as you know, we love to eat. We were lucky enough to meet a guy who turned us on to the $4 breakfast burrito at Hot Rocks, a restaurant in town. This burrito packs enough punch to keep you full all day, even through all the activities your going to do. Breakfast and lunch in one – winning! The road side patties/empanadas are a real budget saver. Later in the evening keep your eye out for the meat sticks. If  you are looking for some cheap, fresh fruits and veggies, the organic market in Puerto Viejo is held every Saturday. Vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meats and tofu, plants, fresh smoothies and juices, and handmade goods set up in the flea market. It’s a fun place to walk around.


Breakfast burrito – pic doesn’t do it justice.



If you’re wondering what there is to do in Puerto Viejo, remember you’re in the Caribbean. You don’t have to do anything! It is home to some of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen, and they run all along the coast, from Cahuita to Manzanillo. The most popular mode of transportation in the area are bicycles, and you can rent them from your hostel or from a number of shops in town, for $5-$8 a day . Go see the lady at Borroco Pizza (across from the market), she doesn’t speak a lick of English but is super nice, has cheap, good bikes, and is easy to work with. Don’t be alarmed when you have to leave your passport, most places will ask you to for collateral. Just use your judgement, obviously.

We did a full day tour of the coast, biking from town to Manzanillo and back. Over 25km in total! It was hot, exhausting, but so worth it. Stop at each beach along the way, go for a swim, drink some agua (or a cerveza, your choice). The mostly flat, paved roads make the biking manageable). When you get to Manzanillo, do the 45 min hike through the National Park, you may see a sloth!



Manzanillo Hike


Parking the hogs for a cerveza break

The live music scene in Puerto Viejo is hopping, and we were lucky enough to see a couple great bands. The Lazy Mon is a great place to watch live music at dusk and late into the night, it’s a beautiful setting right on the beach. They have two-for-one drink specials every afternoon too!


And last, but certainly not least, if you’re at the end of your time in Puerto Viejo, are tired of sleeping in a hammock and need some luxury in your life that will most definitely drain your budget, go to Banana Azul. On the completely opposite spectrum of Rocking J’s, owned by two wonderful Canadians, this place is gorgeous. We were so lucky to have our family treat us to our last night here for being their tour guides for the week.


Our casita at Banana Azul.

We could continue to write forever about this place that we love, but all the pictures and words in the world can’t explain it. Go see for yourself!

So Our Flight Got Delayed, Then Cancelled (Five Tips!)

It’s late morning and we just took off from Toronto Airport, nearly 24 hours later then planned. Our flight to Costa Rica with Avianca was delayed, and eventually cancelled. We spent 10 hours in the airport and approximately 12 hours in a hotel waiting for our new flight. Up till now we have never even experienced a major flight delay, we’ve been lucky. It does happen and now it’s our turn.


Dealing with a flight delay or cancellation boils down to essentially two choices…get angry, stressed out, argumentative with the flight staff while attempting to explain why your plans are more important than the other 100 people on your flight and demand special treatment OR take some deep breaths, realize its beyond your control and go with the flow. Sure, this doesn’t mean be a push over and accept nothing for your troubles. Just don’t be an asshole. If the flight’s delayed, wait it out. Maybe you will get a few dollars off some terminal food, or even access to an executive lounge. If it’s delayed more than 8 hours, it could end up cancelling, like in our case. If it’s cancelled you should expect to be accommodated further. A hotel, a meal and shuttle to and from airport are reasonable expectations.

Thus far we have received a nice hotel room, $50 food voucher at the hotel, shuttle to and from, $150 each off our next flight and as an added bonus they just upgraded us to first class. Not bad! Since we faired out OK we thought we would post some helpful tips…

#1 Don’t be an asshole

We had a few reasons to be upset, we paid for a hotel at our destination that we weren’t going to make on time, we will also miss our car rental, we had some family members on a flight ahead of us with not much travel experience. It sucks. Another fellow missed an important business meeting. A solo mother was dealing with her 3 year old melting down. But at the end of the day most flights are cancelled for safety reasons and we shouldn’t expect any different. There are strict guidelines that airlines need to follow, thank god. The job of airport staff is not easy. In our case the same three Avianca staff that checked our baggage, also met us at the boarding gate, and were the only “on-site” staff dealing with the whole delay. Some travellers were demanding there luggage back immediately, the Avianca staff member was politely explaining they could get it back but it would be a few hours as he would have to personally find it for them once he accommodates the other travellers at the hotel. We chose to go with the flow, we levelled with the staff, showed some understanding and that’s why we are currently writing this blog from the comfort of first class. Ya get more flies with honey than vinegar.


Finally on our flight, first class!


First class meal! Good Karma


#2 Be mindful of your connecting flight

Remind the flight staff of your connection and inquire about the potential wait at your next stop. The accommodations may be better or worse depending on your layover. A traveler on our plane opted to stay longer in Toronto rather then San Salvador which is probably a wise choice. Your airline should know this but things can get overlooked in the process. When asking staff about tip #2 refer to tip #1.

#3 Take what you can get

Any decent airline will accommodate you in the case of a cancellation. Accept the flight change, the hotel, the meal or whatever they offer, but don’t expect the world. If you feel its truly not enough then be kind and assertive and ask for what you think is reasonable. Bottom line, you’re not getting to your destination when you thought you would, let it go. Leave the extra perks to the families, elderly, disabled, if you don’t fit that bill don’t expect the same. Sure you could fight for another $50 credit or nicer room but assess the situation, if you don’t need it, is it worth arguing over? Call the airline hotline if the on-site staff cant provide enough for you. Heck, call it if they did provide enough, thank them and mention the name of the staff who kept their cool while other travellers broke tip #1.

#4 Stay ahead of the game

If the staff give you word that you will be staying at _____ hotel or your flight will now be at _____ terminal, be the first one there. That next stop whether its a shuttle, hotel or boarding area is gonna have a hundred peeps rolling in and waiting for the same thing as you. When we heard the hotel name they were putting us up in we left, started heading to the pick up area and took the shuttle to the hotel ahead of the rest of the gang. We were sipping a drink and waiting on our meal while the other travellers were still in line to check in.

#5 Have a drink

If that’s your thing. We can’t promise this idea will work out the same as it did for us but it’s a worthy tip none the less. Airport drinks are $10 on average. Most boarding terminals have a duty free. We found a carton of wine for $10 at the duty free. We cracked into it and had a couple glasses worth at the terminal, on the shuttle and back at the hotel. You might have to break a few rules for this illicit drink but hey, its been a long day, you deserve it.


Pouring duty free wine into clear water bottle… discreet?

We think thats it. You could probably refine this whole post down to go with the flow and don’t be an asshole. Keep that in mind and things will work out. Thank your airport staff, it’s not easy job.

Special shout out to Avianca staff, you were great!