Costa Rica: How pleasant a trip where everything went right

Now that Southwest Airlines flies to Costa Rica and the price is very reasonable, we had to give it a try- Phoenix-Houston-San Jose, Costa Rica.

Bogarin Trail, La Fortuna

I booked this trip with a tour operator that specializes in semi-independent tours. Everything is arranged for you to travel independently. We were met at the San Jose airport by our contact Ronny and he went over with us our itinerary for the week. He gave us phone numbers to call if needed and we were off on our own.

We arrived late into San Jose, so we were given an airport hotel for the first night.

The next morning, we were picked up in a shared shuttle for the 4-hour journey to the La Fortuna/Arenal area, the mountainous jungle of Costa Rica. We stayed at Arenal Manoa Hot Springs Resort…. oh my!

Our patio
view Arenal Manoa Resort

This was the highlight of the whole trip. We had a patio to die for with a large sliding glass door and a view of Arenal Volcano. This is the kind of resort that you want to hang around all day and not go anywhere else. We took a jungle hike and saw birds, a sloth in a tree, and had lunch in La Fortuna. That evening, included in our trip package, was a night-time pass to Tabacon Hot Springs and it was incredible. We had to show covid vax cards to enter. At night it is less crowded, minimal lighting, and very relaxing. Dinner was included after our hot springs soak.

The next morning was our shared van ride to Monteverde, a cloud forest over 4300 ft. It is much cooler there. We were picked up at our hotel in Arenal and driven to the bank of Arenal lake. From there we took a small flat bottom boat that holds about 10 people and a pile of luggage. We were then met on the other side by another van. From there it was a crazy, winding, dirt road drive, for almost 2 hours. It is nice to see that some things are still left rustic and primitive. Our van was struggling up those hills.

In Monteverde, the El Establo Mountain Lodge was nice, It was separate buildings placed along the steep hillside with magnificent views. The downside was, you had to call for a shuttle to go just about anywhere in the resort because the road was so steep. The inside of the lodge felt kind of like a Yellowstone lodge, lots of rock and wood.

The highlight here was the night-time jungle hike at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve. I loved it when we turned off the flashlights and experienced the deep dark jungle with only crickets. It was just pure nature.

The next day we walked into town for lunch, and later that afternoon I did an afternoon/sunset horseback ride. It was a very reasonable price at $45 for 2 hours. I saw ant hills the size of a kitchen table.

Monteverde

This was a pretty quick trip. We again had a shared van ride back to San Jose, another winding, steep, and scenic drive. This time we took our Dramamine. We spent another night at the airport hotel. The next morning, we had to get to the airport 4 hours prior to flight time to get our covid test to re-enter the U.S. Our wonderful tour operator had this already set-up for us and included in our tour. This was great because the covid test had to be done 24 hours prior (very hard to do when you are traveling all day the day before) and from what I had researched the test cost anywhere from $65-$120 per person.

This trip was flawless, we were always picked up on time, and it was easy to call the company if we had any questions.

rotisserie chicken CR style

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

I have wanted to visit this prominent city in Mexico for a long time. We left the Arizona February snow to find 80 degree days even at 6,000 plus feet of elevation.

This is old world colonial Mexico, cobblestone streets, caballeros, and fresh fruit vendors. Staying in the old town is walkable and it feels safe.

My favorite thing about this visit to San Miguel de Allende (SMA) was our vacation rental house. I was in heaven. It was a walled compound with a tranquil courtyard of birds, blooming bougainvillea, and a fountain. The outdoor living area with a fireplace was a garden of Eden.

Vacation rental courtyard

I love the feeling of life in the slow lane here. We did a lot of walking. At night we took cabs, or Uber to be on the safe side. The restaurants were superb and busy. My favorite things to do when traveling are visiting the outdoor fresh food markets and cemeteries. The town is loaded with art galleries and cute stores, but I’m not big on shopping.

We also spent a few days in Mexico City in the Reforma area across from Alameda Square. Again, great restaurants and museums. We found out that almost all of the museums are closed on Mondays so we missed out on some in Chapultepec Park. Every Sunday the main Paseo de la Reforma is closed for bikes and rollerblades only. It is fun to see families enjoy the park with live music and foodstands.

Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City

More photos of Mexico

San Juan Mercado, Mexico City
Street Life San Miguel de Allende, photo by Peter Gassner

San Miguel de Allende, photo by Peter Gassner

Our Mexico Trip Info Bullets

Our Trip Information Bullets, Feb 2019

Closest airports to San Miguel de Allende (SMA), Del Bajio Airport, Leon/Guanajuato, and (QRO) Queretaro Airport, MX

We had a private driver from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende. The drive was about 3 hrs and cost $279 usd for 4 people. Bajio Transportation

Ubers are nice, clean, very reasonably priced, and everywhere in Mex City and in SMA. They are hard to get on weekends in SMA when town is busy.

Baked goods, churros, and ice cream are wonderful!

We used Uber driver for round-trip to Guanajuato for about $80 usd

Every Sunday the San Miguel Library has a Home and Garden tour conducted by library volunteers

We were there for “Carnival” weekend in Feb. It was loud and busy. Fireworks start at around 4:30 am. Lots of costumes and kids breaking eggs filled with colorful confetti over each others’ heads

Church bells are always ringing in SMA

We used a private driver for 5 hrs ($110 usd) in Mexico City to take us to Teotihuacan Pyramids and to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (equivalent to Vatican City in Rome)

What I learned from my first Holland America cruise

I am always excited each time I try a new or different cruise line.
In November 2017 my husband and I took a 10-day cruise from Ft Lauderdale to Panama and back. We have sailed on several different lines, but this was our first with Holland America (HAL). As far as ships go, it’s extremely similar to other large ships of its class. I will give my list of the good and not so good from this particular voyage. And I will also list a couple of ship tips I have learned.

Bird in Curacao

Good:
This is the first time we have tried open seating as opposed to a set dining time. We like having a table for 2 and this worked for the most part, but we also timed it right and kept our fingers crossed. Open seating is like walking up to a busy restaurant and asking for a table for 2. This all depends on table availability and you may have to wait. If you don’t mind sitting with others being seated without a wait is usually never a problem.

Holland America has a private Caribbean island called Half Moon Caye, and I really enjoyed this. It’s nice to get off ship and have a private uncrowded beach for swimming. On a cruise you forget that just because you are at sea for a week, you never get to swim in the ocean unless you take an excursion or can find a public beach on your own while at port. The private beach included beach towels, lounge chairs, and a wonderful gigantic lunch buffet.

There was a great selection of on-board activities. Since the Holland America demographic is more of a mature crowd, the activities are more geared towards classes, presentations, and demonstrations. Yes, I can live without Belly Flop and Hairy Chest contests. Many of the classes on board are health and fitness presentations, America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations, and my favorite -Microsoft computer classes.
Every afternoon, 4-5 pm, was happy hour, with 2 for 1 drinks

Holland America Zuiderdam Pool

The not so good…. because nothing was bad this trip:
Air conditioning…. Yikes! The a/c in public areas seemed to be turned up higher than I ever remember on a cruise. I tried to look for a cozy quiet lounge area to read, but I always had to have on some pants and a heavy sweater. I remember sitting in a computer class with a sweater on and still shivering.

The buffet was always crowded, especially breakfast. It was such a chore hunting for a table. One thing I noticed that seemed to be different from other ship buffets was how much of the food needed to be served from behind glass. If I wanted a bowl of oatmeal I’d have to stand in line behind people ordering eggs and pancakes. Why can’t I scoop out my own bowl of oatmeal? Same with the salad bar–you had to instruct someone how to make your salad… am I wrong?  But most people like to build their own salad on a salad bar!

Cruise Tips:
Having dinner in the specialty restaurants costs about $20-$35 per person. We found that you can have lunch in the same restaurants for $10 pp.
Avoid the crowded buffet at lunch and have an elegant, non-hurried, sit-down lunch by eating in the big dining room. Just know that the menu is limited to about 10 items, and the dining room hours are 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm.

Cruisers watch as we pass through the locks, Panama Canal

Below are some street scene photos of Panama City

Ice cream shop in Panama City

Street Scene in Panama City

Painted Bus, Panama City

Sometimes, I “wander”….

perurail

A few years ago my husband Dan and I took a trip to Peru. We spent a couple days in Lima and then on to a few days in Cusco–the departure point for Dan’s 4-day hike to Machu Pichu. It is recommend that hikers spend a couple days in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude; the hike reaches a summit of 13,800 feet at one point. I like hiking, but this overextends my abilities.
The plan was– Dan would hike the Inca Trail and I would spend that time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, then we would meet-up on the 4th day at the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Pichu. On the morning that we parted Dan’s last words to me were, “Be careful and do not wander off from the public places.”
I stayed one more night in Cusco, spending the day at museums and exploring the local grocery stores, where I found the butcher counter stocked with pig/cow snouts, intestines, and guinea pigs (cuy, a Peruvian delicacy). I spotted a bulk bin of dog food and filled a small brown bag to feed the strays as I walked around town. Funny thing, the dogs had no interest, sniffed it and walked on.
On day two, as per the itinerary, I was picked up by a private guide and driver to take me to my next hotel in Urubamba. After a full day of fantastic sightseeing along the way, I was deposited at the Sol y Luna Hotel. Heaven on earth, an oasis full of flowering bushes, hummingbirds, lots of bees, and individual casitas spread throughout the garden landscape. I finished my day with a dinner of Alpaca steak and quinoa risotto.
Day three: after studying my travel guide I decided to search out the Machacancha Hot Springs somewhere outside the little village of Calca. I walked down to the highway and picked up a (very crowded) local bus. In Calca I wandered around inquiring in my not-so-good Spanish about a taxi to Machacancha. I was eventually pointed to a small Toyota station wagon parked next to the tienda that was full of people. I told the driver where I wanted to go and he opened up the back end of the vehicle and pointed to get in. I had to scrunch up in a ball, because—wow– it was tight. I counted 9 adults and 3 children, including purses, backpacks, and bags of groceries. It was probably a good 20 min ride up into the hills, but it seemed a lot longer and no one spoke English. About 1/2 way into the ride a couple got out and I was able to move to the back seat. The whole time I was praying this wasn’t a mistake, thinking who knows where I’m going to end up. Of course there was that little voice in my head saying “Dan is going to kill me”.
I arrived safely and enjoyed a swim with about 40 small school children. They would alternate: boys first and then girls. No swimsuits, they just stripped down to their underwear and jumped in. This place was so out in the middle of nowhere. I started to worry about how I’d get back to town, but there happened to be a taxi hanging out at the entrance when I was leaving. Word must have gotten out that there was a stranger in the place, because I did stick out like a sore thumb.
peru

On day 4 of my solo adventure a taxi picked me up from Sol y Luna and took me to the train station in Ollantaytambo. It’s a beautiful, tropical ride to Aguas Calientes. I then took a bus up a very steep and winding road to Machu Pichu, where it was pouring rain. We had a reservations at the Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel on the mountain next to the ruins. This hotel is pricey, but worth it. You can sit out the rain (from what I understand is often) and wait for it to clear before visiting the park. In the late afternoon the tour buses and shuttles from town leave and you have Machu Pichu to yourself. It’s the same in the mornings.
About an hour after I checked in, there was a knock at the door; there stood Dan dirty, dripping-wet, and 4 days of whiskers. 26 miles and 3 nights in a tent–he looked exhausted. I couldn’t wait to hear about his hike and I was a little apprehensive in telling him about my wandering adventure.
inca

Patagonia: The conclusion

Buenos Aires Art Museum
Colored shirt exhibit at the Bella Artes

April 6
Disembark Punta Arenas Chile. They scanned our luggage coming through customs, but they never looked at our passports, that’s a first coming into a country. There were problems coming into the port (weather) so the ship had to sit out in the harbor for 3hrs. This killed most of the only day I had there. I basically ate dinner (4pm), picked up some snacks, bought more Sudafed and cough syrup, and back to my hotel.
April 7, 2013
Up at 3:50am to catch my 0625 flight to Santiago. LAN airlines- super nice, head phones, movies, great snacks, plus it was a really new plane. I’m not crazy about my Hostel here, my room is super small, kind of dirty, an open window to high to see out of, feels like a jail cell. And it’s on the 4th floor with no elevator to take my luggage up. I like this part of town, one end of the street is the old colonial, cathedrals part of town. The other end is young, trendy, and bohemian type area.
April 8, 2013
Up early again for a full-day tour of Valpariso a coastal resort town, more like a city, it’s huge. It’s about 1-1/2 hrs from Santiago. We also stopped and did a winery tour, very interesting, it was an organic winery. There are chickens all over the place, they are there to eat the worms that infest the vines. They also plant different herbs, plants, and bushes around the vines to keep unwanted pests away and they use Alpaca’s to eat the grass between the vine rows.
I’m sitting in the hostel main living room and all these 20-somethings are just sitting here playing on their phones. They don’t even talk to each other. What’s happened to the hostel culture I used to know? Where everyone would sit around the room talking about their travels?
So, today I was eating lunch in a restaurant and a man (who looked like Johnny Depp) came up to me and asked if I speak English. Wow, that’s a first, it’s usually me asking that question! He couldn’t figure out the menu situation, which I actually knew the answer to. I could hear him over at his table having a hard time communicating with the waiter. I was happy to know I’m not the only one.
April 9, 2013
I was a little weepy this morning, everything was going wrong. I checked out of my private room for a dorm room, just needing a place to basically store my luggage since I am checking out tonight. Front desk gives me a key to the new room. I walk in and it’s a small room, 6 beds, full of guys and their duffel bags. I didn’t know I booked a co-ed room, there is no way my suitcase is going to fit in there. Front desk let me keep my stuff in my old room for a couple hours, then I moved my stuff in with the boys after they’d cleared out for day.
Then my melt down happened when I went to Santa Lucia park. I walked a ton of stairs to the top of this hill and there is a man at a table set up on the sidewalk he was asking me to sign the log. Of course, again I have no idea what he is saying, I refused to sign it. I get into the park and looking around and a security guard comes up to me telling me off, waving his radio, yelling at me. Wow, I turned around and walked back down the hill. That was it, I had to cry for a while.
Today I bought a pass to the hop on/off tour bus. That was worth the 20,000 pesos ($40). I was out the whole day stopping and sightseeing at different parts of town. I had Indian food for lunch. Peruvian sandwich for dinner.
Headed home tonight, I’m ready.
Conclusion—

  • I’m getting old and have out grown hostels.
  • Work a little harder on my Spanish. I feel that I missed so much and it could have been a more full experience.
  • I miss traveling with my mate, but I won’t rule-out doing something like this again (with more preparation.)
  • Nothing weird happened, I never felt I was unsafe.
  • I did challenge myself and did things I normally would have whined about if Dan were with me.

Valparaiso, Chile
Looking over Valparaiso

More Patagonia, part 2

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Today I embark, Cruceros Australis. Here is a huge bummer—check out at the hosteria is 10:30am. My ship paperwork says I can check in for the cruise between 12pm-4pm, so I aim for 3pm. I check-in at an office in town, they tell me to show up at the pier at for boarding 5:30 or 6:00. You can only walk the streets of Ushuaia for so long it’s just one main street, it’s really tough trying to kill 6+ hrs. I had thrown everything into my suitcase, I didn’t even have a book to read.

I am starting to think that traveling solo is not all that it’s cracked up to be. My dining arrangements on ship is at a table with all French speakers. Wow, this makes dining a little stressful. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, stare at the ceiling, look around the room and chew my nails, or pretend that I am listening and just smile. They seem nice, but I can’t understand a word. This is where my husband that speaks several languages would come in handy. Then on top of that, they announce at dinner that there are 20 nationalities present on board. They name off each country and people cheer. They say” United States”—the room is silent, I wave my napkin and my table cheers for me. The host announces again “United States”, I wave again—that’s it, I’m the only American on the ship!

April 4

Another beautiful morning, they have us meet at 7:10am to take the zodiacs to Cape Horn. So cool– we walked up a ton of steps to a monument/statue to the southern most tip of land on the continent (AKA Lands End). Back to the ship for breakfast. It was a leisurely day of documentary films, reading, and watching the dolphins jump along the side the boat.

April 5

Lunch is my favorite part of the day. I love having a buffet, such a variety of strange things, I have to try everything. So many things I cannot identify, I was eating a salad, I think if was fava beans? They were huge and looked like clams, but tasted like beans. This afternoon we went out in the zodiacs again to see Piloto and Nena glacier. This glacier was sky blue, unbelievable. On the way back to the boat I saw a sea lion jump out of the water right next to our zodiac, I was pointing and oohing, no one saw it except for one guy who backed me up. I think people thought I was making it up.

I have been sleeping fantastic while on ship, I’ve even been taking 2 naps a day. It does get a little rough, as I write the ship is tossing quite a bit. I did need a Dramamine today.

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Arriving in Patagonia

South America
March 31 Buenos Aires
My first time flying with AeroMexico, I give them 2 thumbs up!
Arrived Buenos Aires, the line going through customs was a mess. It took me almost 1-1/2 hrs to get out of there. I found the Manuel Tienda Leon tranportation desk, I’d pre-paid for a shuttle to their downtown terminal and planned on taking a taxi to my hotel from there. But for 15 pesos more they said they’d take me straight to the hotel.
My hotel ended up being more like a B&B or a hostel. No sign out front, I’m dropped off at building in a residential neighborhood with a door buzzer. Bonito Boutique is only 5 rooms on the 3rd floor. A girl gives me a key ring with a key to the front door of the building, and a key to my room. Then the staff leaves. Neat old building, I have a window with old fashion shutters and no screen, it was great, I slept with the window open listening to the street noise.
I found a nice Italian restaurant were you could see them making pasta through the window. Of, course I just pointed to things on the menu, it was OK, and it cost me a fortune. I need to remember to bring my Spanish dictionary with me next time, since I have no idea what I’m ordering.
April 1
It is some kind of holiday today and tomorrow. I walked around the neighborhood and everything is closed. I am looking for an ATM, I went to 3 before I found one with money in it. I was getting nervous, I had no pesos for my cab to the airport.
Ushuaia, very touristy and feels like a Colorado ski town. I couldn’t resist a restaurant with a open flame spit roasting whole pig carcass. I just had to have a piece of that and spent way too much on dinner again. Oh well, I have left-overs for lunch anyhow.
April 2
My hosteria is a house in a residential area about 4 blocks from town, I think there are only 5 rooms in here.
Big day today. I took a bus to the Tierra del Fuego National Park where they drop off at a trail head and pick up at the other end. 5-miles is a lot for me, but I thought what the heck, I’ll take my time and make a day of it. It was a beautiful hike, and it got pretty strenuous at times. I had only packed a left over pork chop from last night and a granola bar. I saw some very large woodpeckers, noisy ones at that, they sound just like “Woody” from the cartoon. I was able to complete the hike in 3 hrs, boy was I glad to see civilization, my knees were killing me.
Still some kind of holiday, farmacia cerrado (I need some more Tylenol), restaurants closed, all I could find for dinner was a bar. I had a crab pizza loaded with crab meat.
April 3
Heading to the ship this afternoon. Stay tuned!
DSC_0085

Planning Patagonia part 2

I am about 6 weeks out from leaving on my trip and unfortunately I haven’t had much time to do more in-depth research on dining and things to do in each town. My travel business has been keeping me busy, and that’s a good thing.
The hotels/hostels are booked and I am excited about some of the interesting accommodations I’ve found-
Buenos Aires– Hotel Boutique Bonito ($60/night), this is very small (5 rooms) on the 3rd floor of an old style building. Each room is named and decorated by a different artist. The pictures on the web site look really neat and some rooms have balconies. Another thing the web-site says is each room comes with either a jacuzzi or a scotch douche? Hmmmm, I guess I will wait to be surprised.
Ushuaia– Hosteria Valle Frio ($100/night), This one I chose mainly for the price and location. Hotels in this town are very expensive. This is family owned small homey looking hotel close to the main street in town.
Punta Arenas, Chile– Hotel Rey Don Felipe ($117/night), Same with this one, best price for the location. I wanted to be close as possible to town. This one is probably the nicest of all the hotels on my trip. I am only here for 1/night. Punta Arenas hotels were pretty expensive.
Santiago, Chile– Andes Hostel ($50/night), I’m feeling young now- this hostel has really good rating and is very popular with the backpacker crowd. I’ve booked a private room with a shared bathroom. I like the idea of a hostel because they have common areas were everyone can mingle, and usually lots of other solo travelers. I’ve stayed at hostels several times in the past and it’s always been a good experience. I am here for 2 nights and on my third day my flight doesn’t depart until almost midnight. I decide to book a dorm room for that day @ $18/night so I at least have a place to plomp and store my luggage until leaving.
Yes, I will be a solo traveler for this trip. I have the best husband in the world for agreeing to this. He wasn’t crazy about visiting Patagonia anyway and I asked if I could go alone because I really want my own adventure. When I travel with him he makes it too easy for me. He can always speak the language, deals with the money, and I just follow along behind. I want to be on the frontline and do it myself, It keeps me sharp. The other reason I love traveling alone (and I used to do it a lot) it heightens your senses and you have to stay alert. I see and hear things that I wouldn’t normally observe when chatting with a partner. And for plain ole selfish reasons, I want to go/do/eat, whatever I want, whenever I want.

Planning Patagonia, part 1

How do I get there? The flight plan–
First I bought a ticket from San Antonio to Buenos Aires (EZE), return flight Santiago to San Antonio. I purposely chose AeroMexico because I like the idea of getting out and stretching after 2 -1/2 hours flying time. That way I’d only have a 9-1/2 hours left to go. As appose to flying United, where I’d layover after 40 mins flying time to Houston, and then another 11 hours to BA. If that’s any explanation as to what goes on in my planning side of the brain.  I will arrive in BA on Easter morning 11:25 am. Easter in a South American city should be festive, can’t wait. I will spend 1 day/night there.

Next morning, I fly Aerolineas Agentina. This flight leaves from a different airport (AEP) than I’d arrived, this is probably a regional type airport and it’s practically right in the city. Flight time is 3-1/2 hours non-stop and I arrive in Ushuaia at 18:00. I will stay in Ushuaia for 2-nights. April 3, I embark the Stella Australis ship mid-afternoon and we depart at 20:00 hrs. 100 cabins, 210 passenger capacity, this is a new ship built in 2010.

Stella Australis- Day 1: Cape Horn and Wulaia Bay, Day 2: Piloto And Nena Glaciers, Day 3: Magdalena Island then disembark in Punta Arenas, Chile 11:30 am. I will stay 1-night in PA. April 7, I have an early flight 06:30 (ick) LAN Airlines. There looked to be only 2 flights a day leaving Punta Arenas to Santiago, very early or late afternoon. Flight is about 3-1/2 hours and non-stop.

I will spend 2 nights in Santiago, almost 3 nights, since my flight doesn’t leave until 23:45 on the 3rd day, April 9th. Again, I change planes in Mexico City and arrive back in San Antonio 1:05 pm April 10 (notice, now I return to using the American time when I arrive back in the US:)
Next blog I will color in more details of hotels/hostels and what I plan to do. And the big question– Is she going solo? and why?  Stay tuned!

What was I thinking…Patagonia

Well this all started about 6 mos ago when I started to plan my 50th birthday. I had narrowed my list to Israel, Morocco, and Dubai. Then I was at a travel show and Cruceros Australis cruise line was there. This is an expedition, only 64 cabins, type cruise; and they have travel agent rates. I was intrigued and started reading up on this. I was wide awake at 5 am one morning thinking how does one even get there?  I got up and furiously started planning, my adrenalin was pumping, and by 0615 my route was planned.

My fascination with this area is that I can get as far away from civilization as possible. I love that it’s referred to as the End of the Earth, or Land’s End. What would it be like to be in such a pure environment, absence of noise pollution? I’m always wondering where can you go anymore where there are no planes in the sky, and no buzzing electric lines. What does silence sound like? I like to day dream that I’ll be on that boat and all you can hear is the wind, waves, and ice chunks clanking on the sides. I hope they turn the boat off so I can listen. Another thought that crossed my mind was that if you have a medical emergency and it’s your time to die, you die. No intervention, no ambulance to save you. That is a little scary.
Patagonia to be continued…