Rolling tobacco in Latin America and South East Asia

This article should be useful for the roll-your-own-cigarette smokers on their travels. From my own experience it is virtually impossible to get any information about where to get baccy, how much does it cost and what brand to pick in South East Asian and Latin American markets.

Duty free vs street price

To cut the long story short: get your stash at the Duty Free shop on the airport before leaving your country. It will cost you less than if buying baccy in most of the places in South and Central Americas, Thailand and Laos. As far as I know, you can only score a cheaper Drum or Golden Virginia in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Except for paying less for your tobacco, you will also spare some time searching for places that sell rollies (there’s not so many of them) as well as you will know what you’re getting because many brands in South and Central Americas are completely unknown for a Westerner. In case you are interested in more details, please read further. FIY, for SEA scroll further down.

Moral note

Before I start, I need to say that I understand that tobacco has a bad influence on our health but at the same time as it could be good for one’s soul. Anyway, this piece will be mentioning brands of tobacco but there are no advertising revenue or any kind of profit-related intentions involved on my end. It only intends to be barely a shopping guide for us, the niche market baccy smokers.

IMHO, Domingo was arguably the best smoke in the whole Latin America

Where to get the rolling tobacco in Latin America?

The most baccy rolling people and therefore the most choices as well as shops to get rolling tobacco I’ve seen in the whole Latin world was Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires. In Chile, I’ve seen many of the 100% organic types of tobacco in the major tourist destinations. Due to having a large stash from Argentina while being in Uruguay, I don’t know much about the options there – from the occasional checks – I haven’t seen much rolling tobacco going on.

In Bolivia I’ve once came across one American Spirit in La Paz and that’s it. Peru had some OK-ish choices in Cusco and Lima. In Ecuador I haven’t been able to find any and in Colombia it is not very common to smoke rollies either but you can get some baccy but I can’t say that I’d buy those brands again.

As for Central Americas, I could not find any baccy in Panama. Costa Rica had some expensive choices, in Nicaragua I could only buy baccy in San Juan del Sur and after a long search, I scored new packa of Domingo in Granada. Guatemala was perfect, especially in all of its popular tourist destinations so I got the stash for my stay Mexico, I therefore consequently don’t know much about the options there.

Apologies but I don’t know much about options in Brazil, Guyana, Honduras and El Salvador. Please let me know about those in case you have an experience with buying baccy there. IMHO, Guatemala and Argentina remain the easiest countries to get baccy in Latin Americas.

Generally, I believe that due to an occasional demand, you should be able get baccy in every major city or tourist destination but somewhere you might have to work hard (search&move and search&move some more) in order to get it.

Look for tabaquerias (Google can help here) but be prepared that they might not be selling rolling tobacco among all that 1000 kinds of cigars in every tabaqueria. Asking for a tobacco para liar and making the hand gestures usually does the job of describing what you want. As you might know, the rolling tobacco is not very common here and people often don’t know about it in some tobacco shops at all.

Prices or rolling tobacco in South America

Many of my friends were advising me of buying tobacco products here in SA as they were meant to be theoretically cheaper. That is a myth, because at least in 90% of cases it was a wee bit more expensive than for example in Germany. The 30gram package goes from about 3,30, in the recession-hit Argentina but in most cases think more like €4-6 for a package for an unknown mediocre-to-shit brands. Guatemala is also on the cheaper end €5.80 for 40gr package of Domingo.

Furthermore, please note that the prices are not fixed – varying up to a 30% difference within a city. Generally, the smaller the demand gets, the more expensive baccy becomes. For example in Lima I came across Drum and Van Nelle. The price was nearly €15,- for 50 grams, while Stanley went for about a third of that price.

Honorable mention(s): Caney and Señor Azteca

Brands of rolling tobacco in South America

Because you can’t open and smell the package prior to purchasing it, this was a trial and error kind of method for me. I’ve bought many different brands and only some of them would be reaching the higher average levels. Very rarely I would be 100% satisfied.

My “methodology” was asking for a húmedo tobacco because the Dutch-type humid baccy is my preference (as opposed to seco/dry) and then picking a brand based on if it said halfzware and what was my instinct telling me about the name of the product. For example I assumed if something is called Amsterdamer – it could be a dutch type of baccy, which has backfired on many occasions, like in this particular case 😀

Unfortunately, the outcome of this trial and error method was that some 70% of tobacco I’ve purchased was mediocre or even of worse quality. Except Pueblo and Pepe, the only brands from those I came across in SA that was known to me was the ever mediocre Turner, which I have resulted in purchasing because most of the other brands were just worse.

Brands to avoid

1: Deer (purchased in Colombia). The only thing about this baccy that is nearly right is its name. If it was called Oh Dear – the name would be perfect. Avoid if you can.

2: Amsterdamer (Argentina). The name is as misleading as it can get. Avoid if you can.

3: Look Out (Argentina and Peru). Yes – watch out for this one. Avoid if you can.

Smokable Dutch-type brands:

1: Domingo (Nicaragua, Guatemala). Drum-like baccy. Arguably the best I’ve smoked from the local market brands but it kinda kills your taste buds when you smoke a bit more. But the 25 grams for €5.37 it’s not really a bargain, especially when you consider the fact that the rizlas in Nicaragua could be up to €1.60 are at and filters at €2.55 – it’s all but a bargain): Update: In Guatemala you get 40grams for 50,-Quetzals, which is about €5.80

2: Pepe (Argentina, Peru). It’s a known brand one can get in Europe sometimes. Actually rather good smoke after Look Outs and Amsterdamers but at 30grams for €4,80 it was rather expensive.

3: Flandria Original (Argentina). OK-ish Drum-like baccy if no better smoke is available. At 30 grams for €3,50 in Buenos Aires it was about the cheapest OK-ish baccy I’ve came across. The price is however relative as Argentina’s currency is currently experiencing a horrible recession.

4: Stanley (Peru). Almost Drum-like baccy. 30gr @ €6.35.

Smokable Virginia tobacco brands:

1: Flandria Virginia (Argentina). It states: English Virgina and the slogan is kind of right.

2: Stanley Virginia (Peru). OK-ish Virgina type. Smokable.

3: Sauvage (Costa Rica). This is a suggestion of a dude called Mvg. I’ve skipped this baccy due to its price of nearly €9 but he or she says that it’s rather good baccy.

Organic/100% natural/dry types that are the mostly known:

1: Pueblo

2: American Spirit

3: Raw

Honorable mentions

1: Caney (Colombia). Cigar-like rolling tobacco. Interesting, different and rather strong tobacco.

2: Señor Azteca Halzware Shag (Nicaragua). A bit dry but OK-ish, dutch-type like baccy. I believe it’s made in EU for Central American market..

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Prices and places to get rolling tobacco in SEA

Vietnam – get it at any major larger tourist destinations like Sa Pa, Hanoi, Saigon or Hoi An. Prices vary from about €4-10 for a 50grams of Drum, depending mainly on your haggling skills.

LaosLuang Prabang had few places to get tobacco but as far as I remember – it wasn’t cheap (I’ve had my own duty free stash so I didn’t investigate much)

Cambodia – I’ve seen cheap Drum in Sihanoukville, 50 grams for about €4.

Thailand – bring your own unless you want to pay €11-15 for a 50gram Drum package. If you are desperate and not keen on the Thai local hard core baccy – you can get those in major tourist destinations.

Where to smoke in Latin America

As for the actual enjoyment the products mentioned above, Latin America is rather “European”, which means that in spite the extremely privilege-level kind of taxes, you can’t really use the products as freely as the weight of those taxes suggests. I haven’t been in Paraguay, Brazil and the north-west countries yet but as for the rest, you will not be able to light up indoors in most places, except Bolivia and Nicaragua.

The most hardcore anti-smoking probably was Panama. Personally, I’ve got a natural self-imposed smoking-ban and I would not smoke in closed spaces in front of kids or just other non-smokers but there are reasonable boundaries that could be crossed when using common sense. This was the case in Panama, where it went to stupid lengths because I had to step away from the open air windy terrace, where I was sitting alone. In Ecuador for example, it was OK if your neighbors were OK with it.

In Colombia, smoking ban covers also many terraces that are glass-fenced (for sad reasons I’ll get to in another text), which makes it very difficult to find a café where you can enjoy the beverage and cigarette at the same time i.e. in Bogotá or Medellín. As far as I know you will be able to smoke on terraces in Argentina, Chile, Peru and sometimes in Ecuador either.

Having to leave the non-smoking terrace to have a ciggy, even if there are no people could come with massive benefits, because you can make friends such as in this case @ Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Peace&puff ;jb

Mexico’s Mayan Riviera and a bit beyond

Due to numerous cheap flights, many Western travellers either enter or exit the Latin World via Cancún, Mexico. If you are like me AKA not-keen-on-resorts kinda person, you will want to skip the city in order to find a more – let’s call it – authentic locations. Mayan Riviera unfortunately doesn’t come with many of those but if you head further inland, you might find few suitable places.

To be honest, Mexico wasn’t really on the list for this particular trip of mine but during the few days I spent in there, I’ve managed to get to feel sorry for myself that I haven’t reserved more time to explore the country a bit more. In other words, I loved those non-resorty parts of Yucatán, even from the little taste of the place, I’ve managed to get. The cuisine, the people, the atmosphere, it was all suddenly somehow different to most of the places I’ve seen south of its border. However, I’ve had only 10 days to end my trip, so I can’t exactly call myself an expert of the region.

FYI, I’m mainly going to talk about about the few places I’ve visited (Bacalar, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Valladoid). This text is therefore suitable mainly for a person who’s ending their trip in Latin Americas and want’s to get a little taste of Mexico with limited time left in a no-rush mode, because the mode of resting for few days before heading back to the work-life is already on the table.

Bacalar

My first taste of Mexico was a small town of Bacalar and within minutes I loved the place. About an hour drive from the town of Chetumal on the Belizan border, Bacalar serves as a first stop for many travellers arriving from Belize or from the south-eastern Guatemala. We are apparently talking about a classic Mexican colonial town of a small size. It’s very friendly and after Guatemala’s Flores it’s also affordable. Well, except the accommodation, which wasn’t cheap at all.

The major attraction in Bacalar is its lagoon. The 43km long and 2km wide shallow turquoise waters are reminiscent of Maledives, from the beauty’s perspective. Just pick one of the many tour operators and they will take you to all basic attractions the lagoon comes with, covering various lake cenotes and the Pirates Channel, all just in few hours.

FYI, the lagoon’s shore is filled with luxury mansions and hotels. The further away from the lake one goes, the more authentic as well as economic it gets. I’ve stayed in the city barely a block and a half from the main square, the shore however appeared as a very romantic place so don’t be shy to spend few extra bucks if you were around with your loved one 😉

Maldives in Mexico AKA Bacalar Lagoon

Tulum

Tulum is arguably the first resort in Mayan Riviera or even in the whole of Mexico. Instead of rich Mexicans and Americans, this resort was built for Mayan kings long time before the Spanish showed up in the region. Nowadays, there are however as many as “3 Tulums“, all withing a short distance from each-other.

Reachable by numerous collectivos (shared taxis) that continuously run between them the whole day, the “3 Tulums” are: the famous Tulum ruins, Tulum Pueblo AKA the town surrounding the highway as well as the modern Tulum Playa area filled with flashy hotels and restaurants.

Tulum ruins in the early morning

Except the Caribbean cost, the major attraction however still remains to be the archaeological site. The ruins of Tulum stand out mainly because its location. The site that reached its peak between 13th and 15th centuries has by the way managed to remain independent for about 70 years since the conquistadors began occupying Mexico.

From the tourist point of view, prepare yourself for large crowds when visiting this attractive archaeological site. I have managed to wake up early to beat the masses to the place and I must say that I was delighted to have the place nearly for myself for a while.

From the last picture in the gallery picture above it’s however quite clear that it didn’t take long before it felt like any other overcrowded tourist attraction in the world. So wakey wakey – it’s 7am – grab a coffee and a croissant from the local bakery and get moving 😉

Tulum ruins

Playa del Carmen

I admit, this was my first major research error, when searching for a non-Cancún place within the close proximity to the international airport. I won’t bother you with extended description of this place. Playa del Carmen is a classic busy resorty destination with a bit of a toxic atmosphere, where predatory tourist industry rules everything. It’s basically a smaller Cancún.

The city’s main gringo strip is Quinta Avenida AKA the 5th Avenue. It is a pedestrian cobblestone street that spans for 20-odd blocks, filled with million restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping centres, drug dealers, “massage therapists” and other various overpriced services. Not being my cuppa tea, I left the town asap.

seaweed infested beach in Playa del Carmen

Valladoid

Valladoid, on the other hand, is a pretty colonial town of nearly 50 000 people. Compared to the coastal places, it’s less touristy, cheaper and the overall feeling makes it feel like more real Mexico. I wouldn’t know what a real Mexico is yet but that is what the locals told me. The whole city had overall a good and friendly vibe. Not too much, not too touristy – just nice, friendly, slow and welcoming – I like Valladoid.

Valladolid or Saki’ in Mayan was set up in 1543 by conquistadors. The city’s vibrant history is projected in a form of animated movie every evening on a iconic building of Convent of San Bernardino de Siena every evening for the spectators. This is also where the city walking tour ends so the tourists can enjoy their coffee, Margarita or Corona in a beautiful park surrounding the convent.

Parroquia de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladoid, Mexico

Cenotes

Except the strolls around the town combined with drinking coffees and enjoying the local cuisine in one of the stylish restaurants, one can enjoy swimming in the stunning cenotes (natural subterranean swimming pools), the whole region is filled with. Paradox is that the least busy and arguably the best of all of them was Cenote Zaci, the one that is right in town. For a small fee of 30,- Pesos (€1.45) you’re in for a unforgettable treat.

The neighbouring cenotes of Xeken and Samula are reachable by collectivos that are located near the city’s bus terminal. You can also walk there or rent a push bike if you can deal with the heat. The entry fee for both of them is just 125,-Pessos (€5.90).

As I’ve mentioned above, there’s certain contrast between the arriving travellers and those who are ending their trip here. For me personally it was funny and also a bit melancholic feeling to see people in a mood I’ve been nearly 8 months ago when I started my journey around Latin Americas in Santiago de Chile. But the experience of swimming in Cenote Zaci was the ending of an epic trip I could not have hoped for 🙂

Other possible locations to visit in the area

Yucatán is a large peninsula and there’s certainly plenty to see. I was told to head to the northern coast that’s apparently less touristy (it still is touristy, only a bit less) and there’s not sea weed problem that has been giving headaches to the hotel owners on the Western coast.

How to get there

Public transport as well as the quality of roads in this part of the world is at the 1st World level. There are numerous connections – just ask at any bus terminal.

  • Flores (Guatemala) – Bacalar: (via Belize City): 9hrs @ 270,-GTQ (€31)
  • Bacalar to Tulum: 160mins @ 202,-MX (€9.30)
  • Tulum to Playa del Carmen: 80mins @ 88,-MX (€4.10)
  • Playa del Carmen to Valladoid: 160mins @ 138,-MX (€6.40)
  • Valladoid to Cancún Airport: 3hrs, excl the change in Cancún BUs Terminal @ 296,-MX (€13.60)

Stay

  • Bacalar: Posada Palma Cola de Pescado. This is an Airbnb place, located just a block and a half from the main square. Private room with AC, a cute little coffee table, shelves as well as some sort of wardrobey thing to hang clothes, this was wee bit more than just a basic place. With shared bathroom it was @ $22 USD/per night. Given the price (2nd lowest I found) and location for what Bacalar had to offer it was OK. It could do with a paint job though but I’d pick the place again if I came back.
  • Tulum: Casa Jungla, private room @ 257,-MX (€11.80). One of the cheapest places to stay in Tulum Pueblo. It’s located in a residential area about 7-10 minutes walk from the city centre, more important fact to be aware of however is that it’s a bit of an informal place. In other words, it’s not exactly a Hilton. If you are liberal and non-conformist kinda person, you will most likely like it. Run by a friendly Chilean dude. I’d recommend the place to my alternative friends
  • Playa del Carmen: PERFECT SPOT *downtown *close to beach *CASA PIÑA. This is an Airbnb place. Close to the centre, 5 mins walk to the beach. Well organised, well maintained, run by a friendly Mexican dude. It came fully furnished, with few homey touches. At 11.25 USD for private room with shared bathroom, it was also one of the cheapest options in Playa del Carmen. I’d recommend the place to my mates
  • Valladoid: Valladoid Hostel, formerly known as Spanglish Hostel. Nice private room @ 220,-MX (€10.10), one of the cheapest in town. Friendly staff, clean place with nice garden and not so clean pool. The room came with some concrete shelves and table, private bathroom. I’d recommend the place to my mates on a budget

Border fees:

  • Guatemala: Nada. Zero. Guatemala is the only Central American country without any border fees. Congratulations Guatemala.
  • Belize: Exit fee of $17USD, if you stay for less than 24hrs, after that it’s extra $7.50
  • Mexico: 558,-MX (€26.50) entry fee, if you are planning to stay in the country for 7 or more days. This fee is normally included in your flight upon your arrival to Mexico by plane. Some airlines include that fee even in your exit flight. However, if you are entering by land, you apparently have to pay that fee on the border. FYI, there was a couple who’s flight out of Mexico had that fee included and they had to pay the fee anyway.
Cenote X’keken

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Guatemala: Semuc Champey, Flores and Tikal ruins

If you are heading north from Lake Atitlán you’ll be presented with a dilemma. You can either head straight north to Mexico’s Chiapas region or head north-east towards Belize through Guatemala. While Chiapas certainly belongs to highlights-of-the-trip category for many travellers, the other option wasn’t meant to be without its perks either.

Not being entirely sure about my decision to pick the latter option, I was later gifted with some of the best memories I’ve collected over the entire trip: the super-special day at Semuc Champey and a sunset in a jungle at a very Indiana Jones-like Tikal ruins. The words ‘magic moments’ push themselves to be used here and so they should be.

Semuc Champey from the viewpoint

Semuc Champey

As I’ve mentioned here before, the distances covered in Guatemala could be rather painful, which presented me with an opportunity to break the trip from Atitlán to Flores in two. Such thing happens to every traveller who’s got time.

Most of the breaks could be all right but none of them was special for me until now. Semuc Champey was the best long-distance trip breaker ever, in fact it was much better than many main/major tourist destinations I’ve visited in over 7 months.

Semuc Champey from the view point

Semuc Champey or “where the river hides under the stones” in Q’eqchi, is a magical place near the town of Lanquín in Central Guatemala. It wasn’t easy to get here as the promised 7hrs trip took us nearly 9 hours but it was all well worth it. I was personally lucky to have picked El Retiro to stay at, a nice place with massive garden by the river, from which I’ve also booked the tour.

We all know that there are many super-special days in one’s life (I bloody hope there are) and the day I’ve spent at Semuc Champey belongs to that category without a doubt. I can go on with superlatives forever. It’s a perfect and stunning place that present a visitor with fun semi-adrenaline activities, such as exploring the cave with a candle light, in which one has to swim or jump through holes into darkness. It also comes with rope swings and opportunities to jump into the waterfall from quite high.

The tour will later take you to a view point with stunning views after which you can swim in a turquoise waters of Semuc Champey. Some tours also come with the after-activity, which is tubing down the river where the local kids will sell you a cold beer to make it all even better 😉 It’s basically one of those days one will never forget, a day at the end of which you are entirely happy 🙂 Thanks Semuc 🙂

tranquil waters at the bottom of the cascades

Flores

It wasn’t easy to get to Semuc and it was even harder to get out of there. The alleged 8 hour journey to Flores is apparently never 8 hours. I’ve heard of 11 hour trips and so on. Before booking the shuttle, I had no idea that I will be part of an epic, record breaking 17 hour trip.

Colours of Flores

First we have faced a local school sport games 2 hour break, which was OK ‘cos we have waited next to a nice café. But when the already technically poor bus with horrible gearbox caught fire, creating 5+ hour break in the garage in the middle of nowhere was only fun for the local lads staring at two pretty gringas from OZ playing Limbo Stick.

more colours of Flores

Well, we did make it to Flores, a cute little town one can walk across in 10 minutes at about 1am. Like the whole Latin World, it comes with colourful buildings but I wouldn’t call them the prettiest I’ve seen. The architecture was however balanced by the fact that the whole town is a little island on a pretty lake so yep, Flores is nice and it could serve as a place to take a little break.

sunset in Flores

Tikal

About two hours away from Flores, a visitor can explore some of the coolest Mayan ruins in the region. What makes them stand out to other ruins (there’s many) is the immense 57,600 hectares of the park itself that lies within a 2 112 940 hectares (21,1km2) Maya Biosphere Reserve protected area.

Tikal

The jungle goes on forever and while you can’t see it in the distance – you can feel it as well as hear it. The life there, the silence, especially towards the end of a day, when colours begun to change was an unforgettable experience. Magic again 🙂

Tikal and the immense jungle

The site itself dates back as far as the 1 000 BC, however the major constructions were built at about 400–300 BC. Tikal‘s population peak is estimated to had been between 10 000 and 90 000 inhabitants, peaking at about 700 – 830 AD.

magic sunset in Tikal

The city of Tikal has covered an area greater than 16km2, including about 3 000 structures. I’ve mentioned that it is reminiscent of Indiana Jones movies, it was however parts of Apocalypto that was filmed here.

jungle, sunset, ruins of Tikal and the best soundtrack ever

How to get there + how much

  • Panajachel (Lake Atitlán) – Lanquín: 190,-GTQ (€21,70) 8-11hrs
  • Semuc Champey: day tour 185,-GTQ (€21,20) 8am – 5-6pm
  • Lanquín – Flores: 110,-GTQ (€12,60) should be 8-11 hrs
  • Tikal Tour: 85,-GTQ (€9,70) 2hrs + 150,-GTQ (€17,20) park entry + 100,-GTQ (€11,10) for the sunset extra time

Stay

  • Lanquín: There appears to be several hostels in town. I was personally very happy with my choice: Retiro Lanquin. As I’ve mentioned above, it came with a huge garden and nice bar by the river. If I’ve picked private, I would have loved the place but the dorm was generously spacious and I was only there for two nights. If there were mosquito nets, there would be nothing to complain about.
  • Flores: The major party hostel appeared to be Los Amigos Youth Hostel. I’ve however picked Hotel Aurora to have an option of no party. For $11,-USD per night with bathroom, it was the cheapest private room I could find. It was better than OK and I slept well. The room was spacious and the place had a great terrace. I guess that’s it’s an OK place to stay if you’re on a budget and want to sleep in a private.
later on into the sunset from a different perspective, still with the best soundtrack ever

Other possible destinations in Guatemala

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Guatemala: Antigua and Lake Atitlán

Much has been written about Lake Atitlán as well as the town of Antigua Guatemala, everything mostly in a positive fashion. I admit that both places deserve compliments, although my subjective input here would not keep them in the same league. While Antigua certainly is one of the nicer colonial towns on a gringo trail, Lake Atitlán is far more that just another nice lake – it’s stunning and it’s also special. Below, I will try to explain what I mean by that.

Antigua from the viewpoint Cerro de La Cruz

La Antigua Guatemala

Located in Panchoy Valley, only about 40km from Guatemala City, La Antigua Guatemala is the best and fastest escape from the rather unpopular capital for most of the travellers. Known for its well preserved colonial Baroque-ish architecture, this UNESCO World Heritage site offers many stylish cafés and restaurants as well as rather vibrant nightlife.

Like many of the Spanish colonial towns in the continent, the city is laid out around its main square in pattern, with streets running north to south and from west to east. Many of Antigua‘s 35 thousand inhabitants make living out of the well oiled tourist-industry machine, the region benefits from. It’s close proximity to Monterrico beach or volcanoes Fuego and Acatenango as well as to numerous other attractions gives Antigua a lot of attractive treks and other various “tourist boxes” to be ticked.

Antigua from the other side (as opposed to the classic cliché featured image)

As opposed to hot Pacific coast, as well as pretty much most of the places I went through, coming here from the south, the city is blessed with pleasant climate, which makes it also one of the favourite locations where many travellers decide to take a little break to study Spanish. The numerous language schools located in the town apparently come with a good reputation.

Plaza Mayor

During the weekend, Antigua turns into a bit of a yuppie haven AKA a social playground for the capital’s youth top ten thousand. If you’ve been to Brighton or Valencia during the weekend, you know what I mean. I personally can’t say that it’s my scene but if you search only a bit harder, there are several cool spots to enjoy the alternative crowd as well as the soundtrack that fits my non-mainstream requirements – to mention at least one of them – check out Cafe No Sé if you are around 😉

Antigua is one of the prettier colonial towns

Lake Atitlán

Lago de Atitlán is located about 50km northwest of Antigua at about 1560 meters above the sea level in Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The alleged 2,5 hrs journey turned nearly 4hrs however doesn’t reflect the distance as it happens in quite a few cases when travelling in Guatemala.

Atitlán translates as “between the waters” in the Aztec language. The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous space created by a sinkhole from which volcano erupted 84 000 years ago. It makes it a deepest lake in Central America with a maximum depth of about 340 metres.

Look at her, puffing away. Volcán de Fuego as seen from Antigua

Lake’s shore could drop or rise rather visibly within weeks, which fuels the mysterious rumours of the unknown depth where many bodies of the Mayan predecessors being frozen-buried in the depths of the lake. Several Mayan archeological sites have however been found at the lake approximately 16m under the surface making those rumours rather unrumourly…

Surrounded by 3 volcanoes and steep hills, the lake is a home to numerous towns and villages, Adventurous Kate nicely describes here in further detail. The culture of the villages surrounding the lake is influenced by the Mayans, arguably the most happy and friendly people I’ve came across in Central Americas. That should serve as rather proper illustration of how I felt about the locals.

Lago de Atitlán

When it comes to the surroundings, I will borrow the words of a master here:

“Lake Como [famous pretty lake in Italy] it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”

Aldous Leonard Huxley: Beyond the Mexique Bay

In conclusion, IMHO, while Antigua Guatemala is a pretty little colonial town which I would only recommend to visit if you are in the area, Lake Atitlán is different. It’s a place well worth spending far more time getting there. Why? It’s a stunning place where I felt good, creative happy and energised.

It’s that sort of place people talk about when mentioning that it has a special energy, whatever that means. It’s a place that makes one to stay much longer than anticipated. It’s stunning, it’s friendly and it has great energy – in other words – it’s special.

Pretty village of Santa Catarina

How to get there?

There are numerous shuttle companies one can take from Guatemala City’s airport straight to Antigua. The journey apparently takes from 45 minutes to several hours. I’ve travelled there from El Tunco (El Salvador) and the 8hrs/$12 journey through Honduran coastline was rather stunning – a word of advice – sit on the left side 😉

As for Antigua – Lake Atitlán, instead of the advertised 2,5 hours, it took about 4hrs for 80 Quetzals (€9,20). There are numerous agents offering the same trip for different prices like it happens in these parts of the world…

Off the Terrace of Don Chema Hostal at San Pedro

Stay

  • Antigua: I’ve stayed in La Quinta AKA the cheapest place for the private room in town. Because of the reviews, I’ve picked the room with shared bathroom to avoid the smell caused most likely by an outdated canalisation system. FYI, this place is more about serving a function, rather than offering much comfort. But getting my own room for $5.50USD didn’t have me expecting much either. It could get a bit noisy there the air could stink a bit from time to time but I can’t say that the place was unbearable. I’ve actually extended my stay ‘cos it did have some bizarre character, plus it was located rather centrally.
  • Lake Atitlán: I’ve stayed in two different places in San Pedro La Laguna. Hotel Don Chema was located in a residential area, about 15 minutes walk to the centre. The Mayan lady who is running the place was very friendly and attentive. For $10,-USD, I’ve had a huge room for myself with in suite bathroom. The place had a terrace with amazing view over the lake. After over a week I have switched to cheaper and bit more social Hotel Paraíso. For $6,-USD, I’ve had a basic private room with bathroom. It wasn’t a Hilton but for the price, it was much better than one would expect. In Panajachel, I’ve stayed in ABU Hostel in a dorm for $5.50USD. The staff was very friendly and informative and there was also a nice little garden

Border fees

  • Panama: Entry fee was reported to be $3,-USD by some people, I wasn’t asked to pay one. Exit fee was $3,-USD. Many travellers reported that they have needed to show the proof of onward travel. I’ve purchased the bestonwardticket.com for $12,-USD but I wasn’t asked to provide it. Flying out is however apparently $40,-USD (:0
  • Costa Rica: No entry fee. Exit fee is $7,-USD. You might need to show a proof of onward travel. I have passed without one.
  • Nicaragua: Entry fee was $13 ($12 + $1), exit was $3,-USD
  • Honduras: Entry fee of $3,-USD
  • El Salvador: Nada
  • Guatemala: Nada
Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Panajachel @ Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Local Legends

In case you are interested in local legends, please read here about an interesting and rather divisive figure of Maximón.

Other possible destinations in Guatemala

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Nicaragua: history’s roller-coaster

The whole region of South and Central America has very vibrant history, filled with twists, horrible civil wars, coups and dictatorships as well as foreign intervention, notably by Spain, Portugal, Britain and USA. In case you were interested, here are few historical events that took place in Nicaragua.

Please excuse my interpretation of those horrible acts. I’m not a historian and this piece is not intended to be a serious academic piece. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I was conducting some research for my previous text and as a result of that, I’ve decided to compile some of the most bizarre historical events that took place here.

FYI, when it comes to facts, those I’ve double-checked with at least two different sources to to bullshit you, the potential reader. Let’s get on it then.

Coups, Civil Wars and invasions

If I’m counting well, since its independence of Spain in 1821, Nicaragua went through two civil wars, 4 dictatorships, a partial invasion of Britain and two invasions of the USA. Those numbers might be different, depending on where you ask. Anyway, here’s a question to illustrate this love-and-hate relationship between Nica and USA: have you known that in 1945, Nicaragua was even recognized as a charter member of the USA?

Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Anyway. Let’s start at the beginning. The name of the country comes from a local indigenous tribe Nicarao and it was coined in 1522 by one of the numerous Spanish “explorers” whom were browsing through Americas at the time. The Spanish word agua was added because the tribe lived around the present day Lake Nicaragua. A year later, another “explorer” from the same country Francisco Hernández de Córdoba conquested the territory. And the country even called it’s currency after him (:0

From Atlantic to Pacific via Nicaragua

Moving on to 1800s. Before the construction of Panama Canal (1914), there was no inter-oceanic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, if you don’t count Tierra del Fuego‘s routes. One of the major trade routes between New York City and San Francisco therefore ran through southern Nicaragua.

Basically, back then it was possible to take the ships up the San Juan river right to Granada and Rivas on Lake Nicaragua, making the cities de facto Caribbean ports. From Rivas the transport went on using stagecoaches through the narrow stretch of land to the pacific coast.

Nicaragua’s inter-oceanic trade route. Photo: stumhistorymedia.org

I guess that this sufficiently illustrates how strategic this route was at the time. As a result of that importance and the money it was generating, in 1850 USA and Great Britain sign the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty granting them access to this trade route through Nicaraguan territory.

Nicaragua was then ruled by a self-imposed president/filibuster William Walker from Nashville, Tennessee. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve begun this story in my previous piece about Granada vs León when I got hooked on the twists that the greedy human nature brought upon Nicaraguan people. To pick up the events from there, let’s see how it all ended up for Mr Walker.

Basically, concerned about any possible expansions of Walker‘s influence, the armies of Nicaragua’s Central American neighbours took him out just as he was preparing to do the same to them. During the offensive, Walker and his mates managed to contaminate the water, which resulted in 10 000 deaths among Costa Rican as well as Nicaraguan people.

The final act of Walker‘s mercenaries was to burn Granada down to ashes (1856) when they were surrounded by 4,000 Costa Rican, Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan troops. Walker escaped bu he was later executed in Honduras where he attempted yet another filibustering coup.

Granada, Nicaragua

The nearest major event for Nicaragua took place in 1894, when a liberal General José Santos Zelaya López first kicked off the British of Nicaragua’s east (Mosquito) coast (they have remained a bit longer in what is Belize now) and then established dictatorship for himself. Yep – that is not a typo – that’s “liberal military dictatorship” (:0

Nevertheless his treatment of democracy, Zelaya also introduced the country to some progressive policies, such as equal rights, property guarantees, compulsory vote, the protection of arts and industry, minority representation and improvement of the public education.

Zalaya furthermore promoted the sovereignty as well as the re-unification of Central American nations, which didn’t make him very popular figure in the US. As a result of that, in 1909 US military overthrown Zalaya‘s regime, imposing the puppet government, including the installments of US military bases in Nicaragua. Later on, there was more treaties signed with the USA in exchange of cash for various puppet presidents.

Sandinistas

The next major event is another Civil/Guerilla War between the independence rebellion led by Augusto Sandino and Mr. Mocanda, one of the puppet presidents of Nicaragua. Sandinistas have managed to expel the US military from the country in 1934.

However, at the time, there already a new figure emerging, whom was to affect Nicaragua’s future. His name was General Anastasio Somosa and he was in charge of Nicaraguan National Guard.

To cut the long story short, in 1934, Somoza managed to assassinate Sandino, whom meanwhile became local hero. Supported by the US, Somoza then commenced a dynasty that maintained absolute and brutal control over Nicaragua for 55 years.

Meeting of General Somoza and General Sandino in the presidential palace. That same night Sandino was assassinated by orders of Somoza. Foto LA PRENSA/INCA

In the coming years, Somoza and his family used the military to intervene in Costa Rica as well as Dominican Republic on the Uncle’s Sam behalf. Nicaragua was also used as a base to invade Cuba in 1966.

The regime was brutal and various assassinations of political opponents weren’t exactly off the menu. The dynasty cringed on to power until 1978, even after the devastating earthquake in Managua (1972) that killed 6000 people.

The last drop for the Somoza dynasty proved to be a murder of an anti-Somoza journalist Joaquín Chamorro. Another Civil War broke, with the anti-Somoza guerrilla forces (FSLN) launch a violent uprising against the Somoza regime, forcing its leaders to flee Nicaragua to Miami in 1979.

The political control of the country was then shifted to a junta, which ruled Nicaragua until 1985. Curios fact is that among the junta members also was Violeta Chamorro, the widow of the murdered journalist.

Ortega

In 1985, FSLN with Daniel Ortega wins elections. Mr Ortega however didn’t blush much and begun his ruling period with a classic dictatorship style by declaring a state of national emergency and suspension of the civil rights pretty much straight-away.

Reagan‘s administration was already funding the Contras to undermine the Sandinista/Ortega regime. The ten-year bloody Civil War war followed at cost of 60 000 lives and nearly 200 billion dollars, not to mention its devastating effects on Nicaraguan economy and infrastructure.

Was this the reason why was Henry Kissinger awarded the Nobel Peace Prize or was it because of Chile? Argentina? Who knows?

present day Nicaragua’s iconic chicken bus

In 1988, the devastated country was hit by a Hurricane Hugo. Ortega was forced to agree to hold a round of peace talks with Contras, reaching a temporary truce, ending the Civil War as well as his dictatorship, well the latter for now.

The 1990 election was won by the moderate UNO Coalition candidate and Violeta Chamorro (yes, her again) was elected president of Nicaragua. While Chamorro improved the diplomatic relations with the USA, Ortega‘s FSLN party still kept the majority of support in Nicaragua.

We are almost at present day now. Nicaragua has democratic election process now as Ortega did not fight the 1997 election results that went 49 to 39% in favour of Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo, the Liberal Party candidate over FSLN, although he got back in power since the 2006 elections.

Moving on to 2019, Ortega is still around and last year’s protests that brought the country to a standstill did not look like he’s changed much. I guess that dictators don’t change back to revolutionaries as it often happens the other-way around. An estimated 500 people died and some just disappeared.

Will this ever end for Nicaraguans?

Daniel bloody Ortega is still around (:0

Other destinations in Nicaragua

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Nicaragua: Granada vs León

In this piece, I’ll first explain some historical events that took places in those two cities to give you a taste of the rivalry between them. Because both, Granada and León are rather picturesque towns, I’ll give you quite a few photos to illustrate that. We will also take a brief look at nightlife in both cities as well as how to get there from San Juan del Sur.

A bit of history first

OK. Once upon a time, there was a República Federal de Centroamérica (1823-1841). It was a bloc of countries and regions (present day’s Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) that signed the declaration of independence of Spain in 1821. Surprisingly it was a peaceful process – but I you have guessed that they have started fighting each-other pretty much straight-away, you are unfortunately right.

Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral, Granada

With Mexico’s annexations of the new sovereign territories, things evolved fast and pretty much as they always did around the globe throughout human history. There was blood. Then came the Nicaexit (1839) and here we are, in sovereign Nicaragua. If you thought that there was peace after that, you are unfortunately wrong.

So once upon a time there were Liberals and Conservatives, the best inter-oceanic route available at the time and an abolition of slavery. To crush their Conservative opposition from Granada, León‘s liberals hired a mercenary William Walker to help them to end the ongoing bloody civil war.

The Assumption Cathedral of León

Manifest Destiny

However, the Nashville born “adventurer” Walker had different plans. This was in 1855 and therefore it was during the infamous Manifest Destiny era, which pretty much stated that the people of United States are destined by God, to expand its dominion across the entire North American continent.

La Merced Church, Granada

Walker managed to seize Granada but then he declared himself a president of Nicaragua, establishing Granada as a capital – what a silly irony León, innit? His first “presidential” decree was to sanction slavery in Nicaragua, which was celebrated by many wealthy people north of Mexico. The US president Franklin Pierce recognized Walker‘s regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua in 1856.

Almost unreal, right? And the more reading I’ve done upon this subject, the more I’ve kept diving deeper into it because it kept being first class crazy. Not to overload this piece with history, I decided to write a separate article on some events from the vibrant Nicaraguan history. For now I will only say that it all ended up with thousands of dead and Granada burned to the ground. As a result of the Civil War, Managua became the capital to prevent further conflicts between Granada and León.

Guadalupe Church, Granada

Present Day

It appears that the rivalry keeps going until the present day, although its form is thankfully peaceful. Granadians consider their city more beautiful and in many ways they are right about that.

They do call their city a “Paris of Americas”, which is a bit of a stretch though. The pictures bellow however confirm the beauty, although I must say that León is not that far behind and due to the similar colonial architecture the two cities could appear quite similar sometimes. The major difference is that Granada is better preserved, while León can get a bit grittier sometimes.

Xalteva Church, Granada
Iglesia de la Recolección of León

Numerous churches and two cathedrals dominate both cities just as well as the vibrant colours, not to mention the tiled pavements and nice parks. There’s basically a lot of character and a teen art photography student would go mad here 🙂

Granada, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua
Those colourfull gates and shutters – literally hundreds of them
Both cities however are Art photography student’s dream 😀

So which one do I prefer?

Surprisingly it turned out to be a rather easy pick for me. I went first to Granada and I loved it because I like places with character as and the more there is, the more I like the place. And while I thought Granada had a lot of it, I got even more stunned by León. Why? It’s just a bit grittier.

Furthermore, there’s energy and night life to get points for. This division is even clearer here. León hosts the National Autonomus University (1813), hence there are more young people, more bars and so on. It does create a different energy if you like a bit of a bohemian atmosphere.

A little tip for a late night sip 🙂

Both cities do come with some nice places to enjoy a nice frosty bottle of Toña or Victoria but as I’ve mentioned above, León somewhat offers a bigger variety of bars as opposed to Granada‘s lively but rather identical bars on its gringo strip, although if you put the cafés into competition, it would be a tough one. You can usually find the great authentic retro cafés withing a block or two distance from the main square of either town. I won’t mention any particular ones here – there’s a lot to pick from – just walk around a pick one that suits you 😉

If we however talking bars only, I must say that León is way ahead. I feel obliged to mention that this city of revolution comes with one of the best atmospheric bars I’ve visited in Central Americas: Via Via. It’s amazing place with ceiling fans and original decor – I personally felt like drinking inside some 70’s spy movie 🙂

Calle La Calzada AKA Gringo street, Granada

Granada fights back with it’s beach as well as with it’s vibrant Calle La Calzada AKA Gringo street but we’re talking one street filled with bars and restaurants for tourists. It’s nice – but – it’s just a bit too much of a Gringo magnet.

Granada‘s beach

In conclusion, Granada is prettier and it has a lake with a beach. León has more character, more young people and better bars. And cafés, those cafés in both cities are just amazing but those of León, again had an edge IMHO. Both cities are pretty in their own way and at the end of the day – they are not so different as I’ve mentioned above.

Oh, those cafés of León
Cafés and bars of León

How to get there?

Both cities are a couple of hours drive from each other. Using the public transport, one can easily get to Managua‘s UCA Bus Terminal in just under an hour for 70,- Córdobas (€1,90), from where it’s equally easy to grab a minivan for 70,- Córdobas to León. From San Juan del Sur, it takes just under two hours to get to Granada by grabbing a chicken bus, you might however need to change in Rivas but it’s a very straight forward journey.

Stay

  • Granada: I’ve stayed in a place called El Arca de Noe. $11.70,-USD for a private room with bathroom en suite sounded like a good deal and I didn’t regret my decision at all. The hostel is an old Granadian house with a nice patio to chill out in with kitchen and great central location. Friendly and attentive Carlos, who runs the place will take you for an original and funny city tour that is included in the price, while you’ll be 2 blocks away from the main square. I’d certainly recommend this place to any of my mates
  • León: I’ve traditionally decided to stay off the party central hostels such as Big Foot or Via Via (that came with the best bar in town btw) just to have an option of no party. My pick was Casa El Rio, a nice little place run by a young friendly family. For $8,-USD per night it was one of the cheapest private rooms with shared bathroom in town. I can’t say that the bed was the most comfortable of all beds I’ve ever slept in but the whole atmosphere was genuinely nice. The hostel is about 8 minutes walk to the main square and I would recommend it if you like privacy, while being on a budget.

Border fees

  • Panama: Entry fee was reported to be $3,-USD by some people, I wasn’t asked to pay one. Exit fee was $3,-USD. Many travellers reported that they have needed to show the proof of onward travel. I’ve purchased the bestonwardticket.com for $12,-USD but I wasn’t asked to provide it.
  • Costa Rica: No entry fee. Exit fee is $7,-USD. You might need to show a proof of onward travel. I have passed without one.
  • Nicaragua: Entry fee was $13, exit was $3,-USD
Being the prettier one, it doesn’t mean that Granada is sterile
The grittier León, Nicaragua

What would I do differently visiting Granada and León with the knowledge I have now?

OK. I was aware that these places can get pretty hot in April and May. But I wasn’t ready for this heat. Except the silly Cerro Negro volcano boarding near León, I have skipped pretty much all physical activities because of that. I haven’t visited the Mombacho National Park, which is meant to be pretty and which has sloths, my fav animal I’d love to see one day. So if you can – avoid the hot season.

the ever present colours of the Latin World @ Granada, Nicaragua

Other destinations in Nicaragua

  • In the very south of the country, there are San Juan del Sur and Ometepe Island, the latter being more suitable for the rural tourism as opposed to the party nature of SJDS
  • To experience a non-resorty Caribbean paradise, lease head to Corn Islands

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Little Corn Island vs Big Corn Island

Touristy but still authentic Caribbean? I’m not entirely sure if that would be the best description of Las Islas del Maíz AKA Corn Islands but it certainly has something to it. The fact is that these beautiful islands come with the classic Caribbean clichés, like crystal clear blue waters and fairytale-like palm forests while they have been spared of the classic resorty beasts of a hotels with their pools and so on.

Land-wise, Corn Islands consist of two islands: Isla Grande del Maíz and Isla Pequeña del Maíz. So what are the differences between the two?

Some basic facts first

Corn Islands are located about 70 km off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Size-wise they are tiny, we’re talking about 10km2 (Big Corn) and 2,9km2 (Little Corn) of land. The population is around 8000, respectively 1000 people. The islanders are English speaking Afro-descendants mixed with indigenous Kukras and some Westerners. Socially, both islands are build upon strong communities that can be best described by two words: “very friendly”. The “everyone says hi’ kind off friendly 🙂

Everyone Says Hi by the mighty David, in case you wanted a soundtrack for this short read

Like many other Caribbean islands, Corns’ history is also affected by pirates. Another thing to mention is that for a significant potion of its modern history, Corns were ruled by English-speaking powers. In between 1655 and 1860, Corns were British Protectorate and as of 1914, the islands were leased to the United States for a period of 99 years. The Americans remained on the islands until 25 April, 1971.

The differences

When it comes to the differences between the two islands – besides it’s sizes and population – the main difference would be the distribution of tourism, which is estimated to be at about 25% at Big Corn and 75% at Little Corn Island.

In my humble opinion this split might be even bigger as I have observed that dominant part of the Little Corn Island economy is based on tourism, while on Big Corn there are fishermen and various tourism-unrelated services the locals can earn they daily bred from.

picturesque forests of Little Corn Island

Both islands reminded me a lot of a small town world as I grew up in one. It could be cute on holidays (and it was) but I had to leave my small town as soon as I could. There are things to be seen under the shiny surface but I won’t bore you with my small town observations. However, from this perspective, it appears that there’s more variety of stuff to do in the Big Corn.

I’d say that the Little Corn Island is perfect for couples as well as for divers. For solo travellers it can turn into kind off the same shit different day, which is still absolutely all right, if one takes the Caribbean settings into the consideration 😉

Caribbean sunset on Little Corn Island

At the end of the day, the islands are only a 15 minute boat ride from each-other so it’s not a big deal to visit the other island at any point. Little Corn is without cars and It also has more small secluded beaches as opposed to its bigger brother. But between 6am and 1pm, the Little Corn is without electricity, unless your hotel has its own generator.*

The Big Corn has roads, taxis, 24hrs electricity and all that – it’s more “civilised” in this sense. I must say that the Little Corn’s “no cars” element provides a solid case to imply that it’s more magical and special as opposed to Big Corn and yes, it is more magical and special;)

Big Corn Island

The no electricity element however can be rough considering the heat as your fan will be solid still while you really want it to spin away, especially if you have enjoyed few cold beers the night before.

I have also observed that there are two economies – one for the locals and one for the tourists. It’s natural to have things arranged this way, especially when the prices (of for example beer) could be nearly triple if compared to the mainland Nicaragua. Everything has to be imported, hence the price hike and there’s no way the locals could afford the $2 beers, especially at the volume they drink them 🙂

beautiful house on Little Corn

Among many other observations of this “small town” world, I’ve spotted that there might be a a bit of a sex tourism thing going on here as well. This is not to judge anyone – it’s just an observation. For me it was the first time I’ve experienced a female sex tourism. I don’t really know how it works but I guess it doesn’t operate on “pay as you go” basis like its male counterpart.

What a great place for the last rest, isn’t it?

From the little I know, I believe that the financial arrangements are more about supporting the local boys by getting them new cool trainers, T-shirts and stuff like that. But that’s just mostly my theory and I haven’t had a chance to collect much sufficient data to support it properly.

Big Corn

How to get there?

There are two major ways how to get to Corn Islands. The easier, faster and more expensive is taking a flight from Managua. In 90 minutes, it will take you to the Big Corn for about $164 return. Check it out here.

The other, harder, slower and cheaper was is taking a bus to the coastal town of Bluefields. The 320,-Córdobas (€8,60) drive takes about 8-9 hours and it’s rather picturesque but please note the old American school buses AKA “chicken buses” don’t offer much comfort. You can also take a speed boat from the town of El Rama instead of going all the way to Bluefields on the bus.

Please note that the buses leave from Mercado el Mayoreo bus terminal in Managua. If you are arriving from León or Granada, you will need to take a 100,- Córdobas taxi there from UCA bus terminal. Check the taxi price with the driver before you get in.

From Bluefields you need to take a ferry. There are boats almost every day but the schedule depends on demand. What I mean that you might have to wait a day or two, unless you’ll get there early morning on Wednesday. That is because the only regular boat leaves on Wednesdays at 9am, it takes about 5 hours and it will cost you 255,- Córdobas (€6,90).

The irregular boats between the two islands are going for 160,-Córdobas (€4,30). Ask upon your arrival.

So we are talking about 15 hours of land-boat transportation for €19,80 (plus a possible hotel in Bluefields) or 90 minute flight for approximately €145. Make your choices. I’ve personally opted to break the trip from Managua in a town of El Rama. from which I took a river speed boat to Bluefields. It took about 90 mins and it cost me 255,- Córdobas (€6,90).

BTW, Bluefields is not a spectacular place to be but it has strong-ish night life scene and it’s not entirely uncool.

As for border fees, Nicaragua has an entry fee of $13 and exit fee of $3,-USD

Stay

  • Bluefields: I’ve stayed in a place called Typical House Downtown. It’s pretty much what it says. You’ll stay in a small ally just off the central market street. Ferci is a young friendly half-American half Nicaraguan dude who likes to show you the night life in town if you’re up for it. It was good fun, I’d certainly recommend to my more social party mates. For $12,-USD, you’d get a private room with a fan.
  • Little Corn Island: I’ve decided in Christina’s Guest House. My choice was based on the price because for $10,-USD per night it was the cheapest private room in town. Christina is a very nice and non-judgmental lady, who’s also a preacher in the little church right across the street. The place is only about 3 minutes walk from the port, far away enough from the party strip not to be bothered by loud music if one wants to sleep, but in case of changed mind, it would take you no more than 5 minutes to be right where everything is happening.
  • Big Corn Island: I was there during my birthday so I’ve treated myself to a private room for $22,-USD in the best rated Island Roots Hostel. It was a clean place run by a young friendly and attentive family. I can’t complain about anything there at all.

Safety and SCAM

Corns are very safe. And they, especially the Little Corn Island, are also mostly spared of the SCAM one witnesses during his or her travels. Just please watch out for the damaged dollar bills when given your change back. Even the smallest tear will make that bill useless, not even a bank will take it off you and locals also need to get rid of them so…

as picturesque as one can get 😉

Other destinations in Nicaragua

*the electricity situation on Little Corn is apparently going to change soon as I’ve observed large solar panels being delivered to the Island to deal with the situation. I hope it’s going to work out well 🙂

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Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur and Isla de Ometepe

OK. We are in the south-western Nicaragua. An entry point for many travellers coming from Costa Rica. Right across the border, one passes a massive lake on your right hand side. If you look closer, you’ll see two volcanoes sticking up on the horizon. They are Concepción and Maderas and they are located on Isla Ometepe.

Upon your arrival to the closest town of Rivas, you can chose whether you want to catch a ferry to the island or if you catch a chicken bus to San Juan del Sur, a small party town with many surfing spots on the Pacific coast about 30km away.

San Juan del Sur

What to say here? San Juan is a small party town. It safe, it has beautiful surfers’ beaches, it has stunning sunsets and it comes with everything the little party towns normally come with. The beer is cold and everything works the way it supposed to work in a place like this. It’s a well oiled machine, as they say. And it’s overpriced for Nicaraguan standards. On a beer, you’ll spend nearly €0.50 extra if compared to Granada or León.

San Juan del Sur

Ometepe

The island is much bigger than you might think. To move around, you’ll therefore need to use either a taxi, chicken bus or rent a bike. The cheapest option is a push bike but watch out your fitness levels as the heat can get quite intense here. Chicken buses are regular and even cheaper. And sloooooow. But it’s a great experience.

Motorcycles go at about $15 for an automatic scooter per day, but you can only drive those paved roads. Those however don’t cover the whole road that is in the “8” shape around the island. If you want to drive the whole “8”, your only option is to pay $20 for the off road bike. It’s good fun btw and don’t forget to use a lot of sun screen 😉

Ometepe’s vulcanoes of Concepción (left) and Maderas (right)

There’s some apparently great hikes I haven’t done because I don’t fancy hiking in 40C. I mean it’s doable but the heat takes a lot of the enjoyment away. I’ve red about hiking both volcanoes is a treat, although Madeira hike is apparently rather challenging.

As for places to stay – there’s plenty. I personally preferred the Playa Santa Cruz area as it appeared like it’s offering more than just sit in your hostel and get eaten alive by mosquitoes. The island people are friendly and the whole place is as safe as it can get. I wish I wasn’t there in the hottest period of the year. I’d say that it’s OK for a 3-4 day visit, unless you want to chill and relax there for longer.

Playa Santa Cruz @ Ometepe Island

Some practical info

After leaving South America, all border crossings appear a bit more difficult and silly, plus there are also charges. As an European, to exit Costa Rica, you’ll be charged $7 followed by Nicaragua’s entry fee of $13. Upon leaving they will charge you further $3 for an exit fee. WTF is an exit fee? Who came up with that? No sir, you can’t leave this country before you tip our President.

How to get there?

  • San José (Costa Rica) to Rivas: comfy bus ride takes from around 6hrs to 7hrs. The costs vary from $27 to $42, depending on a company you’ll pick. The bus will wait for you until you will sort out your border stamps, payments and all that. From the border to Rivas it’s about 45minutes.
  • Rivas, to Ometepe: catch a chicken bus to San Jorge for 20,-NIO (€0,55) to grab a ferry to Ometepe for 50,-NIO (plus 33,-NIO for the port tax)
  • Rivas to San Juan del Sur: take a chicken bus to San Juan for 45,-NIO (€1.20). FYI, there will be very friendly lying taxi drivers that will tell you there’s no public transport today because of something like “it’s Sunday” or national holiday or whatever just so you will go with them for $15 to San Juan or $5 to San Jorge.
Ometepe

Stay

  • San Juan del Sur: Due to the fact that at this point I wasn’t alone, my friend and I decided to treat ourselves to semi posh Barrio Cafe Restaurant and Bar. For $43,-USD per night, we got a super-comfy room in a nice place that served a great coffee. The breakky was included and we were about 5 minutes walk to the beach.
  • Ometepe: I’ve picked the most colourful place I could find based on the pictures. Lazy Crab Hostel was OK, the dorm I was shown was however rather claustrophobic. The staff was very friendly but I wasn’t entirely sure about the manager who had me paying double taxes when upon switching the room to private. If I was ever coming back to the island, I would definitely stay in one of the places in Playa Santa Cruz.

Border fees

  • Panama: Entry fee was reported to be $3,-USD by some people, I wasn’t asked to pay one. Exit fee was $3,-USD. Many travellers reported that they have needed to show the proof of onward travel. I’ve purchased the bestonwardticket.com for $12,-USD but I wasn’t asked to provide it.
  • Costa Rica: No entry fee. Exit fee is $7,-USD. You might need to show a proof of onward travel. I have passed without one.
  • Nicaragua: Entry fee was $13, exit was $3,-USD
One of the stunning sunsets in San Juan del Sur

Other destinations in Nicaragua

  • I’d definitely check out the towns of Granada and León
  • If you want to experience the non-resorty stunning Caribbean, I would not miss out on Corn Islands
  • Well and last but not least, in case you were interested, here’s a piece about vibrant history of Nicaragua tht can give you an idea how crazy this part of the world once was

Enjoy 🙂

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Caribbean Colombia: Santa Marta, Cartagena, Rincón del Mar, Necoclí and Capurganá

Following the general information about tourism in Colombia, some locations in southern as well as in central Colombia, here’s the final part of the 3-4 weeks “gringo trail” itinerary, that’s suitable mainly for the travellers visiting Colombia for the first time.

Santa Marta and Taganga

We’re now on a Caribbean coast, namely in a place where I was sent by my cherished local friends when asking about authentic Caribbean Colombia. Santa Marta is an old colonial town, in fact after Quito, Cusco and Cumana (Venezuela), it’s is the fourth oldest surviving city in South America.

I have loved the vibe of the city and yes, it is very authentic. It’s colourful and filled with many restaurats, bars and stylish cafés, not to mention the stunning sunsets on the beach. The city has been destroyed by the pirates in the past but the authorities are doing a good job revitalising its historical centre as we speak.

The close proximity to Venezuela makes Santa Marta to be full of homeless refugees, which might make the city look a bit dodgy for some tourists, especially after the sundown. It might just as well be a bit dodgy but I haven’t experienced any element of danger in Santa Marta myself.

To be honest, to me it was all but dodgy. More than anything else, to me it was hard to take, seeing people forced to go through such a situation in their lives. From this point of view, Santa Marta was far more intense if compared to any other place I’ve seen so far.**

Just next door, a over a hill from Santa Marta, there’s a small village of Taganga, a popular backpacker spot. I haven’t planned to go there but because Santa Marta was a bit too much for me, I decided to go, in my search for that peace and quiet I was desperate for. Well, Taganga and its surrounding bays are truly beautiful with a lot of potential suitable for the purpose I was seeking but…

But Taganga proved to be just yet another small party town and it comes with everything those usually come with, just like in Peru’s Máncora, Ecuador’s Montañita or in any small party town on the globe for that matter. It was impossible to walk on the strip by the beach that’s filled with restaurants and not to be bothered by touts or drug dealers every 30 seconds. I guess where’s demand, there must be sales and later into the night, I’ve observed that there was a lot of demand…

Furthermore, there was a story about Israeli mafia operating a horrible child-trafficking establishment in the area. I only got interested in looking into that, because I found it unbelievable that someone was powerful enough to establish a foreign criminal ring on a Colombian soil, thinking that the country have had enough of the hard criminal characters itself so the politics surrounding these people must have been really hard core. And it was. I’ve only seen a closed building where the establishment was based in the past and it looked like a fortress. Echoes of the dark side of humanity ):

Other places of interest near by: Ciudad Perdida AKA Lost City. If you’re in the area and have some time on your hands, please, make sure to check out the popular multi day trek to the Lost City here.

Taganga

Cartagena

I won’t spend much time writing about Cartagena, because in my humble opinion it’s just yet another overpriced sterile tourist trap many like to fall for. If you live in one of the major tourist destinations, you know what does it come with. I’ve personally left the city quite fast.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad place – on the contrary, I’d say that it would make the list of the top 20 prettiest colonial towns in Americas. I just haven’t find it that special. For me it just lacked any element of authenticity and character. And it was expensive like hell.

Cartagena de Indias, la perla caribeña de Colombia (no translation needed here)

Except the classic tourist SCAM that any major tourist destination comes with, Cartagena, especially its part Gatsemani, comes with a rather vibrant party scene and everything related to it from the geographical as well as the cliché cultural point of view, it is after all the most visited location in Colombia.

One thing that caught my attention was the good job the city officials did to hide the poverty stricken areas away from the otherwise eclectic combination of wealthy modern city and 16th century colonial Old Town. One thing I’m kind of sad I’ve missed on are the near by Islas del Rosario, I’ve however had other Caribbean islands on my mind already.

Cartagena: past and present

Rincón del Mar

Part of me doesn’t even want to talk about this place with anyone to keep it as unknown as possible. Rincón del Mar captured my heart pretty much instantly not only because it was exactly the peace and quiet kinda place I was desperate to find but also because it is an authentic as well as picturesque place with very very friendly locals. Rincón is certainly one of the best spots I’ve visited during my nearly 8 months long trip.

Located in an area previously held by paramilitaries, the whole western Caribbean coastal Colombia is now slowly opening to tourism. There was only one hostel just few years ago but things are changing fast. However, you can still enjoy the slow vibe while relaxing in the settings, feeling like if you’re inside the cliché postcard from rural Caribbean.

In other words, it’s just a small fisherman’s village with few hostels and local restaurants offering fresh fish and the beach. No resorts, no touts – well that’s not entirely true because the locals would offer you to purchase the still living lobster they’ve just caught – but more or less it’s as real as it can get. I really hope that it will remain that way as long as possible.

Rincón del Mar AKA Caribbean paradise

Necoclí and Capurganá

We’re now in the Gulf of Urabá, right in that bottom left corner of Caribbean seas. In my opinion, the town of Necoclí as a travellers’ location is rather underrated and it deserves more than being just a stopover on the way from or to Panama for those that are not willing to pay the $500 for the sailing trip through the San Blas islands. Except the Caribbean set, the area offers numerous activities, the most famous being swimming in the mud of Volcán de Lodo (not to be mistaken by Volcán de Lodo El Totumo near Cartagena).

If you are around – please do not make the same mistake of arranging your further transportation in advance (like me) so you will need to leave the next day. I wish I’ve stayed longer. Being a fascinated with outpost locations, I however rushed to Capurganá but with the knowledge I have now, I would have stayed in Necoclí a bit longer instead.

**Some travellers pick another town of Turbo that lies further south to cross the gulf when heading to Capurganá. Due to the fact that Turbo is infamous for child trafficking, human trafficking and all sort of other dark activities, I have decided to skip the place. But Capurganá wasn’t that different. The thought of perspectives from above comes in with a twisted angle for the less fortunate Terrans ): I’ve written an separate piece about the place here.

one of the stunning sunsets at Necoclí

Some sort of conclusion

In spite of the fact that some parts of this text might come across as being a bit dark because of the ever-present impact of the human greed has upon lives of millions of people in this part of the world, Colombia still is one of my most favourite countries I’ve visited. The country’s diverse nature as well as its friendly people left a mark that will stay in my heart forever.

How to get there

  • Medellín to Santa Marta: I took a 70minute / €34 flight. Bus journey is estimated to be 16+ hrs. Taxi from the airport to the city cost me 30000,-COP (€8.40)
  • Santa Marta to Taganga: taxi @ 15000,-COP (€4.20) or a bus @ 1600,-COP (€0.45)
  • Santa Marta to Cartagena: 5-7hrs bus drive to Cartagena‘s bus terminal @ 30000,-COP (€8.40), then a 18000,-COP (€5.10) taxi to the city centre
  • Cartagena to Rincón del Mar: 2,5hrs bus ride to San Onofre @ 20000,-COP (€5,70); tuk tuk from San Onofre to Rincón del Mar @ 20000,-COP or mototaxi @ 12000,-COP
  • Rincón del Mar to Necoclí: mototaxi to San Onofre @ 12000,-COP (€3.40); 2,5hrs bus ride from San Onofre to Montería @ 29000,-COP (€8.10); 3hrs bus/van from Montería to Necoclí @ 30000,-COP (€8.40)
  • Necoclí to Capurganá: boat/ferry @ 85000,-COP/ €24 (75k for ticket + luggage extra weight + port tax)

Stay

  • Santa Marta: I’ve stayed in Hotel Granate. It was OK. Nothing special. Clean and cheapest private room in town I could find. No A/C though. Central location.
  • Taganga: I was looking for a place a bit outside of the party area to get an option of no-party in case I didn’t feel like it because by the beach it was one loud horrible reaggaeton hell so I’ve picked Hostal Las Terrazas, run by a friendly local gentleman. It was the cheapest private room in the whole village and the house’s terrace had a truly good view. The small swimming pool was also OK. The tax for all this was a 5-7 minute walk to the beach through the local area of the town though. If there’s more of you – I’d take it. For a solo person it was a bit too far away from everything and everyone
  • Cartagena: I’ve stayed in Iguana House Hostal. It’s an OK place to sleep. Given the price, I wasn’t disappointed but if there was other option (at the time it was the cheapest private room in the Gatsemani area), I’d try elsewhere. One shower for like a million people and a rather comedy-like useless-ish duo of young local dudes who cared for the place during the night
  • Rincón del Mar: I’ve stayed in a brilliant Hostel Beach House with super friendly owners and attentive staff. The place is located right on the beach and if you stay in the largest dorm, you’ll be pretty much in a semi-open space under the roof, falling asleep with the sound of the ocean. The only bad thing was that the mosquito nets were a bit too small for someone taller than 180cm. Make sure to get the single beds located nearer to the ocean. Otherwise the place is a well-oiled machine
  • Necoclí: I’ve stayed in La Mariapolis and I loved it all the way. Definitely recommended, if you’re a liberal person. There was very friendly owner, bar with good coffee and even better views, lots of colours around as well as cuddly dogs and cats
  • Capurganá: First few nights I’ve stayed in a place called Hilltop Capurgana. It was not bad, except it was like a 15-20 mins walk to the village through the semi-jungle. Then I’ve moved to La Bohemia, a place that’s well praised in its reviews. Be aware that it is a nice hostel but it’s more or less for non-conformists only. It’s friendly and it has good vibes but everything is wobbly and it looks like if you’ve displaced on nail, the whole place would fold down like a house of cards. But if you’re a hippie, you’ll love it.

Heading south?

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Central Colombia: Bogotá, Medellín, Villa de Lleyva and Ráquira

After covering the general information about tourism in Colombia and some locations in southern Colombia, here’s the second part of the 3-4 weeks “beaten path” itinerary, suitable mainly for the first timers in Colombia.

Bogotá, Distrito Capital

This huge city of 8 million is, with its 2640m altitude, the third-highest capital in the world (after Quito and La Paz). It makes Bogotá‘s weather rather fresh but otherwise it is a massive, vibrant city, offering everything such a massive metropolis offer anywhere else in the world. IMHO, Bogotá is very underrated destination for tourists and it deserves better.

Bogotá‘s Candelaria

Whether you take strolls in historical La Candelaria and head to Monserrate to get the view of the city or visit some of the numerous museums, like Gold Museum or Museo Botero, there are plenty activities one can enjoy in the capital. In the evening, I’d go to one of the trendy bars in Chapinero or in Zona Rosa.

The numerous walking tours offered in pretty much all hostels can give you better picture of what this city has to offer. FYI, Wikivoyage has quite an informative text about the city here, in case you wanted to read some more about Bogotá.

Bogotá DC

Move around. I’ve found the public transport in the city rather complicated for an outsider but due to the grid system made of calles and carreras it’s doable. Taxis are however as cheap as chips so I didn’t bother much with those long city buses.

Candelaria, Bogotá

Medellín

Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia, infamous for its drug-trade history and certain figures representing it. At 1495 metres above the sea level, Medellín is more than a kilometre lower than Bogotá, which gives the city an advantage of more pleasant climate as well as different hemoglobin levels as opposed to country’s capital. Surrounded my beautiful Andes, the city appears in rather stunning fashion upon entering the valley of Aburrá.

The main tourist strip is El Poblado, a Gringo Central area filled with overpriced bars, prostitutes and drug dealers. As a solo male traveller, I’ve been often confronted with this element of life in multiple locations around Latin Americas as well as in South East Asia. I have always wondered about how many men actually go for the sex tourism. I have always hoped that the bad reputation is bigger than the real stats.

Brutal but honest Medellín

Well, El Poblado is one of those areas I haven’t researched enough before arriving here and those stats proved to be staggering in this area. The amount of American men in their 40s who came here to take cocaine and sleep with the prostitutes was immense. Actually, there were s many that it hasn’t left much space for anything else to take place in the Upper Poblado. The whole area lives off that industry and it’s pretty much unavoidable.

I don’t want to enter a moral discussion on this subject because it wouldn’t change anything. I don’t want to sound judgmental – it’s just not my cup of tea – that’s all I’ll say on this matter within the concept of this article. My problem was that I kept being mistaken for being one of them so I stayed away from the area to avoid the whole thing. In case you wanted to have a different experience, head to Lower Poblado, that is somewhat spared of the “oldest job” industry.

Look who I’ve met in Medellín (:0 So it wasn’t a conspiracy theory (:0

As for the non-sex tourist backpackers, the trend appeared to be staying in the hostel bars and getting completely wasted, enjoying the all sort of stuff delivery services the city offers. I didn’t enjoy neither of the alternatives, or I am just too old to practice the latter one continuously, so I’ve left Medellín quite fast.

Move around. The metro in Medellín is easy to use. You need to purchase a ticket at the station, obtain a local Oyster card and check in/check out. When you use up the credit, the card will stay in the machine.

Perspectives

This is not another location in Colombia. It’s just little thought to catch a break from this long guidey text. The claustrophobic feeling that the city centre hit me with, in combination with my ongoing travel burn-out didn’t exactly make me to search for other options much so I have decided to escape the city asap. I’m aware that I didn’t give Medellín a chance it most probably deserves to be given because of circumstances that made me bursting for a peace and quiet which I couldn’t find there at the time.

Later I thought about it, feeling a bit guilty about the whole thing and I came out with an interesting thought of the endless variety of perspectives. Perspectives are a funny thing. Except from the chronological circumstances when a place doesn’t fit your mood just because where you’ve been before, it’s also how you look, who you’re with or how old you are.

The same places could basically come across in numerous different ways, depending on your gender, age, energy levels and preferences. I’m certain that if I were there with my girlfriend or if didn’t look like a 40+ years old gringo, I’d have a different feeling about Medellín. I’ll get to the subject of perspectives in another piece for sure, but now let’s just get back on track with the guidey text about Colombia 😉

Other destinations in central Colombia

In case you were heading further north, you can try having a go at finding the famous El Dorado, a legend has it that it’s somewhere between Bogotá and my next destination: Villa de Lleyva 😉

Villa de Lleyva

Villa de Lleyva and Ráquira

About 5 hour drive north from the capital, there’s another popular destination for tourists: Villa de Lleyva. It’s a pretty colonial town with great cafés and pretty cobbled stone streets. There are various hiking options available in the area that are apparently well worth exploring. It’s a pretty place for a weekend break. Maybe it’s just my opinion but I found Villa de Lleyva incredibly posh.

A short drive away from Villa de Lleyva, there’s a small colourful town of Ráquira, a place that I found rather more authentic if compared to its famous neighbour. The whole town however appears a bit nuts about its pottery tradition.

On your way to Ráquira, I’d also recommend to stop at Santa Ecce Homo an old Dominican convent. Except for its purpose and historical significance in the region, it’s one of those small peaceful places that are just perfect if you can use a break from driving. And it comes with a interesting representation of the second female character from the oldest book*

One of Ráquira‘s cafés.

How to get there

  • Bogotá to Tatacoa: 6hrs bus ride from Bogotá‘s Bus Terminal @ 35000,-COP (€9,90) to Aipe. Walk through the village and entertain the local kids with a presence of a gringo 🙂 Walk further down into the meadows and take a boat across the river Magdalena to the village of Villavieja for 3000,-COP (€0.85). From Villavieja take a rip off tuk tuk to the dessert @ 20000,-COP (€5.70)
  • Tatacoa to Bogotá: 1hr bus/van drive to the city of Neiva @ 15000,-COP (€4.26). Then 7hrs bus to get to Bogotá @ 30000,-COP (€8.40)
  • Bogotá to Villa de Lleyva: We were driving. A bus from Bogotá apparently takes around 4-5hrs
  • Bogotá to Medellín: I took a 60 minute / €54 flight. The bus ride would take 10-15hrs
  • Medellín to Santa Marta: I took a 70minute / €34 flight. Bus journey is estimated to be 16+ hrs. Taxi from the airport to the city cost me 30000,-COP (€8.40)

Stay

  • Bogotá: I’ve personally stayed at my mate’s place so I ain’t got no recommendations. The areas to stay are listed here by Xixerone
  • Villa de Lleyva: As in Bogotá, I’ve stayed with my mates but there appeared to be a huge choice of hotels, B&Bs and other types of accommodation
  • Medellín: I’ve stayed in Panela Medellín Hostal in Lower Poblado. It was just OK. Not bad but also not the best place ever. Nice bar though.
*Both female characters from the oldest book as seen by the local artist at Dominican convent Santa Ecce Homo. Both characters are called Maria but…

Heading further north?

If you are heading to the Caribbean click here please.

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