Sorry… no interesting pictures, amusing stories, or fancy travel advice today. This post is all about me!…kind of, it’s actually more about my life on the road. Where I go, where I stay, how I get there, etc.
Earlier this week I hit the four-month mark on the road and started thinking about all the places I’d been. That thought grew into a whole list of things, places, people, etc. and eventually into this post. So as of Sunday August 4th I had traveled/done/seen/visited/met…you get the idea.
I’ve watched bull fights in Spain, major championship golf in Scotland, and live Fado in Portugal.
I’ve been to the top of Cathedral bell towers in three countries, the top of mountains in two countries, and the top of the 199 Steps in Whitby, England.
I’ve dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, swam in the Caribbean, and surfed in the North Atlantic.
I’ve drunk cheap and awesome local wine in Spain and France, four different brands of Irish stout in Ireland, whisky and whiskey in Scotland and Ireland, respectively, Real Ale in England, a Belfast Bomber in Belfast, and moonshine adega wine in a Portuguese Adega.
I’ve slept in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and buses.
I’ve learned to think in Celsius, Euro’s, British Pounds, kilometers, and the 24 hour clock.
I’ve randomly been in cities that had some of their biggest yearly festivals and events when I was there but also been to places that had absolutely nothing interesting going on. Both situations have been great experiences.
I’ve been on walking tours, bus tours, museum tours, castle tours, and pub tours (pub crawls).
Travel by numbers:
16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
1 Cruise Ship
37 Different Beds
1 Cruise Ship
1 Cable Car
6 Subway Systems
14 Trains (plus a few I’ve forgotten about)
22 Buses (plus several I’ve forgotten about)
Met and Talked With People From
2 Sporting Events
…and this is just the stuff off the top of my head. I’ve seen and done all of this in only four months….and I’m just getting started!
I can spend days walking in Viejo San Juan and not do a thing. I love it! The vibe it gives off is kind of electric, at least to me. Maybe that’s because it’s the first city I spent time in after leaving the states, or maybe it’s really that special. I’ll go back sometime and see if I get the same feeling.
The people who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico are professional drivers! The roads are crazy. Twisting, curving, tight cornered. They all drive fast and without fear but in 5 days I didn’t see any wrecks.
The little sweet bananas grown by my gracious hosts in the mountains are my favorite bananas of all time!
Conventional wisdom says traveling is expensive. I guess that’s why most people I know (until recently, myself included) save for months, or longer, to afford their week-long vacation every year. Personally, I’d save for a 10 day hiking/camping trip to the canyons in Utah or a week-long trip to see relatives and visit beaches in Florida and the rest of my yearly vacation days would be used on short trips closer to home or just on long weekends when I wouldn’t leave home at all. I thought it too expensive to travel for all three or four weeks of my yearly vacation (I guess that’s the fiscal conservative in me!). I’ve since changed my thinking on travel expenses and travel budgets. Now I think it costs more in experiences missed out on than it does in money spent, especially if you travel smartly and budget friendly.
There are many ways to trim travel expenses. It all starts with a mindset. Think about what’s really important while visiting a place and ways to cut costs are easy to imagine. Here are 7 ways I’ve saved money while on the road for nearly 2 months. Some I already knew and others I learned the hard way!
Do you really want to spend a large part of your travel budget on a hotel, where you won’t spend much ‘awake’ time?
Instead of staying in tourist area hotels (translation; expensive), stay in cheaper options down the road a few blocks or off the beaten path. Stay in hostels where available or rent an apartment for the week.
Is it more important to eat out three times a day or spend time learning more about the food culture in a region?
Instead of eating at the tourist, and usually chain style, restaurants you go to at home (translation; expensive), eat like a local: go to the market, the grocery store, the street vendor. This is a great way to gain some insight in the local food culture, and overall culture for that matter. Eat healthy snacks picnic style in a park or in your hotel room and then reward yourself with dinner out (so just eat out once a day). If you have kitchen access (in a hostel or apartment) buy local ingredients from the market and COOK! If you‘re staying in a place with free breakfast, don’t skip it. Load up! It will fuel you’re morning sightseeing and keep you on budget at the same time.
Will having a car really be worth the cost and hassle of rental fees, fuel fees and finding/paying for parking?
Instead of renting a car for the week use public transportation (like the locals). Most cities, even in North America, have at least a decent system of buses, trolleys, trams, subways, and/or taxis. If you’re traveling in Europe most public transportation systems are super efficient and very cost-effective. And another, even healthier option: while sightseeing walk from site to site when possible.
The old saying ‘Time is Money’ can apply when traveling. Especially if you plan on seeing a lot of the popular sites.
Look into buying a city pass card. A city pass usually lumps together a grouping of tourist stops into one fee and you can choose a certain number of those destinations to visit. The long lines at museums and other trendy tourist stops are not to get in…they’re to buy tickets. With the city pass you already have your ticket and normally have a special ‘city pass’ line for entry. Do the math on what the pass costs vs. what you’ll pay for the individual sites you want to visit. It could be worth buying just for the time savings even if you don’t save a lot of money. I’ve used this method in the past and walked right past the long lines and entered with no wait! You can find specific information about these cards on the local tourism website or in the local tourism shops scattered throughout major cities.
Take advantage of FREE (or near free) stuff. It’s everywhere!
To keep in touch back home there is free WiFi all over the place, you just have to find it. Use Skype or another free online tool to make video/phone calls. Many museums have free hours in the evenings and on weekends. In one week, two different cities, I visited five great museums including a Salvador Dali exhibit and a Picasso museum without paying anything. In Europe and other parts of the world many churches and cathedrals are free or near free to visit. If staying in a hostel, walking tours are regularly organized and normally free (save a tip at the end). It’s a great way to get an overview, and some great historic information, of the main tourist sites in the area.
Do you need soft drinks 5 times a day?
Luckily I don’t have a caffeine addiction and need coffee every morning or a soda with each meal. It’s expensive to buy drinks every day, so I carry a water bottle with me everywhere. I fill it up for free when I get the opportunity and in restaurants where they charge for water I’ll just drink from it instead. Just be sure the water in the area is drinkable. If you do NEED caffeine, cutting it in half could save you several dollars a day. That adds up to real savings over the course of a whole trip.
Lastly, you’re on vacation…..relax!
It’s an easy trap to fall into….filling every possible moment with ‘stuff’. I’ve been a victim of the vicious cycle as well. You’re in a new city, you want to see it all and only have 4 days. Been there, done that. The problem is this: while you rush around from place to place you’ll miss out on the ‘real’ culture of where you’ve traveled and when you get home you’ll probably need a vacation to get over your vacation! Take time to relax. Chill out for an afternoon in a city park. If you try to fill every moment with a museum, or famous restaurant, or bus tour, or local show or…… You’ll miss out. On the atmosphere. The ambiance. Take time to soak it in and see the lives people live in the places they live them. Not only will you learn a little something and be recharged for more sightseeing……it’s free!
Whether you’re traveling for months at a time like me, for Spring Break with your friends, or taking two weeks for your first trip abroad these tips can cut your travel costs and increase your travel experiences!
I’m sure I’ll learn more tips as I continue to travel and look for ways to cut my personal costs. I’ll try and share them along the way! What are some tips you’ve used to ease the strain on your travel budget?
I was planning on writing a funny hostel related story about timing your shower to avoid the rush or stealthily hiding food in a shared (with 15 to 20 other travelers) refrigerator. If you’re eagerly awaiting those posts, just wait, I’m sure they’ll be written in the future, but for now I think this is much more interesting!
About a week before writing this a friend picked me up at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. He knew I’d be staying in San Juan later in the week so he kindly gave me a quick driving tour of Viejo San Juan. One thing that stuck out in his tour was this: ‘You shouldn’t go north of the wall’.
The wall in question was built by the Spanish after colonizing Puerto Rico hundreds of years ago. At one point it surrounded much of Viejo San Juan and, along with the two huge fortresses (El Morro and San Cristobal) helped fortify the island. By my estimation the wall is still about 50% intact.
On the north side of the wall, precariously perched on the slope going down toward the ocean is La Perla, a small but tight-knit community. Like many communities, the citizens of La Perla look out for each other. The town in which I grew up in rural Kansas is similar in that way. But there’s a difference. Outsiders aren’t welcome in La Perla. Not just the tourist kind of outsiders (of which there are many in Viejo San Juan), but I was told even other locals (from south of the wall) aren’t welcome.
As I was only about 27 minutes into day one of my travels abroad I agreed I wouldn’t be going there! But at the same time my interest was piqued. I was like a kid being told not to play with the dangerous fireworks (except I didn’t know the fireworks existed before I was told not to play with them). Now I just wanted to shoot off some roman candles!
Since La Perla is located on the side of the slope and the wall is above it, atop the wall is a great vantage point to peer into this interesting area. It’s not dissimilar in appearance to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, just not as massive. From the wall you’re able to gaze into the belly of the beast, so to speak. You can see the streets lined with small concrete buildings, some with metal or concrete roofs, some without. There are also some rather nice looking houses mixed in. You can see chickens, dogs and cats roaming streets alongside adults and children. You see people going about their lives. Above all, you’ll notice the graffiti. Paintings really. Artwork decorating walls, roofs. Some quite amazing, even from a distance.
As I walked along glaring down on La Perla with a friend from a nearby hostel, we wanted to go down but decided to heed the warnings and admire from a distance. And that was the end of my La Perla experience….or so I thought.
A couple days later I met another traveler, Jimmy, who invited me to join him and a friend, Susan, on a little field trip to La Perla. Susan wanted to take pictures of the wall art and Jimmy said he knew people in La Perla, that he was ‘cool down there’, and we wouldn’t have any problems. I was dying to light off some roman candles so I decided to tag along. As we walked below the wall, Jimmy suggested we avoid a certain street (the street that the drug deals happen), grab a beer at the bar and walk along the shore to take pictures. I thought this was a good plan, especially the avoiding the drug deals part. Walking along the shore with our Medalla’s (it’s like Bud Light in San Juan) in hand, we passed many buildings that were abandoned and falling down, a perfect place for locals to fill walls with their artwork. Jimmy, Susan and I walked and took pictures for nearly an hour until we found ourselves farther up the hill walking down a certain street. Yeah, THAT STREET! We were about half a block from any people and Susan tried to take one last picture of some artwork when her camera died. So I tried to take the picture and that’s when we heard two voices. ‘No pictures’…….. ‘NO PICTURES’!
As we turned to look in the direction of the voices we could see dozens of people in the next two blocks that had all stopped going about their lives and were now staring at us. We all agreed….no pictures (as if we had another choice). It was time to leave La Perla; unfortunately, the only way out was to walk through this crowd. As we did, we got nasty glares and some short comments that I didn’t need to know Spanish to understand. We got the hint. We three walked out of there without looking anyone in the eye and thankfully without anyone escalating the situation from their end. We made it out unscathed, with some great pictures, an awesome experience and interesting story.
As we were walking the road back to ‘safety’ Jimmy says one last thing to Susan and I. ‘They think I’m a cop down there and the guys I know said I should stop going’. ‘That information would have been helpful AN HOUR AGO!’ I exclaimed!! But if he had told me that, I may not have gone with them and you would’ve just finished a story about shared hostel bathrooms. So if you liked this post, thank Jimmy!
My friend Taré (who had recently moved back to his native Puerto Rico) and I drove to El Yunque National Forest in eastern Puerto Rico. From Levittown, a suburb just west of San Juan where Taré had moved to a few days earlier, it took about 40 minutes to drive to El Yunque and another 15 minutes or so to drive up the mountain via PR 191 to the Palo Colorado information center.
Along the way we stopped at the replica Yokahu Observation Tower. This is a replica of the Yokahu tower that is much farther up the mountain and a couple of hours hike away. At this point, only half way up the mountain, the replica tower affords breathtaking views for those not willing or able to hike the nearly 1500 vertical feet to the original Yokahu Observation tower. We continued to Palo Colorado and received a free map of nearby hikes from the park workers. They were extremely helpful and the map had a Spanish side as well as an English one.
Taré and I wanted to hike to the tallest peak in El Yunque which, based on the information we received at Palo Colorado, should take about 2 hours. So off we went – within three minutes we were in a different world. The tourist crowd near Palo Colorado quickly dissipated and the sounds of car engines and tires on the sloped curves of the mountain road turned to the sounds of our shoes on the trail, the occasional coqui call and very soon some heavy breathing from my hiking partner and I. The trail was rocky but well-defined and safe. I say safe, but after a rain shower which occur often (it is a rain forest!), some of the sections get quite slippery. We had more difficulty with slipping on the way down (partly because of the damp conditions, partly because it’s easier to slip on a steep trail on the way down and partly because we’re old and out of shape so were a little beat after the hike up!) but overall we didn’t have any major issues. The trail weaves back and forth through the forest crossing the various streams several times affording many opportunities for postcard style pictures.
As we approached the top I realized all our hard work had paid off in spades with a vantage point at the peak unmatched in Puerto Rico (and most other places I’ve traveled). There is a small, very old Spanish observation tower at the peak with a lot of graffiti on the interior walls but it’s quite interesting and seems a perfect fit atop this mountain….and it’s just plain cool to find at the top of a mountain. The interior has two small benches, some red tile work around the edges and forming a cross in the middle, all surrounded by a white stone floor. There’s a staircase that goes to the roof around the northern exterior wall where you get the best views and a much deserved Caribbean breeze in your face. This small hexagon shaped observation deck sports a large stone altar-type structure that has the same Spanish cross carved in it. From the observation deck you can see the north coast well past San Juan, the northeast coast and Fajardo area, the entire east coast, and in between other mountain peaks Tare and I thought we could see some parts of the south coast (hence the best vantage point in Puerto Rico). This little Spanish building was a welcome surprise and perfect way to rest a while before starting the hike down.
On the way down we, somewhat mistakenly, took a different trail and came across two other interesting areas that had old ruins. I won’t give up the surprise of what they were and let you find them for yourself when you visit El Yunque National Forest, a perfect day trip when you need a break from the beaches on the coast and busyness of Viejo San Juan.