Has Bali lost its magic?

Has Bali lost its magic?

I am really bad at keeping secrets, so before the word gets out and someone else says it for me and there is a huge misunderstanding, I suppose it is better that I actually say what I have been holding down for a while, since the day I got back from my trip to Indonesia. The truth is that I really didn’t enjoy Bali. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think I spent nearly long enough there in order to develop a proper, informed opinion on it.

I went to Bali as part of a very large press trip to Indonesia where I did not get to establish the itinerary (or else, I would have never picked to stay in Kuta Beach) let alone the food I ate, and I stayed along a little longer after the trip was over, to explore on my own. To be fair, I have seen a thing or two that were quite nice and I have actually enjoyed. And had I researched a bit more, I would have found good alternatives to the most touristy attractions in Bali. But that was definitely not enough to make me fall in love with Bali and make me want to go back. It was more like a good and welcomed distraction from all the things I did not like.

Read more about the Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”

Living up to the “Eat, Pray, Love” legacy

It would be fair to assume that I arrived Bali having in mind the images of tropical paradise as portrayed in Eat, Pray, Love. That very popular movie (and book) has fed a lot of people with beautiful sights of empty tropical beaches, interesting traditions, and an overall peaceful place.

Panorama of Mount Batur and Lake Batur

Eat Pray Love picture-perfect Bali – photo courtesy of Anna and Michal (flickr)

Or so I have been told, because I haven’t watched the movie and I haven’t read the book, and so I had no Eat, Pray, Love – induced expectations to meet. In fact, I have never really had Bali in my bucket list, so I did not have in my mind the fantasy of a location I would have to look for to quench my thirst for something beautiful and take that exact same perfect photo. All I had were recollections of some friends who had been – some coming back very enthusiastic (but they are into surfing), other a bit less so. I had not even seen their pictures. If anything, what I have learned in Bali is that it is actually fairly easy to take the perfect photo even in what may be the most imperfect place (more of this later).

Monkey Forest

Capturing the perfect shot in Monkey Forest

The whole problem is that I am all about first impressions, with people and even with places. I either love something or someone at first sight, or I don’t. There is either an immediate spark, or there isn’t. There is either a special chemistry, or none at all. And if there isn’t that famous chemistry, the only thing I can hope for is a honest friendship. It is not even a matter of how beautiful a place is. It is a question of vibes. And it hasn’t happened often (although it has, to be fair) that I went somewhere for a second time and finally, magically liked it and enjoyed it. And Bali really didn’t spark in front of my eyes. It’s like I went on a date with a man and he put up his worst attire for the occasion, stick his fingers up his nose, burped loudly and talked on the phone during dinner – that is how Bali was to me.

Bali

Relaxing at the pool – the only way to escape the heat in Bali

I may even try to justify the fact that I didn’t like Bali by saying that the extreme heat killed whatever little energy I had in me at the end of a very demanding and at times truly exhausting trip. I may say that the persistent stomach bug that caused me a lot of discomfort did not exactly put me in a good mood to let myself be infused with the magic of Bali. But really, that is not the case. I have still managed to enjoy Cartagena, in Colombia, or Leon, in Nicaragua, despite the suffocating heat. I have been sick all over the world (now, that is something to be quite proud of!) and it has hardly put me off a place (unless there were other reasons involved, obviously). What happened in Bali is that the first impression I got of it is that of an extremely congested, incredibly polluted, very dirty, truly commercial and way too crowded place for me to be able to enjoy it. I am not even sure it is fair to talk about “impressions” because, I’d dare to say, Bali is congested, polluted, and crowded. I really couldn’t wait to get out of Bali. So much so that the Eat, Pray, Love fantasy to me was more like a “Fast, Wish for the best and Get Out ASAP”.

Bali is too congested and polluted for my taste

The impression I got in Bali is that nobody likes the idea of walking or biking. I like walking, and I tried to do that. But the minute I stepped out of the hotel, I was invested by a stream of cars and motorbikes, none of them taking notice of me, unless it was to honk loudly so that I would move out of their way. Each and every person in Bali – locals as well as tourists – moves around by car or, even better, by scooter or motorbike. All I saw were scooters and motorbikes: entire local families jump on one, keeping the Indonesian tradition alive (they take bonding really literally) and making the most of the gasoline. It was quite common to see 4 persons riding the same tiny motorbike, none of them wearing a helmet and a small child literally tied to the chest with a rope, to hold him tight while zipping through traffic. I stared at them, curiously and, at the same time, terrified of what may happen if a stray dog crossed the street all of a sudden and they had to break. Those drivers do have skills, because (as anybody who holds a motorbike license would say) keeping a balance when carrying that much weight is no easy task. I guess they were just as curious to see my stare, as they often smiled back at me as they passed (but never stopped, God forbid!).

Traffic in Bali

As rural as it gets – photo courtesy of Josh (flickr)

My first taste of Bali’s extreme traffic was the night I landed in Denpasar, its main city. I hopped on the bus, hopeful for a short ride to the restaurant in Jimbaran, right by the beach. I told myself it couldn’t take that long – it looked quite close on the map. I soon realized that I could have not been more mistaken. It took the bus I was on a good hour to get out of the airport terminal (a total of, perhaps, no more than 500 meters). Scooters zipped through the buses and the cars, left and right, in those narrow streets, careless of pedestrians and other vehicles coming from other directions, causing the bus driver to hit the breaks all the time (forget about being car sick!) and to press that horn at regular intervals. Too bad I did not have my iPod to listen to some music, so that loud horn noise was as close to music as it got for me. Not pleasant, especially for someone who is very sensitive to noise.

As I got off the bus, I tried to cross the street. Nobody (cars, motorbikes and buses alike) would ever stop to allow me and other pedestrians to cross. Scooters would rather drive around me than stop. I was pretty certain that they would have hit me had I not run, screaming in terror, to get to safety. No distraction was allowed, unless I wanted to risk my life. I have later on tried lots of tricks to demand drivers to stop – including putting my arm out, rigidly – with little or no success. The only thing that worked when I wanted to cross the street was finding a policeman or even a hotel employee that, whistle and torch in hand, would stop the traffic so that I and other tourists could cross the street.

Safety first

Safety first – photo courtesy of Simon_sees (flickr)

I found it really hard to get away from traffic in Bali. If Denpasar and the nearby Kuta – which didn’t take me long to realize that is not another city, or a resort: it pretty much is just a huge neighborhood of Denpasar, and there isn’t any city interruption, let alone traffic break – are the most congested places on the island, I didn’t exactly have a joyride when I tried getting to other parts of Bali. In order to get from Kuta to the theoretically more rural Ubud I had to fiercely haggle a taxi which would have gladly ripped me off (although I had a very clear idea of the price I would have to pay). I was told it would take about 1 hour, I expected the ride to last about 90 minutes, and it eventually took 2 hours. I guess by then I was used to the different perspective on timings that Indonesians have compared to Europeans.

As if the traffic was not a problem in and of itself, I was exhausted by the pollution that plagues the most crowded destinations in Bali. I spotted several locals and the occasional tourist wearing a mask to block the exhaust smoke and the bad smell coming from the piles of garbage being burnt, but I have doubts that it helped much. I was surely disappointed at this. Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bali, but sure enough, coming from a city, I would never pick to go on holidays to a place that is seriously polluted and where traffic is a huge issue – it just isn’t my idea of a relaxing time.

I found Ubud a bit better in terms of traffic and even more so Bedulu, a smaller city right next to it where traffic seems to slow down at least at night, and there are a few and very welcomed oasis of peace where I could enjoy some much needed silence.

The Bali I saw is dirty, crowded and commercial

Locals took over Kuta Beach at sunset

Not exactly a secluded beach – photo courtesy of Aaron Toth (flickr)

Bali isn’t nearly as rural and pristine as I imagined it would be. I had to check a few facts when I got there, because I could not really understand what I was seeing unless I put it in perspective. So, what I have discovered, is that it is a rather small island (a little over 5600 square km) inhabited by a whopping 4.5 million people. That isn’t a small number for such a small place. Just to give you an idea, I come from Sardinia, which is 5 times as big in size and has a quarter of the population. Not exactly crowded!

I then added to the already large population of Bali the huge intake of tourists that visit the island all year long and I got a better understanding of how crowded it was. Most of the time I just felt that there were people everywhere and it was hard for me to get away from them, and from an urban area altogether (because these people do have to live somewhere, so houses and apartment buildings have to be built).

Bali sunset

A gorgeous sunset in Kuta Beach – it doesn’t show what’s behind the scenes

For each postcard picture of Bali that circulates on the web, showing a tropical beach, a perfect sunset and a beautiful rice field portraying a lost paradise, there should be one that shows what is going on behind the scenes, and what the rest of the landscape really looks like. Admittedly, I could not resist the temptation of making Kuta Beach look way better than it really is, to get all my friends back home a bit jealous in front of the magic I was experiencing. But that was just a perfectly concocted show, where I waited for the perfect time to take a shot. I took a few pictures at sunset and the light was lovely and looking at the waves breaking on the shore was quite an impressive show. But as I looked back, right behind me, all the magic was gone and I could once again see Kuta Beach for what it really is: not a lovely, white, sandy and secluded beach, but one where the sand is dark, there is garbage all over and right behind it there is mall after mall, shop after shop, chain restaurant after chain restaurant.

Kuta Beach

Try and find a quiet spot there – photo courtesy of Surf 30 (flickr)

And, just to make it even less appealing to me, there were the crowds. Not just the crowds there are on a Sunday in any popular Sardinian beach. I am talking about so many people that I thought I would never find a spot to sit and relax, and just stare at the ocean. I am talking about crowds that exasperate the desperate conditions in which the island verses. I am talking hordes of drunk tourists that find it ok to casually forget plastic bottles and bags on the beach, as if it wasn’t dirty enough already and Bali wasn’t struggling with its garbage. So much garbage there was, that when I saw rats roaming among the piles of trash I was actually not that surprised but just a bit disgusted.

Bali

This isn’t exactly my idea of pristine – photo courtesy of Jon Rawlinson (flickr)

So many people there were on that beach, that I just wondered how they could surf without risking hitting others in the water.

It was not a pretty view, at least not to me.  And between all the garbage, the dark dirty sand, all those people everywhere and the vendors who tried to push flowers, trinkets and what not on me, I just thought I’d better leave and go back to the hotel and find tranquility in the privacy of my room.

I am not sure where the image of a lost tropical paradise comes from, because the more I saw Kuta, the more I thought it looked like the Benidorm of Indonesia.

Had I been a shopaholic I would have seen the benefit of visiting a huge mall-city. Bali surely is a shopping paradise and one could spend days browsing through the shops and the market stalls in search of a good deal, which inevitably implies the ability to haggle fiercely with the vendors in order to avoid being ripped off (the same goes for taxi rides, by the way). Too bad I can’t be bothered with shopping!

I may have noticed all of this because I am a spoiled girl from Sardinia, used to beaches that despite getting crowded in the summer months, never get dirty and most definitely never get commercial (it is actually forbidden to build anything even just close to the beach, that is how much we value our territory). I do understand that being from Sardinia is at times a limit, as I can’t help compare whatever place I visit to my beloved homeland. Perhaps someone who isn’t as spoiled as I am is able to enjoy the beaches in Bali.

To be fair, I found Ubud to be better than the rest of the Bali I saw. It has a bit more of a genuine feel and a bit more of character. But I can see that the impact of mass tourism and commercialization is seeping deeper and deeper here too, with more“high street” and chain shops opening to replace the smaller boutiques and the local businesses. I saw taxi drivers becoming more aggressive – they would not take a “thanks, I do not need a ride”. But at least, it was not as loud, not as “right in my face” and not as tacky as Kuta. Here’s a guide to Ubud with plenty of things to do.

Is Bali really that bad?

I don’t like being completely negative. And I would lie if I didn’t point out that Bali actually does have its charms and that there are a few cool things to do in Bali. I saw some really beautiful sunsets and sunrises – so gorgeous they were, the light so beautiful, that for a while I forgot about all the other things I did not like about Bali. I thought that seeing the traditional boats as they navigated the ocean, at sunset, from the view point of Ulu Watu temple, was a mesmerizing view.

Read more about Bali on my post “Things to do in Bali in one week.”

Bali sunset

The striking sunset seen from Ulu Watu Temple

The rice fields took me to a world that I hardly knew existed, with their bright green color.

Bali

The gorgeous rice fields in Bali – photo courtesy of Juan Jerez

I was captured by the traditional dances such as the Kacak – yes, it is mostly a show for tourists but it was fun to watch and experience, it was engaging and I really laughed hard at the jokes. I enjoyed spots such as the Elephant Cave. And I had a blast in Monkey Forest, where monkeys always put up a good show and I had to fight with a naughty one who thought it would be ok to steal my sunglasses (I got them back, I won!).

I found a few good restaurants in Bali – from the most traditional Balinese and Indonesian cuisine, to other international cuisine, I could have a different meal every day (that is, as soon as the trip was over and I could actually make my own orders!).

I saw some gorgeous resorts and hotels in Bali where I managed to relax and unwind for a real steal.

Ubud Dedari Villas

Bali has some fantastic resorts

And, when I looked around, asked and haggled, the prices were really convenient and it was a real budget destination where it was easy to splurge without breaking the bank.

All in all, my impression is that tourism has had an overly negative impact on Bali and I am afraid that this once beautiful island has lost much of its character and its uniqueness for the sake of mass tourism. While I understand that tourism can give the local economy a huge boost (again, I shall point out I am from Sardinia and tourism is the biggest revenue here), I appreciate the need to protect the environment, the authenticity of a place, its culture and traditions.

I would have liked to see a more traditional, more slower pace, more cultural Bali – where people, locals and visitors alike, can still appreciate the little things in life. I would have liked to have more interaction with the locals, one that involved more than begging them not to hit me with their scooters while I tried to cross the street. I am sure there is a better Bali – I just did not get to see it, and that is a shame because it should be everywhere and not just in the hidden spots.

I really hope that the Balinese people can take the protection of their culture, traditions and environment a bit more seriously and invest in them, even as a way to attract a more responsible kind of tourism, one that has less impact on what could otherwise be a really nice place. Till the day this happens, I will prefer to stay away from it. And perhaps travel to Raja Ampat, where apparently my friend Margherita found plenty magic.

Have you been to Bali? What were your impressions on it?

 

How to be an Unsuccessful Backpacker

How to be an Unsuccessful Backpacker

A lot of travel bloggers enjoy bragging. They are all about the number of countries they have visited (hint: often times, they have just gone through a country during a bus ride on their way to a different once, but since they got a stamp on their passport they still think it’s ok to tick it off their list). They talk about the epic trips they have taken. They show off their ability to pack light and to travel on an extreme shoestring, to go local, to get off the beaten path and what not. If this is what it takes to become a good travel blogger, then I may well be in the wrong place and will soon have start working on a different project, because I don’t think I can fit in with any of that.

group tour

Get that passport stamped! – courtesy of roadjunky.com

Am I a lousy backpacker?

I may well be the lamest traveller in the blogging community because I can’t nearly top the 70+ countries that many others claim to have visited. I have “only” visited 40. Although granted, I have been to most of those 40 two or three times. I have lived in 4 of them for longer than 3 months. And I can actually give directions to a taxi driver to take me to my hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, from Managua international airport.

the turtle

You may call me Turtle

Besides, despite my best efforts I haven’t mastered the art of packing light and during my last trip across South America my big backpack weighted a full 16 kg (that’s when I actually wore all the heaviest clothes) and my small one was around 10. Fine, I got carried away in Argentina and bought 3 bottles of wine that I carried around for months (no, I didn’t want to drink them because they were presents, and yes, I broke the rule of all budget backpackers – I did buy presents!) and I even had a whole pharmacy with me because I am really, truly, tremendously afraid of being sick on the road and not having any medication, just in case I can’t get in touch with my health insurance company (ok, I am sounding lamer by the minute – did I just admit that I travel with an insurance?).

But hey, at least I can prove that despite being small I am tough and strong, right? Besides, what would you say if I told you that it was a technique I carefully devised to meet the locals? I got many bemused stares, a few of them congratulated me on being so strong, others offered their help (which started a conversation!) and some simply laughed (and helped me) when they saw that I could not pick up the pack of tissues I accidentally dropped on the floor, because I could not really bend under the weight and if I did I risked falling on my back and looking much like an upside down turtle. Not too bad, huh?

Blogger girl who quit her job to travel, actually travelled and spent all her money on it

Ok, I am mocking some of the most sensationalist media title here… But, check this out! Instead of travelling with no money at all, I have managed to spend all my savings on travel. Yup. Quite shameful considering that there apparently are millions of ways to travel for (almost) free, to get free accommodation and to even make money while travelling. There even are ways to hitch boat rides that go through amazing places, such as the San Blas islands in Panama. All it takes to catch those rides is patience.

Relax on a hammock after an eventful day

Did you say “patience”?

But, did I mention I am the most inpatient person you may meet? Seriously. Even the hyperactive globetrotter Diana – master of shoestring travel, incredible travel writer (she actually gets promoted from being a “just a blogger” because she’s won prizes with her short stories, plus she is a journalist) and amazing friend – who’s not really a champion at patience, managed to score a free ride that took her from Panama to Colombia. She may have spent 2 full weeks in Portobelo, she may have become the subject of a few jokes at the hostel, but who cares, when she managed to save the $550 USD that the ride normally costs?

slow travel

Why ride a car, if you can go by horse? – photo courtesy of George Kenyon

All of this, when I was the good student to begin with. I did all the homework: researching the best boat companies that crossed from Panama to Colombia, enquiring on dates, routes, and discounts, reading all the online reviews, checking the recommendations to get a decent boat and stocking up on motion sickness pills “just in case” I may unexpectedly get seasick. I studied so hard that then, when I had to sit the exams, I was so nervous that I failed: I happily boarded a boat that was a whopping $110 USD cheaper than the rest. “Blimey”, you may say, “that is actually quite good saving!”

doing homework

Doing my homework looking for good deals online

Ha, I say. Wait till you hear the rest of the story. Because you see, on top of being over 1/5 cheaper, the boat was also smaller and more crowded – understandable, considering that there were 10 passengers, including the 3 backpackers who had actually managed to score a free ride (how did I miss on that?). The crowd, combined with the worst case of seasickness ever (you can read about it here) led me to abandon the boat after 24 hours of suffering (even back then I knew I was lame, and proudly so!), having to wave farewells at my $440 USD, to arrange my return to Panama City and eventually find a flight to take me to Cartagena.

Read more about my horrible sailing experience on my post “Sailing San Blas.”

So, just to give you a rough overview of my expenses: something that normally costs around $500 USD, and that a few good backpackers manage to do for free ended up costing me around $800 USD, including the one night accommodation in Isla Porvenir, the extra meals, the fast boat and 4X4 ride back to Panama City, the extra night at the hostel in Panama City and the flight.

San Blas, Panama

A sunrise worth $800 USD

Call me lazy

Yay me, I am the champion of going over the budget! Now, don’t come to me and say: “Oh Claudia, that’s ok – you didn’t really know that you could travel on a budget, and get freebies in exchange for a little bit of work!” Errrrr… actually? I knew. All those beautiful programmes that allow backpackers to get in touch with farms, hostels and to do homestays, housesitting, and “volunteer” were known to me. I even subscribed to one – and paid my subscription.

cockroach - The Infiltrator !!! :)

Cockroaches as roommates = not fun! – photo courtesy of Anil Jadhav (flickr)

But really, is it not my fault that all those gorgeous farms were infested with cockroaches and I really really have a phobia for them so when I got to the third one in a month and the (very green, tree hugging) owner told me I should just tell them to go away I thought I’d had it. It is not my fault if I like to eat real food and all those very green and very environmentally friendly farmers think they can save the world by eating (and feeding others) just mango and papaya. And truth be told, as a former human rights lawyer, I cringe at the thought that people consider working all day in exchange for a bed at a farm or at an hostel (aka actual businesses making profits) as “volunteering” when in actual legal terms it should be considered slavery. Never mind the lawyer in me! Call me a lazy ass, but quite frankly I could not be bothered to work while travelling after having spent years and years working hard and saving to be able to backpack across Latin America. Not my idea of fun! Besides, I may be picky but I really am not interested in the oh-so-cultural experience of dealing with a bunch of 20-something western drunk and often stinky backpackers; and I have already done my good share of toilet scrubbing, dish washing, glasses filling, plates serving, fruit picking, animal rescuing which is enough for 3 lifetimes (and, shame on me!, I did not even do that to support my travel addiction but to actually pay my tuition fees while at university). Read more about my opinion on voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”

I actually felt lonely in Cuba

I voluntarily spent all my money on travel

It’s not that I have anything against 20-something western backpackers (I have also been 20, you know), but although a good portion of the travel media industry tries to perpetuate the idea that age doesn’t matter, to me it does – I am 40, for Christ’s sake! (thank you, thank you, I do get told that I look younger!) I do get tired, I do get back pains, I can’t be bothered to binge drink and party all night (been there, done that), I need a good meal at least once a day, I value my beauty sleep and my idea of getting to know a local culture has evolved into a more sophisticated, quieter and introspective one that sometimes required taking part in a guided tour (and paying for that). Mind you, I am not against the concept of working while travelling, when one doesn’t otherwise have money. But yaaaaawn – been there, done that, end of story. Read more about my opinion on guided tours on this post.

What’s wrong with being a tourist, anyways?

I also confess that I don’t get the big frenzy about going to off the beaten path places. Wait a second, what did you just say? “Going local, silly!” Oh, ok. “Getting to know the culture of a place, darling!” Mmmm. True. Granted. Then forgive me, but I truly must be less than intelligent. Because I actually do enjoy touristic destinations, so much so that I even pay the entrance fees without trying to find a way to sneak in for free, and on top of that, I even go to the same place three times!

Machu Picchu, Peru

Tourist x 3 – I have actually been to Machu Picchu 3 times!

The Colosseum in Rome is touristy? Call me a tourist then, fine by me! Everyone goes to Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu? I am one of those everyone. There are better sites than Tulum? Matter of opinion, I say – but, come to think of it, I really have been to pretty much all Mayan sites in Yucatan and I have yet to find one as beautiful as Tulum. Besides, I think some locals must take a real pity on me because even if I find myself in the middle of tourist-landia Cartagena, or right at the market in crowded Cusco, I eventually get to talk to the them. They really must feel bad for me that they eventually start spilling little local secrets about the city. Oh no, I swear they were not trying to rip me off! Unless being offered a whole bunch of eucalyptus leaves to cure my sore throat is an attempt at poisoning. Mind you, I don’t have anything against going off the beaten path. I actually end up off the beaten path – because I get lost, or stuck. Or both. Like the time I went to the insanely beautiful Marcahuasi, in Peru, and realised there was no bus going back to Chosica, where I could catch the bus to Lima. So I did the only thing to do: spend the night in the lovely, quiet (aka isolated) village of San Pedro de Casta, listening to the village donkeys bray, do like the locals, and wait around. Some bus would come. Eventually. Just in time to catch my plane from Lima to Cusco.

Marcahuasi, photo 2, Peru

Getting off the beaten path in Peru: my only company was a dog!

One thing I do well when I travel, though. “Finally!”, I hear you say. “Ha, you see?!”, I answer. Yes. I do eat street food. I really do. Except when I do get a terrible stomach infection from eating tacos in Palenque and end up having to stay in bed for 2 full days (well, not really just in bed, but you get what I mean). And except the times when I really, really want to read a menu and sit at a table and eat whatever I am served in more than the 5 minutes it takes to gorge down street food.

Tacos Guadalajara

Mmmmmm, street food! – photo courtesy of Bill Walsh (flickr)

Why am I telling you all of this? Why am I spilling the dirtiest travelling secrets I have? It is not like my opinion matters more than that of anybody else, or that I am more authoritative on the subject. Not at all. But I am tired of reading article after article that try to give the definitive and right idea of what travel should be, and since I am at it, and I write a travel blog, I may as well give my very humble opinion. What I want you to understand is that it is ok to make budgeting mistakes (ahem, it is, isn’t it?). We are not all accountants who walk around with an in-built spread sheet to tick off expenses as we go. I am not even good at math – in fact, I am so bad at it that my sister keeps saying I am a perfect target to rip offs, although with time I managed to master the art of haggling.

I also think it is ok to be attracted by touristic destinations and major attractions. Because seriously, for as crowded as it is, for as expensive at it may be, Venice is an incredible place to visit (and you’d be surprised, even I managed to do good there). And, more than anything else, it is ok to travel and spend money, because money comes and goes and there will always be a chance to make some and ultimately, travel is a huge revenue and a great source of income in many countries (even the ones where it is possible to travel on a shoestring, such as Nicaragua) and we may as well show a little support for the local economy.

Ziplining, Argentina

Do whatever makes you happy!

So no, I do not feel like a loser and I don’t feel less than amazing for having spent all my money on travel (except when I don’t have money to buy a new fancy camera, that is). The truth is that travelling already is epic enough and already brings us outside of our comfort zones for having to deal with places we don’t know, cultures we are not familiar with, and languages we may not understand. We are free to enjoy it in whichever form we want – an all inclusive luxury resort were we splurge and pamper ourselves, or a bed in the cheapest hostel in town. That’s the beauty of travelling: there is something for anybody.

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Discover what it takes to be an unsuccessful backpacker - via @clautavani

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to visit Nicaragua

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to visit Nicaragua

Nicaragua

The flag of Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Everybody knows I am in love with anything Latin America. But those who have the privilege of talking to me, quickly find out I have an obsession for Nicaragua. I have been there 3 times, and I hope to visit Nicaragua again soon. Yes, it is my favourite country in Central America, so much so that when people contact me to ask about other countries such as Costa Rica or Panama, I end up suggesting visiting Nicaragua instead.

What makes it so special to me? It simply is an amazing country, that has so much to offer to travellers. Beautiful colonial cities

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon is one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua

A turbulent yet fascinating history

Leon, Nicaragua

Museo de la Revolucion, Leon

Incredible nature and wildlife.

Las Isletas, one of the places to visit in Nicaragua

Panchito lives on La Isla de los Monos, at Las Isletas: one of the places to visit in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Lakes and volcanoes.

Masaya, one of the tourist attractions in Nicaragua

Volcanoes are among the tourist attractions in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

Amazing beaches.

Poneloya, one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Poneloya is one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Kind and warm people.

Nicaragua

La cara de Nicaragua, the face of Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon

And, something that backpackers should never underestimate, this beautiful country is still unspoilt by mass tourism (but hurry! This will change, it is such an incredible place), it is very safe to travel even for solo female travellers, and it actually is the cheapest country in the continent: my dollars could get me a long way here.

Not convinced yet? Perhaps these amazing sunsets will do the trick and prove it is time to plan a trip to Nicaragua.

Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to travel to Nicaragua

Granada and Las Isletas:

Anybody visiting the country will take a side in the local argument over which city is better, Leon or Granada? Many will say colonial Granada, is the prettiest one among Nicaragua attractions. I must admit my heart beats for Leon, but the most touristic destination in the country (which for some reason reminds me of Trinidad, in Cuba) is indeed picture perfect, and the waterfront of Lake Granada or a boat ride across Las Isletas offer fantastic opportunities to photography lovers. Snapping a good picture is one of the things to do in Nicaragua.

Las Isletas, one of Nicaragua attractions

Nicaragua tours can’t skip a stop at Las Isletas

Mombacho, Nicaragua

Volcano Mombacho – view from Las Isletas

Poneloya and Las Peñitas

A half hour ride on a chicken bus from Sutiava, Leon, these two Nicaragua beaches are more than a surfer’s paradise. Lay in the sun, challenge the waves, go for a walk, enjoy a cold beer and by all means, do not miss the amazing Pacific sunset.

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua beaches

Catching the waves at Las Peñitas, one of the best beaches in Nicaragua

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua

Las Peñitas

Volcan Cerro Negro

About one hour drive from Leon, Cerro Negro is a great, short and windy hike. I could practice volcano boarding here and get covered in sand. And, let’s not forget that the view from the top is simply stunning. I absolutely did not want to miss a volcano on my Nicaragua vacation.

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua vacation

It’s not a Nicaragua vacation if it doesn’t feature a volcano: view from top of Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro, Nicaragua

Storm in the distance – sunset from Cerro Negro

Isla de Ometepe

Located in Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is an 8 shaped island which, despite the presence of two active volcanoes, is peaceful, remote, and offers great hikes, wildlife and spectacular views. Among Nicaragua attractions, it may well be my favourite.

Volcano Madera, Isla de Ometepe

That’s one smokey volcano!

Corn Islands Nicaragua

Whether I feel like relaxing under the Caribbean sun, snorkelling in the clear waters, diving or just want to walk around to explore the island, Isla de Maiz won’t disappoint me. And here, I can be treated to a beautiful, almost stereotypical sunset.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island – courtesy of Nomad Kiwis

Care to know about more things to do in Nicaragua? Stay tuned for more posts!

My very own top 3 hostel nightmares

My very own top 3 hostel nightmares

We’ve all spent at least one nightmare night in a hostel during our backpacking years, haven’t we? Well, I can count at least 3 that have been less than memorable in terms of getting proper rest, but which somehow managed to stick to my memory for the hilarity and absurdity of what happened.

Fighting the drunk hordes in The Terrace, Antigua (Guatemala)

I had only been in Guatemala for four days. This was meant to be the beginning of my 6 months adventure across Latin America. I was sure I had everything under control and I would be able to face any bad experience that may occur along the way. After the first three nights in Antigua, I decided to spend an extra night before making my way to Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, the lovely hostel where I had been sleeping was all booked up, so I decided to make online reservations for another one. As a backpacker on a tight budget, I was looking for something cheap. The Terrace, at $ 8 per night, breakfast included, in a 4 beds dorm, looked good on the pictures and it had good reviews on hostelworld. One of the most popular hostels in Antigua, indeed: there must be a reason for this, I thought!

Another church - as many others, destroyed by an earthquake

Another church in Antigua – as many others, it has been destroyed by an earthquake

I made my way there in the morning, wanting to drop my backpack and have time to browse around town more. I missed the front door a couple of times before actually finding the place – it was hardly visible. When I finally found the place, I walked in to be welcomed by a 20-something American receptionist (and her lovely dog). She seemed nice enough. The hostel seemed a bit old and in need of refurbishment but I did not think too much of it. I would only be staying here for one night after all. When I was shown to my dorm, I realised it would be worse than what I had expected. A dressed guy was sleeping in his bunk – considering it was around 12 pm, it was a bit odd to me. The dorm was tiny, to say the least. The only window faced an internal covered patio and hardly any natural light or fresh air would come in. You can imagine the stench. The toilet and bathroom in front of the dorm had the mouldiest rug and shower curtain I have ever seen. The wooden door was so rotten that I thought it would fall apart if I pulled it too hard. The electric shower had wires coming out – I thought I might get electrocuted if I did not pay attention (or even if I did).

After a day of walking around and a lovely dinner, still a bit jet legged, I wanted to have an early night and went back to the hotel. I then realised I had accidentally booked at a party hostel, were all the other backpackers except me were in their early twenties. Noise travelled easily in the badly organised place: young boys and girls were all getting ready to spend a night out and party. I thought that, as soon as they would leave, I could finally fall asleep. Wanting to be extra safe I even put my earplugs on. I jumped on the bed to find out that I could feel the wires – this was by far one of the least comfortable beds I had ever slept on. I thought of sleeping on the floor, but there was not enough room to do that. The synthetic sheets on my bed were so old that they would come off the matress, revealing stains. I kept my clothes on, in an attempt not to catch bed bugs (luckly, it worked).

Worried but exhausted I fell asleep but my rest only lasted two hours: that’s when the other guests started making their way back to the hostel. Completely drunk, they kept laughing loudly, screaming, opening doors (which I kept on closing). To top this off, despite my earplugs I could hear them gagging and vomiting (and then laughing about it). The entire affair must have lasted about one hour, without anybody from the reception intervening to stop the noise. When the drunken crew finally collapsed, I sighted and thought I could finally rest a bit more. Or not. One hour later, somebody entered the room, pointing a flashlight at my face, calling for a girl named Myra. I told him off, and said there was no Myra in that room: I was the only girl there and I definitely wasn’t Myra. He then asked if I knew where she was, as he had to wake her up for her bus. I told him to go away, I did not know who this Myra was and I had no idea where she may be.

That was the end of my attempts to rest – I decided to get up, shower, and wait for my ride to Lake Atitlan – where I found a super cool hostel and finally rested my sore bones. However, the cherry on the cake was finding out that The Terrace was actually meant to be the hostel where I was supposed to volunteer in Antigua – I had talked to the owner several times over skype, but I had forgotten the name and despite being offered the position I decided I did not want to work on my first week of travelling.

The lesson I have learned? Always always always check Tripadvisor for reviews, and also check the age of the reviewer. Always read the bad comments – they are usually honest comments. Try not to book online, as you may end up having to pay for a terrible room and thus get stuck. It is better to walk around a bit, check the rooms, the bathrooms, and the overall vibe of the place. And, more than anything else, stay away from The Terrace, in Antigua.

Dancing the night away in Cartagena (Colombia)

I was happy to find Mama Waldy when checking for places to stay in Cartagena, Colombia. Conveniently located in the heart of Getsemani, a cool area undergoing constant restoration, popular among backpackers and with a lovely relaxed feel to it. I soon discovered that the location was just about the only positive thing about this hostel.

Cartagena, Colombia

Tiny streets of Getsemani

Upon checking in, I knew I had made a mistake. This is possibly one of the worst hostels I found in my entire life. It used to be an old colonial house. By the look of it, this had never been restored nor properly cleaned. I arrived there at night, after a day of travelling, to find there was a party going on. My dorm was just on the main lobby, and since there were no keys to the dorms, people could walk in and out as they liked – and by people I mean people, not just guests. In fact, while I was there, somebody who was at the party just did. All the guests belongings were left around for people to grab them if they liked. The room was so dirty (paper, food, clothes, shoes and what not on the floor, under the bed, etc; no bins to place garbage), the bathroom so cramped, small and filthy, that I did not even consider using the toilet. I just locked my stuff away and ran out to eat and breathe.

As I got back past midnight, it was finally quiet. But the dorm was so hot and suffocating (there were no windows in any of the room, just a door to the lobby) that I soon realised I would be unable to sleep there. I walked out and I must have looked so disheartened that one of the owners saw me and asked what was wrong, and I plainly said that my dorm was filthy, hot, and I could not sleep there. He eagerly explained that they cleaned the rooms regularly but there was little they could do against messy backpackers. Possibly, what would help would be putting less beds in a dorm and maybe a hanger and a basket to throw away stuff? Anyways, he thankfully offered to put me in a private room, which was only slightly better – yet, no shower curtain, tiny bathroom, and covered in an inch of dust.

Breakfast was supposedly included, and surely paid for, but consisted of 2 slices of toasted bread (with, I guess, cream cheese or butter), and coffee. Not even served on plates. After all, the kitchen hardly seemed equipped. There was a laundry service. That’s if you fancy your clothes being hung to dry on the roof of the hostel. By which I do not mean hanging lines in the roof, but actual tiles.

What really bothered me the most about Mama Waldy was the music and noise. It only stopped past midnight and was really so loud that, if one is up for an early night and feel tired, one won’t be able to sleep. It felt like being in a disco, really. And since noise travelled really easily and by 6 am people would start waking up, my sleep would be cut short every day.

Running water in Suchitoto (El Salvador)

I arrived in Suchitoto after a very long day of travelling from Leon, Nicaragua, during which I took a bus to the village of Potosi, where I did my immigration formalities; waited on the beach for 3 hours without having the possibility to go back to the village in search of shade, water or food (by then I was legally already out of Nicaragua!), as the Nicaraguan marina would not allow the boat to leave due to the rough sea conditions; eventually, 2 hours on the speed boat along the challenging Gulf of Fonseca during which I got completely soaked due to the bumping and the waves, and various more hours on a bus from La Union to Suchitoto.

By the time I reached my final destination, I was grateful that my hostel room at El Gringo had not been given away, since it was so late. The owner drove me to the hostel, on the other side of town from where he lives. His wife showed me to my room and explained how the keys worked. They immediately left and there was no staff on site.

The reality of the hostel was not hard to spot. My room was below a restaurant, the only window was on a living room which faced an internal living rooom (mind you, that is a big word). The bathroom, which was shared with another room, was no more than a sink in the patio, a wall to separate a toilet and the cold water only shower. And for as hot as it is in Suchitoto, I was not ready to have a cold shower that late at night, and went to bed with my hair full of salt from the Gulf. The room was so humid that it was covered in mould stains and paint was coming off the walls. The sheets so small and so acrylic that they would slide off the bed, so that despite all my efforts to arrange them, I ended up sleeping on the matress. The floor below the bed was so dirty and full of dust, hair, and garbage, that I wondered if it had ever been cleaned. I was so tired anyhow, that I could hardly be bothered with any of this.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

This 97 year old lady keeps on rolling her cigars on a daily basis. What’s her youth secret?

A refreshing shower the morning after and a lovely day in Suchitoto almost made me forget about the terrible hostel. That was, until the new Canadian guest came in. Hard to avoid him since my window gave into the living room where he was relaxing on a rocking chair. So, we chatted along for a few moments, until eventually he decided it was bed time and he’d brush his teeth, and I laid on my bed to do some emailing. That’t when I heard a crushing noise, like that of porcelain plates being broken, and the poor Canadian kid screaming “what the heck!”. I ran out to check what had happened. Water was splashing all over and he was completely wet. The remains of the sink were scattered on the floor: apparently, the guy decided he’d lean on the sink with his hand while brushing his teeth, but despite being a fit guy the sink did not hold his weight and collapsed! You can imagine the hilarity of such a scene. We took pictures, we laughed and eventually we decided that if we did not want to flood the entire place, we had to close all the pipes. It worked, but it meant that we were not even able to flush the toilet.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

Los Tercios waterfalls look a bit like the Giant Causeway

The morning after I was glad to have an early start and having to leave at 6:00 am, leaving the other guest alone to explain to the owner what had happened, and that perhaps restoration and refurbishing was much needed in the hostel!

What’s your worst hostel experience to date?

Click here for more of my misadventures.

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Colombia is a huge country, and it is much more than the old cliches of narco-trafficking and kidnapping. As the Lonely Planet describes it, it is a great cocktail consisting of caribbean atmosphere, the great mountains and glaciars of the Andes, the Amazon, the unique Tatacoa desert, cloud forest, colonial cities, indigenous, Afro-descendants and European cultures, and colourful and friendly people. Top all of this with a great, relaxed atmosphere and here is the perfect place. One could spend months travelling around the country, and still feel unfinished and wanting to explore more.  Furthermore, some of the places to visit in Colombia are so isolated that no roads get there. Leticia – the main starting point for a visit of the Amazon basin – can only be reached by plane.

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

By all means, I know I am an adventure seeker, and I know I have a choice of about a million places to visit in Colombia. But, since I was looking for some of the great Colombia tourist attractions combined with fun sports, I headed to San Gil. This is definitely THE place for extreme sports and I could easily fill up my days there with all sorts of activities, from rafting to rappelling, torrentismo (rappelling down a waterfall), horse riding, paragliding, caving, mountain biking, and so much more.

The best thing to do for me, since I didn’t want to burn all my energies was to alternate any of these extreme activities with quieter ones such as swimming in natural pools (such as the Pozo Azul), visiting the nearby waterfalls (Cascadas de Juan Curi) and going on easy, nearby hikes. Although San Gill is small city, it gave me a pleasant and authentic Colombian feel and it is not crowded with travelers. I could enjoy its atmosphere fully during the day, at the local market, or after sunset, when the locals meet for evening drinks in the main square, children happily run around, and everybody is up for a chat.

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Rafting

Among the things to do in Colombia, there is some great rafting. Many companies in San Gil organise whitewater rafting excursions. Unexperienced rafters may prefer opting for the easier Rio Fonce – with rafts of grades 1 to 3.

I was in the mood for something more challenging, so I opted for the Rio Suarez: around 30 dollars for a full day (about 6 hours in total and snacks included, consisting of fresh fruit, local cheese, crisps and drinks). Colombia Rafting Expeditions is the most reliable company in town. I was picked up from my hostel and driven (about one hour drive) to the starting point.

The English speaking guides are very experienced, and did everything to make my day memorable. After a briefing on safety measures, we started rafting down the river. We all got soaking wet, we got the chance to swim in the river carried away by the current, and we even had to get to shore to hike up for a while, and even jumping off cliffs. The only low point is that there is nobody taking pictures for the rafters, so I would advise to carry a waterproof camera.

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Mountain biking

Another one of the things to do in Colombia is mountain biking. Mountain bike tours near San Gil go through the Chicamocha Canyon and they allowed me to visit the beautiful Barichara, an immaculately renovated city of white-washed buildings and stone streets, with a beautiful cathedral and a gorgeous and airy main plaza, which is definitely one of the places to visit in Colombia.

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

The best company running the tour is Colombian Bike Junkies. It is based out of  the restaurant Gringo Mike’s, which is also the meeting point. The trip lasts all day (by which I mean ALL day – do not expect to be back before dark!), it costs around 60 dollars. Ok, that is not cheap but it possibly is the best and most fun among the things to do in Colombia and it is worth saving on other things to embark on this adventure.

Colombia Bike Junkies is reliable, the bikes are in excellent state, and it is organised to the point that when I booked the tour, I was even asked where I wanted to have the front and back breaks, and even a meal preference (yes: a delicious lunch, snacks such as fresh fruit and home baked cookies and water are all included, as well as a “well done” beer after finishing) and my size, as at the end of the day I was given a t-shirt that will always remind me of this great adventure.

There was a very good guide at the front, ready to help with any problems and to give instructions and advice on the technicalities of the path; as well as a guide at the back, driving a jeep and carrying any equipment that may needed to fix bikes on the road, including flat tires. And, to top things off, I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures as the two guides took plenty of shots in key points and moments and shared them with participants. Look at me in full motion:

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

The 50 km trip will be tiring: going downhill is challenging for non-expert mountain bikers, yet it is a lot of fun. After the lunch break, the path is an easier (in technical terms!), slightly uphill 16 km road.

By the time I got to the finishing point, I was dusty, sweaty, dirty and, most importantly, happy and accomplished and that beer tasted oh so good!

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

Where to sleep and eat in San Gil:

Open House Hostel in San Gil is an excellent option for backpackers. It is very close to the main plaza: it is clean, quiet, and it has nice, comfortable beds, an airy common area and very well equipped kitchen and a nice backyard. My humble advice is to cook at the hostel, as, other than Gringo Mike’s, there aren’t many good options to eat in town and the market sells lovely fresh vegetables and fruit.

How to get to San Gil:

San Gil can be reached by bus from pretty much anywhere in Colombia. There are night buses from Cartagena (the trip lasts 17 hours and goes through Barranquilla); there are regular buses to and from Bogotà (8 hours, around 17 dollars), Medellin (11 hours, around 30 dollars) and Bucaramanga (2 hours), which is the closest airport.

Looking for more things to do in Colombia?