Friday, 9 June 2017

Central + South America and Cruise Trip Summary 14th September 2016 to 26th May 2017

This is the final blog entry covering of South and Central American trip and, as several people have asked us, it includes a breakdown of our costs, to help other people planning a similar trip. 

It’s not particularly an easy read and gives a summary of the countries we visited, what we thought of them and how much we spent, so it may not appeal to anyone not familiar with or planning a similar trip, but we hope it will be useful to some.

In total our trip cost us £17275.66, including all flights from the day we left the UK to the day we arrived back, also including the cost of our cruise back from Central America to Europe. We were travelling for a total of 256 days, which is just over 36 weeks, so our average expenditure per day was £67.48, or £479.88 per week

Having left home in the UK on 14th September to take a one week visit to Jackie’s dad on the Costa Blanca, Spain we flew from Alicante to Madrid, Madrid to Lima, Peru and then immediately on to Cuzco, high in the Andes at altitude 3300m, and into acclimatization issues:

Peru – 21st September to 8th November 2016 & 7th to 9th December 2016
We had nearly 7 weeks in Peru, 5 of which were spent in Cuzco attending a Spanish language school during the week, visiting nearby attractions at weekends. We liked Cuzco, it’s a safe city of great historical interest with many of the old Inca structures of their former capital still visible beneath the more modern (but 500 years old) Spanish colonial buildings.

Surrounding Cuzco are many Inca and older sites to visit including Sacsayhuaman, a large Inca fort overlooking the city and easily walkable (or a short, cheap bus ride up the hill) and other Inca ruins further up the valley. The cheap bus ride takes you to all these sites, to either walk back downhill or catch the bus back, it’s not necessary to take a tour, although many people do. The same cheap local bus takes you even further to the Sacred Valley and interesting Inca ruins at either end, well worth a visit. Ollantaytambo is one such town, itself a great weekend destination, which we did, but also the gateway to the railway to Machu Picchu. It is possible to go almost from Cuzco straight to Machu Picchu by train, but most people take a bus to Ollantaytambo and then the train to Aguas Caliente at the base and then a bus up to the ruins. That’s what we did and it was very expensive, but doable in a weekend, which is all the time we had. Alternatives are the Inca Trail trek which now must be done with a guide and must be booked, often up to six months in advance, to guarantee a place. There are other multi day treks that end at Machu Picchu but all return on the expensive railway to Ollantaytambo or Cuzco, and we didn’t do any of those.

After leaving Cuzco we took a hop on-hop off tour bus to Lima using the company ‘Peru Hop’ who employ English speaking staff, stop at all the places tourists want to stop at, organise some free excursions, such as a Pisco Sour vineyard tour with tasting and an old Spanish Hacienda, now a five star hotel, complete with underground tunnels used to get slaves in and out. The company is a little more expensive than other bus firms, but the convenience and discounts they offer on hotels more than offsets this. They offer various routes (including one into Bolivia) and we did the medium length tour, stopping at the Nazca lines, where they stop at a viewing platform to see some lines and we stayed the night in order to take a flight over the lines, catching the bus the next day. It was an expensive flight and very stomach churning as the pilot banked both ways over the lines to give everyone on board a view, so half hour was more than enough, but we can recommend this.

Our next stop was at Huacachina, which is an oasis in the desert, now surrounded by hotels. It’s a little over developed and very touristy, but we stayed in a quieter hotel and quite enjoyed it. You can walk on your own up onto the sand dunes and see the wild desert, but there are many trips possible including dune buggies and sandboarding  (snowboards on sand) down the dunes. We didn’t do any of these, but many people we spoke to did and seemed to enjoy them, but they are expensive. We did find a company, too late in the day for us, who rented out skis, that we would have tried (as we are skiers). The owners are European and Chilean snow skiers in season and sand ski out of either season. Their opinion is that the technique is very similar to skiing on snow. Maybe next time!

After Huacachina we visited the seaside town of Paracas and the ‘poor man’s Gallapagos’, Ballestas islands (which was well worth the small additional cost of the boat trip) plus the free tour of the nearby nature reserve and then on to Lima for a couple of days before flying to Santiago in Chile.

Peru is a relatively inexpensive country. Our Spanish Language school (Fair Services) cost us £1575 for two people for five weeks (25 days of 4 hours per day), which works out as £31.50 per person per day, or £7.88 per hour. We stayed in a homestay in Cuzco, which cost us £608 for five weeks (including weekends) for both of us including breakfast and dinner and, when we were there, lunch, which works out at £8.69 per person per day. Outside of the Spanish school our hotel nights cost us an average of £23 per night (double room with private bathroom) and we spent an average of £19 per day for lunches and dinners for both of us, including beer or wine. The Peru Hop bus cost us US$298 (about £238) for two from Cuzco to Lima, calling at Nazca, Huacachina, Paracas and Lima. The Nazca lines flight was about £120 for both of us. Our trip to Machu Picchu cost £396.00. In total we spent £4731.16 and we were there for 50 days and that includes flights that originated in Peru so include Lima to Santiago, Chile, US$326 (two people) and Lima to Mexico City, £400.77 (two people).

Chile – 8th to 12th November & 23rd November to 7th December 2016
We only visited three places in Chile: the capital Santiago, Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales which gives access to Torres del Paine.

We made a mistake over our trekking in Torres del Paine, we had already decided we didn’t want to do the famous ‘W’ trek, only wanting to trek to the Torres viewpoint, which is the right hand stick of the ‘W’. There is a refuge on the way to the viewpoint, Refugio Chileno and we decided we needed to stay there for a night to make it not too stressful. It is very popular and booked well in advance, even in the supposedly ‘low season’ of November and the earliest date we could secure tent (no space in the refuge) was in early December and, as a result we were waiting in Punta Arenas in a low cost Airbnb for our booked date, really just relaxing and wasting time. When we finally did the trek we realised it would have been easily possible to do the trek in a day without having to stay overnight, which would have freed up a lot of time for other activities. Don’t make the same mistake as us! The tent in the refuge was very expensive (£165 – including park entrance fee) and the food provided was very average, it just isn’t worth it!

Santiago is an interesting capital city and we enjoyed the free (tips only) walking tour we took which was fun and very informative.

Punta Arenas is a relatively uninteresting (and usually cold with a strong wind) town, almost as far south as you can go in Chile. There is not a lot to do here, except to take a ferry trip out to Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos, aka ‘Penguin Island’ in the Magellan Strait and it was one of the highlights of our trip that we can absolutely recommend. The ferry leaves twice a week, from the dock in the north of the town and cost us £50 for two people. Information from the Tourist Office in the town.

Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine: There is a huge amount of hype connected with this and we were not overly impressed with it. The towers are often shrouded in mist and subject to very high winds and rain but are very popular. It is one of the top attractions in Chile and, as a result they charge top prices for everything. It is now a requirement to pre-book accommodation within the park and people will not be allowed in without proof, however, as it is possible to enter and trek to the mirador and out in a day they will let you in if this is all you are going to do. We met people who got in on this basis and then stayed for several days camping but you are not supposed to do it. We started early and met many people on the trail, but the trail was pretty good and easy to follow, the last several kilometres steeply uphill and uneven. As is often the case it started to rain as we neared the viewpoint and our view,  amongst the throngs of people was relatively limited, the mist lifting slightly to give us a half view. Compare this to the trek we did in El Chalten, Argentina to Fitzroy, where the weather is more settled, there are no park entrance fees and the views, in our opinion, equally as good, if not better.

Chile is a relatively expensive country (particularly around Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine). On average we paid £23.36 per night for a private room with en-suite bathroom, but bear in mind that we stayed for over a week in a house in Punta Arenas originally booked through Airbnb but then extended by agreement with the owner who offered us a very low price. This therefore distorts the average figure to look lower than it should. A more typical price would be US$42, about £33. We cooked for ourselves while in the Airbnb, so our meals were relatively cheap, in total we spent £279 on shopping and meals on the 18 days we were there. Flights (Santiago to Punta Arenas, Punta Arenas to Santiago and Santiago to Lima) cost £552.46 for two people, £139.49 on bus transport and £314.73 on trips, including the trips mentioned above. In total we spent £1865.19 for the 18 days we were there. It would have been much more than this had we not had the very cheap deal on accommodation in Punta Arenas.

Argentina – 12th to 23rd November 2016
Our visit to Argentina was limited to southern Patagonia only, we didn’t go to Buenos Aires, only Ushuaia, El Calafate and El Chalten (plus an unplanned stopover in Rio Gallagos).

Ushuaia is on everyone’s list to visit as it is the southernmost city in the world and also the gateway to the Antarctic. I had a plan to make a round trip by sea back to Punta Arenas by catching a ferry across the Beagle Strait to the town of Puerto Williams on the Isla Navarino in Chile, then take a three day boat ride through the Beagle Channel, the Southern Ocean and the Magellan Strait back to Punta Arenas. This was thwarted when we found the boat was fully booked until at least February. However the ferry across the channel from Argentina to Chile was thought not to be running now, accommodation in Puerto Williams was limited and very expensive and the whole thing would have been hideously expensive. If this is of interest in any anyone reading this, research thoroughly to make sure the ferry is running and book well in advance!

Ushuaia is a bit of a disappointment, it’s very expensive and has few attractions. It is a ski resort in the winter and there is an access road to the mountain and a walk up to and on a glacier that we didn’t do, but is supposed to be moderately interesting. The taxi ride up is expensive but we were told it is possible to walk back down to the town. We did take a collective bus to the Parc Nacional Tierra del Fuego where some good walks were to be had. We did a longer one along the windswept coast which offered good views across the channel but was cold and windy with occasional rain.

El Calafate is a town that exists only for tourism to the one attraction, the Perito Merino glacier which is a fast moving advancing glacier with viewing walkways on the land opposite. We weren’t entirely sure about this as we have seen many glaciers before, but we were absolutely blown away by it and we can absolutely recommend a visit. It is so fast moving that huge chunks of ice, 70m in height regularly fall into the lake and you would be unlucky not to see one on a one or two hour visit. We teamed up with two Canadian girls and took a taxi there to avoid the big tour busses, easily obtained by walking the main street in the town and we think it was a good way to do it. The walkways are extensive though it’s easily possible to get away from the crowds and get excellent photos.

El Chalten: This was a great visit, only a 2 hour bus ride from El Calafate and really worthwhile. El Chalten is a smallish (but rapidly growing) town at the foot of Fitzroy mountain. There are four or five fabulous day walks (can be made into multi-day if you have a tent) that can be made directly from the town, with no park entrance fees. Paths are well made and marked (some quite steep in places) and take you into the heart of the high mountains in amongst glaciers and up onto high viewpoint summits with fantastic scenery. The friendly town has many both informal and lower cost,  and luxury restaurants catering for all tastes (our tip: B&B Burger Joint for good cheap food, beer and atmosphere).

Argentina is an expensive country, the most expensive in Central and South America that we visited and came as a surprise to us and many people. By all accounts it seems to have got very expensive in the last couple of years since they have clamped down on the black market economy. We paid an average of £40.20 per night for accommodation (private room with en-suite) and about £16 per night on meals. We spent £351 on bus transport and £55 on trips (mainly the Perito Merino glacier). In total we spent £1072.36 in the 11 days we were there

Mexico – 9th December 2016 to 21st February 2017
We spent a total of 74 days in Mexico, of which 7 weeks were in a town called Tepoztlan, about 1 hour drive south of Mexico City, where we were housesitting for three dogs over Christmas, the New Year and most of January. We loved the housesitting, felt like locals, saved a lot of money and recharged our batteries. We can absolutely recommend this as a way of taking the pressure off during constant travelling.

During and after the housesitting we visited Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende, then flew to the Yucatan Peninsular. We didn’t like Cancun, but inland to Valladolid and Merida and the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Uxmal and many others, then south to Tulum and, in between swimming and snorkelling in Cenotes made this trip fabulous. Central and eastern Mexico are pretty safe and not very expensive, but we avoided the north and west out to the Pacific due to safety issues. Places we would have liked to visit, Copper Canyon in the north and Acapulco in the west we considered too unsafe for us to visit, although we talked to people who had visited and had had no problems. It seems that trouble is from rival drug gangs and tourists are seldom targeted, apart from petty crime, but it is possible to get caught in crossfire so, for us it wasn’t worth it.

Climate in the central area round Mexico City is very pleasant due to the altitude. Day time temperatures are mid to high twenties centigrade and cool at night, plenty of sunshine and 12 hours daylight all year through. Climate in the Yucatan is much more tropical and hot but still bearable.

In total we spent £1787.84 for our 74 days and this breaks down to £453.69 whilst housesitting for 49 days, £1334.15 for the 25 days we were travelling. The average price we paid for accommodation while travelling (all private rooms with en-suite) was £22.65 and we spent £21 a day on meals. In summary it was an inexpensive country, safe in the areas we visited with lots of Mayan ruins, interesting towns and cities, cenotes, seaside and other attractions to visit. Bus transportation is of a high quality and safe. The country is good value for money.

Belize – 21st to 28th February 2017
We only spent 7 days in Belize and visited three places, Corozal, Caye Caulker and San Ignacio, passing through Belize City, so our views are somewhat limited.

We very much liked hearing English as the national language after so long in Spanish speaking countries, but the Afro-Caribbean accent in coastal areas was often quite hard to understand. The standard of bus transport is very poor by Mexican standards, with much use of old America school busses, known as chicken buses. No aircon, relatively uncomfortable seats, often overcrowded with people standing in the aisles and no luggage storage, it has to be taken onboard with you.

The border town of Corozal was only an overnight for us before getting the boat to Caye Caulker, but from what we saw there is no need to spend any more time there. There are few things to see and very few restaurants, but it was nonetheless quite pleasant and we felt safe.

Caye Caulker is a small island in the Caribbean sea just of the coast of Belize, surrounded by the second largest coral reef in the world. It’s a very laid-back place, with main activities snorkelling, diving relaxing on beaches and eating the interesting Caribbean food. There are no cars on the island, some electric vehicles and bicycles, and an island maximum speed limit of 10mph (we saw a lad on a bicycle being booked by police, presumably for exceeding the speed limit!) We really relaxed here and thoroughly enjoyed the vibe, taking one snorkel trip out to the reef (£50 for two), which was fabulous. Access is by boat either from Belize City (short route - £15 for two) or Corozal via San Pedro (long route - £60 for two)

We passed through Belize City on the way from Caye Caulker and experienced only the dock, a short taxi ride and the chaotic, grubby bus station. We had read that the city has nothing much for tourists and is not that safe, the little bit we saw seemed to fit within this description and we were glad to be in a taxi and not walking.

San Ignacio is in the west of the country not far from the disputed border with Guatemala and jumping off point for many adventurous outdoor activities. Most are very expensive, long days and oversubscribed with clients and operators getting as many people as possible at a time in order to maximise profits. The overhyped ATM cave is one such example with reported queues underground, so we decided to give all those a miss. We had a day out on the bus to visit Xunantunich, a Mayan ruin close to the Guatemalan border that involved a short free ferry ride and a walk or (in our case) a taxi ride up the hill. We met two girls from Belize City on a day out and shared the taxi which made the visit fun. In the afternoon we visited an iguana sanctuary in town (located in a five star hotel!).

Belize is quite expensive, the local currency pegged 2:1 to the US$ at a rate that one US expat we spoke to said is unsustainable. If that is the case and it is devalued then the situation may change, but at the moment it’s on the expensive side for what is a relatively backward country. In our seven days there we spent £560.00, paying an average price of £22.00 for private room with en-suite but no aircon in low priced, but acceptable hostels. Meals were an average of £27 per day. We spent £70 on the various trips we did and transport cost us a total of £107.

Guatemala – 28th February to 23rd March 2017
The reports on the safety of tourists in Guatemala nearly put us off going, but the reality was quite different. It is true that in Antigua there were armed guards outside banks and restaurants (yes, restaurants!) and we were advised not to walk alone along parts of the footpaths round Lake Atitlan due to mugging incidents, but we didn’t encounter any problems. Obviously the usual precautions like not wearing expensive jewellery and taking care of handbags and wallets from pickpockets apply and we steered clear of Guatemala City which has almost nothing for tourists and a high crime rate, but other than that we really enjoyed the country.

We entered overland from Belize into the North-East visiting the excellent Mayan ruins at Tikal followed by nearby El Ramate and Flores lake, then travelled down to Antigua for a housesit of 8 days, looking after three cats, then two town on Lake Atitlan before an overnight in Guatemala City prior to a flight to Costa Rica.

We can absolutely recommend Tikal, being a large well preserved Mayan site set deep in the jungle with lots of native wildlife in late afternoon and early morning. Our top tip is to stay in one of the three hotels right outside the entrance and buy your entrance ticket for the next day at around 4:00pm. After this time you are allowed access until just before sunset (you are supposed to pay extra to stay for sunset or sunrise and we didn’t overstay, but when we came out just before sunset there was no-one on the gate, so we probably could have stayed over sunset if we wanted) and then all the next day. Early evening was the best time as all the tour busses had left and there were very few people, all of whom were very relaxed, chilling out. The wildlife was very active at that time making the whole experience very special. We went in early next morning just after the park opened to tour the less popular parts and saw few people until after about 10:00am. The hotels are quite expensive (we paid £47, private room with en-suite, no breakfast but there was a swimming pool), but it did give us a very special experience that we thought made it worth the money. There is a relatively inexpensive restaurant nearby that opens early for breakfast.

El Ramate was a small town on the way to/from Tikal that we stopped at that was nothing special, but did have a nice feel, several good restaurants and a National Park with walking routes nearby that made it a nice stop.

Flores is a small town on an island in the middle of a lake with lots of history and is along from Tikal and connected by bus. Lots of restaurants and hotels with good sunrise and sunset opportunities, depending on which side of the island you are on, boat rides and good walking opportunities on the mainland opposite. Over the bridge onto the southern mainland is the main town which has the main bus station for the northern part of Guatemala and, from here we took the night sleeper bus to Antigua. We paid for a first class bus with reasonable reclining seats which went to Guatemala City, but included collection from our hotel on the island and a connecting shuttle bus onto Antigua. It cost us £93 for two (cheaper alternatives were available), but we slept reasonably well and it was easy. It is also possible to fly from the airport in Flores to Guatemala City, but it is more expensive.

Antigua is an historic city, being the former capital and is worthy of several days to explore, with the addition of trips to several active volcanoes surrounding the city. We were housesitting for the eight days we were there in a secure gated compound, so didn’t pay for accommodation, but did manage to explore the city and climb a volcano, toasting marshmallows in a hot vent (along with many other people!).

Lake Atitlan we liked very much, it’s a beautiful lake, a volcanic caldera, surrounded by three volcanoes and mountains on all sides. Panajachel is the main town on the lake and is the regions transport hub, but it’s a likeable town with several lakeside walks and lots of restaurants and bars. The lake has many towns dotted round it with a good frequent boat service to all of them and it is possible to do a tour of them all. We were advised to use the boats not busses as, on the southern lake road, holdups and muggings are not uncommon! We took a boat across the lake to San Pedro and stayed a few days which we enjoyed immensely. It’s a small, hilly, safe town with many bars and restaurants and we took a couple of tours, a boat ride to nearby Santiago de Atitlan (which was not as good as we’d hoped) and a fabulous sunrise trek to a summit over the lake where we could see six volcanoes, one of which was erupting .

Guatemala is a relatively cheap country, we spent a total of £1119.00 in our 23 days there, which includes the cost of a flight to Costa Rica at £122.37. Because we were housesitting in Antigua for 8 days not paying for accommodation, this breaks down to £234.83 for 8 days of housesitting and £884.14 for the remaining 15 days. Average hostel price was £15.31 (private room with en-suite, some with breakfast included) and we paid an average of £21 per day for meals (lunch and dinner for two).

Costa Rica – 23rd to 31st March 2017 & 27th April to 9th May 2017
We had two separate trips through Costa Rica, mainly as we had booked our return to Europe and the UK on a cruise liner that left from Puerto Limon in Costa Rica. We wanted to visit Nicaragua and Panama, countries either side of Cost Rica so it meant we had to go through the country twice. Because of this our journey did not follow a logical pattern, so we decided to visit the Caribbean coast on our first visit and the Pacific coast on our second.

We flew into San Jose, the capital, spent one night in nearby Alajuela, in the centre of the country before catching a bus and boat to Tortuguero on the Caribbean (Atlantic) coast, another boat to Moin near Puerto Limon and a bus to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. From there we travelled overland into Panama, but after flying from Panama to Nicaragua we returned to Costa Rica overland for a final few days before boarding our cruise liner back to Europe. On the second visit we spent one night in Liberia, took a bus to the town of Nicoya on the Nicoya peninsular, jutting into the Pacific Ocean and then to Jicaral for an eight day housesit looking after two dogs and two cats. From there we travelled by car across the country to Puerto Limon for our cruise.

We had planned to do more in the centre of the country on our second visit, La Fortuna and Monteverde up in the mountains, surrounded by a volcano and tropical rain forest, but we scrubbed it for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that from the information we had read it looked very similar to Boquete and Cerro Punta that we had visited in Panama, we had seen all we wanted to see of volcanoes, jungle and wildlife and, as it was late in the trip the appeal of a housesit that we had found was too much of a temptation. The second reason was the imminent onset of the rainy season that starts in May, Montevede is surrounded by tropical rain forest which can only get even more rainy in the wet season! We are sure they are great places, but we decided not for us on this trip.

Our day in Alajuela was a bit of a non-event, it isn’t really a tourist town and the main reason people go there is to visit the nearby active volcano Poas (that actually erupted a week after we visited, making it off limits to tourists anyway). It’s a harmless city, very safe and has a central square and very modern cathedral (that was closed when we were there).

Tortuguero we liked very much. We had to take a taxi from Alajuela to San Jose then two buses to a dock and then a very scenic boat ride to the jungle clad island surrounded by the Caribbean on one side and rivers on the other. We saw a lot of wildlife by taking walks on our own, a couple of guided walks and a kayak trip. We can recommend a visit here, particularly the longer boat ride out to Moin where the boat captain stopped for all wildlife, crocodiles, sloths and much more.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca was slightly less inspiring, but we did visit the Jaguar rescue sanctuary and saw an abundance of wildlife being cared for prior to release back into the wild, so this really made up for it.

Costa Rica is a relatively expensive country, yet it is a relatively poor country with a big gap between rich and poor. It is popular with US ex-pats and we think their big spending has put the prices up in the tourist areas for anyone with a white face. On the first visit we spent a total of £662.35 for 8 days, or £82.79 per day. For our second visit of 12 days, which included 8 days of housesitting where we paid for no accommodation and mostly cooked for ourselves we spent a total of £320.47, or £26.70 per day. Accommodation was an average of £27.70 per night for a reasonable room and an average of £11 for an evening meal for two. We spent £146.21 on bus transport and £175.67 on trips, comprising the guided walks, the kayak trip and the Jaguar rescue sanctuary.

Panama – 31st March to 19th April 2017
Panama is a well-developed country, Panama City feeling almost like a city in the USA, with prices almost to match. We entered the country at the northern Caribbean border and went straight to Bocas del Torro islands. After that we took a shuttle bus into the highlands to Boquete, on the slopes of Volcan Baru at 1500m, followed by a bus trip round to Cerro Punta (2000m) so we could hike through jungle back to Boquete, where we stayed for another couple of days before heading to David for a night and then on to Panama City for a week. We left Panama on a flight to Nicaragua.

The many islands of Bocas del Torro are tropical and jungle clad in the middle of the shallow Caribbean sea. Our original plan was to stay on Bastimentos island, but we were put off that after reading of relatively regular muggings on one isolated walking trail and the murder of a tourist earlier in the year, so stayed on the safer Colon island in Bocas town. It’s a pleasant town but it has no direct access to the sea without going beyond the town so we had to rent bicycles to get to beaches and beyond, which we did quite cheaply one day, but our stay was made much better when we met up with some US ex-pats Jackie had contacted through a Bocas website. They own an island on which they have built a fabulous house, their only mode of transport being a motor boat and the day we spent with them touring their friend’s private islands and snorkelling was great.

Boquete has a great climate being at a higher altitude with several good walks to waterfalls, volcanoes and jungle treks, where we saw a Quetzal bird. Coupling up our visit with a trip to Cerro Punta so we could walk the El Sendero de los Quetzales trail is definitely worthwhile and we do recommend this. The volcano walk to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit is a tough 5 hour walk up, 3.5 hours down and we are not sure it’s really worth it for the view. You can see both oceans, just some water in the distance, but it’s not a jaw dropping view.

David is a commercial and transport hub, pleasant enough, but not really a tourist destination and we only stayed there overnight in order to catch the 8 hour bus to Panama City the following day.

Panama City is, as mentioned above, a well-developed city with plenty of high rise buildings, but its history, its proximity to the Panama Canal and to jungle made it a worthwhile stop. We stayed one week in very nice, low cost Airbnb accommodation (, close to the main bus terminal and the canal and our time was filled with plenty of things to do. Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal are very worthwhile if you have any interest in engineering achievements, but there are also the sights of Panama Viejo, Casco Viejo, the Amador causeway and Parque Natural Metropolitano to see which are all very interesting, so a week is easily filled.

Panama is a relatively expensive but also a safe country. We stayed 20 days and in that time spent a total of £1312.47, which is £65.62 per day. Our spend on accommodation was £24.17 per day and was kept lower thanks to our very good value for money Airbnb in Panama City and it also kept our expenditure on meals down as there was an excellent kitchen there enabling us to cook for ourselves. We spent a total of £346 on meals and shopping, £178 on bus transportation, £98 on entrance fees and £199.40 on our flight to Nicaragua (two people).

Nicaragua – 19th to 27th April 2017
The reports we had read on Nicaragua rated it about the same as Guatemala from a safety point of view and, as a result we restricted our visit to the area south of the capital Managua. The capital is reported as not very safe and, like most countries it is the transport hub, so is almost impossible to avoid. There were places north of Managua that looked worthy of a visit, but our time was limited so, after flying into Managua from Panama City we were collected by a hotel shuttle bus and taken to the city of Granada on Lake Nicaragua. We had a few days there before travelling by bus and boat to Isla de Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua where we stayed in two locations for a few days and then exited the country by taking a taxi to the border and then a bus into Costa Rica.

Granada sits on the shore of the huge Lake Nicaragua at the foot of a volcano and is a very nice city with plenty of things to do. We did a city tour, a boat ride through the many little islands formed from an old eruption of the volcano and a trip by bus to the lip of an active volcano where we could peer over into the bubbling lava below – crazy!

Isla de Ometepe was formed by two volcanoes, still active, one more than the other in the huge lake that, from the shore on one side looks like the ocean as you can’t see land on the other side. We liked it here, we stayed in the town of Moyogalpa for a few days before heading across the island to Santa Cruz where we did a kayak trip and an interesting night out at a pizza restaurant.

Nicaragua is a relatively cheap country, but the very touristy areas we went to were slightly more expensive. In our 8 days there we spent a total of £584.39, or £73.05 per day. Accommodation cost £24.61 per day, which was surprisingly high for a low cost country, but reflected the areas we went to, but meals were less at £14.83 per day, lunch and dinner. We spent £95.36 on bus and boat transport and £108.43 on the various trips we did.

Cruise – 9th to 25th May 2017
This was a relocation cruise and, as such was much better value than a regular cruise. The ship had been cruising round the Caribbean through the winter and was now relocating back to Europe for summer cruising. For us it was an excellent way of getting home to Europe and much more comfortable than an economy class seat on a plane, but it did involve a period of seven days across the Atlantic without seeing land.

In total the cruise was 16 days and included all food and limited choice, but unlimited quantity, alcohol for the duration, starting from Puerto Limon in Costa Rica and finishing in Lisbon, Portugal. It called at Colon in Panama, Cartagena in Columbia, two days at sea, St Maartin and Antigua in the Caribbean, seven days at sea and then Madeira off the coast of Africa.

The cruise cost us £1882.32 for two people including all taxes and insurance and we spent an extra £77 on trips when in the various ports. To get back to Birmingham UK from Lisbon we spent £135 on a flight for two people, so the total cost was £2094.32. For us, as a means of getting back to Europe, it compared favourably to the cost of an economy class flight and 16 days accommodation. The cheapest flight home we could find was around £400 each and, on average we spent around £65 per day when not housesitting, so the total had we stayed in Central America for 16 days and then flown home would be approximately £1840.00, very similar to the cost of the cruise.

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