Friday, April 27, 2012

6 Months International

Although we left Los Angeles on the 26th, we didn´t cross our first border until the 27th, which means TODAY marks us as being actually out of the country for 6 months. Whenever we talk to our family and friends, people always want to know what´s the BEST thing we´ve done. With so many interesting experiences, today I´m going to attempt a BEST (and WORST) of Shapiro Adventures. If there are any other categories you´d like to hear about, please leave comments and we´ll try to answer them!

BEST: Casa Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador. Room had private bath, hot water shower, flat screen TV. Nicest and best equipped kitchen we´ve used, free water, free coffee. A sign at reception reads, ¨Need rolling papers? Ask Carlos.¨ All for $22/night.
Honorable Mention: Mamallena, Boquete, Panama. Free pancake batter in the mornings, hot water, excellent vidoe/movie collection for rainy days, really nice staff, fun activities and tours, comfy and warm beds.
WORST: Monte Cristo, Citala, El Salvador. Room had no key, the ¨bathroom¨ was cardboard around a drain and a toilet with no seat, loud music and noise from the bar inside the hotel, we were locked in overnight, rooms usually rented by the hour.
Honorable Mention (WORST): First Hostel by bus stop, Dominical, Costa Rica. This place was actually pretty nice, except for the cockroach IN OUR BED and in the lockers.

Street Food
BEST: Cabeza Taco Cart, Olas Altas, Mazatlan, Mexico. 6 pesos (approx. 50 cents) for cabeza tacos. Cabeza mix includes jaw meat, brains, eyes, and more! The loaded potatoes are also to die for. Honorable Mention: All sliced fruit vendors in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. There is no better snack than sliced mango, coconut, melon, papaya, etc. with lime or lemon, salt, and picante! Copan, Honduras, Lady making ¨carnitas de pollo y res¨ (aka shish-kebab) with spicy vegetables, beans, tortillas, salad, salsa for $1.25. Find her near the central park, first or second stall.
WORST: Costa Rica. There is no street food. Not even street fruit. BOO!

Border Crossing
BEST: Mexico to Guatemala. It´s really an imaginary line in the middle of a shopping town. (If you read our Mirador post, you´ll see they don´t even KNOW where it is!) The Guatemalan official stamped all the passports of everyone on our shuttle and handed them back to the first person in line. Entry fee not charged. WORST: Nicaragua to Costa Rica. There are two forms required, but the officials do not have any forms. You must buy them from children who hang around the border. We waited in line for an hour, which is short compared to others we´ve talked to.
Honorable Mention (WORST): Costa Rica to Panama. Buildings and border are extremely poorly marked. We walked out of Costa Rica without even realizing it and had to walk back twice.

BEST: Manuel Antonia, Costa Rica. Half of this beach is in a national park, half outside. It is wide and flat with light sand and clear waters. At high tide, the water comes right up to the palm trees.
Honorable Mention: El Tunco, El Salvador, for the black volcanic sand and awesome vibe. Melaque, Mexico, for not being a surf town and an awesome small town feel.
WORST: Dominical, Costa Rica. The beach itself is dirty and rocky, and not very nice to sit and walk on. Supposedly a good surfing beach, there were surprisingly few surfers out.

Country to Learn Spanish
BEST: Quetzeltenango (Xela), Guatemala. And not just because that´s where we did it, we checked prices and places in other cities. Xela has more schools, more teachers, and better prices. Nearly every other city and country we´ve looked at (Antigua, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil (for portuguese) and they are usually at least double if not more, WITHOUT the homestay. We paid $135 per person, per week for 25 hours of one on one study plus homestay with 21 meals plus afternoon activities (we paid for extra transportation, but guides included). Interested? Check out

Tipico/Typical Foods
BEST: Nicaragua. Small comedors offer huge plates of Carne with rice, beans, fried plantains, Indio Viejo is a wonderful stew, gallo pinto everywhere, and don´t forget, Iguana Soup!
Honorable Mention: Guatemala, for mountains of vegetables in your soup for $1, and Colombia, for giant platters of food for not much more.

BEST: El Cuartito, Xela, Guatemala. One of our favorite places to study after Spanish school, the Cuartito has comfy chairs, wifi, and much needed hot beverages. At night, it turns into a bar with wine and drinks and live music by local bands. Honorable Mention: Juan Valdez, Colombia. Colombia´s answer to Starbucks.

BEST: Mexico. Possibly every person we met in Mexico told is how happy they were that we had come to visit their country. Mexico has gotten such a bad rap from the press and to us, it seems really undeserved. Yes, there is trouble near the border related specifically to drug trafficing, but the rest of the country is pretty safe and very modern. Mexico is a first world country, whereas the rest of Central America, Costa Rica included, is not quite there yet. (There are some very modern cities, especially Panama City, but there are many cities, major cities, where people live without electricity and running water. While it may be true for some very rural parts of Mexico, the majority of people live with the same modern conveniences we would expect in the states.) The people in Mexico seemed to go above and beyond to be kind to strangers: from friendly conversations on the bus to calling their friends on cell phones to help with directions, we felt extremely welcome.
Honorable Mention: Every other country. It seems everyone in Central America, and Colombia so far, are generaly disposed to friendliness.

Other Travellers
BEST: Canadians. We seem to have partied with a lot of Canadians. They just tend to be polite, friendly, and able to hold their liquor (especially the crazy French-Canadians). A case where the stereotype seems to be true!
Honorable Mention: Australians, despite their horrible Spanish pronunciation, they are also generally nice and always find an excuse to drink beer (we´re on top of a mountain, let´s have a drink! it´s 3 o´clock, let´s have a drink!); Brits, especially Oxford Girls - of whom we´ve met a surprising number, they always have something witty to say and in that damn adorable accent; the Dutch, well I´ve always had a soft spot for them since I am half Dutch, but they also tend to be nice and down for a good time.
WORST: Americans (with notable exceptions). Another unfortunate stereotype. The real problem here is that the sample size is small. We meet Europeans and Canadians everywhere we go, but we´ve only met Americans in a few places. The real thing is that it seems Americans aren´t travelling here AS much. Most of the Americans we´ve met don´t speak Spanish, as in don´t even try, are loud, argumentative, and come off as ¨gringo feos¨, ugly gringos. The worst are certain retirees we´ve met who are living in Mexico or Central America, but seem to despise everything about the local culture. In the states, many expect that everyone should learn English if they live there. Yet these same types move to another country and do nothing to absorb themselves into the local culture. They view it as a cheaper retirement center, not an independent nation with a unique language and culture. The hope, the notable exceptions, are the adventurous Americans (perhaps like ourselves?) who have come to these countries in search of new experiences. They make the truly annoying ¨stupid Americans¨a little more bearable. These people have been really fun and have shared our opinion of other Americans behaviors, so we know we´re not alone and have hope for the future.

Public (Intracity) Transportation
BEST: Medellín, Colombia. Metro. Need I say more? Considering the traffic here is pretty bad (almost LA bad), the metro makes life quite nice.
Honorable Mention: Most cities, many have buses that have routes which are painted on the front window, so just find a bus that goes in your general direction. Examples of cities with ample buses and destinations: Mazatlan, San Salvador
WORST: Panama City, Panama. Actually they have really nice and ample busses but you need a card, they don´t use cash due to former robberies, and getting a card is diffucult and usually entails a multi-hour line.

Intercity Transportation
BEST: Mexico. The whole system is very organized and almost like flying. Almost every city has a central terminal that all intercity busses leave from, there is a set schedule with prices based on quality (more space, more money, etc) and often there is security present. The busses are nice, too, very high quality. Comfy seats, drink service, movies, bathrooms. It´s high class and though more expensive, worth the cost for the long, often overnight, rides.
Honorable Mention: El Salvador. Though all the busses are Chicken Busses aka old school busses, there are so many and the system is also very organized, and best of all, the busses are cheap. The country is small and the capital, San Salvador, is a hub that has a North/West terminal and an East/South terminal. Easy enough - if your bus is going north or west of the capital, you go to that terminal. There are also three different bus routes in San Salvador that connect the two terminals.
WORST: Honduras. The busses go through city hubs that are out of the way, break down, and get you to the border after the last bust from the border in the other direction has already gone.

BEST: Copan Ruinas Museo, Copan, Honduras. It´s almost better than the outdoor excavation since all the Stellae had been moved inside to protect them from the weather. Some of the most unique archeological sites we´ve seen.
Honorable Mention: Parque Explora, Medellín, Colombia. It´s meant for children, but it was way fun for us, too!
WORST: Santa Ana, El Salvador. We don´t remember the name of the musuem, but it is home to the Olmec Head and it was closed and I was incredibly dissapointed. THE OLMEC HEAD!

Free Activity
BEST: Free bottle of tequila and Piña Coladas, Ixtapa, Mexico. We sat through a time share pitch and at the end got free booze, ftw.
Honorable Mention: Mezcal Factory ¨tour¨, Oaxaca, Mexico. See our blog post on how to arrange your own free tour. Also, Going to the beach, all the beaches. It really doesn´t get old. The sun, the waves, the breeze, getting tan, reading...
WORST: Is there such a thing as a bad free activity? I think not!

Expensive Activities
BEST: El Mirador, Guatemala. We paid $250 a person, which doubled our budget, but it was well worth it. Hiking through the jungle, seeing the excavation sites still in the beginning phases, it really was a once in a lifetime experience.
Honorable Mention: The 7 Mole Buffet, Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is famous for having seven different types of traditional moles. We went to the buffet and tried them all. There was also this amazing mezcal mousse...
WORST: Pedro and Lola´s, Mazatlan, Mexico. One of the only ¨nice¨dinners we´ve gone out for, spent a ridiculous amount of money, and it wasn´t that great.
Honorable Mention (WORST): The boat ride from Panama to Colombia. Not because the boat ride was terrible, but because of the seasickness.
Local Booze
BEST: Caballito, Nicaragua. It´s SO CHEAP!! $1.75 for a bottle! It was cheaper than the soda we used to mix it! Thanks to Harry in León for introduction and thanks to the Noreen, Mandeep, and Guillame in San Juan del Sur for sharing 3 more bottles with us for a fun night!

BEST: Quetzeltenango (Xela), Guatemala. The mercado expands over several streets, into the streets. Local farmers sell all sorts of delicious and HUGE vegetables and fruits grown in rich volcanic soil.
Honorable Mention: Mazatlan, Mexico. The mercado in old town has everything in one place: local produce, imported, butchers and fish vendors, bakery, and grocery goods all on small kiosks run by families. Leon, Nicaragua also had a nice centralized setup.
WORST: Costa Rica. They seem to have lost the ¨mercado¨, there were only supermarkets. Produce often looked old and sad, prices were high, Wal-Mart was actually a better alternative.

Local Beer
BEST: Moza Bock, Guatemala. Dark and good.
Honorable Mention: Atlas, Panama. Also good.
WORST: Golden, El Salvador. Tastes like dirty water.

BEST: Mañana Madera, Boquete, Panama. Randy gave us a tour of his farm followed by the singular best cup of coffee I´ve ever had. Ever.
WORST: Instant Coffee. Here, in the countries that make the most amazing coffee, they all drink instant! WHY?!

BEST: Melaque, Mexico. Warm, but not to hot during the day, and cool, but not too cold, at night.
Honorable Mention: San Blas, Panama. Beautiful and Warm during the day and if you get to hot, just jump in the cool water! A nice breeze in the evenings.
WORST: Panama City, Panama AND Cartagena, Colombia. SO HOT and SO HUMID and just oppressive. It makes it hard to move or even think when it is that hot out.

Exotic Local Foods
BEST: Iguana, Nicaragua. Come one, you´ve all read the blog post! Honorable Mention: Grasshoppers, Oaxaca, Mexico. Chop ´em up with onions and peppers, and it´s just like pico de gallo!
WORST: Mayonnaise Sandwich, Guatemala. Nothing quenches the hunger of a 26 kilometer hike like a mayonnaise sandwich. (Please tell me you hear the sarcasm.)

City Cleanliness
BEST: Medellín, Colombia. There are public trash cans everywhere and very little litter for a city of this size. You see public cleaning crews everywhere.
Honorable Mention: Boquete, Panama. Just your average mountain town that everyone pitches in to make a pretty place. No litter!
WORST: San Salvador, El Salvador. Trash in the streets, no trash cans, people throw trash out the windows of moving busses. Overall, just yuck.

Touristy City
BEST: San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. While this might not be the most touristy city on our list, when you´re there, you know it´s a tourist destination. It felt almost like a European mountain town, with cafe´s and bakeries everywhere, and a wine and cheese festival the weekend we happened to be there. The city literally lights up and night while people walk on the pedestrain streets drinking hot chocolate.
Honorable Mention: Granada, Nicaragua. While definitely a touristy spot, with prices to sometimes match, the city definitely had two sides and it was fun to see them both. We also happened to be in town during a poetry festival, which gave the city a new vibrancy.
WORST: Playa Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Now, we happened to have a really good time there because of the people we met (you guess it, Canadians!), but the town itself is way over-priced and the beach is not that nice. It was too windy to stay out and the sand would get in your eyes. Nearby Playa Conchal is much prettier.

Non-Touristy City
BEST: León, Nicaragua. The city is really awesome. It´s got a very distinct culture, love of all the arts, and great food. Their city is not dependant on tourism, though there is plenty for a tourist to see and do. I would definitely advise you to visit it if you´ve never been!
Honorable Mention: Medellín, Colombia. Read our current posts, you´ll see why.
WORST: Suchitoto, El Salvador. We went there on a sort of whim when offered a free ride and offer to see some hidden waterfalls. The falls were cool until it got dark (though later overshadowed by the walls in Uvita, which are fabulous) but the rest of the town was somewhat meh. Wouldn´t necesarily advise you to add it to your itinerary.

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