Friday, August 31, 2012

Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, the Most Beautiful Collection of Natural Lakes

Dear Reader, have you ever heard of Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia? If so, you have been in on one of the most beautiful secrets of nature. We faintly knew of its existence only because Akiko remembered a picture of Plitvice burned into her mind after a random, mindless, perusal session of Pinterest (Ha! Pinterest is not a complete waste of time after closed).

When we arrived in Croatia, we didn't have any particular pre-planned destinations, and Akiko happened to remember something about these lakes, so we decided to head there from Zagreb. After some research, we discovered that it is in the middle of Croatia, and is a difficult place to get to by public transportation. In fact, there are none, except for a bus to/from Zagreb that may or may not stop once a day, and not anywhere near the entrance to the National Park. It seemed too unreliable. We had no intention of renting a car at anytime during our travels, but in spite of the extra cost, it seemed to be the best option. By having a car, it also opened up more options for cheaper lodging farther away from the National Park, since we could just drive and park there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Picture-Perfect Coastal Town of Rovinj, Croatia on Istrian Peninsula

We can't believe we're actually in Croatia - a country that's been on our must-visit list for awhile.  A place with fairy tale like scenery, crystal clear waters, off the beaten-path and still undiscovered (by Americans anyway) although apparently the rest of Europe has been in on this secret as a major holiday destination spot for quite some time.  The most surprising aspect?  No Japanese tourists.  We've seen Japanese tourists in the most out-of-the-way villages of South America, but not here, or not yet anyway.  As a result, Akiko is quite a novelty - being stared at by the older locals from their apartment windows above the meandering streets of Rovinj.  A waiter we were talking to has seen large groups of Japanese tourists in Rovinj but never one traveling independently.  He kept thinking Akiko was from Alaska (eg. Eskimo) because of the way she looked and talked American English.  Weird.  Our pension host was also very excited as she has never hosted a Japanese guest before!

Cost: Surprisingly Close to Budget in Spain, Morocco, Italy

We know that everyone spends differently, and a budget can be extremely variable; however, after leaving an area, we want to provide some perspective on the cost associated with staying there for anyone interested in doing a similar trip.  Our budget of $100 - $150/day is for 2 people and does not include the $10,000 round-the-world flights (plus trip insurance) already paid for.  The budget also does not account for the bills we are continuing to pay at home.  Our budget allows for a comfortable, low-to-mid-range lodging in hostels or budget hotels with private bath, meals/drinks, use of public transportation, and cost to do some sightseeing and/or activities.  As foodies, we are not depriving ourselves from eating and drinking whatever and whenever we want to, although we are usually focused on finding budget, local cuisine.  Most of the time, breakfast seems to be included in the cost of lodging, so we are paying for 1-2 meals/day. An article titled, "Set Your Daily Number" by the veteran travel bloggers from Married With Luggage confirms that a daily average is a simple strategy for setting and meeting a budget.  We've got in the habit of taking a few minutes to record our daily expenditure so we can make small adjustments along the way.

To get around these countries, we incurred quite a bit of transportation cost by way of buses, ferries (not as cheap as we hoped), and airfare (fastest, but expensive).  We also expected to pay more in lodging due to high season, and we assumed food would not be as cheap as South America.  So, all-in-all, Western Europe was not budget-friendly.  As we were recording our expenses, we cringed at the budget-blowing figures; however, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we ended up very close to meeting our $150/day budget, all thanks to our friends who let us stay at their condo in Spain and home in Morocco, giving us a 10-day reprieve on lodging expenses.  With the huge savings on lodging, we came out to $155/day instead of ~$200/day!

Overall, we traveled all 3 countries for a total of $2800 over an 18-day period, or $155/day - only $5/day above our budget limit.  Not bad.  

Spain & Italy: Euro (€1 = USD$1.25)
Morocco: Dirham (1 MAD = USD$0.11)

Bus is always the cheapest way to travel. The downside is, it takes forever to get anywhere so if you're in a hurry or traveling long distances, it's not the best choice.  Trains cost more than buses, and it should get you to your destination faster, but not necessarily.  It's usually more comfortable and a direct route.  We were surprised at the expense of ferries.  We were expecting costs similar to say, the Washington State ferry system, but no.  Ferries still beat airfare, and what other option is there for crossing the water anyway?  Exactly.  But ultimately, even we caved a couple of times and went with the more costly air travel, just to shave off a few days of travel.  We took the bus and ferry from Spain to Morocco, but we ended up flying back to Madrid on RyanAir.  We also flew EasyJet from Madrid to Venice, Italy to save us from traveling several days through France.  

We heard through the grapevine that these European budget airlines are notorious for charging extra for everything: having to print boarding passes at the airport, baggage check-in (and they are very strict with the size/weight of the one carry-on...and they mean only one...) food/drinks on board, etc.  The trick is, when booking the flights, they will charge you for everything by default, unless you unclick all the options...tricky.  

The 2 flights were a total of $542 for the 2 of us; the ferry from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco cost $134 for 2 people. All other costs were related to bus or taxi for a total of $960, which was 35% of our total expenses for this part of our trip.  

Total $480 for 8 days of lodging that we paid for ($60/night).  We were able to find a hostel in Madrid for less than $60/night in a great location, but with shared bathrooms/showers and no air-conditioning.  In Venice, the best we could find was $90/night in Mestre, which was about a 10-minute bus ride across the water from Venice.  Staying in Venice would've cost over $200/night.  

Total $900 or $50/day.  This is about average.  We sometimes cooked in at the condo and apartment, and sometimes splurged on a nice 3-course dinner with a bottle of wine.  

DRINKS (bottled water, beer, wine, soda, etc.)
Total $180 or $10/day.  We continue to be surprised at how inexpensive wine is. A glass of house wine is only a couple of dollars. Why is wine-by-the-glass so expensive in the States?!  

We actually spent more on admissions fees and attractions than we had in the past.  They were all worthwhile.  We had $58 for museum entrance fees in Madrid, $34 to get into The Alhambra in Granada, and $45 for camel rides in Tangier for 3 peeps plus a hefty tip!

Only a total of $25 this time, thanks to a washer at the condo and apartment; and   hand washing our clothes the other days. The $25 was for a new shirt.

None!  Hoping to keep it this way.  Although our dog, Ogi, is making up for it by needing a tooth extraction by the doggie oral surgeon.  That will be anyone's budget breaker.

Total $84.  It was much more economical to send postcards from these countries in comparison to South America.  Akiko also bought a few original artwork in Tangier and a Murano glass heart pendant to replace the one she broke in Venice.

Total $31.  So far, none of the ATMs have been charging a ATM usage fee, which is great.  The $31 is the standard 1% foreign withdrawal fee we are getting charged by the bank, but that's it.  

As we head across Central Europe and the Balkan States, we don't really know what to expect with lodging, transportation, etc., but we think we will hover above our daily budget until we get to Thailand...then, everything will be very cheap!  So, moving forward, we're not going to worry too much about our expenses over the next month and just enjoy exploring these parts of the world rarely seen.  

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Detour Through Venice, Italy

On our round-the-world trip, our next planned destination after Morocco was Croatia, so what the heck are we doing in Venice, Italy? Good question.

Venice is definitely not a budget traveler's friend.  As expected, when you've got one of the most unique and popular tourist destinations of the world in a confined area, things are going to be expensive - especially lodging.  

Here's the Venice-Croatia connection.  A ferry runs from Venice to Croatia through the Adriatic Sea.  We thought, wouldn't our travels be a lot more interesting if we took this ferry instead of flying directly from Tangier to the main city of Croatia?  Plus, we just love Venice.  We were here 7 years ago and wanted to come back.  So instead, we flew from Tangier back to Madrid on RyanAir; then flew the next day from Madrid to Venice on EasyJet.  Both are European budget airlines that charge extra for everything, including: printing a boarding pass at the airport, checking-in luggage, any inflight beverages, using the restroom on board (okay, just kidding on that one), etc.  

Overall, our desire to take the ferry across the Adriatic is turning out to be an expensive adventure, what with 2 extra flights and 2 nights in Venice, but what the heck.  One unexpected bonus towards our budget has been several freebie lodging in Spain and Morocco, thanks to the generosity of friends.  So, we don't think our plan will be too damaging to our bottom line. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Morocco is for Camels

This is part 2 of our adventures in Tangier, Morocco!  To read about our experience with Ramadan, our lovely hosts - Susan and Mimoun, and lots and lots of photos of the old medina and kasbah, go check out the "Getting Lost in the Medina of Tangier, Morocco" post. 

Our hosts/friends, Mimoun and Susan, were so gracious to take a half-day off to drive us out of the city center towards the Atlantic Ocean side of Tangier for some more amazing sites!

These are our adventures from Day 112 of our round-the-world trip...

Getting Lost in the Medina of Tangier, Morocco

View of Tangier from highest point in old medina.
Ever since Tangier was on 2011 Lonely Planet's list of best places to visit, it's been a "must-go" during our round-the-world trip.  So, when we finally got a glimpse from the ferry of the white-washed buildings stacked up into the hillside of the medina (old town) and the ancient kasbah (citadel) fortress wall on the North African coast, we knew we had arrived to exotic Tangier!

Months ago when we were planning our destinations, we discovered that we might be in Morocco during Ramadan.  We had no idea what to expect, but decided we should go anyway.  Worst case scenario being that we would not be able to eat or drink all day and businesses would be closed, but would make up for it at night with the locals.  Since we chose to stay in Spain a little longer, we only experienced the last 2 days of Ramadan, and the holiday that followed. 

Day 110: Transportation from the South Coast of Spain to Tangier, Morocco

On FRS ferry, leaving
Tarifa, Spain.
After a week of worshiping the sun along the southern coast of Spain, it was time to move on to Tangier, Morocco.  Our intention was to take the local bus system to the port town of Tarifa, Spain, then cross the Strait of Gibraltar via ferry to Tangier, Morocco.  There are also ferries from Algeciras, Spain to Tangier; however, these ferries go to the new Tangier port about 40 minutes out of the city, while the Tarifa-Tangier ferry docks right in front of the old medina and city center.

Unfortunately, the condo staff had no details on how to make this trip (probably because most people just go straight home), and our Internet research attempt came up sparse.  The only thing we were able to secure in advance was an 0815 bus ticket from Fuengirola (closest town to our condo) to Algeciras, Spain; however, we needed to get further than Algeciras to the town of Tarifa, and had no solid plans on how we were going to do this because the Portillo bus company that runs along the southern coast does not go to Tarifa...arrggh.  We would have to find another bus company for that route.  

So, this information is for any traveler in the southern coast of Spain (e.g. Málaga, Fuengirola, Marbella, Algeciras, etc.) who wants to take a bus to Tarifa, Spain, then a ferry to Tangier, Morocco.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Charming Pueblo of Mijas, Spain

Just a short trip from our resort compound is the most charming pueblo (village) of Mijas.   We decided to get up off our lazy bums and get some culture and sights in today.  It was also our first venture out of our compound to test out the coastal bus system (We listed details on the bus routes at the end of this post).

Mijas is a very charming village on the side of the mountain with distinct white-washed buildings and steep meandering, narrow, streets.  Although it is a touristy place with plenty of cafes, souvenir stores, and hotels; we thought it was a worthwhile half-day diversion from the resort and beaches.  A beautiful panoramic view of the entire Costa del Sol can be seen from Mijas.  The highlight was the ability to go inside the old Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring), which has been in use since 1900.  We were surprised at how small the arena was, but would definitely make for an exciting close-up show of the matadores.  

Here are some photos from our day trip!

Chillin' with the Brits in Costa del Sol, Spain

Guess what?  We figured out where all the Brits escaped to, to get away from their homeland during the Olympics - Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean in Spain!

We are guests of a friend at a resort near the town of Fuengirola, who happened to be vacationing in Spain with her friend during the same time period we would be here.  They already had a condo booked on the Spanish Riviera, and invited us to join them for the week.  Isn't that generous?

Apparently, we came to a primarily British destination resort.  We may be the only Americans here, which makes vacationing with a bunch of Brits very fun and interesting.  Dorothy, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Day 103: The Alhambra in Granada - A Must See

Maybe it's just us, but how did we not know anything about one of the most touristed sites in Spain?!  We didn't have a lot of plans coming into Spain.  We knew we would be in Madrid for a few days, but other than that, we could've gone anywhere.  Since we were thinking of heading south towards Costa del Sol to hang out at our friends' beach condo, and they had already made plans to visit The Alhambra in Granada on the way, we decided to tag along. 

We are very glad we tagged along.

To get to Granada from Madrid, our friends had already booked train tickets for ~$110, leaving from the Atocha train station.  For almost the same amount of time their trip took (5 hours), we decided to take the bus instead.  We booked 2 bus tickets through the ALSA bus company for $52.  The bus terminal in Madrid was huge - almost like an airport - complete with arrival and departure boards.  Our bus was very easy to find and it was a very comfortable ride.  It didn't have a restroom on Uboard but stopped 2-3 hours later for a 30 minute break at a designated ALSA rest stop, complete with a restaurant, gift shop, and of course, restrooms.  We did enjoy the view of miles and miles of olive groves alongside the road.  Once we arrived in Granada, it was very, very hot and we didn't know the exact local bus route to take to get to our hotel, so we caved and spent $15 on a cab to take us directly to our hotel.  Money well spent!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Grazing Our Way Through Madrid

Sangria and olives tapas 
Part of the fun of traveling is exploring the foodie culture in each of the places we visit.  Some places are more well-known around the world for their distinct food such as Japanese sushi, Peruvian ceviche, and Argentine steak; but most of the time, we've had no idea about the typical foods consumed in a certain region such as Ecuador and the Peruvian Andes, so it has been a wonderful adventure just discovering the foods.  

Spanish cuisine is more well-known around the world.  We've encountered good tapas restaurants even in our Midwestern city in Kansas and in Japan. We've had paella before.  Gourmet stores sell imported Serrano ham.  However, we've never been certain if the food is close to authentic or not.  Well, this was our chance to find out while we were in Madrid.

Several aspects about Madrid dining surprised us.  First, we were pleasantly surprised at how cheap the food and drinks were.  We basically went on a tapas bar crawl one night, and discovered several places with excellent specials such as a beer and 1 tapas for €0,90!  Also, most drink orders came with tapas such as olives and toast with jamón.  We easily became full just from "free" food.  Also, we've heard so much about the Spaniards eating dinner late that we didn't go out until at least 10 pm, only to find that most of the bars and restaurants were closing at midnight, even on a Friday night.  This was very surprising to us.  

During our short stay in Madrid, we mostly ended up grazing on bites of food throughout the day - a typical Spaniard lifestyle of ordering drinks and small plates and consuming them standing up, then moving on to the next location.  This way of eating was perfect for foodies who want to try a little bit of everything without having to commit to a full entree.  

We recognize that the Spanish food is very regional, so we may not have experienced the best-of-the-best since we didn't get to visit the actual region in which the food is derived from (e.g. eating paella in Madrid instead of Valencia; probably similar to having Kansas City BBQ in New York), but we definitely got a nice sampling of Spain.

Monday, August 13, 2012

48-Hours in Madrid, Spain

We were pleasantly surprised to find out that most of Madrid's main sights in the historic center are all within a compact walking distance from each other, and if walking in 110F heat doesn't sound like a good time, the city has plenty of indoor cultural sights (eg. museums) and a very user-friendly subway system that is also nice and cool.  So, while we only had 48 hours to explore the city, we, and our 2 friends visiting from the States, had plenty of time to see most everything.  

The Madrid subway system was super easy to use, including the automatic ticket machines in English and the informative signage everywhere.  The trains and stations were super clean and without graffiti - a huge departure from the subway system we've been riding in Buenos Aires.

Here is a visual of the main Madrid landmarks in relation to each other.  You can see that most of the sights fall between the Royal Palace on the west end and Retiro Park on the east end, which is only about 2.5 km or a 30-40 minute leisurely walk from end-to-end.  CALLE MAYOR is the main east-west road and was the important street in Madrid during the Habsburg Monarchy.

Cost: Over Budget in Buenos Aires for 26-Days

We know that everyone spends differently, and a budget can be extremely variable; however, after leaving an area, we want to provide some perspective on the cost associated with staying there for anyone interested in doing a similar trip.  Our budget of $100 - $150/day is for 2 people and does not include the $10,000 round-the-world flights (plus trip insurance) already paid for.  The budget also does not account for the bills we are continuing to pay at home.  Our budget allows for a comfortable, low-to-mid-range lodging in hostels or budget hotels with private bath, meals/drinks, use of public transportation, and cost to do some sightseeing and/or activities.  As foodies, we are not depriving ourselves from eating and drinking whatever and whenever we want to, although we are usually focused on finding budget, local cuisine.  Most of the time, breakfast seems to be included in the cost of lodging, so we are paying for 1-2 meals/day. An article titled, "Set Your Daily Number" by the veteran travel bloggers from Married With Luggage confirms that a daily average is a simple strategy for setting and meeting a budget.  We've got in the habit of taking a few minutes to record our daily expenditure so we can make small adjustments along the way.

To end our South America adventures, we decided to spend about 3-weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Argentina was a really good deal for tourists about 5 to 7 years ago when the country began recovering from their 2002 debt crisis and currency collapse.  We discovered Buenos Aires is no longer the most economical place to hang out in South America, so we had to get creative with our finances.  Our initial sticker shock was at the airport before we even got out of immigration when they charged $160 "reciprocal fee" to US passport holders. Then, the $50 cab ride into the city, then ~$110+ for basic lodging with a shared bathroom.  Because we were staying put for 3-weeks, getting an apartment really helped us lower the cost of lodging and food expenses.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Our 30-Hour Travel Day to Madrid

Sunset in Quito, Ecuador
We've been dreading our flight itinerary from Buenos Aires to Madrid.  There's nothing fun about 3 back-to-back flights and layovers that equals about 30 straight hours of traveling.  At the airport in Buenos Aires, we wished we could've been on one of the few direct flights to Madrid, but of course, our round-the-world ticket searches for the, uh, more "economical" routes to get us to our desired destination.  Why?  Because it's cheap and we have nothing but time! 

On the bright side, there were no major delays or cancellations.  Who else gets to experience 5 different airports in one day?  Yes, 5.  We left Buenos Aires, transferred planes in Lima, Quito, and had to disembark to get back on the same plane at Guayaquil (we didn't know about this one), then finally arrived in Madrid.  At each airport, we had to go through a separate security check point, but at least they were not as strict with the shoes and liquids as the US airports are. The security process of transferring to a different flight at Quito was interesting.  We had to wait for a LAN Airlines representative to escort us through a bunch of locked doors to get to our departure gate.  No such thing as just walking off the plane and finding your own gate!  Oh, and we got a cozy pat-down before boarding our final plane in Guayaquil. 

Considering the marathon, we didn't feel too terrible after 30-hours.  We loved LAN Airlines - the biggest South American operation from Chile.  No matter how short or long the trip, every seat had its own screen and a full menu of movies, games, music, etc.  Full meals were served with real plates and silverware.  And, the flight attendants were very attractive!  Iberia Airlines from Spain was nothing special.  It was our long-haul leg and we didn't have the nice amenities we got used to with LAN Airlines.  We thought we were stuck on a school bus with so many children on board.  The only major snafu was not with the airlines at all.  We already griped about the problem with trying to exchange our excess Argentine pesos into Euros in another post titled, Warning About Trying to Exchange Argentine Pesos.  We're still fuming about it.  

The Madrid airport is humongous.  We walked and walked forever to get to the tram that took us to the main terminal.  The architecture was very beautiful!  We were pleasantly surprised at how easy the immigration process was - no fingerprints, no pictures.  The guy barely looked at us before stamping our passports.  During the flight, we wondered why we never received the usual customs forms.  Our question was answered when we got to baggage claim and there was no mandatory customs declaration.  Since we didn't have any checked bags, we breezed through and got on the Express Bus.

It's nice to be back in a first-class, modern city!  The Express Bus was so easy and cheap.  It comes every 20-40 minutes and runs 24-hours a day, costing only €5/pp, which is a big savings from taking a taxi.  We got off at Plaza Cibeles and walked about 15 minutes to arrive at our budget hostel.  

Our hostel is nothing special.  It was the most reasonable accommodations in a decent area that we could find in an expensive city during the summer peak season.  At $60/double/night, we have a room that has a funky smell, no A/C (but a good fan), construction going on outside, shared bathrooms, and we're hand-washing our clothes (because the laundromat is on their summer vacation until August 20th!  Welcome to Europe...); however, the hostel is clean and the owner is very nice and helpful.  There's a full kitchen to share, use of refrigerator space, and great wifi!  The location is only 5 minutes from the main square, Plaza Mayor, and a minute from Puerta del Sol.  

For our first meal in Spain, we shared a paella and washed it down with several Spanish beers, Mahou.  We started feeling the exhaustion from all the traveling, so we decided to buy some boxed wine and take it back to our room for a nightcap.  We didn't know the cup situation at the hostel, so we decided to pour the wine into a couple water bottles.  Unfortunately, the box wine spout is not conducive for pouring elegantly into a water bottle!  Lol.  We were getting wine all over the place, until Akiko McGyver created a funnel for pouring the wine and the world was saved, one sip at a time.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Warning About Trying to Exchange Argentine Pesos to US Dollars

Read carefully if you, or someone you know is planning on traveling to Argentina in the near future, because we just lost an equivalent of ~USD$200 dollars.  How?  

When we were leaving Buenos Aires, we still had about AR$1200 pesos leftover; however, due to recent Argentine monetary policies (more on that in a moment), no legitimate currency exchange house will trade AR$ pesos into US dollars or Euros or any other currency for that matter.  Basically, we are sitting on a pile of cash that is only good in Argentina.  Unless we go back to Argentina, we might as well use it as toilet tissue because it's just paper to the rest of the world.

Ecuadorian Sunset

No, we're not back in Ecuador, but we did have a layover in Quito on our way to Madrid and saw the most beautiful sunset from the plane. We think it's fitting that our last visual of South America is from our first South America experience about 3 months ago. Funny how after only been in a place just one time, there is a sense of knowing and comfort about that place already discovered...even Quito. We suppose that's one reason why we travel. The world becomes more familiar.

Monday, August 6, 2012

How-To (Or How-Not-To) Refill Prescription Meds While Traveling

We had a solid Plan A.  Before we left on our trip, we had our 90-day supply of prescription meds, plus we even received from our discount prescription provider, Medco, an additional 90-day supply through their "travel" program.  Usually, they would not release more than a 90-day supply; however, they will for travel purposes.  Instead of carrying around a 6-month supply of meds (very bulky and takes up precious backpack space!), we decided to have someone mail the next 90-day supply to us while we were in Argentina for 3-weeks.  Genius, right?  Well, not so genius when...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Eating, Drinking, and Cooking Our Way Around Buenos Aires

Mike at Don Julio Parrilla
in Palermo Viejo
As our 3-weeks in Buenos Aires (BA) apartment living comes to a close, it's time to summarize our foodie adventures in this lovely city.  There were moments of excitement with having a kitchen, only to be let down with the disappointing grocery store selections. But, heavenly to find such great tasting beef steaks at any of the myriad parrillas for such a reasonable price, washed down all too easily with Malbec wine.  Not to mention the amazing coffeehouses to support the Argentine late-night culture, accompanied by their sweet-tooth for anything-dulche-de-leche.  We relished in Palermo district's obsession with ethnic restaurants - some winners, some losers; while repeatedly enjoying our newly-discovered favorite restaurant, Las Cabras, only half a block down from our apartment.

First meal and wine in our apartment
However, for those of you who know us well, might we remind you that we are on a strict BUDGET?  That means, we didn't indulge in our usual foodie adventures of trying out the latest and greatest celebrity-chef restaurants; the nouveau prix fixe 20-course menus; nor the trendiest, fanciest, oldest, whatever-est restaurants in BA.  Instead, we took this opportunity to savor in the adventures of grocery shopping, cooking homemade meals in a foreign country, and fed our souls with great budget restaurant finds.