A Weekend Getaway in El Salvador

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Many times, when international travelers set out to explore Central America, they start with Costa Rica and Belize. Perhaps they check out the Tikal ruins in Guatemala and the beaches of Roatan, Honduras and Bocas del Toro, Panama. The adventurous wanderer might continue on to Nicaragua’s colonial city, Granada, or island beauty, Ometepe. Us, too! But many travelers overlook El Salvador. That’s precisely why we went and WOW!

We only stayed for three nights, at Playa El Tunco, but it was a perfect long weekend escape from the cold north! Here are some things you should know about El Tunco.

1. It’s Easy to Get There from the U.S.

Avianca offers direct flights to San Salvador from Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities. The flight takes about 4.5 hours from D.C., then it was less than an hour to get to El Tunco. So, with a 10 a.m. flight, we got to our hotel just in time for check in. And we got to relax by the pool for a bit before going to watch the sunset.

2. The Sunsets Are Out of This World!

Every night at El Tunco, you must grab a cocktail at a beach bar and check out the phenomenal sunset.

3. We Felt Very Safe

We stayed on a beautiful little property on the river with two pools and a lovely outdoor breakfast area. Boca Olas was expensive by Central American prices ($160/night), but it was worth it!

We felt very comfortable walking the 10 minutes into town (“town” is two streets of bars and restaurants) even at night.

4. Pupusas Are a Gift from the Gods!

This beloved Salvadoran dish is a thick corn tortilla that’s stuffed with cheese and other savory goodness. We loved ours with cheese and beans! You can also get shrimp or meat. They cost 50 cents to $1 each (BTW El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar). Two to Three pupusas will fill you up. Add a beer each, and we had an outstanding $10 dinner for two, including tip.

5. The Beach Is Rocky but Still Good for Swimming

El Tunco, which is on the Pacific Ocean, is well known as a surfing beach. It’s a rocky black-sand beach, so it’s not for lounging around in the way that you would on a white sand beach. However, there’s a nice stretch of sandy beach with calm waves for perfect swimming conditions.

We loved our quick trip to El Salvador and can’t wait to go back. Central America is our favorite area in the world to visit again and again. What’s your favorite place? Let us know in the comments!

How Many Countries Have You Traveled To?

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This seems like an easy question to answer, but it’s definitely not. What counts as a country? The most agreed upon answer is the United Nations list of sovereign states, but even that is teeming with political controversy.

Both as a lawyer with a degree in international economic law and a starry-eyed wanderer who is fascinated by culture, I feel the U.N. list is too limiting.

Currently, there are 193 U.N. member states and two nonmember observer states. But what about autonomous, dependent and disputed territories?

If you’ve been to the Cayman Islands, but never Europe, do you say you’ve been to the U.K.? If you’ve been to Guam but never North America, do you say you’ve been to the U.S.?

Grand Cayman, 7 Mile Beach

Then there’s the Travelers’ Century Club list, which includes territories that are removed from the parent countries. So, the list of 327 places counts Alaska and Hawaii as separate countries from the contiguous United States. That goes too far for me!

Then you have the 206 member nations of the International Olympic Committee and 211 countries that can compete in the FIFA World Cup. These lists make more sense to me. Make no mistake, they are also controversial, but they account for geographic areas that have a strong cultural identity that is distinct from the place that holds the seat of government.

I love my Puerto Rican neighbors, and we certainly do share a currency and federal government. But when I’m sitting in a little San Juan restaurant, looking at lush beaches, speaking Spanish and eating mofongo, I certainly feel like I am in a country of its own and experiencing a rich culture that is quiet distinct from the U.S.

Even the legal system is civil-law based, versus the common-law-based U.S. system.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Now, one could argue that Louisiana should be counted as a separate country based on the points I made about Puerto Rico. Both Creole and French Cajun cultures bring district language, food and other elements that are unique to the state, and Louisiana is the only U.S. state that predominantly has a French-based civil-law system instead of a British-based common-law system. However, it is a U.S. state, rather than a territory, and it is geographical part of the contiguous United States.

Would I count Hawaii as a separate country if it was a territory rather than a state? 🤷‍♀️ Probably.

For me, to take the guesswork out, I count countries based on the U.N. list AND the FIFA list. This removes some of the political controversy and cultural limitations of just using the U.N. list. Plus, football is the universal sport that brings the world together–and divides it by “national” identity!

So there you have it. Oh, and I count Greenland as a country—simply because it’s Greenland.

Kulusuk, Greenland

Why even count countries at all? I don’t know, I think it’s kind of fun! What do you count as a country? Please tell me in the comments!

~ LiAnn

Enjoy the Galápagos Without a Cruise

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We just spent four wonderful nights in the Galápagos Islands without leaving the main hub of Puerto Ayora. 🌴 It took us a while to plan a trip here because we mistakenly thought you needed to take a cruise or guided tour to enjoy the islands. But that’s not the case—we had a blast exploring everything Santa Cruz Island had to offer.

We stayed at a beautiful waterfront property that was just a 5-minute water taxi ride from Puerto Ayora. The water taxis run 24/7 and cost about $1 per person each way, so it’s really easy to get in and out of town. Our place was pretty pricey, but there are other affordable options in town.

It was fun wandering the town and checking out the Santa Cruz Fish Market.

Be sure to have dinner at Los Kioskos. These are food stands where you can pick out your fish and someone will cook it up for you. We had tuna, scorpion fish and shrimp. It was beyond delicious! This was a top-notch meal and reminded me of my time in Southeast Asia.

You can also take a short walk from town to the Laguna de la Ninfas and wander around the tranquil water and mangroves.

If you’re up for a hike, check out Tortuga Bay. The beach is stunning and you’ll get to see lots of iguanas.

Keep in mind that it’s a 40-minute hike to Tortuga Bay from Puerto Ayora—and the sun is intense! Bring several bottles of water and sunscreen and wear a hat.

The water is pretty rough at the first beach, but if you walk to the next beach, Playa Mansa, you’ll find a great spot for a leisurely swim. The water was calm and warm and inviting. We brought our snorkel gear, but the visibility wasn’t very good. Still, it was really fun excursion and a relaxing swim.

The next day we hiked to Las Grietas. This was the highlight of our stay on Santa Cruz. You can take a water taxi to the dock by the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, which is where we stayed. It’s about a 20-minute walk from there. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes because the path is very rocky—but it’s a really pleasant hike.

Grieta means cracks or crevasse, and you can swim through the cold brackish water in this crevasse between two cliffs. We got there at about 10 am, and it was really crowded. But we found a spot to leave our belongings. We put on our snorkel gear and jumped in the water.

It was so beautiful. A school of 5 giant fish made there way around the bottom of the crevasse and other smaller fish swam near the surface. At a minimum, bring goggles so you can see the fish and rock formations below the surface. If you don’t like cold water or are not nimble enough to navigate the rocky and somewhat slippery terrain, you can still view the water from the wooden platform.

We loved Las Grietas so much that we went back first thing the next morning for a swim. This time, we set out at 7:30 a.m. and shared the place with only two other swimmers. It was amazing! After our morning hike and swim, we had a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, then we went into town and walked about 30 minutes to to Charles Darwin Research Center where we learned about some of the wildlife in the area and got to see some giant tortoises.

We didn’t go to El Chato Reserve, but that’s supposed to be a great place to see tortoises in nature. You can catch a taxi (white truck) from Puerto Ayora to the reserve, which will take about 30 minutes. You could also add a stop at El Chato on your way to or from Isla Baltra Airport.

These are the highlights of our trip to Santa Cruz Island, but there are many more beaches you can check out. You can also rent bicycles or kayaks and have a really active adventure on the island.

If you want to see more of the Galápagos, you can arrange excursions to other islands from the Santa Cruz dock at Academy Bay. If we had more time, we may have gone to Bartolome or Santa Fe for snorkeling, but we enjoyed taking it easy on our last day and enjoying the beautiful view of the bay.

A short but fantastic stay in Quito, Ecuador

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Quito is a very special city. Its beauty extends from the mountains to the plazas to the cuisine to the people.

We stayed in a boutique hotel with just six guest rooms, Casa el Edén, which was located in close walking distance to the heart of the the central historic district. The couple who owns and lives in the place were so kind and welcoming and made a delicious breakfast each morning. The place was comfortable and gorgeous—in a restored colonial building with a little rooftop garden overlooking the city. Perfect!

We only had two full days in Quito, so we spent our first day simply wandering around the old town. It was a Sunday, so many streets were closed to cars. It was also the Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) so people were out and about celebrating. We really enjoyed wandering through the beautiful plazas.

Our second day was truly memorable. We booked a private cooking class at Altamira Restaurante, which was in walking distance from our hotel. We went to the local markets with Chef Edwin, picked out fresh ingredients and went back to the restaurant to cook a three-course Ecuadorian meal. It was exquisite! We loved the experience, as it’s something you probably cannot get on your own, and we felt like we got a great introduction to Ecuadorian culture.

Our ceviche, shark with coconut sauce, and fruit with chocolate soup were beyond delicious!

Practical tips: Quito sits at almost 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters, so drink lots of water, limit alcohol consumption and get lots of rest. Also, when the sun is out, it’s no joke. Wear a hat and sunscreen.

We stayed in the historic district, which was perfectly safe to walk around during the day, but I would suggest using a car service after dark because the streets are narrow and desolate. Don’t hail a cab on the streets. You can ask the hotel or restaurant to call you a taxi or you may find a designated taxi stand. We used Uber, which worked out great. The popular area 15 minutes north of the historic district, Mariscal around Plaza Foch, is very touristy and felt safe walking around at night on the main streets and exploring the restaurants and bars. As with anywhere, use caution and common sense and be alert of your surroundings.

Quito has quickly become one of my favorite cities in Latin America. Do not skip it on your way to the Amazon or Galápagos Islands—immerse into this city’s culture for a few days of adventure!

Our Top 5 Travel Destinations on a Time and Money Budget

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We love to travel as often and to as many places as possible. So we like to book trips for as cheap as possible without sacrificing too much comfort. After all, the less we spend, the more trips we can take. BUT we usually can only take one week off at a time (sometime a week and a half) so we will pay more for faster transportation, convenient flights and extra comfort on the road. We don’t stay in hostels, nor do we take long rides on the chicken bus—but those are great options for travelers who are on a tight budget and want to have an amazing adventure! We just like a little more comfort and shorter travel time.

Anyway, LiAnn was just reading a few articles on cheap places to visit, but got annoyed because they either neglected to tell you how much the airfare costs to get to those places from the U.S. or recommended sub-par lodging options that might take away from the experience. Other travel articles boast cheap airfare and forget to mention that everything in that city (We’re looking at you, Reykjavik) is super expensive once you get there. That’s why we decided to share our recent budget travel experiences that rank among our favorites. This is really geared toward those traveling from the Northeast United States, because that’s our reference point on airfare. And because we also travel on a time budget, we picked placed that you can get to within about 6 hours from the Northeast U.S.

Obviously, everyone is different when it comes to day trips, dining, drinking and other activities, so we only included the prices of airfare, accommodations and ground transportation below—but each of these places has super affordable dining, sightseeing and entertainment options. All prices listed here include taxes and fees. All totals are for two people rooming together for 7 nights.

We thoroughly enjoyed our adventures in all these places and didn’t break the bank doing so. I hope you will experience some of these destinations, too!

1. Hollywood Beach, Florida

Hollywood Beach has a great boardwalk, lots of fun places to hang out and a nice stretch of beach. It’s also super close the Fort Lauderdale airport, so it’s cheap to get a Lyft ($30 round trip). And since there’s plenty to do, you don’t have to travel much when you get there. Plus, Southwest Airlines has ridiculous Rapid Rewards deals to South Florida. We got direct nonstop flights on Southwest from Washington, D.C., for 13,000 Rapid Rewards points each (plus about $45 each for fees and early bird check in) and a studio near the boardwalk for $750 for the week. Reserving a condo is great because we can use the kitchen and save on food and booze. So that’s under $900 total for two people for flights, accommodations and transportation for a week on the beach. Hollywood Beach is a better budget destination than Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale Beach because dining is less expensive, the boardwalk is awesome and it tends to be a bit less crowded (but still has a lot going on).

2. Nicaragua

Nicaragua was absolutely amazing! The people were friendly. The landscape was diverse. The food was delicious. Our flights from Washington, D.C., to Managua cost $445 each (you can find cheaper, but these flights were at good times). We spent an average of $65 a night for cozy boutique hotels that included a wonderful Nica breakfast of rice and beans, fresh fruit, juice, coffee and eggs. So that’s $455 for a week! We hired shuttles to take us from location to location, rather than renting a car. That cost about $300 for the week. Nicaragua was such a great trip and we got to explore Granada, Ometepe and San Juan del Sur. Total for a couple was $1650 for the week.

3. Panama

We got a crazy deal on airfare to Panama City from Dulles airport: $214 nonstop on Copa! We got this deal by monitoring flight prices on Hopper for the specific dates we wanted to travel in February. We stayed in the El Congrejo district for a few nights ($75/night) and took Uber everywhere ($200). Uber drivers will not only take you to the airport but will also wait for you while you visit the Panama Canal or wander through the rainforest. While in Panama City, we decided to spend one night in the more touristy Casco Viejo neighborhood ($145) and then took a domestic flight ($200 pp) to Bocas del Toro where we splurged for a cabin on the water for four nights ($155/night). So that comes to about $2000 total for the two of us.

4. Roatan, Honduras

Roatan is a beautiful island off the cost of Honduras that boasts incredible diving and snorkeling opportunities. It’s located just south of Belize and gives visitors access to the same coral reef that rests off the coast of Cancun. The barrier reef is one of the largest coral reef systems in the world, by the way, and you can snorkel from the shore. Flight deals are harder to come by for Roatan, but once you land on the island, it’s just a 30-minute taxi ride ($25) to West Bay or West End, where you’ll likely stay the whole time. American Airlines offers flights from Washington, D.C., through Miami for $500-$750, depending on the season. You can get a nice room on the beach or a condo for a reasonable price. There are good happy hour deals, especially in West End, and the 10-minute water-taxi ride between West End and West Bay is $3 per person. Budgeting about $2,000 for two people for accommodations, transportation and airfare is realistic, though spending a little more will upgrade your experience. For our next trip here, $2,500 will get us airfare, a beautiful condo on West Bay and airport transfer.

5. Colombia

A few years ago, we got tickets to Bogota for $250, so we decided to check out the city. We were only there for a few nights, but we loved it. People were so friendly, the museums were interesting, and the food was fantastic. It’s probably not a place you’ll want to stay for a whole week, but there are plenty of things to do in the city and on day trips to hike in the woods or explore coffee plantations. Recently, we found $325 direct flights from Miami to Medellin to Cartagena and back to Miami. So we decided to book a trip for May! We used frequent flyer points to get flights from Washington, D.C., to Miami and back and reserved condos on Airbnb from local owners in each city for a total of $650 for the week. So that’s $1400 once you factor in ground transportation to get around and see things ($100 for Uber). We haven’t done this trek yet, but we are excited about it!

Bonus: Reykjavik, Iceland, for less

Iceland is generally very expensive, but WOW airlines (a budget airline based in Reykjavik) has driven airfare way down. You can get a direct flight on WOW in peak season for about $300 from most major U.S. east coast cities (but they will charge you for every little “add on”). If you don’t like budget airlines, Iceland Air has been offering direct flights for about $450 (this is our preference). You can stay in Reykjavik for a week at an Airbnb for about $1,000-$1,200. Rental cars can be pricey (especially with add-ons), so we got one from Blue (which included most insurance coverage in the quote and was top-notch for service) for two full days (to drive the Golden Circle and take an evening dip in the Blue Lagoon one day and to take a day trip down to Vik the next). The company dropped off the car in the morning to our Airbnb and we drove it back to their airport location on our last day. The rest of the time, we just wandered around Reykjavik – you can also take day trips out on the water from town (for whale watching and puffin sighting). So this week-long trip for two people can be booked for about $2,500—just remember that a burger and domestic beer might cost $40 pp in the heart of the tourist district! Also, keep in mind that Iceland has had more tourists in recent years than it can handle. Leave a limited footprint, go in the shoulder season and travel responsibly!