Staying Connected Abroad Without Going Overboard

Year after year more gadgets come out that help us stay connected.  Blackberries, iPhones, laptops, netbooks, etc.  There are an absurd amount of gizmos that we carry around.

Traveling independently, usually with nothing more than a backpack, limits what you can carry, and something is going to have to go.

I used to be guilty of carrying too much with me when I traveled for work.  Not only did I pack a suitcase for one week in a fancy hotel, but I also carried my Apple Powerbook, iPod, digital camera (often a large digital SLR in addition to a pocket digital camera), and my old Sidekick cellphone.  Once you include all the power adapters and other miscellaneous required junk, that’s 15-20 pounds of gear in a daypack!

I’ve learned to live a more simple life, even when traveling for work.  For instance, I no longer need to travel with a laptop.  In fact, the only reason I carried it was to watch movies on airplanes and in my hotel room.

I’ve also consolidated my iPod and cell phone with an iPhone. This lovely gadget never leaves my side and also does most of the work my laptop used to do.  I can easily check my email, surf the web, watch movies, listen to music, and even update my website!

When I travel abroad I turn the cellular data off as I don’t need or want to pay for expensive calls, text messages, or data charges.  I find that most hostels and hotels now have free wireless internet and I’m able to keep up on my email, send messages to my family, and of course, TWITTER!

I’ve also ditched the digital SLRcamera for most trips.  As much as I loved it, it was just too much to carry and in some places, a security liability.  I have a Nikon Coolpix S610pocket digital camera that fits in my pocket and takes great photos.  It’s not the same, but it’s all I need.  Er, want.  Plus, it shoots pretty good quality movies so there’s no need for a video camera either.

In addition to my iPhone and digital camera, the only thing I would consider or recommend carrying would be a Netbook.  These small portable laptops are less than 10″ and usually weigh only 2 or 3 pounds!  To me, they’re not a necessity unless you I was going to be traveling for an extended period of time.  They can come in handy for storing your photographs, writing emails and blog posts, or even using Skype to call back home.

ASUS is arguably the most popular maker of Netbooks today and their latest, the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE is quite appealing.

Consolidating is your friend.  You don’t need every gadget and gizmo out there!  Many people have iPhones and Blackberries that can connect to the internet via WiFi now and that can substitute a laptop for the majority of budget travelers.  Don’t forget that many hostels and hotels now provide computers and if not, internet cafes are always around the corner!

OK now, be honest. What are you guilty of carrying? Share  your good (or bad) habits in the comments section!

10 Must Have Items for the Independent Traveler

Throughout my travels I have learned a lot of things about what and what not to bring when traveling independently. If you’re the type of traveler who is constantly on the go, I think you’ll benefit from this list.

1. A good backpack:

Sure, you might have some fancy luggage in your closet but if you’re going to be traveling independently on trains, buses, or by foot, you’ll soon be sick and tired of dragging that rolling suitcase behind you.

That’s why I bought the Kelty Redwing 3100 (read my review) for as my main pack when traveling. I’ve gone through three packs before I found this one. It holds about 50 liters of gear, has great padding, and can be adjusted to fit snug and comfortably.

And as a final testimonial, I had shoulder surgery a year before using this for the first time and I never once got sore wearing this bag.

Of course, everybody’s tastes will differ. It might be a good idea to try on a few at your local outdoors store, but with this model being such a bargain, it might be worth the risk to just give it a shot and return it if it doesn’t work out. Note: good backpacks can run upwards of $300.  They might have more space or pockets, but unless you’re packing snow clothes, you shouldn’t need more than 40-50 liters of space.

Best part about this pack, you can carry it on the airplane!

2. A good day pack:

Not everybody will need a second bag, but it can be useful of you will have a base location and be venturing out on hikes or day trips. It’s much easier to leave your large bag behind and load up your day pack with the things you’ll need to get you through the day.
Almost any backpack will do but I particularly like the North Face Recon pack. It holds plenty of gear and is extremely comfortable. As with the Kelty bag, this is one of the first bags I’ve had that doesn’t hurt my shoulders despite loading it up daily with a gallon of water and other junk.

You’ll probably want to have a pack that can hold a water bladder, or at the very least, pockets for water bottles.  You can never have enough water with you!

3. Lonely Planet guide books:

Depending on where you’re going, you’ll likely have a choice of several guidebooks. Over the years I have found Lonely Planet to be the most accurate and helpful for the independent traveler. They tend to cover all types of restaurants and accommodations from the bottom of the barrel budget hostels to five star luxury resorts. Several times I have brought two different guidebooks with me and every time, I end up relying solely on the Lonely Planet.

4. Rough Guide books:

Ok, I wasn’t entirely truthful before. When in Morocco I found myself relying a bit more on the Rough Guide. Since Morocco is a bit difficult to navigate, I often utilized information from both books to determine the best route or activity.

On the other hand though, I’ve browsed other Rough Guides at the book store and some have not been very good. When in doubt, check the reviews on Amazon.

5. Digital Camera:

This probably goes without saying as many people don’t leave home without their camera these days.  My trusty pocket camera is a Nikon S600 which has recently been replaced by the Nikon S610.
You can’t go wrong with just about any modern digital camera and the choices are endless.

I also use a professional Nikon D200 body, but often I find myself leaving it behind and relying on my smaller camera. It’s easier to carry and takes great photos. Don’t forget, most of these small cameras also record movies now. The quality may not be as good as an expensive camcorder, but they work surprisingly well.

6. iPod touch:

Can you tell that I’m a bit of a gadget freak yet? I’ve always brought an iPod along with me ever since I began traveling. You won’t find me walking around the street with headphones in my ears (I prefer the sound of the world around me), but they are great on airplanes and long train rides.

Earlier this year I learned how great my new iPod touch really was. Not only could I use it to listen to music and watch videos on, but its built in WiFi allowed me to hop on to the Internet at every hostel I’ve been at this year and keep in touch with my friends and family. Check your email, surf the web, even post to your blog. Not to mention you can use it to find the latest information on happenings wherever you may be. I’ve since upgraded to an iPhone, but it is so powerful that I don’t even bother carrying a laptop with me anymore. Not even for business trips!

7. Bpa free water bottle:

Ok, enough with the gadgets. No matter where you are, you’ll need to drink water. Depending on where you are, bottled water can often be much more expensive than you’re used to. Solution? Carry your own bottle and refill it with tap water. Just be sure the water is safe to drink where you are visiting!

These CamelBak BPA free water bottles are  great.  Safe to use, strong as heck, and spill proof.  I carry a 1 liter bottle with me every day.

8. Hiking shoes:

You might not need shoes specific to hiking but if you’ll be doing any treading on uneven ground you’ll surely appreciate them.

They’ve evolved over the years to fit and look more like regular old sneakers and less like the mountaineer boots of yesteryear so you won’t feel dorky wearing them around the city as well.

9. Sport sandals:

These are something I wish I had in Costa Rica (and now I do). I tried to make due with my sneakers but every stream, lake, or waterfall we came to I had to sit down and take off my socks and shoes. Then try to keep them dry as I crossed the river only to put them right back on.  I’ve learned my lesson.

They’ll do for mild to medium hikes and you don’t have to take them off when you want to get wet.

10. Quick drying towel:

Last but not least is a quick drying, lightweight towel. They’re thin, light, extremely absorbent, and dry quickly. Much easier to carry than a regular cotton towel, they dry so quickly that they won’t get mildew easily.  Perfect for camping or showering at hostels where you generally need your own towel.  Some hostels will let you use a towel, but there is often a charge. I won’t travel without one anymore.

That’s it! Throw in a few t-shirts and a couple pairs of shorts and you have my backpack, loaded and ready to see the world.

Do you have any suggestions or special items that you can’t travel without?  Please share them in the comments below.

I hope you found this list useful.  If so, and you plan to purchase any of these items or anything else from amazon, I will earn a small percentage of any sales made through the above links.  Anything helps to keep the site up running.  -Thanks!

Costa Rica on 24 Hours Notice – Trip report

When I noticed that I had a rare five days off of work I immediately began looking for cheap flight deals. I’d never been to Hawaii and last time I looked, I found round trip deals for about $400. No luck for that particular week, but I did find a $375 flight to Costa Rica leaving around 11pm on the 4th of July! I booked it without hesitation.

True, I had never been to Costa Rica, really didn’t know that much about it, nor can I speak Spanish well. Sometimes you just have to jump though. I quickly went out and picked up the Lonely Planet Costa Rica Guide and began studying it as much as I could. When I left for the airport less than 24 hours later, I had no idea where I would be going, staying, or doing.

In fact, that continued all the way up until I landed in San Jose. I had narrowed it down to three places, Puerto Viejo, Quepos, or La Fortuna. I took a quick poll from the people sitting near me on the plane and the winner was La Fortuna. So I got off the plane and hopped into a cab heading to the appropriate bus station (I later found out that the bus now stops by the airport but my guidebook was outdated – don’t worry, it has since been updated).

Arriving in Costa Rica
Arriving in Costa Rica

The cab driver warned me to be careful because the area was not very safe. Luckily it was the day time but it was pretty obvious that it was a bad place.

I stood in the long line before I noticed a fellow gringo a few spots in front of me. Somehow we began talking and I found out that Garrett grew up about 20 minutes from me but has since relocated to Utah. Lucky for me, he spoke Spanish well and was able to talk to the ticket seller at the terminal. Turns out that the last bus for La Fortuna had already left but we could board a bus to Ciudad Quesada (about halfway) and then transfer to another La Fortuna bus.

The bus there wasn’t bad but there was no window in Ciudad Quesada so we had to speak to every bus driver at the station. Finally we found the right one thanks to a boy who dragged us and insisted we get on the bus. Honestly, we didn’t know if we would end up in the right place or not but we had faith.

Unfortunately that bus was over packed and we had to stand for over two hours. When we finally arrived in La Fortuna it had begun to rain pretty hard. I whipped out the Lonely Planet and navigated us to Gringo Pete’s hostel. Despite telling me they would have room when I called earlier, they were full. We walked to a couple more places but by 7pm at night they had all filled up too.

It was on the other side of the town (not that it’s a very large town) but I suggested we try Arenal Backpackers Resort which despite being more expensive than any other hostel, was the Lonely Planet’s recommended place to stay.

We were greeted by Diego, a friendly English-speaking Tico who luckily had two beds left. At $14 a night this is probably the priciest hostel in all of Costa Rica but it was a great place to stay. They have a nice pool, covered patio bar and restaurant (with the best and most affordable food I was able to find in all of La Fortuna), and very clean tiled bathrooms and showers. From the street it almost looked like a bar or a club since the patio was so busy.

Shortly after putting my bag away and grabbing a tasty meal at the on-site restaurant, I was invited to go out with a group that was heading to the local discoteca.

The place was booming with an odd mix of Spanish language dance music, American classic rock set to house beats and reggaeton. Nobody minded the $1 Imperial beers either.

Dancing at a La Fortuna Discoteca
Dancing at a La Fortuna Discoteca

After a long night of loud music and dancing we all called it a night.

The next morning I ran into a few people I met at the club the night before and was invited to do a hike to Cerro Chato laguna, a huge lake that has developed inside of a dormant volcano crater.

The hike up the volcano was amazing but difficult. The other three guys who came along didn’t stay back for myself and Anna, a nice girl from Louisiana who had been studying in Costa Rica for the summer. Her and I were slowpokes and took many stops for snacks and water. It didn’t help that I skipped breakfast.

45 minutes behind our c0-hikers, we finally arrived at the lake.  It’s a massive body of water filling the entire crater of the volcano.  After the long hike it felt great to remove our shoes and take a dip.  What is most interesting about Cerro Chato is the fact that there is no inlet nor outlet, yet there are fish living in the water.  Later we were told that the fish likely were dropped by birds flying overhead or that their droppings may have contained eggs.  However they got there, it was certainly an interesting experience.

Cerro Chato
Cerro Chato

After making our way back, we decided that it was still early and took another trail from the bottom to a waterfall.  The walk was very steep but the steps had been formed so that it was easier hike without slipping and sliding your way to the bottom.  A nice outlook provided this wonderful photo opportunity:

Arenal Falls
Arenal Falls

After making our way all the way down, we decided to jump the water at the bottom of the falls.  While it wasn’t the largest waterfall I had ever seen, it certainly was powerful and the force could definitely injure or kill you if you got too close.  We played it safe but it was exhilarating to feel the water throwing you all over the place.

The following day I met up with three college students from Ohio.  They were going back to the waterfall I visited the day before and I decided to tag along.  We did some more swimming at the falls and got a little closer this time.  It was still scary!

I was thirsty!
I was thirsty!

We decided to cross the river and follow the path to wherever it may lead us.  There was another great lookout, a suspension bridge, and even a snake.

Snakes are scary no matter how small they are
Snakes are scary no matter how small they are

Later that afternoon we took a guided tour to see the flowing lava of Volcan Arenal.  It began with a guided, hour long hike where we found howler and spider monkeys, along with learning a lot about the local floral and fauna.  We even came across a large hanging vine and I insisted on swinging from it like Tarzan.

Believe it or not, there are monkeys in the trees
Believe it or not, there are monkeys in the trees
Danger: Volcano
Danger: Volcano

By the time dusk rolled around it was cloudy, as it almost always is there, but we were able to see a bit of lava flowing down the side of the volcano.  The tour was then followed by a few hours at the Baldi Hot Springs.

While Baldi is considerably cheaper than the competing hot springs, Tabacon, it was quite nice.  It resembled a fancy water park with beautifully tiled pools all filled with flowing spring water heated by the lava rocks below the surface.  There were pools of varying temperature, including one as hot as 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit).  A few drunk guys we were trying to dare each other to get in.  I managed to stay in for about 5 minutes before I realized I was likely becoming sterile.

There is also a very scary water slide which people were shooting out of at dangerous speeds.  I love to have fun and do stupid things, but I couldn’t get myself to go down that thing!  Especially since the water they were torpedoing into was only about three feet deep.

We returned to the hostel after the hot springs and hung around the patio bar for the rest of the night.  I spent most of the attempting to flirt in french with some girls from Quebec.  They had one male friend with them who told me, “Your French fucking sucks, but it is cool that you are trying.”  I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or an insult but I knew it wasn’t very good so I didn’t mind.

The next day would be my last day before heading back to San Jose to grab a hotel before my early morning flight.  It was rather clear in the morning and I was rewarded for waking up early with this lovely view of the volcano:

Volcán Arenal
Volcán Arenal

I spent the day lounging at the pool with the Quebec girls and got a pretty nice sunburn.  In the late afternoon I had to run to catch my bus back to San Jose.   I was planning on meeting up with Anna, who was doing the same thing as me.  We were going to meet up and share a hotel or find a hostel but I was never able to find her.  Her bus (from a different part of the country) was rescheduled and she ended up heading somewhere else.  No problem, except she had no way to contact me.

I was hanging around the extremely dodgy part of San Jose, the Coca Cola bus terminal for a few hours too long.  What a scary place.  I’ve been to some sketchy neighborhoods in my day but this was the worst.  There were people shooting heroin in the small alleys next to prostitutes going to town on lonely homeless guys.  Plus, an elderly guy grabbed attempted to mug me by grabbing my backpack shoulder strap and pulling me into an alley.  I pushed him away and headed for a small dodgy hotel whose name I recognized from the Lonely Planet.  It wasn’t very clean, but I was able to lock my door and stay safe for the night.  Plus, it was only a few dollars.  It would do for a few hours of rest before grabbing a taxi back to the airport at 5am.

While this final experience in Costa Rica may sound pretty bad, it hardly put a damper on my trip.  The rest of it was so beautiful that this didn’t even matter.   Next time I know where NOT to spend my night though!