Budapest, the Beautiful Danube, and Expensive Hungarian Food

I first considered visiting Budapest after reading Tim Leffel’s blog (Tim is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune).  I didn’t pay much attention to the date it was posted and decided it would be my big fall trip thanks to a college graduation present I was ready to cash in.

The first thing I noticed during my pre-planning (I do much less than you would expect) was that there was an impressive amount of hostels listed on HostelWorld. 83 to be exact, as of this posting.  As a comparison, Paris only has 15 listed.

It turns out that it’s rather simple to set up a hostel in a converted apartment and many people are taking advantage of it and the increase in tourism that Hungary has been experiencing over the past decade or so.  Both hostels I stayed in were pretty small but modern, clean and well run.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

One of the things that I always consider when traveling is how easily I can survive on a limited budget.  Budapest was advertised as the secret budget destination in Eastern Europe and your money could go a long way.  Part of the EU, yet still clinging to their currency, the Hungarian Forint, the dollar was said to go much further than elsewhere in Europe.  In some ways, Budapest lived up to this claim, but in others, it exceeded any expectation one could have for larger, more popular European cities.

Széchenyi Baths
Széchenyi Baths

For instance, the average price of a hostel bed was around $15-20 which is certainly acceptable for Europe and much cheaper than Paris or London.  A day at the enormous and beautiful Széchenyi Baths was only about $10 and a full guided tour of surprisingly tight caves ran around $25.  I wouldn’t expect any of these to be much cheaper and they were all worth the price.

Then came the food.  For some reason, food was incredibly expensive.  I can’t recall spending more on a meal in any country, city, or state… anywhere.  My guidebook recommended a restaurant around the corner from the hostel I was staying at which offered traditional Hungarian meals for around $5-7.  It had been a year since the guidebook was published and the restaurant owner must have gotten wind of his literary mention.  It’s a common occurrence along the typical tourist trails for hostels, hotels, and restaurants to increase their price once they get a nod in a guidebook, but what I experienced was much higher than anyone could expect, and not only for the places that were published.  In Budapest every normal restaurant, regardless of the area it was in, charged at least $20 for a typical meal.  The bargains were actually on the heavily trafficked tourist districts in Pest which all offered set “tourist” menus.  The downside was that they were very small and left much to be desired.  Even a stop in a Subway chain for lunch cost me about $10 for a 6″ turkey sandwich.  The price of food was bewildering, to say the least.

DSCN0494While Hungarian cuisine is definitely highly recommended, there is much more to Budapest than overpriced restaurants luckily.  Budapest is a very beautiful town with beautiful castles across the Danube River and great architecture across the entire city.  A great day can be had by simply walking around the city with no destination taking in the sights.  Heroes Square and City Park give a taste of history and nature that helps you quickly forget about the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s busy city streets.  Don’t forget that Budapest is Hungary’s center of culture and home to both art and history museums like the House of Terror which reminds visitors of atrocious crimes that occurred during Hungary’s Stalinist regime and WWII.

One of the most impressive things about Budapest though was the amount of people who speak great English.  Obviously it’s in response to the tourist boom, but it’s impressive how friendly and willing to chat most Hungarians are especially seeing how this country was completely communist less than 20 years ago and experienced very little tourism.  Things have changed though and tourism has become a huge source of income for many businesses in Budapest.

If you want to explore the rest of Hungary (or go to just about any neighboring country) nearly all the trains in Hungary run right through Budapest.  I managed to head south three hours to Pécs which is one of the larger cities in Hungary, yet very small when compared to Budapest.  You can cross the entire town on foot in about 15 minutes but it’ll take you an entire day stopping at the many sights like modern art museum or the Mosque Church.  The later is quite impressive.  In the 16th-century the Turks built a mosque with the stones of a ruined church.  When the Turks were forced out of Hungary the mosque became a church again but kept the classic dome and still retains several touches of Moorish design.  There are even a few scribbles of Arabic around the church that can be found if you keep your eyes open.

Mosque Church
Mosque Church

For what it’s worth, Pécs also had the best food I experienced in Hungary and at much more reasonable prices.

DSCN0590For more photos from my trip to Hungary, check out the set on Flickr.

If you like this article please consider subscribing to our RSS or Email feed and following @HavePack on Twitter.

Top 10 Natural Wonders of the World – a photo essay

1. Serengeti Migration

photo by benzpics63
photo by benzpics63

2. Galapagos Islands

photo by Scott Ableman
photo by Scott Ableman

3. Grand Canyon

photo by andywon
photo by andywon

4. Antarctica

photo by HRC
photo by HRC

5. Iguazu Falls

photo by Feffef
photo by Feffef

6. Amazon Rain Forest

photo by OLD SKOOL Cora
photo by OLD SKOOL Cora

7. Ngorongoro Crater

photo by epcp
photo by epcp

8. Great Barrier Reef

photo by In Veritas Lux
photo by In Veritas Lux

9. Victoria Falls

photo by iain rendle
photo by iain rendle

10. Bora Bora

photo by mrlins
photo by mrlins

List courtesy of Howard Hillman

If you like this article please consider subscribing to our RSS or Email feed or following @HavePack on Twitter.

Top 10 Man-Made Wonders of the World, a photo essay

1. Pyramids of Egypt

photo by liber
photo by liber

2. Great Wall of China

photo by zsoolt
photo by zsoolt

3. Taj Mahal

photo by ironmanixs
photo by ironmanixs

4. Machu Picchu

photo by magnusvk
photo by magnusvk

5. Bali

photo by Theophilos
photo by Theophilos

6. Angkor Wat

photo by tylerdurden1
photo by tylerdurden1

7. Forbidden City

photo by frankartculinary
photo by frankartculinary

8. Bagan Temples & Pagodas

photo by worak
photo by worak

9. Karnak Temple

photo by bigdani
photo by bigdani

10. Teotihuacan

photo by = xAv =
photo by = xAv =

List courtesy of Howard Hillman

How to Choose the Best Digital Camera for Traveling

Have you entered our contest to win a free Kelty Redwing backpack? It’s free and easy!

Some people love to go camera shopping and others dread it.  Some find it fun, others find it difficult.  The simple truth about finding the best digital camera these days is that almost any will do for most people.  But there are some things to consider if you are a traveler and if you can spend a little extra time deciding on the best digital camera, you can find one that stands out above the crowd.

The good news about digital cameras is that while the market has created hundreds of modern models, the quality has become top notch.  Just about any digital camera will take perfectly acceptable photos out of the box for nearly every user.  But what can you look for if you’re a traveler?  There are certain things travelers demand out of cameras and taking time to consider these can be very beneficial.

Megapixels

Several years ago the megapixel war started.  Manufacturers started squeezing more and more megapixels out of their sensors and consumers were swayed by the higher ratings.  Don’t fall for this marketing push.  Chances are you won’t notice a difference between 6mp or 8mp, or even 10mp.  You probably can’t purchase anything below 6mp these days but for printing, I wouldn’t go any lower.  Anything above that is overkill so don’t let yourself get fooled into paying more for a camera just because it has a slightly higher megapixel rating.

Lens

Most people will never take a second thought about the lens on their digital camera but travelers should consider finding a camera with a wide-angle lens.  Most wide angle lenses have a focal length of 28mm as opposed to the standard 35mm.  It may not sound like much, but it is very noticeable and can mean the difference between fitting that entire statue in your frame, or cutting off its head or feet.

You’ll often find yourself in places where you have no control over whether or not you can move to get a different view.  A wider lens will allow you fit more in your frame whether you are indoors or taking pictures of landscapes.  Once you shoot with a wide lens, you’ll never buy another camera without one.

You should also take a look at the optical zoom range of a lens.  3x is pretty standard but higher is nice, although it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.

Always ignore the digital zoom rating of a lens.  Digital zoom is another marketing tactic and results in a terrible looking photograph.  Turn off digital zoom in your camera and never use it (it is typically marked by a line in your zoom meter on the camera’s LCD screen).  Manufacturers will often put a ridiculous zoom rating such as 12x or higher on their packaging to entice customers who aren’t knowledgeable about digital cameras.  If you accidentally use your digital zoom, you’ll be very disappointed once you look at the photograph on your computer and see that it is unusable.  All a digital zoom function does is increase the size of your pixels to the point that they look like big ugly blocks.

Battery

Some budget priced digital cameras will use replaceable AA batteries which many people like since you can find them anywhere, but those same people haven’t tried shopping in a souk in Morocco.  Most digital cameras made today include a rechargeable battery.  I’ve never had one last less than 2-3 days of moderate use which is respectable.  They all come with their own battery chargers which, from my experience, are always multi-voltage.  The only thing you’ll need is a plug adapter to plug it in to foreign outlets.

Weather-resistance

Over the past couple of years manufacturers like Olympus and Pentax have been producing waterproof models that can not only get wet, but be fully submerged in moderate depths of water.  They don’t cost much more than an equivalent camera so these are good options for travelers who enjoy snorkeling or other water sports.

I have used and enjoyed both the Olympus 1030SW and the 1050SW. Amazon typically has some great prices on these models so check them out. The new Olympus Stylus Tough-6000 is pretty enticing.

Pocketability

I just made that word up.  I don’t know if it really exists or not but it describes the final thing that you should consider when buying a digital camera for travel.  Size.  I use professional digital SLR equipment for lots of things, but not travel.  I find it too difficult to carry it around so I found a camera that has all features I need and also fits inside my pocket.  It’s convenient and will let you take photos when you might have otherwise left your camera behind.

The good news is that most cameras now are relatively small and easy to conceal.  Check if the lens protrudes from the body when not in use.  There are also a few models out there that have a grip on the right side of the camera which make it difficult to slip into your pocket.

Recommendations

It’s hard to recommend specific models since new ones are released every few months.  For my money, I always look at Nikon and Canon first.  They’re all I use for my professional photography and I have found their compact digital cameras to be just as good of quality as their higher end models.

If you have any questions or recommendations on digital cameras please feel free to share them in the comments below.

If you like this article please consider subscribing to our RSS or Email feed or following @HavePack on Twitter.

10 Travel Photography Tips to Help Take Great Photos

I’m an avid traveler and a semi-professional photographer (that means yes, I’ve been paid, but no, not very much) and obviously those two loves combine with travel photography.  I have photos from all over the world and they truly mean everything to me.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way and I’ve picked up tips along the way.  Here are the 10 most important ones I know and share with others all the time.

Keep in mind that it really doesn’t matter what camera you have.  You are the one in control and your camera is just a tool.  Learn how to use it, and learn how to take great photos.

Now, onto the good stuff:

1) Make sure horizon lines are straight

Straight Horizon
Straight Horizon - Fez, Morocco
Crooked Horizon
Crooked Horizon - Slight, but noticeable - Budapest, Hungary

One of the most common mistakes people make, especially when shooting landscapes, is not paying attention to the horizon lines.  It’s easy to hold your camera slightly crooked, so be sure pay attention and try to look for an obvious line to use as a guide if the actual horizon isn’t visible.

2) Use your flash when there is back lighting

No flash, strong back lighting
No flash, strong back lighting. Faces are in a shadow - Costa Rica
Flash used, subjects are lit nicely
Flash used, subjects are lit nicely - Costa Rica

Another common mistake and this easy fix can be used in many different situations.  Flash can be used when the sun is behind the subjects.  In this case, you see that we’re in the shade.  The beautiful rain forest is a major part of the photo, but we still need to be lit well.  Flash to the rescue!

You can also use this technique when posing in front of sunsets, at night if posing in front of a lit building, etc.

3) Offer to take photos of other travelers

Thanks Stranger!
Thanks Stranger! - Rome, Italy

Traveling alone but want a photo of yourself? No, you don’t have to hold the camera out as far as you can and snap a goofy photo of half of your face.  Chances are there are other tourists nearby who are thinking the same thing as you.  You’ll often see couples taking pictures of each other individually. Be friendly and offer to take a photo of them together with their camera.  Then run away with their fancy camera! Wait, that’s not what I was going to say.  Oh yeah, then ask if they’ll mind snapping one of you.  That’s how I managed to get this photo of myself in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

4) Look for unusual perspectives

Thinking outside the frame, er... box?
Thinking outside the frame, er... box? - Fez, Morocco

You can only pose so many times in front of random things or places before all your photos start to get redundant.  Browsing this artisan’s shop in Fez, Morocco we noticed our reflections in these beautiful crafted mirrors and decided to make a unique portrait.  It’s not an amazing picture by any means, but we had a good laugh about it and it’s better than us posing in front of the mirrors or a photo of the mirrors alone.  Those would have been pretty boring, right?

5) Find a way to stabilize your camera at night

Blury hand held photo at night
Blurry hand held photo at night - Budapest, Hungary
Stability means sharpness
Stability means sharpness - Budapest, Hungary

If it’s night time and you want to shoot something that your flash can’t light up, chances are your photo will come out blurry.  The solution? Set the timer on your camera and find somewhere you can set it down.  You probably aren’t walking around with a tripod, so look for a post, fire hydrant, bench, wall, etc.  Line up your shot, click the shutter and take your hands off! Don’t be alarmed if your camera takes a few seconds to get the exposure.  It’ll open the lens for as long as it needs to get a decent exposure.


6) Get high

Birds have the best views - Cinque Terre, Italy
Birds have the best views - Cinque Terre, Italy

No, I don’t mean use drugs to help your travel photography.  Use your feet and start walking up, and up, and up.  Some of the best views are from above such as this photograph from the hills above Cinque Terre.  It was quite a hike, but well worth the effort.

7) Don’t use your camera’s digital zoom

Digital Zoom - Venice, Italy
Digital Zoom Reenactment, don't try this at home - Venice, Italy
No Digital Zoom. Nice and crisp! - Venice, Italy
No Digital Zoom. Nice and sharp! - Venice, Italy

There are very few reasons why you should ever use the digital zoom function on your digital camera.  So few reasons that I can’t even think of one.  Even if it does help you reach somewhere you couldn’t have without it, the pictures are so pixelated and blurry that you will probably never use it.  It’s truly a worthless feature built into cameras simply so they can advertise a bloated zoom number on the box for uninformed buyers.

If you really need to get closer for a shot, use your feet.  If that’s not possible, try a different perspective.  Get creative and you’ll enjoy your photo much more than by zooming in to 100x.

8) Keep an eye out for candid moments

Beggar candid - Florence, Italy
Beggar candid - Florence, Italy
Kids fighting over a tire - Fez, Morocco
Kids fighting over a tire - Fez, Morocco

Candid moments are usually my favorite type of photographs.  Sometimes you can capture someone’s expression when it is entirely genuine.  These kids fighting over a tire really stood out to me and I was really glad I managed to capture it.

This is the time to be incognito – think James Bond!  Haven’t you always wanted to be a spy?

9) Keep an eye out for something unusual

Unusual paint job - Budapest, Hungary
Unusual paint job - Budapest, Hungary

So long as it is safe, you should always carry your camera with you.  Even if it’s pouring rain outside, bring it along since you never know when you might see a SmartCar with the Death Star painted on it.

10) Take a lot of photos and don’t delete them

Memory cards are cheap.  Buy the biggest one that your camera will work with or, better yet, buy several.  It might seem like over kill but it can be a good idea to change cards a couple times throughout your trip.  This way, if one fails or your camera gets stolen, you still have photos on another card and you didn’t lose everything. If you’re feeling nice you can always donate it to a traveler in need.  I met two during my last trip and unfortunately I could only help one of them out of their bind.

I hope these tips help!  If you have any travel photography questions or have a tip you’d like to share, please use the comments below.

If you like this article please consider subscribing to our RSS or Email feed or following us on Twitter.

What to Pack For Morocco

This is the first in a series of posts about what to pack for specific destinations.  I noticed an unbelievable amount of Google traffic searching for information on what to pack for Morocco, one of my favorite previous trips.  Since I never touched  on what I packed for Morocco, I decided to write a post about it.  Occasionally I’ll revisit this topic for other destinations that require certain types of clothing or gear.

Morocco is a very unique destination.  Located in North Africa but still carrying the vibe of the Middle East.  Morocco is full of culture, languages, sights, great food, amazing landscapes, and best of all, relatively safe.  This makes it a popular destination for independent travelers and backpackers flock to the various areas around the country.

Morocco is not your every day tourist destination though.  Being a conservative Islamic republic, you should be mindful of Moroccan’s customs and be respectful in your dress.  This means that, despite the often warm temperatures, you should not plan on walking around in shorts and short-sleeved t-shirts.  This goes for both men and women.

For men, jeans, khaki’s and cargo pants are acceptable and long sleeved t-shirts, thin jackets, or lightweight casual button-down shirts are recommended.

Women can generally follow the above recommendations but just be mindful to not wear tops that expose cleavage or have short sleeves.  It may not be considered risque in western culture, but these items are generally unacceptable in Moroccan culture.

Recommended Packing List:

  • 4-5 shirts (or blouses) – preferably long sleeved
  • 1 jacket or sweater
  • 2 pairs of comfortable pants
  • swim suit – if you’re visiting the beach
  • hat – especially if you’re visiting the desert
  • enough socks and underwear
  • comfortable sneakers or hiking shoes
  • toiletries – don’t go overboard, but shopping for your typical toiletries in Morocco might be difficult
  • digital camera – smaller is better

Morocco isn’t particularly dangerous, but places like Tangiers do suffer from slightly more than normal amounts of petty theft.  If you are spending time in any medina areas and want to take photographs, a small camera is a better idea.  Remember, this is where Moroccan’s live and work and aren’t necessarily tourist areas, despite the popularity of them.

If you like this article please consider subscribing to our RSS or Email feed or following us on Twitter.

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!

Morocco, not your typical spring break destination

Here is a short article I wrote for Dig Magazine, CSULB’s monthly publication. My day-by-day travelogue is posted here on Have Pack, Will Travel.

“Where is all the sand?” I thought to myself when I landed at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, Morocco. It turns out that much of Morocco is actually very dense with forests and vegetation. The Mediterranean climate is much more comfortable than one would imagine when contemplating a visit to North Africa.

“Bienvenue en Maroc! Welcome in Maroc!” I frequently heard while walking down busy streets. Not knowing whether I was French, English, or American, they were sure to cover their bases and make sure I understood that I was welcome in their country.

Continue reading “Morocco, not your typical spring break destination”