Categories
Round the world trip

Round the World Ticket (RTW) Our Experience

What is the Round the World Ticket?

If you search online for information about the Round the World Ticket, you will find  a number of articles that were written years ago. Not much has changed since, but we try to give you our perspective on the whole RTW experience. This article is fresh and it contains our points of view on it works and how it helped for our long trip.

In short, a Round The World ticket is an open-ended airplane ticket valid for a year. As the name suggests, it allows a passenger to make a round the world trip by starting and returning from the country of origin traveling either in a westward or eastward direction….

The cost benefits of buying a RTW ticket if you are planning a long trip are huge, in-fact our ticket costed only around USD3K per person. This could be the cost of a return ticket from Singapore to LA and that’s it. But for this amount we got much more and no low cost airlines were involved.

Now, it sounds easy and it is, but there are quite a number of restrictions which we are going to point out below.

Open-ended ticket

What does it mean open-ended? Open-ended means that you are allowed to use this ticket within one year from the date of your first flight and that you are allowed to change the date and time of departure of your journeys as you wish. You would be allowed to choose almost any destination you fancy visiting, but you would be restricted in changing them once they are fixed. There is a bit of planning that you need to do, which is good fun!

The planning required is to establish the general route that you will be taking which will be fixed at the moment of purchase. For example, our route was: Auckland – Kona (Hawaii) – LA – Cancun – Marrakesh – Rome (via land transfer) – Kathmandu – Singapore – Wellington.

We had to fix these destination and any change would cost USD120 per person. After you take your first leg of the round the world ticket, you will then be able to change the date and time of your subsequent flights at no cost and as many times you wish. Obviously seats availability may be a restriction too for popular routes, but you simply need to call and see what is available.

In plane picture
On one of our first few flights…

How to get your RTW ticket, directly…

There a few options available to purchase a round the world ticket. It is generally not attached to a single airline, but rather to airline alliances. You probably know for example that British Airways is part of the One World alliance, Singapore Airlines is part of Star Alliance and KLM is part of Sky Team, etc. These alliances are simply grouping airlines together to cooperate and share routes, and other services. In our opinion, the biggest service that they provide is offering the round the world tickets.

Or use a travel agency…

Another option is to use the service of expert travel agencies that focus their business in multi city travel arrangements, RTW tickets, etc. The AirTrek Trip Planner for example is a great travel agency that provide super customized and tailored travel plans for long trips around the world.

There is a planner you can use on their website. All you need to do is to type the destinations you wish to visit, starting from your origin. It is quite fun even just for daydreaming. If you are serious about buying your RTW ticket, then you can complete your itinerary and hit Get your Price to get an estimate. One of their agents would arrange a free of charge phone call with you.

When we used the planner we discussed the itinerary in details with our dedicated agent. We explored options suggested on the agent’s past and personal experiences, recommending different routes, etc. We made some of our itinerary choices thanks to this phone call.

Or buy a bunch of separate tickets…

If you do not wish to use a travel agent, you can self book your RTW ticket or buy a bunch of flights by searching SkyScanner.

After much thinking through we decided to self book our RWT via the alliances web portals as follows:

One World Alliance

Star Alliance

Sky Team

When we compared the prices quoted by AirTreks with the RTW and self checking with skyscanner, we noticed that the differences were not huge between the options. For us the winning factor to choose the Round the World ticket was the flexibility to change dates of travel. We changed our fights so many times! We also changed our flights just a few hours before departure (most of the time we changed one or few days before). Just once we changed a few hours before, but it was a screw-up :-). If we had fixed dated flights each change would have costed money and stress. Instead we had peace of mind and flexibility.

Itinerary sample
A sample itinerary plan around the world

Categories
Weekend Getaway

Tioman Island Weekend Getaway Experience

Escaping Singapore for an island Weekend Getaway

I am a big fan of impromptu…and when it comes for a weekend getaway, or an escape from city-life, Tioman Island is usually the perfect choice for an impromptu departure out of Singapore (or Kuala Lumpur for that matter). This time I am traveling solo.

It was so impromptu that I have decided to make the journey on my Vespa! That’s right, despite being a 150cc, I can assure you that it handled the journey very well with no hiccups!

Ready for the motorcycle ride
Ready for the motorcycle ride

Packing and getting ready

I have done this weekend getaway to Tioman more than a dozen times, but never on my Vespa. Obviously the Vespa stayed in Mersing whilst I took the ferry on foot ?. The decision of going was literally last minute and in fact I had not packed a single thing! When I woke up I had a lazy morning preparing what I needed to bring or leave behind. I was only going for a few days, hence clothing wise it was not a big deal. So, I grab two t-shirts, swimmers, pants and shorts, toothbrush, deodorant, shower gel and I was ready. 

The biggest problem was packing the scuba-diving equipment. As I own the whole lot and I absolutely wanted to dive, I had to take it with me. I could have opted to travel super light and rent the equipment. But if you are a diver too, you know that nothing beats your own stuff, even if it comes to comfort of travel.

I start packing and quickly realize that I had no suitable luggage to fit the Vespa! (reminder to self: buy a netted duffel bag for diving equipment!). I was not going to bring a suitcase with me. Even though a suitcase would easily fit all the stuff, how on earth I was going to bring that on a long Vespa’s journey? For that I need much more planning.

I started stuffing all into my usual backpack and the fins were quickly sticking out of it :-). A bit of fiddling here and there, opening up the bottom compartment of the Vespa and I somehow managed to put all in. I was ready.

There are many other ways to get to Tioman quickly from Singapore. I have summarized them all in our article here.

The actual weekend getaway Journey

I leave Singapore a bit later than I should have, around 2pm. In a comfortable 3.5 hours, including a cendol stop (learn what is cendol from this link) I am in Mersing. And what I find out? That there is no boat leaving in the afternoon! Obviously I did not research when the ferry was going to leave Mersing. And I should have known better to leave home early in the morning to maximize the chances to get on the island on the day. But I was in no rush. A stop in Mersing is always welcome. And I stayed at a hostel I have known for years, which is clean and charges RM20 per night. You can’t beat that!

Cendol stop on the way to Mersing
Cendol stop on the way to Mersing

The following morning I have breakfast, go to the market to pick up some fruits to bring with me on the island, find a good parking spot for the Vespa and sort out the ferry ticket. If you have been to Mersing before, you will know that there was a building in front of the jetty. It is now renovated and is called Mersing Harbour Center. They moved the blue water ferry ticket counter there, whilst it used to be by the jetty.

Get your Ferry ticket

The process to get your ticket is super straight forward as follows: 

  • You buy the ticket at one of the windows. I encourage you to choose an open date return, so that you can end your weekend getaway whenever you want from the island.
  • Then you move to the counter next door where you present your passport for registration.
  • Lastly, you pay for the marine park entrance fee at the shop in front of the ticketing counter. I recall it being a handful of RMs, but it now costs RM30 for foreign nationalities. For locals it is RM5 and children and senior citizen pay half of that price.

It looks like the monopoly of the ferry transfer for Tioman island is still managed by Blue Water ferries. But I have seen other large boats called Cataferry. If you know more about these, please leave a comment below ?.

Harbour Font Mersing
Harbour Font Mersing

In no time I was on the boat sailing to the island and two hours later we did the first stop. I decided to stay at the end of ABC beach, which gives easy access to Tekek and it is free from cars! 

(Rant coming…)

I did not remember the Tioman Island being a place that offered motorcycles for rental, but amazingly it is now full of that stuff. Seeing all these tourists motorized and the number of cars and pickup trucks is crazy! This island used to be so peaceful, little to no cars, plenty bicycles and the locals on their modified sidecar’scooters.

Pick-ups parked at Tekek
Pick-ups parked at Tekek

By the way, I am only talking about the Tekek area…the rest seems still peaceful. I also heard that there are plans to reclaim land not too far off the Berjaya hotel for a new airport runway and more roads! I really hope this project would be delayed or fail altogether in order to preserve the natural beauty of the island. At the same time I also know that this is somehow linked to the promotion of tourism here, which is the main source of income of the locals and I don’t blame them for wanting progress. I just hope that the disruption to the nature and beauty of the island will not be spoilt like it happened to too many other paradises around this part of the world!

Sorry for the above rant…back to the weekend getaway to Tioman Island.

Around Tioman Island

The island is quite big! It somehow reminds me of the island of LOST, the TV show. It may be worth spending more time than a simple weekend getaway.

There are quite a few peaks (rock climbing is possible!) and the populated areas are only scattered by the coast, mainly on the west side. Something that has always fascinated me is how the jungle and the steep incline of the hills get up to 30 or 50 meters from the coast.

The only developed bit is a row of chalets, bars, restaurants and diving operators between the forest and the beach. All connected by a a simple long “tongue” of concrete going from village to village and sometimes interrupted by steep steps allowing to leap from beach to beach. You can easily spend the whole day walking from Genting (in the south) to Salang in the north. I also cannot remember if it is fully connected and if at some point you may need to grab a water taxi to cover some distance. Be sure it would be a long long walk anyways!

Tekek is the larger village on the island and occupies more land. Make sure you visit the bird statue when there…

West side vs East side

In my weekend getaway to the Tioman Island so far, I have always stayed on the west side of the island. There is a very steep road that connects the west to the east, but it is so steep that most motorcycles can’t make it all the way up. I would do the hike rather than using a vehicle, but it’s something I am yet to try out! You would need more than 1.5 hours walk to get there so, if you are a family with young children and want to visit the east, perhaps you can use a pick up service from Tekek.

The west side however has been the most popular due to its access to the main diving spots around the island. Most facilities, snorkeling spots and beaches are on this side.

There are new and upcoming accommodation facilities on the east and 3 new diving operators. All opening up near the Juara beach side of the island. Thanks to the new diving operators there are new diving spots being discovered on the east side. Hopefully the collaborations between west and east side diving operators would mean divers could easily enjoy more underwater spots. 

What I am really excited about is that the east side has not been frequented much by divers and it faces the open ocean. This means: 1) currents 2) big fish coming to visit and 3) better, healthier dive sites! I am excited about the opening up of the east side of Tioman and I am looking forward to organize another trip to explore this side too!

Enjoy a short video of the broadwalk connecting Tekek with ACB beach 🙂

Categories
Weekend Getaway

How to get from Singapore to Tioman Island

The many ways to get from Singapore to Tioman Island (Malaysia)

All the various options of how to get from Singapore to Tioman Island are quite easy! It all depends how adventurous you are and how much time and money you want to spend.

Below I listed options such as buses from Singapore, buses from Johor Bahru, taxi from Singapore and then from Johor Bahru, self drive, car hire, cycle and hitchhike!

To reach Tioman Island you must pass by or stop by Mersing. This is the main ferry point, hence most of the below will refer to the journey from Singapore to Mersing.

BUS – Easy and relaxed

Right now quite a number of the buses that leave Singapore for Mersing depart near the Golden Mile Complex on Beach Road. With the recent news that the complex will be demolished it is unclear where the new launch point will be. We will update this page once known.

You can sit back and relax from the beginning in the comfy bus seats. It will set you back some SGD40. This option has a good combination of relax and cost, but it can be time consuming depending at what time you leave Singapore.

Quite often I have taken a this bus or other mini buses on a Friday night after work. Customs can get very busy on a Friday night, which could add at least one to two hours to your journey’s time. I have experienced arriving at Tioman Island at 2am in the morning!

Taking the bus also has the disadvantage of having to get off the bus to clear customs twice, firstly in Singapore and then once in Malaysia.

BUS – Adventurous but cheaper

Another option for your weekend getaway is to catch the bus in Johor Bahru (JB for short) directly, but it can be a bit complicated. Below I will explain what you need to do.

Get to Woodlands by MRT (probably the most convenient if you do not have your own vehicle) or catch the famous SBS 170, which will also take you around JB. You will need to clear immigration on foot and once cleared Singapore immigration you will have few buses’s options to cross the strait unless you decide to walk (weather allowing; it is almost one kilometer walk).

Each of the various buses available will have a different price tag. If you take bus SBS 170 you will be able to hold to your ticket and use it all the way to JB’s bus terminal (Larkin). One good option would also be to catch the SBS 170 bus from the Kranji MRT station.

Once the Malaysia immigration is also cleared, the easiest option would be to catch the famous public bus SBS 170 as above. This bus will lead you all the way to the JB bus terminal.

Another option however is to walk to City Square Mall right next to the Malaysia checkpoint. Here the options are to either catch a taxi to the bus terminal or board a local bus. This option may be more suitable for those that are not in super rush. One can make use of the mall’s aircon and do some shopping or eat prior to continue with the journey Tioman Island. Larkin is not really centrally located and the food options there may be a limited.

The cost of this option is much cheaper than the above. The same level of comfy bus (depending on the bus company) leaving from JB to Mersing would cost around RM30 to RM40. The money saved here can allow you to catch the taxi from City Square Mall to Larkin.

TAXI services or private cars

If you have a larger budget for your weekend getaway to Tioman Island, you can catch a taxi. From Singapore all the way till you clear both immigration points you can do it with a Singapore Taxi. But be warned that only specific and licensed taxis can do this route. They operate on a fixed fee of SGD12 per person or SGD48 if you want the car all for yourself. This service can take you all the way to Larkin only. More detailed info can be found here.

Once in Larkin you would then be able to catch another taxi which could set you back between RM80 to RM180. The price would change depending from the time of the day and your negotiation skills. I caught once a taxi from Larkin in the middle of the night with a friend and it costed RM180. This was not too bad considering it is a 160Km ride and we shared the cost!

Another option is obviously the rental of a private car and driver, which would be the most expensive option. This option is more suited for families with children or elderly. This is because you will hardly have to leave the car, also during immigration. And once off the border, sit back and enjoy the ride all the way to Mersing. If you want to travel in style and as a group of friends too, this could be a viable option.

Self drive and car hire

I have done both…self drive is the most convenient as it would be just you and your friends (or other half), no external party drivers. You play your own music on the radio, be silly and no-one is there to judge. Obviously you will need to own a car or know someone who does and is willing to go to Tioman. Island. There would be the inconvenience of finding a safe and guarded car park in Mersing to leave the car whilst you are gone for your weekend getaway island retreat.

The other option is to rent a car in Johor Bahru. There are plenty of options and it would be easy enough to navigate in the Johor State. Once away from JB the amount of traffic decreases immensely and you would have the road all for yourself on motorway no. 3.

I have done the journey once on my Vespa. Read my article here.

Self Drive Vespa to Tioman Island
Self Drive Vespa to Tioman Island

Other useful info

Did you know that you were able to fly to the Tioman Island? This service is not operating anymore but it used to be served by Berjaya Air. I was told that there is a new airport being planned near the Berjaya resort, hence watch this space for direct flights from Singapore. Flying costed around SGD250 per person (return), and it was by far the most convenient way for a true time-limited weekend getaway.

Another thing that not many know is that there is still a train system operating between Singapore and Malaysia! Yes, the old train station is not operating any more and the tracks removed. But the checkpoint train station is still there and very well operative. Forget about changing buses, walking up and down the stairs at immigration. You can take the train and clear customs at the offices located near the railroad. Obviously you would need to board on and off the train, but there will be less queues to join. Plenty of seats on the train and the possibility to have a very different experience. Once in JB you would need to go back to the bus or car options above to get to Mersing and Tioman Island. Train fare should be around SGD6.

Hitchhiking

Actually I have personally not explored this option yet 🙂

I am sure there is a way to hitch a ride in Malaysia. The major problem I foresee is that you must be lucky and persistent enough to look for a ride that will go all the way to Mersing. The road leading there at some point is cutting through palm oil forests and you do not want to get stranded there hoping that someone else will pick you up. Even though sometimes, the more isolated you are the more likely locals will give you a ride.

Cycle

This too is something I have done before! Not may people know, but there is a Singapore immigration point at Changi village. Yes, you read correctly. At the same spot where you catch the bum boats taking you to Pulau Ubin, you can clear immigration and catch a bum boat all the way to Malaysia. You would arrive at the port of Pengerang. From here to Mersing it is around 160Km joining motorway no. 3 at some point in the middle. When I cycled from Singapore to Mersing I took the coastal road all the way, which was amazing and super quiet. Motorway no. 3 is not the best option for a cyclist, but is obviously a direct route.

Finally the ferry

Once in Mersing, go to the new Harbor building, register yourself and buy the ferry ticket which is only operated by Blue Water Express. This should set you back some RM70 and on top of that you would have the Marine Park fees to pay, which for non Malaysian is RM30.

The Ferry journey will vary on sea conditions and departure times from Mersing will also be dependent on tide levels. The Mersing harbor is very shallow, hence on low tide the ferry would not operate. The Journey then can take between 2 to 3 hours depending where on the island you will alight.

Categories
Border Crossings Round the world trip

Belize into Guatemala – a “crossing the border” experience

A “crossing the border” experience from San Ignacio to El Remate

Crossing the border between Belize and Guatemala was easy. Staying in San Ignacio for 2 days helped. We were well rested and very close to the border which was only 10Km away. We left San Ignacio relatively early. This way we had all the necessary time to make the crossing and arriving in our destination at a decent time.

A taxi took us right in front of the custom offices for just 5 Belize dollars each or USD2.5 each. This is the standard price for this journey. It was probably the easiest, fastest and cheapest border crossing transport we have ever had. We took our backpacks and we walked into the Belize immigration building. Unlike in Mexico, there are clear signs that spell out exactly how much it costs to leave the county and the split of this cost. For example, conservation fees, admin fees, etc.



Although it is very expensive at USD20 each, we felt a bit better knowing that we were going to be given a receipt for this transaction. Something that was also quite rare to experience was that we paid part of this cost via credit card! Yes, you read that right. We did not have enough Belize dollars left and we asked to pay one part in cash and the reminder via credit card. We were quite impressed our wish was granted. The border guards then took us upstairs to their admin offices to process the card transaction. In Mexico we felt we were simply giving our money to the dudes in charge at that moment, but at least in Belize we have been issued receipt 🙂 .

Into Guatemala

As soon as our passports were stamped we exited the Belize immigration office into the unknown. A minivan driver approached us the moment we walked out and quoted us GTQ 50 each to reach our intended destination of El Remate. We did not study the details on how to proceed for our journey after this point and found ourselves a bit clueless. We were only in possession of our precious pre-loaded Google maps. But approximately 6 or 7 US dollars for a quick crossing into Guatemala seemed ok. We could have been straight on our way to our desired destination and so we agreed. The only problem though was that we had no local money! We then agreed on a not so convenient exchange rate of 6.5 to 1 US dollar.

The minivan driver then assigns us an escort to walk to the Guatemala immigration building and back. We quickly had a change of hearth after realizing how easy this border crossing was. The Guatemala immigration was barely 50 meters away. Google maps indicated a bus terminal right after the border too. And so we inform our escort that we would instead find our own way rather than joining them. The dude was not very happy, but we insisted not joining them. We realized we had made an impulsive decision accepting their offer without checking other options. After all, it was only 10am in the morning…we had all the time to take a look around, find other transport options and plan our journey.

Crossing the border into Guatemala was then SUPER smooth. There was no queue, there was no fee to pay and in no time we were across.

Central America Money Changers

Inside the border “room” someone approached us with a large stack of cash in his hand. Behind him there were another 4 or 5 guys all carrying these huge bundles of cash in their hands. It seemed really dodgy, but nobody looked too troubled about this. You should also know that this immigration office was quite peculiar. It is actually just a long counter in an open room. There were no walls to confine the officers’ desks and right along one side of the space the actual road leading into Guatemala. The crossing point into the country was literally just the road and this open concept “room”.

Imagine a road where all cars, trucks, minivans, tuk tuk, motorbikes, people, dogs, etc. were passing by. Then this room facing the road, at the end of which were the long desks with the immigration officers ‘computers; armed guards left, right and centre and the dudes with the cash. It seemed a bit surreal, but then we imagined ourselves in front of a club showing-off our huge stack of cash…what could possible happen? haha!

Anyways, Central America introduced us to it’s forex services 😉

We exchanged a small amount of money for GTQ7 per USD1 and off we walked the streets of Melchor de Mencos’ town.

Money changers whilst crossing the border
Money Changers at the Border

Past the Border

Straight after crossing the border we had to walk over a bridge, which lead us into our first Guatemala’s town. We followed the road as indicated on our digital map and it took us no time to find the colectivo bus station. Just before arriving a very nice guy approached us too and asked if we were looking for transport. The gentlemen pointed us to his minivan that was right there at the colectivo bus point. For GTQ30 each we were off to El Remate, a small town on the coast of the Peten Itza lake in Northern Guatemala.

Our Guatemala experience just started!

Point to note: the colectivo goes all the way to Flores. You would need to get off at the cross junction before El Remate and either wait for another colectivo (rare) or walk…we walked!

Check our other article about crossing the border between Costa Rica and Panama.

Arriving at El Remate
Arriving at El Remate

Categories
Round the world trip

PapaKolea – Green sand beach hike

The day we decided to go to PapaKolea (AKA the green beach) the weather was obviously against us…when we woke up there was some sunshine to warm us from the cool ocean breeze, but by the time we reached a cafe, clouds took over the blue skies. Somehow we did not realise it was almost 10am by the time we finished our coffee and bagels. But who was in a hurry? We did not think much of the upcoming 62 miles journey to the beach’s parking lot. Perhaps we should have forced ourselves to leave our base earlier to make the most of the sun and the day, but 62 miles did not sound that far. And we were wrong! The winding journey is not the straight 3-lanes-constant-speed-highway you may think of…the road is mainly a single lane which passes through some of the beach spots and attractions from Kona to Capitan Cook and then through wilderness and the flanks of the Mauna Loa volcano. You will be rewarded by great views of the ocean and will get the opportunity to spot lava fields that in the past had covered the landscape and created more land out of the ocean. But that takes time…

According to Google Maps the journey was supposed to be 1.5 hours long. It took us nearly 3 hours to reach the starting point of the hike…we stopped here and there to shake our legs, and probably this could have been avoided if we were in a car, but we also stopped to admire the scenery, we stopped at the lava fields view points and in some instances we were seeking shelter from the rain…on the way there we caught a light drizzle and we were a bit worried this could have impacted our day/hike. By that time our target was however not too far and we carried on.

Approaching green sand beach
Approaching green sand beach

For the first part of the journey we passed through many populated ares and beautiful beaches at a rather slow speed. Few traffic lights, the occasional intersection to give way to other vehicles and city life. We also had the opportunity to spot a crazy woman shouting out of her house to the cars lined in traffic and probably cursing at our very loud CBR 🙂 Not too far after the scenery takes over and you can start going a bit faster too…enjoying the nature’s beauty. At this point civilization was a bit rare and once we reached the south point car park we started to feel hungry. Too bad for us though that there is pretty much nothing around here…just the coast, fields and we had no idea where the closest restoration point would have been. But we are young and careless and tough! We wanted to enjoy the hike, the beach and make the most out of it. We pressed on.

Abandoned trolley in Hawaii
Abandoned trolley in Hawaii

We started walking towards the beach. We did not want to get on those “shared taxi services” that were going on. Apparently they are also illegal, but not boycotted or stopped. Obviously we wanted to walk to the beach to enjoy the place. It was a shame to see how the coast line is disrupted, broken and ruined by the tracks that these shared taxis leave behind. We hope there could be better ways to preserve the hiking trails and the terrain around the this beautiful stretch of coast.

The ocean breeze was our companion throughout the walk. The maroon color of the terrain/sand was in full contrast with the darkness of the lava rocks underneath. Nature managed to grow over the lava and it was impressive to witness its beauty. And in another contrast was the bluest of the oceans breaking it’s waves against the lava rocks.

Grass out of lava
Grass growing out of lava rocks

This goes on for the whole 2.5 miles of the coastal walk. The weather has been on our side during this first part; muggy for sure, but at least we were still dry. And there it was…we could start seeing the peculiar shape of the bay at a distance; and there it was too, the rain! Bloody hell, it could have waited a little longer to come!

The good things about the rain during this day is that it was light and it came in waves…it was the first time we experienced such strange way to rain :-). The wind would blow and you’d be able to see darker clouds advancing from the sea. The light rain then would hit you for a few minutes, like 3 to 5 minutes, then pass. Then it would be calm and then the wind would pick up again bringing those darker clouds closer. And it would rain for another short while and then stop and all over again.

We were cold by the ride and the rain and the wind made us a bit miserable. People were bathing in the sea and Anto was very tempted to go for a quick dip, but Olla was of another opinion. Having been a bit more prepared we could have had all we needed to be dry and enjoy a little swim, but we packed for a hike and not to go for a swim! If we ever visit big island again we would make sure to bring swimmers and towels too! And lunch! 

The flanks of the beach were quite steep too and some were attempting a slide down which seemed fun, but we were just not in the mood and decided to start walking back. All in all we stayed by the beach and surrounding cliffs for about 45 minutes…

We must have had the accountant’s cloud over our head! (We will explain the accountant cloud in another post)! On the way back the rain was totally gone, and bloody hell! Why is like that! Must have rained right when we were at the spot???? Seriously, the time we wanted sunshine it rained and when we needed the least, the best of weather! Anyways, when we reached the CBR we were still wet from the rain we took on the way and during our visit at the green beach. Not ideal to ride when wet, but it was staring to be late and we had a loooong journey back to Kona.

(Rant coming) By the way Hawaii, you should do something about amenities! There was barely a portable toilet and the one that was around was utterly disgusting! Anyways, we just needed to get going and hopefully find a restaurant or similar.

Needless to say, the moment we started our journey back our friendly cloud decides to follow us, but this time it poured down a heavy one. We were completely drenched and it was also not safe to ride with such a heavy rain. We managed to see a place to grab a bite and we got in. It was a Thai restaurant. We got in to find shelter and somehow no body attended us…we also found the place a bit strange and the menu was not that appealing. Luckily a couple of locals that were there (apparently they were motorcyclists too, but wise enough not to go out on their bike with such weather!) told us to continue for another while on the road to the next pub, which was a much bigger place and with a nice crowd. We did that and finally managed to sit down, order a warm drink each and got some food to warm our stomachs.

Our journey back was incredibly wet but we still managed to get home safe. The following day we learned that that night when we were riding back from the south, kona had seen a massive thunderstorm which caused fallen trees and a big mess on the road. We were riding in that storm, but were lucky enough to have experienced just the heavy downpour rather than the winds and lightning! What an adventure!

Categories
Hawaii

Hawaii – Kona @ Big Island

And so…after a long flight on Japan Airlines (which was awesome by the way! If you never flew with JAL, book one right now, just to enjoy the service ?) we finally arrived at Kona in the Big Island. We were super excited as the Hawaii have always been a dream for us to visit sooner or later.

Before arriving we explored some options such as renting a Harley Davidson 🙂 as we were in the US, what better way to get around? Anto managed to contact a shop that rents them and they would arranged our pick up at the airport so that we could have gone straight to their shop and got on our bike! (Harley rental) But the cost was a bit too steep for us, and instead we decided to hitch a ride to town and see if we could find a motorcycle later on in town. We walk away from the airport and the road leads straight onto a highway…it was magical how the very moment I stick my thumb out a super chilled dude pulls over and takes us into his pick up van! Our adventure in Hawaii had started perfectly!

The guy was going just short of Kona’s main area, which was however only a 10 minutes walk from where he told us he would drop us. We were super happy and a 10 minutes walk was nothing.

This was the first time for Olla in the US and the places Anto visited before were different, more city-like, but he knew that usually things are bigger in the states. Olla realized that straight away when we passed near this pickups dealership! OMG, the bonnet of this car is as tall as Olla! Crazy stuff!

A car as tall as Olla…

The pancakes are also not a joke in terms of size! Look below a “short” stack of pancakes at a local typical eatery in Hawaii.

American size
American size

After arriving at our hostel, we head straight into town to explore a bit and we quickly settle for this awesome poke local style restaurant which served us some amazing food. If you are into raw fish and typical Hawaiian poke bowls, make sure to get your fix here (this is the google maps link: (maps) when in Kona and if you are vegetarian like Anto, don’t worry as you will get your vege poke here too!

The town is not very big and during our first day we walked around a fair bit, but missed to find a decent ice-cream parkour! We decided that one day we would need to open one here and retire whilst making authentic Italian gelato. It seems that around here shaved ice is more popular and the gelato we found was just mediocre (don’t recall the name, but if you do know of some good gelato parlor in Kona, feel free to point it out in the comment section below!).

We were also very lucky to bump into this festival and managed to get a sneak peak into this Tahitian dancing competition, which was awesome! FYI, this was a dancing competition organized by Heiva I Hawaii.

We were super happy here in Kona, the town is small enough for us to get around on foot almost everywhere, people are friendly and the weather was glorious. We were excited about the days to come for some hiking in the volcano national park, the unique green beach, snorkeling and seeing tropical fish in the warm waters, perhaps scuba diving, surfing or just chilling at the beach.

Our original and usual thought of renting a motorcycle did not fade away and we went ahead. We found this super friendly store owner here (motorcycle rental). We wanted to settle with something relatively cheap and easy, but instead we went ahead and rented a CBR250! Boy the bike was awesome! Well maintained, sounded aggressive, fast and relatively comfortable. We would have been happy with a 150cc large scooter, but they did not have any available at the time we visited them. Also other shops had the same issue, which is obviously the most popular pick around here for bikers. Our recommendation though is for folks to be very careful when deciding to rent a motorbike in the Hawaii. With the hindsight we would probably rent a car next time considering we wanted to visit places that were far away from our base and that to reach we had to go via routes near the snow-peaked volcanos…the chances of experiencing 4 seasons in Hawaii are REAL and we went through them on a motorbike 🙂

Another word of advise is regarding public transport. This practically does not exist at Big Island for tourists. The only bus that goes around the island has limited timings and it is mainly a commuter bus for the locals. Best to stick to renting a vehicle to achieve freedom in this really huge island. To help you plan make sure you also check out the following two websites:

Love Big Island

Go Hawaii

Categories
Hawaii

Hawaii – which island to pick?

We had to pick an island…

It wasn’t very hard, but surely there was a lot to read about and there was some picking to be done.

At first the idea was hiking and nothing but hiking! Perhaps this was a bit limiting, but somehow this was the initial feeling and we were looking forward to the opportunity to get lost in the lush nature of the islands or as it happened, in the lava fields ?

When you search online for “hiking in the Hawaii”, one of the options that comes up (if not the first one, probably the second one depending on your search engine) is Stairways to Heaven near Honolulu.

Who’s hasn’t heard of Honolulu! I personally learned of this place when I was a kid watching the sword in the stone cartoon 🙂 in the Italian version of the show Merlin goes to Honolulu, but in the English version he goes to Bermuda…anyways, I guess that going there sounded like the best pick. But then, what about Maui? The Maui surf sounded a good option too, but how to do both when you find out that the places are so far apart that you need to fly to do island hopping? A bit more research and by word of mouth, we found out about The Big Island.

The Big Island or the island of “Hawaii” is, as the name suggests, the biggest of the Hawaii’s archipelago. We were amazed at the fact this place allows visitors to enjoy four seasons in one day (if one wishes to do so)! I mean, you can go skiing in the morning on top of a tropical volcano and hit the waves for some surf in the warm waters past noon… That’s incredible!

We were not planning to go skiing, in fact we barely had enough summer clothes with us, but we were definitely fascinated by the biology of the place. The island is actually existing because 5 nearby volcanos rise up from the sea and this too provided much excitement as to places to visit.*

Another thing that amazed us was that the island is basically constantly changing and evolving along with the volcano’s activity, generating more land as the lava flows to the shores of the island! We find this very fascinating knowing that some of the places we were walking on did not even exist a few years ago and that the path we may have walk through our hikes would probably be gone now under a few meters of thick lava flow.

As most visitors do, you’d probably arrive at Kona. The other airport on the island is located near Hilo on the opposite side of Kona. Our suggestion would be to be based in Kona as there is easy access to most places and amenities. Hilo is a rather small town on the wet side of the island as it is adjacent to the rainforest, it is however only 30 miles from the Volcano National Park and the lava flows into the ocean.

Another important suggestion would be the one to pick up a car instead of a motorcycle…we were intrigued by the possibility to rent a Harley Davidson which we did not do simply because it was outside our budget. We still went ahead and rented a different bike. With the hindsight though we would not rent a motorcycle again, even though we always think it is the best way to get around. We got smashed by the weather and we will share more in our next posts. The island is really really big and the rain and the cold and the distance does not make it easy to go around with a CBR250!

Hawaii motorcycle adventure
This is the baby we rented in Hawaii…not the one wearing yoga pants though 🙂

I just would like to change a perspective. People see on the news on tv or online about the volcano eruptions on Big Island and the impression they get is that the island is on fire. Yes, of course the areas impacted by the lava flows are of no access, even to those that live there and probably they are now struggling with evacuations and they may lose their home! But the island is huge! The closed areas are of relatively small size to what a tourist is interested in and there are tons of things to do and see and experience that would be so far away from the volcano that you won’t even notice it is happening.

Big Island is a magical place…even though Kona lacked a decent gelato parlor (?), we will definitely go back there, hopefully sooner rather than later!

Possible things to do (that we did):

  • Visit the green beach and go swimming.
    • Walk along the coast line for what is a short and beautiful hike near the ocean.
  • Go hiking near Mauna Kea volcano.
    • The drive from Kona to the Mauna Kea park is stunning. You will get amazing views of most volcanos on the island, plus Maui in the distance. Be prepared as it could be a bit chilly.
  • Surf or go snorkeling along Alii drive
    • Pick a spot you like along the coast road and enjoy the surf. You will find decent facilities, and few food options in most spots. Don’t forget your mask for some really nice snorkeling right off the coast.
  • Visit the Volcano National Park.
    • Due to the seismic activity and ongoing eruption of the volcano (at the time of writing), certain areas of the national park may be closed. Find out about the local conditions here: Hawaii volcano national park website
    • The site also has very detailed hiking trail information that are a very good source of information to plan your days. Be very aware that the distances in this island are substantial. You may lose the whole morning if you try to make your way to the park from Kona.

*Sadly volcano Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on hearth expressed his force with a major eruption that is still ongoing since early May 2018. The volcano has been continuously erupting since 1983 and the last major eruption seen by the island’s residents was in 2014.

Our stories are a representation of what we witnessed prior to this event and our memories are still impacted by the beauty and unique characteristics of the place. At the same time though we are reminded of how small and precarious our existence can be and we should be grateful for each moment we are allowed to bestow nature and all that we are given in this world.

Our minds however are with those that are now facing difficulties hoping that the people we met in our journey there were not affected too much and that the situation will soonest return to normal.

If you want to take action, find out more and donate to those that have lost their home, you can do so by following this link: Hawaii evacuation fundraising

Categories
Round the world trip

Colombia – Cartagena

When you look at the map of Cartagena from your phone, you quickly realize how getting around town is not going to be that easy.

The city is quite large and somewhat takes a shape of an L with the airport located at the top of the “L” with the Caribbean ocean covering the whole west side.

We flew from Panama as there is no land connection between the two countries and flying was the fastest and most convenient way to reach the South of America.

At the airport the exit goes directly into the streets of the town. As we approached the gates we asked a local how did the public transport worked. We were originally told that getting a bus in Cartagena required a prepaid card (which turned out to be true only for few bus services…). Straight away we thought about the prepaid EZlink card in Singapore or the equivalent Oyster card in london. Wow, this town must be very modern! We thought…
We preferred to stick to the usual taxi “collectivo” or also known as shared taxi. We stopped one and off we went towards our hostel accompanied by two others that we picked along the way.

We stayed some 12 to 15 blocks away from the city center walls and as we landed around midday, we were ready to hit town and fix ourselves lunch.

The city center is quite sizable but it can be explored in a day. We managed to cover a good chunk of it on the first day, easily reaching the statue of the Gordita (fat naked woman) and the old defensive wall that surrounds the center. It is possible to walk along all the perimeter of the town by following the countour of the defensive wall.

City Walls - Cartagena
City Walls – Cartagena

The main draw of Cartagena is obviously the old town and walking along this open-air colonial museum is just stunning. More pictures including the church of San Pedro Claver and the beautiful architecture can be found on the Gallery (here).

Getsmani is another area of the walled city center and many are attracted to it by it’s street art and fine restaurants and bars, although less charming than the main old town in Cartagena itself. We decided to come back the following day for a photo session in the narrow and multicolored streets.

At night a lot of people gather around in front of the Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad. The atmosphere here is really nice and you can enjoy cocktails made by street vendors as well as their street food. During the day however the square was used by people playing football and it still remains a gathering point, just less crowded (very good for people watching).

Street Art in Getsemani - Cartagena
Street Art in Getsemani – Cartagena

A visit to the Castillo de San Felipe is also a highly recommended stop. The entrance tickets will set you off by COP25K, which is equivalent to USD10 per person. You are free to roam around the Castillo taking in the views of the old town and the more modern business district with condos and offices right on the shores. An highlight for us was the possibility to roam inside cool dark corridors that run in the interior of the fortress; it made us step back in time and think we could have walked these walls and corridors so many centuries ago!

Castillo de San Felipe - Cartagena
Castillo de San Felipe – Cartagena

Another silly thought Anto had was to feel like the main character of Assassin Creed, attaching a Spanish outpost in the Caribbean 😉 and obviously even more silly like in the below picture…

All in all the city may require more than 2 days to be discovered in full, but we set off to Santa Marta just after 48hours of our arrival, looking forward to catch the last few swims in the Caribbean.

Other useful things to know:

A taxi collectivo can cost between COP500 to COP2K per passenger. Always ask how much it is going to cost to reach your destination.

Buses usually have a fixed amount per journey, but it really depends on the driver or the guy collecting the cash. The written fare on top of the bus is COP2.3K per person, but you can pay lesser if your journey is short.

Jeeps or Willys are also available and these are usually COP1.5K per passenger.

The terminal of transport is quite far from the city center (approximately 1 hour and depending from the traffic). Check out Uber and/or compare it with the prices quoted by the taxi drivers. We paid COP17K and the journey was long. It felt worth it. The ride also may take you to the suburbs of the city which are far less appealing than the city center, but you get to see the other face of the city. You can also reach the terminal by bus, but I believe the service is the one that requires the travel card. Price should be approximately COP5K, hence sharing a cab in 4 or in 3 could be the better option. Another way to get around the travel card is to ask other passengers to “tap” for you and you can pay them cash.

Categories
Border Crossings

Panama to Colombia – to fly or not to fly?

There are no roads that connect Panama and Colombia! That is astonishing, but the thick vegetation of Darien rainforest and the Colombian guerrilla controlling narcotics trafficking makes the cross best avoided. This is a nice article regarding the Darien straight.

There are many many threads online that talk about a ferry service between the countries but they all lead to nothing. Some say that it is possible to take cargo ships, but schedules and time at sea are unknown and you could be stuck waiting for a boat that departs for days.

Other crazy posts detail a dangerous land crossing with a mixed use of buses, walking and boats right on the Atlantic coast junction between Central and South America.

Some opt for parties’ sail boats that take 5 days to reach Colombia. 3 of the 5 days are spent cruising the San Blas Archipelago in Panama and then 48 straight hours of hard core waves that will ensure very little sleep and a fair amount of bruises. All of this for USD550 per person, all included, but excluding showers. A #coupletravel we met in Belize told us all the details of how bad it was not to be able to shower for 5 days even for rinsing the sea salt that remains on your skin after bathing in the ocean. But they went through 20 something bottle of Rum among 15 travelers!?

Not for us…

Obviously there are upsides such as the fact you are practically taking part to a cruise on a large sailboat and you get to enjoy the San Blas islands! You stop at various spots, visiting some of the islands, sunbathing and swimming in the crystal clear waters.

Wingo was our choice. Wingo is a new brand name that has replaced most flights that used to be operated by COPA airlines.
Wingo operates as local low cost airline within Colombia and it has a few international destination, such as the Panama-Cartagena route, which we benefit for only SGD220 for two people including a 20KG bag allowance in the aircraft and 16KG between two pieces of hand carries.
This carry-on allowance is perfect for a backpacker, but the restrictions on size may push you to purchase additional baggage.

Our flight was scheduled to depart from the Pacifico airport out of town towards the east. This used to be a military airport and it is in operation only few hours prior to any flight departure (if any). It is a very basic airport offering free internet only since a few months.
Reaching the airport via public transport required us to take a train to the main transport terminal, look for the correct bus that goes to a junction a few KMs from the airport and then a taxi to cover the last pierce of road (or a long slog with luggage and all in the heat). Probable cost USD5, depending on the taxi part.
Normal taxi services would ask between USD20 to USD30 to do the drop, however Uber is easily available in town and can take you to the airport for approx. US 9 bucks (Uber prices always change also depending on traffic etc.)

As we were going to catch a flight from a low cost carrier that operates from a small airport in the middle of nowhere, there was to expect some catch in terms of charges, i.e what type of luggage they would allow on board, very strict on Kilos in your luggage or, as expected, but not prevented, charging you for not having printed your boarding pass or done the check in.

We had so little time in Panama we were just enjoying the places we didn’t think of spending time checking in for our flight online. We had the feeling we should have printed the boarding passes as in Europe this is a classic method to charge the travelers top dollars for not printing itineraries. Yet, we went to sleep without realizing the check in online closes 5 hours prior to departure and that we needed to print our boarding passes.

Luckily we arrived 2.5 hours prior to departure when we were told that we would need to pay USD34 for having them printing our boarding passes. You may say, why luckily? Luckily because this was not the only problem that we were phasing…
We were also asked for proof on onward travel in order to board the aircraft! The flight attendant gave us just over one hour to provide her a proof of onward travel away from Colombia. We were freaking out! How to get that done if we were planning to land cross over to Ecuador from Colombia?

We frantically start reading online about how to get around this problem. In many talk about how this inconvenience resulted in them missing the flight or like us incur unrequired charges only if we had read the fine prints.

One easy get around is to book a flight with any American carrier. Usually American carriers allow one day “grace” period and the booking can be cancelled within 24hours of purchase. The flight confirmations you will receive is the official proof of onward travel, which in the meanwhile is being processed by the airline. If you want to deal with the refund procedure and manage the process, this is non costing anything to get your proof of onward travel.

Or use a service, which books you on flights and send you flight confirmations in minutes with itinerary and all printed PDF for USD15.
Plenty to read online about this topic…

Airplane view from Panama City to Cartagena

Categories
Border Crossings

Costa Rica/Panama – Border crossing from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro

We read a few posts online on things to watch out during the border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, but it could have not been any easier. Here is how we did it.

The bus service that runs from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola leaves every hour and it takes approximately one hour to complete. The fare is CRC1,700 per person and the bus was very punctual.




The bus leaves you at a terminal which is right next to the main road and the bridge that leads to Panama. As we were approaching the immigration office we were asked by a lady to stop and pay the exit fee, which is required when leaving Costa Rica. The lady did not seem too official and she was pointing out at a kiosk to pay the exit fee which looked more like a clothing shop than anything official and immigration related. We proceeded to the immigration office just to get reassurance as to what was the process.

Costa Rica exit fee payment kiosk

The officers sent back to our feet to the same clothes shop and right next to it there was a small booth with a guy collecting payments. That’s when we also saw the sign saying: PAY YOUR EXIT TEXES HERE. The fee totaled USD8 per person and receipts were issued to us.

We had to walk back to the immigration kiosk, which is located right prior to the bridge on the main road (these are very close to each other). The officers will check that exit fees were paid and they would stamp the receipts as well as your passports.

Off we were, we started walking the bridge on our way to Panama.

Immigration in Panama was very straightforward. Soon after the bridge you would see some containers probably related to transport companies. But the buildings right after are the actual immigration offices. There is a sign that will point it out, but also a bunch of people would come towards you taking you to the immigration office hoping you’d talk to them afterwards to arrange for your onward travel needs.

At immigration they will require to take finger prints and will ask how long is the planned stay in the country. I have read that they would normally also ask for proof of onward travel (i.e. when and how you’d be exiting the country), but I guess it really depends on which border is crossed and perhaps which officer you are dealing with?!

The “travel agents” will try to convince you to join their minivan and will try to say there is no bus leaving, or will try to tell you inflated prices for the bus in order for you to travel with them. It is up to you what is your preferred way to travel. Obviously the minibus is direct and relatively inexpensive. We were quoted USD5 per person, but we declined as we prefer to take the bus with the locals and to enjoy more of the local ways.

As we set off to wait for the bus (by the way the bus station is clearly marked on google maps, hence it is easy to find) another person approached us at USD4 per person for a direct connection. The temptation was there but we sticked to our chicken buses 🙂

Sixaola border between Costa Rica and Panama

The journey to Bocas del Toro required a change of bus in Changuinola. The first leg of the journey costed USD1 per person and it was fast enough (approximately 40 minutes) and the second part, from Changuinola to Almirante costed only USD1.45 and it took a bit longer as the bus goes uphill through forest areas. As predicted the bus costed half of what the taxis/minivan quoted, but obviously it was not as straightforward. Perhaps one need to look at budget and consider whether the USD2.5 dollars will affect too much and make a decision based on that…for us, even though time is a concern, we still prefer to travel with the public transport.

In our experiences usually minivan/shuttles’ fares compared to buses are far more expensive, like 4 time more expensive. In this case, the difference is relatively small and could be considered.

The bus dropped us at the main road at the junction where various taxi boat companies operate. The first booth is the one operated by a company called Valencia. There are more along the road and first impression tells me that TAXI 25, which is the last one of the stretch is the most reliable one, but we had no issue with Valencia and we got an open return ticket for USD10 each. Or you can get one way for USD6.

The boat ride only takes 20 minutes or so; expect beautiful scenery on the way, a seat on the boat where your face is almost at the same level of the water (if you stay at the back) and enjoy the beautiful place that is Bocas del Toro!