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Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, Mexico: Three days on the most beautiful stretch of beach we’ve seen in all our world travels.

 

This was our second trip to Tulum. Our first trip was back in 2009. We stayed in a little bungalow a the end of the Boca Paila beach road next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. There was only electricity from a generator after 5:00 PM, and our Argentinian host cooked delicious yet simple BBQ dinners in the evenings. The powdered-sugar beach was amazing, and we often had it all to ourselves. Far (but not too far) from the maddening tourist crowds and all-inclusive resorts of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, Tulum felt like an undiscovered, sleepy paradise.

Tulum beach
Evening stroll on the beach, Tulum 2009
tulum beach bungalow
Our beach bungalow in Tulum in 2009
Tulum ruins
Tulum ruins beach, 2009

Read about our first trip to Tulum and the Yucatan here.

Needless to say, we’d been longing to go back. The two drawbacks to our first trip to Tulum were the time of year (September was WAY too hot for our taste, although we did enjoy the lack of crowds), and our bungalow at the end of the Boca Paila road was nice and remote, but if we needed to go to town we had to hire a taxi to take us the seven miles into town, which was expensive if we wanted to go to town frequently.

This trip, we went with a couple friends of ours during peak season in March, and stayed on the north end of the Boca Paila road closer to town. I had done a little research on the hotels along the beach road, and there were sections in the middle that were fairly rocky without a really nice  sandy beach. It looked like the best beach stretches were on the north and south ends. (Tip–to see what kind of beach a hotel has, use the Google Maps satellite feature to see the coast from above).

We opted to stay at La Vita e Bella, which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend but looked like it had a great beach.

**Excerpt from original post Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum. Read about the rest of our adventures in the Yucatan here.

Day 1:

When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Our friends Heather and Stephen had arrived a couple days prior and Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town (Tulum Pueblo) for lunch. Unfortunately, Stephen had made the mistake of drinking some tamarind water from a taco truck on Isla Holbox, and had been pretty sick for their first two days.

**Pro tip: stick to bottled drinks only.

The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue.

Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella–view from the beach bar

In the Tulum Pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.

Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo: shrimp, octopus, and fish
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo

When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.

We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.

We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.

Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum

We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.

La Vita e Bella Tulum
La Vita e Bella Tulum
Tulum
Tulum

For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.

**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.

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Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

Day 2:

Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 USD for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a great deal for them. They enthusiastically recommend Eduardo and said that he was a great guide.

Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.

La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum
La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum

We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.

Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach

That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…

We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we weren’t allowed to eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.

That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.

We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.

Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans

One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).

When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get eaten alive by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.

Mateo's Mexican Grill Tulum
Mateo’s Mexican Grill Tulum

Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love Spanish tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.

Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum

The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.

Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
"Chocolate Salami" at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
“Chocolate Salami” at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum

After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.

Day 3:

We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.

Tulum sunrise
Tulum sunrise

In late morning, we spent about an hour and a half in Tulum Pueblo (the main part of town) shopping for souvenirs. There are lots of great shops to explore. Be sure to negotiate, the vendors will always give you a really high price at first. It helps to bargain the price down if you are buying several things from one store, and it also helps if you speak a little Spanish.

In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

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Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.

Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

Our first trip to Tulum was a bit more rustic, romantic and remote. This time around we enjoyed spending a little more time checking out Tulum Pueblo and some of the restaurants on the Boca Paila beach road.

Tulum is a great home base for seeing Mayan ruins, snorkeling in the Cenotes (fresh water underground caves and rivers), and shopping for souvenirs. Our last trip we were a bit more active, seeing the Mayan ruins in Tulum and a day trip to Chichen Itza. This time around, we ended our Yucatan trip in Tulum and were happy to just relax and enjoy the beach before heading home.

We will definitely be back to Tulum again. We have yet to find a better beach with soft sand and electric blue water in all our world travels. Our next trip I think we may try to stay down at the end of the Boca Paila beach road again near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. We liked the remoteness of it, and the rustic jungle/beach atmosphere. We weren’t super impressed with La Vita e Bella.

We would also like to explore the Cenotes in the area, and take a day tour in the Biosphere. But above all, we would come back to Tulum to relax and enjoy that magnificent beach.

Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

Bayahibe, Dominican Republic: a tiny beach town with some great food, a gorgeous beach, and a good home base for tours to the National Parks

 

Bayahibe was the second stop on our trip to The Dominican Republic in 2013. I was looking for a quiet little beach town in between Santo Domingo and Punta Cana similar to the ones we’ve been to in Mexico where we could enjoy a nice beach and some local culture. After extensive reading, I decided that Bayahibe might be a good fit. In addition to having a nice public beach, it was a good departure spot for tours to Isla Saona and the National Parks in the area. Overall we enjoyed our stay here more than at the resort we went to afterwards, despite one bad tour.

Excerpt from original post: Domincan Republic 2013: Santo Domingo, Bayahibe, and Cap Cana

 

Day 1:

We had reserved a shuttle to the town of Bayahibe from our hotel in Santo Domingo with Domincan Shuttles for about $120.00. I’m sure that there are less expensive ways to get to Bayahibe with the public bus, but we were willing to pay the extra money to go on our own schedule with direct service to our hotel.

The shuttle driver was very friendly, and the ride was about 2 hours. He made sure that we were let into the gate at our hotel by the owner before he left, which was much appreciated. We had booked three nights at the Hotel Villa Baya, a small and inexpensive mom-and-pop hotel in the town. The room wasn’t anything fancy, but very affordable at $40.00/night and had everything we needed. It had a double bed and a twin, a small table and chairs, ample closest space, a tiny TV, an outdoor patio, and a kitchen with a gas stove, sink, dishes, and a mini fridge. No A/C, but there was a fan. We were on the ground floor, and I think requesting an upper floor unit might be a little better with a more private deck.

Hotel Villa Baya Bayabibe Domincan Republic 090

Hotel Villa Baya Bayabibe Domincan Republic 089

The hotel also has a locked gate to the property that you need your key to get in and out of, providing extra security. There wasn’t a safe, so we hid our valuables that we didn’t take with us in socks deep in our backpacks in the closet, and made sure to leave a tip for the maid each day. We had no problem.

We walked around the tiny town, getting extra cash at the ATM at the grocery store, and water, beer, and wine to stock our mini fridge. We found the grocery store souvenir prices to be best here out of anywhere we went. They all had price tags on them too–a rarity in DR.

Hotel Villa Baya Bayabibe Domincan Republic 088
Road back to the hotel from town
Bayahibe Harbor Domincan Republic 087
Bayahibe Harbor

That evening we ate at a little beach restaurant near the harbor, Chiky Blue. It was a super cute little beach spot with a grass roof, Christmas lights hung around for ambiance, and very friendly staff. I ordered a fried fish with rosemary potatoes, and it was the best whole fried fish I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Chiky Blue Bayahibe Domincan Republic 092

Chiky Blue Bayahibe Domincan Republic 093
Whole fried fish at Chiky Blue Bayahibe
Chiky Blue Bayahibe Domincan Republic 095
Chiky Blue Bayahibe

At night there was a congregation of locals around a bar/convenience store near the grocery store in town, partying, socializing, and listening to Dominican bachata music.

We picked up some milk and cereal for the morning, as we were getting up really early the next morning to leave on a tour. Having a kitchenette in our room was definitely a convenience.

Day 2:

We had booked two tours with Seavis Tours, an eco-tour company based out of Bayahibe. Originally, I had wanted to do the Jungle Tour in the Parque Nacional de Este, but it wasn’t offered on Mondays. They said the tour they had available on Mondays was the Monster Truck Safari, operated by a third party tour provider. We looked it over, the words “monster truck” and “safari” setting off major red flags of a horrendous tourist experience. It promised an educational tour of rural country life, a farm, and a rural school. It sounded interesting enough, so we deliberated a bit and decided to go for it.

We were picked up in front of the police station near our hotel by a shuttle driver, and then made a few stops at some resorts to pick up several other tourists, all European. When we reached the nearby town of Higuey, we were loaded into a hideous “monster truck” that made us cringe.

Monster Truck Safari Domincan Republic 134

We climbed aboard and monstered our way out into the countryside. If there was one thing I enjoyed about this tour, it was driving through the country. We passed houses and farms, getting a chance to view the vast diversity of country living.

Our first stop was at the home and farm of a middle class Dominican family. We were given a tour of the farm and it’s fruits and vegetables. The family who owned the farm was going about their day in the house, doing laundry, cleaning, watching TV, etc. We were told to go in and see the house, but Paddy and I didn’t feel very comfortable going in and gawking at a family in their home. I know the family was getting compensation for the tour, but it just felt weird and intrusive.

Next, we were led down the road to the family’s small store, and told that we were going to be visiting a Haitian village where the kids were very poor later in the trip. We were told that we should buy school supplies or candy to give them. Here’s where things got gross: They had TWO spiral notebooks and TWO pencils for all of us to buy for the kids, and a giant amount of candy. All sold by the family who owned the house at expensive American prices, not Dominican prices. We bought a small bag of candy and a notebook and pencil. None of the other tourists bought the remaining school supplies, all candy.

Now, had we known this was part of the tour, we would have stocked up on school supplies, food, toothbrushes, and other necessities from the grocery store in Bayahibe to give out to the kids. (At the end of the trip, we realized that this was all part of a big show put on for the tourists so that the family with the farm could make money. None of it was about helping poor Haitian kids. )

Next, we visited a rural country school. It was spring break, so the kids were gone but we were shown the classroom and told a bit about Dominican schools.

Rural school Dominican Republic

rural school Domincan Republic

rural school Domincan Republic

Before we left, our guides brought out some ugly safari hats with “Monster Truck Safari” on them, and told us that if we bought one (at $20 each) the proceeds would go to helping the school. No one bought one, until the guide put some pressure on us and one of the Europeans finally forked over $20.  My suspicion is that very little goes to helping the school, and that most of it goes to the Monster Truck Safari people. Had there been a teacher there talking about the school with a donation jar, we would have donated. Instead we felt a little put off.

Next we stopped at another “farm” where a family was selling jellies and fruit leather. More pressure to purchase, and not much in the way of a tour.

We then continued through the road, and past a sugarcane plantation with a giant mansion up on the top of a big hill overlooking the sugarcane fields. We turned a corner and approached the “Haitian village.” Kids were waiting for us, and we gave them our candy. They were jumping and grabbing for it, and we were told not to toss the candy to them because they fight. It was like feeding animals. I handed the notebook and pencil to one of the few adult women with the kids, who grabbed for it and gave it to a specific little girl. I’m sure she knew which kid needed it the most, and that was the only part that made us happy.

Domincan Republic 133

Domincan Republic 132

Domincan Republic 131

As we drove away, monstering over a river and up a hill, the whole picture became clear. This wasn’t a “Haitian village,” it was a migrant farm-worker community who work the sugarcane fields for the rich guy on the hill with the mansion, who obviously pays them next to nothing. Their houses were shanties built with whatever scraps of building materials that they could find, and the “village” was just a section of the plantation owner’s land that he lets them live on.

The Monster Truck Safari people do this tour once a week, help the family with the farm make some money off the tourists by selling them candy at high prices, and then show the tourists the “poor Haitian kids” as a tourist attraction, like animals in a zoo. Those kids don’t need candy once a week. They need necessities, things that won’t rot their teeth.

We were pretty disgusted and bummed out by the whole ordeal. The guide tried to get “party time” going on again as we headed back to Higuey, trying to interest us in rum and cokes and beer. We weren’t interested.

Our last stop was in Higuey, where we walked through a market and then were brought to a store where we could buy souvenirs (big surprise) at “the best prices in the Dominican Republic.” (They weren’t the best prices.) For the resort tourists, they might have been as the resort gift shops charge exorbitant prices. We got most of our souvenirs at the Bayahibe grocery store instead for very reasonable prices.

Market in Higuey Domincan Republic
Market in Higuey
Higuey, Domincan Republic 136
Higuey

When we got back to Bayahibe, they dropped us off first, in front of the dirt road to our little hotel. Kids and chickens were running around the road, and the resort tourists in the van with us were somewhat horrified by our digs. We bid them goodbye and good riddance.

For dinner that evening we went to Bamboo Beach, another grass-roofed little spot with a view of the water. It was owned by French expats, and most of the customers appeared to be French tourists. The food was good and the atmosphere was nice.

Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 140
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 139
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 138
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 137
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe

 

Day 3:

The next day was a lazy beach day. Bayahibe has a very nice public beach, with beach chairs for rent for $5.00 for the day.

**Tips:

1. You get a better deal paying in pesos for beach chairs instead of dollars

2. Stock up on water, beer, snacks, and toilet paper at the grocery store before you head to the beach. The public restroom is a bring your own TP type of situation, and the beers at the beach are ridiculously overpriced.

3. Take the back beach trail, not the one along the water to avoid the aggressive souvenir stands.

We had breakfast first at Cafe La Marina, an open air restaurant right in front of the main harbor. I think the owners were Italian. There were a lot of Italian style baked goods, and I got a very good foccacia bread with tomatoes. Coffee was tasty.

We took the back trail to avoid the touts at the souvenir stalls, and passed a small beach cemetery.

Bayahibe Beach cemetery Domincan Republic 142

Bayahibe Beach cemetery Domincan Republic 143

The beach itself was really nice, with soft sand, minimal coral, and bathtub warm water. My sunscreen expired a little before we left and I got a tiny bit burnt. Remember to re-apply!

Bayahibe public beach Domincan Republic 144
Bayahibe public beach
Bayahibe public beach Domincan Republic 145
Bayahibe public beach
Bayahibe public beach Domincan Republic 146
Bayahibe public beach

**Bathroom tip: Don’t use the “bathrooms” near the beach parking lot. They are the grossest outhouses I’ve ever seen. Head back to the public restroom near the town–make sure to bring your own toilet paper.

When we’d had enough sun, we walked back to the main marina area and had lunch at the Saona Cafe, a little bar and grill owned by French Canadian expats right in front of the harbor. We had some very tasty fish burgers and ice cold Presidentes.

Later that evening after a rest in our room, we went looking around for a place for dinner. There were a few interesting little spots on the harbor, but we ended up getting pizza back at Chiky Blue again. It had such great atmosphere and view, and the food and prices were great.

Bayahibe Harbor Domincan Republic 151
Bayahibe Harbor
Chiky Blu Bayahibe Domincan Republic 153
Chiky Blu Bayahibe
Chiky Blu Bayahibe Domincan Republic 154
Chiky Blu Bayahibe

The next day we did a tour to Isla Saona with Seavis Tours, which was much better and the highlight of our trip to the Dominican Republic. I would definitely recommend Seavis Tours, but avoid the “Monster Truck Safari” tour operated by a third party.

I would recommend Bayahibe for budget travelers or people who want to get out of the resort bubble  and still enjoy a nice day at the beach. There are a variety of tours to do from the town as well, and it is a great location to use as a home base to explore.

Read about the rest of our adventures in the Dominican Republic here

Costa Rica 2008: San Jose, La Fortuna, and Cahuita

Costa Rica was our first international trip together. Sarah, a good friend of mine from our hometown of Friday Harbor, WA had moved down to Costa Rica with her Costa Rican partner Julio and started their own eco-travel company, Boyero Tours.

We told them how much time we had, and what we were interested in and they planned our trip for us. We were excited to support their new company, which focuses on environmentally sustainable travel and supporting the local economy.

We traveled in September, which is the rainy season. Peak season is in the spring when the weather is nicest. Coming from rainy Seattle, rain was something we were used to but found the tropical rain to be a bit more convenient. It would be bright and sunny every morning while we went on tours, and then it would pour rain in the afternoon. If you go during the rainy season, it’s best if you’re an early riser and can get your sightseeing done in the mornings.

Click on any photo below to view larger

 

DAY 1

We flew from Seattle to San Jose on a night flight, with a layover in Miami. We arrived fairly exhausted, grateful that Sarah and Julio met us at the airport. Their rented house was on a coffee plantation not far from the airport. Growing on the property were bananas, coffee, guavas, and other fruits.

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Costa Rica coffee plant

Costa Rica 541

Sarah was about 4 months pregnant with their son Gabriel when we visited. We were very happy for them and glad we had a chance to visit them before they became busy parents. As it was, they were busy with their company but were able to take some time to show us around.

Costa Rica 528

 

DAY 2

The next morning, we visited Zoo Ave, a zoo in Alajuela that donates a portion of the entrance fee to helping save and rehabilitate animals. We saw parrots, turtles, peacocks, tucans, monkeys, and many other plants and wildlife. The giant bamboo was quite impressive.

Parrots at Zoo Ave, Costa Rica

Costa Rica 558

Costa Rica 562

 

DAY 3

The next morning, we were to travel to La Fortuna by bus, where Sarah and Julio would meet up with us the next day.

This bus ride ended up being the low point of our trip. I was a bit nervous as there was no bathroom on the bus, as I seem to have the world’s smallest bladder. I avoided coffee that morning and drank minimal water in preparation for the 5 hour bus ride to La Fortuna. I am also plagued with motion sickness, but wasn’t very concerned about it as long as I got a window seat.

We got to the San Jose bus terminal early so we could make sure I got a window seat. We had no problem getting a seat next to a very large window that opened. We set off on our journey, stopping to pick up people in the towns along the way. The seats on the bus became full very quickly, but the bus still stopped to pick up as many passengers as would fit in the aisle.

**  Note that it is dangerous to leave luggage in the upper luggage storage area above the seats on buses. We stored our hiking backpacks in the luggage compartment underneath the bus and held our small backpacks in our laps during the ride. Theft is very common on buses in Costa Rica, and you should be aware of your belongings at all times.

About three and a half hours into the bus ride, I began to feel queasy. I was maintaining a steady view out the window the whole time and was listening to my ipod, but eventually we realized that we were going around a very windy mountain road. The windy road went on for about an hour, and I tried to take a Dramamine tablet but it was too late. Eventually, I realized that losing my breakfast was inevitable. Fortunately, I had packed a thick plastic “just in case” bag in my backpack, and made use of it. Thankfully, no mess was made but it’s pretty embarrassing to yack into a plastic bag on a crowded bus. I made note to always carry a plastic bag in my backpack while traveling from then on.

Finally, we arrived in La Fortuna. We grabbed our luggage and walked to our nearby hotel, Hotel Monte Real. We stayed in one of the premium rooms, which I would recommend paying the extra money for. We had a very nice room with a balcony, mini fridge, coffee maker, and air conditioning. The hotel also had a pool and a computer in the lobby that we could use to check our email and bank accounts.

There are a range of options in La Fortuna, but this one is a great budget option with an ideal location in walking distance to the town and restaurants.

Hotel Monte Real, La Fortuna Costa Rica

Another great thing about the Hotel Monte Real is it’s spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano, the main draw of La Fortuna.

Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

After I had recovered from the motion sickness debacle, we were starving. We ventured into the town in search of sustenance and an adult beverage. Or two. Or three. Being the low season, the town was pretty empty. We looked around and saw very little activity at any of the open air restaurants except for the Lava Rocks Cafe. So we opted for that.

The decor was fun and the service was great. We shared an order of ceviche which was outstanding. After some good food, bloody marys, and margaritas, we headed back to the room to relax.

Bloody marys at the Lava Rocks Cafe, La Fortuna Costa Rica

Lava Rocks Cafe, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

 

DAY 4

We had a morning of sleeping in and relaxing, which was the only relaxing morning on our whole trip. We took a dip in the pool and walked around town a little, waiting for Sarah and Julio to join us in the afternoon.

Hotel Monte Real pool, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Sarah and Julio arrived in the afternoon and we went on a hike in the Arenal Volcano National Park. Julio is a tropical biologist and was able to tell us a lot about the park and various plants we encountered along the way.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Costa Rica 605

hiking at Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Approaching the Arenal Volcano

After the hike, we all went to Eco Termales Hidalgo hot springs, which was a serious of pools at different temperatures heated by natural volcanic activity. We enjoyed relaxing in the natural pools with drinks from the bar. Lockers were available in the locker room to store our stuff while we soaked in the pools. There was about 45 minutes of pouring rain while we were in the pools which was kind of fun while soaking in the warm water. After our swim, we enjoyed a delicious typical Costa Rican family style dinner cooked by the Eco Termales kitchen.

Eco Termales Hidalgo Hot Springs, Costa Rica

 

DAY 5

Arenal Volcano view from Hotel Monte Real, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

On day 4 we woke early to a bright sunny morning and another majestic view of the Arenal Volcano from our hotel. After a quick breakfast of eggs, beans, and rice we were picked up by Canoa Aventura tours for a wildlife tour by boat at Caño Negro wildlife reserve. There was only one other couple on the tour with us as it was the low season. The guides were very accommodating and often took photos of the wildlife for us by putting our camera lenses up to their binoculars for a great close up.

On the way to Caño Negro we stopped off at a small shop for coffee and empanadas. We spotted some wild iguanas in the trees near the shop. Our guides also stopped along the way to point out a pineapple plantation (no, they don’t grow on trees) and caimans (a close relative of the alligator)

Iguana, Costa Rica

Pineapple farm, Costa Rica

Caiman, Costa Rica

Caño Negro was one of the highlights of our trip. We were so excited to see monkeys and sloths and other rainforest animals in their natural habitat.

Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica

Our boat

Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica

Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica

Caiman, Costa Rica

Above: Caiman. No, we weren’t that close.

Spider monkey, Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica
Spider Monkey
Caiman, Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica
Caiman
Sloth, Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica
Sloth
White-faced monkey, Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica
White-faced monkey
Albino howler monkey Cano Negro wildlife Tour, Costa Rica
Rare albino howler monkey with it’s mother

Howler monkeys telling us to go away:

Howler Monkeys in Costa Rica

We were lucky to see a rare albino howler monkey riding on his mama’s back as she swung through the trees.

On the way back from the tour, the sun went away and the rain came pouring down. This ended up being a typical daily occurrence  with great weather in the mornings and pouring rain for a few hours in the afternoons. We took the afternoon rainy periods to rest and relax before dinner.

For dinner we went to Sarah and Julio’s favorite restaurant in La Fortuna, La Choza del Laurel. The staff dresses in “traditional” costumes and they serve typical and international cuisine at reasonable prices.

La Choza de Laurel, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

La Choza de Laurel, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

After dinner Sarah and Julio drove us around to the side of the Arenal Volcano where the lava was coming out. We were able to see the hot lava spewing out of the top of the volcano from a distance. The picture below was the best I could get, but it gives you a idea. Kind of. It was pretty spectacular.

Costa Rica 520

 

DAY 6

The next day, we woke to another bright sunny morning and went on an Arenal canopy zip-line tour. Zip-lining seems to be the trendy thing to do these days in Costa Rica, and we had to try it. When we arrived near the rainforest zip-line platforms, our tour guide parked and led us the rest of the way on horseback. I am not so experienced at horseback riding and this was the scariest part for me. Paddy was perfectly comfortable on a horse and galloped on ahead, leaving me and the guide to walk along behind. I think the guide thought I was going to be high-maintenance and chicken out when we got to the zip lines.

When we got to the zip-line platforms and hiked up to the top, Paddy’s vertigo set in and he went back down to the lower platforms to wait for us there. To the guide’s relief, I did all the zip lines with no chickening-out whatsoever.  Paddy did the last few lower ones that weren’t giving him as bad of vertigo. Overall we both had a lot of fun. Not recommended for those with vertigo or fear of heights.

Zip-lining in Costa Rica

Zip-lining in Costa Rica

Here is a video our guide took with our camera that gives a pretty good idea of the zip-lining experience:

Zip-lining through the canopy

After our zip-line adventure, we checked out of the hotel and began the drive to Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. While September is the rainy season for most of Costa Rica, the Caribbean Coast is usually dry this time of year. While dry, it is extremely hot and humid. The drive took all afternoon and we arrived after dark at Bluespirit Bungalows. The bungalows were very cute, with palm roofs and bamboo furniture. There was a loft bed upstairs with mosquito netting, and a bathroom and small living area below. Outside were some chairs and a hammock. There were only three bungalows, and a house where the owner lived with his family.

Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica

That night we slept with a fan on and the mosquito net tucked around our mattress. It was hot enough to barely need a sheet to sleep with. While falling asleep we heard the pitter-patter and chirping of little geckos running around the roof and walls around us. At least that’s what we told ourselves that was as we tucked our mosquito net a little tighter around us.

 

DAY 7

 

Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Bluespirit Bungalows, Cahuita, Costa Rica

The next morning, we went on a snorkel tour with the owner of Bluespirit in his boat, launched from the rocky beach on the property.

Snorkeling, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Snorkeling, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Snorkeling, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Brain coral, Snorkeling, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Short videos of our snorkel experience:

Sea Turtle

Snorkeling to Costa Rica

Snorkeling, Cahuita, Costa Rica

After the snorkel tour, we were dropped off on the main beach of Cahuita and took a walk through the jungle back to the town with a guide, who showed us animals, plants and insects along the way.

Cahuita, Costa Rica

Giant locust, Costa Rica
Giant locust

Cahuita, Costa Rica

golden orb spider, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Me holding a golden orb spider
snake, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Our guide with a snake

In the afternoon we had time to check out the town of Cahuita

Cahuita, Costa Rica
Road to town from Bluespirit Bungalows
school, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Local school in Cahuita
local church, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Local church, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Cahuita, Costa Rica
Main road through town
Cahuita, Costa Rica
Kids at an after-school hang out club

That night for dinner went to Miss Edith’s and had some fantastic Caribbean food. Rice, steak, vegetables, and a spiny lobster tail in a spicy coconut sauce.

Miss Edith's spicy coconut lobster, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Miss Edith’s spicy coconut lobster
dinner at Miss Ediths, Cahuita, Costa Rica
Dinner at Miss Edith’s

 

DAY 8

 

We had breakfast in town and then went on a tour of a Kèköldi Indigenous family’s farm and the rain forest surrounding them. We learned about various medicinal plants, their iguana farm, and their traditional way of life.

Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica
Julio with our guide
Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica
Paddy and Julio in front of iguana farm cages
Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica
Baby iguanas

We couldn’t get enough of the Thanksgiving-style turkeys. They were so entertaining. Raised for food, but allowed to roam the property freely. They weren’t very shy. They made such funny gobbling noises and they shook all over and puffed their feathers when they gobbled. Their tail feathers would drag on the ground as they strutted pridefully about the compound.

turkeys, Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

turkeys, Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

After our introduction to the farm, we went on a hike through the rainforest to learn about plants used by the Kèköldi people for generations. We were told not to stray from the trail or touch anything unless we were told to, as there are poisonous plants and trees, as well as poisonous insects. The warning that stuck with us the most was that of the bullet ant. They are about the size of carpenter ants, and if they bite you, the pain is so severe that you may not be able to walk.

One of the first plants we were introduced to was the cacao tree, from which cocoa beans are harvested to make chocolate. Cacao is actually a fruit, and when opened each bean is covered in a fruity white covering. The fruit is eaten by putting each fruit-covered bean in your mouth and sucking the meat of the fruit from it. It tastes like a fruit, but with a cocoa butter aftertaste. Our guide says that cacao bean fruit was his “candy” when he was growing up.

cacao, Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

cacao, Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

cacao, Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

Along the way we encountered one of the trees we were told not to touch–the spiky bark of the pochote tree.

pochote tree, Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

pochote tree, Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica
Photo by Julio Barrantes

 

After our tour through the rain forest, we were cooked a traditional lunch of chicken, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes served in banana leaves, which are used as plates and bowls.

Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

Kekoldi Indigenous farm tour, Costa Rica

After our tour, we spent a short amount of time at the beach in Puerto Viejo on the way back to Cahuita. We didn’t stay long because Julio was concerned about leaving their car parked as there was a lot of theft and break-ins in the area. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is a lot more dangerous than other parts of the country, especially in Puerto Limon. We really enjoyed Cahuita though and didn’t feel unsafe there.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

On our last night we went to dinner by ourselves and then out to a local reggae bar for drinks. Unfortunately we can’t remember where we ate or what we ate. We do however remember the best piña coladas we’d ever had. No high fructose corn syrup here, just all natural juice and local rum.

Cahuita, Costa Rica

Cahuita, Costa Rica

Cahuita, Costa Rica

 

 

DAY 9

Our last morning we got up early and spent the morning at the beach in Cahuita. Beautiful sandy beach without much coral and bathtub warm water.

Cahuita beach, Costa Rica

Short video of the Cahuita beach:

Cahuita

In the afternoon we drove back to San Jose, and flew home the next morning. It was a great trip and we are so grateful to Sarah and Julio for their hospitality and planning. Check their tour company out at http://www.boyerotours.com

 

If we return to Costa Rica, we’d like to see some more of the Pacific coast and rainforest. Costa Rica is a diverse country, and there are many adventures to be had there.