Budget Breakdown: Iraq

My trip to Kurdistan was very rewarding, to see a place I had been hearing about my whole life was tremendous. Not to rely on what you see on CNN (or god forbid Fox News) or read in the USA Today, but to see it for yourself, and meet the people, is an incredible experience. Still, people continue to question me on going there. I’d go back 1,000 times out of 1,000 but don’t take it from me, go see for yourself.

As with most rewarding experiences, it will cost you. Iraqi Kurdistan won’t totally break your budget but it is not as cheap as most places I’ve been to on this trip so far. There are few tourists, in fact I met zero other tourists in my week there. This affects the budget in good and bad ways.


My “home”

Accommodation is far and away the biggest expense. In fact, it is a pretty cheap travel destination otherwise. The reason is because there are no hostels in Erbil (hmmm future business idea?). The amount of foreign tourists right now is low (thanks ISIS) and the people who do visit aren’t really the hostel type. Couchsurfing isn’t all that popular there either. So that leaves hotels. I stayed for six nights in a three-star hotel. Although that rating is a bit generous, it cost me $37 per night. That alone puts the daily budget over what I spent in Panama, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Turkey.

I also spent $15 on a hostel in the UAE the seventh night, but since I spent more than 12 hours of the day in Iraq, I’ll include it here. In all, I spent $237 on accommodation or $33.85 per day.


Homemade Dolma

Food was very cheap, and quite good. I would stuff myself full of shawarma for a couple dollars. I spent $24 on dinner ($3.42) an additional $2 ($.28 PD) on lunch and $13 ($1.85 PD) on groceries (snacks). I was also very fortunate to get several free meals from the generous people I met there. I can still taste the homemade dolma, so good! Additionally, I spent $1 on bottled water ($.14) that wasn’t included in meals. The lack of tourists is good for things like food and almost everything else. There is no price gouging for tourists like in many other places.


Having a smoke with some locals

Other was a significant cost in Kurdistan, I spent $35 ($5 per day). Most of it ($15) came from souvenirs, which I usually avoid, but I couldn’t pass up the out-of-print Saddam Hussein currency. As in most places in the Middle East, I smoked a lot of shisha and that falls in this category. As a side note, Erbil has the best shisha that I have ever seen anywhere!

I spent $13 ($1.85 PD) on cabs which was my transportation to and from the airport. The city is quite safe and walkable so I walked almost everywhere, even at night. I also used the local bus which cost me $2 ($.28 PD). Again, the people of Erbil were generous with rides, even complete strangers, so that helped with the transportation costs as well.

As you might expect, beer is limited in Kurdistan. However, that is not to say it can’t be found. I saw one bottle shop where I spent $8 ($1.14 PD) on several regional beers. There were no beers from Iraq available.


Cable car above Shanidar and Minarae Parks

I didn’t do much in the way of paid tourist activities. There are several cool parks that are free to visit. The Citadel, the main attraction in the city, can also be explored for free. For me, Erbil was a cultural experience and not a sightseeing mission. No better way to do that than to just walk around and have a chat over a meal or water pipe. I did however spent $5 on a cable car ride ($.71 PD) at one of the parks.

All told, I spent $340 in my seven days in Kurdistan or $48.57 per day. Still a bargain for the experience I had!


Flag of Kurdistan

Budget Breakdown: Turkey

Outside of Brazil, I spent the most time on this trip in Turkey. It is not happenstance as the two are among my favorite nations in the world to visit (I’d throw in Germany, England, and Australia as my top 5, if I had to pick). On my second trip to Turkey I spent 28 days, it was filled with smiles, laughs, mixed with tremendous fear and a whole lot of beer!

Here is what is cost me:


With my friends at my favorite bar in Van

For the first time on this trip, I spent the most money on beer. I spent more than twice as much as any other country (Peru $3.55 per day (PD)), I dropped $247 or $8.82 per day. To be honest I had no idea that I spent that much until I ran the final numbers. Kind of ironic that I spent the most money on beer in a Muslim country, isn’t it? There are a few reason for this: 1. Beer isn’t cheap in Turkey, the tax is high, coming out to $3-$4 per bottle. 2. All the people I was hanging out with were drinkers so I did what they did. I wasn’t going to be a party pooper. In fact, one guy I stayed with owned a bar! 3. Because my accommodation cost was so low I was a little more free spending that I usually am.


The famous Van breakfast

You can’t drink all that beer without some good eating. I love Turkish food, in particular the Doner. At one point I was keeping track of how many I had but I lost count somewhere in the 30s, I wouldn’t be shocked if I ate 40. Seriously, one of my favorite foods in the world. I spent $94 ($3.35 PD) on dinner and $68 ($2.42 PD) on lunch. I paid for breakfast once, and it was worth it, the famous Van breakfast. It cost $5 ($.17 PD). I also spent $18 on snacks ($.64 PD), mostly on popcorn that I loved getting at the corner markets. I also was hooked up many times with free food from the people I was staying with.


Smoking shisha in Cappadocia (with tea, of course)

The next biggest cost is also a strange one, other. I spent $106 ($3.78 PD) on things that don’t fit into my other categories. First, there was a $21 visa and I bought some medicine. I also lost $34. I don’t know if the bills stuck together or I got shorted on change or I just dropped it or what. It wasn’t outright robbery as I had more cash in my wallet. In any event, it was gone. I smoked shisha several times as well and at about $7 a crack it added to this high total.


One of my “couches” in Ankara

After beer, food, and other finally comes accommodation. It cost me $63 ($2.25 PD). Of course there is no place in the world (that I know) where you can get a bed for $2.25 a night. I was blessed that the Couchsurfing community was so generous to me. I stayed with six different people, none who I had ever met before I showed up at their doorstep. In many cases they also cooked me a meal or two. I can’t say enough about the Turkish hospitality! I also spent a night on an overnight bus. In 28 nights, I paid for seven. Six were in a hostel ($6.33 per night) and one was in a nice hotel, the hotel was deeply discounted ($25) because of so few tourists due to the bombings.

With so many people helping me, I spent $58 ($2.07 PD) on gifts.

Due to many nights at the bars, I used a good amount of cabs. I dropped $57 ($2.03 PD).


The crowded local bus in Istanbul

I covered 1,075 miles across Turkey on the bus (flew into Istanbul and out of Van). This cost me $53 ($1.89 per day). The buses were quite good quality and not many people on them, which I love. I also spent $26 ($.92 PD) on shuttles and $18 ($.64 PD) on metro/local buses.


Getting cultured in Ankara

I spent $40 ($1.42 PD) on tourist activities, most of which came on a classical music concert ($17). An orchestra isn’t my usual idea of a good time but I enjoyed it. The rest came for admission to four separate sites (Uchisar Castle, Akdamar Island, Rumelihisarı Fortress, and Derinkuyu Underground City). Fortunately, many sites and mosques are open to the public for free.

I drank what seemed like gallons of tea, which is usually free but I did spend $3 ($.10) on water.

All told, I spent $856 in 28 days in Turkey or just $30.57 per day. Thanks to the generous people of Turkey I spent less than what I averaged in South America ($32.62 per day).

“You are going to IRAQ!?!?”

“You are going to IRAQ!?!?” I must have heard that response 100 times, basically every time I told someone about my planned trip. “You know it is DANGEROUS there!!!!!!” Yes, it can be, but I did my research so I wasn’t worried.

I went and I had no real problems, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. I wasn’t really in Iraq. Yes, my passport now has an Iraqi stamp. Yes, the hotel had an Iraqi flag flying. When I brought up Google Maps, the little blue dot was smack dab in Iraq. However, I wasn’t in the Iraq that you are thinking of. I was in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region in the northern part of the country. There, Muslims and Christians, Kurds and Arabs all live side-by-side without much, if any, issue.


The Citadel of Erbil with the Kurdish flag flying

Kurdistan has been essentially separate from Iraq since the end of World War I. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the Kurds’ territory was split between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Saddam Hussain pulled a Hitler and committed genocide against the Kurds, using chemical weapons on them by the thousands in the late 1980s. The Peshmerga, also known as the Kurdistan Army, was aligned with Iran and Saddam was getting revenge for their role in the Iraq/Iran war.

While not on your map, Kurdistan is a very real country to these people and the Peshmerga has been fighting for its independence for decades. Finally, in 2005 after the US led invasion of Iraq, and removal of Hussain, the new constitution granted a Kurdistan Regional Government. Today, Kurdistan has its own president, legislature, police, army, budget and everything else normal countries have.

The Kurds take security very seriously with armed checkpoints every few miles on the roads outside of Erbil. The borders are constantly patrolled by the Peshmerga. It is working, there have been just three bombings in the last nine years. This level of security doesn’t exist in the rest of the Iraq.


Mounted machine gun on the street

My time in Erbil was fantastic, I was treated almost as a celebrity. In current times, tourism has become limited to nonexistent because of the perceived threat of ISIS. The so called Islamic State holds the city of Mosul, a mere 50 miles to the west. People would walk up to me and ask where I was from, I would say the US and their response would be positive. On two occasions, I was saluted. I don’t know if they figured I was in the service or they thought that is how you greet Americans. I don’t know but it was a bit awkward for me, I wasn’t sure how to respond.

The city is a circle so it was easy not to get lost. Erbil is full of nice parks, great restaurants and the best shisha I’ve ever had. The human history in the region is mind boggling. Not far from Erbil, Neanderthal bodies have been discovered and are up to 65,000 years old. Just being in this cradle of civilization was exciting to me. Much more recently, but still long, long ago there was a citadel built in the middle of the city. It dates back to the fifth century B.C., which makes Erbil the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet!

While everyone was friendly, Erbil was a bit lonely. There no hostels and very few Couchsurfers. I didn’t meet another traveler (outside of the airport) in the six nights I was there. The women would hardly make eye contact with me, let alone speak. These problems are not unique to Erbil, but the region in general. If it wasn’t for one Couchsurfer who showed me around for two days and some guys I met in a coffee shop, I would have been completely alone. I look forward to the day I can return and see more tourists.


Kurdish Countryside

Of course everyone wants to read about my brushes to danger. Nothing really happened on that front but there were two times that I was unnerved. One day as I walking about the city, two guys on a motorcycle passed me. The guy on the back of the bike was wearing a black ski mask, mind you the temperature was in the high 70s or low 80s. This immediately put me on edge. The black ski mask is a staple of the jihadist’s wardrobe. Much to my chagrin, he motions to the driver to pull over when they see me. About 50 feet away, the guy jumps off the bike and begins to follow me on foot with the ski mask still on. I pick up the pace and decide I need to get around other people so I went into a store. There I hid for what seemed like forever. It was a real life, high stakes game of hide and seek. I don’t know if he followed. When I went back outside he was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it was a kid trying to look cool or maybe it was the real thing. Who knows, but it got my blood going a little.

The other time was while I was riding with my Couchsurfing friend. We went though many security checkpoints, it was never a problem, it was a car with an Erbil license plate and a Kurdish driver. Until on the way back, a soldier took one look at me and asked for my passport. “My passport? Why would I carry my passport?” I thought. I make it a point to keep it in a safe place and not on me. It was back in the hotel, about a 30 minute drive away. After saying that he ordered the driver to pull over and for us to go into their headquarters. We walk into a small room with four guys, AK-47s propped against the wall. They again asked for my passport and I gave them my Hawaii driver’s license. That wasn’t going to cut it as they laughed. This wasn’t good. For a moment I had thoughts of being detained. Luckily, my friend was a respected doctor and gave his business card while assuring them I was okay and he would be responsible for me. They took him at his word and let me go. Thank you Couchsurfing! He later told me that they let me go essentially because I was white and wouldn’t have if I was Arab.

Erbil is a city I would recommend visiting. I hope to return someday and check out more of Kurdistan and maybe, just maybe make a push south to the other Iraq.


City Center

Why You Should Visit Turkey

When brainstorming for a vacation destination Turkey doesn’t immediately jump to the forefront of many people’s minds, but maybe it should. Yes, Turkey has some political issues right now. Things with Russia aren’t good. There is a small scale civil war with the Kurds (PKK and YPG). ISIS has also complicated things in recent times with attacks of its own. However, I was just there and these dangers don’t affect most travelers. In fact, better deals can be found now due to some of this unrest. Bad things can happen anywhere, but you already knew that, or you wouldn’t be reading a travel blog.

Point is, Turkey is a seriously underrated travel destination. I have spent over a month there, obviously it is impossible to see it all but here are a few of my must dos in Turkey.

Izmir- Located in Western Turkey it is probably the most liberal city in Turkey. The people dress in a western fashion in name brand clothes, there are several breweries and the locals don’t mind throwing back a pint or three. Public displays of affections are greeted with indifference. It is a predominantly Muslim community but not as hard line as other parts of the world, or even Turkey.

That aside there are world class attractions here. Ephesus is a collection of well-preserved roman ruins, some of the best in the world. There are Biblical sites like the home that the Virgin Mary lived in until her death. One of the ancient wonders of the world, Temple of Artemis, is near Ephesus as well.

If you are not a history buff or a beer fan then you can enjoy the beach. The Çeşme Peninsula is located not far from the city. There are several beaches to choose from, all good for cooling off in the Aegean Sea.


The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia

Cappadocia- After the chaos of the big cities in Turkey, Cappadocia is the perfect small town getaway with stunning natural beauty. The other-worldly landforms known as “fairy chimneys” are a site to behold. An sunrise hot air balloon ride may be the best way to see them, but be sure to bring a little extra cash as they run anywhere from $90-$220 USD. If it is out of your budget, or you don’t like heights, there are plenty of other options including ATV and horseback tours. Of course my personal favorite is DIY and just go for a hike. Unlike Ephesus, the crowds here are minimal and you can get much closer and even in the centuries old caves. Uchisar Castle is the highest point in the region and will give you almost the same view point as the balloons for about $3 USD.

There is also biblical history here as it was an early Christian settlement as well as sites going back to Roman times. There are 36 underground cities in the area including the main two of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu.


Three Beauties

The city of Goreme is probably the best launching point for a Cappadocia adventure but it is a bit pricey as it caters almost exclusively to tourists. It is a bit more conservative than Izmir but it is a wine region and the local wines are served at almost every restaurant. Give it a sip, particularly the white wines.


Maiden’s Tower

Istanbul- This is where the lion’s share of visitors go and with good reason. In a place like Istanbul you can’t help but run into history. The big name attractions are Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) and they are certainly worth your time, but there is so much more. The Suleymaniye Mosque is impressive in its own right and offers great panoramic views of the city. The Ortakoy Mosque is another picturesque mosque on the Bosphorus strait, which is the boundary between Europe and Asia. Don’t miss the fantastic street food nearby. The Galata Tower and the Fortress of Rumeli are two other spots that are must see on a trip to Istanbul. If on the Asian side, the Maiden’s Tower, which is now a restaurant, is worth a visit.


Sultanahmet Mosque

Istanbul is a huge city, one of the biggest in the world, thus you can find almost anything you want there. If you are looking for shopping or nightlife you need to go to Taksim Square. This might be the most liberal area in all of Turkey. You can see all types of people from same sex couples to cross dressers to all walks of life going out for an all-night party.

I visited a few weeks after the attack on the German tourists and it quite frankly scared off a lot of other visitors. I ended up getting a room that is ordinary $150 per night for $25. Was that foolish of me to be there at such a time? Maybe, but think about this: that attack killed 10 people in a city of over 14 million. I’ll take those odds.



Ankara- The first three places I mentioned are well known tourist haunts. To get off the beaten path a little, but not too far, try Ankara. The biggest attraction in Ankara is its people, in my opinion the most hospitable in Turkey- a county known for its hospitality. If you spend any amount of time in Turkey you’ll notice a picture of a man in most homes and businesses, which is the Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk). He is the founder of the Republic of Turkey and has a fantastic mausoleum (Anitkabir) with a wonderful museum about the revolution. You could literally spent most of a day just there. If you are looking for a view of the city, look no further than the Ankara Castle. If you are in search of shopping, bars and restaurants be sure not to miss the lively Kizilay neighborhood. Ankara is a great place is observe the life of the average Turk.


Lake Van

These are just a few of the places to see in the great country of Turkey. Also worth consideration is Van in the east with the country’s biggest lake, or Canakkale and the ancient city of Troy, or the beauty of Pamukkale, or Konya or Antayla, the options are truly endless. On your next trip save some cash and skip the crowds of Western Europe and come to Turkey. You won’t be disappointed.

Terror in Turkey

Terrorism is one of those things that doesn’t happen to you. It only happens on CNN in faraway places. Except it can. This is my story of the Ankara February 2016 bombing that killed 28 and wounded 61.

My friend Ezgi had been telling me for a week about a famous doner place, knowing my love for the meat wrap. So we agreed to meet in the vibrant downtown district of Kizlay at 6:00 pm, accompanied by her friend. The dinner was normal, we talked about my trip. My confession that I loved Ankara was greeted by two high fives. We talked about boys they liked. We talked about family. Ezgi billed this doner as the best in Ankara, her friend went a step farther claiming it was the best in all of Turkey. It lived up to the hype, the doner was fantastic. It was a large portion and cheap. I was in love. I could eat at this outdoor café for the rest of my life.

With just a couple bites left, there was a great noise. One I had never heard before and one I hope you never have to. It was like all the 4th of July fireworks in my life combined into one. It was so powerful the ground shook. Everyone in the cafe stopped eating and looked at each other. It was as if we were all simultaneously looking for an explanation, other than the obvious. It could have been a… I had nothing. There was no way around the fact that it was a large explosion of some variety.

The friend said she wanted to go look and got up from the table. I thought this was a poor idea and remained seated. Soon Ezgi got up saying she didn’t want her friend to be alone, I joined. Once we turned the corner nothing apparent had happened. Then, like a winter swell on Hawaii’s North Shore, a wave of people starting sprinting towards us. And I do mean sprinting. Everyone was screaming, crying and scared. I ran as fast as I ever have in my life. Flashes of Carl Lewis in his prime. I was now almost leading the pack, running with no real aim. Just running.

Before long, I look up and see another wave of people running towards us. No one is sure where the bomb is, and if there are more. To avoid a stampede I cut down an alley. Then I hear a crackling sound. I assume gun fire in an ISIS style attack. I ran harder and faster still. I wish someone would have got my 40 time. It is amazing what the body can do under extreme duress. It turned out there was no gunman, but I didn’t know that. I was quite literally running for my life.

I eventually stopped running for fear I was going to run into another attack. I slipped into a bookstore and hid towards the back. The owner was telling everyone to be calm and settle down. I asked him what was going on. He said there was a bomb and the government was now on the radio warning of a second wave of attacks.

By now the night air was full of sirens and I could see smoke rising not far off. It turns out the bomb was about 1,500 feet from us when it exploded. I lost my friends in the madness, I was alone with no idea of what to do. I was staying at another friends place, about a 45 minute walk away. I tried to get a cab but they were all full. Not to mention traffic was gridlocked. So I started walking. Soldiers were running around with assault rifles yelling commands on the main street. Almost no one else was walking, but what choice did I have? I just wanted to get back to my friend’s house. I texted my loved ones and told them what was happening. I wanted them to know I loved them if something happened.

Nothing else did happen. I made it home, cracked a beer and watched Netflix with my host. Such a normal end to an unforgettable night. I want to extend my heartfelt sympathies to the 28 people who are never coming home. God bless Ankara.

Budget Breakdown: Latin America

If you have followed along with this blog you know I keep close track of my finances. There are a few reasons for it: It is partly because I need to, when traveling long term you can derail your trip if you don’t know where your money is going. After doing sports statistics almost every day for a decade, that compulsion to quantify everything just doesn’t go away. Also because I think it makes a good blueprint for someone else’s trip. I realize most people don’t do this type of travel but if it helps one person plan then it is worth it.

These are the final numbers for 110 days in Latin America. Keep in mind these numbers reflect basic travel. Few “nice” hotels, even less fancy restaurants, no mid trip airplanes or private tours. It does mean hostels, overnight buses, mom and pop eateries, walking tours, free museums, parks and beaches. It also includes loads of new friends, unlimited laughs and a lifetime of memories.

What wasn’t included here were the flights in and out of Latin America, travel insurance, vaccinations, and the visa for Brazil. These things vary wildly.

Of course these numbers aren’t scientific. Sometimes I spent a little more to be lazy and sometimes I would grind it out to save a buck. Other people’s experience may be different but these are the actual numbers with no manipulation, recorded after every transaction.

Here is the breakdown:

Sometimes a taxi is a moto taxi

Sometimes a taxi is a moto taxi

Cabs- I generally dislike using cabs and prefer to walk but sometimes my hand was forced. Late at night it is not always safe to walk in South America, especially if I was a few drinks in. Also, when arriving or departing a new city I would sometimes opt for a cab in favor of lugging by bags over distance. I know this is a bit lazy, but so be it. I used cabs the most in Panama ($4.50 per day) and the least in Peru ($.55 per day). Overall, I averaged $2.81 per day using cabs.

Hostels aren't all bad, this one in Santa Cruz, Bolivia was under $8

Hostels aren’t all bad, this one in Santa Cruz, Bolivia was under $8

Lodging- This included mostly hostels, a few hotels, some couch surfing and overnight transport. I’m not super picky in this area. Just so long as it is secure, I can deal with anything else. Lack of temperature control, hot water and even electricity were things I overlooked at times. Of course some hostels were fabulous and better than what I had at home. I spent the most in Ecuador ($14.76 per night) because I used hotels more frequently there. I managed to spend just $4.44 per night in Bolivia. In total, I averaged $8.33 per night for a place to sleep.

Picked up a switchblade in Panama for $6

Picked up a switchblade in Panama for $6

Other- This included everything not listed elsewhere. Things like laundry, medicine, clothes, taxes, and various supplies. I spent $6.66 per day in Colombia mostly due to souvenirs and a hefty airport tax. In contrast, I only spent $.61 per day in Ecuador. All said, I dropped $2.20 per day on other.

You can find beers of all types on the road

You can find beers of all types on the road

Beer- This is a very personal one. Some people would drink much more or some less and some not at all. This category includes all alcohol but most times it was beer. I had a real good time in Peru, spending $3.55 per day and only spent $2.11 per day in Bolivia. Of course the price per beer is different in each place but overall I averaged $2.86 per day for beer.

A Lama steak won't break the bank in Bolivia

A Lama steak won’t break the bank in Bolivia ($7)

Food- I lost a total for 4 pounds over the 110 days but it wasn’t because of the food! I ate great all trip! I didn’t always eat breakfast, but if I did it was usually included at the hostel or hotel. That said, I spent $1.19 per day in Brazil while not spending a penny in Panama or Ecuador. In total, I spent an average of just $.38 on the first meal of the day. Lunch was the main meal in some places, like Panama, where I spent $3.87 per day. I got away with just $2.15 per day in Ecuador. Overall, lunch set me back $3.15 per day on average. On the other hand, dinner was big in Ecuador where I spent a whopping $6.61 per day. In Panama, I limited myself to just $1 per day for dinner. In total, I spent $3.84 a day on dinner. I have a bit of a bad habit of snacking as well. I spent $1.19 per day on snacks in Brazil but didn’t give into the temptation at all in Panama. I spent $.54 per day over my time in Latin America. All said, I spent $7.91 per day on food.

Headed in the bush in the Pantanal with my guide Tony

Headed into the bush in the Pantanal with my guide Tony

Tours- In general, I tried to occupy my time with free activities but if there was something that I just had to do, I gladly forked over the cash. The Uyuni Salt Flat tour in Bolivia cost me big, but was worth it. I spent $9.22 per day in Bolivia while I enjoyed the free nature of Ecuador and only spent $.15 per day. On average, I spent $3.65 per day on tours.

A shuttle to the middle of nowhere Brazil

A shuttle to the middle of nowhere, Brazil

Shuttle/Metro- Rather than get a cab I rode shuttles or the local public transportation on occasion but not in every place. On the trip, I spent an average of $.63 per day on shuttles and $.14 per day on public transport.

When the person in front puts their seat back

When the person in front puts their seat back

Buses- This was my main way of getting from city to city and did it quite often with the exception of Panama and Columbia where I stayed in the same place. Brazil was the most expensive with at $5.53 per day while in Bolivia is was just $4. Overall, the bus was a major expense at $3.30 per day.

Gifts- I’m a guy who doesn’t mind getting a round of drinks for his new friends. I got a gift for a local who showed me around or opened their home to me. Overall, I averaged $.38 per day on gifts.

Don't drink the tap water, this feast was $10

Don’t drink the tap water, this feast was $10

Water- Outside of a few places, tap water is not safe to drink in Latin America. Although many hostels/hotels/residences have filters I still bought quite of bit of water. In Bolivia I spent $.66 per day while I went without in Panama. Overall, I spent $.36 a day on water.

All said and done, I spent an average of $32.62 on daily living over 110 days in Central/South America.

Best of South America

South America. A magical land that is every bit as interesting as Europe at a third of the price and without having to fight through a crowd. After nearly four months having a look about I have been asked by many people: what was the best part? It is an impossible question to answer but I have narrowed it down to a few of my favorite spots. Of course, I didn’t see every country or even all of the countries that I did visit. This is not an all-encompassing list but just my experience.

In no particular order, here is my Best of South America:


Machu Picchu (Peru)- This is a pillar of most people’s trip to South America and for good reason. I loved it because: 1) it is flat out gorgeous. Situated at the top of a lush mountain with clouds rolling by, it is the stuff dreams are made of for nature lovers. 2) When the Spanish colonized the Inca Empire most Inca cities were sadly destroyed in the mid-1500s. Lucky for us, the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu. It was wiped out by disease that the Spanish brought to the continent but there was never any fighting there. Point is, Machu Picchu is maybe the best place to see how the Incas lived as it is 70% original to this day. 3) The feat of engineering is mind boggling, it would be difficult to build today, much less in ancient times. 4) There is a sense of accomplishment to doing it on foot. I didn’t do the famed (and expensive) Inca Trail but I still walked over 37 miles in the three days I was there. I highly recommend the Mount Machu Picchu hike. It is an amazing hike without the crowds of down at the actual site.


Uyuni Salt Flat (Bolivia)- When a prehistoric lake dried up it left a 6,800 square mile salt flat, the largest in the world. Being there is what I imagine it would be like to be on another planet. The lava fields on Hawaii’s Big Island is the only other place I’ve ever felt this. Unfortunately, I was there in the dry season and missed the mirror effect but it was still cool nonetheless. While Salar de Uyuni is a show stopper in itself, the whole of Southwestern Bolivia is amazing. From crazy rock formations to majestic mountains to geysers to lagoons packed with Pink Flamingos to swimmable hot springs this area is primitive but worth the time off the beaten track. Laguna Colorada is absolutely not to be missed (pictured at top)!


Iguaçu Falls (Brazil and Argentina)- Of all the places I visited in South America this was the only one that physically took my breath away for a moment. I love this feeling but the more I travel the harder it is to get it. Growing up a six-hour drive from Niagara Falls, it is the standard I measure all waterfalls against. For the first time, Niagara looked woefully inadequate. Iguazu Falls is not only 165 feet taller but is much, much wider. There are actually 275 separate falls. The Devil’s Throat is the most intense part of the falls system and is awe inspiring. Unfortunately, due to visa issues I didn’t have the opportunity to visit from the Argentinian side. As I understand, the Brazilian side is more of a panoramic view and the Argentinian side is more up close. The debate rages on which side is “better,” but I can say the Brazil side is legit.


Pantanal (Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay)- This is the world’s largest tropical wetland that covers roughly 75,000 square miles. I visited two different areas in Brazil and they were both wonderful in their own right. While South America typically conjures up thoughts of massive rainforests, the Pantanal more resembles the African plain. This is a tremendous advantage in spotting wildlife as there are far less hiding places than in the Amazon. It is very difficult to NOT see wildlife here. Of particular interest to me, the Pantanal is home to the healthiest Jaguar population on earth. I was fortunate enough to see two, which was exhilarating. In addition to the Jags I saw Caiman, a Tarantula, Howler Monkeys, Macaws, Turkey Vultures, Toucans, King Fishers, Ospreys, Capybaras, Peccaries, Fox, Marsh Deer, Tegaus, Quaties, Nutrias, Parrots, Piranhas, Woodpeckers, Bats, Owls, Giant River Otters and much more. I spent time in two locations, near Corumba in Mato Grosso Do Sul and near Porto Jofre in Mato Grosso. The first location is definitely cheaper and you can see many animals, but there are many more Jaguars near Porto Jofre and the price reflects this. Either way, the Pantanal is probably the premier wildlife viewing area in all of the Americas.


Coast of Ecuador- I had the good fortune of spending time in three towns along the coast, including Ayampe, Puerto Lopez and Canoa. I enjoyed all three. As far as the beach itself and the surf goes, it is not on Hawaii’s level. However, it is the place that you imagine a beach town to be. In several places you had the beach entirely to yourself! No buildings bigger than a few stories, no big hotel brands, and no restaurant chains. The kind of place Hawaii probably was 50 years ago. It was cheap too, you could get a bed on the beach for $6. A cheap, nice, uncrowded beach with sunsets to die for. That is my type of place.


Big Cities- In multiple instances people told me that a certain big city is not worth seeing and is just a stopover on the way to the next destination. As you know, I love nature but I also am a big city guy. In fact, I’d say I’d rather visit nature and live in a big city than the other way around. The energy, the lights, the sounds, the technology, the diversity, and the fact that you can almost get anything you want in a big city are all intoxicating to me. Sao Paulo (Brazil), with over 20 million people in the metro area is the biggest city in the Americas and the biggest I’ve ever been to. It was amazing. The food, the music, the nightlife. Of course I can’t forget Rio (Brazil) with its beaches, Sugarloaf Mountain and its outstanding football culture. Lima (Peru) was a modern, western city with a beautiful coast, vibrant nightlife and a unique gambling setup. You could watch a game at a bar and place a bet with the bartender! (There were traditional casinos as well.) Guayaquil (Ecuador) was also super modern with colorful neighborhoods with large Iguanas just walking around! Cali (Colombia) was the kind of place you can find anything you want, and I mean anything, and for extremely cheap. I would love to return to all these places someday.


The People- Seeing the places described above was a great experience but the people are really what make it unforgettable. Some people think solo travel is about trying to tackle the world alone. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’d even argue that solo travel lets you meet more people and make more friends than a person traveling with a partner. The locals in Brazil were particularly good to me. I stayed with two hosts in Sao Paulo, including one in the biggest apartment I’ve ever seen. I stayed with two more very generous hosts in Cuiaba and even met my girlfriend there. I had great guides in the Pantanal to help me see what was there. Other travelers, although not from South America, were great to explore with. Every place I went I met at least one special person to share the experience with. In a few instances we joined forces and traveled for days or weeks together. Sometimes it was just a day. Either way, I remember, and miss, all of them and am better off for having met them.

South America exceeded all of my expectations. If the rest of world comes even close to our neighbors to the south, this trip will be legendary.

Budget Breakdown: Colombia

Colombia. Just the name evokes strong emotions, good and bad. For travelers who have been there in recent times Colombia often tops their list of favorite places in South America, if not the world. For your Aunt Ester, Colombia means cocaine crazed gangsters passing out Colombian Neckties with FARC rebels kidnapping everyone in sight.

The truth is mixed. Palmira and Cali are still in the top 10 for most murders in the world but the violence is way down from the civil war period in the 1940s and 50s and the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s. While cocaine is still a part of Colombia, it was more prevalent in Peru and Bolivia in my experience. However, I’m with most of the backpackers, Colombia is an amazing country and I’m counting the days until I can return someday.

One of the marvelous things about Colombia is the price. Thankfully most American and Canadian tourists haven’t discovered Colombia yet so prices remain low. Unfortunately, I spent just six days in Colombia, all in Cali. Let’s look at the numbers:


Due to the fact that it was the end of my South American leg and that I met some very cool other travelers, I really enjoyed the nightlife. I spent $32 on beer, or $5.33 per day. Beer costs $1-$2 per bottle at most places.

I spent $30 on accommodation ($5 per day (PD)), which included five nights in a hostel and one night on a red eye flight. Although it was a six-bed dorm, it felt like a private room as I bunked with three other travelers I had met on a bus in Ecuador.

The next biggest cost was other which included a departure tax of $15 at the airport and a souvenir. I usually don’t buy souvenirs because I don’t want to carry them around but since I was going home for Christmas I did. Overall, I spent $24 ($4 PD).

I spent $20 on cabs ($3.33 PD) of which $15 came on the ride to the airport. That is another reason I hate to fly. The hidden cost of getting to and from the airports that are usually not close to the city center.

Oddly, I spent exactly $17 on lunch ($2.83 PD) and $17 on dinner while adding $2 on breakfast ($.33 PD) and $8 on snacks ($1.33 PD). The less than $6 a day average for breakfast, lunch and dinner combined may seem like I was starving myself but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I gorged myself several days and could have got by on far less.

I also spent $2 on water ($.33 PD) and $3 dollars on tours ($.50).

Overall, in six days, I spent a total of $155 or an average of $25.83 per day.

Budget Breakdown: Ecuador

Ecuador is a much underrated country. My original plan was to burn through it as fast as possible to have more time in other places like Peru and Colombia. Once getting there I knew I couldn’t do it and spent almost two weeks there (13 days), you could easily spend more.

It is an expensive country as compared to most of Latin America partly because they use the US Dollar. The bills are all from the US and the coins are a mix of Ecuadorian coins and from the US. It is also fairly modern with a big time draw to people with money, the Galápagos Islands. The lion’s share of the tourists come to Ecuador for that reason alone. However, the Republic of Ecuador is so much more.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to Darwin’s lab on this trip. The cost was just too high for my way of traveling, I didn’t talk to anyone who did it for less than $1,200 (7 days) and I talked to several who spent much more. Technically, I could have bit the bullet and paid the money but I decided to save the cash for other opportunities down the path. If nothing else, long term travel is about decisions. Due to the fact I lived in Hawaii, the islands didn’t have a huge draw. Plus, now I have a reason to come back someday.

Ecuador was near or at the top in most budget categories:

The big expense was housing. I blew past the previous leader for most expensive (Brazil) by more than $4.50 a night. I spent $192 or an average of $14.76 a night. I definitely splurged in this area. I stayed in hotels for five nights, hostels for six while also couch surfing and sleeping on a bus one night each. The hotels could have been avoided but after no hotels in Bolivia or Peru I spent a little more. The couch surfing was actually at the hostel. When I wanted extend my stay in Guayaquil it was booked, but the manager offered me to take the couch at the front desk for free. I gladly accepted. Due to the small size of the country, overnight bus options were extremely limited so that also contributed to the high cost.


The food cost was also high. I spent a staggering $86 on dinner and $28 on lunch ($8.76 per day (PD)). Part of the problem here was due to some remote locations with limited dining options. The dinner cost was again the highest on the trip, by just over $2 per day. Due to the high food cost, I also snacked more spending $10 ($.76 PD), this was also the highest in Latin America.

Getting around in Ecuador was reasonable but not cheap. I spent $63 on buses ($4.84 PD) and another $43 on cabs ($3.30 PD). I got as free ride with a lady I met on the bus from the border to Cuenca so that helped, but the short bus rides with lots of switching buses added up. Also, I found the people in Ecuador a lot less willing to bargain on bus and cab costs. I also used the metro bus in Guayaquil a few times, which was only $.25 per ride for a total of $2 ($.15 PD).


I enjoyed the night life in Ecuador, particularly in Guayaquil. I spent $41 on beer ($3.15 per day), each beer hovered around the $2-$4 range. It was the second highest average for beer behind Peru.

I also dropped $8 ($.61 PD) on other, which included laundry service. For those that helped me, I spent $11 ($.84 PD) on gifts. Although Ecuador was surprisingly not that hot, due to elevation, I spent $7 ($.53 PD) on water. I also spent $2 ($.15 PD) on tours, accounting for admission to Quilotoa Lake. Ecuador had many free parks, interesting streets and beaches to explore without cost.

Overall in 13 days in Ecuador, I spent $493 for an average of $37.92 per day. This was the most expensive country I visited in Latin America other than Brazil.

Tales from the Bus Lane

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it was too far, too dangerous and impossible because I don’t speak the language. But I did it.

Taking a bus/van/car/truck/train across South America isn’t for everyone but it can be done and can also be advantageous. Buses drop you closer to the city and are much cheaper, averaging about $1 to $1.50 an hour.

Without the use of a plane I traveled from Atlantic coast of Brazil to Bolivia to Peru to Ecuador to Colombia. I didn’t travel in straight lines but zig zagged all over the continent. Overall, I traveled 9,642 miles which is about 300 miles more than the distance from Los Angeles to Cleveland…four times.

I took four journeys of at least 20 hours, with the longest being 29. It sounds ridiculous, but I enjoyed these. The first few hours can be rough but soon my mind went elsewhere and the hours melted away. It is similar to the feeling when running a marathon or any long distance activity.

I avoided any major catastrophes but did have a few interesting situations.

Snakes in a Van

In Brazil, our shuttle driver doubled as a delivery driver. We’d stop every so often around Campo Grande and pick up random items for transport to the Pantanal and then back again. On the way back, I saw the driver grab what looked like a bag of water with something moving in it. During a rest stop, curiously got the better of me and I opened the back of the van. It was a bag of snakes! Live snakes! You’ve seen Snakes on a Plane but we had real life snakes in an MFing van! After I slammed the door, the rest of the ride I half expected to feel something slither around my neck. Of course, nothing happened.

No, No, No, YES!

On most buses the seats are assigned, similar to a plane. On a plane if no one is sitting next to you when the plane takes off, you’re golden. It’s a good sign on a bus, but in the next town someone could easily join you. On the bus from Foz do Iguacu to Campo Grande in Brazil I had the seat to myself to start and in every town, as people piled on, I would say to myself, “don’t sit here, don’t sit here, don’t sit here” and then cheered to myself as they passed. It worked, I was alone. Until one town I saw a beautiful girl get on and then I changed my chant to “please sit here, please sit here, and please sit here” and she did! Of course there was no way she spoke English as few people in Brazil do, especially on a bus in a remote place. But she did, she studied in Chicago as part of an exchange program and spoke perfectly. We ended up talking non-stop for over six hours until she had to leave. We ended up staying in contact for the rest of my trip in South America. That was my favorite bus ride.

Wasted at Work

The strangest ride came in Bolivia. In Santa Cruz, I went to the bus station the day before my departure and bought a ticket. When I went back the next day I went to the departure gate and there was no one there. There should have been, it was close to the embarkation time. I went back to the window where I bought the ticket and everyone just ignored me. In perfect conditions I struggled to communicate, I had no shot in a busy, loud bus terminal. I didn’t dare take out my phone and attempt Google Translate. So I stood there racking my brain for a solution. Then a was tapped on the shoulder and a young man who started saying “Sucre, Sucre,” which is where I was going, and motioned me to follow him. He led me to another ticket window and starting writing a new ticket. I was alarmed, I didn’t need a ticket, I needed to find my bus. This wasn’t the first time that someone attempted to steal me from another company. I walked away with a loud “no.”

As I roamed the station, the guy came back and grabbed my shoulder and said something franticly in Spanish. I almost back handed him. I thought he was an aggressive salesman, which I had seen. I cleared some room with an elbow and walked away. Still no closer to finding my bus and with time dwindling, I was approached by a German guy. In English, he asked if I was going to Sucre with San Francisco (which was the name of bus company I bought from). I was put off that he knew this and then I saw that the little Bolivian man who has been chasing me around was behind him. Before answering, I asked what that guy wanted. The German guy explained that my bus driver showed up to the bus station drunk and my bus had been canceled. The Bolivian guy worked for a sister bus company and would honor my ticket with no additional funds. We returned to his window, he wrote me a new ticket and I was on my way. Only in Bolivia.

Random Kindness

When I was leaving Lima, Peru and heading to Ecuador I was talking with a retired Ecuadorian English professor as we waited for the bus. She inquired about where I was going in Ecuador. I honestly had no plan, I was going to get to the border and see what grabbed my attention. I conveyed this to her, puzzled, she asked if I ever heard of Cuenca. I hadn’t. Truth was I hadn’t heard of much in Ecuador. She told me she had a car and a driver meeting her at the border and if I wanted to go to Cuenca she would take me there for free. I wasn’t sure what to do. Who was this lady? What did she want? She saw my hesitation and told me to think about during the ride to the border (21 hours) and to let her know when we arrived. Not one to turn down a free ride, I took it. She even payed the cab to the border. The four-hour ride to Cuenca passed without incident. Turns out there are still good people in this world.