10 Incredible Places To Visit In Central America

This post was written by Adam Tiffany, an intrepid traveler from Norwich now living in Australia. It is probably one of the most in depth and beautifully descriptive guides you will find on this site, and an incredible insight into backpacking in Latin America. Enjoy!

If you haven’t considered Central America as a future travel destination then I urge you to continue reading. Despite offering nine breathtakingly beautiful countries to discover and explore, each being identifiable with its very own culture and dynamic way of life, for some reason, this fascinating portion of the world is still, for some unknown reason, overlooked by many.

Latin America is an adventurer’s playground compared to the current, more popular,  alternative that is the tourist guided pathway of the banana-pancake trail of Southeast Asia. So why choose Latin America? Firstly, it’s not saturated in backpackers, it’s cheaper, you won’t think you’re on holiday in Magaluf, it’s still relatively untouched and most importantly, the dreaded guitar playing, dreadlocked trustafarian from surrey has parents that, thankfully, still think Asia is a safer destination to send their offspring (which by the way is total bollocks).

Out of my time here, these 10 places, in no particular order, were my favourite. Words do not do them justice.

10. Panama’s San Blas Islands

The San Blas islands are probably, no actually there’s no probably about it, they are the most beautiful group of islands you will ever find, over 300 of them in fact.

Set in the Caribbean sea, sailing past these islands has become a common stop off for travellers on the six-day voyage between Panama and Colombia. The inhabitants of the San Blas are known as the “Kuna”, dressed in colourful tribal outfits with leg-length coloured beads to match, and are regarded as the world’s 5th most indigenous tribe.

Most of the sailing captains who take travellers on this famous A to B route are often well known amongst the tribe, allowing for you to be dropped off on one of the islands amongst them for the day. An experience that probably elapsed your imagination whilst in the middle of checking your passport details for the 3rd time when booking your flight out here.

It’s only once you arrive safely off that boat (the same moment our captain switched his attention from the boat back to the Colombian prostitute he’d brought along for the journey) that the euphoria of being finally back on dry land with your jittery sea legs has at long last worn off, that you now begin to acknowledge that nobody has spoken for five minutes and that the eye contact and smiles between you all describes what you are feeling far better then any word could.

san blas islands9. Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

This semi-professional surfing village on the pacific side of Costa Rica was one of the few places I actually felt content doing nothing with my days, even procrastinating seemed hard work by the end of it.

The main attraction here aside from its beach and surf, are its sunsets. So spectacular as they were, it soon became obvious why the sun’s daily demise was used as the daily congregational point by everyone to deliberate on what to do for the rest of the evening. Why my group of friends discussed it each night looking back now seems pointless, because the outcome was always the same. Cheap Caribbean rum and beer have a merciless toll on your willpower.

The algebraic equation for this place is simple; chill out, do nothing, surf all day, then find a party going on in the surrounding hills afterwards, repeat.

Or if you don’t like math, just get a couple of quad bikes and drive off into the jungle to the nearby village of Montezuma to jump off triple-tiered huge waterfalls with enough rum to sink a pirate ship, like I did.

santa teresa costa rica

8. Utila, Honduras

Situated on the Caribbean side of Central America, amongst “the bay of islands”, is a small island called Utila. Made up of expats, Jamaican twanged local accents and folks who have somehow houdini’d  themselves out of the straight jacket that once contained them.

Included amongst the human circus residing here are people from all over the world, arriving on the promise of Utila being one of the cheapest, and best places, in the world to learn to dive and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. For me, it’s the best spot I’ve ever dived.  To compliment its Mecca diving status, Utilas nightlife is electric, with bars like Rehab and Skid Row doing their utmost to make sure you go home in a wheelbarrow.

It’s as welcoming to people wanting to dive as it is to your stomach to see the back of the inevitable daily intake of gallo pinto and plantain you’ve had to endure along the way (if you don’t know what gallo pinto and plantain are at the start of your trip,  you’ll have the same fondness of it as the first bottle of spirits that ever made you throw up by the end of it). Thankfully Utilas variety of eating options are simply fantastic alongside a particular eatery serving the best pork chops and award winning chilli known to man, well this man, namely me.

Utila may have all the assets of island life that I’d seen a hundred times before, but it was its inconceivable lack of reality that none of the expats living here ever wanted to embrace, entwined with the island’s small army of extroverts and larger than life personalities, that made this island not only a fantastic place to dive and retreat to for a week, but a truly blessed place for the collection of nationalities that live here to call home.

utila honduras

7. Semuc Champey , Guatemala

Described by many as the most beautiful place you’ve never heard of,  its name romanticises itself being set somewhere in the South of France rather than in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest. And by cupids arrow (being represented at this point by alcohol and the relief of not having to administer our will we’d written up on the nine-hour mini bus trip from hell to get there) me and my mate did fall in love with the place.

So what is it? “Semuc Champey is a collection of tiered pools atop a natural limestone bridge in the jungles of Guatemala”, that’s Google’s derogative description anyway. However, the brains of Silicon Valley have forgotten to mention a few other highlights of staying here.

Staying in Semuc Champey, the highlight is obviously spending the day in it’s famous emerald-coloured waters, but it also offers the opportunity to go grade four white-water rafting, tubing through the jungle and caving by candlelight, plunging blind into pools below in total darkness.

And then there’s where you sleep. The whole time we were here we stayed in one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. The showers are situated on the side of a cliff so that your daily shower overlooks the rising haze of mist that engulfs the rainforest each evening, everybody eats communally for dinner, the atmosphere rivals, if not betters, most other “party hostels” I’ve stayed in, and with the personal orchestra of the tropics to awake to each morning to remind you that you’re a million miles from anywhere,  it is probably one of my favourite spots in the world.

semuc champey guatemala

6. San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

A regular t-shirt slogan is spotted throughout most Central American hostels that is adorned by its wearers as a badge of honour. You remember the slogan and the conversations deriving from it because of other travellers who often enough won’t shut up about it. Then you arrive in San Juan Del Sur, just before the Sunday as is drilled into you to do so as gospel, then as Sunday arrives, you finally grasp what all the excitement behind “Sunday Funday” is about.

Sunday Funday was created by the main four hostels in San Juan to create the ultimate party, with 300-400 people usually attending. It starts at midday and you get ferried across the local area in a convoy of gringo sardine cans (locals carrying crammed white people in the back of their trucks) to the three separate pool parties, one after the other, that are scattered amongst the surrounding hills looking out over the pacific, before ending up in a nightclub until the sun rises on Monday morning, which you probably won’t see because your liver has probably rolled over and died already.

As far as parties go, this is only just beaten in regards of the scale of drinking and level of partying by the island of Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party in the Gulf of Thailand. However, San Juan Del Sur has the fortunate privilege of not being over run by droves of English who’ve migrated from Magaluf, so in that sense, it comes out on top.

Sunday Funday is (prepare to be startled) every Sunday (with rumours of a man doing 26 in a row!) but during the week the hostels offer free taxis down to the beach for surfing or you can go grab some motorbikes and go discover Jesus! By that I mean go visit the 2nd tallest statue of Jesus in the world that over shadows the bay, obviously.  

If you do decide to come here (it’s almost inevitable you will) then bring your dancing shoes and perhaps a suitable liver donor along the way, chances are you’ll need them.

san juan del sur nicaragua

5. Tikal, Guatemala

The ancient Mayan temples of Tikal were remarkably only discovered in 1853 and were later declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. The city of Tikal itself is from around 4 BC and is archaeologically astounding.

Beginning our trek into the heart of Guatemala’s former Mayan empire, a sudden array of bellowing dog-like chants switched our attention to remind us Tikal is also home to howler monkeys. Big, loud faeces throwing ones. Despite the manners of our primitive cousins, the atmosphere when laying first eye on Tikal’s jungle super-structures is mesmerising.

The next obvious question to answer is can you climb them? YES! You can climb to the very top of ‘temple six’ that pierces the jungle’s ceiling by some margin, overlooking Guatemala’s dense rainforest for as far as the eye can see.

Tourist trap? Surprisingly, no. In fact it was more a case of occasionally bumping into other tourists, then the dreaded plague of stampeding smartphones found elsewhere. We only stayed for five hours due to pre-arranged travel commitments, but due to the sheer scale of the site, you could spend the whole day here.

Just to put things into perspective for you so you can understand how massive these former places of worship really are, you should be able to just see all five-foot-ten inches of me at the bottom of the picture below.

tikal guatemala

4. Caye Caulker, Belize

After arriving at Belize’s border control, which, no word of a lie, was a beach hut on the sand incorporating a less than rigorous open and shut passport routine, we ventured on via speedboat to the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker.

Caye Caulker feels like it should be on the cover of a Horace Andy album cover as an ambassador to Jamaican roots and culture with its multi-coloured painted houses, reggae playing bars, white sand roads, and golf-car driving, bright-orange Nike Air Max adorning policeman. As you arrive on the dock, you are greeted with the warm welcome of Caribbean accents (it sounded warm to us, the Swedes with us personally found it a bit of a nightmare to understand them) with a man named Brian, donning Lennon sunglasses and a gold necklace, leading us and a handful of other backpackers astray like the Pied Piper upon the promise of free daily rum punch being included in our stay. He wasn’t lying.

The island’s motto is to “go slow” and is repeated as often by the locals as it is reminded by brightly-painted murals on many of the island’s buildings. Besides a spot of kayaking, swimming and reenacting James bond scenes while spearfishing,  “go slow” (aided and abetted by the island’s fantastic use of jerk seasoning and quality stout) encompassed our days.

The island, in terms of paradise, is only second to that of the San Blas islands as previously mentioned. Except here you get the added luxury of fresh fish, jerk seasoning, rastafarian hospitality and stout…lots and lots of stout.

Caye Caulker Belize

3. Antigua…kinda, Guatemala

Antigua is the typical Latin American town you have pictured in your head, with Spanish baroque influenced colonial architecture and vibrant colour, illuminating the town with a passionate sense of everything Latino. As well as the added title of being a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s well worth the visit.

But it wasn’t Antigua itself that I wanted to talk about. In fact its a hostel named Earth Lodge, way up in the distant hills overlooking the town, that steals the show.

After enduring a ten-hour bus ride sat on the floor of a recovery bus after a breakdown, with no toilet or stops to accommodate the necessity, we’d developed Schwarzenegger-like sphincter muscles and were quite frankly ready to collapse anywhere that didn’t involve sitting on a freezing, filthy, hard floor amongst geriatric yoda look alikes. Upon arriving at Earth Lodge, we were told there were no rooms available except for the “bridal suite”, which we were upgraded to for free. Within this luxury room was a double bed to each self, actual HOT showers and a window view staring straight out to the volcano – we’d landed ourselves in the hostel version of the Ritz Carlton. There are dorms as well but I highly recommend staying in these rooms, there’s also a treehouse suite too.

The lodge itself overlooks the town of Antigua with a view rivalled by few, if any. Situated on an avocado farm they incorporate avocados into their menu as an alternative to pretty much everything. The avocado chocolate mousse being a particular eye-brow raising highlight. Earth Lodge is basically Willy Wonkas chocolate factory for avocado fans. With a homemade sauna, mountain-top volleyball area, communal eating in the evenings and views of ‘Volcan De Agua’ spewing lava into the night sky, made this probably the best place I stayed in Central America.

antigua guatemala2. Ometepe, Nicaragua

In the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the world’s 17th largest lake, lies Ometepe, formed by two opposing volcanoes, named Concepcion and Maderas, that creates an hourglass formation of land.

Still feeling fresh from Sunday Funday and bearing the yellow skin pigmentation associated with liver failure, we embarked on the Che Guevara ferry bound for Ometepe.

The island plays host to large groups of white-faced capuchin, howler and spider monkeys as well as the not so well known, Ometepe pink chicken. Later to be discovered as a local way to confuse potential predators via a quick dip in a tin of pink dye, naturally.

Days were spent discovering the island on motorbikes, attempted paddle boarding and patting the hostels pet pigs before we considered embracing the eight-hour round trip up Ometepe’s Maderas volcano. After hours of our unlucky guide dragging our flagging group behind him, navigating through thick uphill rainforest whilst dodging characters from a David Attenborough narrative and dealing with humidity levels exceeding the humour levels of the group, we had made it at long last and reached the top.

There were two reasons we chose to climb Maderas instead of Concepcion; firstly, the once prevalent fiery internal crater of the volcano has now been replaced with a lake. Meaning in theory, you can, and we did, swim inside a volcano. And secondly, we would be gifted with this view on our way back down.

ometepe nicaragua

1. Monteverde, Costa Rica

Set atop the spine of Costa Rica’s continental divide, Monteverde is a world above the coastal towns that dot the country’s shoreline. Set some four-and-a-half thousand feet above sea level, Monteverde is probably the only time a backpackers uniform of boardshorts and a vest, gets replaced with jeans and a jumper in Central America.

If adventure is what you’re after, then Monteverde delivers enough adrenaline to get the whole cast of Trainspotting back on their feet. A day in the cloud forest comprises of 20 huge ziplines reaching as far as a kilometre long, criss-crossing the tree canopy, a terrifying 80-metre rope swing, a 100-metre vertical rope rappel and a bungee jump from a suspended platform.

That’s day one covered, day two? Go canyoning! We spent a whole day making our way along river clambering over rocks, jumping off waterfalls and abseiling 50 metres down the ones deemed too high to jump, which at times made me consider whether a change of underwear would seem appropriate.

On the tamer side, the cloud forest also plays host to night walks via flashlight into Monteverdes wildlife-rich rainforests. Once in the reserve, you are left alone with Costa Rica’s answer to Steve Irwin whose sense for tracing animals was quite frankly remarkable. We came across slough, viper tree snakes, tarantula, and red-eyed leaf frogs to name but a few, well, to name the ones I can spell properly.

Monteverde holds true to its country’s famous “pura vida” and will satisfy the most stringent of adrenaline seekers needs, or just leave you being the brunt of all jokes for the following week if you chicken out of the bungee jump, like I did.

monte verde costa rica

Take 20: Unique Things To Do In Dublin For Free

Dublin gets a lot of stick for being one of the most expensive cities in Europe, if not the world. Transport, admission fees, pints and food can all seem exorbitant for people visiting and might even put people off. What many people don’t know is that there are endless things to do in Dublin that won’t cost you a cent. From free museums, to beautiful parks and botanic gardens, to beaches, lighthouses and music gigs, if you know where to go you really can have an incredible time in Dublin on a very small budget!

This list was compiled thanks to a collaboration with some other bloggers here in Ireland along with my friends who have loved here for years and know all the best spots. Without them, this post would certainly not be as comprehensive as it is, so thanks to everyone who contributed!

20. Go to a Free Music Gig

Gigs+Arthurs+Day+Guinness+250th+Anniversary+PRm8Mk66IWKl

Dublin is famous for its music, but that doesn’t mean you should have to pay to hear it. You can either go to the tourist trap bars in the Temple Bar region and listen to some free cheesy Irish music or head to some of the spots locals go to such as Sweeney’s on Dame street or Whelan’s up on Camden street. Both attract big numbers of music fans each week, and lots of great up and coming musicians. Doyles, near to Trinity College is another great option for free live music.

19. Search for Street Art

dublin street art

Dublin has some pretty amazing street art – some more obvious such as the murals in and around Temple Bar and the Italian Quarter, and others hidden away on back streets and down side alleys. You could dedicate an afternoon to doing a fun, and free, photo tour of Dublin to find all the best street art.

18. Go for a Cycle

Bike to Work

Darren McAdam O Connell says:

“Cycle out along the canals and have a picnic on the lawn in the quad in Maynooth or in Phoenix Park where there is so much to do.” Note: Once you sign up to Dublin Bikes, the first half hour of each journey is free, This means you can virtually get anywhere in the city for free and bikes are the best way to get around!

17. Visit the Garden of Remembrance

2009-09-27_Dublin_Garden_of_Remembrance_054

This beautiful garden in the heart of the city was designed by Daithi Hanly and dedicated to the memory of all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom.  The large sculpture by Oisin Kelly is based on the theme of the “Children of Lir”.  The garden is intended as a place of quiet remembrance and reflection and is a beautiful place to stop by while in Dublin.

16. Check out the Irish Jewish Museum

irish jewsish museum

Suggested by Lisa Iadevaia Devlin

Another of Dublin’s free museums,The Irish Jewish Museum stands on the site of Dublin’s Walworth Road Synagogue, which was once in the heartland of “Little Jerusalem,” the densely populated Jewish enclave off the South Circular Road. The area was once filled with Jewish kosher butcher stores, Jewish bakeries, Jewish grocery stores, Jewish tailors, Jewish bookstores and many other stores and businesses owned by Jews. It was actually opened by the Irish born former President of Israel Dr. Chaim Herzog on the 20th June 1985 during his State visit to Ireland.

15. Have a picnic at the National Botanic Gardens

11-National-Botanic-Gardens

This one is a little out of the city, but totally worth the half hour walk or short bus ride. Located about 3 km North of the city centre, the National Botanic Gardens are an oasis of calm and beauty, and like all the others, entry is free. A premier scientific institution, the gardens also contain the National Herbarium and several historic wrought iron glasshouses. A great place to go in the summer for a picnic or just to try and chase all the cheeky squirrels!

14. A Walk on Dollymount Strand

kite-surfers_2013169i

Mike O’Keeffe says:

“Go for a walk along Dollymount beach out in Clontarf, with the beautiful view of Dublin Bay, Howth Head and all the way out to Dun Laoghaire, followed by a stroll around St Annes park…great spot for a picnic.” The beach is over 5km long, so a round trip to the end and back would be a pretty great Sunday stroll. If you don’t feel like exercising, you could just spend a few hours watching the skilled kite surfers that flock here when the wind is right.

13. A walk in St Stephens Green

st stephens green

Rachel Hally says:

“If you’ve heard of Grafton street in Dublin then you will know about Saint Stephens Green. This is a very picturesque park in Dublin city centre. The park is gorgeous in spring and summer covered in many different types of colourful flowers. It’s a peaceful place found in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Dublin. It is the perfect place to take children to feed the ducks and swans or play in the grass or even have picnics. It is also a very peaceful place to lay in the sun with friends or read a book against a tree. It is a stunning place and of course it is completely free.”

12. See the wild deer in Phoenix Park

Deer41

Eoin Kernan says:

“For my penny’s worth… go and visit the fallow deer in Phoenix Park. Yes, you can go to the Zoo just down the road and see lots of unusual animals, but at a price. For free, you can see 350 wild ‘Bambi’s’ in their own home, surrounded by wonderful parkland.”

11. Go for a stroll around the city centre 

Ireland-Dublin-Temple-Bar

Katie Brennan says:

“There are so many beautiful walks to go on around Dublin. Killiney Hill, Dun Laoghaire pier, Marley Park, Dollymount Strand. It’s perfect on a lovely day! I also love wandering around the city centre and doing some window shopping on the weekends. There’s always people busking and performing and a real buzz in the air!”

10. Witness a Court Case

Four_Courts,_Dublin,_Ireland

Fiona Sherlock says:

“If you’re lucky enough to have a few days off during the week, why not head down to see justice being administered in public? Most court cases are held in public (family hearings are usually In Camera), and a quick look at  the legal diary will let you know what’s coming up.”

9. Check out the IMMA (Irish Museum of Modern Art) 

irish-museum-of-modern

Lorna Garety says:

“The 17th century Royal Hospital Kilmainham is home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the entrance to which is announced by a fabulous giant sculpture of a hare banging a drum. In the 20th Century it fell into disrepair until restored by the State in 1984, its 300th Anniversary, and became the home of IMMA in 1991. It is now surrounded by avenues and ancient chestnut trees, dotted with sculptures from IMMA’s collection.”

8. View some art at the National Art Gallery

national art gallery

Stephen Hackett Says: “The National Art Galleryexhibits fine art from Ireland and around the world, has a pretty nice cafe and of course it’s free!! It’s also not too far from Trinity College.”

Giselle Campbell says: “National gallery great for kids too. Loads of free workshops, a tour pack and kids corners. Brought my son their last summer. He was only just 2 and we’d a great time!”

7. Host a ‘Supper Club’ instead of eating out

supper club dublin

Karolina Badzmierowska says:

“On a sunny and warm evening in June of last Summer, we hosted our first Supper Club dinner. Some of you might be familiar with this concept; in a nutshell, think fine dining meets casual banter in the safety of your own surroundings. As you send out the invites to friends (or strangers), the only rules are the BYOB and BYOF. Try it yourselves, invite friends, or friends of friends, or strangers. Come up with a menu. Experiment, enjoy and have fun!”

6. Visit the dead at Museum of National History

Exhibition galleries

Russell O Connor says:

“The Dead Zoo (aka Museum of Natural History), is a small building packed full of all of the excitement of nature. Its a great way to experience what animals are like up close without the fear of them eating you!”

5. Stop by The Little Museum

little museum dublin

Dearbhla McCreesh says:

“The Little Museum on St Stephens green is fab. It’s not always free but there are times during the week when it is. It has lovely staff, interesting artifacts and tidbits..definitely worth the visit.” This museum is a real hidden gem in Dublin and captures the history of Modern Dublin like no other.

4. Walk to the South Wall Lighthouse

south wall lighthouse

Vinnie Glennon says:

“Walk out to the South Wall lighthouse. It took 50 years to make it and few people know it.” While the wall built to shelter Dublin harbour wasn’t completed until 1795, the lighthouse was actually ready in 1768 and initially operated on candlepower, reputedly the first in the world to do so. The Great South Wall on which Poolbeg Lighthouse stands, extends from Ringsend over 4km out to sea. It was the world’s longest sea-wall at the time of it’s construction and remains one of the longest to this day in Europe.

3. Do some reading in the Chester Beaty Library

biblioteca-chester-beatty-libros

Described by Lonely Planet as not just the best museum in Ireland, but one of the best in Europe, this great free museum should be a must-see for anyone living in or visiting Dublin. Established in 1950, to house the collections of mining magnate, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, the Library is one of the premier sources for scholarship in both the Old and New Testaments and is home to one of the most significant collections of Islamic and Far Eastern artefacts.

2. Pay your respects at Glasnevin Cemetary

651GlasnevinCemetery(1)

It might be a bit strange listing a graveyard as a top thing to add to your bucket list, but Glasnevin Cemetery is no ordinary cemetery. Almost 200 years old, over 1 million Dubliners have been laid to rest here and it is home to many historically notable monuments. The graves of many of Ireland’s most prominent national figures such as Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins, and Éamon de Valera can all be found here.

1. Enjoy a midnight picnic in the Temple Bar Square

midnight picnic

Liane Hurray says:

“A fun thing to so is to have a midnight picnic on the square in Temple Bar to watch the ladies in high heels try to walk over the wet cobblestone on a night out!” Struggling girls aside, I really like this idea of having a midnight picnic. I bet there are lots of great spots around Dublin for an alcohol free midnight picnic!

Posts you should read:

Most Beautiful Places To Visit In Ireland

Irish Abroad: Top 10 Foods We Miss

A Girl’s Guide To Seoul: Everything You Need To Know

Dear Googlers,

I know what you are looking for, and I know what you typed into the beautiful search box to find my blog. As you all seem to be searching for 5 main things, I thought I would be so kind as to include links to all of them in one, concise blog post. If you have some how, miraculously, found yourself on my blog and are not looking for; big shoes, a hairdresser, a gym, a jimjilbang or the wedding dress/ princess cafe then WELCOME! You might enjoy this post too.

Over my two years in Korea, I encountered a LOT of ups and downs. I love the country as a whole, I love the people, I love the food and I love all the incredible places there are to see and things to do. What I don’t like is how difficult life can be for a blonde, curly-haired, big-footed, unfit, super tall Irish girl.

Thanks to daily and weekly frustrations in these areas, this blog has some fairly comprehensive posts on the trials and tribulations of finding the right products a girl like me needs to survive in the bustling metropolis that is Seoul. If you are like me, then this blog post should be very helpful. If you have any questions, be sure to leave a comment and I will try get back to you as soon as possible!

Here are the links to everything you are probably looking for – let me know if your are looking for something else, or you know, just use the search button!

Janet 

a girls guide to seoul

Posts about shoes

Big Shoes in Korea

Posts about Jimjilbangs 

Tales from a Jimjilbang

Getting Naked!

Too Much Nakedness

Best Outdoor Spa

Posts about Korean Gyms and Fitness

10 Reasons To Join A Korean Gym

My First Half Marathon in Korea

Posts about Hair and Beauty 

Juno Hair Nightmare

Not Beautiful Enough To Live in Korea

Posts about fun cafes

Princess Diary Cafe

Sheep Cafe

Wedding Dress / Princess Cafe

Games and Cat Cafe

Hello Kitty Cafe

Myanmar Travel Guide: Everything You Read Is Wrong

This is my third guest blog post of 2015, written by the brilliant Brian M. Williams who runs the excellent website NetSideBar.com. Be sure to check it out to read the rest of his brilliant travel diaries. His photographs are also incredible – all photos in this post were taken by him.

Where to begin when talking about how different Myanmar is from other countries in Southeast Asia, and, indeed, the world? I guess you can start with the fact that it has a half-hour timezone difference: when it’s 8 in Bangkok, it’s 8:30 in Myanmar. However, this is just the inconsequential-tip of the iceberg when it comes to how different Myanmar is.

To begin to understand what makes Myanmar different you have to know a little about its recent history. Burma, Myanmar’s name during colonial times, was controlled by the British starting in 1886. They would continue to rule the country up until World War II when much of the country was taken over by Japanese forces. After the war, in 1948, Burma became an independent country with an elected government. However, in 1962, the military took over the country, restricted rights, arrested opposition leaders, strictly controlled and centrally planned the country’s economy and simultaneously isolated it from the rest of the world. The end result of all of this was that Burma became one of the poorest countries on Earth. During the the military’s long rule, there were many civilian-led protests that were almost always put down with violent force by the military government.

However, starting in 2008, democratic reforms, which included having open elections and releasing political prisoners, have resulted in Myanmar being allowed to rejoin the world community. The country even hosted President Obama, the first American president to visit the country, in 2012 and again in 2014. Still, there are some who argue that the reforms have not gone far enough and that the government is continuing to persecute certain religious and ethnic minorities in the country. Therefore, they say that foreigners should not support such a government with their tourist dollars. While I can appreciate this point of view and can testify that there is still fighting going on in the country that can sometimes shut down tourist routes (more on that later), I do not support sanctioning and isolating the people of a country because of the actions of their government. If the idea is that punishing ordinary citizens will cause them to revolt against their government, there has been zero evidence in history to show it works (see Iraq, Iran, Cuba and North Korea, just to name a few). What does work is people from around the world interacting, learning and sharing ideas and views about things like freedom and human rights. So, yeah, I had no moral reservations about going to Myanmar.

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First Impression

Regardless of this debate, the result of Myanmar’s long isolation is that tourism has been slow to develop in the country. The country is full of old cars and old buildings and there are very few things that appear modern or 21st century at all.  There is also a lack of advertising and big name brand Western goods that makes it clear it has not been fully overrun by Western capitalism which is something very difficult to find these days. For these and other similar reasons, travelers, such as myself, have been drawn to this country despite it being more difficult to travel in than many other places.

In many parts of SE Asia, tourists are catered to to such a degree that all anyone has to do is just arrive at the airport and from there they can go anywhere on a VIP bus to any number of high-end resorts (or, more likely, party scenes) and spend weeks in the region without really seeing any of its culture or having to do any thinking or planning for themselves. The original or traditional culture in such places has bent so much to accommodate the wants and desires of tourists that much of it seems lost or at least hidden away very well. In its place has developed a feeding frenzy to get the most tourist dollars a person can which sometimes includes an endless deluge of people asking you to buy the same crappy items every three minutes, constantly being approached by beggars, and ripping people off and scamming tourists. Foreigners are seen as moneybags who are meant to be hit up like a pinata every chance a person has to see if some money will fall out.

My hope in going to Myanmar was that this aspect of “development” wouldn’t have reached the country, and I’m very glad to say it hadn’t. The people in Myanmar still have a friendliness, purity and sincerity that is hard to find in modern and big city cultures. Unlike many other parts of SE Asia, when people in Myanmar talk to you, the vast majority of the time it is without an agenda and someone saying “Hi,” and asking “Where are you from?” is not the opening of a sales pitch but just a reflection of their curiosity about who is coming to visit their country. Every where I went – big city or small town – children would regularly run up to me just to say, “Hi.” They would then, just as quickly, say, “Bye,” all while waving their hands furiously and smiling. While this can happen in other places in SE Asia, it is almost always in remote, small villages that don’t get a lot of tourists.

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Travel Tips: Everything You’ve Read Is Wrong

Traveling in Myanmar is more difficult than many other countries in the region. While the trains run on time, they bounce, sway and rock violently and often times give you the feeling they’re about to go off the tracks. I literally had to tie my bags down to keep them from falling off the overhead luggage-rack. At another time, a train I was on crossed over a large bridge so slowly I could have literally walked it faster. Still, it’s a great way to see the vast countryside and some very small villages and towns.

Buses there have very odd schedules. Most long distance buses are overnight, which wouldn’t be such a problem except they will do bizarre things like leave a place at 7 pm only to arrive at your destination around 3 or 4 in the morning. The roads can also be bumpy and very swervey. I personally suggest paying a bit more to get a VIP bus when you can just to get a better ride and better sleep on an overnight trip.

There are also many slow boat options in the country. It can be expensive, but slow boats are a very relaxing and pleasant way to travel. However, the five day slow boat I was planning on taking had been closed to foreigners apparently due to fighting along the river banks. (I was lucky enough to find this out the day before I was going to head out to start that part of my trip.) Similar reports of random places, even by land, closing or reopening were frequent among travelers. Talk to your fellow travelers and always try to find people who have been to a place you want to go to make sure your travel plans are actionable.

Accommodations are not the cheapest in Myanmar. Hotels in Yangon start at 25$ which is a big jump up from the $10 a night you can easily find in the rest of SE Asia. While there are certainly places cheaper than 25$ in other parts of the country, they can be hard to find and are no where near as plentiful as Lonely Planet makes them out to be. I would suggest budgeting 15-20 dollars a night while there for rooms. Some days you’ll be under for sure, but some days you’ll be over. Hotel prices have gone up a lot in just the past two years and will likely continue to move that way. The best way to cut these costs is to find someone to share a room with. Also, with buses arriving at such odd times at night, this can create an extra problem: Some hotels will check you in right away if they have an open room and treat it all as one day. Others will, however, charge you for an extra half day. On the bright side though, every hotel, guest house and hostel offers breakfast but some places’ breakfasts are much better than others.

Another very important area where Lonely Planet is horribly outdated is that it is much easier to get money in Myanmar than it was just a few years ago. ATMs are everywhere and work just fine. You no longer need to bring in mint condition US 100 dollar bills which I broke my back trying to get in Bangkok just before my flight. However, if you do bring US cash, the banks and government exchanges offices give very fair rates and there is no need to go to the black-market anymore like LP suggests.

There also seems to be visas on arrival (VOA). I don’t know any details about this, but I did see a counter for it at the airport and several Westerners standing in line for it. Just Google it. If this is an option, it might be much easier than running back and forth to their embassy and might be cheaper than paying a travel agent to do it.

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Final Thoughts:

While I have no way to prove it, I personally believe that Myanmar is attempting to smartly develop their tourist industry and is trying to avoid becoming like certain other countries in SE Asia. To that end, the high cost of hotels, the complete lack of a party scene ( I averaged going to bed around 10-11 while there) and just the overall level of difficulty in traveling is all aimed at keeping out large numbers of tourists. There were plenty of wealthy tourists traveling or flying around the country to visit the ever-growing number of expensive resorts just like much of SE Asia. But gone were the budget accommodations, booze cruises and pub crawls that are common throughout the region.

Myanmar isn’t for flash packers, gap-year party kids or idiot travelers who can’t bother making any plans for themselves (save the very rich ones). The lack of these things showed in the quality of the travelers I met there. No one was there by accident or by way of lazy curiosity. No one was there because they had heard it was a “good party.” No one was there because it was effortless to get there. People where there with a real interest in seeing the country and the culture. They had detailed plans about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to see. And everyone really seemed grateful to being seeing this country before it gets further along on the path to integrating with the rest of the world.

What A Life – Incredible Tales From The Road

This is a guest post by Samy Amanatullah who has written two other brilliant guest posts for this blog HERE and HERE.

One of the Moustache Brothers

One of the Moustache Brothers of Mandalay

“What a life” was something we’d say when there didn’t seem like anything else to say.

The first time I thought this phrase the way I’d think it for the next few months, I was sitting across from a Thai cowboy. He wasn’t a real cowboy though he wore the hat. Cowboy is the name of his bar.

He sat with his wife, sipping and constantly refilling a glass of whiskey and soda, his wife sometimes going for more ice.

He left home at a young age and found work as a chef for the U.S.army, where he’d learned to speak English and cook western. Decades later, he opened a bar tucked into one of those smaller passageways that fit into the streets of Chang Mai.

It wasn’t the travel or the family or the decades of stories that put a “What a life” under my breath. It was his daily schedule. He woke up, cooked for the kids, opened the bar, closed it when he was tired, got drunk in the in-between. He considered himself a content man.

What a life.

The only other person in there was an old friend of the Cowboy’s—English, old and bald, speaking nonsense. He’d come to the table where we were sitting, try to speak, and be shooed away by Cowboy who was having none of it. He cleaned furniture for a living, and even if the booze hadn’t done him in that night, the decades working with chemicals had mushed his mind. He visited Thailand a few months every year. He didn’t have anyone back home.

What a life. In a different way.

There’s a tendency to be shocked by what you see and also by what you don’t notice anymore. “What a life” was a recurring thought, a response to the incredulous. The kids on the beach who build a bracelet on your wrist on the spot? What a life. The tour guide who points out his house and, without skipping a beat, points out the adjacent killing field where his family died? What a life. The tuk-tuk drivers, men in as many industries as they have fingers—pimps, drug dealers, tour guides, drivers, police informants, whatever else might be paying at the moment; the motobike taxis, who take the tuk-tuk drivers’ ambitions and prop it on a suicidal weave through big city traffic; their counterparts on trishaws, motos, and cyclos. The bar girls, young and thin and glossed with make up, looking for sugar daddies. The old men, fat and pasty and tall, looking for Thai “wives”. The women dressed to find a john. The men dressed as the women. The guys they let screw them and then rob.

What a life.

The old man in the sleepy tourist attraction town in Myanmar whose job it is to unclog my friend’s toilet, whose age suggests he’s lived through not just Cyclone Nargis, the riots and shootings of his country’s recent history, the release and many arrests of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, but also the inception of his country, its partition from India, even World War 2, who walks into my friend’s room, bucket in hand, ready for shit duty, and smiles.

What a life.

The old toothless woman who distills rice moonshine out of a shack and sells it for 50 cents a bottle. The Lebanese painter who describes this jetset “as his life” and then tells me about places I saw as a child and will never go back to. The journalists dancing on the riverside, on a brief vacation laughing, dancing, tripping when a few days ago they were in Egypt when Egypt was ousting its president. Mr. Lao Lao’s son, serving the hard drink on the river, his entire body drawn on with magic marker and dancing around the dock as the water rises, intoxicated foreigners all around him. What a life.

The Mustache Brothers (deserving of a blog post of their own), resigned to house arrest, performing the same show every night, its host smiling on cue, looking tired and weary when the spotlight’s on his brothers, who spent seven years in work camps doing hard labor for telling jokes (“Do you think,” my friend asks later, “that they ever just get the urge to go outside and dig a ditch?”), and the people you see from your bus window as you leave building a new pagoda in a country that uses forced labor and believes that building pagodas can offset bad karma. What a fucking life (apparently to be reincarnated in).

The crap police informants you notice following you, and the better ones you don’t notice. The kids hawking cheap wares and making rational arguments in your language as to why you should buy. The girls learning to balance baskets on their heads by practicing with bricks. The makeshift family that doesn’t sell anything and lives in a shack and plays their music on the beach.

What a life.

There’s the foreigner at a random train station. A volunteer English teacher in small town Thailand, younger than me, who’s almost on his way out, who will next walk the Camino de Santiago and follow that up with Burning Man, who admits that while it’s awesome that he’s based the rest of his year around festivals, what’s seems most important, most exciting is doing things with the people in his life he’s been away from.

And let’s not forget the animals: the monkeys and birds in cages and chains, doing the dance so their owners get money and they get snacks; the stray dogs wandering in packs, begging, roaming the car parks, the sole thing you see against the moon on the streets at night, battling amongst each other for turf, for fun, for a stick; the horses—the poor horses—marching through the heat, carrying at least two fat foreigners and the driver, in some towns the main source of transport and no other way about it but miserable. “What does the horse get out of it?” my friend asks as it steers us towards a semi-famous ruins site. Maybe something at the end. Maybe some sweet, sweet hay.

Then again, as someone suggests after a day spent wandering a village and drinking a tea-whiskey concoction that’s supposed to make us tired and healthy, what about us? What about we who go from place to place without any particular reason, acclimated to the long bus rides, the winding roads, the stenches and bathrooms that will never see porcelain? A little thing I found out was that almost every foreigner I met going through Southeast Asia kept with them sleeping pills for the long bus rides. So much so that in conversation it stopped being a question and became more of an assumption, something you’d compare or share as the novelty of going somewhere else faded into the reality of a bumpy, disorienting ride.

There are people who live in countries of tremendous beauty who have never gone the 50 miles between their home and that incredible beach or mountain because they can’t afford to, and we do it in a single run and we tell them about it and ask questions, and they smile and at least act like they’re happy for us. We who go just because we can, spoiled for travel, eating and drinking whatever and whenever we want, jumping out of planes and onto buses, living lives that are equally strange and infinitely more charmed, doing nothing as people ask, incredulously, as if they don’t understand, if we’re actually just going until we run out of whatever, no phone, no travel insurance, no plan.

What a life.

But, of course, it can’t last, and a little later, I can’t help but ask my friend if, when he returns to the states, he’ll just get the urge to go off and take a 14 hour bus ride. Imagine him seeking out the shittest bathrooms and the worst bus seat and soaking in the smells of being sandwiched between someone throwing up into a bottle on one side and someone spitting betel nut out the window on the other, thinking contently before the sleeping pills kick in that this, indeed, is the life.

Best Places To Visit In Ireland

I love to travel. I love finding cheap flights. I love running away from Ireland. However, at the end of the day, Ireland is my home and I absolutely love it here. Sure, it rains a lot, and we don’t really get a proper summer like most other countries, but when the sun shines there really is no place I would rather be.

From the rugged West coast, to the stunning national parks up North to the long, white sand beaches dotted along the East coast, Ireland has SO much to offer both locals and tourists. In this post, I have asked a handful of brilliant Irish bloggers to write about their favourite places around the country. Here’s what they had to say.

West Clare 

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Suggested by Denise Sweeney

“My favorite place in Ireland is West Clare! From the endless beaches to the Traditional Music to the amazing scenery and many tourist attractions, West Clare has it all! It’s a place that anyone can enjoy,young or old! Its a place filled with happy memories and I always feel nostalgic when I’m there!”

Altamont Gardens, Carlow

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Suggested by Dee Sewell

“My favourite place is Altamont Gardens in County Carlow. From the formal rose walk and herbaceous borders, to the water lily filled lake, boulder strew stream and river walk. Open all year with free entry, garden centre, picnic area and tea rooms, it’s a wonderful place to visit for all ages.”

Galway City

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Suggested by Sean Burke and Amy Loonam

“Galway City for me as it feels like a blend of different cultures with the Spanish arches and tourists from all over the world.”

“I’ve been living here as an art student for 3 years now and it’s my second home,everyone is so friendly, it has such lovely little shops, and it’s just full of music and culture.”

Dunfanaghy, Donegal

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Suggested by Karen Sloane Gribbon

“Dunfanaghy is the diamond in the hills of Donegal. The perfect place for people of all ages. The perfect family haven for us. In the morning, take a dander along the beautiful beach, surf the waves or gallop along the sand dunes on horseback. Then meander through the little tiny square in the afternoon with its dreamy boutiques full of handmade gifts then go have fun in The Workhouse play park. Finish the day crab fishing, then go explore the undiscovered walking trails. Finally top it all off with delicious grub, a tasteful Guinness and a few live tunes.”

Clare Glens, Limerick

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Suggested by Darragh Bourke

“My favourite place in Ireland is the beautiful picturesque Clare glens just outside of Murroe in Co. Limerick. With dozens of waterfalls it makes for a beautiful walk. A fantastic pathway leads you up to a bridge which crosses right by the main falls with a breathtaking trek back down which in parts leaves you standing on the edge of a cliff with nothing preventing a 75ft drop to the Rapids below. Beauty of nature combined with a MAX adrenaline rush.”

Duncannon, Wexford

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Suggested by Sinéad Fox

“20 years after I left my home place of Duncannon on the Hook Peninsula has established itself as my favourite place. I now appreciate the stunning views, the beach, the fresh sea air and the friendly faces in a way my teenage self wouldn’t understand. There’s so much to do in the locality, especially with children and a choice of great places to eat, you should visit!”

Copper Coast, Waterford

Copper Coast

Suggested by Catherine Drea

“I’d have to say the Copper Coast in Waterford. It’s a quiet hidden gem of beaches, wild cliffs and beautiful off the beaten track boreens and I’m lucky enough to live here in the middle of it!”

Dublin

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Suggested by Lorna Garety

“The jewel in the crown has to be my hometown – Dublin. The world’s friendliest city, beautiful architecture, lively cultural scene, deer roaming through one of Europe’s largest city parks, sea and mountains on our doorstep.”

Killaloe, Clare

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Suggested by Margaret Griffin

“My favourite place is Killaloe in Co. Clare on the Shannon and Lough Derg. Cross the bridge and you are in Ballina, Co Tipperary. A foodie paradise on water. Fabulous cafes, restaurants, craft shops, scenery. Absolutely wonderful for a summer weekend or longer.”

Skellig Michael, Kerry

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Suggested by me

“Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to one of the oldest Christian Monastic settlements in the world – founded sometime between the 6th and 8th century. It is also home to a vast range of wildlife, including Puffins, Seagulls and over 50,000 gannets. It is one of the most magical places you will ever set foot on. Not bad for a tiny island off the coast of Kerry!”

Battling Rabies And Hanging Out With A UFO-Abductee

From riding in the back of an ex-army truck across Africa to battling rabies and drinking his own Urine, Irish travel writer and presenter Manchan Magan is not your regular D4 head!

He may have grown up in Donnybrook but he is living a life far removed from the world of Yummy Mummies. He could speak Irish before he could speak English and despite being the great-grandnephew of nationalist “The O Rahilly” he has always felt disconnected from Ireland.

“I never connected with the world I was brought up in and it left me feeling depressed in my teenage years”, he says.

He is talking to me via Skype from New Mexico, where he is currently helping with the Obama Campaign. Never a dull day I would say.

At the young age of 20 he embarked on a trip of a lifetime. He brings me back to a young, innocent Manchan Magan about to begin his first ever adventure; an epic six month trip from London to Nairobi in the back of an ex-army Truck with 18 unlikely adventurers from 2 privately educated schoolgirls to a locksmith who claims to be a UFO-abductee.

Magan holds back nothing when describing some of the hilarious, eccentric, and shady characters he travelled with, which he explains is why he waited nearly 20 years to publish it.

“When I was younger I preferred reading books that were honest so I like to be brutally honest about everything, whether I am writing about the terrible things I did in South America or the terrible things people did to me in Africa”.

On this first trip across the Dark Continent he encountered witch doctors, drug runners and missionaries. He talks about hitching with dessert nomads in Morocco to being stranded in the middle of the Congo with no food and no money. He was looking for some romance and compassion but all he got was an infectious disease.

“When I returned home with Bilharzia, the doctors here had never seen it before and were entranced by he tests”, Manchan recalls.

“The doctors in the tropical medical bureau out in Dun Laoghaire couldn’t hide their excitement. They seemed to forget my life was in their hands! A new cure had just been released and the Irish government was obliged to use me as a guinea pig to try in out and I was cured within days.”

As I listen to Manchan talk about his travels I can’t help but smile. I can immediately sense his passion and love for the places he has been. That is until I get him talking about his years at a student in UCD, where he studied Arts for 3 years.

“I promised my mum I would go back to College so it was only for her. I was disgusted by how little I had learnt in 3 years in UCD compared with everything I had picked up in Africa. It was my travel experience that created me!”

“The trip I enjoyed the most though was my time in Ecuador”, he tells me. As he reached the Valley of Longevity he realises he had reached a place he could call home. Here he settled down for 7 months where he worked at an organic health spa.

“I also had no choice but to stay put as the Doctors there were treating me for Rabies”. Honest as always.

From running a spa in Ecuador to living in a cave and befriending a gay Leper up in the Himalayas, Manchan has had no shortage of diversity in his life. It was here, high up in the mountains, that Magans brother Ruan came to rescue him.

“I was living the life of a Hermit and had lost all communication with the outside world. I had become delirious living on my own Urine so when Ruan came along with the camera it was the only thing I could talk to.” It was from here that Manchan Magan became the renowned travel presenter he is today.

Now a full-time writer, broadcaster and TV presenter he has a travel column in the Irish Times, regular slots on RTE radio and has made over 50 documentaries worldwide. Yet Magan says he is sticking to his Idealistic ways. He lives in a house made entirely of straw surrounded by his self planted forest in Co. Westmeath.

“I got the idea when I was living out in British Colombia for a few years. I needed to find what I connected with in life and ended up living in a hippie commune where everything was environmentally sustainable.”

I ask him his plans for the future, and he tells me he plans on following his heart…right back to Africa, where all this madness began over 20 years ago. Another crazy adventure awaits for Manchan Magan.