Parting Thoughts from Two Weeks in London

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Millennium Bridge with view of St. Paul’s Cathedral

We finished our two week visit in London and while it is not the way we normally travel we did learn a lot and had a great overview of the city. First up is a very quick snapshot of some of the places we visited in the second week and then some overall thoughts on our London experience.

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London Eye

We took a couple days off in between sightseeing to recharge and rest our feet, but we did go to visit Emirates Stadium (home of Arsenal Football Club), the Globe Theatre, Windsor Castle, Harrod’s of London, the British Museum and we walked the Millennium Bridge.

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Player’s Tunnel at Emirates Stadium

We loved the tour of Emirates Stadium and had a lot of fun walking around behind the scenes in the Director’s Club, the media areas, the team lockers, the tunnel and Anne even got to sit in the manager’s seat. Cool!

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Windsor Castle and one of the gardens

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Windsor Castle from a downtown park

Windsor Castle was overwhelming, both the structure itself as well as the remarkable collection of art, furniture, weaponry and other artifacts on display. Windsor was a quaint and interesting town but the overall touristy theme complete with high end boutiques, souvenir shops and McDonald’s didn’t work that well for us. We did enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch by the Thames which was great.

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The Assyrian Exhibit – unbelievable reliefs!

The British Museum surpassed our expectations. Our downfall was spending over two hours in the first exhibit. It was massive and incredible. The Egyptian Afterlife exhibit also captivated us but it was very busy and there were far too many people crammed into the gallery. We were there on a weekend so perhaps a weekday would be better. We will definitely need to return!

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Lady Diana and Dodi’s memorial at Harrods of London

One of the things we wanted to do while in London was to see a West End show. Our London Passes offered good discounts on some of the longer running productions, so we chose to see Stomp at the Ambassadors Theatre. It was a very entertaining and lively production and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Outside the Ambassadors Theatre waiting for the afternoon show to start

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Inside Ambassadors Theatre was wonderfully ornate with velvet seats

We had purchased two 10 day London Passes before leaving. We knew that we wanted to take this opportunity to see as much of the city and its attractions as we could and this seemed like a good way to do it. They are not cheap but you do have the opportunity for considerable savings.

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The main media room of Emirates Stadium

The biggest drawback we found was that they need to be used on consecutive days. Once they are activated the clock starts ticking. Ideally we would liked to have had 6 or 7 days to use throughout our two week stay. In the end we did save approximately $100 CAD but in fact we found that we were going too much and would have preferred to take things at our normal pace. So yes, a good choice for first time visitors but once is enough.

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Leicester Square

You absolutely need an Oyster card for getting around the city. You can buy one online ahead of time or at thousands of kiosks and shops around the city for just £5 . We found getting around London to be quite efficient, but it was very crowded, hot and stuffy at times on the Tube. We used the buses a lot and found them excellent – it just takes a little longer but you get to see parts of the city you wouldn’t see using the Tube. The biggest challenge we found with buses was finding the stop going in our direction, particularly on busy or one way streets. All the routes are online so we would map out how to get where we were going ahead of time. It was always an adventure!

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In front of Buckingham Palace at the Changing of the Guard – we just arrived!

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Changing of the Guard escorts waiting for the march down “The Mall”

Big surprise! There are a lot of people in London. Even though you think you are prepared for the press of people, the sheer numbers can at times be overwhelming. The combination of Londoners and tourists at rush hour, at the markets, on the Tube or jostling to the stations and the tourist attractions requires patience, perseverance and a little bit of passive aggression at times.

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Low tide on the Thames – Looking for pieces of pipes and other bits on the foreshore

It is certainly easy to try and do too much. We probably did and felt like we needed some down time in between. Most days our feet and legs were sore at the end of the day – but no blisters!

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We had a wonderful lunch in Chinatown

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The “Old Guard”marching into Wellington Barracks

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Leicester Square – setting up for premier of the new Ron Howard Beatles movie

The cultural diversity of London is amazing and it is reflected as you walk the streets and hear the myriad of languages commonly used, peruse the shops and smell the aromas coming from the markets, restaurants and food stalls which can be found in many areas. The diversity of activities is just as broad and you could spend weeks and never repeat the same experience.

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St. James’s Park with Buckingham Palace in background

We loved the parks and green spaces that can be found in almost any area. Not being used to city living, we found ourselves drawn to the greenery, the bird life, the relative quiet and just the general respite from the bedlam and tourists. St. James’s Park in particular was very welcoming even though it is a stones throw from Buckingham Palace. With the pelicans swimming past and small flocks of parakeets overhead (yes parakeets) we almost felt we were in Costa Rica again – not!

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White pelicans in St. James’s Park

We did miss the friendly good mornings and even smiles while we were in London. For the most part if you meet someone on the street and say good morning or hello you will get blank or even hostile looks thrown back at you. On a more positive note all of the staff we interacted with at the Tube stations, tourist attractions and most of the shopkeepers were very cheerful and helpful.

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Shared back yard of our Airbnb apartment

Overall this was a wonderful experience and we don’t regret anything. We could have chosen a 6 day London Pass instead of the 10 day as our bodies were tired after about 6 hours of walking and exploring. We really enjoyed Leicester Square and Soho and would have liked to explore longer and see more shows. We were totally pleased with our Airbnb apartment and as always we love the freedom and the feeling of having a “home” that an apartment brings when we are in a place for an extended period of time. The next time we return to London we will feel more at ease and will start to delve a little bit deeper into its many charms.

 

 

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On the Tourist Trail in London

We have been in London for almost two weeks now, and are still very much in the “we can’t believe we are here and doing this” stage. As we mentioned in an earlier post we purchased the 10-day London Passes and decided we would be tourists for this two week period. Through this post, and the next, we will give you an overview of some of the sights we visited and our own impressions and reactions.

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The flight “across the pond” was uneventful but tiring. We left St. John’s, Newfoundland at midnight and 4.5 hours later landed at Gatwick Airport. We had our train route picked out ahead of time and were able to catch a Thameslink train to London Bridge Station, and from there it was an easy bus ride to get us close to our apartment. We arrived around lunch time and immediately knew we were going to be happy in the cozy lower flat of a Victorian terrace home in Stoke Newington.

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After an initial day of getting groceries, finding our way around the neighborhood and some relaxation we were ready to start exploring. But where to begin? One of the positive aspects of the London Pass is that it gives you free access to over 60 popular attractions. Of course you then have to decide which ones are right for you and once it is activated the 10 days have to be used consecutively.

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View from the walkway of Tower Bridge

We decided to make it easy on ourselves and start with the ones that  were easily accessible by bus. Using the essential Oyster Card we could get on any bus, underground or train within the city limits. Of course the farther from the city center you travel the more expensive the fares are. The following are some of the attractions we were able to visit free of charge.

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The Monument to the Great Fire of London was completed in 1677 and designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The 311 steps of the spiral staircase certainly tested our legs first thing in the morning, but the views were very impressive and a great way to see Central London.

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Southwark Cathedral is London’s oldest Gothic building, the main structure being built between 1220 and 1420. One of the fascinating aspects of London is the juxtaposition of medieval and modern structures. Just a few blocks away stands The Shard which is the tallest building in Europe. The Borough Market next to Southwark has a good variety of international street food at fairly reasonable prices.

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The London Bridge Experience is billed as one of the scariest attractions in the city. While it was well done, and quite informative, we would have been disappointed if we had to pay the full £27 admission fee.

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One of our favorites so far was a visit to the HMS Belfast. This World War II warship is an iconic piece of Bankside and should be a part of your visit if you have an interest in naval or nautical history. We found it to be entertaining, educational and very well interpreted.

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One of the most famous bridges in the world, the Tower Bridge is a wonderful example of a combined bascule and suspension bridge. The story of the bridge, which was completed in 1894 is told through an interpretive exhibition in one of the towers. A recent addition are glass floors in the walkways between the towers. We couldn’t help ourselves but to join the countless tourists in posing beneath the mirrors or photographing ourselves above the river and street traffic many feet below.

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City Cruises is one of several Thames cruise and ferry operators between Central London and Greenwich. A full day pass is included with the London Pass so we opted to visit Greenwich which holds several treasures, especially for nautical enthusiasts. The ensemble of buildings and parks form Maritime Greenwich, a well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and the Queen’s House form the Royal Museums Greenwich, and are each fascinating in their own right but it is the feeling of living history you get that captivates you.

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The critical role that Greenwich played in British (and world) maritime history can be felt and seen as you wander through Greenwich. The views are exceptional across the museum, Queen’s House and the Old Royal Naval College with the modern skyline of London as a backdrop.

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Particularly emotional for us was the Nelson display in the Maritime Museum which includes the uniform he was wearing at the fateful but ultimately victorious Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. You can see the small hole in his uniform in the top left shoulder where the bullet entered piercing his lungs and lodging in his spine.

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The voyage between Central London and Greenwich is equally as educational. Narrated by staff you learn some of the fascinating history of the pubs, wharves, docks and other structures along the riverfront. A popular example is the Captain Kidd pub which is named for the notorious pirate who was executed nearby on the gallows of Execution Dock.

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We could not come to England and London without doing our utmost to see a proper football match. We are big fans of the Premier League, however tickets for matches are extremely hard to obtain, unless you are a member or buy an expensive travel package. So we were extremely lucky to get tickets to a Championship League fixture between Queens Park Rangers and Blackburn Rovers.

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As we walked down the street approaching Loftus Road Stadium we were pinching ourselves and asking again “are we really here?” The obvious pride and enthusiasm we observed in the Londoners going to a match was infectious. This may have been a regular event for them, but for us it was huge!

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We had excellent seats, just a few rows from the pitch where we could hear the players calling to one another, the calls of encouragement or derision from the supporters around us and see the expression on the referee’s face as he made his calls.

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To try and sum up how we are feeling now, over a week into our new life it really still is amazement, excitement and thankfulness. We know already that we do not like the life of tourists and it is not what we have chosen over the long term. We are much more comfortable with taking our time, exploring local neighborhoods, meeting strangers and doing occasional day trips.

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We have been enjoying London however and are amazed by the cultural diversity represented here, the ease of access to transportation and believe it or not by the great weather we have had! We’ll summarize our London experience in the next post and thank you for following along with us.

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Next Stop London

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We are down to the final few days now and all that can be done has been done. Our bags are ready (a backpack and small suitcase each!), we have airline and train tickets bought, London Passes in hand, and our hotels and apartments are booked through until the end of March 2017. The house is empty, our car has been sold, the seemingly endless paperwork is looked after, and many goodbyes have been said. We are more than ready to begin….

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House Rented – Car Sold!

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5″x 10″ Storage Locker with U-Haul

Looking back at our time in Costa Rica we can clearly see now that it was only a trial run. It was a most enjoyable three months in many ways, however it was not the wholehearted change we are embarking on now. We still had a house and car to come back to and it was easy to tell everyone we would see them in three months – it didn’t seem real.

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View of Lake Arenal, Costa Rica (2016)

As our departure date nears (Sept 4th) and our anticipation builds one of our major conversations has centered around the question of “what is our purpose for doing this?” In the end we decided that it doesn’t matter all that much. We know we need to do this, we know we want to explore and we know we want to open ourselves to new ideas and experiences, so for the time being that is enough. We are thrilled to have this opportunity and we recognize what a wonderful blessing it is! Where we will be and how we will feel about it all a few years from now – we have no idea – and that is totally fine.

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We have also been busy streamlining our site to make it easier to navigate and we have created a Welcome page introducing what features are available and how they work. The content pages now use a drop down menu to access information specific to a destination. We hope that our changes provide a faster and easier way to sort through all our information. As always, we would love to hear from you and welcome any comments below.

Next stop – London for two weeks of sightseeing!

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View from London Eye (2009)

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Tower Bridge (2009)

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Travel Tips: Simple European Train Booking

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Other than a short trip through Hamburg for Tim’s work, our only experience with European train travel was using a BritRail Pass in 2009. It was a great experience and we enjoyed the freedom of having the pass for our trip from London to Scotland. We were able to travel north to Edinburgh and return from Glasgow and incorporate stops along the way.

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For our upcoming trip from London to Lisbon we will be traveling through four countries and utilizing various rail systems. We also wanted to travel during the day to maximize the amount of time we would have to see the countryside of western France and Spain. Where to begin? After searching through many pages we realized that everything we needed was there for us at The Man in Seat Sixty-One. The wealth of information is amazing, but beware, as you can easily get distracted as you plan hundreds of amazing itineraries.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

After looking through the material we found an itinerary that was just what we were looking for. We chose to take a longer and slightly more expensive four day journey from London to Lisbon via Paris, Irun, Vigo and Porto. The site laid out which trains to take, which stations they use, time for each leg and the estimated cost.

So the next question was how (and when) to book the tickets as the trip involved four different systems: Eurostar, TGF, Renfe and Portuguese Regional trains. We utilized Loco2 which is a British site that allows tickets to be purchased from Canada or almost anywhere you happen to be. One thing we hadn’t realized when we started researching was that most all of the European trains operate similar to airline style in that seats go on sale up to 3 months in advance and prices rise the closer you get to the departure date.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Once we had decided on the route we wanted and the dates, selection of our tickets was very straightforward on the site. You can view your seat selection (predetermined) at the time of booking. Some systems allow print at home ticketing while others require you to pick them up at the station using a reservation number. We were even able to purchase tickets on the the same transaction for the local British trains from London to Swindon where we will be house sitting.

We will let you know in October how we make out using the rail system itself, but for now we are very pleased with the ease in which we were able to research and purchase tickets. We are also trying out Tripit which collects all of our travel arrangements, reservations and information in one place with a handy app to use on the go. It is amazing how much technology can enable us to do once we take the opportunity to learn how to use it. We can’t imagine living this lifestyle without access to the tools that are currently available online.

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Unfinished Business: Back in Nova Scotia

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Wolfville, Nova Scotia

We have been back in Nova Scotia for a month now and it has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride since we left the sunny beaches of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. We accomplished everything we had hoped for and more during our first extended trip.

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Playa Coco, Costa Rica, April 2016

We had promised ourselves that when we returned to Nova Scotia we would try to maintain the same feelings of optimism, relaxation, exploration and adventure that worked so well for us over the past three months. Things didn’t work out quite as we thought. Here we were in mid-July, the weather was very cool and damp and we were in the same house with our old routines and absolutely no interest even for a house showing. This left us to wonder if we were even going to be able to rent it before we left in September. We were starting to experience some of the same concerns and anxieties we experienced back in March.

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Back garden of our house

We took a deep breath and started to process it all again, but in a lighter way. There were plenty of routine things to keep us busy and the weather was excellent once the first week of chilly days passed. We had visits with family and tried to focus on the all of the positive aspects of the past three months and the excitement of our upcoming adventures, but little setbacks kept creeping in.

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View from the Look-off near Canning, Nova Scotia

We couldn’t sell our house and had to try the rental approach. Some disappointments in that process also added to the reality of how much was out of our control when it comes to dealing with the housing market.

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Across the Grand Pre dykelands to Cape Blomidon, Nova Scotia

We also learned we are going to have to get used to the fact that not everyone is as excited or as free of responsibilities as we are. We have accepted the feeling of being outsiders in many ways as we set off on our travels. Other long term travelers have shared that they have experienced similar reactions. We are okay with this and will make everything work. We may never get this chance again and we want to make the best of this opportunity we have created!

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Taken from the London Eye while on our 2 day visit in 2009

However has been a lot of fun making the final preparations for our European fall. With the money we save by house sitting for a month we decided to treat ourselves to two weeks in London. We were there for two nights in 2009 and liked what we saw. We have rented an apartment and purchased a London Pass and Oyster card to become the ultimate tourists. We’ll let you know how they work out but they do seem like a great way to see many of London’s top attractions at somewhat reasonable cost.

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London Tower Bridge 2009

We also have our train tickets for the trip to Portugal in October. We set out to be aimless nomads but we already have apartments booked in Lisbon and Lagos, Portugal as well as a cabina in Ecuador for the winter. Perhaps we aren’t quite as aimless as we thought, but we certainly allow random ideas and inspirations to take over our planning. We have also found that in order to get rentals within our budget we have to book early or when opportunities present themselves.

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Habitant River near our house in Habitant, Nova Scotia

In the last few days things have turned around and we have a renewed sense of excitement. The biggest step forward is that we have secured a long term arrangement for our house. So when we leave for London we will truly begin our nomadic lifestyle and won’t look back.

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Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with our Son, Erik and Tim’s Sister, Jennifer

The weather has been absolutely perfect for the past three weeks, our blueberries are ripening and we have spent some enjoyable time with friends and family. By being back here for the past month we have learned that it is easy to slip back into the familiar routine that we had been in for the past 10 years and that isn’t at all what we want. Our time in Costa Rica gave us a brief glimpse at what we have created through our years of planning so now we want to see it through!

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Yummy!

So we say farewell to Nova Scotia with fond memories and open ourselves to an amazing adventure ahead of us when we leave on September 4th. Unlike our time in Costa Rica, which was primarily for relaxation and contemplation, the next few months will be new territory for us. We expect to be challenged, educated and amazed with our new lifestyle.

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The sky is our limit….

We really appreciate that you have followed along so far and hope you will enjoy our stories. We will continue to provide practical information on the areas we visit and express how we feel about our homes along the way and our new lifestyle. We would love to hear from you! Please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on what we are doing or experiences any of you have had from embarking on the same path.

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Parting Thoughts – Three Months in Costa Rica

It is hard to believe that we have come to the end of the first leg of our adventure. We have a much better tan, have lost a few pounds, shed a lot of emotional baggage and have accumulated innumerable fond memories from our time in Costa Rica. We are only beginning to come to terms with what it means to adopt a nomadic lifestyle but so far it has exceeded our expectations.

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We chose Costa Rica as our first stop as we wanted an opportunity to relax as well as ease into our new life. It is a country we love to visit and generally knew what to expect. What we didn’t know was how we would respond to being on the road for an extended period.

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Our condo complex in Playas del Coco

It was easy to settle into our condo at Playas del Coco and we were very happy with it throughout our stay. There was plenty of space for us, a nice pool on site, WiFi coverage was decent and it was a short walk to the beach and a small supermarket. Probably the aspect that took the most time to adapt to was the lack of privacy that living in a small enclosed complex like this affords. In the future we are going to be spending more time in apartments and other close quarters so we will get used to it.

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We were there in the shoulder season so rent was affordable. Water, internet and cell costs were also very reasonable. Electricity is expensive so that was our largest utility cost. Food prices tend to be expensive so you have to be careful what you buy and where. There are some good options like trucks selling fruit, vegetables and eggs, sale days at the local grocery stores and farmer’s markets (ferias) where they are available. Anything imported is very expensive so this is another good reason to eat local and fresh. To have a look at our monthly expense summary you can check out our Money Matters page.

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One of the aspects of staying in one place that we particularly enjoyed was being able to settle into a routine. Watching school children head to school every day, seeing the changes in the vegetation as the seasons change, saying hello and practicing Spanish with the staff at the local supermarket and experiencing a different scene on the beach every day were just some of the simple pleasures we were able to experience as a result of having time.

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We observed as every day a pair of white-winged doves constructed a nest on our roof, putting it together one blade of grass at a time.

After a week of rain around the first of June there were literally dozens of baby iguanas and lizards all around the yard and pool. We were able to watch them grow and laughed as they ate the fresh flowers around our patio each morning.

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During our stay we did use the opportunity for some great road trips, exploration and a chance to visit more of this diverse and beautiful country. We rented a car for two extended trips and in both cases we were very pleased with the quality of service and price we received.  For our trip to Monteverde we used a reasonably priced local shuttle service. There are many ways to get around and we would recommend taking the opportunity to visit as many places as you can.

We have noted most of the major areas for birding that we visited on this trip on our Birding Along the Way page. Undoubtedly the Monteverde cloud forests were a highlight for us and we were fortunate to see several life sightings including our first resplendent quetzals. The coastal areas also provided many interesting sightings.

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White Ibis

Throughout our stay, as in previous visits we were treated with respect, kindness, openness and friendship from nearly everyone we met. At the risk of offending others, we found the people of Monteverde to be especially gracious and welcoming with a sense of pride and entrepreneurship that was a delight to experience.

So will we return to Costa Rica? A definite yes, but it may  be a while. There are so many positive aspects to this relatively small country. Its biodiversity and beauty are undeniable while the friendliness of its people, the relatively good infrastructure and accessibility all make it an attractive destination for a short term visit but also a potential long term option.

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However, Costa Rica is not as cheap as it used to be. Prices for accommodation, essentials and services have risen quite dramatically in the past few years. While this places a strain on visitor’s wallets, it has a serious impact on Ticos who for the most part have to pay the same increased prices we do, and generally on a much lower wage. As tourism continues to expand, infrastructure must be put in place to accommodate the millions of visitors and funding must come from somewhere.

As with anywhere that tourism is a major industry there can be significant divides between the local communities and their visitors. In many instances Costa Rica has done an excellent job in setting aside large areas of land and marine spaces for conservation, encouraging local ownership and entrepreneurship and fostering a pride in its beauty, culture and diversity.

For our tastes we enjoy the smaller mountain and coastal towns and tend to avoid the larger areas such as San Jose and its surrounding areas, Tamarindo and Jaco. But that is just our preference and many others have found what they have been looking for in these larger towns an cities which do provide more services.

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In summary we reconfirmed that we love warm weather, a relaxed and friendly lifestyle and rich biodiversity. We also reconfirmed that we are entirely comfortable in spending our time together. By the end of our three months we felt fulfilled with what we had experienced and learned, but we also recognized that we there are still many aspects of a nomadic life that we need to get better at. Packing lighter (no surprise), better use of technology and adapting to less privacy are at the top of our list for improvements.

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Perhaps more than anything we realized that we love this lifestyle and are so thankful and excited to be able to have this opportunity. Thank you all for travelling along with us, and we hope you join us on our next adventure – we are off to Europe!

 

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Walking in the Clouds – Monteverde Part III

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The technical definition of a cloud forest is not universally agreed upon but in general terms it refers to tropical or subtropical mountainous regions where conditions allow for consistent cloud cover. This causes significant moisture to condense on the canopy which in turns drips to the plants below. These important ecosystems occupy approximately 1% of the earth’s surface and are home to an immense diversity of unique flora and fauna, many species of which can be found nowhere else.

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The Monteverde area is one location where cloud forests thrive, and provide some of the best opportunities to experience these productive ecosystems firsthand. There are currently four reserves in the area which have various levels of protection. The Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves are the most well known but there are also the private Curi-Cancha Reserve and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in the area which are well worth exploring.

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For our first hike we chose the Curi-Cancha Reserve ($14 USD entrance fee) which is lesser known, but it contains a mix of primary and secondary forests in the lower reaches, which allows for good viewpoints.

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As you venture further into the reserve you encounter mainly primary forest and gradually reach slightly higher altitudes.

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We had chosen to hire a local professional guide for our first hike and we would recommend this whenever you can. All of the guides we have encountered in Costa Rica have been knowledgeable, professional and extremely proud of the biodiversity of their country. Rafael was no exception and we would have missed so much without him.

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As you are walking through the forest there are many sounds and to the untrained ear most are indistinguishable. We have done quite a bit of birding but when we are in a new area are still unable to determine the species we are hearing. Additionally, trained guides like Rafael are able to imitate almost every bird and animal sound in the forest which can draw them close out of curiosity or to see who is encroaching on their territory.

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One of the birds we were interested in seeing was a resplendent quetzal which is one of the reasons many people travel to Monteverde. We heard one off in the distance, but even after repeated calling Rafael was not able to get us close to it. We did see several three-wattled bellbirds whose distinctive appearance and call are unmistakable. This species has the loudest call of any on earth and can be heard for over a kilometer.

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Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We spent about 4 hours on the trails of the reserve and with Rafael’s assistance we were able to identify over 40 species of birds of which nearly half were life time sightings for us. Of equal enjoyment was the great exercise in a wondrous natural setting and all that we learned of the cloud forests from Rafael. We arrived back at the parking lot just as the rain began.

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For our next hike we chose the Monteverde Cloud Biological Forest Reserve ($20 USD entrance fee) and decided to do the hike without a guide. We wanted to take our time, explore the trails and we were comfortable enough to at least hear and spot the birds and animals along the way. As well, we wanted to use the opportunity to stand astride to Continental Divide which runs through this reserve. If we were fortunate enough to spot a quetzal then that would be an added bonus.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Since we weren’t going to be with a guide we gathered as much information as we could at the main entrance. As it turned out there was a quetzal nesting area just 100 m from the entrance and we headed there straight away. We were treated to the unforgettable sight of both a male and a female feeding a young chick in a nesting box. It was a remarkable experience and one that will always remain with us. Unfortunately the sun was directly behind them so we weren’t able to get any shots as spectacular as the one we featured above.

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We set out on the 2 km long Sendero Bosque Nubosa trail that gradually winds upwards through some magnificent vegetation with very scenic viewpoints. We met few people along the way and the scents, sounds and visual features of the forest placed us in a very primeval setting, far away from the modern world.

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At the end of the trail we took another short path further upwards to La Ventana look-off which is astride the Continental Divide. From this panoramic viewpoint at an elevation of around 1280 m you are able to look across both the Caribbean and Pacific slopes. The vegetation is remarkably different at this point with stunted trees and forests sculpted by the winds giving way to the giants of the cloud forests below.

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The trail system within the park is very well marked and maintained. Given the amount of rain within the reserve it is obvious that a lot of care and attention has been given to keep the surfaces reasonably dry, even and very easy for walking. As we gradually descended along a different route the feeling of being in a different time remained with us until we arrived back at the entrance.

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During our time in the reserve we identified 15 different species of birds, including 5 life time species. Compared with the number of species identified with a guide, this is quite low, however we felt that we did not miss too many and were able to spend as much time relaxing along the way as we wanted to.

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There is a very reasonably priced ($1.50 USD) bus service to and from the reserve which we took back into town in the early afternoon rain. While we were waiting we took the time to go across the street from the entrance to a fabulous hummingbird feeding area which is free of charge. There were at least 50+ hummingbirds there and if you stood still around the feeders you could actually feel them buzzing by your head. Their colours are exquisite and we could have spent hours there!

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We were very satisfied with both of our cloud forests hikes and they solidified for us the main reason for visiting Monteverde area. The unique flora and fauna, the spectacular habitats and vistas all combine with the friendly and proud residents of the cloud forests to create an experience like nowhere else in this country with so many memorable areas. We’re already looking forward to another visit in the future.

 

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Our Home in the Clouds – Monteverde Part II

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Carlos’ version of Gallo Pinto – Excellent!

After some searching online we decided that Casa Batsu looked like an ideal choice for our 5 night getaway in Monteverde. We certainly chose wisely as not only was this Bed & Breakfast cozy and charming, but the couple who runs it welcomed us as family. Carlos was a very thoughtful and gracious host and provided us with excellent food, a wealth of information and one of the best margaritas we have ever had!

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The intimate B&B is built on the old family farm and we enjoyed the friendly relaxed atmosphere, great food, comfortable gardens and some interesting trails down to a couple of small coffee plantations.

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We always appreciate gardens and trails as we are happy to spend early mornings searching out resident birds and exploring our new surroundings.

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Our first morning we were welcomed by hummingbirds, tanagers, wrens, motmots and even an emerald toucanet.

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Almost a perfect shot

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On the “Sunset Trail” – Not while we were there.

We could tell as soon as we arrived that careful attention has been paid to the layout of the common areas and the grounds and that cleanliness was an important aspect of the service. The three guest rooms were spacious, tastefully decorated and very comfortable.

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Breakfast each morning was a visual as well as a gastronomic treat. Fresh coffee and carefully prepared fruit were the starters and this was always accompanied by a variety of freshly made local juice and a blackberry smoothie. This was followed by a hot portion that varied every morning and was always delicious!

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Another great aspect of the service provided at Casa Batsu is the personalized attention that Carlos pays to his customers. In first talking with him on the phone he quickly established what type of experience we were looking for and had a wealth of ideas and connections for us. An added convenience is that he will make your arrangements with local guides, tour companies and even the shuttles, and include it in your one final bill. This saved having to carry large amounts of cash everywhere.

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At a cost of between $80 and $100 USD per night it falls in the middle of accommodation prices in the area, but the atmosphere, personal attention and great food make the price very reasonable. We especially enjoyed Carlos’ intriguing stories, helpful advice and infectious sense of humor. We will keep in touch with him and Paula and will definitely be going back in the future for a visit and are sure we will be welcomed as friends.

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A Community in the Clouds – Monteverde Part I

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This is Part I of three posts about our recent visit to Monteverde, Costa Rica from May 31 – June 4.

We have visited Costa Rica several times but until now had never been to Monteverde. While the actual community of Monteverde is quite small and consists of about 500 residents, the larger surrounding area is generally referred to as Monteverde and includes the town of Santa Elena with a population of around 6500.

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The present-day town of Monteverde was founded in 1951 by Quakers from Alabama, USA. They chose the area for its cool climate which was suitable for dairy farming, friendly local population and Costa Rica’s abolition of its army in 1948.

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While the influence of the Quakers remains strong, Monteverde has developed into a major ecotourism destination based in great part on the strength of decades of conservation and protection of the unique cloud forests of the area.

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Getting to Monteverde is part of the adventure and can be done in a number of ways. From our base in Playas del Coco we chose to use one of the many shuttle services available throughout the country. The cost was $49 USD per person each way for the approximately 3.5 hour drive. The last hour from the main highway is about an hour uphill and offers dramatic views of the valleys and all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya. The road is often quite rough and is only partially paved so be prepared for a few bumps and watch those curves!

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We arrived in the dark and the rain around 6:30 but we immediately felt at home at Casa Batsu, which we had chosen for our stay in Monteverde. We absolutely loved it there and have decided to do a full post on it (Part II), which we will publish soon.

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As soon as you arrive in Monteverde you can sense this is a special place. Everyone we met from the cab drivers to restaurant staff to local guides were all anxious to greet us with smiles and to fill our heads with facts and information about their community and the cloud forests of which they are so proud. The street signs, sidewalks and local shops all speak to a different approach to tourism, one that from what we could see is based more on mutual respect and cooperation than we have encountered in many other places.

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A great example of this hospitality was Heyner, the co-owner of the Choco Cafe, a great little coffee shop, restaurant and gift shop combination in Santa Elena. He was busy roasting fresh coffee beans when we were there but he took the time to explain the whole process and gave us some great tips for roasting and grinding coffee. We ate a great lunch there with excellent coffee and in the end bought several bars of delicious dark chocolate which we are still enjoying!

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You may be wondering why we haven’t been raving about the cloud forests and the wonderful birding in Monteverde. Well, we were going to try and cram everything into one post but it very quickly became obvious that we would miss something and the experience of hiking and birding in the cloud forests deserve a separate post (Part III).

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The mornings were our favorite time of the day as the sun rose in a relatively clear sky and the air was fresh from the rains of the previous day. Temperatures were very pleasant and we could have actually used a long-sleeved shirt for the evenings as it was quite damp and cool. It was a far cry from the hot dry weather we had been used to back at Playas del Coco. As the mornings wore on clouds would begin to form which created ever changing landscapes and vistas.

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For the 5 days that we were there the rain was quite predictable and began near lunch, sometimes accompanied by violent thunder and lightening, often extremely heavy and it would generally start to taper off towards the end of the afternoon.

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We particularly enjoyed a typical casado for lunch one day at this small soda located in the basement of the local craft cooperative. We had just finished a 4 hour walk through one of the reserves so we were especially hungry. Most of the sodas serve freshly made juice with your meal.

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There are a large variety of attractions, accommodations and restaurants in Monteverde and we just scratched the surface during our stay. We chose to take our time and limit the attractions we visited; instead taking the time to meet as many people as we could and soak up (quite literally at times) the experience. We did do two wonderful hikes and added many bird species to our life list which we will talk about separately, but it was the overall atmosphere of the area that lingers and will remain with us. This is formed by a unique blend of the beautiful natural setting as well as the hospitality and positive attitude of the  people who call Monteverde home. We are not quite sure why it took us so long to visit, but we are certain we will be returning.

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A Magical “Mystic” Tour on The Southern Gulf of Papagayo

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At 7:30 on May 15 we walked down the beach to the main beach area of Playas del Coco to catch a boat. It was a sunny day with a light onshore breeze and the temperature was already nearing 30 degrees. We were headed out for what turned into a terrific day with Marcy, the skipper of the “Silver Bullet” who owns and operates Mystic Rides. This was also the last day that Erik and Keegan were with us before they headed back to Nova Scotia.

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After wading into the warm surf and climbing aboard, we headed out into the southern Gulf of Papagayo past the impressive looking villas which dot the hills and cliffs around Playas Hermosa and Panama just north of El Coco.

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It was a perfect day to be on the water and we were all soon enjoying ourselves immeasurably. As we settled in and got to know Marcy better it became apparent that he was an experienced and professional mariner, knew how to relate to his guests very well and took  great pride in his boat and his surroundings. In is own words he has the greatest job in the world being able to support his family doing what he loves in this dramatic and idyllic setting.

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As we steamed towards Culebra Bay to the north we experienced some of the fascinating marine life that abounds in these waters. In addition to the bird life we were treated to flying fish off the bow, dolphins chasing fish in the tidal currents off the points, stingrays jumping completely out of the water and we were lucky enough to spot an olive ridley turtle on the surface. We didn’t approach too closely but were able to get a good view before it dove.

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This isn’t the best time of year for fishing along this coast but we trolled for a while as we headed toward the first beach of the day. Erik pulled in a small skipjack (black) tuna which we released and then Keegan reeled in a larger one which we kept to try for supper. Skipjack tuna is not highly regarded by many as it has a strong flavour and needs to be bled quickly when caught, but following Marcy’s preparation advice we found it quite tasty. A few other boats were fishing the offshore ledges but didn’t appear to be catching much.

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We gradually drew closer to our first beach destination. It was a small, isolated white sand beach that offered a large rocky outcrop good for snorkeling. The tide was a bit high when we arrived but we did see a few fish all the while being observed carefully by another turtle. The calm water provided a perfect opportunity to try our hand at stand up paddle boarding (SUP). Marcy’s board was a shorter one used for riding surf as well, so we will use that excuse as to why it took a few attempts to get it right!

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As we snacked on chips and a great dip, washed down with cold Imperials (Costa Rica’s national beer) we headed out of Culebra Bay, past the upscale Four Seasons Papagayo Resort and some very expensive rental and private homes towards our next private beach. Apparently Michael Jordan has a home here.

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The snorkeling here was excellent. At one end of the small secluded cove was a large reef which was home to a great variety of fish and at least one sea snake. It was a remarkable experience to have these beautiful, pristine coves and beaches to  ourselves. The water in this area is very warm and sparkling clear.

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You can easily tell how relaxed, content and happy we all were to be in that place at that moment in time!

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Our last destination was Playa de Huevo named for its egg shaped crescent of fine white sand. We didn’t have this one to ourselves as there was a dive party having lunch when we arrived. They had a table set up on the beach with a couple of hungry coatis (raccoon-like mammals with a long snout) sniffing around and black vultures perched overhead.

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Anchoring just offshore we were able to explore the beach which had a great little sea cave, climb the cliff for a breathtaking view and relax in the warm water while letting a gentle swell bob us gently off the boat. Cold watermelon was the perfect refreshment after the hot sun and salty water.

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Reluctantly we helped pull in the anchor and headed back towards Playas del Coco. We have been on several boat tours in Costa Rica and the Caribbean but we agreed that this was one the most enjoyable we have experienced. We much prefer a small personalized trip over the larger tours that often have too many people, loud music, too much booze and usually charge much more. They can be fun if that’s what you are looking for but this way works better for us. Our hats off to Marcy for giving us a fun and memorable morning. He will customize a tour for your own interests whether that may be surfing, snorkeling, fishing  or just having a chill time. At the cost of $60 USD each we were more than satisfied with the memories we created.

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Thanks for stopping by and we’ll see where our next adventure takes us!

Tim & Anne (with guest appearances by Erik, Keegan and Marcy)

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