Destinations

Suchitoto, a sleepy but picturesque mountain town

Suchitoto, a sleepy but picturesque mountain town

When I had booked my ticket to San Salvador, I started looking into where I’d like to go in El Salvador. One town that kept popping up was Suchitoto, which looked absolutely dreamy in the photos. The white, colonial buildings and the tranquil location right next to the big Suchitlán lake looked very promising for a place to spend a couple of relaxing days in between long travel days.

What’s there to do in Suchitoto?

Well, to be honest, not a lot. But that’s part of the reason why you should go! Our guidebook lists a few museums, one of which was called The museum of a thousand plates and more, which we obviously wanted to visit. Unfortunately, it was closed, although the opening hours posted on the outside said is shouldn’t be. Another museum was called Museo de la moneda, which was supposed to showcase a collection of world currencies, but although the museum sign was still up, the place was now a prison. Yeah, we accidentally walked into a prison in El Salvador.

Once place we did end up going was Centro Arte para la Paz, which is a community center with lots of classes and activities for the local kids, to keep them out of trouble. For visitors, there was an art display and a nice café. It’s not a lot, but you can still learn some things about El Salvador and your coffee money will go toward a good cause.

A local herding cattle on the way to the lake Suchitlan in Suchitoto, El Salvador

And the one thing not to miss in Suchitoto is obviously the lake, Suchitlán. You can walk down to the lake, which we did and really liked. It took about half an hour and the route goes out of town on a small and peaceful road, where local farmers are herding their cattle and everyone you meet will say hello. There is also a minibus that shuttles people between the town and the lake, if you don’t feel like walking. By the lake is a park, where you’ll have to pay a small entrance fee. There are restaurants and shops inside, and if you want to do a boat trip on the lake that’s also possible. We just wanted to relax and do a bit of people-watching before heading back up, and there were plenty of opportunities for both.

Another thing you can do in Suchitoto is to visit the indigo dyeing workshops. Indigo has a long history in El Salvador and Suchitoto in particular has many workshops, where you can see the work and also purchase the finished product.

Where to stay in Suchitoto

We stayed at La Barranca, a hostel connected to the restaurant Villa Balanza, which I don’t think you can book online. It’s located down the hill from Parque San Martín and offers cheap rates and a terrace with a view over the hills that are hard to beat. We paid $20 for a double room with shared bath, although we were the only guests staying at the time so it wasn’t that much shared. We particuarly liked the hammocks on the terrace, where we spent a lot of time just chilling. Walking up and down the steep hill was not that much fun, and it wasn’t a very cozy hostel vibe though.

If you have a little bit more money to spend, I’d definitely recommend Casa de la Abuela just by the Parque Central and the cathedral. We went there for coffee and sandwiches, and had a look around the lovely little gift shop, but also took a peek inside the hotel part and it looked amazing. It doesn’t have the lake view, but then you won’t have to climb the hill either.

If you want to splurge, Suchitoto is also a good place for that. We went for dinner to the excellent Los Almendros de San Lorenzo one night, and that hotel looks just amazing. The restaurant had outdoor seating in the garden, which was decorated with great attention to detail just like the indoor part that we saw. I can only imagine what the rooms are like. If you can’t afford to stay, you can still treat yourself to a nice dinner here and have a look around.

A street in Suchitoto, El Salvador

Getting to Suchitoto from Juayúa (and San Salvador)

We left Juayúa in the morning on one of the frequent buses to Sonsonate (45 minutes), then changed to the service into the capital (1.5 hours). This bus goes to the Terminal de Occidente, while the buses to Suchitoto (number 129 or 140, 2 hours) leave from Terminal de Oriente. You can either take the local bus or a taxi for $5. I read a lot of warnings about the Terminal de Oriente, but it didn’t seem very sketchy to me although you probably shouldn’t flash your cash out there.

The buses to Suchitoto don’t leave from inside the terminal but from the road outside. I asked a lot of people to be sure I found the right spot. Lots of buses pass by so you’ll have to be quick to board as they only stop briefly. If you take the 140 minibus, make sure it’s labeled Suchitoto as they have several destinations.

The total travel time from Juayúa was five or six hours including waiting times, so start early if you plan to go all the way. All enjoyable though, traveling on chicken buses is always entertaining.

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Playa El Tunco: great for surfers, but not my favorite

Playa El Tunco: great for surfers, but not my favorite

After I’d left my newfound friends in Santa Ana, I still had a few days before I was due to meet up with my regular travel partner in San Salvador. A few people I’d traveled with were headed down to El Cuco beach and the universally praised Tortuga Verde, but I didn’t want to go all the way there for just a couple of days. Instead, I decided to go to the nearby beach community of El Tunco.

Playa El Tunco is located near the international airport and San Salvador. It’s one of the few stops in El Salvador on the backpacker trail through Central America, and where most of the few backpackers who dare venture into El Salvador at all end up getting dropped by their shuttles.

Why I didn’t like El Tunco

While I did have some good chats with a few people in my dorm, there wasn’t a nice communal vibe in the hostel. Most people seemed neither interested nor interesting, and I struggled a bit to join conversations even at the communal dinner table. I think this might be a Tunco thing rather than a Papaya’s thing, as more young backpackers come here on the shuttle and already know each other from Guate. At 30, I felt a bit old, and most people seemed to be chatting about what things are like back in England, something I don’t know a lot about either. If you’re young and surf, you’ll probably blend in better.

Most places in Tunco seemed to be very party oriented, and there were signs everywhere advertising buckets of beer and cocktails. Prices were a lot higher than elsewhere in El Salvador, and I guess it just didn’t feel a lot like El Salvador. Or maybe I was just having a bad couple of days.

El Tunco beach at sunset, El Salvador

What I actually liked about El Tunco

As much as I missed the conversations and people I’d just left in Santa Ana, I took the time to be on my own in El Tunco. I took long walks, sat on the beach to watch the sun set, went pupusa eating at an actual Salvadorean place down a dark alley, and read novels in the hammocks. I really enjoyed all of this. I understand that El Tunco just wasn’t for me, I’m interested in a different kind of town, but I can absolutely see how some people will love it. It’s easy, it’s Western, it’s the beach.

Getting to El Tunco on public transportation

The public bus to El Tunco (#102) goes from Terminal de Occidente in San Salvador. You may have to transfer in La Libertad, but it’s uncomplicated. There’s either a big bus from inside the station, or a microbus that passes by on the road out front. There are also a few buses a day coming from Sonsonate, and if you’re coming from the airport early in the day, you can go to La Libertad without passing through San Salvador.

Where to stay in El Tunco

I stayed at Papaya’s Lodge, which is what most people recommended before I arrived. I simply got off the bus at the entrance to El Tunco, walked down the road to the hostels and had a look. The dorm had single beds and a/c for $10 a night, which seemed like a good deal. There was also a kitchen, a swimming pool, and most importantly, lots of hammocks on the terraces.

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Juayúa, Ataco and the Ruta de las Flores

Juayúa, Ataco and the Ruta de las Flores

Ruta de las Flores, or “the flower route” is a stretch of road between Sonsonate and Ahuachapán in western El Salvador. We decided to make the village of Juayúa the base for our trip to Ruta de las Flores. It seemed to be the town with the most accommodation on offer, which is usually a good pointer, but more importantly, they have the feria gastronomica every weekend. This is a food festival that they set up on the main square and in the streets around it, where you will have an excellent opportunity to sample the local food.

Street in Juayua, El Salvador

What to do in Ruta de las Flores?

So what’s there to do in Ruta de las Flores? Well, first of all, if you’re traveling in season, you should probably see the flowers. I’m never traveling in season, so I didn’t, but if it’s worth naming the place for, it’s probably pretty enough for Instagram.

You should definitely see some other villages. I liked Juayúa a lot, it was large enough to stroll around and to have a supermarket, and some good hostels and restaurants. You can also check out the famously black Jesus in the Templo del Señor.

We also went to Ataco (short for Concepción de Ataco), which is a short bus ride away, and found another large food market, a handicraft market and street art that was more interesting than pretty. There were also some good shops and cafés, and I would say that Ataco is definitely another good option for a base on this route.

Some special street art near the market in Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

On the way back from Ataco we stopped briefly in Apaneca and strolled around it in the pouring rain, visiting the church but mostly just trying to take cover before another bus brought us back to Juayúa. I think it would’ve been great to self-drive in this area, and to travel in season, but going by bus in the rain was enjoyable enough.

You should also eat. As I said, there’s a food festival in Juayúa every weekend, but there are also other food events. We had excellent pupusas and smoothies in a large food court style tent in Ataco. We also went to a chili sauce tasting in Juayúa, at café El Cadejo. I didn’t dare trying the spiciest one because there were elaborate warnings on the label and it was probably named Exorcista for a reason, but it was fun and the hot sauce was not only spicy but also tasty.

Chili tasting in Juayua, El Salvador

There’s a hike to a waterfall in Juayúa (big surprise, like in every other small town in the world) but the rain was pouring and we weren’t feeling it. If you’re into small town waterfalls it’s worth a shot.

Where to stay in Juayúa

We stayed at Casa Mazeta, which I highly recommend. It’s a hostel with dorms and privates, and also a place to hang hammocks on the outside for the cheap and adventurous. We tried both the dorms and a private room in the garden, and both were excellent. There is a large kitchen and a communal living room with loads of games and activities for rainy days. And there are also very cuddly dogs around! Do book ahead if you arrive on the weekend, to be on the safe side.

The entrance to hostal Casa Mazeta, Juayua, El Salvador

When to visit Ruta de las Flores

If you’re going for the small towns and the food festivals, you can go anytime. If you want to see the flowers, which I’m assuming a lot of people do, you should time your visit to the months of October through February. We visited in July, which was fine, but the main attraction won’t be there.

How to get to Ruta de las Flores, and how to get around

We took the bus from San Salvador (Terminal de Occidente) to Sonsonate, then changed to the local service (#249) toward Ahuachapan. It’s a 45-minute ride from Sonsonate and you’ll be dropped in the middle of Juayúa. You can use this same bus to travel between the villages along Ruta de las Flores. There are also plenty of services coming to Juayúa from Santa Ana.

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Visiting Cerro Verde and climbing Santa Ana Volcano on a DIY daytrip

Visiting Cerro Verde and climbing Santa Ana Volcano on a DIY daytrip

Climbing Santa Ana Volcano was one of my highlights in El Salvador. It’s the highest volcano in the country at around 2,300 meters, and it’s active. It last erupted in 2005, so I guess it’s wise to check activity updates before you go.

If you’re enough people traveling together, it’s possible to share a taxi to Cerro Verde. But it’s also really easy to get there and back from Santa Ana on the public bus.

The bus to Cerro Verde

There’s only one bus to Cerro Verde from Santa Ana in the morning, leaving at 7.30 from the Vencedora bus terminal. Get there well in time and buy a ticket at the counter inside the waiting hall. The ride up to Cerro Verde took a couple of hours and we were dropped at a booth at the entrance to the Parque de los Volcanes where we would pay the entrance fee. From there, we walked a short distance up to the first viewpoint, and the parking lot with toilets (bring coins and toilet paper), a restaurant frying breakfast pupusas and small booths selling gifts.

Climbing Santa Ana Volcano

This is also where to find the guide. If you want to climb Santa Ana Volcano, you’ll have to go in a group with a guide and police. The group left at 11 from the parking lot. We were about thirty people, but I’ve heard stories of more than a hundred people going up together on the weekend. So, I guess, avoid the weekends and public holidays if possible. The guide spoke Spanish only, but there were many people in the group so if you don’t, I’m sure you’ll find someone to translate the important bits for you.

The group walked together for a bit through the woods, to another booth where we paid another fee. It seems a bit annoying to pay for everything separately, but you will get receipts, and I guess that way you’ll know that each service gets their share. You’ll end up paying like 10 dollars in total, or just over.

After this, the real hike started. We were warned that we would have to turn back if it started to rain, and there was a specific time that we were to leave from the crater, so the people who hadn’t yet reached it by that time would have to turn back. Everyone didn’t walk together, the group stretched out so it didn’t feel like being herded like sheep.

Walking around at the top of Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador

The hike was quite strenuous as it goes uphill, but not difficult. Some people even brought children, although the guide clearly didn’t approve of this. (The kids made it up there before many of the adults, actually). Wear good shoes and you’ll probably be fine, although you’ll have to be careful with the loose rocks on the way down. A walking stick would’ve helped, I think. Also, bring a jacket or sweater as it’s quite chilly at the peak.

There were some viewpoints on the way up where we could stop to take pictures, but it was quite foggy in the morning and we didn’t see much. On the way down, however, the photo ops were a lot better.

At the top of Santa Ana Volcano

The reward of climbing Santa Ana Volcano is the view into the crater, and you can look down into it where there’s a lake which is bright turquoise and steaming. This looked really cool.

I’ve climbed volcanoes before and what you get up there is always different. My little group was pretty quick to get up there, so we had plenty of time to take pictures from all angles and just sit at the edge and look down into the crater. You will also have a 360 degree view over the other volcanoes (Cerro Verde and Idalco) and the lake Coatepeque if you’re lucky. We weren’t, it was all in a cloud. But the people who went the day after us had only the view and the crater lake in a cloud, so I’m glad we got this.

The hike to the top took about an hour, and the same time back, giving us a bit of time to have more pupusas before the bus left at 4. Everyone takes this bus, so you’ll notice the workers packing up their stands just before the bus arrives. Ours was a bit late, but not much.

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Why Santa Ana is my favorite city in El Salvador

Why Santa Ana is my favorite city in El Salvador

When I got to Santa Ana, I just felt right at home. I’d spent several months in Nicaragua a year before and loved it so much, but San Salvador wasn’t really the same thing. Santa Ana, on the other hand, was exactly what I wanted from this repeat visit to Central America.

Possibly the best hostel in Central America

The best thing about my stay in Santa Ana was the hostel Casa Verde and its people. I think there are other hostels in Santa Ana, but this one seems to be the place to go. It’s hands down one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at in the world, run with an excellent attention to detail, and attracting the best people. For example, there are large plastic boxes for smelly shoes in the dorm, individual super silent fans above the beds, no bunks but regular single beds, power outlets in the lockers, two kitchens with all the basics, anything you need, they have it. There’s also a pool and a rooftop terrace. YES.

The dorm in Casa Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador

Santa Ana is a stop on the backpacker trail, for those who dare go into El Salvador at all, and many of the other travelers were stopping between León, Nicaragua, and Copán Ruinas, Honduras. While I’m not a fan of these shuttles, at least I’m glad that some of the people who take them get off in this lovely town.

The rooftop terrace at hostel Casa Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador

What to do in Santa Ana

The town itself doesn’t have a lot of your typical tourist attractions to offer, but you will easily get a taste of local life. There’s the cathedral, like in all larger towns in Central America, and there’s the theater, which is more unusual. They didn’t have anything on when I was there, but I’ve followed them on Facebook and they seem to have a lot of events on for a very low entrance fee. Plus the building is so pretty, just at the side of the square. I spent a lot of time just sitting on the square, drinking a smoothie, and looking at everything that was going on around me.

Santa Ana is also an excellent base for excursions in the surrounding area. The highlight for me was a daytrip to Cerro Verde, which is really easy to do on your own with the local bus, together with a group of new friends from the hostel.

Visiting the ruins of Tazumal

Another excursion was to the Mayan ruins of Tazumal, in Chalchuapa, very close to Santa Ana. These ruins are nothing like the big ones at Copán or Palenque, but what I liked the most about these was that they’re still a work in progress.

The ruins of Tazumal outside of Santa Ana, El Salvador

The main site pretty much has one pyramid and one museum, and the best things have been transferred to a museum in San Salvador. Near the site, however, is a second site that very few people seem to visit, called Casa Blanca. This site is where they are currently excavating some ruins, and you can see the half-opened ruins. I would absolute recommend that you visit both while you’re in Chalchuapa!

Eating and drinking in Santa Ana

If you’re staying at Casa Verde, chances are that you will self-cater and have dinners with your new friends at the hostel. If you do want to go out, however, you’ll find the best pupusas in town just down the road, at Pupuseria Santa Lucia at the end of 5a Calle Poniente. Ask anyone at the hostel and they will tell you where it is. It’s only open in the evening and it does get pretty crowded, but it’s worth the wait.

During the day, I loved to pick up a smoothie at a licuadería in the market. This is also one that came recommended from the hostel. There are several of them, and you would probably be happy with whichever. One thing I really like is that the drink comes in a plastic bag. That feels a lot like vacation to me.

Getting to and from Santa Ana

Getting around El Salvador is really easy, and buses go all the time. From San Salvador, you’ll take the bus from Terminal de Occidente. This bus will probably drop you somewhere near the market in Santa Ana. To get away, you’ll have to ask someone where to wait for the bus for your destination. Chances are it’s a specific street corner somewhere in a dodgy-looking area. Use the excellent website Centrocoasting.com for advice on bus travel in El Salvador.

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Surviving San Salvador, one of the friendliest and deadliest cities in the world

Surviving San Salvador, one of the friendliest and deadliest cities in the world

I landed at the airport in El Salvador at night and had to take a taxi into San Salvador. This was really straight-forward, as there is a taxi queue and the driver didn’t even try to rip me off. I was really grateful for that, as I hadn’t haggled in Spanish in a long time.

The airport is located quite a bit south of San Salvador, so if you’re headed to one of the beaches you might as well go there directly. I wasn’t, so I had decided to spend the night and then a day in San Salvador. The capital is a transport hub in the country, so if you’re planning to spend some time in El Salvador, which I highly recommend, chances are that you’ll pass through a few times.

Sorry about the lack of photos in this post, San Salvador is not a particularly pretty place, and while I felt perfectly safe most of the time, not flashing my electronics was probably one of the reasons I could.

What to do in San Salvador

My guidebook said that the old town is really nice, with the squares and the churches and all, but when I got there it was all a construction site. Some genius had decided to do construction on all of the squares at once, blocking off the entire center with fences and making all the streets very crowded. There was a central market, partly in a temporary location, but really nothing else. A shame really, the squares looked nice in the pictures, and I’m sure they’ll look even nicer once the renovations are done.

I walked over to the Parque Cuscatlán, a more relaxed location, but that was also kind of a depressing place. I was still a bit jet lagged and I wasn’t really feeling it. Where was the Central America I’d missed so much? After trying a museum that was closed during its normal opening hours, I decided that San Salvador wasn’t for me and walked over to the mall Metrocentro to get some things I needed and then head back to the hostel. I was randomly approached by an American who told me that the area was very unsafe and that I would probably get robbed. Just what I needed.

Man boarding the chicken bus in San Salvador

My first day in San Salvador wasn’t a success, to say the least, but the next morning I was already getting into it. I was leaving San Salvador to go to Santa Ana, but had to take two local buses (hint: it’s not dangerous) to the bus station (not dangerous either). The bus stops aren’t marked, so I had to ask around a little, and everyone I talked to was SO friendly. They just loved to help me find the right corner to wait for the bus. Then I got to the messy bus station, and had another series of lovely conversations with people. I left San Salvador smiling.

But what to actually do in San Salvador?

I would return to San Salvador a week later, with a day to explore the neighborhood of San Benito, or Zona Rosa. I went to the Dr. David J. Guzmán National Museum, an anthropological museum that was really interesting, with an exhibition on a devastating volcanic eruption and lots of old artefacts.

I also went to the art museum nearby, Museo de Arte de El Salvador, to see the works of local artists. I really liked that museum as well, and they’re both small enough that you don’t get tired seeing both of them.

In the evening I bumped into a guy I’d met in Santa Ana, and we went out together to have dinner at a food truck park just outside the art museum, and then to a rooftop bar nearby. I must admit that as a solo female I wouldn’t have wanted to walk around alone after dark, but with two men I wasn’t worried at all. Zona Rosa is a safe area, but safe in El Salvador means that it’s full of armed guards. That doesn’t make me feel safe, even though it probably should, because I’m not used to seeing weapons like that.

Where to stay in San Salvador

I stayed my first two nights in Hostal Cumbres del Volcan in Colonia Escalon, and on the return I stayed at Zona Hostel in Colonia San Benito. They were both alright and reasonably priced. Zona was a little bit more expensive and had optional breakfasts, and a really nice lounge area downstairs. Cumbres del Volcan was almost empty when I arrived, so it’s hard to say what it’s like when it’s full of people, but it had a more homey feel to it.

Where to stay all comes down to what you want to do. If you want to have easy access to the historical center, maybe Escalon is a better option. If you want to see the museums and be close to the main road for buses out of town, San Benito is excellent. I personally liked that I got to try both! If I returned I would probably go back to La Zona.

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Visiting Matka Canyon by public bus

Visiting Matka Canyon by public bus

Matka Canyon is located about 15 kilometers from Skopje, and its vicinity to the capital coupled with all of its other features makes it a very popular destination for locals and tourists alike. It is also the location for the annual wildwater kayak slalom championship, and you can see the course at the entrance to the canyon. Would probably be awesome to watch that!

Two days in Skopje, the city of so many statues

Getting to Matka Canyon from Skopje

The special Matka Canyon bus is number 60, and goes from the bus station in Skopje all the way to the parking area at Matka Canyon, where it turns around. Its location at the bus station can be a little bit tricky to find, but it’s in the section for local services behind the gas station. Look for the sign with the number 60 on it.

You need a card to travel by bus, which can be bought in special kiosks. If you board the bus at the bus station it’s also possible to buy a card from the driver. The card costs 150 MKD and that includes the return trip to Matka. Don’t forget to validate the card at the machine on board the bus!

The Matka Canyon bus does not go often, only once every two hours or so, so my best advice would be to ask at your accommodation if they can look it up for you. We took the bus that left at 10.30 in the morning, giving us plenty of time to have a long breakfast at the hotel and stroll down to the station. The trip took about an hour, which was a bit more than I expected seeing as it’s not far at all on the map. It was unbelievably crowded, some people at the end of the line didn’t even get on it. We were lucky enough to get seats as we boarded at the station.

Be prepared to walk or take a taxi back

The return journey didn’t work out very well at all. We didn’t know the times, so we asked some people waiting for the bus and they said they’d been waiting for an hour already. We went to get some food but no bus showed up, so we walked a couple of kilometers up to the road to the first village where bus 12 passes. Turns out the afternoon bus never came. But there are plenty of taxis down there, and plenty more people who need a ride, so if you’re not on a very tight budget, that’s also an option worth considering. We were quoted 3 euros per person, which is probably negotiable. If we were to return, we would definitely go for the taxi.

The hiking trail along Matka Canyon outside Skopje, Macedonia

What to do at Matka Canyon

All that being said about the journey, what about the canyon? Well, it’s lovely. It’s hard to imagine that you’re so close to the city, because it’s very calm and wild out there. Aside from the few restaurants by the water, what you can do is essentially to go along the canyon. Either on food by the side of it, or on the water in a shared boat or a kayak. The latter cost a few hundred denars per person.

We chose to hike, because we were anxious to move about after the long bus ride. It’s possible to walk along the lake for about 10 kilometers and end up by a cave. We thought that was a bit much, so we turned around after 5 and walked back. The views from the walk are mostly awesome, but in part the trail goes into the forest and you can’t see a thing. It was a little bit crowded in the beginning, but the farther along the trail you go, the less people you will see, as everyone will have to turn back at some point.

Tunnel on the hiking trail in Matka Canyon, Skopje, Macedonia

We wore light hiking shoes but regular city clothes, which seemed like a good choice. The hike is not strenuous at all, but the ground is uneven. We met a girl wearing heels and a long white dress, and while she was indeed moving forward, it surely wasn’t pleasant. You will also need to bring all the water and snacks that you think you’ll want. There are some restaurants, and we had an excellent lunch of cheese burek at one of them, but don’t depend on them for water.

A cheese burek we had at the restaurant at Matka Canyon, Skopje, Macedonia

Next time, we’ll kayak down the canyon

So the thing is, we’re walkers. When given the option, we’ll always walk. But this day was very hot, and we kept looking down at the people kayaking and that looked so awesome. It’s probably a lot cooler down there by the water. At first it seemed scary as there are also bigger boats coming, but it didn’t look like the waves got very high. No one seemed to struggle, anyhow. We also sort of wanted to take the boat trip, because then you can go and visit the caves. They are on the other side of the water from the hiking trail, so it’s not possible to reach them on foot. We were very happy with the hike, but guys, the kayaking looked NICE.

I’ve already mentioned the burek and the walk and the bus we ended up taking back, so I won’t repeat myself. We were happy with the outing, it was almost a full day trip but it was so nice to get out of the city and still not have to travel very far for this spectacular nature. Plus we hardly spent any money doing it!

Hiking, boating and kayaking in Matka Canyon Skopje MacedoniaBudget outdoor adventures in Matka Canyon Skopje Macedonia
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Two days in Skopje, the city of so many statues

Two days in Skopje, the city of so many statues

We visited Skopje for two days on a combo trip with Pristina, Kosovo. My first impression of the city, coming in by bus through the outskirts, was that it looked rougher than Pristina. We walked to the center from the bus station, and all of a sudden we were in the middle of some over the top polished tourist destination. I found it really hard to grasp what Skopje was really like.

It didn’t help that we were staying at one of the kitschy fake ships located in the river Vardar, smack bang in the center of town. I must admit that it was fun though.

Pirate ship Hotel Senigallia in Skopje Macedonia

We had accidentally booked one of the two suites at Hotel Senigallia, which still only cost us 90 euros a night, and it came with bathrobes and all that. I’m pretty sure that on another trip, I would’ve been the one sitting at the restaurant next door looking at the douchebag tourists going into the ship, but at the same price as most other options and an unbeatable location, I felt like it was worth it. Also, when did you ever stay at a fake pirate ship?

The suite at the ship hotel Senigallia in Skopje Macedonia

While the suite wasn’t super luxurious (they even charged for the water in the minibar) , the included breakfast was awesome. You can sit outside on the roof, and there’s a buffet with all kinds of Balkan and Western specialties. There was also a menu to order from, which we did, and got eggs on boat shaped plates. Nice touch.

Do the free walking tour that covers it all

The center of Skopje is not big, but there is still a lot to see. A good start is a free walking tour that starts at 10 every morning from the Alexander the Great statue on the main square. Look for the guy with the blue umbrella! He’s Zoran, a registered tour guide, who will take you around the center and tell you stories about everything you see for about three hours before you tip him and say goodbye. There is also a competing walking tour, meeting somewhere else at the same time, which is also supposed to be good.

Clock still showing the time of the earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia, in 1963

One thing we learned was that most of the city was ruined in an earthquake in 1963, which is why all of the buildings in the center look so new. It happened at 5.17 in the morning, and the clock on the old train station, which was destroyed in parts, stopped at that time and was kept as a memory. Pretty neat.

We also got some history on the current conflict with Greece, although not such an unbiased version, so you’ll still have to think for yourself.

See the location where Mother Teresa was born

Mother Teresa, mostly famous as resident of Calcutta, was born in Skopje and lived there until she was 18, when she left for Ireland and later India. The house where her family lived was destroyed in the earthquake, but the location where it one stood has been marked on the ground, along with a plaque telling her story. There is also a memorial house to Mother Teresa not far from her birthplace, with a small museum.

Location of the house where Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, Macedonia

Trying the local food and beer

As vegetarians, it’s not always easy to sample the local cuisine when traveling. Before going to Skopje, we did read about some traditional dishes that were completely vegetarian, but struggled to actually find them on the menus of the very touristic restaurants we ended up going to. Or, to be honest, we did see that one salad with all the cheese, but there has to be a limit to how much cheese you can put on top of a salad and still call it a salad, am I right?

Local beers from the Old Town Brewery in Skopje, Macedonia

On the last day, while waiting for the bus to take us to the airport, we decided to go to the brewery bar that we’d walked past many times already and sample some craft beers. And while ordering beer, we also spotted a traditional  sampler plate on the menu! So we finally did get a taste of Macedonian food at the very end of the trip. Nothing wrong with all the excellent pastas, risottos and Turkisk pizzas we had along the way though.

Sampling traditional Macedonian food at the Old Town Brewery in Skopje

The brewery is called Old Town Brewery, and they’re the first craft brewery in Macedonia. They have two locations that we saw in town, one in (guess where) the upper section of the old town near the fort, and one on the main square. The one in the old town looked a lot cozier, while the other one seemed more geared toward hipsters.

Daytrip out to Matka Canyon

We went to Matka Canyon by public bus and it cost us almost nothing. The canyon and its artificial lake are located about 15 kilometers outside of Skopje, making it an ideal destination for a break from the city life, should you need that. The nature out there is gorgeous, and you can choose between hiking, kayaking, boattripping or just drinking beers at the lakeside restaurants, pick your poison.

Boat on the river in Matka Canyon, Skopje, Macedonia

We chose to hike, and covered about 10 kilometers with many photo stops. If you don’t want to rely on the public buses to get out there, which you probably shouldn’t, we heard taxis are pretty cheap.

Visiting Matka Canyon by public bus

Stroll around the old part of town

A welcome contrast to the fake old of the new center is the real old of the old town. Just across the bridge from the main square is the start of the old bazaar, where you can walk around and get lost in the narrow alleys. Although many stores are now souvenir and handicraft shops, some are still keeping their old business. There are many jewelers, most of them in the same street like back in the days. Our guide told us that according to tradition, when a new baby is born, you’re supposed to bring something golden as a gift.

The old town in Skopje, on a day when shops were closed

There’s a fort that you can go inside without paying an entrance fee, but there’s nothing much to see except for the view over the town. Apparently it’s being restored, so maybe in the future it will be more interesting. There’s also a big mosque near the fort, as this is a more Muslim part of town. We walked past it just as it was time for the call to prayer, which is always really cool.

The old town also has a lot of restaurants. Many of them are Turkish and quite cheap, so it’s a nice place to hang out on the outdoor terraces at night. Most of them don’t serve alcohol, with exception for the Rakia Bar Kaldrma, serving all kinds of the local spirit rakia and snacks.

The old bazaar in Skopje, Macedonia, at night

Staying at a pirate ship hotel in Skopje MacedoniaTwo days in Skopje Macedonia
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Six things to do in Pristina, Kosovo

Six things to do in Pristina, Kosovo

We went for a bank holiday sized city break to Pristina, Kosovo, in combination with Skopje, Macedonia. There are sometimes very cheap flights available within Europe, and since these cities are very close to each other, we managed to get a very good deal for the combo. Be sure not to overpack when traveling with low-cost airlines though

We didn’t know what to expect, but there are plenty of things to do in Pristina for two days.

Look at the buildings and monuments

When I image googled Pristina before the trip to get an idea of what it would look like now, there were two things that appeared more than anything: the Newborn monument and the university library.

The Newborn monument was unveiled on the day that Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, and it is repainted every year. As this year is the 10th anniversary, it also has a temporary number 10 in the middle. I love typographic monuments when done well, and especially one that keeps changing! It would be fun to come back another year and see it again. This was also a major selfie spot, so if you’re into watching other people take selfies or awkward group photos, this is the place to hang out.

People taking selfies in front of Newborn monument in Pristina Kosovo

The university library, on the other hand, is no looker. It’s special alright, described as brutalist in style, with a metallic web around it and glass bulbs on top. I liked to stroll around the university grounds, where there’s also an unfinished and locked up Christian orthodox church next to it.

The university library in Pristina Kosovo

Another special piece in terms of architecture is the Palace of Youth and Sports. Built in the ‘70s, this multi-purpose sports hall has been partially destroyed by a fire, but is still mostly used for home games by the local professional basketball team Sigal Prishtina.

Palace of youth and sports in Pristina Kosovo

There’s also a statue of a 3 meters tall Bill Clinton on (guess where) Bill Clinton Boulevard, raised after the war as a little thank you. Don’t miss the Hillary bridal shop just next to him!

Statue of Bill Clinton in Pristina Kosovo

Visit a photo exhibition

We stumbled upon the Kosovo museum in the old part of town, and went in to check it out. It had no entrance fee, which was obviously awesome, and we were offered a guide which we turned down as we didn’t know how much we’d like the museum. Go with a guide, they seemed really enthusiastic about the collection!

The entrance floor had a small archeology exhibition with ancient pottery and jewelry. It was fine, but nothing really special. I suppose if you go with a guide they’ll give you some more context, because there are no signs. On the second floor, there was an exhibition of war memorabilia, such as uniforms and guns. I liked looking at the old newspapers, but most of this exhibition didn’t have signs either.

My favorite part of the museum, however, was the photo exhibition. One photographer had documented the escape from Pristina in 1999, and I found these photos along with the story really captivating. In the next room, there were portraits of regular people from the years just before and after the war.

Stroll along the pedestrian street

The weather was lovely when we were there, and it seemed as the whole city had come out to enjoy it. The pedestrian street, the Mother Teresa Boulevard, is an excellent spot for people-watching.

Pedestrian street Mother Teresa Boulevard in Pristina Kosovo

The street is lined with cafés and restaurants, little pop-up book shops, stands selling all kinds of snacks and also some street musicians.

We were there just as they were setting things up for a half marathon the following day, so if you’re a runner you might want to check that out. The finish line was just at the upper end of the pedestrian street.

Catch a sports event

When we were walking around Pristina, we saw posters advertising a game of basketball that was to take place in the arena later the same day. We didn’t have a plan for the evening anyway, so after some rest, we went down there to check it out.

We went to what we thought was the entrance, but no one was there, so we walked around the mall below the arena trying to ask people working in the sports shops how to get to the game. They had no clue there was a basketball game on. In the end, someone pointed us toward a sign for a gym, and we hesitantly climbed a staircase, and somehow entered the arena from the back. A janitor showed us to a court where some people were watching the last few minutes of a women’s handball game. Alright then, we thought, we’ll watch this instead. But immediately after it finished (Pristina lost) some tall guys entered and within minutes the basketball started.

Catching a game of basketball in Pristina Kosovo

Now, we’re no big fans of basketball. As a matter of fact, we weren’t even sure how long the quarters were or anything. But the seats filled with a cheering crowd, and there were some old dudes selling waters and spicy seeds that we chewed on forever while watching the game.

And it was really exciting! At first things really didn’t look so good for Pristina, but they turned it around and were in a huge lead at half time. Then the opponents started to catch up, slowly but surely, but in the end didn’t make it all the way.

Have excellent (and cheap) food and drink

Don’t you just love it when the food is top quality and still unbelievably cheap? This is particularly obvious when using euros, a currency I’m familiar with, just not with these low numbers. We had all of our meals out and they were all excellent. There seems to be quite a hipster community in this young capital, so being a vegetarian in Pristina is a breeze. Vegan, too, I would say.

I also really liked that most of the places we wanted to go to were located very close to each other, as the city center is so small, so we could walk around to see what we felt like before deciding.

Here are some places I would particularly recommend:

Green and protein

This was an excellent breakfast place, although a bit pricey for Kosovo, I thought it was good value. We had a huge egg sandwich and an avocado wrap, both of which were very tasty and filling, but still glanced over at the salad bowls and smoothies on the tables next to us. We could’ve returned, which we actually tried, but they were closed.

Breakfast egg sandwich at Green and Protein in Pristina Kosovo

Dit’ e nat’

This bookstore café is all vegetarian, and we tried the vegetarian burger and the ajvar pasta. While neither was outstanding, I particularly enjoyed the fusion of the local ajvar in a foreign dish. The place was also lively on a Friday night, and they serve very cheap beer which I guess was the reason.

Soma Book Station

We were seated outside, which was a bit dark but we didn’t want to move once we were seated, so I didn’t see any books. Maybe they had them, maybe they didn’t. This is a fancier place, sometimes with live music and sometimes with just an excellent playlist on. We had a risotto and a mushroom pasta, which were both excellent, and a white wine that was also very tasty. It was a bit more expensive, but our bill still ended up at like 20 euros for the food and wine for two people. Not bad.

Exterior of Soma Book Station restaurant in Pristina Kosovo

Stay in an old apartment building

We went with a hotel that had great reviews on Booking.com, called Mami’s hostel. It’s located in a regular apartment building, although it has a sign out front so there’s nothing sketchy about it, and the hostel itself is very new and clean. We almost felt like we were the first people to stay there, but I think it’s been around for about a year. And at only 35 euros a night for a double room with balcony and private bath, it was a bargain!

Interior of hotel room with balcony at Mami's hostel, Pristina Kosovo

They don’t have staff, or they do, but they’re not around much. When we booked, we got a code for the entrance, and they left an envelope for us in the reception area with the keycard to our room and some maps of the town. And when we left, we simply put our money in a box along with the card. For us this was not a problem, but I guess if you need more assistance it may not be the place for you.

Six things to do in Pristina, Kosovo Six things to do in Pristina Kosovo
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Bonus country: exploring Doha, Qatar, on a transit tour

Bonus country: exploring Doha, Qatar, on a transit tour

On our way to Oman, we had a long layover in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Since the main attraction at  the Doha airport, Hamad International Airport, is a giant teddybear that I frankly find quite creepy, we decided to take the opportinity to join a transit tour in Doha arranged by Qatar Airways especially for people in our situation, with a way too long layover in Doha. I think the tour is free if you involuntarily have a long layover, but if you’re just cheap like us, you’re going to have to pay for it. It only cost us 40 QAR (~11 USD) each for a three hour tour, so it’s still not much. To be honest, we most likely would’ve spent more if we’d stayed at the airport!

We reserved and paid for the tour in advance, and when we’d landed at the airport we simply found the tour desk in the transit area (near the teddybear) and handed them our voucher. Then a guide led us through the very efficient airport immigration and out to a bus waiting outside. Citizens from 80 countries can visit Qatar without a visa.

Now, if you’re not into government propaganda and advertisements for fancy hotels and restaurants, you’re going to struggle on this tour. Still, I think it gives a really good overview of the city, but if you want to actually go inside the Museum of Islamic Art (it sounded amazing), you should probably take your own driver. You can arrange this in advance through the tour desk to save time.

Katara Cultural Village, The Pearl and Souq Waqif

We had some photo stops around the city, the first being near the Doha Corniche outside the Museum of Islamic Art, which offered a lovely view of the skyscrapers in West Bay on the other side. The Doha skyline is really impressive.

We also stopped at Katara Cultural Village where we could stroll around for a little bit to take pictures. I really liked the examples of traditional architecture in the middle of the hypermodern new city.

Traditional buildings at Katara Cultural Village, Doha, Qatar

After Katara Cultural Village we stopped at The Pearl, which seems to be a place for the very rich to park their yachts. There were many high-end brand stores, but they were all closed for the weekend. That didn’t matter so much to us, instead we checked out the fancy boats.

The last stop of the tour was Souq Waqif, the market, which was a longer stop of half an hour. Most shops were closed as we were there on a Friday, but all the restaurants were open and we weren’t going to shop anyway. This was my favorite part, because it seemed more traditional and real than the rest of the city, which is mostly a construction site for new skyscrapers.

Restaurant at the souk in Doha, Qatar

Would I recommend a transit tour in Doha?

I would say that Doha is not for me, judging by the very brief visit. It seems to be geared toward the richer tourists rather than cheap-ass campers. I found the lack of people out in the city a bit creepy, and before we got to the souk, the whole city seemed like a movie set. Souq Waqif, on the other hand, had more of a local flavor. I’m very glad that we got some time to explore that.

That being said, if you find yourself stuck at the airport for a day, I would definitely recommend doing a transit tour in Doha. If you have more than the three hours the tour takes, you could opt for a private driver to allow for more thorough visits.

Also, while waiting for the plane, do take the time to read up on human rights issues in Qatar, for instance at Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.

Exploring Doha, Qatar on a layoverA layover tour of Doha, Qatar
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