A Colombian Dream – La Cabaña Eco Hotel – Review

Green Acres is the place to be.
Farm living is the life for me.
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide.
Keep Medellin and give me that countryside.
 
Sometimes you return to a place which you loved, only to find it a disappointment. Perhaps it’s no longer trying so hard. Or maybe it’s under new management. Or, most often, the memory is just somehow better than the reality. This is not the case with La Cabaña Eco Hotel.
You may remember this place from last August when you voted that I visit Colombia. While there, I’d heard about Salento from locals and travelers alike. Still, many of those travelers seemed to be staying at hostels in town and I was looking for a bit of peace. I searched on one of the many online booking sites and found La Cabaña Eco Hotel.
One of the toughest parts of traveling non-stop is the decision-making. Every day, one must decide where to go, how to get there, in what area to stay, which flight to take, which hotel, Airbnb, guesthouse, pension, or other accommodation in which to stay, how to pay, who to trust—oh, so much. This is the reason I appreciate you so much for telling me where to go; one less decision. Because of this, it’s such a great feeling when you realize you’ve made the right decision. This place was one of my victories.
When I found myself back in Colombia, specifically in Medellin, to research an article which I hope to sell, I knew I’d need to find a little peace after a month in my very noisy Airbnb. A month of listening to (or trying not to listen to) the ruckus from the event space and three bars located below my fifth-floor apartment and wafting through the windows, which didn’t quite fit their frames, had me craving the quiet, natural surroundings of Salento. When my work in Medellin was done, I hopped a bus headed for Salento.
Thanks to construction along the way, I arrived in Salento after a six-hour bus ride which took nine hours. Apparently, flag-men make up 60% of the workers in Colombia (don’t quote me on this, as I truly have no idea). When I visited in August, I was dropped on a street corner without any clue how to get to La Cabaña. They’ve now built a bus terminal. Well, it’s actually a parking lot with a few cement buildings selling snacks as well as a kind of cool modern art sculpture. I texted Hector, one of the owners of La Cabaña and, within ten minutes, a dark SUV pulled up with a familiar face behind the wheel.
Main BuildingLess than ten minutes later, we arrived at La Cabaña Eco Hotel. La Cabaña is divided between two red and white wooden buildings situated across the street from each other. The main building, with five Porchsleeping rooms, some with lofts so you can throw the kids up there and forget about them (though you’re required to take them with you when you leave), also houses the kitchen, dining room, and various outdoor seating areas which are nice places to enjoy a glass of wine before dinner or a beer after a hike. Being in the coffee region, there’s River Housecoffee available 24-hours-a-day (also tea).
At my request, my room was not in the main building, but in the River House across the street. I planned to be here for a month and it just seemed as if it might be a bit quieter in the four-room house (five, if you count the couple who works here and lives in the room next store with their two daughters) away from the kitchen. If I chose to cook my own meals, the River House had an outdoor kitchen with a four-burner stove, a full-size refrigerator, microwave, sink, and all of the pots, pans, and accessories you need to cook a fine meal. I just needed to supply the ingredients (there’s a small supermarket and fruit stands in town) and the wine. Always the wine.
ManureAfter driving through the wooden farm gate and up the tracks cutting through the grass we arrived at my building. As I stepped out of the car I immediately landed in a soft pile of cow manure. (TOMS were not made for this.) As Hector apologized, I laugh it off. After all, this is a finca which translates to “farm” in English. To be more specific, it’s a dairy farm, producing approximately 2,000 liters of milk per day and, on a dairy farm, well, shit happens.
I entered my room and though it seemed smaller than the one I’d stayed in previously, with a king-size bed, there was plenty of room for an enjoyable month-long stay.
CowsI awoke the following morning to noise. Sure, I chose to be away from the kitchen, but some things are unavoidable. Approximately 132 different species of birds live in this area and their morning songs created an orchestra filled with a variety of instruments which were joined by the base of the cows mooing while chomping their way through the grass field outside my window. Comparing this to the cacophony coming from the downstairs bars in Medellin might be like comparing Acid Rock to the Boston Philharmonic.
Directly outside my door, the picnic table provided a desk with a beautiful view to sit and work each day (or cruise Facebook and pet dogs). Oh, yes, that brings up Dogthe dogs; Lassie and Bimbo. Lassie belongs to Hector, Lina, Maria Camila, and Alejandra. They’re the family who owns this farm (it’s been handed down from Lina’s family), as well as nearby avocado and coffee farms. Lassie is the most amazing dog I’ve ever known. She’s not just a pet, but a worker; herding cows and horses, and sometimes people. She knows her job and goes to work with no prompting. And when her work is done, she appreciates a good belly rub. (Don’t we all?) Bimbo belongs to the family next door to me. He’s a younger and smaller black and white dog who Other Doglikes to follow Lassie around on her herding chores with the understanding that, as it’s not really his job, he can leave at any time. His favorite hobbies are chasing horses (not herding, just chasing), eating bugs, and biting at my shoelaces as I walk across the street to the main house.
A breakfast buffet is included here. Depending on the day, it may consist of eggs, cheese, toast, cereal, tamales, rice and beans, arepa (a ground corn flour circular-shaped bread), fresh fruit, pancakes, french toast, juice and, of course, coffee (this is the coffee region).
Horseback rideAfter breakfast, you can to go hike in the Cocora Valley (the main reason people come to this area) amongst the Quindio Wax Palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. You may also want to go visit of coffee farm to understand the entire coffee-making process from growing the beans to brewing the perfect cup of joe. Horseback riding is a great option and can be done directly from the farm. The wrangler will take you up into the surrounding hillside or to a nearby waterfall. Another half-day tour will take you by car to the cloud forest where you’ll enjoy the most amazing views of the area, including a forest of Wax Palms, and a visit to a finca where you’ll be served a local, non-alcoholic drink called Agua Panella. This area is a wonderful place to watch the colorful colibríes (hummingbirds) native to this region.
TreesFinally, another option is to simply hike the green hills surrounding the finca. While doing just this, I happened to pass the pasture where the cows were being milked. Stopping to say hello to David who was handling this process, I was invited to do some milking myself. David showed me the pull and squeeze method (wait, that sounds dirty, but you understand) and then held a cup while I milked. He then invited me to drink it and, with some hesitation, I agreed. I’m not sure why I was surprised when it tasted like, well, milk. Nothing like a fresh milk break in the middle of a beautiful hike.
SalentoIf you choose, you can walk the just-over two kilometers into the town of Salento (one of the family members will also be happy to drive you) for dinner and a game of Tejo—what Colombians like to call their national sport—which involves beer and gunpowder.
HammockStill, even with all these activity options, one of the best things to do while staying at La Cabaña is to lie in a hammock and read while listening to the birds and the rushing river in the background. You can also enjoy watching the frenetic flight of the hummingbirds from here.
Should you choose to stay at the finca for dinner, La Cabaña serves a small menu with some traditional Colombian specialties including trout (grilled or in a garlic sauce) and bandeja paisa, what I like to call the Heart Attack Special, which includes rice and beans, chorizo (sausage), chicharron (fried pork belly), fried egg, and patacones (smashed fried plantains). This is Colombia’s twist on the phrase, “To see Paris and die.” There’s also pasta, a nice sandwich, and grilled chicken.
HectorIf you happen to be here during a busy time, you may have the great luck to enjoy their Lomo al Trapo. Hector or Maria Camilla prepare beef and pork loin by coating it with salt and tightly wrapping it in cotton cloth. They then place it in the hot coals of the campfire burning on the front lawn. Dinner is served under a canopy on the lawn with the meat, potatoes, a tomato salad, sauces, and wine (always wine). After dinner, there are marshmallows to roast while Hector pulls out his guitar and serenades the crowd with traditional Colombian songs in a beautiful baritone voice.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’d planned to stay for a month. Well, we all know how I feel about planning and, as I saw no reason to leave, I stayed for two months, only leaving because, after a total of three months in Colombia, my visitor’s visa was expiring and instead of renewing it I decided it was time to explore more of the world.
When you stay at La Cabaña, you become part of the family.
If you’d like to more information about La Cabaña Eco Hotel, you can visit their webpage at: https://www.lacabanaecohotel.com/, like their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/lacabanaecohotel/, or follow them on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/lacabanaecohotel/
This stay was not hosted and no special rates were provided in exchange for a review. I just really love this place.
 

Stuck

Today’s post has to do with the continuing saga of being an international travel; specifically, being an international tour director. Again, it’s my way to keep myself afloat while I write the memoir, work on a female empowerment conference in order to help other women do their one big thing and, hopefully, put up some more votes. Plan B is to win the Mega Millions, in which case, I’ll put up some great votes and give my house away to someone who is struggling. (How fun would that be?!) So, back to the saga which is actually less about tour directing and more about the travel in between.
After completing an eight-day tour called In the Wake of the Vikings (note; Vikings are grumpy when you wake them) which takes us by boat from Scotland to Norway to Copenhagen, I have a week’s vacation scheduled visiting my friend Jenni in Hull, England.
Our group transfer from the to the Copenhagen airport drops us outside Terminal 2 where I throw my myriad of bags onto a cart and hoof it over to Terminal 3 to check in for my British Airways flight. As I step up to the desk and present my ID, I’m told that, while my flight from Copenhagen to London is doing just fine, my flight from London to Leeds has been canceled. Oh, and there are no other flights today. Crap!
“So, what are my options?” I ask.
“You need to go to Terminal 2 and speak to SAS as that flight is theirs.”
“What? It says on my confirmation it’s BA?”
“It’s operated by SAS so you need to go speak to them,” she reiterates.
We go back and forth for a few minutes and, as she’s unwilling to yield, I ask to speak with a supervisor who gives the same answer, nearly word-for-word (is this from a script? I wonder). Neither are very nice and really just seem to want me to leave.
In a huff, I grab my cart and push my way back to Terminal 2. On the way, I look at my phone and notice an E-mail from British Airways. I’ve been leading this tour on a ship which has had limited access to Wi-Fi. (The Shetland Islands have fancy ponies but not-so-fancy Wi-Fi.) There’s a customer service phone number in the body of the E-mail so I click on “call” caring less about the expense of using my U.S. phone in a foreign land and more about how the hell I can get to another foreign land. I explain my situation to which the lady on the other end responds, “What? Why would they tell you it’s an SAS flight? They have nothing to do with this flight. It’s ours.”
“That’s what I thought,” I respond feeling warm and fuzzy that she agrees with me. I’ve now arrived at the SAS counter understanding that, should I approach with my problem, I’ll be greeted with a blank stare of bewilderment. I turn around while allowing the nice lady on the phone to explain that, when I arrive in London, I need only to go to the BA customer service counter and they’ll have a new flight for me for tomorrow as well as a hotel reservation and some food coupons. I accept the fact that I won’t be seeing Jenni tonight and, well, there are worse things than spending the night in London.
AirplaneI catch my flight to London along with many others who also seem to be having some difficulty getting to their planned destinations as BA is having a problem with a shortage of equipment. As someone who works in tourism, I understand that, although the flight attendants on my plane have absolutely nothing to do with the challenges most are having, they’re probably on the receiving end of some crankiness. Knowing this, I make friendly chatter with them. In turn, they understand that my day could be better and that my night might be a bit better if enhanced with alcohol. Thanks to these angels of mercy, I arrive in London, two hours later, with a goody bag filled with tiny bottles of scotch and wine.
Wine After collecting my bags and presenting myself to immigration and customs, I head to the BA counter. Noting the time on my watch I’m miraculously calm when, exactly ninety-minutes later, I arrive at the front of the line.
While waiting, Jenni and I have texted. “Why don’t you take the train to Hull?” she suggests. “There are a lot of them and you could be here tonight.”
I’ve already considered this option and, between my exhaustion from leading a tour and taking care of a couple-hundred people, an abundance of luggage to carry (I’m now traveling with all of my continuous travel clothing as well as work clothes) and simple traveler’s fatigue, I’ve decided I can wait one night to sleep on an air mattress at my friend’s place. “Great idea Jen but I think I’ll just let BA put me up in a hotel and start all over tomorrow. Sometimes you gotta know when enough’s enough.”
Finally, I’m called up to the counter. I slap on a smile, understanding that my current situation is not the fault of the nice man in front of me and, to be truthful, he’s probably having as bad of a day as I am. I explain what I’ve been told and he confirms that there are no more flights to Leeds today. He hands me a variety of papers which I can exchange for dinner, breakfast, a hotel room, a shuttle to the hotel, and a flight for tomorrow. I’m instructed to head out the door and wait for the Renaissance Hotel shuttle. I’d considered trying to get into the city to catch a show but, as it’s now 5:00 and I haven’t yet gotten to my hotel, my chances aren’t looking so good.
I drag my bags to the curb and gather with forty other stranded travelers; some are grumpy, some are trying to hold it together, and two young guys, who are just trying to get to California for a vacation, have a surprisingly good attitude. We chat about how grumpiness just won’t help the situation so we’ve chosen to accept the situation with a positive attitude.
After nearly an hour, the bus arrives (oh, they’re testing our positive attitude), we lug our bags onto the bus and cram inside as if it were a New York subway at rush-hour (it smells eerily similar). The driver, understanding that he’s collected a bunch of frustrated passengers, chooses the correct tactic by joking with us. Never one to miss a fun exchange, I joke back with him. At some point he asks the question, “Well, how adventurous are you?” Clearly he doesn’t know me.
Somewhere around the seventh stop (I’ve lost count) we arrive at the Renaissance Hotel where most of us debus (yup, made up a word) and race inside while smiling at each other while jockeying for position in line. The hotel is expecting us and has set up a satellite check in desk where they quickly check us in and, before you know it, I’m handed a key and told “Your room is on the ground floor. Just go through the double doors.”
I grab my bags and, as I walk through the double doors, I see a staircase and a sign with an arrow pointing up the ten steps and the words “Ground Floor.” Puzzled how I can enter the hotel from the street and still have to climb up to get to the ground floor, I look back at my load and breathe a sigh. I simply have no energy left to drag these up even a minimal amount of stairs. It’s then that, next to the stairs, I spot an elevator. . . wait, I’m in England. . . next to the stairs I spot a lift. It’s one of those small, glass ones, just meant to take you up a very short distance. I load my bags inside and, as the sign says, hold down the “2” button for the entire ride. Unfortunately, the entire ride seems to only be halfway up to 2. At the exact halfway point, the lift grinds to a halt. I lift my finger and press the button again. Nothing. What’s behind door Number 1? I wonder, and press that button. I stay as still as a street busker painted bronze and imitating the statue of liberty. Finally, I press the alarm button. Nothing. I press again; this time holding it for a good ten seconds. I remain alone. Becoming more and more agitated, my positive attitude waning, I lean on the alarm button for a full minute. The only other sound is myself, swearing up a storm which would embarrass a Hell’s Angel. Realizing that nobody is coming, I collapse into a heap on the floor and grab both my phone and my goody-bag-of-booze™.
After opening the scotch and taking a swig, I thank God that I’m in a glass elevator which allows me to receive cellphone reception (even if it is costly at international rates) and I Google the Renaissance Hotel Heathrow click on the phone number and when an operator answers, I calmly explain my problem. (Note, “calmly” is up for interpretation.) I explain where I am as it isn’t at the main elevators because they’ve put us all in an extension of the hotel which was clearly not part of the original plan and requires a walk halfway back to Copenhagen. I’m assured that someone is on their way and I sit pitifully on the floor of the glass elevator, drinking my scotch.
After another ten minutes, nobody has arrived. I’d begun writing about my sad situation on Facebook and Jenni writes back asking if she should call the hotel to try to get me out. I thank her but refuse on principal. I’ve rung the alarm countless times and called the hotel to tell them I’m stuck. THEY SHOULD COME RESCUE ME! Where, oh where is my knight in shining armor? This is England for god-sakes. Isn’t this where those knights base themselves?
Eventually, I make the international call from my elevator once again. This time I admit to raising my voice. “Ma’am, we’re trying to find you,” she says.

Lift
A lift similar to my aquarium prison

What? It’s not like I’m moving around playing hide-and-seek. I’m ever-so-stationary.
A few minutes later, two hotel workers come through the door and stare at me. Feeling like a fish in an aquarium, I look at them with disdain, through tears of anger and exhaustion. One is an engineer who does something mechanical and lowers the elevator to sub-ground level again. Before I can step out, he climbs in and pushes the 2 button. He looks at me accusingly while saying that I must have pushed the emergency stop button which messed the whole thing up. I assure him that I had my hand on the 2 button the entire time I was moving and even after I stopped moving. He looks at me in disbelief. I hightail it out of there before I punch Mr. Engineer in the nose.
I finally arrive in my room at 7:00pm, my positive attitude gone, as well as one mini-bottle of scotch.
 
 

Home Away from Home

As I told you in the previous article I’ve returned to my old love, Budapest. While I hope for it to be on a more permanent basis in the future, for now, it’s just for a month. And, as I also explained, my planned abode fell through which left me looking (and finding) a variety of places to stay, as well as one at which I couldn’t afford to stay. . . but a girl can dream.
KitchenMy first stop is Claud’s place which I found through Airbnb (though it’s listed on multiple sites, the listing on HomeAway is linked below). Claud’s sister, Elian, manages the large, elegant-looking apartment which sleeps six people very comfortably. The apartment – though my travel has caused me to use the term “flat” more often than the traditional American, “apartment”, here in Budapest they are indeed called apartments and people look at me strangely when I say “flat.” So, the apartment has a fantastic kitchen where one can cook gourmet meals (if one has that talent and, if one does, please invite me to dinner), a living room with a TV which would be a great way to learn Hungarian as there are no English language channels, though there is wi-fi, and, perhaps my favorite part, a wonderful bathtub to relax in. Located just a few blocks from both the Nyugati Train Station and the famous Andrassy Street, you can get pretty much anyplace, either by foot or by mass transit, within twenty minutes.
Living RoomKarma plays a huge part in securing accommodations during this trip to Budapest. While working out arrangements for Claud’s place (Elian is kind enough to provide a discount so I can afford it), Elian reads Drop Me Anywhere as well as Rebel-With-A-Cause and realizes that, though I might be a bit quirky, I’m not crazy and I try to be a decent person. She tells me that she often does house swapping when traveling and, though she’s going to Italy later in the month, she’s not arranged a house swap and therefore, her apartment will be empty while she’s gone. She invites me to stay for free later in the month if I want. While I don’t volunteer or do other good deeds with the expectation of anything other than helping others, feeling good, and maybe inspiring others to do so, it sure is nice when others offer to help me.
As Claud’s place has only six nights free, I need to find another place to crash and karma again rears its beautiful head in the form of my friends Hajnalka and Ernö, both of whom I met while volunteering last year with Heti Betevö. (It’s a joy to return to my regular Sunday volunteer duties again with them this year.) Knowing my situation, as well as understanding that I’m a fellow volunteer trying to change the world for the better, Hajnalka and Ernö arrange for me to rent Ernö’s Airbnb place at a fantastic rate. Unfortunately, Ernö’s place is unavailable for the first night I need it so I decide to splurge for the night and, padded with my Orbucks (Orbitz customer loyalty program), I snag a night at the Danubius Health Spa and Resort on Margaret Island for $85.
When it’s time to vacate Claud’s place, I pack up my things, walk to the train station and take the short bus ride to Margaret Island for a day and night of luxury. I exit the bus, passing both an ice cream cart and a cotton candy cart (aka candy floss) and check into my lovely ninth-floor hotel room with a balcony overlooking the Danube. After enjoying a glass of wine in my room, I change into my bathing suit, throw on the bathrobe provided, and head down to the spa to relax in the mineral baths. The following day, wishing I could afford more than one night here (hell, I couldn’t really afford one night), I hop on the bus and head back to Pest. (To read more about the Danubius Health Spa and Resort, check out the previous article “Revisting and Old Love”)
Arriving only about five blocks from my previous abode at Claud’s, I meet my friend Hajnalka and settle into Ernö’s place. Sleeping four people (really, I  could sublet some of these extra beds out on Airbnb and it would not only pay my rent, but would make me some extra money), the place is bright and open. It’s got two bathrooms, a smaller, but fully stocked kitchen, a large living room with an adjoining area with two beds, a dining room which seats six, and a huge bedroom. Okay, so the ambulance station is a block away and Budapest might just have some ridiculously loud ambulances, but I travel with earplugs which sure helps. And, as this apartment is literally a block from the Nyugati Train Station, and a ten-minute walk from the famous Parliament building well, ambulances and all, this is a fantastic place to stay.
Ernos BedroomWhile I planned to move on to Elian’s place (hell, it was free) for the final ten days of my stay, I have a friend coming into town and this is a great location for all we want to do. Also, I’m tired of moving around all the time and really need to wake up in the morning and have some idea where I am. (Sounds a bit slutty.) I decide to stay at Ernö’s place for the remainder of my trip. Still, I get spend an evening with Elian and her friend, drinking champagne and talking politics. Her place is very nice yet a little further out of the city center, and by further out, I mean both horizontally and vertically as it’s a walk and a few stops of the train, as well as a fourth-floor walk-up (a total of 92 steps). If you’ve seen the amount of luggage I’m carrying these days, what with my personal and work clothes, you’d understand my trepidation. All things considered, I decide to stay put, but will forever be grateful to Elian for her kindness.
Oh, one last place to tell you about; one rainy day, after walking through St. Stephen’s Basillica (the place I visited the hand at on my first trip here which you can read about in “The Strong Arm of the Law and the Church”) I duck into an interesting-looking building with a very modern bar showing cuts from very non-modern Gene Kelly and Marilyn Monroe films. While observing the connecting lounge area, I ask the bartender about the place and he tells me it’s the Aria Hotel and offers to take me on a tour. The forty-four rooms and five suites are distributed amongst four wings, all themed according to a different style of music – classical, jazz, contemporary and opera. If you’re an Elvis fan, you can spend the night with the King of Rock-n-Roll, or enjoy some Benny Goodman in the Jazz wing, or maybe have a romantic evening in the Romeo & Juliet Opera Balcony Suite. (Though remember, things didn’t end well for them.)
LobbyNext, I’m escorted to the High Note SkyBar, a beautiful, outdoor rooftop bar where, on a nicer day, I’ll return to enjoy a fancy cocktail while overlooking St. Stephen’s Basilica. In the meantime, we head downstairs where, on the way, my bartender/tour guide mentions the hotel’s Musical Director. What? Ah yes, I read an article a few months ago about a Budapest hotel with a musical director. I just had to meet this guy. I’m invited to take a seat in the Music Garden, the classy, yet modernly decorated lobby/lounge of the hotel where, Kornél Magyar, the Music Director will be available to meet with me in fifteen-minutes. As it’s afternoon wine and cheese time, a free daily event held for hotel guests, and I’m invited to partake, I see no reason not to wait. I serve myself a glass of red and dish out an assortment of cheeses and crackers, look around and spot my seat. I choose this particular seat as I see a familiar face in the chair next to it. Sitting quietly and reading his New York Times is Mr. Big. Yup, that Mr. Big. Any Sex and the City fan will know him as Carrie’s true love, but hell, we’re in Budapest; she’ll never find out if he has a fling with me. I play it cool, sipping my wine without spilling it, and nibbling at my cheese. I pick up my own New York Times and read it while giving the appearance of ignoring him. (I might have also picked up my phone and updated my Facebook status, perhaps mentioning my quiet neighbor.) Yes, I play it cool. . . perhaps too cool as, after fifteen-minutes or so, Mr. Big saunters out the front door, pant-leg stuck in his sock, only slightly tarnishing the suave image which we all hold of him.
PoolBefore long, Kornél arrives and we sit down to talk. With a background in music, and a talent for drums, Kornél has worked at the hotel since it opened last year. He’s a concierge with an insider’s knowledge on the expansive music scene here in Budapest. His dual role takes special skills. As he says, ” You need to be hospitable enough that, if there is a guest who just wants a table reservation, you can do that. My advantage is that I’m from the music business so I have the contacts in the network.” He also arranges some small concerts within the hotel, and can also tell you the best jazz club and bands in the city. (I take his advice later in the week and book a night with friends at the Opus Jazz Club.)
I finish my glass of wine (which may not be the first glass I poured that day) and dream of the day I can afford to stay at the five-star Aria Hotel.
If you want to book any of the accommodations mentioned here, please mention my name. No, they won’t give either you or me a better deal but, you know, it’s always nice for them to know where you heard about them and, who knows, maybe I can score another free glass of wine.
Interested in staying at any of these great places? Here are the links to the listings:
Claud’s Place – https://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p1623866#summary 
Ernö’s place – https://www.airbnb.hu/rooms/1350950
Aria Hotel – http://www.ariahotelbudapest.com/
 

Revisiting an Old Love

Hello Virtual Travel Buddies! I’m sure you’re asking, “Where the hell have you been?” though, perhaps you didn’t even notice I was gone. When we last spoke, I was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, trudging through an April snow storm. It was nice to visit some of the places I’d visited on the very first Drop Me Anywhere trip, but somehow the town felt different. Or perhaps it was me who was different as I’ve experienced much since that first trip. Still, it’s a nice place which I recommend visiting sometime.
Since then, I led a tour on a riverboat (just call me Huck Finn) through The Netherlands and Belgium which, for various reasons was not nearly as enjoyable as I’d hoped. Heck, it began with the difficult task of trying to get from St John’s, Newfoundland to Amsterdam when the company booked my ticket from Saint John, New Brunswick. The trip continued on the same level and, after twenty-two days, I was happy to return to land, especially as that land was Budapest, where I am now recovering.
You may remember that I truly loved Budapest (read about the first trip starting here). Sometimes you need to return to visit an old lover to see if they’ve changed. Perhaps the memory is better than the realty; or perhaps you’ve grown in different ways. I’m happy to report that Budapest and I are back together. He’s just as friendly and lovely as I remember and our little fling has turned into a full-blown love affair.
While hanging with my lover I’ve spent some time writing, not for my projects, but for clients’ projects. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time figuring out where to stay. This has certainly tested my travel-without-a-plan skills as, well, I had a plan in regards to where to stay. Unfortunately, the best laid plans. . . well, this is why I work best without a plan. Because plans, like rules and hearts, are meant to be broken.
I’d planned to stay at a friend’s apartment. He’d bought it last year after reading my reports on Budapest and being inspired to come visit. A week later, he departed the city as the new owner of an apartment (and all I got was this lousy T-shirt). He rented it out for a long-term tenant who has since moved, and then hired a manager to get it ready for short-term rental. Unfortunately, the term “ready” is up for interpretation. After a night there, upon hearing my report, my friend graciously returned my money. He’ll now wait to rent it until he’s back in town to get it ready himself.
So, here I was, looking for a place to stay. Enter Airbnb, where I found a great place rented out by Eliane, a French-Hungarian woman who manages both, her rental properties and her brother Claude’s. After I Claudes Flatcontacted her she read the Drop Me Anywhere website, as well as Rebel-With-A-Cause, and realized that I might be an okay person, not too crazy, and have house and pet sitting experience around the world. She offered me a great deal on Claude’s place for the six nights it was available (still above my budget, but a great deal for the accommodation provided). The place was absolutely gorgeous with a wonderful bathtub (much appreciated when you’re location independent and not on a first-name basis with the Four Seasons). She then mentioned that she would be out of town for the final ten days of my stay here in Budapest and offered to let me stay at her place for free. Seriously Budapest, are you trying to compete with Ireland for the World’s Nicest People award?
Oh, and then, for the time in between the stays at Claude’s and Elian’s place, my friend Hajnalka, whom I met volunteering with Heti Betevö (where I returned to volunteer this on this trip), hooked me up with Ernö, another volunteer who gave me both a smokin’ deal on his rental apartment, as well as a few free nights. I’m constantly amazed by the people of Budapest, their openness, friendliness, understanding of, and participation in the world around them, and caring nature.
While I’d hoped to stay in one place during this month-long break, it was just not meant to be. I had all nights covered except for one, and decided to splurge and stay at the Danubius Health Spa and Resort on Margaret Island. I didn’t get to Margaret Island last time as it was February, and Margaret Island is a place best enjoyed on a fine spring, summer, or even fall day. Definitely not in the dead of winter.
This 2.5 kilometer x 500 meter (1.55 x .31 miles) island which sits in the Danube between Buda and Pest has its own personality. Just as Central Park can feel a bit like a mini-escape to the country from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, Margaret Island is an oasis of open, green fields and tree-lined roads which one can travel along by foot, bicycle, cyclo-pousses/bringo carts (the car-like bikes that hold two, four, or more people and are available for rent) electric bikes, rollerblades, golf carts, or a myriad of other electric-type vehicles. The one way you can’t get around is by driving, as all other motorized vehicles, except for bus #26 and police cars are limited.
I arrive via bus #26 (20-minutes from my place in Pest) and, upon exiting, walk past the carts selling ice cream and cotton candy (candy floss), and into the Danubius Resort. After entering my ninth floor room, and taking in my fabulous view of the Danube, I change into my swimsuit, throw on my bathrobe and head down to the thermal pools. This place is not just a hotel, but a health retreat which, besides offering four indoor and one outdoor thermal pools (the outdoor one is closed during my stay), offers services ranging from dental, to optometry, to cardiac health, to plastic surgery. Yup, this is one of those places a famous person might go to relax for a week-or-two and return looking ten-years younger. As I’m only spending one night, I hold no expectations that I’ll look any more than a week or two younger.
Hot PoolI spend the rest of the day and part of the next day relaxing in pools of varying temperatures, two of which are divided by a shallow walkway filled with icy water, with river rocks covering the bottom. The water comes up to my knees and is either meant to refresh your feet and make them grateful for the warm water of the other pools or is simply a reminder of what medieval torture was like.
Hot PoolFeeling relaxed after an afternoon spent in the pools, I head back to my hotel room following the signs to the Grand Hotel and, after a ten-minute walk through never-ending, narrow hallways, I find myself in the bistro area of the Grand Hotel. I quickly turn around and head back as, well, I’m not staying in the Grand Hotel (perhaps I’m a little too relaxed). Retracing my steps through the long, narrow hallways, I return to the spa reception desk, and ask for directions before finally finding my room.
MusiciansAfter a shower and change of clothes, I head to the restaurant at the Grand Hotel (yup, this time I actually mean to go there) where I enjoy a nice buffet of a variety of dishes while listening to a small orchestra play classical music, followed by an after-dinner stroll along the Danube.
I spend the better part of the next day, once again, enjoying the pools before walking around Margaret Island for an hour or two. I find out that, besides thermal pools, bike rides, and Frisbee and ball games played on green fields, Margaret Island also has a cushioned running track which runs around the perimeter of the island, sports fields, a zoo, Japanese Pedal Cargardens, a waterpark, outdoor theatre and concerts and a musical fountain along the lines of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. When my friend Jenni comes to visit from England in a couple of weeks, we’ll spend a day here to enjoy more of Margaret Island’s offerings.
At 3:00, I catch the number 26 bus back to the city and arrive at my new digs just around the corner from the Nyugoti train station (designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame). Today I splurged which is sometimes needed when living a location independent life.
Next, I’ll let give you a lowdown of some of the music and theatre I found on this trip to Budapest and also tell you about the various accommodations and provide links. Oh, and there might be a Big celebrity sighting in there.

A Princess in Search of a Crown and a Castle

CathedralHola mi amigos! I considered writing this article in Spanish but, as I’ve learned from my last few weeks in Merida, Mexico, mi español es mui mal. In fact, somehow, in the month since I’ve returned from Cuba, my Spanish has gotten much worse. I’ll need to improve on that as I consider opening a business here. More on that in un momento (hey, getting better). First, I came down here to go to the dentist. You see, when I was in Sun Valley, Idaho, I had a toothache. Due to travel, I was long-overdue for a visit to the tooth doc. When I explained to the dentist that the pain in my tooth made me want to chew my fingers off, one-by-one, every time it encountered something cold (too dramatic?), he explored and told me I’d been grinding my teeth and now needed a crown. While I’m a princess (in my own mind), and agreed that I did indeed need a crown, I assumed the price he wanted to charge me meant the crown would be similar to that of Queen Elizabeth’s, and would come with rubies, emeralds, and a few diamonds. When he explained that there would be no jewels included, I told him I’d need to find some prince to pay for that. I further explained that, “Oh, the top tooth there also has something to say when the cold hits it.”
Apparently, as I couldn’t afford a crown for tooth number one, this meant that tooth number two deserved no further exploration and was answered with a simple, “Yes, it’s probably the same thing.” Telling me it may, or may not help, Mr. Dentist then added on to a filling I already had.
Seeing I don’t really have a place to live – yes, I still have my house, but it’s empty and up for sale (want to buy it? Click contact) – and I have to pay for a place to lay my head anyway, I considered my options and did what many Arizonan’s, Californian’s, and others due to avoid the high-cost of dentistry in the U.S. I flew south.
I flew into Cancun and took a very pleasant, four-hour bus ride to Merida (at a cost of about US$20) where I have friends, and where the hotel and restaurant prices are much less expensive than the tourist areas of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. You’ll recall that I visited Merida previously during our vote on ancient civilizations. It was on that trip that I introduced you to my friend Stewart, aka the International Man of Mystery (IMM) and his partner Jesus, aka Chucho. This time, the IMM and Chucho were kind enough to assist me with choosing a dentist and making an appointment.
The IMM E-mailed me prior to my arrival with a choice of two dentists.
“One speaks English and the other doesn’t,” he explained. “The one who speaks English is also nice looking.”
“I’ll take him, please.”
“Oh, and I have good news and bad news,” the IMM later E-mailed me. “The bad news is, Dr. Nishikawa no longer has an office near us and you’ll need to take a taxi to get there. The good news is that he also no longer has a wife, though I can’t promise he hasn’t found himself a girlfriend.”
“The again, perhaps that’s the reason he no longer has a wife,” I added.
Before you knew it, I had an appointment with Dr. Miquel Angel Josè Nishikawa (yep, Mexican-Japanese). It was during the first appointment I was told that, in fact, he didn’t believe I needed a crown at all. (I’m not sure he understood that I’m a princess.) He told me that I simply needed to brush with Sensodyne toothpaste and get some mouth guards to wear during both the day and night. He then took a mold of my top teeth and, during the second appointment, I was fitted with two mouth guards – one for day and one for night. It was somewhat disappointing not getting a gem-covered crown to wear, but to add insult to injury, I now had a less than attractive plastic mouthpiece to wear at night. Still, where one crown would have cost about US$1,100.00 in the U.S., and I might have been told I may have, in fact, needed two, in Mexico, my three visits (there was an additional follow-up), two mouth guards, a coating, as I still had some pain on my third visit, and a cleaning (because, without a crown, I had to find some sparkle somewhere), cost me about US$150.00. Add to that a ticket purchased with frequent flyer miles, plus an additional $29 for taxes and fees, along with a hotel room that I’d have to pay for anyway, but which cost me about US$32 per night, and I’m happy with my dental decision.
Now, a bit more about that hotel. While the IMM and Chucho own Casa Alux, which I’ve stayed at previously, some Canadians had beat me to it and I needed to find some alternate lodging. After searching nearly every hotel booking site I normally frequent, and scouring the reviews with the proper amount of skepticism borne from experiences in sixty countries, I settled on the Hotel MariaJose (yes, they spell it as one word). The reviews were good and, opposed to some I’d looked at, they were also recent. I booked eight nights, knowing I would stay in Merida longer, but with a fear of commitment to this yet unseen place.
Hotel RoomPriced at $690.00 Mexican Pesos per night (approximately US$ 39.67 at time of publication), and often available cheaper on online booking sites (as I said, I got it for US$32 per night including tax), this hotel provides not just great value, but a truly welcoming stay in an excellent location. While they have fifty-four rooms of various sizes and different amenities – one, two and three beds, some with kitchenettes, some with a small refrigerator and breakfast bar – I stayed in the basic single room. It was quite large with its own bathroom, flat screen television and Wifi access. The hotel, like many of buildings in the White City, as Merida is known, is colonial style, which means that the building surrounds a courtyard and many of the rooms, though they have windows, these windows look out into hallways. As I was looking at a long-term stay, I couldn’t imagine staying in a room without natural light, and they were nice enough to switch me to a room facing the pool. Oh, and as for the pool, it’s gorgeous. I was concerned about noise in a room that was literally ten-steps from the water’s edge. My concern was unfounded as, there was only one-night during, what turned out to be an eighteen-day stay, that there was noise – children laughing and music blaring – and things calmed down by 11:00pm. And there was little noise during the day.
Pool BarThe MariaJose began to feel like home. Each morning, I’d order breakfast and, while they have a restaurant, they’ll deliver your food to your room or to the pool free of charge. Just as in the restaurant, you tip the waiter. On most days, I enjoyed my breakfast and, on some nights, my dinner, sitting at the table outside my room near the pool.
Hotel PoolThe MariaJose is located on Calle 64 between 53 and 55. This places it in el Centro and just a few blocks walking distance of many of the city’s most famous sights. It’s six blocks from Paseo de Montejo, the Champs-Élysées of Merida, which, every Sunday, is closed to motorized traffic to allow time and a place for bike-riding with family and friends. (They’ve recently tried this on a Saturday night and, rumor has it, they’ll continue that once per month.) This makes for a festive atmosphere during which artists display their creations along the sidewalks, musicians play traditional Mexican music, as well as Louis Armstrong tunes and classic rock, and non-profits hold fundraising and awareness walks.
The MariaJose has great air conditioning, a pool, parking, Wifi (though sometimes spotty, it’s dependable enough for this Wifi dependent writer) and can even sell you some tours to see Merida and the surrounding ruins and cenotes. Oh, it’s absolutely non-smoking, even outside (I learned this when I tried smoking my cigar, left over from Cuba, outside on my patio by the pool. The word for “no” in Spanish is “no”.) They’re currently doing some construction to add eight more rooms (though there was no noise issue concerning this during my stay). And speaking of tours, that’s the business I’m considering opening. Merida has an up-and-coming arts and culture scene, as well as some traditional Mayan artisans. The culinary scene, while known for some very specific regional dishes, is also expanding. Still, the city maintains its colonial charm along with some stunning architecture. Stand by for what might soon become Drop Me in Merida Walking tours. Still, it’s early in the process so, ssshhh, don’t tell anybody yet.

Montreal – La Tour Belvedere Hotel – I Could Live Here (Review)

Hello Virtual Travel Buddies! Yes, it’s been a while since we spoke. Much has been happening as a result of this project and I’ll share the good, the bad, and the oh-so-ugly in the next article. In the meantime, I’d like to introduce you to a new section on Drop Me Anywhere – Hotel and other recommendations. I’ve stayed at many different types of accommodations, both before and during this project. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’ve been sleeping around during this journey (wait, it’s not as bad as it sounds), by staying at high-end hotels, low-end hotels, very low-end hotels, private rooms in hostels, camper vans, trains, airplanes, boutique hotels, guest houses, homestays, B&B’s, Airbnb’s, friends’ houses, friend’s parents’ houses, yurts, and even a nudist RV resort. And while I’ve told you general information about them, I thought it might help you in your travels if I were more specific about their locations and what they have to offer. And while you may find more than hotels in this section – activities, travel products, and more – much concentration will be placed on comfy places to lay your head. If I stay someplace and I don’t feel I can recommend staying there, well, I won’t be writing about them in this section as I don’t want to waste your time. Besides, mom always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, well. . . .”
So, for our first hotel, let’s talk about the La Tour Belvedere Apartment and Hotel in Montreal, Canada. I visited Montreal for a job interview two-weeks ago. During my stay, the company put me up at a hotel. I decided to stay in town for an extra night but, as the hotel the company had reserved for my stay was above my budget, I found this one just a mile-or-so away. The area is known as Shaughnessy Village, and it’s a good place to find less-expensive accommodations, as many students live there; the Atwater Metro Station is two-blocks away.
Hotel front deskFrom the outside, the Belvedere looks a bit sketchy; it’s a basic entrance with a tiny parking area. Still, when I walked into the small lobby, it was clean, and well-lit (as were a couple of women I rode the elevator with). I’d been up quite early and was disappointed that my room wasn’t ready. I’m generally not one to get upset about this as most hotels advertise their check-in times, and we were nowhere near that. Still, I was tired and needed a nap, and it was pouring rain outside which made a comfy hotel room even more desirable. I was thrilled when, after asking, they said they could switch my room to one that was ready.
KitchenTaking the elevator to the ninth-floor, I opened the door to my upgraded Executive Suite and, as I walked in, I found a dining table with a three chairs (hip-hip-hurray!), a full kitchen including an oven, stovetop, microwave, full-sized refrigerator and all you need to cook and eat a nice meal. The only things not included were the ingredients and a personal chef to cook it (I think they might charge extra for this). As I was staying for only one night, I headed Dining Tabledown the rainy streets to the food-court in the mall two-blocks away to grab some Thai carry-out. While I forgot my umbrella up in my room, the front desk was nice enough to loan me one of theirs.
My room had a basic, yet comfortable, living-room area with a sofa, chair, tables, lamps and TV. My separate bedroom had a comfortable, queen-sized bed and another TV. The bathroom was clean and set up well and included a basket with amenities. It’s a bit unfortunate that in-room thermostats don’t work and you must call the front desk to get the temperature adjusted. (Yes, I’m that girl, “I’m hot, I’m cold.” Just call me Goldilocks.)
Living RoomDue to my 7:00am flight (ugh), I didn’t have a chance to sample their breakfast but they offer both a hot breakfast and a continental one which includes fruit, pastries, yogurt, bread, juice and coffee. Luckily, there’s also a coffee maker in the room.
BedroomLa Tour Belvedere has an indoor pool, sauna, exercise room, self-service laundry and WiFi ($5.00 per day charge). All rooms have a full kitchen. With 2016 winter prices generally below $80 and summer prices right around $100 (that’s in Canadian Dollars which means, with current exchange rates, Americans can get a great deal), the value for your money here is good. Again, don’t be put off by their entrance as, unless you plan to sleep on their doorstep, it’s the room and the service which matters (at least to me) and I found La tour Belvedere a comfortable stay in a generally good location with many interesting attractions within a close walk or metro ride.
All-in-all – Here are my ratings on a scale of 1-5 (5 being oh-so-fabulous and 1 being oh-so-disappointing:
Location – 4
Cleanliness – 5
Comfort – 4
Value – 5
Service – 4
Overall Rating – 4
Keep in mind, ratings are based on the value for the price paid. If I were paying Ritz Carlton prices, rating would be different.
To book a room or, for more information, please visit http://www.tourbelvedere.com/default-en.html
Tune in for the crazy story of what happened when I returned home and what’s next. And check back on this tab soon to see more accommodation, activity and product review.