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Six Months on the Road: Colombia and USA – San Francisco & Hawai’i

February 18, 2018

After countless night buses, flights, dorm beds, hikes, new friends and once-in-a-lifetime experiences our six month adventure throughout South America is over!  As I sit here, back in New Zealand, it’s hard to believe how many miles we’ve put behind us and just how much we’ve seen.

How lucky are we?

… but now we’re home, life kind of just goes on!  We’ve not forgotten about you though – as always, we’ve recorded our costings, route and suggested activities, only this time we’ve got a few stops up in North America for good measure too…

First time reading our monthly round-up?  We suggest you start with our first, second, third, fourth and fifth months on the road in South America before getting into this one.

Cartagena, Colombia

Our first introduction to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Cartagena was our favourite ocean-side spot (which I must admit, surprised us) in the country.  With colourful old buildings, an afternoon spent walking through its winding streets is a day well spent.  We found two nights to be more than we needed but there are worse places to spend a few days than Cartagena!

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Casa Torices Real @ COP29,450 each/night (USD10/NZD13.80) – we were lucky to have the room to ourselves but with a cold shower (that did actually come out with a touch of warmth), a dorm toilet with only a shower curtain to provide privacy from the rest of the room and a taxi required to get into town, it wasn’t the best value around.  Of course, hotels there would be much louder and more expensive, but we’d probably look elsewhere if returning.

Activities:  With such beautiful buildings, we spent the day wandering through the colonial streets, admiring Cartagena’s beauty.

Onwards travel to Santa Marta:  Organised through Juan Ballena, we got a shuttle from the office in Cartagena to the office in Santa Marta (USD23 each).  You are able to get a taxi/bus/taxi combo but it takes twice as long and doesn’t work out a heck of a lot cheaper in the end.  If you do decide to book, you can use the following promo code to save 5% on your booking ‘CARTAHELLYEAH!’.

Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta is, for most people, a jumping off point to Minca and Tayrona National Park – for us, it wasn’t much more than that.  There’s a beach that’s flanked by oil tankers (doesn’t that sound delightful?) and a town that lacks the charm of Salento.  All in all, it wouldn’t be top of our list.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Mareiwa Hostel @ COP30,000 each/night (USD10.20/NZD14.05) – the hotel wasn’t anything special but was reasonably close to the action in town and did have a little warmth in the cold shower.  It didn’t have a great social spot to relax but the beds themselves were comfortable and the hostel clean enough.  It wouldn’t be our top pick in town, but the price was right, as was the location.

Activities:  Very limited – we took a wander down to the beach (which really wasn’t anything special) and picked up some food in town.

Onwards travel to Minca:  COP8,000 each for the colectivo from Santa Marta to Minca – you can pick this up on the corner of Calle 12 and Carrera 9 (and pay in the little office before boarding the van).

Minca, Colombia

Up in the mountains, above Santa Marta, sits Minca, a sleepy forested town, popular with tourists looking to relax.  It’s clean, green and a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of the neighbouring coastal area.

Accommodation:  4 nights at Casa Relax Minca Hostal Boutique in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD11.90/NZD16.40).  The hostel is a little way out of town but it has a lovely relaxed feel to it (though the rooms upstairs could do with proper ceilings to help cut the noise out).  The beds were super comfy, breakfast was tasty and the setting was perfect – we’d recommend a stay for sure.

Activities:  Minca’s all about relaxing and getting amongst nature.  Whilst there, we hiked to Cascada de Marinka (COP4,000/USD1.35/NZD1.85 each) and also to Pozo Azul (no entrance fee).  Both of these walks can be accessed by moto-taxi but if you have a little time on your hands and a reasonable level of fitness, we’d recommend you hike.

The walk out to Pozo Azul is slightly easier than that to Cascada de Marinka but both are totally manageable with only Cascada de Marinka have a decent dose of hill-climbing towards the end – other than that, both hikes quietly gain elevation on the way there and of course drop down again on the way back.

If you only have time to visit one spot, we preferred Casada de Marinka – the hike was a little more involved, there were fewer people there, and the two beautiful waterfalls are set in a lovely tropical garden.

Pro Tip:  Be sure to take your swimming togs (bathing suit) so you can cool off – both Cascada de Marinka and Pozo Azul provide opportunities for a dip.  Be warned though, they’re both pretty chilly!

Onwards travel to Palomino (via Santa Marta):  Collectivo from Minca to Santa Marta (where it dropped you off) for COP8,000 each (USD2.70/NZD3.75).  Once in town, round the corner at the bus station and jump on the bus from Santa Marta to Palomino for COP10,000 each (USD3.40/NZD4.70) – these buses run constantly and you just pay onboard.

Palomino, Colombia

Whilst travelling, a number of people exclaimed that we had to visit Palomino, so that’s exactly what we did.  We were told that Palomino offered much of the beauty of the Tayrona National Park, but with the added benefit of having more comfortable and affordable accommodation.  Did we find that to be true?  We planned on staying for four nights and ended up cutting back to two so we’ll leave you to decide.

Accommodation:  1 night in a private room at The Dreamer Hostel – Palomino (be sure to book the right one – we booked Santa Marta by mistake!) @ COP110,000 each (USD37.45/NZD51.60) and then 1 night at the Palomino Breeze Hostal in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD12.35/NZD17).  Though we loved our first hostel, it really did hurt our wallets (and even at that price, it was a cold-water shower)!  The second hostel was very basic but it had a pool and did the trick for one night.

Activities:  We chose to chill out beside the pool but you’re able to head out tubing on a local river and can also catch the bus to Tayrona (though it’s closer to Santa Marta).

Onwards travel to Barranquilla:  Bus from Palomino to Santa Marta (COP10,000/USD3.40/NZD4.70) each – speak to your driver as he’ll be able to drop you off at the big roundabout in Santa Marta where you can get straight on a minivan to continue on.  From there, head into the office of Berlinas where you’ll get a ride in the van to their main Santa Marta office and a ticket right through to Barranquilla for COP20,000 each (USD6.80/NZD9.40).

Barranquilla, Colombia

With flights out of Barranquilla, we always knew we had to spend a night there but we really weren’t planning any more than that.  In the end though, when we decided to move on early from Palomino, we figured we’d skip through Santa Marta and try our luck in Barranquilla – what a great choice that ended up being!  Our hotel was super comfortable and there were lots of yummy food options in the local mall.  Sure, it wasn’t what most of our travels were about but it was the perfect way to finish up in South America before flying on.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at the Holiday Inn Express Barranquilla Buenavista @ COP78,375 each (USD26.79/NZD36.75).  This was the perfect spot to chill after a busy six months!  The beds were crazy comfortable and breakfast was filling – though it was a little bit of a splurge compared to the hostels we’d been used to, it was money well spent and great value.

Activities:  Absolutely nothing!  Though there are a few things to do in Barranquilla, it’s mostly an economic hub for the Caribbean side of Colombia.  For us, it was a place to recharge our batteries for a few days before heading up to the US.

Onwards travel to San Francisco:  Flights booked through Kiwi (click here to get a €20 on us!) at USD631.55 each (NZD870.40).

San Francisco, California, United States of America

Having visited the West Coast countless times before but never making it to San Francisco, we decided it was finally time to check out the city that we’d heard so much about.  Taking pride of place on the bay, San Francisco was everything that was promised to us and then some – it’s fair to say we fell in love with this incredible city.

Accommodation:  5 nights in a private room at the San Remo Hotel @ USD32.60 each/night (NZD51.80) and another 2 nights where we treated ourselves at Hotel Griffon.  Both hotels are well located, San Remo near Fisherman’s Wharf and Hotel Griffon being right on the water in the middle of town.

Make a difference.  Though we’ve seen homelessness elsewhere, we’d never seen it on the level that we did in San Francisco.  Expensive housing, a high cost of living, a relatively temperate climate and a lack of government support means the city has an exceptionally high level of people down on their luck.  You’re able to help though – when you leave a restaurant that offers free soft drink refills ask for a takeaway glass (commonplace in the US) or top your own takeaway cup up when you leave a burger joint.  Hang on to any leftover food, hotel amenities or articles of clothing that have been replaced on a US shopping adventure.  Anything you’re able to donate will likely be gratefully received.

Activities:   With so much to do in San Francisco you’ll be hard-pressed to tick all the boxes but if you manage your time well, it’s easy to fit a couple of activities into each day.

Alcatraz –  San Francisco’s most recognisable attraction,
Alcatraz Cruises is your go-to tour provider.  For USD37.25 per person (NZD51.40), they’ll take you over to the island and provide everything you need to explore the most iconic prison in the world… and yes, it really is a must do!  The audio tour that’s included in the trip is amazing – with background noises and sound effects, it genuinely transports you back to the prison’s heyday.

We considered both the day and night tours and found that each had their own pros and cons.  The day tour allows guests to explore the park on the island, giving them much more freedom to move about as they please.  By comparison, the night tour is apparently much more dramatic (can’t you just imagine the moody atmosphere in the old prison at night?) but it comes with a slightly higher price tag, less flexibility to do your own thing and that chilly San Francisco night air.

By the time we decided to book the night tour, the tickets had sold out!  Instead, we visited during the day where we happily spent half a day on the island and would suggest you combine it with a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf whilst you’re in the area.  There are also a number of other activities available in this part of town so no doubt, you’ll find yourself back there.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge – Touted by friends as a must-do in San Francisco, we picked up our ‘deluxe infinity shifting priority hybrid bikes from
Wheel Fun Rentals and headed for the iconic bridge.  Though the names of the bikes sound complicated, in reality, they’re anything but; the gears shift smoothly, without any hang-time, allowing anyone to jump on and figure out the system quickly.  The bikes also come with a self-guided GPS system, taking riders through key routes and sharing interesting local information.  The ridge over the bridge itself is easy and bike lanes throughout the journey mean you’ll spend very little time on the road itself – yes, you’ll probably end up with a sore behind but the views are totally worth it.

Pro Tip:  If you’d like to cut the time you spend on your bike down, you can ride over to Sausalito (on the other side of the bridge) and catch the ferry back over towards the city.  Likewise, if you’re on a budget, simply turn around at the end of the bridge and bike back to save yourself a ferry ticket.  We really would recommend a trip out to Sausalito though, so if you don’t include it as part of your biking excursion, try to include it with another day trip (like we did whilst visiting the redwoods).

Muir Woods & Sausalito day trip – One of our must-do’s in San Francisco, we joined
Extranomical Tours to get up close and personal with the incredible redwoods.  The day itself was very relaxed, starting with a visit to the ferry building for breakfast and then a visit to the Muir Woods before heading to Sausalito and stopping off for amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and a breath of fresh air, making the whole experience a real highlight of our time in the city.

Big Bus Tours – For years Nathan has talked about jumping on a Big Bus Tour but it took us hitting San Fran for it to finally happen!  We loved the flexibility these tours offer – for 24 hours we were able to hop on and off again as often as we wanted, with entertaining, personalised commentary all the way.

Though it would be been great to have taken our tour on a fine day, it was a great way to see the city, even in the rain.  When you’re on the tour, be sure to jump off at Haight-Ashbury, the vibrant, summer-of-love part of San Francisco.

For those of you that grew up watching Full house, yes, you can check out the aforementioned houses whilst on the tour!

California Academy of Sciences – Not somewhere initially on our list, we were so pleased our CityPASS included tickets as it was literally one of the best, most interactive set of exhibitions we’ve ever seen.  With an incredible array of fish and marine animals, an amazing planetarium and exhibits to capture everyone’s attention, it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon seeking shelter from the rain.

Even better, the Big Bus swings right past the entrance and continues on its way again so it’s easy to fit into your schedule.

Aquarium of the Bay – Again included in our San Francisco CityPASS, the Aquarium of the Bay is conveniently located at Fisherman’s Wharf and combines well with other activities in the area.  We spend around 1.5 hours at the aquarium, checking out their sharks, otters and other fabulous exhibits.

Scale-wise, it doesn’t compare to the Academy of Sciences but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially if you have a CityPASS and therefore, a free ticket.

AsiaSF – If you’re looking for a unique night out in one of the most liberal cities in the world, a visit to AsiaSF will tick your boxes!  Proud supporters of the transgender community, these stunning ladies are the epitome of ‘fabulous’, performing to enthusiastic audiences whilst serving up delicious Asian-inspired meals.  Go equipped with a sense of fun and humour and you’ll have the best night out!

Take in a basketball game – An easy subway ride from the city, a basketball game is a fantastic (albeit expensive) way to spend an evening!  With the Golden State Warriors in fine form and games running frequently throughout the week, chances are you’ll be able to pick up tickets to a game at a relatively reasonable price with advance notice.  We paid USD80.40 (NZD108.85) each to sit up in the top stalls – they weren’t the best seats in the house (quite the opposite) but allowed us to enjoy the game and unique atmosphere.

Pro Tip – Leave your big cameras and bags at the hotel!  The stadium has a strict bag-check policy and having to make use of it will cost you USD10.  If you’re able to, it’s best to pop the essentials in your pocket and avoid the hassle.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – Never ones to turn down a good rollercoaster, a visit to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom was a non-negotiable for us (well mostly me) on our San Fran trip.  We had a great day out at the park with new friends, racing around all of the best coasters in the park.  Our top picks?  The Joker (an amazing wooden/steel hybrid with lots of airtime) and Medusa.  I also loved Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth (but couldn’t talk the others into joining me) and would have loved to have gotten on SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight had it not been closed for maintenance.

Headed out to the park?  You’ll need a rental car!  City Rent-a-Car will sort you out for the day from their central Union Square location for only USD50.

Pier 39 – Popular with tourists, a visit to Pier 39 can cost you as much or as little as you like.  We enjoyed strolling along the wharf, people watching and of course, checking out the Californian sea lions.

The San Francisco Dungeon – If you’re looking for a comical introduction to San Franciscian history, the Dungeon might be the place for you.  With a couple of rides and lots of theming and on-point actors, this immersive experience is entertaining, if a little different to your normal tourism activity.  The rides themselves were a little disappointing if we’re being honest but the experience as a whole was worthwhile, especially on a rainy day.

Onwards travel to the Big Island, Hawai’i:  We booked from San Francisco to Oahu (and then on to Auckland, New Zealand) through Hawaiian Airlines for USD625.10 each (NZD861.55).  We then connected from Honolulu to Kona for USD82 each (NZD113).

Big Island, Hawai’i, United States of America

Tropical beaches, near-perfect weather and all of the benefits of cheap American shopping; we didn’t need to visit the Big Island to know that we’d fall in love!  When tossing up between Maui and the Big Island (also known by the state’s name, Hawai’i), we elected for the later for one key reason – mantas.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mauna Lani Bay and 2 nights at Hilton Waikoloa Village.  Both hotels were absolutely glorious!  Mauna Lani Bay has access to fabulous snorkelling just off the beach whilst the Hilton Waikoloa Village had a massive lagoon, perfect for guaranteed turtle snorkelling.


Manta Dive with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii – The main reason we visited the Big Island, this is the best place in the world to swim with these gentle giants.  Absolutely massive, with an undeniable grace, these harmless beauties are attracted to the surface at night to feed on plankton – we were just lucky to observe them in their natural habitat for 45 minutes or so.  We tossed up whether we’d snorkel or dive with the mantas and in the end decided to snorkel to save a bit of money (it cost USD123.40/NZD167.10 each).  With amazing views of them throughout the snorkel, we were more than happy with our choice, though we’re sure the dive would have been amazing too!

Morning Snorkel with Fair Wind Cruises – Touted as the best snorkelling on the island, one of the only practical ways to get to Kealakekua Bay (home of the Captain Cook monument) is on a cruise.  Fair Wind provide so much more than just transport though – snorkelling gear, delicious food (breakfast, lunch and soft drinks all at no additional charge), a fabulous boat (complete the high-water dive platforms and two waterslides) and stand-up paddle boards.  We love that they really follow through on their eco-friendly policies, encouraging guests to do their bit to help cut down on waste and providing them with environmentally aware alternatives.

Onwards travel to Honolulu, Hawai’i:  Hawaiian Airlines, USD82 each (NZD113).

Honolulu, Oahu, Hawai’i, United States

Having visited Oahu before, we knew it would be the perfect was to finish up our trip.  Plenty to do should we wish but no pressure to tick activities off either – we’d been before and no doubt we’ll go again.

Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed mixed dorm at the Waikiki Beachside Hostel @ USD47 each (NZD64.75) and then 3 nights in a private room at the Surftide @ AUD65.20 each (USD50.95/NZD70.25 – booked through Wotif).  By far the most expensive hostel we stayed at on our travels, the Waikiki Beachside Hostel was also one of the most basic – with gaping holes in the glass, a ranchslider that barely closed and rubbish trucks passing by at all hours, we couldn’t say it offered particularly good value for money.  Our move to the Surftide was the best choice we could have made.

Activities:  As we’d visited Honolulu a few times before and were at the end of a long trip, we wanted to spend most of our time on Oahu relaxing and that’s exactly what we did.  We did, however, manage to squeeze in a few new experiences!

Discount shopping – The Waikele Premium Outlets are a little out of Waikiki but if you have a rental car, they’re well worth a visit.  With lots of popular brands (new Levis jeans, Ugg boots, Clarks heels and a whole lot more made their way into my bag) at fantastic prices, be sure to pick up an extra suitcase to cart all of your bargains home.

Cage-free shark snorkel – This is literally the best thing you’ll ever do on Oahu.  Jump in with One Ocean and leave the cages to everyone else – you don’t need one!  The One Ocean team is made up of scientists and environmentalists and is on a serious mission to improve outcomes for sharks and to educate people about their plight.  Even with 50+ sharks in the water and no real protection from them, we felt incredibly comfortable.  If you’ve never spent time with sharks and are a little nervous about doing so, we guarantee a morning out with these guys will change your thoughts on them!

Drive around the Island and check out the North Shore – Possibly the most famous surfing spot in the world, the Banzai Pipeline is the best spot to catch massive waves and surfers with equally massive amounts of courage to take them on!

Hanauma Bay – One of the most popular natural attractions on Oahu, Hanauma Bay is a great place to learn how to snorkel.  The protected bay attracts all sorts of beautiful sea life and calm water conditions means it suits snorkellers of all abilities.  Unfortunately, the fish weren’t as abundant as we remember it being in the past but we were told by a local that if you get out beyond the waves (where few people go), that it’s much more impressive.

Entrance is USD7.50 each (NZD10.25) and the bay is open every day apart from Tuesday.  To get there, jump on the 22 bus for USD2.75 one way.  If you have enough exact change, pay for the return ticket at once (USD5.50) and you’ll be given a day pass allowing you to ride the bus elsewhere at no extra charge.

Diamond Head Luau – Just how I’ve been to Hawai’i so many times without ever attending a luau is beyond me!  This time though, we changed that, heading along to the Diamond Head Luau just down the road at Waikiki.

With a new ‘farm to table’ buffet offering, the quality of the food was top notch and in typical American style, served up with a smile.  Tickets included a range of Hawaiian crafts and traditional skills, three cocktails to kickstart the night, a fantastic show, delicious buffet and entrance to the aquarium at the end of the night.

Though we didn’t visit any of the following attractions this time around, we almost always do – be sure to let us know if you’d like help planning them; Pearl Harbour, Ala Moana Shopping Mall and the Dole Pineapple Plantation.

Onwards travel to Auckland, New Zealand:   Included as part of our flight with Hawaiian from San Francisco to Auckland – we chose to add a stopover in Hawaii at no additional charge.

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Big expectations can be hard to meet.  Throughout our travels we heard practically everyone rave about Colombia.  To be honest though, it really didn’t live up to our expectations; there was a lot we liked about certain spots (Salento, Medellín and Minca for example), but the Caribbean coast was a surprising disappointment.  Colombia was far from a bad spot, I think we’ve just learnt to temper our expectations.
  • There’s nothing wrong with heading back to a favourite spot.  In fact, doing so can be a great choice!  It certainly wasn’t the first time we’d returned to a favourite spot but after 2.5 years of visiting places that were new to us, it was a lovely change to revisit a part of the world that we already knew we enjoyed.

So that’s us, all done!  Six months of full-time travel behind us and incredible memories to last a lifetime.

Machu Picchu, Patagonia, the Iguazu Falls, a luxury cruise through the Galapagos Islands, white water rafting, ziplining, scuba diving, sandboarding, shark snorkelling and more.  We attempted to learn a new language (and were relatively successful in doing so) and made it through a whole bunch of challenges, hopefully coming out the other end better off for them.

We’re so grateful for the last six months and looking excitedly into the future.

One thing I know for sure; this isn’t the end of our adventure.

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