NZ Camper Van Adventures: beaches, hikes, and hot water

July 11, 2018
by Dan

After two weeks of rest in Rotorua and a brief excursion to Middle Earth, it was time to get down to really seeing New Zealand for what it’s famous for: the nature.

Obviously we had seen a bit of the landscape and enjoyed a few outdoor activities, but without a vehicle we were limited in our explorations. And New Zealand has a lot of wonderful natural areas within easy access of its major cities. Really it’s amazing how quickly you can go from Auckland into the boonies. But the public transit is limited, much like the US, so to see NZ proper you need a motor vehicle to get around.

Note that I said motor vehicle. This is one of the few places I’ve been that I would absolutely not want to do bike touring and it’s 100% for safety reasons (vs smog in India for example). After driving the windy narrow roads myself and seeing other drivers, there is no way I would take to the roads in NZ by bike. Which sucks.

The vehicle of choice in New Zealand is the camper van which is pretty much my second choice for a vehicle after a bike. So I was thrilled that Christina was down to adventure  camper van style.

When we visited Alaska with some friends a few years ago we rented a Class C RV, and it was definitely one of my top favorite adventures. This time we went with something more compact, which is even more fascinating to me. We got a Toyota Estima from SpaceShip Rentals. It’s just a minivan with the main passenger area converted to be able to sleep two people. It’s light on amenities so I knew this was going to be rough, but I had read that the camp site options are very nice in New Zealand and that campsites are more like hostels, you just bring your own bed in the form of a camper.

We got off season pricing for our rental, so it seemed like it was going to be a killer deal for a place to stay for two people. What we discovered, however, was that campsites aren’t nearly as nice or cheap as people make them out to be. We had our transportation sorted out, which gave us the ability to explore more remote destinations, but combining the cost of the rental, gas, and campsite fees, it wasn’t as economical as I had imagined. It was probably break even with a car rental and hostel stays, but it was probably more fun.

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We picked up our rental from Spaceship after hours so we cautiously documented all the dings and scratches, and took off to find a place to camp. Despite my worries about driving on the left, I’m happy to say that we made it through the week without incident and I quickly became accustomed to it. I generally drove slower than traffic, but I really seriously think that most Kiwis were over-driving the windy narrow back country roads, which is why I think bike touring here is a terrible idea.

I’m also really glad that we didn’t get a manual transmission vehicle. I think I could handle it now after a week of practice, but the combination of driving on the other side of the road and manual would have been far too stressful. I had enough trouble turning on my windshield wipers at every left hand turn. I didn’t need to be rolling down my window every time I tried to shift into second.

We spent our first night just west of Auckland at the Whatipu campsite. It was a relatively cheap, but a bit rustic campsite with only a place to park, some composting toilets, cold non-potable water, and a shack where we could prepare food on our camp gear. We arrived very late at night and could barely figure out how our camp gear worked in the dark. Fortunately, the camper was already in ‘bed mode’ so we were able to just eat some Wheatbix and crawl into bed.

The next morning rapidly oscillated between sunny and miserable as the rain came and went, but we made our way out to the black sand beach that the peninsula is famous for, and we were treated to some really brilliant rainbows.

Unfortunately a lot of the hikes in the area were closed off due to a soil born parasite that is killing the local Kauri trees called Kauri Dieback (basically hiking is spreading this disease and killing one of New Zealand’s important trees).

The park ranger Peter gave us a long talk about the various beautiful nature things to do in the area and also suggested we head over to the Coromandel peninsula, and we opted to head over that way next.

We were able to make our way over to the Coromandel Pensinsula by way of Ngatea, which has a free one-night camping area behind the local library. The WiFi access was great and we had an opportunity to sort out how the camper van functioned. There was also a playground nearby, and Christina did her thing with the rings.

From there we headed directly to Hot Water Beach of Coromandel (it’s not the only one though, there are several in NZ). This was a top destination for Christina who loves hot water. A hot spring is located on the beach, if you dig a hole in the right spot, piping hot water will well up. Strategically digging your hole will allow you to mix hot spring water with ocean water and achieve a perfect hot tub experience.

It took us a while to figure out our technique and we were fortunate to take over a mostly dug hot hole that we were able to maintain and change to our liking. Which is good because spades were available for rent for $10, which is a hard no.

We paid Hot Water Brewing Company a visit, located not far from Hot Water Beach. It’s adjacent to a holiday park which you have to drive through to reach. They have a good selection of beers which were good, and the staff were very friendly, though the food offerings were on the pricey side. Overall a good place to visit.

That night we stayed at RiverGlen Holiday Park nearby. They had a kitchen and lounge area that was really nice to be able to stretch out and relax after trying to sleep and cook meals in a minivan for two nights. The downside was that they rationed internet to 200 mb per day and hot showers were on a coin operated timer, 7 minutes. Coin operated timer shower tip: there may be hot water from the sink which you could use to get wet and soap down before pumping in your precious coins.

The next morning we took a trip to Cathedral Cove. The parking lot was jam packed so I can’t even imagine how busy it must be in high season. It was a 30-40 minute walk to reach the cove with a paved path the whole way. In addition to the Cathedral itself, the beach was full of some really beautiful rock formations. One of them I kept eyeing that looked excellent for climbing. The rock may have been too soft, but there was no sign saying not to climb… Still I reigned in my climbing impulse.

After the Cove we headed to the west side of the peninsula to our most posh campsite of the trip. It had an outdoor kitchen (boo cold), but there was both unlimited WiFi and hot showers. Not the most lovely place, but I certainly appreciated getting a hot shower finally since I was too cheap to pay extra for one at RiverGlen.

We spent our last touristing day by taking a short hike to a nice view of the Coromandel town Bay and then wandering around the small quaint town of Thames and partaking in some local beers at the pub and a final meal of fish and chips.

Bars in New Zealand are quite interesting. The real local joints are always combined with a gambling room and horse and dog racing is being shown on TVs all around the bar. It’s a fascinating experience as a tourist, but if I kept visiting these sorts of places I would have trouble with pulling my hair out over how stupid gambling is.

After that we made our way back into Auckland to return the camper van. I was terrified of being hit with some fees or damage since we didn’t actually do an in-person check out. We fretted over the gas tank level and just barely got in before they closed for the day. In the end our worries were for naught; the staff was incredibly friendly and they had a lovely waiting area with the most amazing automatic coffee machine I had ever seen. We checked out without issue.

All in all, I would highly recommend Spaceship rentals. It was a great company to rent from and I read some real horror stories about other rental agencies. These guys are solid. Everything was in great condition (except the water jug and can opener, but we made due) and the check in and check out process was really easy. The vehicle drove well and I was thrilled with how easy it was to sleep two people in a minivan. Christina would have liked something a little bigger so that you could sit up in bed (the ceiling was too low), but this basically confirmed my desire to have a proper camping van.

With coffee and our last Tim Tams in hand, we headed off to the airport.

Our last act before checking into our flight was to take a shower in the free showers that Auckland airport offers. This was a strategic move as we knew that we would be heading directly to the Chinese visa office once we got off the plane in Hong Kong…

 

Wotts versus The Great Firewall of China

July 24, 2018
by Dan

We have some posts planned, but we are having trouble with internet connections here in China. Our VPN has fully crapped out on our computers and the idea of trying to do formatting on our phones makes us weep bitter tears, and it would cost too much precious per mb mobile data to get the job done otherwise.

So we likely won’t be able to get any more posts past the Great Firewall of China.

Once we get to South Korea we’ll start sorting through our back log.

Visiting the Shire

July 7, 2018
by Dan

Confession time: We knew nothing about New Zealand before coming here. I knew that the accent was adorable from Flight of the Conchords, and we knew that Lord of the Rings was filmed here, so supposedly it’s a rather pretty place. But exactly what that meant we had no clue. As a result, the only thing that we knew we wanted to do was visit “the Lord of the Rings place in New Zealand”.

The LOTR place in NZ is the set used for filming the Shire. Other parts of the country were also used in the filming, and for good reason. I never imagined that the landscapes of Middle Earth described in the books could be real, but New Zealand fits the bill. Hobbiton is the LOTR movie set that you can tour. For the filming of the Lord of the Rings, Hobbiton was a temporary set, but people were still visiting the ruins. So when it was time to film The Hobbit, they decided to build the set using permanent materials and make it into a proper tourist destination.

To get there we hopped on a bus from Rotorua to the small town of Matamata. The sheep farm that houses Hobbiton is just outside of Matamata, and it’s a pleasant sleepy little town which is famous mostly because of the movies, but secondarily for its race horses.

We stayed at Matamata Backpackers. It’s a lively hostel with lots of folks that seem to be working at Hobbiton or passing through for 1 or 2 nights to visit like us. The housing is just a bunch of trailers. It’s very basic by most standards and about three times more expensive than what we would expect for a hostel dorm (but it had a nice kitchen and the staff was very friendly). Your money doesn’t get you much in NZ. Case in point: our tickets to see Hobbiton cost about as much as the most expensive entry ticket to Machu Picchu or the three day pass at Angkor Wat. But it did come with a complimentary beer, so I guess that makes it much cheaper 🙂

The day we visited was very cold and rainy, but we had bought in advance so we were stuck. We’ve been so lucky so far with the weather at major tourist sites that we basically had this coming and it didn’t bother us too much. We were picked up by the Hobbiton tours bus at the Matamata i-site, which is set up in the style of a hobbit hole. Except it wasn’t a hobbit hole, it was a free standing building. So it is essentially like Buckland, just outside of the Shire.

The tour was quite adorable. The bus driver told us all about the farms and horse raising in the area and how eight locals got cast as extras in the LOTR movies. It had a very small town feeling and felt like the sort of thing you would find in Iowa. After about thirty minutes we arrived in the Shire and were introduced to our tour guide Theresa, or just Tee.

 

Luckily we were provided huge umbrellas to protect us from the rain, and it allowed us to take photos without getting the camera wet. But it was annoying to be herded around in a group full of these huge umbrellas. Luckily it didn’t rain the whole time.

I personally prefer exploring things at my own pace, so I wasn’t a fan of being required to join a tour group, but that’s the only way to see the set. However, Tee was delightful; she seemed to derive a great deal of glee from telling corny jokes and had fun facts to share, so I can’t complain too loudly.

We wound our way through the set, past a variety of hobbit holes, and up the hill to Bag End, with lots of photo ops along the way.

However, we didn’t find anyone home at Bag End. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised since Mr. Frodo headed across the sea to the Undying Lands with the elves.

My biggest take away was how detailed and expansive everything was. I was honestly expecting a row of hobbit hole facades that were used with some movie magic to make the place look like a village in the film. But really they did build a whole hobbit town in the side of the hill. They’ve got the party tree, the Green Dragon Inn, two neighborhoods of hobbit holes, and real gardens where they still grow actual crops as ‘props.’ It’s really impressive.

Then end of the tour terminated at the Green Dragon Inn. This was the one building on the lot that has a proper interior. It’s freaking amazing. It feels right out of the Hobbit (minus all the tall folk wearing strange garb). And you got to select a complementary drink!

There was a stout, a golden ale, a cider, a low/non alcoholic beer, and maybe something else. Visiting as a pair we got to try the ale and stout. The ale was a clear winner. I vowed that I wasn’t going to skimp on this experience, because I know I will never do it again so I ordered the cider as well. Through some wizardry I got the drink for free, which was awesome. Perhaps because most visitors don’t order two drinks within a thirty minute time span at 11:30 in the morning. Christina really liked the cider too, but I’m sticking with the golden ale as the best draught at the Green Dragon.

Back at the hostel we met a young backpacker couple that had attended a wedding at the Green Dragon the night before! I was super jealous. But that’s a thing that can happen! So consider having a destination wedding in Hobbiton, and inviting us, okay?

We finished up our time in Matamata cozied up to the fire chatting with other travelers and working on computers. It was an overall very nice experience. After that we were off to do something very New Zealand: rent a camper van!

 

 

The Best Portable Coffee Maker for Travelers: the Coladera

July 10, 2018
by Christina

Earlier on in our travels we were lamenting not having a portable coffee making device with us. We had coffee and most of the time we were staying at a hostel with a kitchen and we would just use the tools available. But occasionally we would stay some place where there was a kettle boiler, but nothing else, and suddenly the fact that we had beans didn’t put us any closer to our caffeine fix.

I started looking online for ideas. My backpack was already heavy and Dan didn’t have much space, so whatever it was needed to be compact and light. The articles I found suggested things like the AeroPress, mochas, mug-sized French presses, pour over devices that required filters, and on and on. To my eye, a lot of these are bulky, heavy, fragile, have lots of parts, or some combination thereof. Not that these things aren’t great solutions for certain travelers, but not in my bag, baby.

We were in Colombia, a coffee Mecca, so I went to a giant Walmart-like store that had everything: groceries, appliances, clothes, etc. And there, in the kitchen supply area, I found my coffee maker: the coladera.

The coladera is as simple as it gets. It’s a wire handle with a loop and a cotton sock. Doesn’t get much lighter or more compact than that (it does for cold brew, see note below).

And it’s easy to use. You can do pour over, or pour over and a soak if you like. It’s high capacity if you want to make a lot, but it’s good for a single cup too. If you want to get fancy you can play with your water temperature (by letting the water cool after boiling) to see how it affects the taste. When you’re done brewing, just turn it inside out over the trash can to dump the grounds, and rinse it with water (no soap, as that could flavor the sock in undesirable ways).

And since no one mentioned the coladera in their coffee maker articles, I thought I should share it here. Coladera is Spanish, and I don’t get a lot of hits for it when searching the interwebs (in English), but looking on Amazon for “fabric coffee maker” produced a few good results like the Lautechco Coffee Filter Baskets and NUOMI Flannel Cloth Coffee Filter Strainers.

The one draw back to the coladera is that because it is made of cotton fabric, it can take a while to dry. So if you’re moving constantly and don’t have time to set it out to dry, it may not be a perfect fit for you. Otherwise though, I think it’s the best solution there is in terms of compact and portable coffee making devices.

Incidentally, we saw a lot of coffee and tea being made with giant versions of the coladera in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as Colombia. Wherever your travels take you, I hope you get your coffee, however you choose to make (or buy) it.

Note: In researching this article, I discovered the CoffeeSock, which is just a fabric filter that can be used for pour over or cold brew. However, they show using it with a structural pour-over device, so for hot coffee it ends up being bulkier, but the cold brew aspect is really cool and the final word in compact (assuming you’re already carrying a bottle you can brew in).

Auckland & Rotorua, New Zealand: Gardens, rolling down hills in balls, and geothermal adventures

July 1, 2018
by Dan

We arrived in downtown Auckland from the airport at around 8 pm and found the city to be totally quiet. It was a bit of a shock how sleepy it was as we made our way to visit our couch surfing hosts. There was an awkward moment when the front desk called down the wrong Max, who was suspicious, but that was all sorted when the real Max came down to greet us.

Our hosts were a delightful young backpacker couple, Max and Ronja. They were each traveling solo when they met in Thailand, and have been traveling together since. Max is from New Zealand, so they came back to work and save up money before heading off to Fiji and Europe. I’m really glad we got to catch them before they headed off the next week.

We were starving and Max tipped us off about the 5 NZD pizzas you can get at Domino’s when you order online. They weren’t great, but they are good enough and in USD that’s only $3.50, which is a better deal than Lil C’s!!! and better pizza and topping options to boot. We got BBQ Italian sausage… which was just hot dogs and BBQ sauce, but I was still super pumped about this find.

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We spent two nights in Auckland and the big touristic thing we did was visit the Domain winter gardens. They are located in a large park in the center of the city called Auckland Domain. It has two hot houses flanking a large fountain area, and there is a terraced outdoor garden space with benches throughout the grounds. A great place to bring a book to read on a nice day.

After touring the park and the gardens we went to Father Ted’s Original Irish Pub, because someone told us that Irish pubs in New Zealand have cheaper food. We got super lucky with the timing by arriving just before 3 pm so we could order off the lunch menu ($12 NZD instead of $25 NZD for fish and chips, woot!), but then happy hour started at 3 pm and we were able to get the some discount pints.

After Auckland we made our way down to a town called Rotorua. We’ve been traveling for just over a year now and we were starting to feel a little burned out. I’ve realized that we’ve been in a constant state of travel planning the entire time, mostly just a few days in advance, but it still takes a toll. So with that and the writing projects Christina has taken on, we decided to find a small pretty town where we could hit pause and rest up a bit, and that ended up being Rotorua.

We found a wonderful little studio on AirBnB that was located on the west side of Rotorua. We had a small kitchen and we were just a few minutes away from the grocery store. It had a park nearby for Christina’s ring work outs and our hosts, Chris and Jacqi, were lovely. So for the better part of two weeks we did close to nothing except play on our computers and cook for ourselves.

At the grocery store we discovered that yogurt in New Zealand is a killer deal. You can get 750 ml for $3 NZD. That’s $2 USD for a ton of good local yogurt! Pair that up with the generic alternative to Weet-Bix and you have a great cheap breakfast, which we ate a lot. Weet-Bix is a classic Aussie/Kiwi breakfast cereal. It’s like corn flakes in bar form. There is no emulsion or adhesive. I have no clue how they do it but it’s pretty amazing. I love the stuff, though eating it as a dry bar doesn’t really work, as many times as I try to make that a thing.

There are a lot of great Aussie and Kiwi baked goods, and it was one of my goals to eat one called a Pavlova. It’s a meringue-like cake that was named after a Russian ballerina. I had to find it, but the issue was that the top image results on Google show very ornate fruit topped cakes, but that’s nothing like how they look in the store. It just looks like a sponge cake.

When I got it home I was expecting it to just be angel food cake. Nope. It’s sugar and egg white whipped up and baked so that the end result is basically like a perfectly toasted marshmallow. The crusty bit is good and obviously I ate it all because it’s sugar, but it wasn’t really my type of thing. The bummer thing about it is that, although it’s always pictured topped with fruit, the fruit topping doesn’t really blend well with the cake. There is no absorption of the fruit juice into the cake so the combination doesn’t really add much to either ingredient. Still I’m really happy that I finally found one and tried it.

In other food related news, I’ve slowly come around to the whole vegemite/marmite concept. I never understood it on toast, but I did find it to be a nice addition to salad dressings and stir fry sauces. But I’ve found a compromise use. Topping a cracker with a bit of vegemite or marmite, then adding a slice of butter that you think is way too thick, like the thickness of a piece of cheese for your cracker. It’s a really nice combination and allowed me to level up to proper marmite on toast, which I now really love. Basically crackers and dairy products are an excellent gateway to enjoying strong tasting items. It’s how I came to love olives.

We also did a taste testing of all the crazy unfamiliar apples that we saw here. None were really that impressive. Jazz was probably the best. The general takeaway was: in New Zealand stick to kiwis. They are super cheap and delicious and kiwi juice is a delicious thing that exists in this corner of the world.

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We did go on a few outings, thanks mostly thanks to our hosts.

Rotorua is famous for its sulfurous hot springs and geothermal activity. The hot springs in town have been turned into fancy spas, but there are free springs about a thirty minute drive out of town. Since we didn’t have a car, C&J offered to take us with them for a visit to one called Kerosene Creek. Kerosene creek was a decent sized swimming hole, fed by a waterfall. Due to some recent rains the water was a bit more chilly than usual.

So, after a brief stop, we opted to hit up a nearby shallow swimming hole called Hot and Cold that wasn’t so affected by the run off. The ‘Hot’ part was a small hot spring fed steam that flowed into a larger ‘Cold’ river. The main warm area near the bridge was shallow so we made our way a few meters up the creek to where it had been dammed up and we were able to soak until we felt sleepy.

On the way back from the swimming holes we stopped to look at one of the mud pits at the Waiotapu Thermal Track. Apparently you can pay good money to see the same thing in town. This was one of the highlights of Rotorua for me. The pictures don’t really do it justice; the sound, frequency, and violence of the bubbling mud was extreme. It was like the tar pit in Land before time. Unreal.

We also made it out to the local weekend farmers’ market, which was a mix of food vendors, baked goods and veggies. I bought a steak sandwich that looked like the popular local snack. I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. The fresh produce vendors had nicer prices than the grocery stores so we stocked up on a few items. Christina also took part in the public hot pool foot baths in the park nearby.

We made it to downtown Rotorua on a few nights. On one occasion we went to drink craft beer at Brew on Eat Street. And the other night we went to the Thursday night market and saw Chris killing it on the guitar.

Our biggest activity in Rotorua was taking several rides down a hill in a giant inflatable hamster ball. This is a thing, really. It is an activity that was invented in Rotorua, and there are two companies doing it. The first/main one is the Zorb and the competition is OGO. Apparently there is some complicated relationship between the two with the owner of Zorb leaving to start up OGO a few years ago. The two companies seemed roughly the same to us with just slightly different package deals.

We opted to go with OGO because they were running a Winter Solstice nighttime event on the Kiwi deal site GrabOne, which is essentially like Groupon. I highly recommend looking at GrabOne before trying to do anything touristic in NZ. In the end we spent a total of $100 NZD for both of us to be able to go down all three courses, straight, sidewinder, and mega, which would have cost us that much per person at full price. The course and balls were lit up brightly, but I think they could have done a lot more with with some EL wire and Christmas lights.

We got three stamps on our hand for the three rides but they weren’t used for much. The event was quite full, but still small enough that the staff seemed to keep pretty good track of which rides you still had left. I think the oddest thing was that there were no lockers for your valuables at the bottom. We left our phone and wallet with the people at the check in desk, but this was apparently an unusual request.

The night was quite cold and we were mostly ok waiting in line for our first run using some beach towels that our hosts were kind enough to lend us. The wait wasn’t too long and they took a group of us up the hill in a truck with two of the giant human-hamster balls on a trailer. At the top was a lukewarm hot tub and small room with a heat lamp to wait in.

We were shortly called on to go down the straight track, and we got to race each other side-by-side down the hill. Warm water was put inside the ball to make it very slippy for the rider inside. I had a blast bouncing up and down and throwing myself at the front of the ball. I think Christina still won the race, but I had so much fun in there. This resulted in some rug burns on my feet, but it was totally worth it.

On our second run we went together in the same ball down the sidewinder. This was probably the most entertaining course with all the changes of direction, but it’s kind of a mess with two people in one ball. You run into each other and it’s hard to get wild and bouncy without elbowing each other. Still super fun though.

Our final run was on the new mega track. I found this the least interesting actually. It’s just a straight track that’s very steep. It was too fast to get wild and bounce around, so this one would probably be more fun with two people in the ball. Actually at the bottom of the hill I thought I was hitting a turn and threw myself at the side of the ball, only to probably run the ball into the attendant that was supposed to help me out. Sorry buddy.

We were feeling much more rested by the end of our stay in Rotorua. On our way out of town we stopped by Gold Star Bakery. It’s right next to the Rotorua I-site where the intra-city bus stop is. This brought us full circle since it was actually the first meal that we had in Rotorua after we got off the bus. We stopped in on a whim and it did not disappoint. The pies were all under 5 NZD and were far superior than any of the pies that we had up to that point.

Next up: a journey to Middle Earth…

 

The least you need to know: Top Ten Spanish Phrases for Travel

July 4, 2018
Guest Post by Hannah Pinkerton
Intro by Christina

Today marks another special anniversary in our travels: the day Dan and I left the United States. Yes, yes, our first day in Mexico was July 4, but that was just a coincidence, promise!

We spent the first six months of our trip in Mexico, Central, and South America where we could use our Spanish, but after that we had to rely on English and what little we could pick up of the local language. Visiting a country for a week or two, with more countries and different languages to come, makes it hard to learn much. Ultimately I determined that a good bare minimum to know is “Hello” and “Thank you,” wherever you are. Hello goes a long way when paired with gesticulations: a greeting, an excuse me, an attention getter, and so on. And of course, saying thank you and being polite is always good!

In honor of the one year anniversary of our entrance into Mexico and the start of our Spanish speaking adventures my friend Hannah, a traveler, blogger, and Spanish teacher, has written a post for us about learning Spanish and the ten most important phrases to know. Spoiler: ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ are in there!

¡Hola, amigos! I’m Hannah and I teach Spanish to adults online over at Speak Better Spanish. If you are planning to travel to a Spanish speaking country (which I highly recommend), today I’m going to help you out with the top ten phrases you need to know. A big thank you to Christina for having me a guest blogger today to commemorate the anniversary of her entry into Latin America!

Hannah at Cola del Caballo Waterfall in Mexico

Of course, the more you know of the language before you go, the better, but you will surely improve your language skills during your stay. I recently moved from the US to Mexico and just in the last few weeks my Spanish has improved significantly. Language is definitely one of those skills that gets better with practice, and there’s always room for improvement.

Gruta del Murciélago (Bat Cave) in Mexico

Some of the perks of visiting Spanish speaking countries (particularly in Latin America) are that they are very budget friendly, the people are generally very nice and helpful, the food is amazing, and things have a much more relaxed timetable.

Parque Tolteca in Monterrey, Mexico

Without further ado, here are the top ten Spanish phrases you need to know for travel:

  • Hello = hola (oh-la)
  • Thank you = Gracias (grah-see-uhs)
  • Delicious = Delicioso (dee-lih-see-oh-so)
  • Excuse me = Permiso (per-mee-so)
  • Where is the bathroom? = ¿Dónde está el baño? (don-day eh-stah el bah-nyo)
  • How much is it? = ¿Cuánto cuesta? (kwahn-to kway-stuh)
  • I like…. = Me gusta…. (may goose-tuh)
  • I don’t like….= No me gusta… (no may goose-tuh)
  • Yes = Sí (see)
  • No = No (no)

It would also be a great idea to brush up on numbers for the purposes of purchasing things with the correct change, navigating addresses, and knowing what times and dates things occur.

Hannah’s neighborhood in the Monterrey area of northern Mexico with a view of Cerro de la Silla mountain [Christina: which Dan and I climbed last July!]

Want some personalized one on one help brushing up on Spanish for your upcoming trip? Schedule a free consultation with Hannah here, or check out her various free resources for Spanish learners! Have a fantastic trip!

Brisbane to Auckland: getting to and from the airports & currency exchange

June 30, 2018
by Dan

After three weeks in Australia it was time for us to catch our flight to New Zealand, and we had some adventures in airport transit, both getting to the Brisbane airport, and away from the Auckland airport. The following is mostly about travel logistics for other travelers.

In Brisbane we caught a bus into town and took the official airport train. The train fare for a single person was 18 AUD, but we qualified for the two person discount making it 15 AUD per person. It was quick and comfortable, but rather expensive for the short ride. There is a cheaper workaround that involves a local train, then a bus, then a free shopping center airport shuttle which you can read about here (the official pages for this route are here plus the carefully worded council bus section of this page). But since it would have taken almost three hours from our part of town and “morning people” does not describe us, we decided to pay the extra $$$ for some extra ZZZs.

Delightfully, Brisbane transit gives a full refund on the $10 Translink cards you have to buy to access buses and trains, as well as any remaining balance on the card. I read that this money would be handed back in cash if you didn’t have an Australian credit card, but they let us put the money directly back onto our Visa card. This whole process can also be done at the airport and the Brisbane Translink site has a handy tool with filters to find places to purchase, top up, and refund cards. You still have to go through the turnstiles to get to the airport train, and an station attendant let us through without any trouble. He didn’t even check our email confirmation but presumably that’s the proper key to gain access to the airport train terminal.

When we got to the airport we tried to change our Australian dollars to New Zealand Dollars. Normally I’m obsessed with zeroing our cash before changing countries (even in the situations where we ended up needing some extra cash to get by). In SE Asia we ended up changing a small amount of money in the airport and I was amazed that the exchange rate wasn’t a total rip off. It was actually very reasonable. That plus I figured AUS and NZ are so buddy buddy that it would be easy to change currencies and I let my guard down.

The currency exchange rate in the airport was obscene so we decided to wait to see if it got better in New Zealand. Surprise: nope. The rates were just about as bad. I had hopes that banks would be a better option, but ANZ bank would charge a $5 fee for any conversion and nowhere would change foreign coins. So I was only able to change $10 and I still have $5 coins left over. I’m hoping that I’ll have better luck in China.

Our two and a half hour China Airlines flight from Brisbane to Auckland included a meal, which was surprising considering the flight duration, but totally unsurprising in terms of its quality, and the flight was otherwise uneventful. Auckland airport is located quite far from downtown, and after reviewing our options we decided to take public transit, which turned out to be very easy.

The advice I found online was a bit dense, but the signage at the airport made everything quite clear. There is a bus that arrives approx every 20 minutes that will take you to Papatoetoe train station. From there you have two options for trains that will take you to the Britomart station downtown. The map at the bus shelter made it clear there were actually two routes you can take using the 380 bus, but the route to Papatoetoe is the recommended route.

You can ride the bus and the train without purchasing the Auckland transit card ($10), but the cash fare is higher, and it’s worth it to get the card if you use it round trip from the airport (but if you just go one-way skip the card). I initially inquired about the card at the airport’s i-site, which looks like a scammy tour booking agency, but is actually the official tourism information center (these i-sites are peppered all over NZ).

With the card you actually save $5.70 each way on this particular route, making it at least break even if you take it to and from the airport. Plus it actually saves you at least 25% on fares on the train and bus fares in town, but sometimes higher. The caveat is that the minimum top up is $5 at the i-site (but $4 at the train stations) and the top up has to be in increments of $1. But there is no refund available for the card deposit or any remaining balance. So it’s best to plan out your expected card usage ahead of time using the AT hop fare planner (note that’s a beta site as of July 2018 so the url may change). For your last few expected rides you can use the fare information on that site to strategically top up the card and try to get as close to zero balance as possible for your last ride. As long as you have a >$0.00 balance on the card when you swipe on, you can run a negative balance for the trip. So that will minimize the hit that you take from the $10 cost of the card. And that’s why they charge such a high amount for the card, so you can go negative on a single trip without hurting their bottom line. So you don’t need to feel bad about leaving with a negative balance, though being able to return cards in good standing would be better overall.

Also a note on cashless purchases. We had to buy them with cash, which seemed crazy to me after just a few weeks in Australia. Everyone there has prox credit cards (paywave) so that they can just tap it on the credit card reader to pay for things. It is so incredibly nice. Christina was able to use NFC on her phone to pay with Google-pay. She got to partake in the fun and convenience. And tap to pay is pretty common in NZ as well.

Once we had our cards purchased and loaded, it was pretty easy getting into town. It was one bus and one train, and it took a little over an hour. Tap-on, tap-off!

Next up: Adventures in Auckland and chill time in Rotorua