Eastern Europe

Budapested in Hungary

Buda Castle

I arrived in Budapest, Hungary in a sleep deprived haze. As if to match my mood, it was gloomy, overcast and drizzling slightly, the only time it would rain my entire week there. Despite the lack of sleep, the adrenaline of the trip kicked in when I arrived at the apartment I had rented on Utca O (O Street) right in the heart of the action on the Pest side of Budapast. The city is divided into two parts by the Danube River, Buda and Pest. Buda is where the Buda Castle and beautiful cobblestone streets lie. It’s a more tranquil relaxed pace. Pest is the commercial center where most of the hotels, restaurants, cafes and nightlife take place.

On the Danube River

My first clue about Budapest came when I was walking around the City Centre. It felt a little like a holiday to be quiet honest without the chaotic traffic, horn blowing and the like that plagues so many urban environments. I remember distinctly that traffic was so light that my NYC urban instincts took over. I brazenly jay walked through the “don’t walk” sign. After crossing, I felt alone suddenly and looked back and noticed I was the only one out of a crowd of 20 or so people who had done so. All the Budapest citizens and other tourists waited patiently for the “walk” sign before crossing the deserted street. Hmmm, this was not my typical travel experience. Budapest, it seems is a law and order place.

Unless you like getting ripped off, avoid Taxis at all cost in Budapest…the tram is fast & cheap

Indeed it is. Oh you have a plenty of debauchery with pubs everywhere, wine drinking in the streets, gambling at casinos and I did get ripped off by almost every taxi I took. But overall it was relaxed, in control, with even the partying to the wee hours feeling sedate, relaxed and orderly. I never saw any drunk and disorderly people spilling out into the street. It was a no drama kind of place.

Perhaps it’s Hungary’s history as a the most westernized of all the old Iron Curtain countries. Before 1989, Budapest was the tourist destination for those from other more repressed countries in the Eastern Block like Romania or Yugoslavia came when they wanted to taste of the evil West.  Here they could eat at Western fast food at places like McDonald’s or even buy some coveted blue jeans! (though in many countries like Romania, it was outlawed to wear them).  Hungary still had communism and repression, but it was a special, more relaxed version of communism that they were somehow able to live with.

And of course, the fact that I was in the City Centre tourist zone most of the time had a lot to do with it as well, I’m sure. Yes, I of course ventured out of City Centre and certainly crossed the Danube to give Buda a go. But I never made it to the “Gypsy Quarter” or the 8th District where I really wanted to go and witness the nitty gritty side of Budapest. I had met a friend who promised to take me by bus (she didn’t trust me to go alone stating flatly that I would “definitely get robbed”) but in the end she canceled on me and by then I hadn’t any more time to reschedule.

I doubt very seriously her statement about “definitely getting robbed” in the 8th District being true. A little research online uncovers nothing but rave reviews for the so called “Gypsy Tour” and nary a report of robberies. Missing the reportedly wild and wooly 8th District was the one regret I had when I had to bid adieu to Budapest and continue on my journey by train to Serbia and then late Romania and Ukraine. Yet I was heartened by the fact that I plan on making many, many returns to Eastern Europe and Budapest in particular. It’s just too lovely a city to resist. But this time, no jaywalking… at least until I get to the 8th District.


Mancora, Peru – Not Your Average Beach Town

The beach town of Mancora, Peru is as rowdy and boisterous as nearby Vichayito was quiet and tranquil.  Mancora doesn’t have a particularly pretty beach either, but then again, people don’t flock from all over the world for the picturesque beaches (though there are plenty very nearby) .  They come for the surfing and nightlife.

Mancora... Surf Town

Here, in Mancora surrounded by desert on one side and a beach on the other, it’s easy to feel both cold and hot at the same time, at least this time of year (Peru’s winter). The sun beams down and trust me, will burn you, yet there is always a brisk, cool breeze blowing.  Indeed, after attempting to surf my 1st day here, I never got 100% warm again.

Kon Tiki - Desert on one side


View of beach and town on the other

I stayed at the beautiful if rustic Kon Tiki bungalows, which sits high on the hill with an incredible view of the town and beach below. To get to town and the main beach area from Kona Tiki you must walk down a twisting and turning (and if you happen to be very intoxicated or really clumsy, potentially perilous) path of steps and dirt until you get to the bottom. About a 2 minute hike down.

My bungalow @ the Kon Tiki

Once at the bottom you navigate through a narrow alley, which in the almost pitch black darkness of night, could feel intimidating for 1st time visitors, but is completely safe, as families live all along the alley.

The biggest danger was the unpredictable, small and old dog who couldn’t figure out if he liked me or hated me. Half the time he growled, barked and acted like he wanted to rip my face off and the rest of the time he seemed to forget the previous incident and completely ignored me as if I never existed.  To steady my nerves each time it was time to pass the old guy, I made a game out of it trying to predict what his response would be. Though I had a 50/50 shot of getting it right, I rarely was.  By the end of the trip I had figured out he was harmless.

Loves me? Hates Me?

Of course climbing back up the Kon Tiki is not as much fun as going down and even a seasoned runner like me was a little winded when arriving at the top, but it was good exercise. Sort of like living at the top of a 5 story walk up in New York City, without all those silly handrails to hold on to.

Besides the surf and partying, the locals here are perhaps another draw. While not aggressively friendly, they are not overly pushy either. A simple “no gracias” is all it takes for someone to stop offering to sell you something.

The path to town from the Kon Tiki

I also couldn’t sense any of that awkward tourist vs. local vibe you get in some heavily traveled areas.  The locals are laid back and very non aggressive and the tourist, which consist largely of young backpackers, hippies, surfers and the occasional older tourists from around the world, seemed for the most part respectful in return.

Fresh food in Mancora

Speaking of hippies, I discovered a lovely Vegetarian restaurant called Angela’s and it became my top stop for almost all my meals while in Mancora. They had a good vibe and killer Wi-Fi but the main draw was the food which is healthy and like most things in this town, very reasonably priced.  Their vegan sandwiches were as big as a plate and cost about $3.50. Maybe I’m making up for lost time after so many months of struggling to eat healthy in Latin America but I do believe I’d never eat meat again if I could simply take the chef/cook from Angela’s back to the U.S. with me.

Moto Taxis - Cheap way to get around

On the weekend I was there, I was approached by a trio of Argentine teen girls from Cordoba who were selling “happy cookies” to make some travel money. If you don’t know what makes cookies happy I won’t spoil the surprise. The girls seemed to be traveling with a larger group of gypsy like Argentines who were performing music, comedy, fire dancing and more for tips. A traveling motley crew of Argentine circus performers if you will. The entertainment was actually pretty good and well worth the $2 soles (about 66 cents) I provided as a tip.

Mancora was pretty much in a party mood every night of the week that I was there (Thursday-Monday) and if you’re not, well tough luck. Try though I tried I could not get away from the discos throbbing beats and incredibly annoying music (all music is annoying when you’re trying for some shuteye no?) no matter where I went. The noise traveled so well up the hill to Kon Tiki that some nights I literally felt I was in the disco. Ear plugs, especially purchased for the occasion, did little to stop the assault of cheesy electronica and reggaeton beats vibrating the walls.

Moncora's main beach

Now it may be that most of the townspeople don’t mind this assault on the senses in the middle of the night EVERY night. Maybe they’ve built up a tolerance to the noise by now or maybe they see it as a tradeoff for the tourism dollars that float Mancora’s way. But I couldn’t help but feeling the whole town of a few thousand was held hostage to a few people (maybe a hundred?) who wanted to party the night away listening to God awful music turned up to well beyond necessary volume.  Mancora’s mostly bamboo structures do a poor job of keeping noise out (or in, if you’re the disco in question) and you’d think there would be some kind of town ordinance to control the sound at least a little.

What Mancora has going for it, besides its surf and party vibe is its size. It’s big enough to offer almost anything a traveler can want… a bus station with frequent service, cheap moto taxis to get to surrounding sites (isolated beaches, thermal mud baths, etc), good restaurants, regrettably the aforementioned disco row and even a small gym where I had a decent workout.  Yet it’s small enough that if you stick around for more than a couple of days, you’re going to make friends with some locals for sure and you can get from one side of town to the next by foot.

As a result, Mancora feels really safe and what parts aren’t safe for tourist (isolated beaches on the fringes of town), the police warn you away from. They even have one poor soul who patrols that part of the beach to warn unsuspecting, wandering travelers like me away and back to my assigned beach area.

Yes, Mancora has a lot to offer but quiet and tranquility on the weekends (or possibly any time) isn’t one of them.  But if your easily bored by endless stretches of isolated beaches and crave things like fast Wi-Fi, excellent food choices and a pretty iron clad guarantee of a party going on no matter the time of year, then Mancora is your spot. Just remember to bring your earplugs!