During my layover time in Casablanca,
you could watch the movie Casablanca 13 times in a row.
But I didn’t do that. I haven’t even seen the movie once. May not ever watch it either.
What I did instead is go explore this city realizing I wouldn’t get a true feel of it, probably not even understand it, but at least seeing it free of charge thanks to the beauty of strategically planned layovers.
I was flying from one Portuguese speaking country to another.
I had a flight from Lisbon to São Paulo in August 2016, just lathering myself in Portuguese culture from continent to continent. I was heading back to Brazil to catch the tail end of the Olympics.
But this is about what happened in between the trip. Between the departure and arrival. My total trip time was 32 hours; but I wasn’t in the air for that long.
If I am flying to a set destination with a day or 2 of flexibility, you can find me on Skyscanner.com looking for a nice long layover in some city as an added bonus.
I have booked flights in the past with long layovers on purpose. I planned a 7.5 hour layover in Paris (CDG Airport) to perfection and you can read it step-by-step here. It was a nice extra stop to add to my trip.
So for this trip, I did the same thing as Paris. Now I have another layover trip to add to the list. Casablanca.
This time I didn’t have 7.5 hours, I had 22 hours. From me waiting in the airport train station above to me boarding the plane to leave, I documented another play-by-play of what I did with my 22 hours in Casablanca. Leaving Europe mid day put me in Morocco in the afternoon, still with some sunlight to explore. Having to wake up at 8am the following day for my connecting flight, I already prepared myself to not have much rest on this layover. Well worth it to me.
3pm landed into Casablanca from Lisbon. Passport control was a 30 minute wait. Most of the directional signs and notices are in French, Arabic then English. The Royal Air Moroc cabin crew on the plane greeted us in French as we boarded and got off.
There are a few different ways to get into the city center. Cab, which can be tricky as you may get ripped off. According to the Casa airport website an average cab from the airport is expensive at 300 or more Dirhams one way (about $28). There’s also a bus I believe, but I couldn’t find the station. Take the above ground train, it’s on the walk path out. It runs every hour from early morning until 9pm straight from the baggage carousels exit door and down the escalator. The info desk guy spoke English and a 1 way ticket to Casa-port station costs 43 Dirhams equal to $4. This is the final station and quite close to the city center.
Finding the train was easy. I flew in with no knowledge of the airport but signs were clearly marked. I never encountered any pushy cab drivers or anyone sketchy, I walked straight to the train where I waited for 20 minutes for it to arrive 10 minutes past it’s scheduled 5pm. Besides having no AC, the train was comfortable with no issues. They cruise up and down the aisles to sell snacks and water from a cart.
The train trip was from 5:17-6:07pm and from the casa-port station it was a 5 minute walk to my hotel. If a SIM card is not an option, I always use the maps.me app for a reliable offline navigator in situations like this. You can live route your walk from/to anywhere within the city, just make sure you download the city before you arrive.
At 6:20pm Checked into a place called Hotel Central, dropped my bags and walked 15 minutes to the Hassan II Mosque. No prior knowledge of it until the front desk guy circled it for me on a map. When I got there it was packed with people, families and kids flooded this place.
Hugging the mosque on one side is the ocean, it looks out over the water. It was the ideal place to come watch the sunset, I can imagine it’s a daily routine for many locals.
The kids were jumping off the 20 foot tall edges into the ocean, running around with kites and balloons, tourists taking photos, and locals watching tourists take photos.
This part felt like I was back in Egypt as some people were watching me take pictures and asked to take photos with me.
Usually I’m not into looking at old churches/synagogues/cathedrals etc. because they all seem similar. The architecture is impressive yet I have seen dozens. But each mosque I’ve been to has been so interesting. The attention to detail in design and the shapes and colors of the Hassan II are unlike any other building I have seen.
I stayed at the mosque until around 9pm when it started getting dark, passed the same restaurant the hotel front desk recommended so I walked in. Had some real authentic Moroccan food at this place called La Sqala, with a live good vibes Moroccan band in the corner.
The food was amazing, and apparently it’s one of the most desired restaurants to visit in Casablanca. See some photos and reviews about the restaurant here on Trip Advisor.
Walking home at 10pm I felt completely safe. There were little areas everywhere with grass and benches with tons of kids playing and their parents watching, enjoying the cool weather. It was odd, I just don’t remember being wide awake on a Wednesday night at 10pm playing outside when I was a kid. But I also wasn’t Moroccan.
Around 10:30pm back in the lobby I met a couple Danish travelers, as usually happens in every country I visit. They’re the friendliest people always. We went back out walking around for about an hour seeing that the city was still as lively as it was mid day. Each corner you walk by you peak down the corridor, the roads are so tight and full of color.
Kids were playing cards in a 6 foot wide alleyway. All adults were sitting out drinking cups or water or tea, of course nobody was drinking alcohol. We were stared at a lot and many people said hi and smiled as we walked by. Strolled through the streets and alleys until midnight and then made it back to the hotel.
We sat up on the couches in the half indoor half outdoor lobby until 2am. We talked about adventures, incidences, coincidences, experiences, other -ences, future travels and visits. I noticed locals were still outside in this little plaza we were in, still drinking on tea and talking.We went to sleep around 2:30am. It was a bit noisy out my window until 4am, about when I remember it getting quieter.
Woke up at 8am, had some breakfast and walked towards the train station. At 9:30am I bought a ticket for the train and by 10:45am I was back at the airport for my 1pm flight. Next stop Brazil.
Most of the time I despise layovers. Like most travelers, I just want to have a non-stop flight to wherever I’m going. But when you’re going overseas that’s rarely possible. It just can’t always work out like that.
This isn’t about sitting on your phone in the airport, waiting out for your next flight. Take advantage of your layover time. Don’t spend it in the airport if you don’t have to.
When I’m looking at flights, I always use Skyscanner.com. For any overseas traveler chances are you have heard of this site. If not, Skyscanner is currently the most able flight search engine on the internet. You are able to search the most broad travel options in order to discover the cheapest flight. For example, you can select an entire month for arrival & departure date, then search by country, not just city. That means you can find flights from the cheapest city in the US on the cheapest dates. I have seen flights for $10.
When I search, my first choice is of course non-stop. When that’s out, I’m searching for a 1-stop with a short layover. And if that’s unavailable, it’s going to be a long travel day. Exhausting, with 2-3 layovers and usually 1 of those stops are hours of waiting.
So after 1-stops are out, I click the ‘Duration’ option on the sort list. I get the order of trip time switched to high to low.
What I do on this list at this point is search for the 1-2 layover options with the longest total trip time. Why do this? It’s the perfect way to get a free city added to your vacation list. If the layover is long enough, I head into the city.
I have seen total travel times up to 56 hours. Some are 1 layover, some are 3. I can remember spotting a choice for a 29 hour layover in Zurich some months back.
I start noting which cities the layovers are, and how long each one lasts. An 8 hour layover in a foreign country I consider minimum, but usually enough to get into that city and explore.
I compare cities. Which are highest on my list to see, ease of transportation, which are safest, which has the most prominent landmarks, etc.
Also I account the layover time in each option. I don’t want to be rushed around unless the layover city is worth it. One of my layovers lasted 7.5 hours in Paris, and after all the forum research of people doubting that time to be enough to get back to the airport and through customs, I took the challenge and did it. Quite successfully. Plus that train is 70 minutes into the city 1 way.
Since then I’ve had another layover in Paris, 23 hours. It gave me the chance to see more that time around. I was going from Cairo to Portugal, so Paris was just an added bonus.
Another free trip was on my way to Brazil. I chose the longest flight, which connected me in Morocco. A free 22 hours in Casablanca. Why. Not.
It’s gets exciting when you have aconfirmed destination in mind, and see the option to work in a day layover in a unique place like Casablanca or Paris. You just have to be willing to go on not much rest, since it’ll be tiring getting to and from an airport along with some tourist activities all in 24 hours or less.
Do your research. When an attractive connecting city pops up, google “Layovers in ______”. You should search for these key questions:
- Can it be done in time?
- Is it a safe city?
- Do I need a tourist visa?
- Do I have appropriate clothes packed?
Just another big perk to traveling around the world.
Let’s go to Costa Rica. That’s how my 2 day trip began in April of 2016. That was said on a Saturday, and I was on a plane for San Jose, Costa Rica that Monday night.
The roundtrip flight was 8,600 Southwest points and $74 for international taxes and fees.
I took with me no prior knowledge of the country, no Spanish speaking skills and no plans of where to stay or what to do. Just my backpack with 2 days worth of clothes and $100 USD.
I knew I wanted to at least see a volcano or check out Jacó or Hermosa beach, but I didn’t research how to do those things until after I arrived.
En route to the HOU airport I called my bank to let them know I will be overseas so my credit cards will work. I was ready to let my basic instincts lead me around a foreign country once again, and see how I end up after a couple days in Costa Rica. This trip happened just over a month after my 22 day country hopping journey.
Using airport wifi in the US I logged into Hostelworld.com, located a hostel in San Jose and booked 1 night. A place called Hostel Pangea. I planned to book the following 2 nights as they came.
So let’s review. I booked this flight just 2 days ahead, no Spanish knowledge, 1 night of accommodation, $100 USD, 1 backpack, passport.
During the couple days I kept an ongoing write up of my time from take off to return flight:
Booked for April 18-21 Monday thru Thursday. My Southwest 737 plane took off at 8:05pm. Set to touch the ground at 11pm scratches Monday to do anything. Still, that gives me all day Tuesday and all day Wednesday to either kick back at Jaco beach, or lock in a couple expeditions and explore San Jose. 30 kilometers to the north, the Braulio Carillo National park is filled with waterfalls and 30 kilometers west puts me in Irazu Volcano National Park. Like I said, I haven’t done any pre-research on this country, and the last time I went to a country last minute I had a blast. READ ABOUT MY SPONTANEOUS TRIP TO PORTUGAL HERE.
Monday night: I got in a bit early at 10:40pm and found my pre-booked ride from the hostel waiting for me (the hostel included pickup in the booking). 30 minutes into San Jose in the van then I arrived around 11:30pm. I got the key to my 8 person dorm room and clanked around settling in at midnight, trying to not wake up most of my roommates. I powered through an ice cold shower then put my head down around 1am. I laid down filled with that excitement and anticipation, ready to sleep just so I could wake up to explore. I had 2 days ahead of me, I can do anything I want for the next 48 hours.
Tuesday: Woke at 6:30am waiting for breakfast to be put out. Up from the excitement rather than an alarm, feels good. I walked out to the common area, where I am the only one besides the hostel night shift staff. The same girl that checked me in the night before was still on her overnight shift.
One thing I like about staying in hostels is the staff. If you like to travel without a planned itinerary, use the knowledge of the local hostel staff. I have relied on them countless times to help me plan out my day. They’re usually young and have adventurous personalities, so they tend to have recommendations relating to what I’ll want. Always ask them questions on where to go and what to do in the area.
While waiting for breakfast I chatted with her.
She told me there is nothing too great to see in San Jose, so instead take a bus to Jaco. There they have the beach and more things to do. She gave me instructions on the bus system and location. I ate some breakfast, met some other travelers, and off I went.
Hopped into an Uber at 8:15am using the hostel wifi, and headed to the San Jose bus terminal. Used the bank at the station to pull out “Colones”, the Costa Rican currency. Bought the 9am bus ticket to Jaco at 8:50am and just barely made it on time to board.
2.5 hours later I was dropped off at an unclear and unmarked bus stop in Jaco, but as I saw everyone else getting off I figured it was the right place. Walked the side streets to find some food, set my pack down and found an English speaking local. I ordered a burger and drink, and when the check came it was still cheaper than a fast food order in the US. Used the restaurants wifi to find and book a hostel 4 minutes away by foot called “Beds on Bohio”, then grabbed my pack and strolled the street. Somehow found the hostel and checked in, then I looked up to find my place is 200 feet from Jaco beach. Dropped my bag then headed over to the sand.
Jaco sure had some great waves that day, and there were a ton of surfers out as the day went on. The waves were rolling in smooth like those long rounded speed bumps, keeping shape, not closing out like the those Atlantic waves do. Jumped in the water and it was warm. It didn’t take long to spot a bright red beach tent where a guy was renting out surfboards. Body surfed back onto shore, made some negotiations and paid 5000 colones for 2 hours on a 7 foot board. At this time, April 2016 the exchange rate was 534 colones=$1, so I paid about $10.
A light stretch, little wax, paddled out for the first time in at least 3 years. I was surprised at how easy these waves were to ride, Didn’t take long for me to stand up. These waves would pick you up and roll you almost all the way to shore.
Exhaustingly surfed in the clear skies and warm water of Jacó for about an hour, gave the board back, then walked the 200 feet back to my $12 hostel and sprung out on a hammock with some tree shade through mid day.
After surfing, taking some photos of the beach, the first day was ending. Nearing the evening I got to know some other people at the hostel. They’ve been there for awhile, and play ball a lot at night when the temp cools off a bit. We ended up playing some night basketball at an outside court just up the road. 4v4 me with 3 traveling Danish friends vs an ex-pat American, couple locals and a German? Not quite sure where their 4th guy was from.
Sweated all I could sweat, then we walked back around 11pm to the hostel. Took an ice cold shower by choice this time, and hung out for a bit. Another great thing about hostels is the common area. You can always count on a few people staying up late kicking back, regardless if they’re a group of friends or all strangers. Swapped travel stories for hours with Danish, Germans, New Zealanders, and North Americans, then went to sleep around 3am.
Wednesday: Slept. Surfing, walking, basketball, traveling all together while in 90 degrees with 100% humidity for 2 days wiped all my energy.
Woke around 10am then ate some hostel breakfast. I grabbed a Spanish Orange Fanta. One of those skinny tall glass bottles; they had a fridge and were selling them. Tasted like candy as I laid back and propped my feet up in a hammock. The hostel family dog “Banana” was sprawled out on the cool shaded cement a few feet away. It was mid day, his eyes were closing and head was bobbing watching me lounge and sip Fanta from the bottle. Definitely was not excited about having to pack up and trek to the bus terminal in an hour.
Booked a new hostel in San Jose for that night called “TripOn Open House”. Said bye to the friends I met only 20 hours before, got directions to the bus terminal, purchased a 5500 Colone bus seat back to San Jose.
Arrived around 6pm and walked to the hostel from the bus terminal I was at 30 hours before. $16 got me a multi leveled hostel with a full bar & restaurant with live music and a pool with an amazing view of the city and a background of mountains. Had all girls in my room of 8 beds; a few more Danish, 2 girls from Amsterdam, and a girl from London.
Thursday: Had a few hours of sleep, woke at 4:45am, called an uber for my 8am Southwest flight back to reality. Arrived at the airport around 6am.
Only 57 hours in Costa Rica, but those hours will stay with me for years. You can remember a short 57 hour journey for the next 57 years, and that’s one of the best things about travel.
I was fresh off the plane in Faro, Portugal.
Excitement level on high, a new city to discover. I navigated my way from the airport terminal onto a bus headed for the city center. Although my iphone 6 was in airplane mode I kept my gps open and a pin on my hostel location, and got off on the bus stop that seemed closest to my dropped pin. This was before I knew about the beauty of the app Maps.me. It is the ultimate offline navigating tool.
After a long flight day I find myself on the cobblestone streets, which reminded me of Rio’s ciclovia (the bike path) with my backpack on my back and my gps out, ready to find my bed.
I zig zagged through streets and alleys trying to determine if i was in a safe area or not. The sun was already setting but I wasn’t far away. Turned out my bus dropped me off less than half a mile to my hostel. Weaving around corners and projecting my tourist tendencies of scratching my head while checking my map, I found the hostel entrance. I rang the doorbell and walked up the stairs.
I checked in and ran through my normal routine of questions with the girl at the front desk. Whats there to do around here, wheres the good food, is there Uber etc. She directed me to the Festival do Marisco/Festa da Ria Formosa (seafood festival) just around the corner near the water. I invited her to go with, she said she couldn’t (because she was working, right?) I took my dorm room key, dropped my bag in the locker and started my on foot exploration in Faro.
The annual seafood festival in Faro happens every first week of August and gathers a few thousand locals. Live music, super cheap seafood and caipirinhas, and perfect evening weather.
I ordered a massive pile of arroz de marisco, which is rice and seafood, for 8 euros. Apparently in Europe, and so I learned almost everywhere besides USA, they eat the whole shrimp (minus head) tail and legs. I tried it, but in the future I will continue to separate them from my shrimp. Tasted about how you’d expect. Crunchy and leggy. Yet the meal as a whole, was fantastic. The rice soaked up the shrimp and crab juices and made for a flavor packed pile of seafood.
I sat at a table solo but with an older group nearby with a big smile across my face, happy to be back in one of my favorite countries. I was super excited to dust off my Portuguese accent and get some more practice in.
Little food trucks surrounded this waterfront festival, stringed lanterns and christmas lights overhead to set off the kicking back mood. The half domed stage faced straight out to us; the audience, scattered about with hundreds of picnic tables with nothing to cover the tops of them. Some tables had a covering of mussel shells and shrimp parts sprinkled across the tabletop, remnants of some people who chowed down just minutes before.
One side of the festival was a wall of food stands churning up massive cauldrons of seafood boiled up in some richly spiced broth. The other side was lined with little food trucks, some mixing caipirinhas and others twirling cotton candy and scooping ice cream. Other vendors had clowns blowing up balloon animals, and some selling those one-time light up colorful night sticks.
The sun was setting to the far right behind the stage. I leaned back in the chair, scooped the first spoonful of food and watched the stage in the background. I sat there content, excited about the next few days to come.
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With only 2 days to spend in Cartagena, I tried to get an adequate fill of the city while also not rushing around for 48 straight hours.
I stayed in the neighborhood Getsemani. It is walking distance to the ocean, night life, and the many day tours to the islands which take off from the port.
You can take boat tours to the nearby islands, offering up that tropical feeling and the crystal clear ocean water. Plus it is pretty easy to book the tours as all the hotels and hostels concierge will assist you. Don’t forget also those guys with bright colored vests in the streets walking around with binders of photos of the islands you can tour to. They’ll hop in front of your walk path and try to sell you a tour. The tours are legit and the same thing the hotels will book for you, it is just the fact that their technique is sketchy for people who aren’t used to strange people walking in front of you and hounding you to spend your money.
Give yourself 2 days to knock out this itinerary:
1. Walk or take a very short cab ride to the beach.
From Getsemani, a cab ride to Bocagrande beach should cost you between 7k-10k pesos. As of April 2017 the exchange rate is 2,950=$1, so that’s about $3 US. To give you some perspective, my cab ride from Getsemani to the airport (5 miles) was 12,000 pesos.
I walked the sidewalks instead of a cab. About a mile walk, and you get to see the city layout a bit.
The beach has dark sand, no waves, on foot vendors. It’s not going to be your favorite beach in the world. It doesn’t have crystal clear water and the backdrop of tropical islands in the distance.
But who cares, if you are planning a trip to Cartagena you probably have already discovered that it is not a destination known for its beach. Take those day tours for the nice beaches.
(Photo below from travel-lush.com) I am recommending the city beach because it is swimmable water, ample stretch of sand to hang out on, and enough kiosks/vendors to keep you fueled and quenched. The suns heat alone is brutal enough to draw you to the beach for a half day. Plus, it’s a beach. Whether you’re a backpacker hopping across cities for months or on a weekend work getaway, the beach meets all travelers at one shared thought. Unwind time.
2. Enter through the castle walls in the “walled in” city.
After the beach, spend the evening walking through the Old Walled in City. Walking up to it, you realize that it is actually just a walled in neighborhood of Cartagena. Finished in 1796 it was necessary protection from coastal storms and pirate attacks. From the outside looks it is a castle theme block wall maybe 20 feet tall and at least 10 feet thick all around. I was bad when it came to photos in Cartagena, so I am using Trip Advisor’s photo below.
It’s colorful with tons of street vendors selling fresh fruit and juices. You can buy a large cup of sliced freshly sliced watermelon for 1,000 pesos, about $.30. Hard to turn that down, especially because most of the fruit I tried in Colombia tastes much better than the U.S.
Lots of Italian and French chefs have brought their talents into Cartagena, right here in the streets of the Old City. They have opened fancy restaurants that don’t burn through your wallet. There are few countries your currency will go farther in than in Colombia.
Later on in the evening I was walking, I came across a photo shoot. It was a pretty local woman in a very detailed and colorful traditional Colombian dress with a few pricey cameras pointed towards her. One guy had a towel and would dab around her face every couple minutes to erase the sweat from reacting with her makeup.
It’s a good place for a shoot because the walls slathered in light blue or pink and green against a 300 year old sun-cracked wooden cellar door is hard to find in most cities. I can imagine how good those photos must have turned out. I didn’t take a photo, I figured I would leave that up to them.
3. Book the 1/2 day tour to Volcan del Totumo (Volcano Totumo).
This isn’t a free thing to do, but I had a great time. This tour is popular so just tell the front desk or street salesman you want to take the tour to Volcan del Totumo. For reference, I paid 60,000 pesos. Anywhere from 60-80k is what you should expect.
Departed the city at 8:30am and began the 2 hour bus ride with 16 other tourists to the sight. It is not in Cartagena, but this and Barranquilla are the 2 closest major cities nearby the Volcano, making them the most popular for visiting from.
They will take you to the Volcano, you’ll strip down to swim shorts and climb up the stairs. They have organized a person who solely takes photos of you. You give this guy your cellphone and he takes your photo before, during and after entering the mud from up above. When you are next in line to descend the ladder and plop in the mud, you show him which cell phone is yours and he will snap 20-30 photos as you float like a bobber in the “healing” mud.
I was pleased as they turned out well. Should be good, because this guy does it all day everyday. There are also some masseuses that will rub you down for 5 minutes in the mud. The photo guy costs 4k. The massage is 4k. That equals about $1.25 each, it would be wise to do them both!
Exit the mud after a good think mud coating, pose for a mud covered photo, walk very slowly down the down set of stairs, and head into the lake nearby to wash off. Change into a set of clothes which I recommend bringing, then hop back on the bus. Next you are on the way to a beach back close to Cartagena, where they will feed you a nice full lunch on the beach.
They dropped us at 1pm at some beach and we ate a full meal prepared by locals. We left the beach at about 2pm and made it back by 3pm. For 60,000 pesos you get a front door pickup/dropoff, lunch, beach stop and a mud bath. Came out to be $20 USD.
4. Spend the final evening watching the sun fall down at Cerro de la Popa.
This was the easiest and possibly most satisfying part of Cartagena for me. Watch the sunset from a small mountain within the city, where you will get a 360 degree view and a true vision of the different neighborhoods and old buildings from above. Me and some friends I met at the hostel took a cab ride for 60k pesos. That included 4 people, the drive there, wait for 1 hour then drive back after the sunset.
My 2 days went by quickly in Cartagena. I came in on a 6 hour bus ride from Santa Marta on a Tuesday night and an Uber to the airport Friday morning destined for Santiago de Cali. I ate patacones in the walled in city. I had a freshly prepared street cart lulada. I asked late night locals on the street directions to a nearby restaurant to find my gringo friends.
Fast times in historic cities. I always say yes to that.