Travel tips

The Absolute best of Guatemala – ten things you have to do

After spending six sensational weeks in Guatemala, its hard to decide what was the best of the best! The guide books weren’t wrong when they advise that it’s easy to fall in love with this magnificent country, and you might stay longer then you may have originally intended!

1. Lake Atitlan – spending time relaxing or partying around the many towns surrounding the lake. Each has it’s own personality and vibe – personally I loved the atmosphere and food choices available in San Pedro, and spending time during the day at San Marcos swimming and diving from the raised platform on the cliffside. Admission is 15Q, and take your own food/drinks or buy some in town as there is none at the swimming hole. You can also hike the Indian Nose or Volcan Atitlan if you have a little more time, or study Spanish by the lake. Shuttles to San Pedro cost around 65-90Q and boat trips across the lake are usually around 10-20Q return.

2. Acetenango hike – one of the most rewarding but physically and mentally challenging things I have done in my life. Sunset above the clouds watching the nearby volcano erupt was just magical. I did my tour through NEWay tours (300Q) plus park entrance fee of 50Q

Looking out over the cloud

Looking out over the cloud

Read more and see the stunning photos in my post about the hike here.

3. Semuc Champay/Lanquin – the natural beauty of the national park is just breathtaking. Spending an afternoon swimming in the rockpools was the best after exploring the underground cave system, and hiking up to enjoy the beautiful view. We stayed on the mountainside at Zephyr lodge, treated to our own pool and magnificent views of the valley from the facilities! A day tour of the national park costs around 150Q (cheaper if you book in town rather than at the hostel). Hear the story.

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

Heading down into the cave by candlelight

4. Antigua – I spent four weeks in this old colonial town, studying Spanish and soaking up the atmosphere. It has so much to offer – culture, history, architecture, great food, nighhtlife and of course a beautiful backdrop of mountains. Over Semana Santa it becomes a hub for both national and international tourists to see the colourful and vibrant parades that snake down the cobblestone streets, over beautiful ‘carpets’ laid down by the locals. The food markets at Iglesia La Merced leading up to easter was a definite highlight, as was my host family mother’s home cooked Guatemalan food. A week at spanish school, homestay and three meals a day cost approximately 1300Q. Last but not least, the nightlife is buzzing, and if you are female you are in luck – it’a always ladies night somewhere! Rotating between establishments on a nightly basis, you can get free drinks and even a free massage on a Wednesday!

 

5. Tikal– spending a day climbing the ancient Mayan ruins of this old city, taking in the scenery and the wildlife. For the brave, you can camp overnight on the ruins if you manage to talk the security guards into it with a small offering, but be prepared for a cold night! Another hidden Mayan ruin can be found at thr lost Mirador, however to reach it incolves a six day hike through the jungle from Flores. Admission into the park costs 150Q (extra for sunrise tour).

Tikal

Tikal

6. Flores/ rope swing – this lovely little town is quaint and peaceful, you can walk around e island in around 15 minutes. We took a day trip over the lake to the rope swing, where you can spend time swimming, relaxing in a hammock or launching yourself off a dive platform (as some of us did). You are actually able to stay overnight there (hammocks or cabins), which I imagine would be amazing! The owner will come and pick you up in their boat (70Q per boatload) and it is 15Q for admission.

7. Pacaya hike – for those who aren’t quite willing to put themselves through the pain of the overnight Acetenango hike, Pacaya is a nice compromose. The hike is a relatively gentle 90minute climb to the crater rim, where you can roast marshmallows on the volcanic molten rock. There are two tours a day, 6am and 2pm, cost is 60-80Q plus 50Q park admission fee.

8. Breakfast/dinner at Cerro San Cristobal – affording an amazing view over Antigua, this cliffside restaurant has great food as well! Just be sure to ask them when it closes, as we were served a second bottle of wine after dinner only to then be told they were closing in ten minutes – at 8pm on a weekend! The return sttle can be arranged through Nim P’ot craft mark underneath the Santa Catalina Arch, and costs 10Q. In my opinion, the mirador is mich better than that at El Tenedor (reached by free shuttle from the Hotel Santo Domingo).

9. Yoga class at Hobbitenango – I was lucky enough to be introduced to this great place by Yoga by Lewis. It’s a short drive from Antigua and an amazing way to start your day. Transport, yoga and a fruit breakfast included for 120Q.

10. Monterrico – who can go to Guatemala without seeing a volcanic black sand beach? To be fair, I was short on time so didn’t visit El Parédon which is more of a surf beach. Staying at Johnny’s place, the service was great, and I never had to leave as I had everything I needed right there – food, drinks, pool, beach, billiards and even a beach soccer goal. Return shuttle 140Q and dorm accomodation with fan was 45Q (includes breakfast). Could easily have spent more time there!

Cuba travel tips and hints

Having recently travelled to the amazing Carribean destination that is Cuba, i’d love to share my experiences and tips. In short, Cuba is either expensive or difficult – choose one!

The Cuban people are generally super friendly and happy to assist you with whatever you may need, however having said this consider carefully their motives as it is easy for them to see foreign visitors as walking dollar signs.  You will quickly notice at every bus station, airport, tourism office or hotel there are people on the street outside offering all sorts of services from taxis and accommodation, tours or recommendations for restaurants or shows.  Take these at face value as their is often a commission or friends/relatives businesses involved.  It is best to have an idea of the cost of a service first to avoid paying too much.

It is a good idea to have a basic conversational knowledge of Spanish as this can get you lower prices for almost anything as well as being able to get truly involved in the Cuban experience, staying in Casa Particulars with a real Cuban family.


MONEY

Cash is king in Cuba.  They have two currencies in circulation. Cuban convertible pesos (CUC  pronounced “cooks”, these are fixed 1CUC=1USD) and local Cuban Pesos (CUP or “moneda nacionales”). While the locals are paid in nacionales, this is also the currency used at many street food vendors, local restaurants and market stalls so if you are on a budget, it is a good idea to change a small amount ($10CUC at a time) into CUP at a casa de cambio (currency exchange) for this purpose.

Exchange rates all over the country are exactly the same, anywhere, including the airport. So change small amounts of money as you need it.  At the time of writing, February 2016, there is a 10-15% commission on exchanging USD which is not levied on other currencies.  Instead bring Euros, Pound Stirling, Canadian Dollars, Japanese Yen or Swiss Francs to exchange.  Mexican Pesos are also accepted however rates do not seem to be as favourable.

To date, it seems that Mastercard is not accepted widely however I had no worries at all using my Australian issued ING direct VISA card in an ATM in central Havana, Calle Obispo No 257 (unionpay ATMs  – located across the country). For a $200CUC withdrawal, I was charged a $6CUC commission which made the total $206CUC. Any card which is linked with an American bank may be declined – it’s worth checking with your bank in advance.

Note also that over the counter withdrawals seem to be possible using either a VISA or Mastercard at the casa de cambio.

If you are coming from Mexico, it may also be worth shopping around the currency exchanges to see what their rates are to sell euros – I was actually able to withdraw Mexican pesos from my Australian account, and convert to Euros at such a favourable rate that I actually MADE money even after I converted money a third time into CUC.

Be sure to watch your change when paying in CUC – as a common scam is for change to be given in CUP (nationales) which is worth 1/25 as much!  The notes do look quite similar.

To live on a backpacker budget, somewhere around $50CUC per day should be more than sufficient if you eat street food and can share a room in a Casa Particular with a friend (or sometimes two!). For eight days, my total spend was $310CUC including all expenses.

ACCOMMODATION

It can be difficult to book accommodation in Cuba and in any case this needs to be done weeks in advance. Email correspondence tends to be very slow.  You can also call ahead but many do not speak English, and the Cuban accent can make conversing in Spanish somewhat difficult as well.

Casa Particulars are my recommendation as you stay in a separate room/wing of a Cuban family’s house and is a great insight into local life, as well as being much much cheaper than a hotel!

We only planned our trip about a week in advance, and other than one night in Havana where we walked around for three hours knocking on doors to find a room (as the Pope was in town – who knew?) we had absolutely no problems finding a room as we went.  The best place to start looking is usually a street or two back from the plaza mayor or main pedestrian street in each town.

In larger cities expect to pay $25-30CUC for a room and in smaller towns $20-25CUC. The price is given for the room which you may be able to fit two, three or even four people in.  Breakfast and dinner can be negotiated to be included, generally ask $5CUC per person for breakfast and $10CUC for dinner.

If the creature comforts are of importance to you, ask if hot water is available and whether this is provided 24/7 or otherwise you may be in for a cold shower! Most casas we stayed in did have hot water, fans and air conditioning.

My advice would be to avoid the touts at the bus station and around tour office, and simply walk around and find a casa yourself – this way you don’t end up paying them a commission (this would be paid to the casa owner who would then on-charge in the form of a higher price!)

In Havana I would recommend finding a casa a few streets back from Calle Obispo in Habana Vieja (Old Havana). We stayed with Senor Alexander at Calle Lamparilla no 307. A lovely, safe area close to everything you need in the old town.

TRANSPORT

Taxis to and from Havana airport are regulated – they should cost $25CUC to central Havana.

Transport was surprisingly easy to arrange – with collective taxis being the cheapest and easiest option in most cases. Due to the poor condition of the roads, as well as all the slower traffic hazards (horses, cows, bikes etc) it seems best not to hire a car and just get around by collective taxi instead. Then you can just sit back and enjoy the journey – particularly if you get a nice old American classic car!

You can arrange a collective taxi the night before, and bargain on the price – look for them around plaza mayor (town square), tourism offices or near bus stations – but usually they are out looking for you not the other way around.

There are two bus companies in operation, Viazul and Transtur. As far as we could ascertain, there was no easy way to book the Transtur buses although we were told by other travellers they were the cheapest option. The infotur office advised us we would need to book four or five days in advance. The Viazul buses were more accessible although in Havana, the bus statioon is well out of town and you will find it costs $10CUC for a taxi to get you there.  Also you need to book te day before otherwise the buses are booked out, there are generally only a few services a day and you may find yourself taking a collective taxi anyway

We took the Viazul bus to Trinidad ($25CUC). While relatively comfortable journey, it too six and a half hours due to all the stops along the way. On the way back, a collective taxi was much faster option.

Below gives a brief outline on the costs between some of the destinations we visited. Generally, the distance seems to correlate with the price.

  • Havana to Viñales $15pp by collective taxi
  • Havana to Trinidad $35pp collectivo $25 viazul
  • Trinidad to Cienfuegos $10pp collectivo $6 viazul
  • Cienfuegos to Habana $15pp collectivo $20 viazul

Trains do run if you have the patience of a Saint – we were repeatedly told they were for Cubans only. Other forms of transportation include the Horse and Cart, as well as bici taxis which are great for short distances with luggage.

Classic convertibles can be hired from outside the hotel at Parque Central – we were quoted $25CUC per hour.

FOOD AND DRINKS

Prices in supermercados exactly the same everywhere, even for alcohol. So don’t worry about shopping around.

Cuba is not known for great food, but street food is plentiful and usually consists of pizzas (aptly named peso pizza!), hamburgers (generally pork – cerdo) and bread with ham and/or cheese. Pay in nacionales at market stalls and local restaurants – it is much cheaper. My favourite was Pollo asada – or spit roasted chicken.

You can negotiate with the casa particular to include breakfast and sometimes dinner. They usually ask around $5/$10CUC respectively.

SAFETY

I didn’t once feel at all unsafe in Cuba. That said, the people do not have a lot of money and therefore the usual precautions should be taken – don’t flash your wealth around, carry only small amounts of money, and don’t walk in dark streets at night.

OTHER

Maps – It is worth downloading the Gallileo app before you go (GPS is banned in Cuba). Google maps does not work in Cuba.
Don’t expect your mobile phone to work, and internet is scarce, and not available in private homes. Enjoy the detox!

If you absolutely need the internet you can buy half hour prepaid cards for $2CUC which can be used at public hotspots (usually parks/squares). This is sufficient for email but might be frustrating if you try to upload all your wonderful photos to Facebook! Some hotels will also sell you internet cards if you buy a drink at their lobby bar.

Cuba Junky is a great website/app with lots of information on casa particulars among other things. It has an offline function so can be used in a limited capacity whole in Cuba. Mycasaparticular.com can also help with finding places to stay.