rants and raves

I contribute reviews to www.tripadvisor.ca because I regularly consult this site for traveller impressions of hostels, hotels, and B&Bs around the world. You can get a good sense of a place from the reviews, once you discard the reviews that are overly excited or downright cranky.  On this page I’ll post the reviews I write for Tripadvisor, and the odd additional review for locations that aren’t listed on the website. Enjoy!

Don’s Tripadvisor profile: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/members/Don_G_Wright

Sleepless in Mexico City – Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral

Mundo Joven Catedral is excellently located just behind the massive Catedral Metropolitana, and thus only a city block from the Zocalo, Templo Mayor, the National Palace and more. This may also be the hostel’s prime drawback, because it is the noisiest hostel I have ever stayed in. Not only for the noise from the street (traffic, music, car alarms, and street construction right out front until midnight), but also for the noise within the hostel. The inner courtyard funnels every sound from reception and the lobby restaurant up through all floors of the hostel, bouncing off ancient stone steps and walls along the way. My partner and I were in the private suite on the 5th floor, a pleasant enough though cramped room; the big attraction was our own piece of the patio with a great view of the historic district. Unfortunately, the rest of the patio area served as the dining area for the all-hours communal kitchen, and as a late-night gathering place for other guests. Some nights the noisy drinking parties continued just outside our room as late at 3:30 am. Not such a private suite after all.

Cold and damp in Antigua – homestay experience

We thought spending a week with a family in Antigua while taking Spanish lessons would be a smart start to our year of travel in Latin America. The classes went well, but our homestay was not much more than very basic room and board – and our room was like a jail cell – about 8 by 8 feet, cold, damp, dimly lit with no window, and a narrow steel door. The family was friendly and helpful if asked, but didn’t seem to understand the difference between operating a rooming house and hosting homestay students A fellow student moved out part way through the week. We decided to stay but to spend as little time in the room as possible. We have the rest of the year to sleep better!

Comfortable room, water challenges – Paco Real Hotel, San Marcos de Laguna

Paco Real is a grouping of chalets in the centre of the tourist area of little San Marcos de Laguna on Lake Atitlan. We stayed in one of the larger rooms with a private bathroom. The room was spacious and bright during the day, a bit dimly lit at night and the bathroom space was rather awkward. The grounds are well kept and the on-site restaurant offers a good range of menu selections including wood-oven pizzas. Owner Paul is very hands on and helpful, although when he was out of town for two days and the water to our building stopped, no one on-site could address the problem so we had to use the shared shower and bathroom in the next building. Water pressure is a general problem, and WiFi, available only in the restaurant area, was unavailable on our last day and the morning we left. The tourist area is all footpaths, so no street traffic. By the way, visitors should know the beaches all around Lake Atitlan were submerged or washed away during extremely heavy rainy seasons two years in a row. The lake has no drainage, so it just fills up. We expected to find at least a small beach at San Marcos – the town map still shows the location — but it is under water, along with many buildings, patios, and docks all around the lake. There are plenty of good reasons to visit the lake and the dusty little towns along the shores, but being able to relax on a beach is no longer one of them.

Fabulous view of the valley — Casa Dona Elena, Copan Ruinas

My partner and I spent three nights at this mother and son operated bed and breakfast, several blocks uphill from the centre of the little town of Copan Ruinas. We’d been on the road for three weeks, survivors of several average or below-average hostels and B&Bs, so it was a treat to find this gem waiting for us. Our room overlooked the Copan Valley and we soon discovered it was just a 20-minute walk to the famous Mayan ruins in one direction, and about a 30-minute walk in the other direction to the Macaw Mountain Bird Park. Ask for the large room on the second floor of the main building, most of the rooms are at ground level; it may be a bit more but well worth it. Nery is very hands-on and helpful as the manager, and his mother Elena prepares a wonderful breakfast on demand for all guests every morning. The bed was comfortable, the shower water ran hot, the fan cooled the room at night – everything we could ask for – except the dozens of village dogs that sleep in the sun all day and run around barking and howling all night!

We appreciated the work being done here — Macaw Mountain Bird Park

A fellow traveller mentioned they were walking over to Macaw Mountain, so a short time later we decided to try the walk oursleves, and are very glad we did. The park is nestled between two hills, with a creek running through the centre. The walkway takes visitors to a number of large screen enclosures where a variety of tropical birds are recuperating from injuries, including stress, and a breeding program is underway to re-introduce Scarlet Macaws into the Copan Valley (decimated through loss of habitat and hunting). The enclosures and trees are well labelled, There is a open air restaurant with seating on the bridge over the creek, and a interactive area with many tropical birds that visitors can get very close to (and a shout out to Carlos for showing us how to handle these birds). Admission is $10 or 190 Ls.

Attentive owners and staff — Mariposa Lodge, Roatan, Honduras

Owners Sue and Mike are very hands-on, helpful, and well-organized running this modest collection of rooms and apartments just a few minutes from the restaurants and bars along the waterfront at West End on Roatan. Our first night was in one of the air-conditioned rooms, but the next morning when an apartment became available we moved over and are glad we did. The apartments have screened windows which allow fresh air in and are equipped with quiet ceiling fans to help circulation. They are much more spacious and have a more complete kitchen which makes a big difference for longer stays. Fresh drinking water is supplied. As the description notes, there is no cable or satellite television, but a free DVD library that lets you catch up on Hollywood movies after a day in the sun. The rooms and grounds are clean and well-kept, and lodge employees are friendly and attentive. A great space for solo travellers, couples, and small families. The nearby beach at Half Moon Bay is very family-friendly –and we didn’t have any problems with sand fleas here or at the West Bay beach.

Los Mapachines del Terraza Hotel – Managua

This three-room architect-designed and family-operated bed and breakfast is a charming oasis in an otherwise dull and dirty city. The owners pay great attention to detail, from the very tasteful décor to the fresh water, clean towels, sumptuous breakfast, and generous help with transportation and other arrangements. The common area is bright and inviting, and the small pool at the back is perfect for cooling down on a hot day. We had only booked two nights, heeding guidebook warnings that there was not much for tourists to see and do in Managua – but we would have been happy to stay longer just to enjoy this wonderful space, leaving only for dinner at La Curva just down the street.

Pleasant hotel in a dull city — Hotel Kekoldi de Granada

This small hotel is conveniently located about three blocks from the center of town, so it is within walking distance of the limited attractions Granada has to offer. Granada is promoted as the oldest city in the Americas — but it was repeatedly burnt to the ground by pirates, lastly by American William Walker in 1856, so there is not much to see from the early days. The hotel, however, is quite pleasant and although the rooms are small and basic, there is plenty of open-air common space with tables, chairs, and hammocks that helped us feel much less cramped for space. It also meant we had more contact with other guests for sharing travel tips and highlights. Each room features a large tiled artwork; the series is based on local Indigenous stories (it would have been interesting to have access to a guide to the stories and artworks). We were in a room near the back, and could not access WiFi from our room, but the signal was strong in the common areas closer to the front of the hotel. Staff were always attentive and helpful, and the complimentary breakfast consisted of a fruit bowl, and self-serve toast, cereal, gallo pinto (rice and beans), juice, tea and coffee. Guests could also order eggs made a number of ways for under 30 limperas (about $1.50).

O’Sheas Irish Pub — the servers here try harder

There is a 3-block section of restaurants in Granada obviously geared to serving tourists, so it is surprising that so many servers along this stretch have no patience or interest in working with turistas trying to communicate in a mix of English and Spanish. Not so O’Sheas — the servers were patient and helpful, and made sure they got the order right, unlike every other neighbouring restaurant we tried where servers would either look at us blankly or bring us the wrong food or drink. The food was also better at O’Sheas, so it earns this recommendation!

Hotel Los Boyeros – Liberia, Costa Rica

The best thing about this hotel is that it is right across the street from the gas station where you get dropped off when you bus across the border from Nicaragua. No need to deal with vulture cabs – you just cross the street. The hotel itself has everything you could hope for – large rooms with a deck, pool, restaurant, and helpful staff. We did experience the usual tropical issues with insects, and unfortunately the sheets were ill-fitting. Conveniently there is a supermarket across the street on one side, and an ATM across the street the other way. The hotel is set up for conventions, so not budget accommodation ($70 for a double), but after a day on a crowded bus, and an hour-and-a-half of lining up in the sun on both sides of the border, it’s a welcome sight.

Playa Tamarindo — Don’t want to leave the beach

We’ve been here ten days with just a couple of days remaining and we’re really wishing we could stay longer. This has got to be our favourite beach yet — wide sandy beach with lots of room for everyone. We’ve been tanning, jumping waves, and boogie boarding — it is also a place where many people are learning how to surf. Along the beach there are several restaurant/bars (our favourite: Le Beach Club) to chill after a day in the sun and surf — all with happy hours. Only complaint is when the wind picks up from the north (east?) it blows the sand everywhere, sometimes so hard it stings — so back into the water!

Soles y Margaritas – Playa Tamarindo, Costa Rica

We spent two weeks in one of two upstairs apartments equipped with a queen bed, ensuite bathroom, and kitchen with refrigerator and propane stove. There is a fabulous panoramic view of the ocean from the deck, and a wide variety of tropical birds fly by or rest in the nearby trees. Owner Kurt warned us to shake out towels and clothes as small scorpions find their way in, and sure enough, one morning we did find one underfoot. The rooms are basic but Kurt responds well with anything you need by way of kitchen utensils, fresh towels, or advice on local events or attractions. There is also a delightful small swimming pool on the grounds – a welcome feature on a hot day! Soles y Margaritas’ only drawback is that the shortcut from town to the hotel is up a steep dirt path (flashlight essential after dark) – although by the end of our stay we were climbing it without needing to catch our breath. There is a road but it winds around the hill and would be a much longer walk; of course taxis are plentiful as an alternative.

Cabinas El Pueblo – Santa Elena (Monteverde), Costa Rica

We were in a room with double bed and ensuite on the main floor – it also had a bunk bed so it would have been suitable for a family of four (although a small space overall; so youngsters, not teenagers!). A delicious breakfast was offered in the kitchen downstairs every morning: a fruit plate and the choice of one of two changing options every morning. The whole place was kept very clean and tidy, and the staff is very friendly and helpful and can arrange day trips or shuttles as needed. The Cabinas are located down a short path just off the main road, so traffic noise is not a problem except for the odd loud motorcycle. The shared deck overlooks a small creek that runs by the Cabinas, and the trees, which hide the backs of other buildings attract lots of small local birds to get your birdwatching started. All in all, a very pleasant and affordable place to stay while visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and other area attractions.

Jardin de Mariposas, Monteverde, Costa Rica

We don’t usually give much thought to butterflies, but we were quite impressed with the Butterfly Garden — and one of the most affordable attractions in the area too. The guides are knowledgeable volunteers, and it was fun to walk through the four enclosures, each representing a different bio-region in Costa Rica and the butterflies you would find there. I’ve read some complaints about the small number of species on exhibit, but for people new to the butterfly world, the number was just right. If you’re staying in Santa Elena, it’s actually worth the effort to walk the 2 kms — on the last stretch of dirt road to Butterfly Gardens we spotted monkeys, white-nosed coatls, and many birds. Plus, there are other attractions in the area worth checking out.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Costa Rica

This cloud forest is a spectacular non-commercial reserve with numerous trails of varying difficulty, panoramic viewpoints, and huge trees that are fascinating eco-systems all on their own. We walked/hiked the trails that essentially follow the perimeter and treat visitors to numerous viewpoints, a walk along the ridge of the continental divide, and to a modest waterfall. That took about 3 hours, and after a break for tea at the visitor centre, we walked a second set of trails to and from the 100m suspension bridge that stretches across a ravine and over the tops of the trees, about 45 minutes return. We encountered several groups of birders, and although we could hear many difference bird calls, they were hard to spot in the dense forest. However, we did get to see a male Resplendent Quetzal deep in the forest when a group of birders invited us to look through their tripod-mounted binoculars, and later a female Resplendent Quetzal landed in a tree near the park entrance, just as several groups of birders were about to leave, so imagine the excitement!

Best of both worlds – Jungle Beach Hotel, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

We had the pleasure of staying at the Jungle Beach Hotel for five nights and we’re glad we did. Located at the edge of the jungle with a five minute walk to the beach (and the warmest water on this coast), this well-maintained hotel has spacious rooms, comfortable beds, lots of shared deck and patio space, and a modest breakfast buffet. We were in room 3, one of two rooms on the top floor of the main building – we highly recommend this level, although one does have to climb several flights of steps. Hotel staff were very friendly and helpful with directions and advice for tourists, and town is a ten-minute walk down the hill; Manuel Antonio National Park is about ten minutes beyond that. Most days, howler monkeys hung out in the trees that tower over the hotel, and on our last day a troop of squirrel monkeys moved in and scampered through the trees for several hours.

Casa Ridgway — San Jose, Costa Rica

It’s a good thing our shuttle bus driver knew where Casa Ridgway is located, because neither the address nor this hostel’s online map would have brought us to its front door. We were dismayed our reservation had been recorded incorrectly and a private room was not available for our first night, despite e-mail confirmation; fortunately a dorm room was empty and made available to us. The error was blamed on the fact much of the front desk work is done by volunteers. We stayed three nights, and over that time, despite signage that indicates the laundry is available for use for a fee, it was either being used by staff, or there was no water, or we were simply told to ask someone else – not all of the volunteers coming and going were able to answer questions or “authorize” use of the washing machine, so we ended up taking it with us to our next destination. We were also never sure who was a volunteer, staff member, or fellow traveller – name tags would be a good idea. WiFi signal only in the front entrance area. But these are minor although important observations; the morning breakfast was satisfying, we were happy with the private room we had for night two and three, and we appreciate the good work being done by the Quaker group running the hostel. There is an extensive although dated peace and justice-themed library, computers for traveller use, and the volunteers are friendly if not always completely helpful. The hostel is close to the national museum and not far from the downtown core and other museums and attractions.

Tin Jo Restaurant – San Jose, Costa Rica

We arrived in San Jose on a Sunday night hungry from a day of travel, and our hostel host recommended this restaurant as one that was close by and would be open. It was an excellent recommendation – it was indeed open and offering a tantalizing range of Asian and South East Asian dishes. It was also quite full with locals, always a good sign. We were in San Jose only three nights, but we returned to the restaurant two nights later so between us we had a chance to sample four menu items – all superb including two very different curries (and many more to choose from). The portions are filling and the staff are mostly very attentive. The prices are quite good for the quality and serving size.  Admittedly this restaurant is not for those on a shoestring budget – but when you get tired of rice and beans, this is the place to go.
http://www.tinjo.com/new/?lang=en

National Museum – San Jose, Costa Rica

Just past the ticket counter you unexpectedly enter a large mariposario – an enclosed area of the old fort that features many of Costa Rica’s “trademark” Blue Morpho butterflies flitting about. Beyond that, visitors are guided through the old barracks, latrines, corner tower (with “loopholes” designed to allow soldiers to fire with minimum exposure to return fire), and the commander’s residence. Upstairs on ground level, are several exhibition halls with permanent and temporary displays focused on natural history, pre-Colombian life in Costa Rica, contact, and more recent historical developments, including information on the five week civil war in 1948 that led to the abolishment of the army in 1949 – and the subsequent conversion of this fort into the national museum. Well worth a two-hour visit.

Expediciones Tropicales – half day Volcán Poás tour

The brochure and website show a clear day at Volcán Poás, with the promise that you too will enjoy seeing the impressive main crater and learning about the different ecosystems found in the park around the volcano.  However, after circling the city picking up other passengers for at least an hour, we slowly made our way out of the city with some interesting commentary from our guide – but as we got closer to the park we ran into rain and increasing fog. At the top, we were dropped off at the visitor centre, completely enveloped in thick fog and heavy rain, with instructions to be back at the front door in two hours. So much for our guide. We walked to the edge of the crater, but with the fog so thick, we could barely see the guide rail, and certainly not the crater. Cold and soaked, we returned to the visitor centre for some hot tea, and learned from park staff that it rains most of the time and that the crater is frequently hidden by clouds and fog. When we all got back into the bus, there was no further commentary, or acknowledgement that the visit had been much less than promised. Because we were only doing the half-day tour and others on the bus were doing the full day option, everyone had to sit waiting in the bus for our connection, and then when it arrived, we joined others in the second bus that were waiting for yet another connection – it all felt very unorganized, haphazard, and tourist unfriendly. We were finally returned to our hotel almost two hours later than promised; fortunately we did not have any afternoon commitments. Obviously the tour company cannot control the weather, but they could be more honest about what we might see and have a “plan b” if the weather prevents full enjoyment of the promised itinerary. Otherwise it is just about taking money from tourists.

La Sebastiana – Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso

Whether you like Neruda’s poetry and politics or not, this writer’s retreat perched high on one of the hills overlooking Valparaiso is well worth the visit. He led a fascinating life, fully described in displays on the ground floor: variously writing, serving as a diplomat, living underground, running political campaigns, and winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. He was also a keen collector of the eclectic, and had a real sense of place – all reflected in the design and decoration of La Sebastiana. It was a real treat to wander through all five floors, and soak in the atmosphere inside and outside the house. The audio guide was fun – not just facts and figures but stories about Neruda’s life in the house. Take a bus up and walk down to the Bellavista area for more art and atmosphere.

Ascenseur Artilleria — Valparaiso, Chile

This is one of about a dozen ascensors still in operation; not the oldest, but it does offer the longest ride at 175 metres. It also offers one of the best views of city and harbour once you reach the top. Lastly, the exterior walls and roof have been painted with murals, and for only 300 pesos (less than a dollar Canadian or US) – it’s a deal that can’t be beat. The only drawback is that it breaks down from time to time – we were staying on the hill and had to walk or bus twice due to mechanical problems with the “funicular elevator”.

Cerro Concepcion — Valparaiso, Chile

Most travel materials describe this area, and nearby Cerro Allegre, as the cultural and tourism centre for Valparaiso. Indeed, the area is well worth exploring for the winding and sometimes nearly vertical roadways, murals, artisan shops, restaurants, and museums. Excellent service and food at the Garvasoni hotel restaurant. Currently (March 2012), Palacio Baburizzo is closed for renovations. Don’t stop with these two hills – be sure to also explore Cerro Carcel, Cerro Florida, and Cerro Bellavista.

Casa Museo Isla Negra

Just off season, none of the local tour companies were offering day trips from Valparaiso to Isla Negra, except one which wanted $200 US per person for a half-day excursion, not including lunch! We learned that Pullman had a daily departure at 1:30 pm and hopped on board (about $7 each) for the 90-minute ride that drops you off on the main road just up the hill from Pablo Neruda’s famous seaside house. As with his house in Valparaiso, we were struck by the design and layout of this quirky house: it is really a series of rooms facing the ocean, linked by narrow halls and archways. There is not much here about his writing or political life: the focus is clearly on his collection of collections. It seems every time he travelled, he returned with additions to his collections, and often the start of a new category of items to collect. The result, at least the way it is presented here, is that each room is like an old museum, every bit of wall and floor space covered by statues, carvings, masks, paintings, model boats and oddities of every description. The audio-guide is very helpful, it describes Neruda’s life, the room-by-room expansion of the house, and the origin and nature of many of the collections.

Eco Hostel La Locura del Poeta (The Poets Madness Eco Hostel)

We wanted to visit Pablo Neruda’s house at Isla Negra but because it was slightly off season we weren’t able to book a reasonably priced day trip from Valparaiso, so we looked into catching the bus and staying overnight near the museum. This hostel attracted our attention and worked well for us. It’s a 15-minute walk up from the highway and about 25-minute walk back across the highway down to the museum and ocean access. The hostel is quite basic with very limited washroom facilities and a tiny kitchen, but complimentary tea and coffee, and almost no common space indoors. Guests are required to remove footwear at the door but the floor is very cold, especially in the morning – bring thick socks or slippers! Bed was warm and comfortable. Like elsewhere in Chile, there are “stray” dogs everywhere that sleep all day and bark and howl all night – a bunch of them were roaming around outside the hostel the night we were there.

El Mirador – apartment with a great view

We had the great fortune of being able to spend an entire month in Valparaiso, so we wanted a space that was self-contained, with a view, but affordable. Because we were arriving just off-season, we were able to obtain a great monthly rate for one of four apartments at El Mirador, nicely perched atop Cerro Artilleria. There are views from both the kitchen and bedroom windows, but the best view is from the shared deck, complete with lounge chairs and morning and late afternoon sun. On a clear day you can see the entire crescent-shaped port city including the other hills, and north past Vina del Mar. The kitchen was well-equipped with fridge and two-burner hotplate, table and two chairs, and the bedroom very comfortable. The hot water shower was very dependable, and the TV had lots of channels to choose from. El Mirador is located just a block away from the route all Playa Ancha bound buses take on their way back to town, so getting to and from other hills and the business/commercial areas is easy, and cheap. We’re so glad we found El Mirador, it was a perfect home base for exploring Valparaiso and up and down the coast.

Hostel Rio Amazonas – quiet room in the heart of the city

Hostels come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with qualities that run from bug-invested dumps to establishments that are better than many hotels at twice the price. Rio Amazonas easily fits into the latter category. We were booked into a private room at the front for five nights, and it was a pleasure to return here after a day on the busy and noisy streets of Santiago. Even though it is located on a busy and noisy street itself, the front-facing rooms have been retrofitted with double-paned windows that make you forget the outside hustle and bustle. The room is comfortable, the bathroom is on the small side, and the wireless access is reliable. In the morning, the breakfast service gets your day off to a great start, and is available until a very civilized 10:30 am. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful; they made several calls for us on different matters. Lastly, Rio Amazonas is located less than two-blocks from Plaza Italia, a major bus interchange complete with a Metro station, and a 15-minute walk from the popular Bellavista neighbourhood.

Santiago — Bella Vista Sandwich Club

The Bellavista neighbourhood has no shortage of restaurants to choose from, but this new establishment is well-worth a try. The décor is very cool and contemporary and the menu inspired by both typical Chilean fare and the owner’s favourite sandwiches from the United States where he spent part of his youth (we had a quick chat with the owner before we ordered). The Chilean sandwich I ordered was the best I had during my five week stay in the country, and my partner’s Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich was just the anecdote for her after too many disappointing meals at bars and restaurants in both Valparaiso and Santiago.

Santiago — Backstage Experience Restaurant

When travelling, we often look for restaurants that are busy with locals, usually a good indication that the food and service is good. There are more than a dozen restaurants of every description at Bellavista Patio, a mall-like mix of shops catering to tourists and eating establishments serving tourists and locals alike. Backstage was one of the busiest, so we thought we would give it a try. Big mistake. The food was okay, but the server ripped us off with the drink order, bringing us a far more expensive version of pisco sours than we ordered, and when we saw the bill and pointed this out, the best he and the manager would do is offer us another round at no charge – not an acceptable solution when the overcharge came to $20 US. I advise tourists to select any restaurant in Bellavista but this one.

Santiago – Galindo Restaurant

This little corner restaurant is located just a few steps in from the traffic and congestion that characterizes the main tourist area of Bellavista, and features sidewalk seating, draft beer, and good food at reasonable prices. A great place for a late lunch or early dinner.

Hostal Victoria – Punta Arenas, Chile

Named for the first ship to circumnavigate the world (thus the nautical theme in the entrance and dining area), this cozy little hostel is located just a couple of blocks from the centre of town. We stayed in one of the upstairs rooms, with a private bathroom and small kitchenette. The bed was comfortable, the room warm, and the bathtub a welcome change from weeks of showers on the road. The host family is very friendly and helpful with tour arrangements, and provide an adequate breakfast of fresh toasted buns, cheese, juice, tea or coffee. Punta Arenas itself doesn’t have much to offer – it’s mostly a stopping point for heading further south. Tourist-oriented services are scarce, the main museum is closed for renovations, and three weeks ago the river overflowed after heavy rains and the downtown area was covered in two feet of mud that is still being cleaned up. Just the same, we were happy to return to Hostal Victoria each night.

B&B de las Artes – Ushuaia, Argentina

After four nights and five days on an excellent cruise through Patagonia South, it would be hard for a small B&B to meet the standards for comfort and services we had gotten used to. Certainly the room was comfortable enough, and it was nice having a bathtub, but the walls are paper-thin, and because we were in the room nearest the kitchen and front entrance, we could hear every time the door opened morning and night, breakfast preparations, and all conversations involving staff and other guests. For a B&B at the price we paid, the breakfasts were quite lacklustre: tea or coffee, orange drink mix, and a small basket of dry bread slices and small sticky croissants. Good location just a couple of blocks from the main streets – an easy walk to shopping and other tourist attractions.

Buenos Aires: What happened to Frida and Diego?

MALBA is a magnificent art gallery with lots of room for displaying work by Latin American artists, so it was unfortunate that the big show in place for our visit was a selection of works by US artists, gathered under the title “Bye Bye American Pie”. Not really an impressive collection at that — there are many US artists who have done more interesting or challenging work to select from. What bothered us was that promotional material and guidebook listings for the gallery all promise works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and others — but none are currently on display.

Buenos Aires: Cementerio de la Recoleta

As you stroll up and down row upon row of concrete and glass mausoleums, you can feel the wealth and power of many of the individuals and families entombed here over the past 150 years or so. Large statues, memorial plaques, and stained glass adorn these architecturally-designed resting places for generals, presidents, and the business class. But mixed in with the extravagant and gaudy tombs are many dilapidated and vandalized tombs with broken windows and missing doors. Some have become garbage bins, and through one open door we could see bones poking through a wood crate. The grounds are well kept, but surely someone could go through the forgotten tombs and clean them up and put things back into place.

Buenos Aires: Café Tortoni — spent a relaxed hour here

I notice many TripAdvisor reviewers have complained about long line-ups and stale pastries — but the day I dropped by Cafe Tortoni, I just walked in and grabbed a table, and was served fairly quickly and efficiently. It was a relaxing hour and I was able to sit back and watch the flow of locals and tourists in and out of the cafe, soak in the faded glory, and imagine life here over the past 150 years. I’m in town for a few weeks and will return just for the fun of it.

El Zanjon de Granadas: History tour makes visit worthwhile

El Zanjon d Granadas shows what is possible with vision and the financial resources to go with it. The owners spent many years and likely many dollars to turn a dilapidated, garbage-filled shell of an old building into a vibrant cultural facility – and took great care, with the aid or archeologists, to preserve what was left of the colonial house, the foundations of two previous houses on the property, and the tunnels that once covered a creek underneath it all. Careful restoration and the exposed old bricks and beams, underground water storage cistern, and wide tunnels are impressive enough, but it was the tour guide that brought these artifacts to life and showed how the history of the house and property are intertwined with the history of Buenos Aires. We were there on a Sunday for the 30 minute tour; the Sunday market stretches for several blocks in either direction along the street out front. Go see this house!

Palermo Soho — Wander here for a few hours, options for lunch
This is an easy to navigate section of Palermo, with lots of interesting stores, murals, green spaces, and options for lunch or dinner — especially in the area immediately around Plaza Cortazar.

Plaza Dorrego — Sit awhile, watching people and tango dancers
This is a great plaza for spending an afternoon sipping coffee or beers, watching tourists and locals come and go, and the open air tango dancers. Lots of outdoor seating, just watch out for the pigeons — best to pick a table with an umbrella!

La Boca — Colourful but tiny tourist town
Every city has one, a colourful corner or few square blocks that exist almost entirely as a photo stop for tourists. The El Caminito area in La Boca is just that — a small area of old buildings, dressed up and full of souvenir shops, cafes, and bars, and endless “opportunities” to sign up for tango tours, pose with dancers, and other activities designed to separate pesos from tourists. Okay for a short visit, but don’t spend a lot of money to get here (which judging by the number of tour buses parked along the edges, is exactly what a lot of people are doing).

San Telmo — Lots to see and do
This neighbourhood is home to Plaza Dorrego with it’s open-air cafe seating and tango dancers, El Zanjon (well worth the price of admission), a 15-block long Sunday market, the Buenos Aires Modern Fine Arts Museum, and the interesting but unpromoted Penitentiary Museum. Also, lots of cafes and restaurants (my favourite: The Gibraltar, a small English pub with British and Thai food on the menu).

Puerto Iguazu — Stone Garden Hostel

Just down the road from the bus terminal, and three blocks from several streets with cafes and restaurants, this hostel is well-located for catching the bus to Iguazu Falls and wandering around town. It is also just far enough away to be a quiet retreat from the busier parts of town, complete with garden, outdoor eating and open kitchen, and small pool to lounge beside. The room we had was small but comfortable, and staff were generous with time and advice. When we checked in they provided a map, explained the bus schedule and how to get to restaurants and the Three Frontiers marker, and throughout our stay helped with our questions. The breakfasts were basic but adequate: pastries, cereal and fruit along with juice, tea and coffee. We would stay here again.

Asuncion – Casa Suiza Hotel

The best thing going for this small hotel is that it is located just three blocks from a pair of shopping centres and the bus route into the downtown area, and in the other directions a few blocks from a number of restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, the hotel itself is rather disappointing. Promoted as an “apart-hotel” the rooms are somewhat small with no windows, there is a small glass table but no counter space or sink for meal preparation and clean-up, and only a microwave sitting on a small fridge anyway. The staff are friendly and very helpful, and building security is good. Area seems okay but very dark at night.

Cusco – Hotel Andenes al Cielo

There are a great many hotels and hostels to choose from in Cusco, and talking to other travellers, it is clear there is quite a range in terms of quality and customer service. We’re so glad we found Andenes al Cielo for a number of reasons. It is located just around the corner from Plaza de Armas, the main square, but far enough away that it is quiet (but not up hill, which is tough going at high altitude). The rooms are spacious and clean, and breakfast is adequate with eggs available scrambled or fried. There was a problem with the heating system the first day, but after that it worked fine (although the room was still a bit cooler than we would have liked). Laundry service was 5 soles ($2) per Kg, and the staff was very responsive and conscientious. They stored our bags went we left for Machupicchu, and helped with directions and calling cabs.

Cusco — Jack’s Café Bar

We were lucky that this excellent little café was just a few doors down from our hotel – it made slipping in at slightly off-peak hours very easy. That’s important because there was often a line-up outside for the small number of tables and counter seats available. The reason for the line-ups? An excellent breakfast and lunch menu at very reasonable prices, including mixed juice drinks and espresso. And my co-travellers could not get enough of the chocolate muffins!

Cusco – Marcelo Batata restaurant

This third-floor restaurant was a pleasant surprise and welcome shift from the many bland tourist restaurants found at street level on every corner of town. The menu offers a wide range of Peruvian specialties, and there wasn’t a bad meal between the four of us. My thick and delicious alpaca steak was cooked medium-rare as requested and the side dishes were equally tasty. The only complaint at the table was that the serving of lamb ribs was rather small, with just a small dollop of mashed potatoes on the side. Extensive drink menu and good music. Highly recommended.

Cusco – Paddy’s Pub

This small second-floor pub overlooking the Plaza de Armas provides a delightful escape from the constant bother of people hawking souvenirs and tours at street level. Promoted as the “highest Irish owned pub on the planet” this cozy bar offers a tasty range of beers, 2-for-1 mixed drinks during happy hour, and excellent pub grub. Lots of the usual Irish pub features and decorations but also a small train that runs around the edges or the main room near the ceiling, and lots of large mirrors that make the place seem larger than it is. From the people we talked to at the next table, evidently a favourite with locals and tourists alike.

Aguas Calientes – Terazas del Inca

This is going to be a hard hotel to recommend. We had the feeling that there was no management on site, and so problem-solving was a hit and miss proposition. The room was extremely cold and damp, and we were told there was an extra charge for a portable heater – and finally for the third night we gave in and requested one. That took the edge off. The shower curtain was too short for the shower, which meant water went everywhere, for us to clean up. When we brought this to the attention of the front desk, they were reluctant to do anything until we dragged them up to our room to see. They brought in a replacement curtain that was also too short and just shrugged their shoulders. One afternoon back from hiking we had to wait outside for two hours as they were doing construction work on the stairs which involved cutting concrete and filling the lobby and staircase with a thick cloud of fine mortar dust. Two days we were without water from 8 am to 6 pm, shut off because they were working in the room below us (and with all the noise that involves as well). When we said something they at first feigned surprise, and then admitted it was because of the work downstairs. On the positive side, the young staff was friendly, just ill-equipped to run a hotel. Breakfasts were good, and there was always a hot water thermos near the front desk for making tea.

Aguas Calientes — Pueblo Viejo Lounge

This stylish restaurant is such a welcome relief from the endless row of bland and generic tourist restaurants that line Avenida Pachacuteq. They have a cool Buddha bar vibe going with the music and lighhting, covered open air seating with the grill in the middle, excellent food and drinks at reasonable prices, and good service. We wish we had tried this restaurant earlier in our four day stay in Aguas Caliente, rather than on the last night – we would have gone back!

Ollantaytambo – Casa Wow

Casa Wow has a great vibe – a cozy common room, feel-at-home breakfast kitchen area, and bright rooms with big rustic beds and all the blankets and comforters you need for cold nights and sleeping in. The common room features a flat-screen television and a great assortment of DVDs for quiet nights indoors. The location is just a few minutes away from many restaurants, coffee shops, and the main ruins, and is also close to the trail leading up Pinkuylluna, the mountain opposite the main ruins and temples that features the ruins of a palace, food storage buildings, outposts and more. It’s a bit of a walk up from the train station if that’s how you’re getting into town, so grab a cab for just a few soles up to the main plaza – then it’s cobblestone lanes the rest of the way (about 2 or 3 blocks). Very reasonable price for a double with private bathroom, and Win is a very helpful and gracious host. She also has a library of travel guides including a booklet that describes walks and trails in the area. Highly recommended.

Chivay, Peru – Colca Llaqta Hotel

We had a number of options to choose from as part of an overnight tour to Colca Canyon; we’re glad we selected Colca Llaqta. It is located just three blocks from the main plaza with restaurants and shops, and faces the river with a clear view of an Incan trail that leads up to a small lookout post. We were in a double room with private bathroom, both of which were very spacious, especially the bedroom which included a welcome worktable and chair. The small heater was just enough to take the chill off the room and breakfast was enough to get us going for the day.

Arequipa, Peru – Dreams Boutique Hotel

We managed to take advantage of a room sale which made the Dreams Boutique Hotel quite affordable and what a treat it was. A large spacious room and the biggest bed we’d slept in after 5 months on the road. Breakfast was good and included eggs prepared to order. Dreams is located a safe 15-minute walk from the main historic plaza. Front desk staff were helpful and provided us with a good map of the area to help with orientation, and there is an on-site restaurant that also offers room service. The rooftop patio was also a great place to sit when the sun came out.

Puno, Peru – Mosoq Inn

Puno has nothing to offer except it is where you catch a boat to explore Lake Titicaca. As such, it also means the hotels can be overpriced compared with elsewhere in Peru. The room we had was cold and windowless, and the little heater was not up to the task. The breakfast buffet was just okay – not nearly as spectacular as some of the reviews here have made it out to be. The staff was helpful, no specific complaints, just a dreary hotel in a dreary place.

Nasca, Peru – Nasca Trails Hostel

The town of Nasca is not much to look at – it would be just another dry and dusty roadside community if it weren’t for the famous lines just up the valley. That being said, Nasca Trails is the perfect place to stay. The rooms are small but adequate, and they serve a good breakfast in the outdoor dining area. There is also a large outdoor lounge area for relaxing and soaking up the sun, and swapping tales with other travellers. However, the hostel’s greatest asset is Juan, who readily sets up Nasca Lines flights and other tours. The flight he arranged for us was $90 US each including pick-up and return to the hostel. The airline actually picked us up early because the sky was clear and calm – and we were whisked through the process and onboard in minutes. He also arranged a private tour for us of the ancient cemetery south of town and we know he arranged many tours for others while we were there.

Paracas, Peru – Paracas Backpacker’s House

In another review I mentioned the dry and dusty roadside towns that find themselves deluged with tourists because of something located nearby – such is the case with Paracas, the launching place for boat tours to the Bellestas Islands. Reviewers here have started to differentiate between the older thin-walled part of this hostel and the new concrete block section. We were in a double room with bathroom in the new section of the hostel – a very nice room which will serve travellers well once the dust settles, and is very reasonably priced – without the attempt to gouge tourists we’ve experienced elsewhere in Peru. However right now there is a layer of mortar dust everywhere in the room because the other rooms and patio areas are still under construction, not good for travelers with dust allergies, including my partner. The workers also arrive at 7:30 am — so no sleeping in. However, Alberto is very helpful with safety, restaurant, and tour advice, and offers a good price for the boat and national park tours, available separately or combined. The boat tour is well worth it, the park tour not so much so. Anyway, once the new building is finished, this will be the perfect place to stay.

Colca Tours – Colca Canyon two day tour

Everyone told us you can’t be in Peru and not go see Colca Canyon, described as one of the deepest canyons in the world. Colca Tours (Arequipa) offers a Puno-Chivay-Colca Canyon-Arequipa two-day tour that promises excitement but delivers only long bus rides and less than spectacular stops. The bus ride from Puno to Chivay was in a full-sized bus, very comfortable, with stops at viewpoints including one overlooking a lagoon occupied by flamingos – although they were just faint-pink dots in the water at the bottom of the valley. We were delivered to our hotel in Chivay with time to explore the small town before being picked up for a visit to the local hot springs. This was in a smaller van, and we were in with a new group of travellers and required to sit away from my partner – a seating arrangement with continued in the morning for the trip up the canyon. This is where the disappointment was the greatest – despite a stop at an interesting pre-Inca cliff side cemetery. The bus stopped at the entrance to the canyon, and then at Condor Cross for an hour – but not far enough up the canyon for any dramatic canyon depth, and no condors in sight. We were very disappointed this was all there was to the tour, and further disappointed when the buffet lunch back in Chivay turned out to be a poor selection of food and dramatically overpriced. Fortunately for the last part of the bus ride we were able to sit together because some passengers were heading elsewhere. This tour was not worth the time or money.

Nasca, Peru – Antonini Museum

From the main plaza it is a six-block walk that makes you think you’re leaving town, with no signage to encourage you until you finally reach the museum compound and get buzzed in. The entrance is through a small courtyard, and then you are in another world – room after room of well-displayed pottery, textiles, and other artifacts recovered from local digs conducted over the past three decades. The labels and descriptions are in Spanish but when you pay admission you can pick up a booklet that has an English summary of each large wall chart, more than 40 in all that describe the artifacts, rituals, buildings, and the archeological explorations themselves. The photograph numbers in the booklet don’t always match the charts, but is it mostly easy to figure out, and we were happy to have the translations. It was very quiet the day we were there – a lone dog actually wandered through the museum – but well worth a visit, especially if you don’t have time to make it out to some of the historic sites themselves.

Nasca Lines – Aero Palcazu

Despite some foreign government tourist advisories not to do a flyover of the Nasca Lines, the Canadian government mentions the 2008 and 2010 crashes that resulted in numerous deaths and recommends that travellers confirm that the airline has a good track record. Reading everything we could find suggested to us that the Peruvian government had taken dramatic action following the last crash, and that the remaining airlines had to meet strict new safety and inspection standards. Thusly informed, we booked a flyover through our hostel (Juan at Nasca Trails Hostel) for $90 US each which included pick up and return. They actually arrived almost an hour early because it was a clear and calm day – and at the airport whisked us through the process, into the waiting room, and onboard in a matter of minutes. We had taken anti-air sickness pills, but they were unnecessary because the takeoff, flight, and landing were all super smooth. It was a six-seat plane with pilot, co-pilot, and four tourists. They followed a route that took us over lots of lines and shapes and about 15 of the most well-known images, passing over many of them twice so passengers on both sides would have a good view. The only one we didn’t see fully was the owl-headed man (aka astronaut) because we didn’t realize it was on the mountainside rather than on the gravel plain like all the others. Otherwise, we saw everything they pointed out to us and regret that the whole trip was over so quickly! And it all felt safer than the bus ride we took from Arequipa to get here!

Paracas, Peru – Bellestas Islands boat tour

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many birds in one place at one time – millions of them standing, roosting, flying to and fro – various cormorants, Peruvian Boobies, Incas, pelicans, vultures, and my personal favourite, Humboldt penguins. The boats head out with a stop to view the hillside candelabra/cactus and some mainland bird colonies along the way, and then out to the islands. At first it is the sight and sound that catches your attention, but once the boat is downwind, the incredible stench is rather overwhelming and you feel for the workers that come out to the islands for three months every several years to harvest the accumulated guano, which is 30 to 50 cm thick throughout the small group of islands. At one time wars were fought over these islands; harvesting and shipping the guano to Europe as fertilizer was once very lucrative. The islands are also home to various unique crab and starfish populations, as well as a colony of South American sea lions, lazily sleeping on the rocks the morning we passed by them. As expected, the boat does not land, but you do get close enough for good photos.

Ecuador reviews

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Awesome; in every positive sense of the word. That’s the only way to describe the past eight days, cruising from island to island, crossing back and forth across the equator, and exploring life under the water, on land, and in the sky, 1000 kms off the coast of Ecuador. These are Herman Meville’s famed “enchanted islands’, better known as the Galapagos Islands.

These volcanic islands, moving toward South America at a rate of about 3 cms per year, are widely varied in terms of landscape and animal life. From the hard, harsh, and hot-under-the-sun lava field of Isla Santiago to the lush highlands of Isla Santa Cruz, each island and bay was teeming with enough unique and very visible flora and fauna to inspire birders, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

There are two ways of seeing the wonders of the Galapagos Islands – from a boat equipped with dinghies for landing at beaches, hiking trails, and snorkeling areas — or on day trips from one of three main cities. We opted for an eight day cruise aboard The Eden, an 80-foot yacht with eight cabins and a crew of five. The itinerary included stops at many of the islands: Genovesa to the north, Floreana and Espanola to the south, Bartolome and Santa Cruz in the middle, and San Cristobal to the east. Each day featured two or three excursions with our guide, Eduardo, who helped us understand how the islands were formed, the different currents and weather systems that effect plant and animal life, and the human history of the islands. He pointed out endemic species (only found in the Galapagos), native species (found here and elsewhere), and animals and birds introduced on purpose or by accident by pirates, whalers, and settlers.

We were all astounded by the diversity of wildlife along the trails, on the beaches, and in the water – and we were all excited when someone, frequently Eduardo, spotted a new bird, animal, or underwater creature. We could hardly go more than a few steps on the ground or a few metres through the water before seeing more fascinating creatures. Mostly they don’t pay humans much attention. Park rules are to stay two metres away from wildlife and to stay on marked trails – hard to do with Blue-footed Boobys sitting on nests in the middle of the trail or juvenile sea lions swimming into our midst to play as we snorkel across a bay!

Our excursions included treks across lava fields, hikes up mountains to cliff side bird colonies and dramatic viewpoints, walks along the shore, climbing down into a 400m section of a lava tunnel, and a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

Our cabin on the boat was really small, and there’s no way it was a full double bed. That would have been okay except the boat was on the move through rough seas on four of the seven nights which made restful sleep impossible. The boat really rocked and pitched – there was a real feeling that we would be tossed from our bed at any moment. Such was the price of getting around to so many islands in just over a week – but we’re sure glad we did.

Hostel Quito Cultural – Quito

We selected this hostel because it was located in Old Town; we generally like staying in the older parts of cities I’m visiting. Quito promotes Old Town as the largest colonial neighbourhood in South America, but it is also the most dreary. At night, it is also the least friendly colonial-era section of town we’ve ever stayed in. As soon as it starts to get dark, every store and restaurant pulls down the metal shutters and the places turns into a ghost town. The hostel gate is always locked, and it sometimes takes forever for someone to answer the door to let guests in. The rooms are adequate but extremely cold, and when we came back after a trip to the Galapagos Islands, the street in front of the hostel, right under our window, was being torn up and workers and machinery were generating noise and the smell of burnt asphalt well into the night. The hotel staff seemed unconcerned; we moved to a hostel in New Town and what a breath of fresh air that was.

Galapagos Eco Hostel

This gem of a bed and breakfast-style hotel is located about six blocks from the tourist wharf, slightly uphill, but well worth the walk or short cab ride. Host Harry Jimenez has paid careful attention to what travellers hope to find in a room, everything from the welcome glass of orange juice and big towels, to the microwave and small fridge, wardrobe, desk and chairs, all in a wonderfully spacious room. The king size bed alone was heavenly, bigger than the on-board cabin we just spent seven nights crammed into! Breakfast is also carefully thought out and prepared – we were there for three nights and there was a slight change each morning and lots of choice.  The entrance area and guest rooms are complete, but the grounds are a work-in-progress as is a new third-floor dining room – however work proceeds only after breakfast and does not go late, so does not interfere with getting a great night’s sleep. Besides, Harry will do everything he can to make your stay an enjoyable one with lots of advice, help with organizing day-excursions, and even a ride to the airport (5 minutes away). If you’re doing a cruise that ends on San Cristobal Island, do consider staying a couple of nights in this quiet, low tourist-pressure town. When you grab a taxi, ask them to take you to Harry’s place!

Aleida’s Hostel

This hostel, formerly a big old colonial house, is located in a mixed residential/commercial neighbourhood about a 20-minute walk from the hyper-tourist centre of La Mariscal.  We stayed here for two nights after a visit to the Galapagos, and a few days later, for one more night after a trip to the hot springs at Papallacta. We think that’s the main reason others stay here as well – on their way to or from somewhere else. It’s not a good place for longer stays – the rooms are small (especially room 15), the beds are lumpy, and the bathrooms are so small the toilet in room 13 is positioned sideways under the sink, which means guests have to sit sideways to use it. It is a quiet neighbourhood, except for the car alarms in the night, and the fact it is under the flight path for incoming planes – don’t plan to sleep past 6:30 am. Breakfast is sparse, coffee or tea and a bit of toast and eggs – fruit salad, fruit choice, or granola is available at extra charge. A big common room, small outdoor seating area, and a book exchange bring this hostel up to an average rating.

Termas de Papallacta

Termas de Papallacta is an excellent side-trip from Quito – just make sure that if you are heading out by bus you get better instructions than the ones they provide on the website. The facility itself is first class. We stayed in one of the family cabins with exclusive use of a series of small pools, ranging from warm to very hot. The pools been designed in a way that guests can have small areas to themselves. The cabins themselves are spacious with bedroom and living room, and a deck with table and chairs. Our cabin (number 45) also had a small fireplace, although the hardwood they supply is hard to light. The spa offers a wide range of services at reasonable prices. The on-site restaurant is fairly expensive (two cups of coffee for $5), but there are several small restaurants just outside the gate that offer full breakfasts for two, including coffee, for $5, and lunch for two under $10. There is also a 2km walking trail into the forest to do between dips in the pools.

Brazil reviews

Copacabana Beach

This is the best beach in Rio – four kilometres of sugar sand, wide open on weekdays, quite crowded on the weekends and holidays but there is always room to lay out a towel or two, or rent a chair and umbrella. Sellers come by with every type of food and commodity – it’s annoying at times, amusing at other times, especially when the poor fellows wander by earnestly trying to sell zipper purses. Who thought this up anyway – a purse that unravels into a long strip of fabric? Copacabana is also a great beach for morning and afternoon walks – in the evening it gets rather dark along the edge of the water even with the lights on all along the boardwalk. There are lots of kiosks with plenty of seating along the boardwalk for cold beer after a day in the sun, and many restaurants across the street or down side streets. I could live here.

Cristo Redentor

Whether you are a believer or not, the train trip up the hill to stand at the feet of the most well-known statue in South America is well worth the fee to take the Trem do Corcovado (44 BRLs per person). The view is remarkable – there is no better place to be to see the entire city, across the bay, and out to sea. Not much of a view on the ride up through the trees, but don’t worry about getting photos along the way – the view from the top is 360 degrees. Funny to watch people pose with arms outstretched to be in a photo with the big guy. Oh, there’s a cafeteria and restaurant around back – so you can enjoy a beer or two high above the city.

Favela Tour – Rio de Janeiro

We signed up for this tour through Favela Tour, which picked us up in Copacabana and took us west through Rio to the largest favela in the city, the 100,000+ Rocinho. We stopped several times in the community, for different views and discussions about the people living there and some of the serious challenges facing the community. Rocinha was “pacified” several months ago, which means special troops and police moved into the community en masse to push the drug lords out – followed by more direct investment in civil infrastructure and programs in the community. Our guide noted it was too early to call it a success just yet, although hopes are high and government promises to do more always tenuous. We then visited a much smaller favela with a population of 3000. Vila Canoas was not directly controlled by drug lords, but was always vulnerable to takeover. Of the two, the larger favela actually seemed much more vibrant and liveable – stores and restaurants and bars lined the main streets and there was much more going on. Both are near wealthy neighbourhoods, where many favela residents toil as groundskeepers and housekeepers and the like. We were told they and others with work in the city represent a massive “emergent middle class” that political parties are starting to pay more attention to. We learned a great deal during this tour and highly recommend it to anyone wishing to better understand what’s going on just around the corner from the sandy beaches and shiny malls.

Forte Duque de Caxias – Rio de Janeiro

Tucked in behind Leme Beach at the east end of Copacabana Beach, is the entrance to the park and one km paved trail up to the fort. The fort was one of many built to defend Rio, and from its perch atop Leme Hill, it has a great view of the beach and the bay. The fort itself is nicely restored and some of the rooms have been outfitted with artifacts and information panels are on view. It has an odd history – only firing its canons in response to internal conflict, never against a foreign invader. The hill itself was once barren but has been reforested and along with observing a variety of birds, we also spotted mico-estrelas, black-tufted marmosets – a squirrel size monkey usually found further inland. Admission is only 4 BRLs, about $2.

Museum of Modern Art – Rio de Janeiro

The Museum of Modern Art is a massive complex with large exhibition spaces that allow the art to breath. This means every sculpture large and small can be examined from every angle without interference from other artwork.  The main floor was host to figurative works by Italian artist Alberto Giacometti, who produced bronze sculptures ranging in height from a few centimetres to over 3 metres, as well as drawings and paintings and other artworks. A side exhibition featured photos of Giacometti at work in his studio in Paris. The upstairs exhibition was less appealing to me – a number of large abstract pieces that were just sitting or hanging there rather lifeless and uninteresting. But still, well worth a visit.

Museum of Contemporary Art – Niteroi, Brazil

Getting over to this new art gallery is a great day trip from Rio – it’s easy to catch the ferry across Guanabara Bay, and then either walk (about 30 minutes) or catch a bus to the gallery. From the outside the building looks amazing, perched on a cliff overlooking the bay. The logo for the gallery suggests the inspiration was organic, but I agree with others that it looks like a large spaceship has landed. Admission is only 6 BRLs (about $3), for two levels of exhibition space. The day I was there the main exhibition was interesting but not that exciting, and the second floor display area was taken up with an exhibition of artwork collected by an Italian/Brazilian entrepreneur that features Brazilian abstract art from the 1960s and 1970s. It felt very dated – art that could not transcend its original time and place. Nevertheless, the gallery is well worth a visit, as is the underground restaurant that features a great view and a surprisingly affordable menu.

Caixa Cultural Centre – Rio de Janeiro

Just around the corner from the front entrance to this downtown bank is an exhibition space that is free to view. There were two excellent and very different exhibitions on view when I was there in August. The first featured an extensive series of sometimes morbid drawings and paintings by Salvador Dali based on Dante’s Divine Comedies, and the second was a delightful exhibition of cartoons, paintings, and designs from Argentinian illustrator Liniers.

Oi Futuro Cultural Centre – Rio de Janeiro

I read about an Amazon photo exhibition and easily found the downtown Oi Futuro cultural center and discovered it features several floors of photo-based exhibitions and activities. Admission is free, and the exhibitions are numerous and varied. Turns out the exhibition we read about was actually a “galeria virtual” up on the 8th floor which means you can sit and have an espresso while watching the photos being projected on the wall. Allow about an hour or so.

Carmen Miranda Museum – Rio de Janeiro

Not easy to find – it’s in an ugly concrete bunker, sitting in a desolate, empty park that runs between two busy highways. Almost no signage, but I recognized the building from website photos. Such a contrast to the colourful and flamboyant entertainer featured inside. Film clips show Carmen Miranda in action, and display cases features original and replica jewelry, hats, and costumes. Labels and an extensive timeline in both Spanish and English describe her rise to fame but also her tragic addiction to the drugs that allowed her to maintain an intense touring schedule but also led to her untimely death.

National Historical Museum – Rio de Janeiro

This museum was under reconstruction when I visited, so only the anthropology and religious art sections were open to visitors. The anthropology section was the most interesting with its extensive collection of ancient pottery and other handmade artifacts. Admission was 8 BRLs, about $4.

Formule 1 Hotel – Belem, Brazil

The first room they sent us up to had not been cleaned – and it took awhile for the front desk staff to sort it out and assign us a new room (I think they initially hoped we would just hang out in the hall until it was cleaned). The room itself was okay, small as others have noted but adequate for a short stay. The breakfasts cost $5 US extra per person – but it’s actually a good deal, they put lots of food out, replenish items that run low, and there is endless coffee or tea as needed. The immediate neighbourhood around the hotel has nothing to offer, so it makes sense to take breakfast here. You don’t have to purchase breakfast tickets in advance – they’re available from the front desk at any time while breakfast is being served. We were rather unhappy with the front desk staff – it was sometimes hard to get their attention, and when we tried to get help with directions to city attractions, they told us they couldn’t help. Not impressed. Postscript: I mentioned this through a follow-up customer service survey they sent me by e-mail and received an immediate apology, and an indication they will offer maps with the hotel location marked. Hope that happens.

Amazon Beer Restaurant – Belem, Brazil

I’m a big fan of microbreweries and brewpubs but never guessed that I would find one overlooking the Amazon River – so imagine my delight when I stumbled across this fine establishment on my way to find the ticket office for river cruises. It’s at the west end of a row of new buildings constructed on historic shipping docks – the old cranes have been left out front and there is a small exhibition of ancient nautical items in the lobby. There is a large covered patio, essentially due to sudden cloudbursts day and night.  But the main attraction is the beer brewed on site; my favourite was the India Pale Ale, although the Red was tasty too. The menu is extensive although I mostly had snacks.

Islands and Trails Cruise – Belem, Brazil

When you’re only in town for one day, you have to go with what’s available that day, and we wanted to get out onto the Amazon River for at least a few hours. We selected the Islands and Trails Cruise offered by Valeverde Turismo for 75 BRLs per person (about $38 US) – described as a 6-hour excursion that included lunch, swimming in the Amazon, and an ecological walk.  Turns out it was really just a booze cruise. It took us around some of the islands near the mouth of the Amazon, and then docked for passengers to walk along the beach to the swimming area and restaurant. However, there was nothing “ecological” about the walk, and certainly no trails included in the itinerary. After the swim, and just as lunch was ready, there was an extended cloudburst so everyone had to crowd under cover where there were not enough tables for everyone to sit out of the torrential rain, and those at the end of the buffet line had to wait 20 more minutes for food to be brought out when most of the main course items ran out. We were then all cramped under the shelter for a long time – there was nothing else to do and no one from the crew seemed to care. During a break in the rain we all dashed back to the boat, just in time before another cloud burst. It’s not that it was a bad experience, we enjoyed being on the water, but it was much less than expected.

Chez Les Rois Bed & Breakfast – Manaus, Brazil

This B&B is a great place to come home to after a day in hot and humid Manaus – fans and air conditioning of course, but it is the small pool in the back yard that really makes the difference, along with very friendly and supportive staff. The check-in was quick and efficient, accompanied by a cold glass of fresh juice. Help with finding our way around was offered, and they generously stowed our luggage when we went on a 6-day Amazon cruise. They also adjusted our booking when we realized our flight left in the middle of the night, and let us hang out and take a final, wonderfully refreshing dip in the pool before leaving. The breakfasts featured a variety of fruits and other breakfast items, offered buffet-style in an open room by the pool, and a chance to exchange stories with other travellers. Lastly, there is a small shelf of books in the common room, so we were able to renew our reading material.

Amazon Clipper (booked through Rainforest Cruises) – Manaus, Brazil

We opted for the six day/five night tour and we’re glad we did. Not only did we get to spend time on both the Rio Negro and Rio Amazonas, but we got to see first-hand how different the two rivers are, not only in terms of colour and speed, but also in terms of the diverse eco-systems they each support. The acidic nature of the Rio Negro means there are fewer insects, but also fewer birds, while the faster moving, cooler, less acidic Rio Amazonas is home to much more insect and bird life. The cruise features numerous extended canoe excursions as well as jungle walks. Bring insect repellent! You can also spot many birds and both grey and pink dolphins form the deck of the boat. We were booked on the Amazon Clipper “traditional” – the cabins are very small and the central air conditioning not quite up to the task, but the food was excellent and the common areas perfect for chatting with other passengers and enjoying the rivers. At the mid-point, we were transferred to the much larger Amazon Clipper “premium” – it was low season and they didn’t have enough passengers to run both boats. Much larger rooms and much better air conditioning, although the food was not quite as good – so we didn’t overeat as much! Lots of common areas inside and outside for interacting with other passengers and watching the scenery go by. We made an unscheduled stop at a place on the river where they feed pink dolphins and let tourists get in the water with them – it costs at extra $25 per person and it was so much fun we encouraged Clipper management to make it a permanent part of the cruise. We booked through www.rainforestcruises.com and their service and price was excellent. Overall, well worth the effort to get to Manaus for this wonderful Amazon experience.

Panama reviews

Interoceanic Canal Museum – Casco Viejo, Panama City

This building, located at Independence Square in the centre of the old city area, started as a hotel, then served as the headquarters for the French effort to build a canal and later as the head office for the US project. After the canal was competed, it served as a post office before being abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. The building has been carefully restored and rooms used for exhibitions that describe the history of the building and the canal. The descriptions are all in Spanish, although English audio guides are available at extra charge (we regretted not picking them up on the way in – they were only $2 extra each, we didn’t know there would be so much text).

Miraflores Visitors Center – Miraflores Locks, Panama

Many tour companies offer a ride out to the Miraflores Locks, but cab fare is between $6 and $10 each way for two people, and it meant we could hang out at the Visitors Center all afternoon, watch several ships pass through the locks, and spend as much time as we wanted in the excellent exhibition area. While ships enter the locks and rise or lower with the water levels, you can watch from ground level or from the fourth floor observation deck. An announcer talks about the locks and the ships, alternating between Spanish and English, with fun facts like the fee the boat owners paid to go through the locks (a large container ship we watched heading for the Pacific paid $380,000, which saves them money not having to go around Cape Horn). The service and food at the snack bars is poor, but that is the only sour note. The exhibition area is top quality, with models, extensive descriptions, and even a helms room simulator – you get a captain’s eye view of the whole lock process. The full fee ($8) is highly recommended for access to all the observation areas, a film screening, and the exhibition.

Costa Rica reviews

Hostel Mi Tierra – Alajuela, Costa Rica

This modest hostel is just a ten minute / $3 cab ride from the main San Jose airport, so it’s a great place to stay on the way in or out of the country or when meeting others coming in late. There is always a receptionist on duty, there are several local bus stations nearby if you’re heading to or from San Jose, and there is a small pool in the courtyard, perfect for cooling off at the end of a hot day. Complimentary breakfast is served in the courtyard every morning, complete with tea or coffee, fruit, bread, and eggs freshly prepared any style. The rooms are small but fine for a short stay, and there is a common area with couches and a computer station for guest use. Wireless is available in the common area and courtyard only (I couldn’t connect from my room in the lower wing). The staff is friendly and helpful with directions and advice on nearby restaurants and bars.

Dolphin and Snorkeling – Wahoo Fishing Tours, Puerto Viejo

Shortly after 6 am we set out for the 3 km walk from our cabin into town in the rain – about halfway to town a woman in a red golf cart stopped and offered us a ride the rest of the way, which we happily accepted. I asked her if she was connected with the dolphin tour company and she said she was (the tour agent had said to look for a red golf cart at the beach) – and we said we were her passengers that morning. Her kindness was a good sign that we would have a great day on her boat, which we did despite the rain which continued through the morning. When the boat reached the bay near the mouth of the Sixaoli River, there were no dolphins in sight, so Janet and Pino, the boat captain, cranked up some Bob Marley, and within seconds there were dolphins swimming, leaping, and even breaching all around us. We circled for a long time, enjoying the spectacle of all these dolphins even though we were getting soaked because it was still raining quite heavily. From there we went snorkeling, first near Punta Mona (Monkey Point), and then at a sandy beach with an exposed area of reef a short distance away

Pure Jungle Spa – Puerto Viejo

My partner and her daughter booked a session together that included a foot soak, body massage, and neck to toes exfoliation with cacao husk (chocolate). They both reported that it was a divine experience, from the greeting at the door with a glass of juice and the foot soak, to the calm jungle environment, excellent massage and scrub, and post session shower and glass of cucumber water. The owners have obviously put a lot of thought and effort into this facility. They also offer a number of chocolate and personal care products, including a cream that stops itching and help heal bug bites. Both mother and daughter highly recommend this spa.

Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge

The glossy brochure produced by government tourism agencies does tourists a great disservice. It describes a “wealth of land and marine environments” and “diverse habitants” in the reserve that incudes monkeys, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. It provides a map that suggests there are hiking trails and recreational facilities, and a list of safety measures and warnings against removing plants or animals from the park. The brochure also indicates there is an administrative centre with washrooms and drinking water. The message is, come visit! Unfortunately there is no administration centre. There is no signage. There is no way of knowing where trails begin: we went down one gravel road that looked promising, but after a kilometre or two it ended in a muddy patch in the forest and we could see no way to proceed. A very disappointing waste of time. Shame on the government for misguiding tourists in such a cavalier way.

Cahuita National Park snorkel and jungle walk

We booked this excursion for four people through Exploradores, who were punctual for pick-up and got us home on schedule. It was about a 25 or 30 minute shuttle to Cahuita, where we loaded onto a small boat for snorkeling around the reef. The captain was about 15 minutes late, but we got to watch a large film crew board their boat next to ours – they were getting footage for tourism commercials for broadcast in the US. The snorkeling was not bad – different types of coral and many small and medium fish, although the water was rather murky, especially at the first of the two stops. We disembarked on the shore of the mnational park, had some fruit and cookies, and then began the walk. We saw howler monkeys and white-faced capuchins, a crab-eating raccoon, blue crabs, numerous birds and insects, and a bright green lizard I didn’t get the name for. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the park and was able to answer all our questions. We noticed the trails are well marked and there is a functioning administration building with washrooms at the park entrance – not always the case with parks in Costa Rica.

The Lazy Mon – Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

This oceanside bar and restaurant was our favourite place to stop on our way in or out of town for grocery shopping or organizing tourist activities. It is on the south edge of town at Stanford Beach, and is the only bar in town with free live music every day featuring local talent from 5 to 7 pm (sometimes later). Every day from 4 to 7 pm is 2×1 cocktail happy hour, and bottles of Imperial beer for about $2 each at all times. The serving staff are friendly and laid back, although sometimes you have to track them down to order or pay your bill. They make good guacamole and chips, nachos, and hamburgers to go with the beer and music as the sun goes down over Cahuita National Park to the northwest. We’re glad they survived a government plan to demolish businesses along the Puerto Viejo waterfront, at least for another two years.

The Point – Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

This open air American-style sports bar offers the best beer in town (it is actually about a kilometre or so north of town) – with two excellent craft brews on tap from Cartega, an amber ale and a red ale. The food is also good, the usual pub grub, and although both the beer and food is priced higher than you’ll find in town, it’s worth it for fresh, tasty beer. The national brands are okay on a hot and humid day, but these two craft beers have real flavour, that’s clearly worth a little more! Good, attentive service, and various games on view on televisions throughout the bar for those wanting to keep up with US or international sports (not something that interested me, but few bars in town have televisions or satellite feeds).

Chili Rojo – Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

This second floor restaurant in the centre of town offers a different special most nights, although they sometimes have the wrong sign out front which upset us one night when we thought it was “all you can eat” pasta night and it was not. We ordered from the regular menu that night, and returned later for the pasta night – and all our meals (we were a group of 6) were excellent – no complaints at all. On the regular menu night our orders ranged from chips and dip to a green curry dish which two of us loved. On the pasta night, they start you with a plate of samples of the three pasta and sauce combinations being offered, and then you continue to order modest plates of whichever ones you want more of. Our group was split between favouring a pesto penne and a spaghetti primavera, and certainly none of us left hungry. The prices are reasonable, and the drinks well made, but the service could be better.

Cuba Reviews

Hop-on, Hop-off city tour — Havana

Transtur offers two city bus tours; we opted for route one (T1), an open-top double decker bus ride through the streets of Central Habana to the Miramar area and beyond. It is a 90-minute trip that begins at Central Park, takes Prado to the waterfront, runs along a section of the Malecon, swings by the Plaza de la Revolucion and the Columbus cemetery, then through a number of neighbourhoods, past the national aquarium and numerous huge hotels, and turns around in front of the Isla de Coco theme park. The $5 ticket is good all day – we did one complete tour in the morning, and then did it again later in the day with the same ticket. There is Spanish and English commentary throughout the trip, although for some reason we could not hear it on the top deck during our first tour, it came through clear on the second run. Even without the commentary, there is quite a bit of signage near landmarks and statues for the benefit of tourists. One small complaint, the trip is not a big loop but runs back and forth along mostly the same route, although good for seeing anything you missed on the way out. Highly recommended.

City Museum – Havana

This museum is located in a magnificent Baroque building completed in 1791 (aka palacio de los capitanes generales), at one time the governor’s palace, later the seat of government for the new republic, and later still a municipal hall. Fortunately along the way, the building remaining largely unchanged and authorities were able to refurnish parts of it, especially the governor’s living quarters, as it would have been in the early days, complete with opulent furnishings and fittings imported from Spain, Italy and France at the time, including fine porcelain figurines, dinner dishes, and musical instruments. After all, this was the most important port in the new world at the time and the governor and his wife had to live in style. Other sections of the quadrangle complex feature exhibitions of ancient military uniforms, old sabres, rifles, and canons, Italian sculpture from the 1900s, old grave markers, religious icons, and rooms set up as they might have been when the building hosted first the republic and then the city government. The signage is all in Spanish, and there are attendants in all the rooms who can tell visitors more about the items on display (also in Spanish). Admission was $3 each. Guided tours are available for $2 more but we were visiting late in the day and didn’t ask if they were available in English.

Museo de la Revolucion – Havana

The massive former residence of the president is now home to an extensive explanation of the events leading up to, during, and following the revolution. Admission is 6 CUCs each ($6). Each room on the second and third floor focuses on a single aspect of the struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship, establish a revolutionary government, and free people from oppression. The story is told through hundreds of faded black and white photos, a few artifacts (shirts and boots belonging to fighters, the odd pistol, Che’s camera, etc), and way too many blocks of text and maps showing every battle from the failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953 to the final march by rebel forces into the capital on January 1, 1959. Numerous rooms also focus on different periods of post-revolution life in Cuba – Soviet support, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or on literacy campaigns, agrarian reform, nationalization, and industry. Most of the photos and artifacts have captions in both Spanish and English but none are obviously more important that others, so you end up reading a lot of captions that don’t offer much insight, and maybe skipping some of the captions that are important – I’ve noticed many museums have started putting a brief statement in each room that captures the main points so visitors don’t have to wade through so much text. That would be helpful here. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating look at events from the official Cuban side of the story.

Ana Morales, casa particular – Havana

This is a great place to stay in central Havana, just a 15-minute walk from Parque Central, the Capital building, and the west edge of old Havana. It’s a very safe walk too, we did it numerous times day and night over an eight day stay. We were in the room with a small balcony overlooking the street, but noise was not a problem with the shutters closed and curtains drawn. It is a big room with a very tall ceiling and a great bedroom suite with drawers and mirrors. There is a television in the common room with Cuban news, sports, and other programs. This casa is on the second floor, although in this building that means four flights of stairs, so be ready for that every night. Ana is charming and keeps the place very tidy and clean. She also prepares an excellent big breakfast with fruit, juice, as much coffee as you need, eggs, and bread – well worth the extra 4 CUCs ($4) per person. Her husband Alberto speaks English and can help with advice and directions if your Spanish is not so great. We liked everything about our stay here and came back for four more nights after four weeks of travelling around Cuba. We highly recommend this casa particular to others.

San Carlos de La Cabana fort – Havana

The hop-on, hop-off bus to and from Playa del Este makes a stop here on the way to and from the beaches just east of the city. The fort is quite massive, apparently the largest Spanish fort ever built in the Americas. The entrance fee is 6 CUCs ($6) but there is no map and, at least the day we were there, no English-speaking guides so we were left to wander the site without help. There is almost no signage, and only by chance did we stumble upon the sad little military museum in what were probably barracks or storerooms, and the command office that became Che Guevara’s office in the early days of post-revolution Cuba. We never found the rooms that supposedly describe the history of the fort itself – good thing we read a guide book before arriving. Lots of canons are set along the top of the wall facing the city, and there are stacks of old cannonballs to go with them – but no signage or interpretive panels to give you a sense of how they worked, whether they were ever used in battle, or even if they are original to the fort. You do have a good view of Havana across the entrance to the harbour, but from this angle, the city does not have a very interesting profile.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza – Havana

This little fort is complete with a deep and wide water-filed moat, drawbridge entrance, and lookout bell-tower. Built between 1558 and 1577 to protect Havana from pirates and other invaders, it was poorly located and was soon replaced by bigger and better situated forts in the area. It was kept in use as a government residence and a place to store valuable goods (gold and silver in particular) on their way from the new world to Spain. It is this final chapter in the fortification’s history that is best described by the artifacts and displays inside. They include bits of treasure retrieved from sunken ships, weapons and uniforms from the time, and a rather incredible set of model sailing ships – one is particularly large complete with cutaway sections and small figures showing what life was like on the boat. Admission 3 CUCs each ($3). Well worth an hour or so, just a few steps from the Palacio de Los Capitanes.

Maria Luisa Munoz Alvarez (casa particular) – Ciego de Avila, Cuba

It’s difficult to book casa particulars in advance if they’re not associated with hostelling.com – a lot of hostel and hotel booking sites simply don’t include Cuba, or if they do, they only list the largest cities. Fortunately this one is listed in Lonely Planet and we were able to get our Havana host to phone ahead for us. It’s located just a couple of blocks from the central plaza and renovated boulevard, and not far from the bus station. The room is small but comfortable and okay for a short stay. We were in the back room, so it was quiet except for a nearby rooster which crowed through the night. Breakfast is 4 CUCs extra per person, and well worth it for coffee, juice, bread, eggs, and more – there are not a lot of restaurants in Ciego de Avila anyway. Not much else to see or do in the city either, so one night is enough. Anyway, Maria was kind enough to call a taxi for us for the next portion of our travel.

Hotel Memories Caribe – Cayo Coco, Cuba

We were travelling for several weeks in Cuba and wanted to spend some time on the northern coast, somewhere other than Varadero, and decided on Cayo Coco. The only way to visit and stay here is at an all-inclusive resort, there are no casa particulars or hostels here – in fact, as we discovered, no Cubans in sight except resort workers, access to the island is carefully controlled. It is also clearly designed as a “parachute” destination – people are flying to Cuba and transferred directed in and out of this strip of resorts – there is no public transport to or from the island – if you are travelling through the country you have to hire a taxi to get you to the island via the causeway, at premium tourist rates. The resort itself is completely formula – large comfortable rooms, breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets, all-day bars, pool and lounge chairs, and a young and over-active “super entertainment staff”. The beach is quite unremarkable, nothing like Varadero or most Mexican resort beaches, and the food is mostly bland and unimaginative. The so-called “Cuban” restaurant offers the least inspired (and over-cooked) food – our experience elsewhere in the country proves Cubans can do much better. Nevertheless, it seemed to be running fairly full with lots of Canadians, especially from Quebec – more poolside French than English or Spanish. Not recommended.

Plaza Hotel – Camaguey, Cuba

My e-mail to the hotel came back undelivered, and I could not phone ahead, so we showed up and hoped for the best, knowing it is a 67-room hotel. The website suggests it is affiliated with Hostelling International, but there is no indication or sense of that on location – this is just an aging hotel. For the first night we were given a room in a side addition overlooking the street. The noise from a 24-hour outdoor bar across the street kept us awake, and in the morning we requested a room change. It turned out the day manager already had organized a move for us. The new room was larger and much more comfortable, but that’s when we discovered the hotel had no hot water, and did not for our five night stay. The lobby bar is not a bad place to hang out but we couldn’t figure out the deal with the restaurant – the hotel seems mostly oriented to overnight stays by groups of tourists on package tours – as independent travellers they didn’t know what to do with us. The hotel is at the north end of the historic centre, a 15 or 20 minute walk to some of the main plazas, historic buildings, and restaurants. It is also across the street from the railway, and trains do bleat their horns at all times of the day and night, so avoid rooms facing the street (try 238 – no view but quiet).

Ignacio Agramonte Provincial Museum – Camaguey, Cuba

This museum is housed in a former military headquarters well north of the centre of the historic area, a bit out of the way – probably why we were the only visitors for the 45 minutes we were there. Although it is a large complex, there are a limited number of exhibitions and no signage – one area serves as an art gallery, one area is set up like the commanders residence (we guess), and a bunch of old furniture lines a cavernous hall. The rest of the halls and rooms are closed to the public. Security staff was a strange bunch – there were three of them closely following us through the art exhibition, so close we risked bump into them when we stepped back to admire the art. They left us when we entered the commander’s residence and another security guard took over, closely following us through those rooms (while two others stayed posted at the door). Later at the bottom of the stairs, three more guards were gathered in the lobby, directing us away from closed sections. Overall, not much to see, no explanation of what was on display, and annoying security make this one a miss, even if it costs only two convertible pesos to get in.

Casa Natal de Ignacio Agramonte – Camaguey, Cuba

This is the former home of local patriot Ignacio Agramonte, who died in battle in 1873. It is a beautifully restored colonial residence – one imagines that many of the dilapidated buildings in the area were once like this one, two stores above ground level, open courtyard, big rooms with high ceilings, and finely-carved furniture from Spain and elsewhere. There isn’t any English-language signage, but the arrangement of furniture is self-evident, and the Spanish-speaking staff will try their best to tell you about each piece. The rustic kitchen is a fascinating contrast to the polished dining room and bedroom and the only disappointment is that only a few rooms are open for viewing, the rest are closed – perhaps they don’t have enough authentic furniture to go around.

Museo Palacio Canteno – Trinidad, Cuba

This one’s not mentioned in travel guides or listed on the town map, and there is no sign at the front door – but it is easy to spot, it is the large mansion with the yellow tower just south of the main plaza (Plaza Mayor). A daily arts and crafts market sets up on the street along one wall of the complex. Admission is 2 cucs ($2) plus 1 cuc for photographers. It is a huge mansion – presumably built by a sugar plantation owner. There is no information posted that explains the palace itself, but a display area at the back and side describes the sugar industry (and the slavery that went with it), and various independence movements in both Spanish and English. The centre courtyard and main floor rooms are huge and carefully restored and refurnished, but the highlight is climbing the narrow spiral staircase to the open top tower that provides a 360 degree view of the city and across to the ocean. Visitors are not followed from room to room by security like in other museums in Cuba, but locals do wander around trying to sell you linens and three-peso bills with Che Guevara’s picture on them.

Museo de Arqueologia – Trinidad, Cuba

Guidebooks indicate that this museum has been closed for some time – it is now open but hardly worth the effort. A few rooms on the main floor of this 18th century mansion are open with displays – one documents the history of the house itself, the others feature very modest displays based on artifacts uncovered from sites of pre-Colombian life in the area, as well as some artifacts from digging below colonial buildings. There are no English explanations, and this is yet another Cuban museum where security staff outnumber visitors and they can’t seem to help themselves from following you around the room at close range as if with every turn your plan is to grab the artifacts and make a run for it. It’s only one cuc to get in, so no big deal – just don’t expect much.

Valle de los Ingenios – Trinidad, Cuba

This is a great excursion, even though the train is no longer pulled by an antique steam locomotive but rather a dirty old diesel engine. The return trip to the site of the Iznaga plantation and tower is only 10 cucs (plus one more cuc to climb the 45m tower when you get there). The house itself is large but not that interesting – most of the space is set up as a restaurant and store, but there is a small bar that offers espresso drinks and bar service. Behind the mansion is a small demonstration trapiche, or sugar mill – and as people come and go the staff demonstrate how the raw sugar cane is fed into the mill, and with visitors taking the place of oxen to rotate the mechanism, out comes freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Disappointingly, there are no other interactive displays or interpretive panels to help visitors understand the whole process or the fate of the slaves who worked the numerous plantations that once dotted this valley. Nevertheless, the tower is worth climbing; the multiple levels make it easier to take breaks as you make your way up and down the stairs. When you get back the train, it takes you three or four kilometres up the valley to another hacienda that is now a big restaurant – people in package tours and others get off here for lunch, but you are allowed to stay on the train as it continues a few more kilometres and maneuvers along a side track to get turned around for the return trip. There is a bar on board, so sitting in the old wooden cars, sipping a cold beer and watching the countryside go by is a fine thing to do while others have their lunch. Although it is described as a four hour excursion, it is closer to five hours before you are delivered back to the station in Trinidad.

Trinitopes tour – Topes de Collantes (Trinidad), Cuba

There are quite a few excursion options for getting into the Topes de Callantes area; about 20 km out of Trinidad. Some sound rather lame – mostly being bussed from tourist stop to tourist stop (art gallery, sundial, visitors centre), while others involve hikes into one of five or six parks located in the hills. We selected one that started with a visit to a demonstration coffee plantation and coffee house, and then town us to the trailhead for a 3.5 km long, 400m descent to Caburni Falls. It was appropriately rated as a difficult hike, featuring narrow dirt paths, rocky sections, and steep climbs up and down the mountainside (although we did pass people doing the trail in flip-flops!). The falls themselves were unique – not a straight drop but down the slope of a mountain, ending with a small conventional waterfall downstream that feed a pool for swimming. The return climb was gruelling, so lunch a short drive from the trailhead was greatly anticipated – and it turns out it was the best meal we had in the Trinidad area – the food was plentiful and not overcooked, and a beer and coffee was included. Our transportation was an old Russian army truck, and our guide was born and raised in the area and very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna we came across – although not too many birds showed themselves. Some members of our group saw a tococoro, Cuba’s national bird, but it zipped by and I was in the wrong position to see it. The 29 cuc price per person was well worth it for a full day of travel and activity.

Hostal Rosa de Saron (casa particular) – Trinidad, Cuba

This two-room casa particular is located four blocks south of the Viazul bus station and the historic area of Trinidad, on a side street that doesn’t get much vehicle traffic. The rental rooms are on the second floor, and share a common room with dining table, counters, fridge, and books for trading. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and the ensuite bathroom is well equipped. The curtains are heavy enough to block out the early morning light, although not the sound of the roosters that rule every small Cuban town. Each room has a covered balcony, ours faced the terrace, the other room’s balcony faced the street. The terrace has two levels, the ground floor where breakfast is served, and an upper deck that is fully exposed for lounging and soaking up the sun. There are two ways in – through the main kitchen area, or up the stairs at the front of the building, just inside the entrance gate. Barbaro and Tomasa are very helpful and gracious hosts, and offer maps, advice, and excellent breakfasts. They will phone ahead to make sure something you want to do is open or running (like the train to valle de los ingenios, for example).

Casa Jorge – Alicia (casa particular) – Cienfuegos, Cuba

This one-level, five-room casa particular is located in the Punta Gorda neighbourhood, which in the 1950s was a slightly upscale area of detached homes on large lots. It is located about 2 km from the historic centre of town, but the walk in is entirely along the straight north-south Prado, much of which is also a seawall with a view of the inlet. Our room included two double beds, a small fridge and two chairs, ensuite (bring your own soap), and was cozy small but not cramped. Breakfast (4 cucs each) was excellent with eggs made to order, although we were disappointed we were charged extra for a second pot of coffee. The courtyard, where breakfast is served, also has plenty of seating and lounge chairs for hanging out, a small above-ground pool, and a funky bar area. Unfortunately with the high wall around the property it does feel like a compound – and the wall does not stop the sounds and smells coming from the pigs and chickens on the property behind this casa. Just the same, this was a fine casa particular for exploring the nearby mansions, the historic point, getting to the marina, and walking into town along the malecon.

Cemetario del Reina – Cienfuegos, Cuba

The main attraction at this ancient cemetery is a statue of Sleeping Beauty, leaning against a cross in amongst the usual tall angels and others adorning the Italian marble graves of wealthy Cubans who died in the 1900s. We walked to the cemetery, more than one km but less than two km from the historic centre of town, through an obviously poor but not unsafe neighbourhood. When we got there the gate was locked and there was a scaffold in the entranceway vaguely suggesting work was underway – right away a woman emerged from the side and indicated that the cemetery was closed for repairs, but offering (in Spanish) to let us in for a quick look, also indicating she would be in serious trouble if this transgression were discovered. She unlocked the gate and took us straight to Sleeping Beauty, and let us look around for just a few minutes, which was okay, although we’re used to being able to wander old cemeteries and read the markers at our leisure.

Marlin Marina Cruises – Cienfuegos, Cuba

You never know what to expect with tours. The agents describing the tours sound like they know what is offered, but so often their description and the tour you get are worlds apart. That was the case with this harbour cruise of Cienfuegos Inlet. It was sold to us as a 2-hour cruise around the inlet, but it was simply a straight dash from the marina at Punta Gorda to the mouth of the inlet to momentarily view, from the water, the old fort on the hillside, and then straight back to the marina. No commentary in any language, no music, and no bar service. A glass of juice or small water was included in the 12 cuc fare. Most of the others on the boat with us that day were on a package tour, and they too looked disappointed with the rather lacklustre excursion. The bar at the marina was the better attraction – good service, reasonably priced sandwiches, and beers for 1 cuc each.

Arcelys y Pupa (casa particular) – Vinales, Cuba

The guest room at this casa particular is located at the front of the house, which is along a dirt and gravel road about three blocks from the centre of town (and the Viazul bus station). The room features two double beds and a small ensuite bathroom. There is a small living room for guest use, and a small dining area for breakfast, 4 cucs each and well worth it. This was our fifth casa particular in three weeks and we’ve been lucky to get good rooms with gracious hosts, good breakfasts, sound advice, and restful sleeps, even with roosters crowing. This casa has a wide front porch that faces the sun that is a great place to watch locals going by on foot, bicycle, and horseback – and the occasional 1950’s American car. Lastly, casa family members can line up tours – we did a daylong horseback ride around the valley that included visits to a tobacco farm, a cave, the famous mural, and lots of trails.

Mexico (Yucatan) Reviews

Royal Mayan Resort – Cancun, Mexico

We stayed for a full week at this resort because we had use of a week-long timeshare exchange. We were in a two-bedroom suite facing the lagoon (in the “sunset” building). We enjoyed the large balcony and a spacious and well-equipped kitchen, daily housekeeping, outdoor pools, beach towels and lounge chairs, and being able to catch the local bus one block away. We also enjoyed happy hour at the Palapa bar, a chance to chat with other guests, all from the U.S. and many of whom bought into this development when it opened 19 years ago and have spent a week here every year ever since. Some of those chats, however, took a dangerously rabid Republican/Christian right turn and we had to keep our wits about us – especially with the sore losers who insisted that Barrack Obama is both a Muslim and the Anti-Christ. Fortunately we did meet guests who held more liberal views on politics and other matters, so we weren’t frightened away from happy hour entirely.

Beachscapes Villas Kin Ha – Cancun, Mexico

We spent two nights in one of the small rooms at the back of a low-rise building, facing other buildings with their view of our building, probably because we got the room through an Expedia sale. Not a big issue, the main attraction here, as elsewhere in Cancun, is the sand and water out front, where we spent most of our time. This stretch of beach is very shallow and much calmer than the stretch facing the Caribbean, so not a place to do body-surfing or boogie-boarding. We had dinner at the beachside restaurant on the first night and were treated so poorly we vowed not to return. The server wanted us to order the expensive special, and when we asked for only a sandwich to split, he huffed away and had others bring us our order and follow-up with us. When it was time to bring us the bill he showed up again and rudely pointed out that the bill did not include a tip and that we were to write the amount in. Not likely! Fortunately, the hotel location is good for getting to restaurants and bars in the entertainment zone, about a 15-minute walk. We were booked in one additional night as part of a tour we were heading out with, and that meant moving to a very large third floor room with a big deck and fabulous view of the ocean – forget what I said about not minding the small room and backyard view – this is the room to be in, complete with couches, kitchen, a dining room table and chairs, and separate bedroom. The front desk staff are courteous enough, although not super efficient – when we switched from being independent guests to joining the tour group, they seemed ill-prepared to handle the transition.

El Meson de Marques – Valladolid, Mexico

We arrived late in the day and left early, so did not form much of an opinion of this hotel other than the staff were helpful and the room small. The water pressure in the shower was far too high for a comfortable experience, but at least we had hot water, others travelling with us had no hot water in their room. The hotel faces the main square and there is an excellent bookstore next door (Dante, who publish and sell a wide-range of tourist books in numerous languages). We had a good breakfast in the morning, and regretted we weren’t staying longer in order to try out the pool in the courtyard.

Hotel Gran Real Yucatan – Merida, Mexico

This hotel was our base of operations for three nights while we visited numerous Mayan sites in the area as well as the brand new Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida itself. We were in a large comfortable room on the fifth floor, so the elevator was a welcome sight after a day of climbing pyramids. The walls are a bit thin; fortunately the children running up and down the halls only stayed one night and went to bed early enough so it wasn’t a problem. The front area is an old colonial mansion with high ceilings and a courtyard garden, all very well kept and relaxing. Our tour package included breakfast each morning, and there was lots of excellent food for everyone and the service was good. We noticed other tour groups stayed here as well as independent travellers. We didn’t try the restaurant for dinner, although we did drop by the bar a couple of times – instead we walked just a few blocks towards the main plaza where there are many restaurants to choose from and colonial building to have a look at. A Mayan festival was underway, marking the end of the 13 b’aktun long count, and we go to watch some Pok Ta Pok being played in the street.

Museo Maya de Cancun – Cancun, Mexico

The $15 million (US) Museo Maya de Cancun is built on a solid platform some 10 metres above the ground to safeguard the artifacts inside in the event of floods and storms, and features 4400 square feet of exhibition space, state of the art temperature and humidity control (although it was freezing inside the day we were there), classrooms, offices, and a gift shop (closed the day we were there).

The exhibition space is split into three large galleries, two permanent and one for temporary or visiting exhibitions. The first permanent gallery describes and displays evidence of Mayan and pre-Mayan human settlement in the local province of Quintana Roo – roughly the eastern third of the Yucatan Peninsula down to the border with Belize. The second permanent gallery focuses on Mayan history, and the temporary exhibition hall currently features artifacts from Mayan burials, including several fascinating Jade masks. There are apparently over 400 artifacts in all, many never before on public display. The exhibition area is spacious, items have room to stand out, but considering the main target is tourists, it is odd that the artifact descriptions are only in Spanish, and the only way a visitor can read the English portion of the larger display panels is by crouching down and squinting to read the dimly lit blue text set against a grey background.

Nevertheless, the artifacts – domestic pottery, ritual items, carved stone, burial masks, weapons, tools, and much more make this a must-see in Cancun. An added bonus is that the museum is built near some Mayan ruins that barely survived resort development and highway construction – a path from the museum takes visitors into a small forest to see the remaining platforms and a 3-story pyramid that make up the San Miguelito Archeological Site, inhabited 500 to 800 years ago.

Gran Museo del Mundo Maya – Merida, Mexico

This huge museum at the edge of town opened two months ago, although the upper section wrapped in green stripes is still under construction. Nevertheless, there is much to see here – perhaps a bit too much. The visit begins with a wrap-around film that is colourful and fast-moving, but not that compelling. Then, it’s into the first of several exhibition halls that explore the area’s prehistoric life including the dinosaurs and theories about their extinction, pre-Hispanic times with a particular focus on Mayan history, and colonization. The exhibitions are quite extensive and well organized, and feature many opportunities to interact – I particularly enjoyed learning to count and express numbers using the Mayan base 20 system on a touchscreen display. Getting from hall to hall is confusing and involves leaving one building and finding your way in through an unmarked door – perhaps they’ll add some signage when they see that visitors are constantly getting lost!

Morning Glory snorkel tour – Cancun, Mexico

We had one day left in Cancun and decided to snorkel; Morning Glory offers hotel pick-up and drop-off, and it’s about a 45-minute to the launch site at Puerto Morales. On arrival we checked valuables into a locker and had a “light breakfast” of coffee, pastries and fruit while we waited for the boats to be ready. We were issued lifejackets and snorkelling gear, and set out for the reef; the first stop was about 10 minutes from shore. Although the guide said we would take our time once we were in the water, we were constantly being herded along, told to keep in line, and given no time to simply float around and explore the reef. We re-boarded the boat and moved to a shallower area for the second swim, but again we were rushed along, it looked like we had to move quickly to be out of the way of the next group of swimmers, also being herded along. Back on shore, we were served beer and then back into the van for the ride back to Cancun. We enjoyed the snorkelling, but disappointed we spent more time in the launch area before and after the boat ride than in the water. As soon as we landed, another group boarded the boat we had just left. They are clearly maximizing revenue by minimizing the amount of time boats are in the water with each load of tourists. Unfortunately, this makes the whole thing feel like a grab for cash without much concern for the quality of the underwater experience.

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