Thanks to celeb haunt Sandy Lanes and the other luxury hotels that line the aptly named Platinum Coast, Barbados is firmly associated with the high end travel market. But what if you can’t afford the eye-wateringly expensive prices of these places? I was determined to visit Barbados but needed to bring the cost of my trip in at a much smaller budget. Here’s how to save money on your holiday and enjoy Barbados on a budget.
As with all long haul trips, flight costs make up a large percentage of the total cost. Both BA and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Barbados, but neither of them are budget airlines. Saving money on the cost of a ticket takes a bit of forward planning. I’d saved a bunch of air miles with BA – what used to be Avios and are now points on their Executive Club scheme. However, these were not sufficient for a return fare to the Caribbean. Fortunately, BA announced a promotion, whereby the number of miles required for a seat halved. Availability was good and I snagged a fare for the last week of November for the price of the taxes, around £270. Virgin, of course, have a similar loyalty scheme.
If you don’t fly regularly, that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. I save points regularly with my Nectar card on groceries, petrol and even car servicing. It’s possible to redeem those points with Expedia and as with the airline loyalty schemes, all you need to pay is the taxes. Without points of some kind, full price fares in high season, that’s December through until spring, can be horrendously expensive. Though they’ll be much cheaper in September and October, it’s hurricane season and you run the risk of your vacation being memorable for all the wrong reasons. At best, you’re likely to have a rain shower most days and at worst, a total washout. Instead, look for a seat in the shoulder seasons, with late November and early May more reliable in terms of weather.
How much will you pay for your accommodation in Barbados? How long is a piece of string?! Many of the resorts here are prohibitively expensive, especially for a solo or budget traveller. Much as I’d have liked to stay at one of the fancy resorts, I’d have hated the huge bill at the end of it. I wanted to keep my accommodation costs as low as possible, but without sacrificing some of the holiday comforts that can make a trip so much easier. I wanted reliable WiFi – needed, even – and hoped to be able to get a pool too. I’m not a sea person when it comes to swimming, but I do enjoy a relaxing dip in the pool. Most important of all, I needed to be well connected in a convenient location without being right in the city.
Fortunately, Airbnb came up with the answer: a studio apartment at Rockley Golf Club. Once fees were factored in, the place cost just under £400 for my seven night stay. Though I had it to myself, it would easily have slept two, and two more on the sofa bed downstairs. The clever layout, with downstairs sitting room and the bed on a mezzanine, meant that it felt much more spacious than the label studio might suggest. The ladder stairs up were a little steep, but manageable, and regardless, the listing made it very clear that’s how they were. The sofa in the living room converted into a bed which was a reassuring back up, had I been too stiff (or too drunk) to get up the ladder. This is the listing, should you wish to have a look:
I had a small kitchen, bathroom and living room, with hairdryer, cable TV, phone for local calls, beach towels and even a cooler. The hosts, Karen and Mark, were helpfully available at the end of a phone and left me a comprehensive booklet of advice covering everything from which beaches were best to how to do a food shop. Their attention to detail was legendary – there was nothing they hadn’t thought of. The resort itself had a laundry and clubhouse and of course that all important pool. It was safe too, not an insignificant consideration for a single female. Would I recommend the place? Absolutely.
Food and drink
First, the good news: drinking is cheap in Barbados. I drank Banks beer from the characterful John Moore beach bar at Weston for about £1.20 a bottle, rum and Coke with Nigel Benn’s Aunty Lucille in Shorey Village for £2 a pop. Cocktails down at the local Tiki Bar at Rockley Beach were a little over £6, not bad for a tourist joint. Lots of places served up happy hour for more than 60 minutes a day. But actually the nicest drink I had was non-alcoholic, a yummy mango and peach smoothie at the cafe at Holetown’s Chattel Village.
Food was another matter. Barbados is the kind of place where if you’re on a budget, you need to think about where, and what, you eat. Though it was possible to find affordable restaurants, particularly those aimed at the local market, in general Barbados doesn’t offer good value for money when it comes to eating out, though neither does it pretend to. Of course, being an island means some foods are imported, which adds to the cost. Nevertheless, Oistins’ famous fish fry is a memorable night out for tourists and locals alike and there were plenty of local haunts where a meal didn’t break the bank.
I decided to make the most of having a kitchen and self-catered for some of my meals. I spent about 100 Barbados dollars, roughly £40, stocking up on supplies that sorted me out for breakfast and lunches for the week, plus the makings of a couple of night’s dinners. Massy’s, the island’s biggest supermarket chain, even stocked Waitrose products, though at a premium.
Tours on the island aren’t cheap, a by-product of this being a cruise-ship destination where travellers are cash-rich and time-poor. With more time on my hands, I was able to take advantage of Barbados’ extensive (though Bridgetown-focused) bus network. Plenty of minivans plied their trade along the coast, and it was easy to hail a yellow bus to Bridgetown or Speightstown. The journey times were surprisingly long for such a small island, but a ride afforded a glimpse into local life as well as interesting sightseeing out of the window. If you don’t mind stopping everywhere, it’s a great way to get around. People were happy to chat and travelling this way was a real pleasure.
The official buses of Barbados Transport Board, identified by their blue livery, were fine off peak. At peak times, however, they double as school buses. If you were lucky enough to persuade a driver to let you take up a valuable space – and I was – riding with a bunch of noisy schoolchildren didn’t make for a relaxing holiday experience. The BTB’s website has a useful timetable finder, but note that some buses are likely to be cancelled to act as school buses instead, such as the Boscobelle service that I was told by a driver was “hard to come by”. You can find the timetables here:
I found the Moovit site helpful as a planning tool as well:
Whichever you choose, a flat fare of 2 Barbados dollars (about 80p) means that getting around is cheap and straightforward. While minivans and yellow buses would change small notes, for blue buses you require the exact fare in coins which you simply chuck into the slot in front of the driver and wait for him to give you a ticket. On the yellow buses and minivans, you pay the driver on exit, unless a conductor is on board – if so, he or she will ask you for your fare at some point during your journey. To get off, press the bell, pull the cord or if neither is present, call out “bus, stop”. Most will continue on until the next official bus stop. These too are user-friendly: marked “to city” or “out of city” which usually refers to Bridgetown.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot to see a lot, if you’re prepared to bus it. The highest entrance fee I paid was at St Nicholas Abbey, but for 45 Barbados dollars the ticket included a tour of the historic house (never an abbey), mill and distillery, plus a rum tasting. The family’s movie footage of 1930s Bridgetown was fascinating, though at times it was hard to concentrate as Twinx the cat decided my lap was a lovely warm spot for a nap and a cuddle. I tried to tell him I was a dog person, but he wasn’t at all put out. In the end I had to lift him down or I’d have missed out on the rum.
For a little less, a tour of Arlington House in Speightstown is well worth the outlay. One of the rooms was themed as a sugar cane field and told the story of the slaves that made Barbados’ plantation owners wealthy. The house itself was made from coral stone and the traditional louvred shutters were hung to good effect in another of its displays. Entrance costs just 25 Barbados dollars for overseas visitors and I thought it helped me gain a better understanding of what shaped Barbados in the past.
Other entrance fees were equally good value: 30 Barbados dollars to visit either Hunte’s Gardens or Andromeda Botanic Garden. The former definitely had the wow factor, the kind of place that inspires you to go home and plant something. The owner, a talented horticulturalist, had turned a natural sinkhole into a verdant muddle of hidden nooks dotted with quirky statuary.
Andromeda, by contrast, was a botanist’s dream, the life’s work of the late Iris Bannochie and a rival of Hunte’s. Managed by the enthusiastic and passionate Sharon Cooke, it was a real pleasure to see someone work so hard to make such a place accessible to all. For a week, Barbadians can enter free of charge. And throughout the year, the entry ticket is valid for three weeks – go early in your stay and you can go back for free.
I paid the same for a combo of the delightful George Washington House and the Garrison tunnels and as with the gardens, the tour was well worth the outlay. The guide, Martin, was extremely knowledgable and not at all perturbed when one of the country’s senators – and a Sir to boot – delayed us for a long chat about writing, editors and publishing in general. I’m not sure what he was doing in George Washington’s House but thought it impolite to ask. The tunnels were almost a no go thanks to a loss of power, but guide Wilbur was keen to show us anyway so our small group descended by torchlight.
Some of the best attractions turned out to be free, and I don’t just mean the afternoon I spent with Aunty Lucille. The beaches cost nothing, providing you don’t need a lounger. Watching the jockeys practise at the Garrison racetrack is also free, though you need to be up early as they ride out before the sun gets too hot. Morgan Lewis sugar mill is the only intact windmill in this part of the Caribbean, though it doesn’t actually work – it was struck by lightning a decade or so ago and no one’s got around to fixing it yet. I reached it on foot, taking a gentle half an hour hike downhill enjoying far-reaching views along the east coast on a quiet backroad.
It’s certainly possible to visit Barbados on a budget, though other Caribbean destinations offer better value for money. Would I go back? Not just yet, but if the UK exchange rate improves, then I might just go back for more.
Prices correct November 2018; check the current situation before finalising your travel plans.
This October I’m teaming up with Lauren of Diary of a Spanglish Girl for a feature on Day of the Dead. It’s one of my favourite festivals so when Lauren posted a shout out on her Twitter feed asking if anyone had been to Mexico for Day of the Dead and would like to share their experience with her, I jumped at the chance. You can read the interview here. By the way, Lauren’s also the person behind an excellent Facebook group for travel bloggers called Share Your Travel Blog Post And Connect With The World. If you have a travel blog, it’s well worth signing up as there are plenty of tips and experiences to inspire your future travels. She also has her own Facebook page which is a helpful resource if you love to visit Spain.
The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos as it’s known locally, is a big deal in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca. Celebrated at the end of October and beginning of November each year, the festival focuses on the dead, and the whole town gets involved in some way. What I didn’t bargain for was how involved I’d get as well.
Arriving a few days before the main celebrations, work was beginning to get underway on the altars. Each family creates an altar to tempt their ancestors’ spirits back to earth. I’d been in touch with Mariana from a small hotel called Las Bugambilias and she’d invited me to join them. In the courtyard, stood a life-sized model of Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead. For a century or so, La Calavera Catrina has been associated with Día de Muertos, thanks to a cartoonist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He was known for satire and drew the rich in fancy hats and feather boas, ridiculing them by implying death was only for the poor.
Catrina takes the form of a skeleton dressed in elegant clothing, dripping in furs or, in this case, feather boas, strings of beads draped around her neck and an elegant cigarette holder in her hand. She was comical rather than creepy, my first hint that this festival has fun as well as respect at its heart.
With a small group of fellow tourists and under Mariana’s expert guidance, we set about creating an altar called an ofrenda. Each of us had been allocated a specific task: some threaded marigold blooms onto strings; others dusted icing sugar skulls in the yard to form a pathway to the altar. My job was to create a centrepiece cross of white carnations and dot it with tiny purple buds. It was harder than it looked to get the blooms just right. Mariana was a perfectionist, but after her intervention, the cross really did look the business. After several hours of preparation, the ofrenda began to take shape. Loose marigold petals defined the path, their pungent aroma pervading the tiny courtyard. The altar itself was decorated with candles, fruit, nuts, incense and brightly coloured bunting. Sepia photographs of family ancestors peeked out from behind yet more marigolds.
Finally, we’d finished, and to celebrate, out came a bottle of Mezcal for a toast, to our efforts and to the ancestors we’d honoured. I’d been asked to bring along family photos and raised a glass to my sorely missed grandparents, their picture wedged between a bicycle candleholder and a lime. I pledged to myself and to them that I would make an effort this time next year to recreate this feeling with my own ofrenda.
The following evening, a group of us headed for the cemetery. On the night of 31st October, residents and visitors alike flock to the old and new cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, on the outskirts of Oaxaca. They were busy with people tending graves, laying marigolds and other offerings and lighting candles in memory of their deceased relatives. Many families would stay all night. I wandered amongst the weathered graves in the packed old cemetery, taking care not to trip over tree roots in the gloom of the candlelight.
Vibrant scarlet gladioli added a splash of colour to the warm amber tones lent by the flickering flames. White canna lilies added grandeur. Vivid orange cempasuchil dominated the scene through sheer weight of numbers. Some graves were a hive of activity; at others, the mood of the relatives was more reflective. Once or twice, a lone mourner wept softly at a graveside, their grief recent and still raw. It was hard not to feel emotional. Yet, I was warmly welcomed, invited to share a spot at several gravesides.
At the new cemetery, there was a party atmosphere. The floral colour palette was enhanced by fluorescent wands that poked out of pushchairs. Lovestruck teenagers sneaked a kiss behind their parents’ backs. Small children munched on sugar skulls and sucked skull lollipops. The sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller boomed from a loudspeaker, almost masking the cries of the many hawkers selling snacks and party treats. At the edge of the cemetery, a funfair had been set up with the usual stalls and rides. If it hadn’t been for the tombstones, it would have been easy to forget you were in a cemetery at all.
Comparsas (local groups) parade all night through the streets in costume, celebrating the return of the ancestors with music and dancing. The following evening, the Las Bugambilias team took us out of town to the village of San Agustin Etla, where I’d heard their Muerteada parade was second to none. Anticipation mounted as a crowd gathered in the narrow lane. Eventually the procession reached the village, an eclectic band of ogres, devils and monsters, each with a costume more fantastic than the last. There were ghouls with terrifyingly realistic make up alongside drag queens with pink hair.
The devil carried his scythe, passing a ‘Panteonero’, someone from the pantheon, whose eyeball was missing. Somehow because of the crowds, most were freakish rather than scary, but they were all to be commended for their efforts. As the final performer arrived, in one corner of the village square, a play was being re-enacted. Many of those in the parade weren’t needed, however, and had planted themselves against walls and on kerbstones to have a much-needed drink. I wandered amongst them exchanging pleasantries as far as my limited Spanish would permit, posing for photos and trying on some of the costumes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing one; the weight was impressively heavy. No wonder they’d sat down!
As the evening wore on, a chill settled on the air and the Mezcal came out again. Passing the bottle round, glasses were raised.
“Salud!” Compared to the sombre way we remembered our deceased back home, the Mexicans embraced their spirits, celebrating with them and having fun in the same way they would have done when they were alive. I decided my grandparents, gregarious even in old age, would have given it the thumbs up.
If you’d like to find out more about my experience of Day of the Dead, make sure you check out Lauren’s blog post. For my take on why I prefer Day of the Dead to Halloween, have a read of an earlier post of mine.
The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of these islands are uninhabited. Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands. The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay. Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby. He’s not alone. The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.
But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents. No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw. Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them. The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.
It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap. Many operators offer excursions. A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks. We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs. To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range. Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.
Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip. We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people). Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person. We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530. We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.
Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed. We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock. We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.
Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived. This in itself made the day. Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.
Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule. Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set. Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience. Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth. And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.
Would I recommend the trip? Definitely. It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.
Ask anyone who’s visited the Bahamas what is the food that epitomises the islands and chances are, they’re going to say conch. Pronounced ‘conk’ this ubiquitous marine mollusc is served in all manner of ways, the most popular being deep fried fritters with just the right amount of spice to give them a kick. There’s also delicious cracked conch, which can best be described as the Bahamian version of fish and chips. Every restaurant has it on the menu, so finding it is easy. Knowing which serves the best is a whole lot harder, however.
I believe there’s no better way to get to know the heart and soul of a country than through its stomach. Though the enduring image of the Bahamas is of glistening turquoise waters surrounding necklaces of cays, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of the water and into Nassau’s historic downtown district. But the capital’s streets are packed with eateries and it’s hard to know where to start. I figure it’s always best to enlist the help of a local when it comes to food. I’d been tipped off by Cecilia fom Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours that in Nassau, I should get in touch with Tru Bahamian Food Tours.
Alanna Rogers set up the company in 2012, describing herself as a passionate foodie whose own travels inspired her to showcase the cuisine of her own country. The Bites of Nassau food tour is popular with cruise ship passengers looking for a memorable experience when their ship’s in dock, as well as with those who are staying on the island. It even attracts locals, which in my opinion is another measure of how good it is. Something like 5000 people take the tour each year, and the company is going from strength to strength.
My husband and I took the tour this March as part of a week-long holiday in the Bahamas. From our base at Cable Beach it was an easy ride into Nassau. Guide and operations manager Murray was easy to find on the steps of the cathedral, built in 1841 as the first official place of worship in the country. Our small group strolled around the corner to Market Street for a look at the pastel pink Balcony House. The oldest wooden structure in the city, it hosted Ian Fleming when he came to the Bahamas when Thunderball was filmed in 1965.
Across the street was Bahamian Cookin’. Murray warned us that this would be the largest of our tasting plates, and it was here we had our introduction to the Bahamian staples: conch fritters, fall off the bone chicken, baked mac and cheese and of course peas and rice. I hate peas. But peas here are beans, fortunately, and this was so tasty I confess to stealing some of my husband’s while his attention was distracted. On the way out, we had a refreshing glass of switcha, a kind of Bahamian limeade. Apparently, spellings of switcha vary considerably so if you’re reading this and spelling it differently, I’d love to know how you write it.
Next up we got to meet one of Nassau’s most colourful characters. In the Towne Hotel, we were served a potent Planter’s Punch while enjoying the company of Max, who’s the hotel’s resident blue macaw. The artwork in the hotel was fabulously diverse and a big talking point as we sipped our rum cocktails. The chatter continued as we reached Graycliff.
Now a hotel, it was built in 1700 by privateer John Howard Graysmith. An inn from 1844, it was also once the private home of wealthy Canadian Izaak Killam and later Lord Dudley. The latter played host to the likes of Edward and Mrs Simpson, Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. It’s also seen Al Capone, the Beatles, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
We learned that some of the bottles of wine in its cellar would cost the average tourist a year’s wages. Passing on that, instead we got to try some of the chocolates in the on-site factory. The first, labelled “white chocolate twice as hot as goat pepper” was a truly Marmite experience – some of us (me included!) spat it out half-eaten while others would have been delighted to eat the whole tray. That’s half the fun of taking a food tour, of course, to experiment with flavours you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.
Nearby is Government House. Our Queen is Head of State in the Bahamas but of course her representative the Governor General takes care of things for her and these are his digs. The building actually stands on the highest point of downtown Nassau affording a fabulous view of the cruise ships in dock. We walked down a flight of steps – not those steps – to visit Biggity in Bay Street. Amanda’s creative take on pigeon pea hummus, rosemary and thyme infused olive oil, and garlic Johnny cake crostini was a big hit with everyone, as was the bush tea we washed it down with.
Murray explained that Bahamians consider bush medicine important. A nod to the country’s African heritage, native spices, leaves, flowers and tree bark are artfully combined to cure all manner of ills. Apparently it’s also quite common to consume a medicinal tot of rum to avoid having to visit the doctor. I’ve bookmarked this interesting blog from the Tru Bahamian Food Tours website just in case I feel under the weather:
Our penultimate stop was at Athena Cafe. Many of the Greek community in Nassau can trace ancestors who came to participate in the trade of sea sponges back in the 19th century. They stayed on, blending typical Greek dishes with local ingredients – we had a tasty chowder. Rounding off the tour was a sweet treat from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company. The group enjoyed rum cake with walnuts but as I’m not a fan, my rum cake came nut-free with pineapple instead. It was delicious.
Tru Bahamian Food Tours promote Bahamian cuisine as “the islands’ most unexplored cultural treasure”. After a few hours in Murray’s company, I think they’ve got that just about right. What sets this tour apart from other food tours is the emphasis it places on history, culture and the pivotal role of immigrants to the Bahamas. When asked what they enjoyed best about the tour, most people commended the contextual information that Murray had provided.
However, compared to other food tours I’ve taken there were fewer opportunities to chat to fellow participants about the food, which has in the past been an enjoyable way of processing what I’ve learnt. Also, towards the end, the tour felt a little rushed; several of the other tours I’ve done have been around five hours long. By lengthening the tour from its current three hours, both these points could be addressed. I guess when something’s good, you don’t want it to end.
But those are minor criticisms of what’s an excellent tour. If you’re planning to visit Nassau any time soon, and if you want to understand what makes the country tick, this is a must for your itinerary. But take my advice: arrange the tour at the start of your trip. Once you’ve tasted what’s on offer, you’re going to want to go back for more.
You can find out more about Tru Bahamian Food Tours on their website and social media feeds – the links are at the foot of this post. The excellent Bites of Nassau tour is a great way to experience the islands’ capital Nassau. It runs several times a day from Monday to Saturday and lasts about 3 hours; you can book online. The company has also just launched a Sunday cocktail tour, which should prove to be just as popular as the original Bites tour. If you’re feeling really inspired, they can also arrange cooking classes giving you the skills to recreate the dishes you’ve enjoyed once you get home.
The Bites of Nassau costs $69 per person. My husband and I enjoyed the tour free of charge in exchange for promoting the tour via this blog. The photos which illustrate my blog are a mixture of mine and those supplied by Tru Bahamian Food Tours, but the opinions are entirely my own.
When it comes to literary museums, there’s somewhere you need to visit while you’re in Key West. If you know something about the place, you’re probably thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s house. It’s a popular stop: the queue to get in and see this historic home and its present day six-toed feline residents snaked around the block when I popped in for a visit.
Nevertheless, you’d be wrong. Though I wanted to like it, I found it hard to make an emotional connection with the Hemingway place. The museum to which I refer has no cats – at least none I saw while I was there. Instead, the newly reopened and expanded Tennessee Williams exhibit had heart and soul in spades compared to its more famous neighbour.
The museum is the result of years of collecting and a true labour of love. I was fortunate that Dennis Beaver was available to give me a curator’s tour. The passion he had for his subject and the stories he had to tell added an extra dimension to the already fascinating collection of exhibits. Somehow he brought to life so vividly a playwright who’d hitherto been a stranger to me that I felt I’d known him personally.
Describing Tennessee Williams, Dennis painted a picture of a man who loved to entertain the rich and famous. Yet home was a relatively modest place on Duncan Street, a short walk from the museum and now a private home. A tall white fence protects its current occupants from peeping eyes, but there’s a beautifully crafted model in the museum should you wish to see what would have been inside.
Photos of Williams with the Hollywood glitterati of the time revealed that he moved in glamorous circles. But behind the public facade was a complicated and insecure individual. A childhood bout of diphtheria had left him a lasting legacy of hypochondria. If a visitor complained of a cold, Dennis said, Williams would believe he’d caught it.
It would take a special someone to manage that anxiety and that person was Frank Merlo. He dealt with the minutiae of Williams’ life, acting as the buffer between the playwright and an outside world that made constant demands on him. At first, Williams would refer to Frank as his assistant, or something equally businesslike. In fact he was his partner and the rock of his personal life. Frank though would die young, succumbing to lung cancer aged just 41. Williams fell apart, mourning the loss of his right hand man. He was famously quoted as saying that after Frank’s death he entered his “stoned age” dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol to fill the void.
The Williams we know was a prolific playwright. Seventeen of his plays were turned into successful movies, among them Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar named Desire. The Rose Tattoo was another, set in Tennessee’s adopted Key West locale. But he didn’t enjoy the process of creating a screenplay, often opting to turn his work over to someone else. In many ways he saw the Technicolor world of the movies as a distraction. When he did get involved, he preferred to make a film in black and white so as not to detract from the story.
When the end came, it was dramatic and tragic as much of his life had been. Newspapers reported Williams had choked on the top of a medicine bottle, while his brother claimed he’d been murdered. Years later his death would officially be recorded as an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. His brother ignored Williams’ wish to be buried at sea, instead interring him at Calvary Cemetery in St Louis, the city in which he’d grown up and the city he professed to hate.
Whether you know much or little about Tennessee Williams and his work, this little museum is a must if you’re visiting the place he called home. No matter that this isn’t his house – you’ll get a greater insight into his world from fragments of a life lived than you might from a collection of period furniture. Find it at 513 Truman Street, a stone’s throw from the buzz of Duval.
While the opinions recorded here are my own, I’m grateful to the museum for waiving the $7 entrance fee – though I’d have happily paid it.
Trinidad’s fortunes were made in sugar and slaves. A few kilometres from the city, the Valle de los Ingenios is littered with the ruins of long abandoned sugar mills. While Cuba still harvests fields of sugar cane, production has long since moved away from this region.
Standing in the grounds of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill, little imagination is required to picture how the scene would have been a century or two ago. The main house is still intact, a little weatherbeaten perhaps but not yet derelict. Its cedar windows and doors have been bleached by decades of sun. These days they’d pass for shabby chic and be considered worthy of a magazine spread. Back then, they were functional, the heavy shutters designed to keep the house cool despite its tropical setting.
Across the clearing my guide pointed out a bell tower, used as a lookout and built to call time for those toiling in the fields or factory buildings. Beyond the tower is what remains of the factory’s foundations and beyond that, the slave quarters, hidden away in the forest and once shielded from view by the factory itself. The prevailing wind had also been taken into account when siting the main house, so that sensitive noses wouldn’t have to contend with the sickly sweet smell of molasses.
The first mill on this site opened in 1776. Initially its assets were limited to just three horses, ten slaves and a single small sugar press. The Spaniard who owned it sold up to one Pedro Malamoros Borrell, who grew the farm and gave it the name we use today. He owned many slaves and life was tough for them. From November to April, they’d work ten days on and one off, working long hours in the hot sun and humid conditions cutting the cane.
Others grafted in the factory pushing the sugar presses known as trapiches which squeezed juice from the raw cane. It was dangerous work and not uncommon for workers to lose an arm if it caught in the press. Though much of the mill lies in ruins, you can still see where the sugar would have been boiled to create molasses. My guide explained how heat passed along the row of nine pans, gradually getting cooler the further the distance it travelled from the centre. The cane juice was cleaned and transferred from pan to pan as well, constantly stirred until crystals formed to turn it into muscovado sugar.
On the ground I spotted what looked like a rotten coconut. In fact it was the fruit of a güira tree. Used to make bowls from which the drink canchánchara could be served, they were also used to present offerings to the gods. My guide told me of an altogether more down to earth use: the insides are considered an effective flea treatment for dogs, and probably better for them than the chemical treatment I use back home, albeit gross to apply.
Between May and October the slaves would have been rented out for other work. Slaves were entitled to keep a quarter of their pay, the rest lining their owner’s pockets. Savings could buy freedom. Slaves were more likely to purchase freedom for their children than themselves, or to use the money to pay for their own small house just outside the communal barracks.
Though their lives were strictly controlled and conversion to Catholicism encouraged, the practice of African religions such as Santeria continued. A ceiba tree is considered sacred to followers of Santeria, representing Changó, the God of Thunder as its soft bark renders it lightning-proof. One stands to this day near where the barracks once were, a face visible in its trunk.
Borrell sold up in the mid 19th century to Carlos Malibrán and made a killing. But within a few short years, a crisis would hit the sugar industry. Malibrán would offload the property just four years later. Across the valley, crop rotation had been overlooked by mill owners greedy for profit and the soil had lost its fertility year in year. Yields fell and as competition from Europe’s sugar beet farmers felled prices, the rug was pulled from under Cuban sugar’s feet. The new owner of San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill lost pretty much everything and ended up mortgaged to the hilt. What had been fields of sugar cane were turned over to pasture.
As the Cuban war for independence gathered momentum in 1868, slaves saw their opportunity to gain their freedom by joining the army. The flight of labour was another nail in the industry’s coffin. By 1898, the owners of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill had closed up and moved to Sancti Spiritus and the factory was demolished. Ownership passed to the Fonseca family in 1905 and they lived here until 2012. Burdened by the cost of restoration, they donated the house and ruins to the state.
I arranged a morning visit to Valle de los Ingenios with Paradiso – a place on a shared tour cost 22 CUCs. You’ll find their tour agency at General Lino Pérez 30 about a minute’s walk from the Etecsa office in Trinidad. Alternatively haggle with a driver of a classic car, making sure you negotiate for the taxi to wait.
The classic American automobiles that cruise the Malecón ooze the glamour of bygone days, but 1950s Havana had a seedy alter ego. Mob-run casinos drew a decadent crowd. Vices of all kinds took centre stage. Traces of this era of such excess can still be seen today – if you know where to look. Curious, I contacted Havana Super Tour and asked guide and founder Michael Rodriguez to let me in on a few of Havana’s dark secrets. Waiting to take us back in time was an immaculate silver grey Pontiac driven by owner Ricardo. Michael joked that Cuban men value their cars more highly than anything else in their lives – even their women. I’m not convinced that’s true of only Cuba.
We began where the charmingly decrepit mansions of Habana Vieja give way to the boulevards of Centro. Gambling is banned in today’s Cuba, but the old casinos have been repurposed as conference rooms and elegant salons in many of the capital’s most renowned and once notorious hotels. One of them is the historic Hotel Sevilla. I’d stayed there during my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago and around the corner from the exquisite Moorish-style lobby where I’d once checked in is a rogue’s gallery of past guests – good and bad. This time my focus was on the latter. Michael steered me towards a photograph of Al Capone, perhaps Chicago’s most notorious gangster, who used to book out the entire sixth floor when he was in town. Privacy comes at a price when you need to make sure no one eavesdrops.
Michael led me across the street to a tiny store selling antiquarian books and other memorabilia from times past. Leafing through a folder of old black and white photos, he showed me how some of the Cuban capital’s hotels would have looked in Batista’s day and in the years immediately following the overthrow of his government. The city was the place to see and be seen. Hollywood’s biggest names came in their droves with Frank Sinatra leading the pack. Scandal was never far away. Michael reckoned that despite rumours that Sinatra’s singing career had initially been financed by the mob, he was clean – in Havana anyway. Some of his associates, however, were not.
The biggest player of all on the Havana mob scene was an East European Jew who’d come to the USA to reinvent himself. Smart as they came, Meyer Lansky grew up in New York with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was the brains to Luciano’s brawn and together, they made a formidable pair. You messed with them at your peril. Having operated out of the Nacional for years, Lansky had his hands in a number of other businesses, including the successful Montmartre Club which was eventually torched by a revolutionary supporter in the early 1960s.
Over a Mafia mojito at the Nacional. Michael told me that it was common for a Hollywood name to provide a respectable front for the money laundering, shady deals and violent altercations that were going on behind the scenes. Actor George Raft got his big break in the 1932 gangster movie Scarface. When New York mobster Santa Trafficante Jnr. opened the Capri, he needed someone to be its respectable public face. But though it was commonly held that Raft owned a sizeable stake in the hotel, Nicholas Di Costanzo, Charlie “The Blade” Tourine and Santino “Sonny the Butcher” Masselli operated it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many of the regular clientele were anything but legit themselves.
Lansky himself opened the Riviera Hotel in 1956 as a front for his deals. It was one of many businesses through which he could launder his ill-gotten gains. Though he claimed Cuba ruined him when Castro rolled into Havana, under Batista’s regime he’d lived like a king. Despite decades of ruling the organised crime roost, the only crime the authorities ever managed to pin on him was a charge of illegal gambling.
The Riviera, our last stop, could have been a set from the hit US TV show Mad Men, had US-imposed sanctions not restricted where the studio’s dollars be spent. Mid-century modern might be back in vogue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find somewhere where the fixtures and fittings are as original as the furnishings. Walking through the doors of the Riviera Hotel was like stepping back in time, its 21st century patrons sticking out like a sore thumb in their modern apparel. Its casino was now a meeting room, the showy chandeliers the only clue to its dazzling past.
Out back the pool had a turquoise diving board that just needed a girl with an hourglass figure and a red halter neck bathing suit to complete the picture postcard shot. Instead, an elderly lady with a white swimming cap and cellulite for thighs glided at a leisurely pace through the sunlit water. Michael suggested I took a closer look at the shape of the pool which had been constructed, aptly macabre, to take the form of an open coffin.
This is a chapter of Cuba’s history that is overshadowed by Che Guevara and Castro’s revolution, but it’s no less compelling. After Batista was kicked out, Havana under Fidel’s leadership cleaned up its act. But there’s still plenty of tangible evidence to make this a fascinating tour and if you want to see a side to Havana many travellers miss, then this is most certainly it. It’s one thing reading the story, but nothing compares to standing in the same spot of some of the 20th century’s shadiest characters.
Havana Super Tour is a rarity in Havana, a privately run enterprise which specialises in subjects as diverse as Art Deco, architecture, African religion, art or Hemingway. Alternatively, work with Michael and the HST team to design a bespoke tour to suit your own interests. Your classic car leaves from Casa 1932 at Campanario 63, a couple of blocks from the Malecón in Centro. The highly recommended Mob tour costs 35 CUCs per person, minimum two people, with transportation in a vintage automobile of course. Contact HST by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at:
The views expressed in this piece are my own, though I’m grateful to HST for offering me a private tour for the price of a group outing.
Cuba’s idiosyncratic monetary system can be daunting for first time visitors but it’s much simpler in practice than it might first seem.
Cuban currency is a closed currency, which means it cannot be purchased outside the country and neither can they be exchanged for other currencies outside Cuba. The government runs a dual system: CUPs (pesos nacionales) for residents and CUCs (pesos convertibles) for visitors. CUC notes have “pesos convertibles” written on them. In practice, most of the time you’ll just use CUCs and prices will be referred to as pesos. In some shops, you may see dual prices displayed, but if in doubt, just ask. Be careful though not to get fobbed off with pesos instead of CUCs as they’re worth a lot less. One of the best ways to avoid being scammed is never to change money on the street. Instead use a Cadeca (exchange bureau) or bank, though you will have to queue on the street to get in. Rates in hotels tend to be lower.
Which currency should you take?
Euros and pounds are easy to change once you arrive. If you’re arriving independently into Havana’s Jose Marti airport, there are two choices. Inside the arrivals hall (but after you’ve cleared immigration and customs) you’ll find a couple of ATMs next to the information kiosk. To find an exchange bureau exit the arrivals hall and turn immediately left once you get outside. Dispense with the taxi touts with a polite “No, gracias”. You can change your currency at the official desk here and will be given a receipt.
What about US dollars?
The dollar isn’t king here like it is elsewhere in Latin America. The uncomfortable relationship between Uncle Sam and Cuba adds a 10% additional commission fee to any exchange transactions, making it very poor value. You also won’t be able to use any credit card issued by an American bank, though MasterCard and Visa issued outside the US are OK. If you’re unsure whether this affects you, check with your issuer before you leave home.
Can you rely on credit cards?
In short, no. It’s wise to keep a store of cash on you just in case you struggle to find an ATM. Few places accept credit cards – this is a cash based economy. If you haven’t prepaid your accommodation, you might find that you can’t pay by card, so double check well before you’re due to check out to avoid any problems. However, if you’ve made an internet booking, you’ll have been able to pay by credit card in advance. Independent travellers should carry proof of this paid reservation as the internet can be unreliable in Cuba – your accommodation provider may not have access to emails or booking systems when you arrive.
Have you seen my blog about using the internet in Cuba?
When I made my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago, outside Havana I was pretty much incommunicado. My phone didn’t get a signal and internet was non-existent. Travelling as a solo female, it felt pretty isolating. Fortunately, in the intervening period, things have changed. Telephone service is via Cubacel and there is one internet service provider in Cuba – Etecsa.
Etecsa’s often as creaky as an octogenarian’s arthritic knees but that’s all you’ve got. While some hotels will offer WiFi, you’ll still need to log into Etecsa as well to get connected. To do so, first you’ll need a scratch card or “tarjeta” which is issued by Etecsa outlets. You’ll usually find there’s a crowd at the door, with a bouncer strictly controlling who gets to enter and join the smaller queue inside. Be polite and keep your cool unless you want to be sent to the back of the line.
Cards cost 1 CUC, about 70p at current exchange rates. They have a number on the back and a scratch off panel which will reveal a password. Though you can sit in the Etecsa internet lounge, in practice that’s dearer and you should expect to join most people on the street. If you spot a crowd of people sitting on the pavement in a huddle, chances are you’ve just found the Etecsa WiFi hotspot.
Enable your WiFi and select Etecsa. You may have to be patient to get it to connect if it’s busy. When you succeed, a screen will pop up automatically. Enter the card number and the passcode that you’ve scratched to reveal. If you’ve connected, a new screen will show the amount of time you have remaining for that card. They last one hour and you can log in and out to use it on several occasions.
Social media junkies will be relieved to know that Facebook, Twitter and the like are all permitted in Cuba, unlike the situation in some other one-party states. So long as you have a strong enough internet connection you’ll be able to bombard your friends with images and tales regaling your Cuban exploits. In practice my ability to do so varied considerably. Sometimes I had an excellent upload speed, other times I could barely get it to connect. But honestly, that’s probably a good thing – time we thought more carefully about wasting precious holiday time staring at a screen.
Have you seen my blog about Cuba’s dual currency?
The seven countries of Central America – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize – fill an ancient land bridge joining the continents of North and South America. Volcanic, verdant and vibrant, they offer the traveller some of the best tourist experiences in Latin America. The difficulty is not in deciding to go, it’s working out what to leave out from your itinerary when there’s just so much to see and do. This guide is designed to get you started.
For many years, getting to Central America from the UK generally meant an indirect flight, and often the cheapest flights are still those which hub through the USA. Try looking for flights with United via Houston, American via Miami or Delta via Atlanta. Some tour operators also offer flights without the need to buy one of their packages as well. Thomson (Tui) for example fly direct to Liberia in Costa Rica and they often have deals available last minute for around £300. Schedules are less flexible, however and the once a week flight might not suit your needs.
If you’re looking for a European-based airline, British Airways can get you to Costa Rica non-stop and recently, Air Europa commenced the first ever direct trans-Atlantic flight to Honduras, departing from Madrid. Another alternative is to combine Central America with Mexico – you’ll find plenty of deals via Cancun which is easily combined with Belize and Guatemala. Similarly, you could combine Panama with delightful Colombian city of Cartagena. Shop around. You should be able to pick up return flights from Europe for under £400.
Depoending on your budget, you’re either going to be seeing a lot of airports or taking a long-distance bus. Try Avianca El Salvador, formerly branded as Taca, and Copa Airlines, both of which have extensive networks across the region. if your time is relatively short, this is a good way of freeing up time for sightseeing. Book well in advance to secure the best deals.
As with elsewhere in Latin America, many companies offer relatively comfortable “luxury” coach services but you’ll also find plenty of chicken buses knocking around on the shorter routes which make up for what they lack in comfort with bucketfuls of character. The big name in the bus world is Tica, kind of a Central American version of Greyhound. I’ve also had good experiences with Hedman Alas in Honduras and King Quality. At peak times you’re best to reserve your ticket a few days in advance.
Check out point to point transfers too. For instance, Gray Line offer hotel to hotel transfers at reasonable prices in Costa Rica and similar tourist shuttles are also easy to find between Guatemala’s main hubs.
One thing to note is safety. In some parts of Central America, buses can be held up by armed gangs. Opt for a better company who videos passengers on entry and screens luggage and pick a day bus rather than overnight travel on the most notorious routes. Keep up to date with safety by monitoring the FCO’s travel advice by country.
What to see
There’s way to much for me to cover here, so you should consider these itineraries just a start and delve into one of the many online resources or good guide books on the region to help you make your own detailed plans.
A week in Panama
Begin in Panama City and spend at least a day absorbing the atmosphere of the Casco Viejo, the city’s old town. Some compare it to Old Havana and whether you agree or not, if you like Cuba you’ll like this too.
The canal zone is a worthwhile day trip, easily accessed from the capital. You’ll pass through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal as well as several locks before returning to the city. I booked this through my accommodation La Estancia B&B, which has since closed, but the company they used is still very much in business and takes direct bookings.
Another excellent day trip is to Emberá Puru. Guide Anne de Barrigon will take you into the rainforest to meet the Emberá tribe and learn a little of their way of life. She knows her stuff – she married a villager! Part of the journey involves travelling upriver in a dugout canoe which is sure to prove a memorable experience as well.
Extend your trip either by spending more time in Panama City or by kicking back and relaxing on one of Panama’s beautiful islands, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago or in San Blas.
A week in Costa Rica
With so many national parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle them down. If you only have a week, I’d recommend splitting it into two. Focus on Tortuguero for a two night stay. I based myself at Laguna Lodge which from July to November can offer turtle watching walks. The beach and surrounding canals offer a chance to see plenty of birdlife and just unwind.
Then move on to La Fortuna, a pleasant little town which is the jumping off point for Volcan Arenal. There are hot springs, nature walks, horseback rides and of course, the chance to watch for any activity coming from this active volcano. The Arenal Observatory Lodge makes a great base, especially if you choose one of the rooms directly facing the volcano. Nearby, they can also offer activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting if the volcano isn’t making your adrenaline pump enough.
Costa Rica links:
A week in Nicaragua
My suggestion for a week in Nicaragua would be to base yourself in the charming city of Granada. It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and has a wealth of delightful streets to lose yourself in, crammed with historic buildings including the egg yolk yellow cathedral. Tourist infrastructure is good and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.
From the city, there are plenty of day trips to keep you absorbed. Head up Volcan Mombacho where a truck will drive you up into the cloud forest. Alternatively, stand on the crater rim of the active Volcan Masaya and sniff the sulphur. It’s currently more active than it was when I visited; take a guide for a night tour and you might be able to see the lava lake that’s filled the crater. Check conditions locally before you go.
Laguna del Apoyo is another option. This crater lake is now a nature reserve and there are plenty of activities that can be arranged here such as kayaking, swimming and boating. Extend your trip by visiting Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.
Volcan Masaya activity:
A week in Honduras
Getting around Honduras can be a little worrying as there are serious safety concerns within and between its two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Persevere and base yourself in the safe and sleepy town of Copan Ruinas. The nearby ruins are free of the crowds that plague other Mayan sites in the region and you’ll see plenty of raucous scarlet macaws to boot.
It’s easy to arrange a trip to the nearby Finca el Cisne, which focuses on Criollo chocolate and coffee growing. Day trips give you the opportunity to explore the plantation and take a scenic horseback ride in the surrounding countryside; it’s also possible to extend your stay overnight.
If you can drag yourself away, extend your stay with a trip to Roatan. Honduras boasts a lengthy Caribbean coastline, but it’s the Bay Islands which draw the tourists. The usual water-based activities are available and the sunsets are a spectacle. If you’re looking for a guide to help you explore the island, then Cleve Bodden comes highly recommended. He’s warm, funny and above all, knowledgeable about his island home.
Finca el Cisne:
A week in El Salvador
Beginning from San Salvador, the country’s capital, take a drive to Lake Coatapeque, popular on weekends as a family hangout. Continue towards the picturesque Ruta de las Flores. This 36km road winds through village after village adorned with flowers, dotted with art galleries and sprinkled with more cafes than you could ask for. From Juayua to Ataco via Apaneca, there’s much to keep you busy.
Suchitoto should be your base for the rest of your week. Team up with El Gringo, who can provide accommodation as well as tour guiding services. Together, we visited Project Moje, a gang rehabilitation project, as well as the arts and crafts centres of Ilobasco and San Sebastian.
El Salvador links:
A week in Guatemala
The obvious base to begin your week in Guatemala is the pretty town of Antigua. There’s a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes and a well-developed tourist infrastructure. The town has lots of attractions in its own right, including the chance to make your own chocolate, but also makes a convenient base for side trips to the atmospheric market at Chichicastenango and beautiful Lake Atitlan.
If you’re looking for the other must-see, then it has to be Tikal. Of all the Mayan sites in the country, this is the stand out attraction. Deep in the jungle, it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, but its iconic ruins make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss the Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. There have been issues with tourist safety in and on the way to Tikal so as with Honduras, it’s especially important to keep abreast of government advice.
Tourist shuttle service:
A week in Belize
Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981 and English is its official language. I think this more Caribbean, less Latino feel is why it was my least favourite of the seven countries. That’s not to write it off though. Transferring at the airport onto a little plane to head out to Ambergris Caye was laid back and fun, but the views down to the water were spectacular. The diving’s great, with access to the famous Blue Hole a possibility.
It’s worth heading back to the mainland as Belize has some interesting Mayan sites to visit. I visited Lamanai on a day trip from Ambergris Caye, heading inland on an old American school us and then up the New River by boat. There’s a Mennonite community living in Shipyard, not far from the ruins, and you might get a glimpse of them going about their business as you pass by. There are other worthwhile Mayan ruins to see in Belize, among them Caracol and Altun-Ha.
If you want to extend your time in Belize, Placencia gets a good write up as a place to chill out and recharge the batteries.
Ambergris Caye information:
You’ll need several months to do justice to all seven countries in the same trip, but it’s easy to combine a couple of neighbouring nations and concentrate on one part of the region. For me, the countries that are least developed are the ones I’m drawn to revisit – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. But each one rewards the traveller, so whichever you choose, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!
As Irma finally begins to blow herself out, the US and many Caribbean islands have been left reeling from her effects. Sustained 185mph winds have been recorded during this Category 5 storm, beaten only by Hurricane Allen in 1980 which registered winds of 190mph. On top of that, of course, are the floods which result from torrential rain and the even more dangerous storm surges caused when winds slam ocean water back onshore with terrifying force. Even a Category 1 hurricane is not to be taken lightly, as those who live in hurricane-prone regions will testify. For casual holidaymakers unused to such events, it’s even more frightening. So has seeing Irma’s devastation marked the end of your Caribbean holiday plans? Here’s why it shouldn’t and how you can avoid getting caught up in such a disaster.
Choose your island carefully
Statistically, some Caribbean islands are hit by hurricanes far more often than others. According to data compiled by stormcaribe.com for storms between 1944 and 2010, you’re most likely to be affected if you’re in Abaco in the Bahamas, with Grand Bahama, Bimini and New Providence islands hot on its heels. A couple of islands in the Netherlands Antilles also occur in the top ten, notably Saba and St Eustatius. Making up the numbers are Nevis, Key West, Tortola in the BVI and the Cuban capital Havana.
Conversely, the bottom of the list features some well known names. Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent are much less likely to experience a hurricane. Such severe storms rarely if ever take a southerly track, making the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire the safest bet in the region. For the full list check out this link:
A broader picture (and more up to date, factoring in storms up to 2016) is offered by Hurricane City. Their list factors in storms as well as hurricanes, giving a more rounded and perhaps more accurate appraisal of the risk posed for the Caribbean, Bermuda and the USA. Joining the Bahamas to represent the Caribbean in the top ten are the Cayman Islands. Because this list encompasses storms as well, there are a few northerly locations there too:
Avoid peak hurricane season
If you really want to go to the islands that lie in the path of potential hurricanes then you’ve got to be picky about when you go. Technically, the Atlantic hurricane season begins in June, but rarely do we see really damaging hurricanes before late August. 2005 was a bumper year for big storms – Katrina among them – and was the year when we saw the earliest Category 4 storm (Dennis on July 8th) and Category 5 storm (Emily on July 17th). The storm season officially comes to a close at the end of November though on rare occasions they can continue until December or even January. Yes, you guessed it, that happened in 2005 too. They’d already run through the named hurricanes by October when Wilma hit and eventually needed to borrow six letters of the Greek alphabet. Tropical Storm Zeta finally brought the season to a close when it dissipated on January 6th 2006.
Check the NOAA forecasts
Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a forecast for the upcoming season. They take in a number of factors such as ocean temperatures and, though it’s not an exact science, have a good track record in identifying busy years. So far, 2017 is falling in line with predictions. It kicked off with Tropical Storm Arlene in April – two months ahead of schedule – and with the likes of Harvey and Irma, is set to be another of those unforgettable seasons. If you want to avoid being caught up in a severe hurricane, then if it’s been quiet, you’re much less likely to find yourself in trouble if you want to make a late booking. And if the worst happens, this leaflet is packed with useful advice:
My thoughts are with those who found themselves in the path of recent Atlantic hurricanes. I hope that those affected get back on their feet and that the impacted economies recover as quickly as possible. Once they do, they’re going to need your tourist dollars, so don’t write off this beautiful region just yet.
Yee-ha! There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there? I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy. Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side. Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…
Yep, a ranch holiday is for me. But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both. How did they compare?
Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life. Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.
During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks. It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.
In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience. It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub. There’s evening entertainment too. On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.
The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party. Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire. I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided. They’re fine with BYOB.
In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works. The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does. Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.
A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest. On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after. The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.
Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic. Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share. The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean. Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi. To be honest, I enjoyed that. It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result. I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.
Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch). I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones. The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace. Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly. My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep! As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America. Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.
Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis. At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful. When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue. Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family. Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests. In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master. The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings. Service there was attentive and sincere.
Which ranch stay would I recommend? I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember. I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there. As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could. He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone! Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.
But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious. Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday. But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!
While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected. Honduras is one of those places. But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker. When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey. Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders. (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.) But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.
Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety. But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall. Copan Ruinas is one such place. I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region. Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.
While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come. It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island. It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.
When are we going?
Even on the briefest of visits to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, you can’t fail to notice the plethora of hats, specifically the good old-fashioned bowler. But unlike the black attire once worn by London’s city gents, these are brown – and worn by women.
It’s a cultural thing: the cholas who wear them do so to emphasise their heritage and reinforce how proud they are of it. Once, the cholas weren’t welcome downtown. They were refused entry to restaurants, banned from walking in Plaza Murillo in front of the Presidential Palace and harassed if they ventured into the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods.
Cholas, or cholitas to give them the diminutive form, dress in voluminous skirts, multiple layers of petticoats and crocheted shawls. The hat is an easy way of determining the wearer’s marital status: if she wears it straight, she’s married, but if it sits at an angle, she’s available. So that hat plays a critical role in the La Paz social scene.
The practice of wearing a bowler is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Most sources agree that, in the 1920s, a consignment of bowler hats was shipped to Bolivia, intended for railway workers. But someone had made a mistake with the colour or size – versions of the story disagree – and faced with a huge loss, an entrepreneur named Domingo Soligno marketed them to the indigenous Aymara women as being the height of fashion in Europe.
Some sources wrongly name the type of hat as a borsalino. In fact, Borsalino is the name of an Italian hat manufacturer that for many years supplied the cholas. It’s correctly known, therefore, as a sombrero de la chola paceña.
To wear a Borsalino comes at a price and these expensive hats are beyond the means of many. The target of thieves wishing to make an easy buck, the Borsalino brand is now largely a thing of the past in Bolivia. For more than forty years, bowlers have been made locally by the likes of Sombreros Illimani and also imported from Colombia. But even these cheap imitations have a charm about them.
One of South America’s iconic bucket list activities is to visit the vast Salar de Uyuni. It’s been on my wish list for a while:
This March I finally made it to Uyuni, 22 years after my first trip to Bolivia. On the way, I travelled from Salta along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, one of Argentina’s most attractive areas. A side trip from Tilcara took me to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flat. The two tours were as different as they come, so which was best? Here is my review.
The salt flats
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It covers an area over 4000 square miles and sits at an altitude of over 3600 metres above sea level. The crust of what were once prehistoric lakes dries to a thick layer of salt, and the brine which lies underneath it is rich in lithium with something like 50-70% of the world’s known reserves. Even on a day trip, it’s not long before you’ve driven far enough out onto the salt flat to be totally surrounded by a sea of white. Losing your bearings is entirely possible though the position on the horizon of distinctive volcanoes such as Tunupa makes things a little easier.
In contrast, Argentina’s biggest offering is paltry by comparison, though still the second largest in the world. Measuring a little over half the area of its Bolivian neighbour at 2300 square miles, it’s still enormous of course. Like the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a high altitude location, coming in a few hundred metres lower. Salt mining is also a feature of the landscape here and as in Bolivia, you’ll see piles of salt, blocks of dust-striped salt for construction and other industrial activity.
Choosing the tour
Salar de Uyuni tours are big business. It’s firmly on the backpacker trail and the scruffy, dusty town of Uyuni is rammed with operators selling one-day and three-day tours to the flats. I opted for a one-day tour. Having been just across the border in Chile and seen some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I didn’t feel the need to spend hours in a cramped 4X4 to do the same in Bolivia. Three-day tours offer basic accommodation and rudimentary facilities; the days of cold showers and BYO sleeping bags are long behind me. I opted for a mid-range tour with a respectable outfit called Red Planet Expeditions, booking online via Kanoo Tours at a cost of $83. (It is cheaper to book when you arrive but I didn’t want to have to hang around so was prepared to pay the extra few dollars to arrange my tour in advance.) Even this, one of the better companies, had mixed reviews, so I figured if I had a poor experience for a day I’d be happier than if I’d opted for the longer tour.
The nearest tourist base to the Salinas Grandes is at Tilcara, the other side of a mountain from the salt flats. I found a highly regarded tour operator called Caravana de Llamas which offer a range of llama trekking tours, opting for a tour that spent a few hours walking out to the salt flats. The tour itself was excellent value at $65 per person, minimum two people. However, this doesn’t include transport. You’ll either need a rental car to cross the mountain pass (it’s a good road) or a car with driver. Caravana de Llamas can arrange this for you for 1500 Argentinian pesos per car (rates correct as at March 2017) which is reasonable for a car load but expensive for a solo traveller.
The tour: Bolivia
Choosing to visit in wet season, the Bolivian tours cannot reach Incahuasi Island which is a fair distance across the salt flats (and home to giant cacti). I’d been sent information requesting that I check in to the Red Planet office at 9am for a departure by 10am. On arrival, I was told we’d actually be leaving at 11am. On departure we were a convoy of three vehicles with one guide between us. The car was in good condition; judging from the reviews this isn’t always the case. The driver was pleasant enough, though he spoke no English which may be a problem for some. There were five travellers per car, but this can be six or seven which would have been cramped. Two at least have to sit on the back seat and there, the windows do not open. My fellow travellers were a pleasant bunch, though much younger than me. I wasn’t as keen as the others on having the music turned right up, making it very hard to talk, but everyone else seemed happy. The guide, Carlos, split his time between the three vehicles. I didn’t take to him, finding him obnoxious and arrogant, so I was pleased we didn’t have to have him in the car very much. I had several concerns about his attitude and behaviour (some shared with other members of the group). I contacted Red Planet for their comment but have yet to receive a reply two weeks later. It’s not appropriate to go into details here but I would hesitate to book with this company again if they couldn’t guarantee the guide would be different.
The tour allocated a great deal of time to the train cemetery – which had the potential to be a fantastic place to visit if you don’t time it to coincide with the 30+ 4X4s which stop there on the way to the salt flats each morning. Having woken to clear skies, the clouds had rolled in by the time we arrived which was frustrating given how close the site was to the town. There was also a lengthy stop in the village of Colchani where we visited a salt factory (just a room where not much was going on except for attempts to flog us bags of salt) and where we were given lunch of lukewarm chicken, stone-cold rice or cold potatoes plus a delicious apple pie. Eventually we reached the salt flat itself and the scenery at that point took over. In wet season the reflections in the water are a crowd-pleaser and it wasn’t a disappointment. What was a pity was the lack of thought given to pre-departure information. As requested I’d come prepared with sun cream, but no one had thought to tell us we’d need flip-flops for the salt flats. It wasn’t just a case of getting our feet wet, more that the crust is sharp and uncomfortable to walk on. I ended up in socks which was better than going barefoot but still unpleasant.
Later, we drove to a drier part of the salt flats for the famous perspective photos. These were cheesy, clearly well rehearsed (we did the same poses as every group I’m sure) but a fun souvenir. The guide did take the photos, which was kind of him, so those on their own could participate. Afterwards we had an enforced and quite lengthy stop near a monument. I think it was included to enable us to arrive at the edge of the salt flats in time for sunset, though it felt like time-wasting. Six out of the fifteen travellers in our cars had overnight buses to catch and were very worried they’d miss them. Given we were all filthy dirty and covered in salt, they’d have needed time to clean themselves up before boarding. The rest of us had what turned out to be quite a rushed sunset photo stop. However, we were dropped off at the Colchani salt hotels on the edge of the salt flat. This was a bonus; if we’d have had to return to Uyuni and then take a taxi, this would have added an hour at least as well as the additional cost of transport.
All in all I felt that the wow-factor of the salt flats themselves redeemed the day. The guide was a big negative, but I was told it wasn’t possible to go deep into the salt flat without one. Walking from the salt hotels to the edge of the salt flats wouldn’t have given me the same experience, so although this was one of the worst tours I’ve taken in years, I’m still glad I did it. But even more relieved I didn’t opt for the three-day tour.
The tour: Argentina
I was sent a reconfirmation email the day before my tour to ensure I knew that the driver would be on time; in fact he was early when he arrived at my hotel in Tilcara. The car was almost brand new and spotlessly clean. Another traveller had cancelled so I had a private tour. Jose Luis the driver was friendly, courteous and knowledgeable, as well as being safe over the mountain pass. I was offered several stops at viewpoints to enable me to take some great scenery shots as we climbed above the clouds. Arriving at the tiny village of Pozo Colorado, llama handler and guide Santiago was ready, welcoming and cheerful. Jose Luis joined us for the first part of the trek to ensure I was comfortable leading a llama and then joined us later at the salt flats.
Walking with the llamas was fun. Oso and Paco were well behaved and to my relief didn’t spit. From time to time Santiago told me a bit about the llamas, the scenery and the way of life up there on the Argentine Puna, but he also knew when to let me enjoy the silence and serenity of the place. The trek was easy, over flat terrain, and when we arrived at the edge of the salt flats, there was time for me to wander off and take photos while lunch was prepared. A picnic table had been set up loaded with delicious food: local goats’ cheese, llama meat, ham sandwiches, salad and more. There was plenty to go around. Jose Luis joined us for lunch and the inclusion of a third person made chatting easier as he was bilingual.
After lunch, the llamas had rested and we walked onto the salt flats for some souvenir photos. Afterwards, Jose Luis drove me to some of the industrial workings a short distance away. There wasn’t a lot of activity going on, though as with Bolivia, I did see the piles of salt “bricks” and also heaps of mined salt. By the time we’d driven back over the mountain the tour was a similar length to that taken in Bolivia, arriving in Tilcara late afternoon.
If I’d have visited Bolivia before Argentina, I’d have probably been disappointed with this tour. The scenery just didn’t have that sense of scale that gave it the bucket list wow. However, as an activity, walking with llamas was a lot of fun and I felt that Santiago had gone to a lot of trouble to make me feel comfortable and, despite his basic English, to put the scenery in context. I was left wanting more and would definitely book with Caravana de Llamas again if I returned to the area.
Both tours were worth doing but very different. The Argentinian tour was very civilised and the llamas incredibly cute. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I adore these fluffy creatures. The people involved worked hard to ensure I was well-looked after. In contrast, the Bolivian tour encompassed my worst nightmares with a bossy, inflexible guide and yet – the scenery was so incredible that I’d still do it again.
Expectations are key. In Uyuni, there doesn’t seem to be a single operator winning consistently excellent reviews. In this respect, having a horrible guide but a good driver and a vehicle that didn’t break down was the best option – if there’s a weak link, at least your safety isn’t compromised. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a backpacker-style tour, so perhaps I’m out of the habit of being herded around – and it’s no surprise to those readers who know me to hear that I don’t like being told what to do.
Perhaps taking a budget option in Bolivia would have been the way to go: there were day trips for under $40, half the price I paid, and given how poor the guiding and the lunch were, maybe it would make the tour seem better value. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a basic tour for the three-day option as the mileage covered is considerable and the area remote. I heard good reports about the scenery from a private Dutch group, but having seen similar (better?) in the more accessible Chile a couple of years ago, I don’t regret my choice to cut out the mountain lakes and volcanoes.
So – which tour? Tough decision: I’ll call it a draw! Have you taken either tour? What were your impressions?
Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.
It’s a question that bothers a lot of people who are considering a trip to South America. Tours are expensive but going it alone can be daunting. The issue of personal safety is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but with a bit of common sense, you can have an incident-free trip. I have travelled as a solo female countless times to all but three of the continent’s thirteen nations (Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana you’ll keep!). During those trips I’ve travelled independently and those trips have been pretty much trouble-free.
Don’t discount overnight or late night buses as a method of transport; they’re comfortable and a good way of saving on accommodation as you move between destinations. But, do think about yourself and your possessions along the way.
* Check your bus operator’s safety record. At night especially, it’s worth paying a few dollars more for a better bus. Not only will the seats be more comfortable but you’re more likely to find yourself on a bus that’s better maintained and where there are two drivers to share the driving. Some companies insist on drink and drug-testing their employees.
* Most operators use a ticket system for your hold luggage; make sure your luggage is locked, loaded and you keep that ticket stub safe as you’re going to need it at the other end. A few coins for a propina (tip) are essential in some places such as Argentina – or you risk your bags being left behind.
* On board, opt if possible for a seat by the window as your bags on your lap or by your feet are less accessible to sticky fingers while you sleep. Keep valuables on your person e.g. a money belt or a securely zipped bag across your chest. Don’t use the overhead shelves. Keep items that you don’t want to lose in an inside pocket rather than an outside pocket – I lost a comb that way on a bus in Ecuador and it cost me a dollar to replace!
* Be safe getting to and from the bus station if you have a late night departure. If you’re in a very small town you’ll probably be safe walking, but in a large city, don’t risk it and book a taxi instead. Ask locally if you’re not sure! At night, doorways are often shadowy and you might not see someone emerge; if it’s safe to do so I often walk in the road where it’s better lit. (It’s also less likely to have holes to fall into.) Check with your hotel or hostel what night time safety is like in the area.
Pickpocketing and express kidnapping
Sadly, South America still has more than its fair share of ladrones (thieves) who’ll be more than happy to relieve you of your belongings should you let them.
* Don’t flash the cash – or expensive jewellery, mobile phones and top of the range cameras. It’s just asking for trouble. If you want to use a camera on a city street, carry it in an unmarked bag, take it out to photograph what you’ve seen and then put it away again. If you need to keep it out, carry it diagonally across your chest and keep a hand on it; this will reduce the risk of opportunist theft. Keep full memory cards separate from your camera.
* Keep your passport safe and carry photocopies in case of loss or theft. Never leave a bag unattended, especially if it contains the documents you need to get home.
* Express kidnapping is unfortunately a problem in some parts of the continent, such as Bolivia. Travellers take a taxi, wrongly assuming it’s legit, only to find themselves at an ATM. Some have been held overnight so that the perpetrators can steal multiple withdrawals. Use a reliable radio taxi (any decent restaurant, bar or hotel will call one for you even if you’re not a patron) and only take with you what you really need. Keep your valuables in a safe if possible.
* Be especially careful in crowds. Think carefully about what you need to take with you if you’re going to a carnival or fiesta and try to avoid crowds that might turn nasty such as demonstrations.
* Learn a few choice swear words in Spanish (or Portuguese for Brazil) and be loud. It is one of the most important things I learnt at university, as this one has worked for me twice. I won’t say what I said, suffice to say that it wasn’t repeatable in polite company. However, the shock of a seemingly respectably dressed woman having a potty mouth was enough on both occasions for the wannabe robber to drop what they had their hands on and flee the would-be crime scene.
Do your research
Some areas of some cities aren’t as safe as they could be. Whether we like it or not, South America has one of the largest differentials between the haves and have nots. It figures, therefore, that there will be some areas that you ought to stay clear of.
* Use the FCO website’s travel advice by country for up to date advice regarding the country you’re planning to visit. It will list any scams that are currently being operated (never allow anyone to help you remove bird poo from your clothing!) and also any areas where safety is a current concern. Forewarned is forearmed: you don’t necessarily have to stay away, but you need to think about whether you are prepared to take a particular risk.
* Keep abreast of travel forums to find out about the reputations of companies you’re planning to use for tours and activities. Reviews aren’t 100% reliable, of course, as some businesses put pressure on clients to write glowing reviews, but they do give you a starting point. I recently met a Canadian traveller in Bolivia who’d just cycled the Death Road. He said he’d looked to see which operators’ reviews didn’t mention accidents and deaths, which seemed a logical starting point to me!
* Choose accommodation in a good area, even if it means upping the budget slightly. Look for roads that are well lit and well used. You’re going to put yourself in a vulnerable position if you choose accommodation down a narrow alley in a rough neighbourhood.
Consider the society you’re in
South America is changing, but many men still expect to protect the women in their family and it can be hard for them to get their head around a lone female traveller who doesn’t need a man for protection.
* Be mindful that many South Americans, especially middle class, will dress smartly to travel. Rocking up scruffy won’t endear you to them, nor will beach wear away from the beach. Don’t draw attention to yourself for the wrong reason.
* Accept concern in the spirit it’s intended and reassure older men or women that you are OK. Explain to them why you’re travelling solo, tell them a bit about your family back home to show that you love them despite leaving them behind and ask how things are changing. I’ve had some very interesting exchanges with people who were concerned at first I was alone but were keen to learn more about my culture. On the surface, European culture might seem very similar to South America but there are subtle but important differences in etiquette.
* Enjoy a drink but don’t overdo it. It’s not usual for females to drink heavily in South America, but you don’t have to abstain completely to fit in. Know your limits and stay safe.
Go to Uruguay
If all else fails, or you lose your nerve, go to Uruguay or Chile. They’re generally considered to be the safest of the South American nations. And beautiful to boot. But don’t drop your guard completely: on my most recent trip, I met an American who’d lost his money and passport, stolen from inside a bus in Calama while he’d nipped off to use the bus station’s facilities.
At the beginning of this year’s South America trip I spent a few days on Panagea Ranch just outside Tacuarembó, Uruguay. Tired from the journey, recovering from a sickie bug I’d picked up at home and generally in need of some R and R, I spent the first day stretched out on the veranda doing very little at all.
And it was great!
Here’s a few thoughts on what I saw without moving a muscle (well, almost!)
There’ll be more about the ranch in another post; find out how I got on as a novice rider herding cattle and rounding them up to go through the tick dip.
Each year, Tacuarembó hosts the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha. It’s been held for thirty years, the first event being held in 1987. The festival celebrates the great tradition of the gaucho in Uruguay. At first, to an insider, it can seem like a fancy dress parade, but it soon becomes apparent that this is a chance for those living in and around Tacuarembó to eat, drink and be merry – while in charge of a horse, of course. The parade ground hosts a series of races, skills demonstrations and parades, but to begin with, here are some of the characters that make it a feast for the eyes.
One of the most fascinating and also morally challenging of the Inca rites is surely the sacrificing of children. Scattered across the high Andean peaks are a number of sacrificial sites that have only been discovered relatively recently. One such site can be found on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m high volcano straddling the Argentina-Chile border. Drugged with coca and fermented maize beer called chicha, three children had been led up to a shrine near the volcano’s summit and entombed, a practice known as capacocha. The freezing temperatures inside their mountain dens had not only killed them, it had perfectly preserved their small bodies. There they’d remained, undisturbed, for five centuries. An archaeological team led by Johan Reinhard found what’s now known as the Children of Llullaillaco less than twenty years ago.
Today, the three mummies are rotated, one on display at a time, in MAAM, a museum on the main plaza in the northern Argentinian city of Salta. Three years ago, I’d visited Juanita, a similar mummy found in Peru and displayed in a darkened room a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. As a consequence, I figured I knew what to expect when I stepped inside MAAM. During my visit, Lightning Girl was the mummy being displayed, possibly the most haunting museum exhibit I’ve ever seen. No photography is permitted; the image above is of a postcard I purchased in the museum shop.
The first thing that struck me was how well preserved this small child was, much more so than Juanita had been. Found entombed with a slightly older girl, her half-sister, and a boy, she looked straight ahead. Her face stared bleakly, as if tensed against intense cold. A dark stain marked her face, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike after she was sacrificed. But it was her teeth that caught my attention, tiny white milk teeth that emphasised just how young this girl would have been when she met her fate. Text beside her indicated that she had been just five years old when she died. There was no escaping that here in front of me, in this darkened room, was a real person.
During Inca times, it was the custom to choose sacrificial children from peasant families, deemed an honour for the family, though surely a heartbreaking one too. Girls such as these were selected as toddlers to be acclas or Sun Virgins, destined later to be royal wives, priestesses or to be sacrificed. It is thought that the elder girl was such a person, the two younger children her attendants. The children were then fed a rich diet of maize and llama meat to fatten them up, nutritionally far better than their previous diet of vegetables would have been. The higher their standing in society, the better the value of this offering to the gods, essential to protecting future good harvests and political stability. The children would not die, it was believed, they joined their ancestors and watched over mortals like angels.
Despite the drugged state induced by the coca and chicha, which in theory led to a painless end, the boy had been tied. Perhaps he’d struggled and had needed to be restrained. The older girl had her head buried between her knees, but Lightning Girl looked straight ahead. Had she been too young to comprehend what was happening to her?
It’s almost time for me to fly off to South America. My itinerary is pretty much fleshed out now and most of the bookings are made. One thing that’s easy to overlook, though, is specific vaccination requirements. For Bolivia, the regulations concerning yellow fever have just changed.
As you’ll see from the map above, parts of Bolivia are affected, like much of South America, by yellow fever. Travelling to Uyuni and then La Paz, however, I’m not going to be venturing into yellow fever territory, so it’s tempting to think I wouldn’t need the vaccine. But early last month, a Danish traveller was found to have the disease. The National Health Director was quoted as saying: “This person came from another place and was not vaccinated.” There’d been an outbreak of yellow fever across the border in Brazil, but whether the Danish traveller had been there is unclear from the news reports. You can read Reuters’ report here:
What this means in practice is that from yesterday, 2nd March, all travellers entering Bolivia from a country which has a current outbreak of the disease or remains a risk area for it, must hold a valid yellow fever certificate. I’m travelling across the border from Argentina so that means me – even though I won’t have passed through yellow fever areas within Argentina. I’ll still need a certificate. That certificate would need to be issued at least 10 days before I’d be due to enter Bolivia. Potentially, without one, I could be refused entry at the border.
Even some transit passengers are likely to be affected. If you hub through an airport in a neighbouring country on your way to Bolivia, you could still be refused entry into Bolivia if you have cleared immigration and gone landside. That’s even if you never left the airport. Basically, the Bolivians are playing it safe and you can’t blame them for being cautious.
I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks to tell you if the certificate was requested by border officials or not. Fortunately, my jabs are up to date and the yellow fever certificate I needed to get into Panama a few years ago is still valid. But make sure you’re not caught out by this change in immigration requirements by seeking health from a medical professional before you embark on your trip.
At the land border between La Quiaca and Villazon, I was not asked for a yellow fever certificate.
Visiting Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, last month I came across this machine in the hacienda’s museum. I presume it was some kind of machine used to grind the coffee, but there was no information on it. What caught my eye was the place name on the machine: Maldon. That’s a fifteen minute drive from my house.
Since getting back, I’ve been finding out a bit about E. H. Bentall and it makes for interesting reading. Not least, the E. H. stands for Edward Hammond, which is my father’s name. Edward’s father (the Heybridge Edward, not mine) was a farmer named William. He designed a plough to use on his land near Goldhanger and got a local smithy to make it up. Word got around and by 1795, he’d gone into business making them. Business boomed but raw materials at the time had to be brought in by barge up the Blackwater. William Bentall upped sticks and moved down the road to Goldhanger where he built a place by the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Bentall diversified, producing amongst other things the first steam powered threshing machine.
Meanwhile, with his wife Mary Hammond, he’d produced a son. Edward Hammond Bentall had the same aptitude for engineering as his father. This particularly makes me smile as my Dad was an engineer throughout his working life. He took over the business in 1836 aged 22 and three years later, registered as E.H. Bentall & Co, it was thriving. In 1841, mindful of competition, he took out a patent on an improved Goldhanger plough protecting it from imitators. Under Edward’s leadership, the company began to export machinery overseas and one of those machines found its way to a coffee hacienda just outside the village of Jayuya.
Back at home, Edward Hammond Bentall had been elected as Member of Parliament for Maldon, a post which he held from 1868 to 1874. In 1873 Edward had an imposing home built, known as The Towers, which was located near Heybridge Cemetery. It was so well built that when the time came to pull it down in the 1950s, dynamite had to be used to blow it up. By the time Edward passed the business on to his son Edmund in 1889, he was a wealthy man. He died in 1898.
Mechanisation of the coffee plantations further increased profits, particularly after World War Two while the company operated under the leadership of Edward’s grandson, Charles. He died in 1955, and just six years later, the company was taken over by Acrow, which eventually went bust in 1984. That was it for Bentall & Co, but their warehouse still proudly overlooks the canal in Heybridge.
And if you remember Bentall’s department store (now Kingston Fenwicks), the founders of that store are related to William too.
One of the unexpected bonuses of a week of showery weather was that we did a lot more sightseeing in Puerto Rico than we’d originally planned. A visit to see Arecibo’s Observatory with a huge radio telescope hidden away amongst the wooded karst scenery of the island’s interior was on the cards after we “discovered” it on the map we’d been given by the hire car company. It was a bit of a trek, reached by a winding road up a mountain and then, phones set to airplane mode, a climb up a seemingly unending flight of steps to get to the Observatory’s visitor centre. Stepping out onto the observation deck out the back, it was worth the effort when this was the result:
If it looks familiar, then you might well be a Bond fan, albeit one with a better memory than me. Much as I love the Bond films, they do seem to be hard to tell apart. The sequence shot here in Puerto Rico comes from the 1995 Pierce Brosnan film Goldeneye. The dish shaped telescope that you see above was flooded and drained for a climatic chase scene which proves just how different a location can be once the movie makers get their hands on things. There’s a good YouTube clip here if you want to see for yourself:
You might also remember that this was where they filmed the Jodie Foster movie Contact. The storyline revolved around her research into SETI, which is an acronym for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life. In a twist, they actually do SETI at the Observatory. Any sounds from space will be picked up by the radio receivers, which hang down, suspended in liquid helium so they don’t overheat and so that any incoming sound is magnified. I have this idea in my head that when the aliens do answer, they’ll speak in high pitched voices and laugh at how dumb they sound. And they’ll eat Smash instant mashed potato. (Can you even get that now?)
I was excited about such a message until I learned that the one they sent in 1974 still has a good 24000 years and then some to reach its destination somewhere in outer space and then the same time to get back. Not a lot of point in that, then. That didn’t stop them launching SETI@home in 1999 or having a pin board for visitors to leave a Post-It note of the question they wanted to ask. Reminded me of Duran Duran…
“Is there anyone out there?”
There’s a lot of science stuff that was well beyond my comprehension and interest, but also a series of interactive exhibits, probably aimed at children, that were fun to try out. There were bits of meteorite collected from where they’d fallen, many in deserts, some scarily recently. I did enjoy playing a simple computer game to shoot down asteroids and some kind of playground roundabout that if you acted like a figure skater and stuck your leg out, it would change speed. I would tell you what that’s got to do with the space theme except I was so dizzy when I got off I couldn’t read the explanations.
We watched a short film about the Observatory. It hadn’t been updated to reflect that this is no longer the world’s largest radio telescope (now that’s in China, quelle surprise). It was interesting nevertheless. After seeing the film, we took a VIP tour which was just a ride in a bus but it did take you right to the edge of the “dish” and that’s what really gave me a sense of scale. Plus, the guide said that Pierce Brosnan was a complete wuss when he had to do his action scenes which cheered me up no end as I don’t much like his Bond now Daniel Craig has shown us how it should be done.
If you’re in Puerto Rico and you’d like to visit the Observatory, it’s around an hour and a half’s drive from San Juan.
The Puerto Rican capital has a history which goes back over 500 years. Founded by the Spanish at the end of the first decade of the 16th century, it was originally known simply as Puerto Rico but by 1521 went by its proper name of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (which these days has become just San Juan). Though you could be forgiven for thinking the city’s American, it’s not quite: the Spanish eventually ceded the island to the USA at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and it’s been a self-governing territory ever since. That Spanish flair is still much in evidence in Old San Juan, however.
Within the metropolitan area of San Juan which sprawls for miles, the area of settlement that occupies a narrow peninsula on the island’s north coast, bounded by Fuerte San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, is known as Old San Juan. The geography of San Juan naturally lent itself to providing a safe harbour. It’s still a busy port today receiving a steady stream of cargo and cruise ships.
In its early days, San Juan’s location at the eastern edge of the Caribbean led to its development as a defensive stronghold, hence the heavy fortifications that you can still see today. They comprise not only those two forts but the thick, almost impenetrable, walls that encircle the city and the imposing Puerta de San Juan located on the south western flank of the city. As the 16th century progressed, Old San Juan came under attack from numerous forces, among them Francis Drake, whose men were adversely affected by a dysentery outbreak and fled, tails between their legs. They wouldn’t be the last.
The narrow European-style streets of Old San Juan are a far cry from the wide boulevards lined with high rises and flanked by shopping malls that characterise other parts of the city. Here, cobbled surfaces bear the distinctive blue setts known as adoquines. They’re not granite, as you might think, but instead made from the slag of iron furnaces and used as ballast on ships arriving from Spain.
One of those Spanish ships brought Juan Ponce de León, whose remains can be found in front of an egg yolk yellow wall of the city’s bijou cathedral. Like many conquistadors seeking a new life in the New World, he was escaping a life of poverty and a region devoid of opportunities for the ambitious. His travels took him first to Florida and then to Puerto Rico, and it is he that is credited with the foundation of the island’s first settlement, Caparra, which predates Old San Juan by a few years though wasn’t to last.
Ponce de León was the island’s first governor but he didn’t remain long in Puerto Rico. Off exploring, he was fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and died in Cuba. The family home, Casa Blanca, is significant as the oldest continuously occupied house in the city.
One of the great delights of a visit to 21st century Old San Juan is simply to wander. Many of the buildings are painted in bright colours, making this a photographer’s dream. Several tourist trolleys loop the old town, but to truly appreciate the architecture and atmosphere, strolling through its streets and lingering in its many parks and squares is a must.
Each has its own identity, from the tourists that feed the pigeons which flock to Parque Las Palomas, to the many characterful statues and sculptures that you’ll find camouflaged with verdant planting. The shade provides welcome respite from the Caribbean sun, enabling visitors to recharge their batteries before continuing their exploration of this delightful place.
When you do finally run out of steam, there are many cafes and restaurants where you can try the uniquely Puerto Rican dishes. Mofongo, a dish of mashed plantains topped with shrimp or chicken, is a staple and a must-taste. For a snack, the ubiquitous Mallorcas, pastries filled with cheese, guava jam, ham or eggs and dusted with icing sugar, is a tasty way of staving off the hunger pangs. And don’t leave without trying the coffee: rich and smooth, the addition of sugar would be a sin.