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.