Monthly Archives: November 2016
1. The northern cays
The romance of Villa Clara’s northern cays starts with the drive: a 48km cruise along a causeway flanked by turquoise waters. The beaches here are of the white-sand #nofilter kind; in fact the late Fidel Castro himself is rumoured to have described them as being superior to Varadero‘s. Head to Cayo Las Brujas for a less expensive, non-package experience, or splash out at one of the glitzy hotels at Cayo Santa María.
Trinidad is one of Cuba’s most complete colonial towns, with its pastel-coloured buildings and cobbled pedestrianized centre. But, unsurprisingly, Cuba’s most photogenic streets lure in a healthy tourist crowd, and after a day or two you may want some respite. There are a few options for scenic horseriding trips out of Trinidad, including clip-clops into the foothills of the Sierra del Escambray or guided excursions to the hamlet of La Pastora.
3. Havana’s Malecón
This is the place to get romantic like the locals. Havana’s sociable seafront promenade follows the sea wall for four kilometres, and attracts as many smooching teenagers as it does guitar-strumming musicians and fast food vendors. In the evenings this is the place to crack open a can of Bucanero beer with a loved one, although be prepared for your romantic moment to be interrupted by a friendly local innocently looking to strike up a conversation.
4. Casa de la Trova, Santiago
Santiago de Cuba has loads of brilliant live trova music venues, but if you’re only going to visit one the Casa de la Trova is a solid bet. Musicians play soulful and melodic trovasongs here day and night; originally the genre developed from solo travelling musicians who would disperse news through their songs, but these days you’re more likely to hear two voices in perfect harmony. If you want a slightly less touristy experience, just follow your ears as you wander Santiago’s insomniac streets.
5. Museo Ernest Hemingway, Havana
Literary associations aside, the Museo Ernest Hemingway is a romantic spot for an afternoon excursion from Havana, with its lovely views over the city, well-kept gardens and the villa’s attractive late nineteenth-century architectural detail. Hemingway lived here between 1940 and 1960, and the house has been preserved with exquisite attention to detail.
6. The back seat of a classic car
Don’t even think about leaving Cuba without taking at least one ride in a classic American car. There are around sixty thousand of these vintage motors in Cuba, many of them still on the road. Spare parts became hard-to-come-by following the US trade embargo of 1962, so pretty much all of these cars have been kept running by that Cuban ingenuity you’ll encounter everywhere. The engine splutters and exhaust coughs are all part of the charm.
7. Viñales Valley, Pinar del Río
The undulating, lost-world landscape of the Viñales Valley makes it one of the most romantic spots on the island. Less romantic are the dark, dripping cave systems that are dotted around the area, but they’re still well worth checking out. The labyrinthine Cuevo del Indio is the most accessible if you’re staying in Viñales village.
1. Plan for the high season
With so many North Americans flying south for the winter – not to mention locals travelling home – it’s pivotal to book in advance for the Christmas and New Year period.
Both rooms and buses can sell out weeks ahead, but by being savvy and using several transport links (such as a private shuttle to one hub, paired with a public bus from there) it’s still possible to make things work, even at the height of peak season.
The week leading up to Easter is another pressure point to bear in mind, though the parades and processions that take place can prove well worth the extra effort.
2. Consider an organised tour
Veteran independent travellers might sniff at the idea of taking an escorted tour, especially in a country where hostels and hotels seemingly line every corner and English is so widely spoken. But with high demand, surprisingly high prices and few regular public bus services, a group tour means you can pack a lot of experiences into one 10-day trip without fretting about availability or logistics.
For those who can’t stand the thought of group travel, yet don’t want to plan every last detail in advance; hiring a car is another viable alternative.
3. Be prepared to spend
Costa Rica is among the most expensive countries to visit in Latin America. And it’s not just pricey when compared to its neighbours – for certain supermarket items such as bottled water and sunscreen it can even rival the UK and USA.
To save some bucks eat plates of gallo pinto at small family-run sodas, pay for groceries and other small purchases with local currency colónes instead of dollars and travel during the low season (aka the rainy season) for reduced room rates.
4. Choose between the adventure gateways
Monteverde and La Fortuna are two of northern Costa Rica’s backpacker favourites, and great jumping off points for outdoor activities. But getting between them can prove a lengthy process and much of the adventure offering is similar.
If you don’t have time for both, Monteverde boasts the trump card thanks to its drier climate and bohemian hilltop charm.
5. Heed the caution when it comes to the weather
Even in the dry season (between December and April) visitors to the central highlands and the Atlantic coastal plain should prepare for frequent downpours.
No matter how clear the skies looks at daybreak make sure you pack waterproof clothing and dry bags for valuables on any trips into the rainforest. And if the showers are dampening your spirits you can always head west to the sun-scorched plains of the Pacific slope.
6. Learn the language
You won’t struggle to find locals with good English, but picking up some Spanish can not only earn you kudos and a warm welcome – it can really boost your bargaining power.
Those with a good chunk of time on their hands can go one step further and enrol in one of the many local language schools that are scattered across the country, putting theirTico accent straight to the test.
7. Respect the country’s sustainability credentials
Costa Rica has set its sights on becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021. To help support its green aims opt for locally owned eco-lodges and operators that practice sustainable tourism wherever possible.
To help distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly, the Costa Rica Tourism Institute has developed the CST, or Sustainability Certification program. Businesses are ranked from levels one to five based on their commitment to the cause.
1. Bannack, Montana
When you think about quintessential ghost towns in western movies, you think of a places like Bannack. Abandoned by its residents and forgotten by time, it’s a place full of tragic stories hidden inside the dilapidated, rotting walls of its buildings.
With the major discovery of gold in 1862, Bannack was established and the hope of a thriving city emerged. Soon, though, things went horribly wrong. The sheriff, Henry Plummer, was a well-known criminal and leader of a gang accused of over a hundred murders.
Cut off from the rest of the world, with the only way in or out of the town being the Montana Trail, residents of Bannack abandoned their homes by the 1970s. Today, travellers can visit this ghost town and explore the abandoned buildings as a reminder of a dark place in America’s history.
2. Estes Park, Colorado
Nestled deep in the mountains of northern Colorado, the town of Estes Park is best known as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Yet amid the alpine attractions is one structure that lures your eye with eerie fascination: the legendary Stanley Hotel.
Best known for its role in Stephen King’s The Shining, this behemoth has spooked more than a few guests and staff members since its opening in 1909, and today is reputed to be one of America’s most haunted hotels.
Spend a night in this lavish estate, and you could find yourself among guests both living and dead, including the spirit of Flora Stanley, the late wife of the original owner. Supposedly, if you listen closely at night you can sometimes hear her play her cherished piano.
3. Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is one of America’s prettiest towns, boasting a historic district packed with multicoloured homes and a sedate palm-lined waterfront. But look beneath the surface and you’ll find a darker side to this popular destination.
The infamous Old City Jail housed many of Charleston’s most dangerous criminals – including America’s first female serial killer, Lavinia Fisher. A few blocks away, St Philip’s Graveyard is said to be haunted by the ghost of Sue Howard, a woman who tragically died shortly after giving birth in 1888. Legend has it that in 1987, a local photographer snapped a photo of Howard’s ghost roaming the cemetery.
4. Salem, Massachusetts
The Salem witch trials were one of the deadliest witch hunts in American history. From 1692 to 1693 many residents of Salem were accused of witchcraft and 19 were executed by hanging on Gallow Hills, now said to be haunted by their ghosts.
Another notable landmark is the House of Seven Gables, built in 1668 by sea captain John Turner, which is said to have a secret room where he could hide his sisters from the overzealous witch hunters that often frequented a nearby tavern. Today it’s open to visitors to explore if they dare – many believe the house to be haunted.
5. Savannah, Georgia
Thanks to the Spanish moss that clings to the trees throughout Savannah, this city ceratinly looks spooky. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s not all about looks.
A stop at the haunted Old Candler Hospital will bring visitors to the infamous morgue tunnel, which runs from the hospital under the neighbouring park. It once held the recently-deceased bodies of victims of the city’s many Yellow Fever epidemics. Today, a tour through the tunnels is bound to chill even the living.