Tag Archive for 'travel'

Back from the Bahamas

I just returned from a much-needed week in the Bahamas.  I had never been to the Bahamas and haven’t really seen much of the Caribbean.  Unlike my trip to Guatemala, I didn’t keep a trip journal, since it was just a beach trip.  But taking a cue from my friend Swati, who had a well organized breakdown of her trip to St. Maarten, I thought I’d share some tips.

Accommodation – We stayed at the Sheraton in Nassau, which was only $60 a night if you used 4,000 Starwood points per night.  The resort also charged $15 a person extra, so the total cost was $90 + 4,000 points + taxes (about 12%) per night.  They have a nice pool, a great beach, and you can use the pool and beach at the nearby Crystal Palace Casino and Resort (they are interconnected).  By comparison,  The Atlantis was about $499 a night, and The Cove was about $710 a night.  The Sheraton was hit and miss – the food/restaurants overcharged and underdelivered, and the maid service was spotty at best, but for less than $100 a night, I thought it was a great value.  The GM, Mr. D’Angelo, was great, and definitely addressed our concerns when we raised them.

Transportation.  During the day, there are frequent buses which can take you downtown (shops, bars and restaurants) and to Paradise Island (where Atlantis is).  At night, you’re stuck taking cabs.  Cabs to Atlantis (or almost anywhere else) were $20.  You can get a moped for about $50 a day downtown.

Food. Food on the resort was subpar and overpriced. We found it was better to venture out.

The restuarants in Atlantis were great, especially Cafe Martinique (perhaps one of the best restaurants I’ve been to).  Terrific service.

The first night, we checked out Compass Point (food was ok – very overpriced).

We also went to Dune, a restaurant in the One and Only Resort.  The grounds were beautiful but the food was awful.  Both of our meals were overcooked and had to be sent back.  The other patrons and I were literally laughing about how bad our meal was.  The service was unimpressive.

Downtown Athena Cafe had the best Gyro I’ve ever had anywhere.  Great service too.

Finally, we checked out the Fish Fry.  I thought the food was great, but it was a bit shady at night.

Other Stuff.  We did the water park in Atlantis ($120pp), did some jet skiing ($100 for 45 min), some  gambling in the Crystal Palace Casino and Atlantis Casino and some drinking and shopping downtown.  The aquarium in Atlantis was very cool.  The only club worth going to is Aura, in Atlantis, which is open Wednesday through Saturday.

Guatemala, Days 6-7 – Chichicastenango

Recently I went on a trip to Guatemala. These are days 6-7 of my 9 day account.

Of course, we are up early to catch the morning bus to Chichi. Coming along with us is a French diplomat and his wife, who are very friendly. He has a pretty cool life – he gets to travel around to different countries but I imagine its tough when you have to relocate all the time.

The trip is long and punctuated by wrong turns and random delays. We are stuck in a traffic jam caused by a landslide for over an hour, as the machines move the rubble.

Upon entering Chichi, we were initially unimpressed. It’s more of a village than a town. And a dusty one at that. We check into our hotel, the Santo Tomas, which is actually quite beautiful.

After we’ve settled in, we head to the market square. As it is Wednesday afternoon, the market is not yet in full swing (Thursdays and Sundays are the main days for the market. Still, it gives us a chance to look around, check out the church, and scope the market for tomorrow. I was particularly interested in the church because of its syncretic characteristics (the town’s church combines elements of Christianity and Mayan religion). A funeral happened to be taking place as we passed by.

Another characteristic of this town is the huge mural that covers two inner walls surrounding the market.

After we surveyed the market, there was not much to do so we checked out Lonely Planet’s suggestion to check out the idol at a nearby hilltop. Walking to this idol seemed scary and dangerous, not because it was in the middle of the woods, but because it was so out of the way and unpopulated, heightening the fear that we would be robbed. We walked by a machete store and got directions to make sure we were on the right path. He was a really sweet old man and asked if we wanted a machete. I wondered if I needed one! In any case, the idol was not worth the hike, but it was a cool and scary adventure nonetheless.

We then retired to the hotel and ate there as well. The food was uneventful and the wine terrible. We did have a great local rum at the bar, however. Afterwards, we returned to our room which was freezing. We tried to light the chimney ourselves but it was damn difficult and we gave up (the staff would have lit the fire but we didn’t bother).

The next day we did all of our shopping. In retrospect, I wish I had bought more here, because they really have stuff you don’t find anywhere else in Guatemala, even in Antigua. There were some really nice silk scarves and other things as well. You must bargain with everyone, and it makes sense to start at half of what anyone is offering you and not go too far past 60 percent as a final price. Even then, you are likely being ripped off, especially on the wooden Mayan masks that are so popular.

Having learned that there is no direct shuttle bus to Monterrico, we headed back to Antigua with the idea that we would hit an early morning bus to Monterrico the next day. This bus was larger, and absolutely packed. We ran into another traffic jam, of course. This one was slightly different though, in that it was enormous, and it seemed almost designed to create a local economy in peddlers and roadside vendors. It otherwise didn’t make sense that the vendors where to expect the traffic jam on a highway.

If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would not stay two days in Chichicastenango — there just isn’t enough to do there. Better to catch an early morning Thursday bus and return the same evening. Also, the travel options are not great going to or from Chichi on any other day besides Thursday.

We arrived in Antigua and returned to our old standby hotel, Quinta de las Flores, since Casa Azul is sold out. No matter. We retire early in the night, to rest up for our early morning shuttle to Monterrico. Beach, here we come!

Guatemala, Day 5 – Panajachel, Quetzaltenango

Recently I went on a trip to Guatemala. This is Day 5 of my 9 Day account.

We are up early again, like 6 am. Dammit. I am really hung over. Jesus is the MAN of San Pedro.We rush down to the lakeside to catch the ferry, but we are not the last to arrive. The cigarette-smoking couple from Urquizu is joining us. Again. Small world. We catch the first of the four ferry trips we will take today, this time to San Pedro. As we arrive, locals wash their laundry (and themselves) at the water by the base of the town. Men fish on handmade canoes (pictured below). The town is built right into the mountainside, which means more climbing. We stop halfway up to the town at a coffeeshop. I take shots of locals and local scenery, while my friend wanders on his own.

After about an hour, we take the next ferry to Santiago Here, the women all wear striking purple dresses (pictured). Santiago is also built into the mountainside, which means, you guessed it, more climbing. Local kids offer to take us to some idol for a few pennies, but it sounds like a shady scam, so we pass. On the way back down, we hit up a local taco stand for some awesome tacos, but they make me wonder if we have taken our life into our hands. We descend back to the lake and catch the next ferry just in time.

The next ferry takes us to San Antonio Palopo (pictured left). Three Mayan kids join us for the ride, and they are cute but camera-shy. In their culture, its like stealing your soul or something to have your picture taken. Oh well. Palopo is a dump. In retrospect, it would have been far better to spend more time in San Pedro and, to a lesser extent, Santiago. Even Panajachel, which is by far the most developed village.

The fourth ferry takes us for the last time to Panajachel. We catch the shuttle to Quetzaltenango (Xela). We arrive there at night, and eat at Alba Mar. The chilaquiles are pretty good – its a turkey cheese and tomato base soup. Afterwards, we crash at the hotel and play some chess. We learn that we can’t catch a bus to Chichicastenango except at 7am, which leads us to conclude that we should leave Xela a day early and spend it at Chichi. Which means a 7 am bus tomorrow. Which means another early morning. Awesome.

Guatemala, Day 4 – The Volcano

Recently I went on a trip to Guatemala. This is Day 4 of my 9 Day account.

Perspective

We are up at an inhumane hour in order to catch the 6 a.m. bus to Pacaya. Awesome, a 1.5 hour bus ride with the annoying couple that smoked next to use at Urquizu. We arrive at the base of the PacayaThe Descent Volcano, where children try to sell us walking sticks for a couple quetzales. No one bites. We begin the ascent, which is way more difficult than we thought. We practically run up the first leg, ignorant of how much further we have to go. The climb is a total bitch, and with little sleep, I am dragging ass. Once at the top, we descend to approach the lava. We traverse a jagged expanse of cooled lava. The rocks are uneven and shift about; a misstep could mean a serious gash, or worse.

liquid-hot-magma.jpgFinally, we get to the LIQUID HOT MAG-MA. I’d say it more often if I wasn’t gasping for breath. We snap a few pictures and warm ourselves by the lava flow. A vulcanologist (I’ve always wanted to use thatGuatemalan Macgyver word) boils water by putting a teakettle on the ground. One of the eerie things about the volcano is a persistent “clinking sound,” one that could only be likened to the distant sound of many panes of very thin glass being shattered.

We return to the summit and begin the descent, which is thankfully much easier than the ascent. I slip on some gravel and bang my knee, hard. We make the journey back to Antigua and have lunch at La Escudilla. The food is ok, but not Urquizu good. We stroll into some churches after and prepare for the shuttle to Panajachel.
La Escuidilla, AntiguaAntigua ChurchAntigua Arch

At 4 p.m. we depart Antigua. The driver is an absolute lunatic, speeding through hair-pin turns with unguarded ravines to either side of us. We are all bounced around in the bus as this madman passes trucks around blind curves. I am furious; my friend is unaffected. The drive takes a lot out of me, and I need aspirin to calm down and relieve my headache.

At Panajachel, we eat a decent seafood dinner at Casablanca. Curiously, there are posters of Sikh gurus and other Indian art adorning the walls. Afterwards, we get drunk at Pana Rock Cafe. The live music is great and the singer looks just like Santana. I walk home beneath more stars than I have ever seen. I lay out by the pool outside my hotel room before crashing, taking in the sky.

Guatemala, Day 3 – Antigua

Recently I went on a trip to Guatemala. This is Day 3 of my 9 Day account.

jades.jpgWe get up late (by comparison), maybe 9:30. We go over to a store named Jades, and pick up some gifts. Later we stop by an outdoor market. Looking at what they charge at the bazaar, I wonder if I was ripped off. We start the day off slow, visiting Casa Santo Domingo, a former monastery converted to a luxury hotel (how is that for a commentary on man’s transition from worship of God to worship of the Almighty Dollar). The ruins are impressive, including an open air altar with 50 foot ceilings.

window.jpgaltar.jpgcrypt.jpg

e_bell.jpgWe then head over to Antigua Tours, and meet the illustrious Elizabeth Bell, an Antiguan tour guide and travel agent who has been called one of the best tour guides ever. She sets us up instantly and painlessly with a coffee tour, volcano tour, and hotel for our next stop, Panajachel. Elizabeth shows consummate grace under the time pressure my buddy has all but conjured. She’s one fine lady. I wish we would have had time to go on one of her legendary tours, but alas, it is Sunday.

urquizu.jpgcart.jpgWe eat lunch at a local haunt called Cuevita de los Urquizu. The aroma from the curries is irresistible. The food is fantastic, probably the best we had in Guatemala. We wait at about 2pm for the shuttle to take us to the coffee tour, but it never comes. Elizabeth had given us her home number if we ran into problems (how amazing is that!) and I took advantage of it to get her to compel the tour operator to properly retrieve us. After a long hour, we are picked up for the tour.

plantation.jpgcoffeebeans.jpgJosue, our guide at the tour, is terrific. Because it is Sunday, we cannot see the farm and the machinery in action, but it is interesting nonetheless, since I have never even seen a coffee bean before. The coffee they serve is black without sugar, but it tastes as though it has milk and sugar, it’s that good. The sun sets behind the Acatenango volcano as we head back towards Antigua.

We walk around Antigua at dusk, taking in an early evening mass (they LOVE them some God here). Later, we stumble into a wine/cigar shop, where I pick up a Cuban to smoke in the central square (Parque Central). We reminisce about our college days, a bittersweet pasttime. Afterwards, we have a great meal at Fonda de la Calles. There, we run into Marty, a former Pan Am stewardess who we met at the wine shop. She does social work with kids who live in Guatemala’s dumps. After a big dinner and a bottle of wine, we turn in for another early morning to see the volcano.

Guatemala, Day 2 – Tikal

Recently I went on a trip to Guatemala. This is Day 2 of my 9 Day account.

The alarm goes off obnoxiously at 4:30 am. Defiant, we sleep in at first. When I finally wake up to check the time, I nearly have a heart attack when I see it is 6:15 (our flight is at 6:30!). Adrenaline rushes then ebbs as I realize that we are on Central Time.

We make it to the flight. The security process is far more civil than in New York, highlighted by the fact that there is a large, dedicated “recovery area” where you can at least sit down and put your shoes back on. Flying on a regional airline, we realize that air travel is a much bigger deal to people from Guatemala. What is a frustrating means to an end for us is a wonder to them. We sleep for most of the short plane ride to Flores, then deplane for a shuttle to Tikal.

We climb the ruins, which are a bitch. They are pretty impressive, though. After walking around for 4 hours, I ask my friend how long he thinks we’ve walked. He estimates 1.5 miles and I am incredulous. I say we must have been doing at least 20 minute miles. I invent the concept of the “exertion-adjusted mile,” and calculate that we must have done around 7-10 miles!

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Deathtrap!Sprouting2109108684_a32d2607ed_b.jpgLater, we ascend an absolute deathtrap. My friend asserts that this

is the best part of the trip. I learn that I am acutely afraid of death. Not heights, so much as falling to my death. Tikal is amazing, a civilization sprouting thousands of years ago from the jungle. The imagery of huge stone temples poking out from the treetops is very symbolic.

That night we return to Guatemala City, then to the former capital of Antigua, which is beautiful. Mariachi sing, and children are so pervasive, you’d think it was Disneyland. We stay at Quinta de las Flores, which is way too far from the action of the central square. Though Quinta is beautiful, in retrospect, Casa Azul would have been a better choice due to the location. We have steak and wine at El Sereno, which is just ok considering the high price. Afterwards, we go to Riki’s for a drink – it’s a lot smokier than any bar in New York but you can’t get a michelada in New York either.