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A Guide to Nicaragua’s Restrooms

Make your day-to-day a lot easier in Nicaragua–and anywhere else for that matter–by having a good handle on the absolute basic of all basics: toilet and shower facilities.

Restroom sign in Nicaragua.
Restroom sign in Nicaragua. Photo © Tara Joyce, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Toilets

Nicaragua boasts an enormous diversity of bathrooms, from various forms of the common inodoro (modern toilet, a.k.a. el trono) to the full range of dark, infested letrinas (outhouses). Despite so many options, many regions of Nicaragua suffer a shortage of actual toilet seats, so having to squat over a bare bowl is common. Because water supplies are sometimes sporadic, even in cities, you may have to employ a manual toilet flush. Mastering this move is important. (Leaving a toilet unflushed is considered very rude.) Use the plastic bucket sitting beside the toilet (or near the sink) and dump the water into the bowl, all at once, forcefully and from high up to ensure maximum swirlage.

[pullquote align=right]Because water supplies are sometimes sporadic, even in cities, you may have to employ a manual toilet flush.[/pullquote]In most mid-range and expensive hotels, you can probably safely flush your toilet paper, but the norm in Nicaragua is still to put used toilet paper in the waste basket next to the toilet so as not to clog the weak plumbing. It’s never a bad idea to travel with a roll of toilet paper (papel higiénico) protected in a plastic bag. Otherwise, try the following phrase with your host: “Fíjase que no hay papel en el baño” (“Look, there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom.”)

Showers

In the cooler parts of the country, namely Matagalpa and Jinotega, some hotels and hospedajes offer hot water by means of electric water-heating canisters attached to the end of the showerhead. Cold water passing through the coils is warmed before falling through the spout. The seemingly obvious drawback to the system is the presence of electric wires in and around a wet environment. While not necessarily the electric death traps they appear to be, they should be approached with caution. Before you step into the shower, check for frayed or exposed wires. Set the control knob to II and carefully turn the water on. Once you’re wet and water is flowing through the apparatus, it’s in your best interest not to mess with the heater again.

To save you many cold showers trying to figure out how the darned thing works, I’ll let you in on the secret: If the water pressure is too low, the heater isn’t triggered on, and the water will not be heated, but if the water pressure is too high, it will be forced through the nozzle before it’s had sufficient contact with the coils, and the water will not be heated. Open the faucet to a moderate setting, and rub-a-dub-dub, you’re taking a hot shower. When you’ve finished, turn the water off first and dry off, then turn the little knob back to Off.


Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.

Tips on Staying in Guatemala on a Budget

Options for accommodations in Guatemala vary from the backpacker’s basic $3-a-night room in cheap, blue-light hotels or hostels to ultraswanky boutique hotels and five-star international chain hotels and resorts. It’s possible to tour the country entirely on either end of the budget spectrum. There are certainly plenty of options in between, as well as the more recent development of attractive ecolodges in areas adjacent to pristine natural areas.

Camping is also another fairly common alternative, particularly at the national parks, though RV hookups are still virtually nonexistent. The government levies a 12 percent sales tax in addition to a 10 percent tax that goes to INGUAT (Guatemala Tourist Commission), bringing the total to a whopping 22 percent. Most of the budget and many of the midrange hotels include these taxes in the prices they’ll quote you, but this is not the case in higher-end accommodations.

La Lancha, an ecolodge on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá. Photo © Al Argueta.
La Lancha, an ecolodge on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá. Photo © Al Argueta.

[pullquote align=right]The key thing to look for when scoping out hotels with bargain-basement prices is cleanliness.[/pullquote]In popular tourist areas, you’ll often be approached by comisionistas offering to find you a place to stay. These people work with local hotels and are paid commissions for each person they bring to a particular property. Usually, the places they work with aren’t the best deals in town since they have to pay these people, an expense that simply gets added to the room rates. Also, more reputable hotels with good clientele and favorable word of mouth are rarely the kinds of places that would need the services of these freelancers.

Hospedajes, Hostels, and Cheap Hotels

Guatemala is a major stop along the Central American backpacking circuit, so it’s no surprise that there are a plethora of low-budget hotels to choose from. Many of these are hospedajes or pensiones with very basic rooms run by local families. The rooms at the most basic places may all be on a shared-bath (baño compartido) basis. This is particularly the case in some of the very remote mountain villages in the Western Highlands region. The next-highest level in comfort consists of rooms with private bath (baño privado). A recent trend in areas with heavy tourist presence is the establishment of excellent hostales (hostels), where several travelers share dormitory-type bedrooms and bathrooms. Antigua, Copán, Guatemala City, Flores, and Cobán, to name a few, have some excellent hostels.

Los Amigos Youth Hostel in Flores.
Los Amigos Youth Hostel in Flores. Photo © John Barrie, licensed Creative Commons usage.

The key thing to look for when scoping out hotels with bargain-basement prices is cleanliness. All of the hotels recommended in the Moon Guatemala guidebook pass the cleanliness standard, as there are some budget hotels that are truly filthy. I’m all about making my dollar go as far as possible, but I draw the line here. If you do end up staying in a hotel room of questionable cleanliness, break out the sleeping bag. It’s always a good idea to pack one along if you’re traveling on a budget. Rooms in the highlands tend to suffer from mold problems, so keep this in mind if you’re allergic. For rooms in tropical areas, make sure there is a fan, preferably a ceiling fan, as this will make for a much more restful night’s sleep.

Another consideration in budget hotels is the quality of the mattresses. Definitely check this out, as the quality of beds varies widely. In some tropical areas, beds might consist of a thin mattress atop a concrete block.

The cheapest of the cheap hotels may not offer hot water or may not have it on during the whole day. Always inquire about this. In many budget hotels, the hot water comes from an electric hot-water heater attached to the showerhead. These can often look scary, with wires jutting out all over the place. It’s a good idea to check out your water-heater situation before taking a room. Be very careful not to touch the showerhead while in the shower, unless, of course, you enjoy being mildly electrocuted. As a final note, bring flip-flops or some other type of shower shoe to avoid catching a nasty fungus in shared bathrooms.


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Sights in Arecibo, Puerto Rico

Before the Spanish arrived, Arecibo was home to a peaceful group of about 200 Taíno natives led by Cacique Arasibo, reputed to be a fair ruler over his village of fishermen. In 1515, Spain claimed the Arecibo area and enslaved the Taíno, most of whom died shortly thereafter. Today Arecibo is the most populated municipality on the north coast, with more than 100,000 residents who call it home. It is also a major industrial hub, producing textiles, chemicals, electronics, and medical instruments. As a result, Arecibo has been blighted by massive urban sprawl distinguished by traffic-clogged thoroughfares and unfettered commercial development.

[pullquote align=right]As you climb ever higher toward the observatory, the first glimpse between treetops of the telescope’s suspension apparatus is a startling sight.[/pullquote]Nevertheless, there are several good reasons to visit the municipality of Arecibo. In the mountainous karst country south of town is the world-famous Observatorio de Arecibo. On the coast is Cueva del Indio, a geographic wonder that illustrates what happens when crashing waves meet massive petrified sand dunes—it’s also a natural repository for petroglyphs. And for children, there’s the Faro de Arecibo Lighthouse and Historical Park with its themed playgrounds and welcoming patch of beach.

Travel map of North Coast, Puerto Rico
North Coast

Sights in Arecibo

Observatorio de Arecibo

You know you’re headed someplace unique as you travel south from the town of Arecibo toward the Observatorio de Arecibo (end of Carr. 625, 787/878-2612, daily 9am-4pm June 1-July 31 and Dec. 15-Jan. 15; Wed.-Sun. and Mon. holidays 9am-4pm rest of the year, $10 adults, $6 children and seniors), the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The bustle of commerce, industry, expressways, and road-construction projects eventually gives way to a bright green grassy landscape dotted with dramatic haystack-shaped hills called mogotes. Passing cars become few as the curvy road winds around the hills and ever upward, past sprawling cattle farms and errant chickens.

Be sure to bring sturdy walking shoes. Entry to the observatory requires a half-mile hike—mostly up stairs—from the parking lot to the entrance, and there’s little shelter along the way. As you climb ever higher toward the observatory, the first glimpse between treetops of the telescope’s suspension apparatus is a startling sight. Its cold, clinical, metal construction is in sharp contrast to the wilderness that surrounds it. The road ends at a guardhouse, where you park your car and begin the long uphill trek on a concrete surface to the top of the massive sinkhole that contains the telescope’s dish. Visitors unable to make the journey by foot can get permission from the guard to drive up to the entrance.

Arecibo Observatory. Photo © Frank Van Den Eijnden/123rf.
Arecibo Observatory. Photo © Frank Van Den Eijnden/123rf.

Because there’s not really much to do on a tour of the observatory, other than gawk at the sheer size of the telescope dish, a modern education center was opened in 1997. Inside are two levels of informative displays and interactive exhibits that educate visitors on the finer points of the study of space and the atmosphere. A short film on the telescope is screened throughout the day in both English and Spanish. But the highlight of the center is its observation deck, from which visitors can peer over the side of the massive dish. There’s also a gift shop that sells all kinds of great educational books, models, and toys. It’s a good source for maps of the island too.

Cueva del Indio

Because it’s located on private property and not technically an official tourist site—no government-sanctioned bathrooms, marked trails, information center, and so on—Cueva del Indio (Carr. 681, km 7, parking $2) is one of Arecibo’s lesser-known attractions, but it’s well worth investigating. A hand-painted sign marks the turn that takes visitors to a parking lot where someone will collect your money and point you toward the caves. After a short trek through scrubby, prickly brush, the topography gives way to what looks like a massive moonscape rising out of the sea. It’s a huge coral outcropping that has been carved out and shaped over time from the pounding sea beating against its base. To the west is a large hole in the surface that leads down into a cave, which bottoms out on the sea floor. On its interior walls are faint petroglyphs—a sun, an owl, human faces—believed to have been made by the Taíno more than 500 years ago. To the east are huge natural arches where the sea has cut through the coral mass. During high tide, waves crash into it with such force that the water shoots 20-30 feet in the air.

Hiking shoes or sturdy sneakers are a must, as the coral surface is very rocky and covered with camouflaged tree roots in some places. Stay away from the precarious edges and keep your eyes peeled for holes in the surface. Take one false step and it may be the last step you take.

Cueva del Indio in Arecibo. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
Cueva del Indio in Arecibo. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

Faro de Arecibo Lighthouse and Historical Park

Families will enjoy Faro de Arecibo Lighthouse and Historical Park (Rte. 655, Barrio Islote, Arecibo, 787/880-7540 or 787/880-7560, Mon.-Fri. 9am-6pm, Sat.-Sun. 10am-7pm, $12 adults, $10 children 12-2, free for children under 2, parking $3). Built in 1898, the neoclassical-style lighthouse was the last one built by colonial Spain. It’s on top of Punta Morrillo, a rocky mountain overlooking the north coast, and offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding area. The lighthouse is still operational, and inside are historical displays and artifacts of curiosities found in the ocean, including a 1910 diving suit.

Road-tripping families will want to stop here to let their young children burn off some energy in the recently constructed historical park. Representing the island’s historical eras are interactive, kid-sized reproductions of a Taíno Village; Columbus’s ships the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María; African slave quarters; a replica of Blackbeard’s pirate ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge; and a spooky Pirate’s Cave containing tanks of sharks, turtles, and alligators. There’s also a small saltwater aquarium, a water park, a standard playground with swings and slides, and a well-maintained beach with picnic shelters and bathrooms.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.

The Economy of Nicaragua

Two successive governments have had to jump-start the Nicaraguan economy from a standstill: the Sandinistas, who picked up the shattered remains upon ousting Tachito; and Doña Violeta, who had to recover from the war and a decade of economic embargo. Her administration made dramatic progress, reducing the foreign debt by more than half, slashing inflation from 13,500 percent to 12 percent, and privatizing hundreds of state-run businesses. The new economy began to expand in 1994 and grew at 4 percent until 2006, weathering several major catastrophes, including Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

[pullquote align=right]For years, Nicaragua has been one of the most highly indebted nations of the world.[/pullquote]Nevertheless, Nicaragua remains the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere with a per capita gross domestic product of $1,337 and its external debt ratio nearly twice the gross national product. Unemployment is pervasive. More than half of the adult urban population scrapes by in the informal sector (selling water at the roadside, for example), and population growth will likely keep it that way. High demand for jobs means employers can essentially ignore the minimum-wage requirement, especially in the countryside, where agricultural laborers typically earn as little as $1 a day. Nearly 600,000 people face severe malnutrition.

A worker walks down a row in a Nicaraguan bean field.
A worker walks down a row in a Nicaraguan bean field. Photo by Neil Palmer, © CIAT, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Nicaragua’s economy is based almost entirely on agricultural export of primary material, plus recently, tourism and several nontraditional exports like sesame, onions, melons, and fruit. Export earnings are currently $381 million. Their main trade partners include the United States, other Central American countries, Venezuela, and the European Union.

Debt, the HIPC, and Foreign Aid

For years, Nicaragua has been one of the most highly indebted nations of the world. When Somoza fled the country, he took the capital reserves of the banks with him, leaving behind $1.6 billion of debt. The Sandinistas, through a combination of gross economic mismanagement, extensive borrowing (primarily from Eastern bloc nations), the U.S. economic embargo, and high defense expenditures augmented the national debt by a factor of 10, nearly half of which was in arrears. By 1994, Nicaragua had the highest ratio of debt to GDP in the world, a challenge every successive administration has had to deal with. Germany, Russia, and Mexico were the first nations to forgive Nicaraguan debt entirely.

Propitious to Nicaragua’s future economic growth was its inclusion in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief initiative in 2000. Inclusion in the initiative means Nicaragua will be exonerated from the majority of its international debt upon compliance with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank program, but that program mandates several austerity measures, debt restructuring, and the opening of its economy to foreign markets.

More hotly contested is the mandated privatization of public utilities, including the telephone system (privatized in 2002) and municipal water distribution. City water systems have not yet been privatized and the issue is extremely controversial with those who consider water a human right rather than a commodity. The electrical grid was auctioned to the sole bidder (notorious Spanish company Unión Fenosa) in 2000. The company enjoyed a monopoly of the industry, charging outrageous prices and consistently overbilling clients. In 2013, Fenosa sold its shares to the Spanish companies TSK and Melfosur, who have not lowered rates. Central to the HIPC initiative is Nicaragua’s continued effort toward macroeconomic adjustment and structural and social policy reforms, particularly basic health and education, both of which remain publicly owned.


Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.

Things to Do at Lake Amatitlán

Amatitlán lies 30 kilometers south of Guatemala City on the road to the Pacific Coast. The lake is in the process of being rescued from what would have been certain ecological death caused by wastewater from nearby industry and uncontrolled urban growth. A new sewage treatment plant now filters the filthy waters of the Río Villalobos, which once flooded untreated sewage into the lake. Trees have been replanted, and the lake is being pumped with oxygen and cleaned of plants in an effort to reverse its eutrophication. It’s still not possible to swim in the lake’s waters, though it may be some day.

Aerial view of Lake Amatitlán, on the fringes of Guatemala City. Photo © Al Argueta.
Aerial view of Lake Amatitlán, on the fringes of Guatemala City. Photo © Al Argueta.

Recreation

[pullquote align=right]A new sewage treatment plant now filters the filthy waters of the Río Villalobos, which once flooded untreated sewage into the lake.[/pullquote]The public beach of Las Ninfas was being remodeled by tourism authorities to include boat docks (for sailboats and motorboats), new food stalls, walkways, and landscaping, but like so many other projects in Guatemala it was never finished. The long-closed Teleférico (Aerial Tram, 9am-5pm Fri.-Sun., $2 adults, $0.85 children) was reopened in 2006, in an attempt to kick off the rebirth of one of Guatemala City’s oldest recreational enclaves. The funicular climbs 350 meters up a mountainside along a 1.5-kilometer route. There’s a lookout point at the top of the mountain where you can get out, appreciate the view of the lake and Guatemala City, and grab a bite to eat at a small cafeteria serving snacks. The Teleférico was unfortunately not operational at the time of writing, and it’s anyone’s guess if it will be resuscitated any time soon.

If you’d rather just soak your weary bones in the warm waters of some pleasant hot springs, you can do that at Kawilal Hotel & Spa at Baños Termales Santa Teresita (Avenida Puente de la Gloria, Riveras del Río Michatoya, tel. 6644-1000, 9am-5:30pm Mon.-Thurs., 9am-7:30pm Fri., 8:30am-8:30pm Sat., 8:30am-6:30pm Sun. and holidays), where you can enjoy a private steam bath or a soak in a private tub filled with steaming hot water to your taste ($5). Several outdoor pools of varying temperatures are also available, and there’s a restaurant serving grilled meats and chicken, salads, sandwiches, and seafood. Rounding out the list of offerings is a spa, where you can enjoy a one-hour massage for about $20. A modern, 18-room hotel ($90 d) opened in 2013, with comfortable accommodations and its own swimming pool, restaurant, and bar.

Parque Nacional Naciones Unidas

This 491-hectare park near the lakeshore is managed by private conservation group Defensores de la Naturaleza (tel. 5651-4825 or 2310-2929) and is open 8am-4pm Monday-Friday and 8am-5pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $3.50. Facilities include picnic areas with barbecue pits, hiking and mountain biking trails with hanging bridges and lookout points over the lake, basketball courts, and soccer fields. A five-platform, 400-meter canopy tour, and rappelling were added in 2008. There are miniature replicas of Guatemalan landmarks such as Tikal’s Gran Jaguar temple and Antigua Guatemala in areas denominated “Plaza Guatemala” and “Plaza Antigua.” The park is one of five original national parks dating back to 1955.

Getting There

You’ll probably need to rent a car to get to Lake Amatitlán, though you could also hire a cab to take you there from Guatemala City for about $30. If you’re driving, take the Pacific Highway (CA-9) south out of the city. The main entrance to the Amatitlán lakeshore is at Km. 26. You’ll see signs. The exit veers off from the right side of the highway. From the exit ramp, you’ll come to a Shell gas station, at which you turn left. Follow the road until it dead-ends just past the soccer fields on your left. Turn left at the dead end. You’ll pass a bridge over the Río Michatoya on your right. The next left will take you to the Teleférico and farther up that same road is Parque Nacional Naciones Unidas. Turning right onto the bridge over the Río Michatoya followed by an immediate right will bring you to the Santa Teresita hot springs.


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Colombian Food in Villa de Leyva

If you’re looking for a taste of deliciously authentic Colombian food, Villa de Leyva and the surrounding area play host to a plentiful array. While there are upscale restaurants in the area, sticking to the same path the locals tread gives you a chance to immerse yourself in the experience, and it’s far easier on your wallet.

Restaurant patio in Villa De Leyva.
Restaurant patio in Villa De Leyva. Photo © Edgar Zuniga, Jr., licensed Creative Commons.

The Albahaca Restaurante-Bar Viejoteca (Cra. 8A No. 13-46, cell tel. 313/844-6613, 10am-9pm daily) is a favorite for visitors for two reasons: the lovely ambience, especially in the evening, and for its non-outrageous prices! Their top dishes include cuchuco de trigo con espinazo de cerdo (buckwheat soup with pork back, COP$17,000) and grilled trout in uchuva (Peruvian groundcherry) sauce (COP$18,000). Ask for a table in the garden or by the fireplace. The word viejoteca is in the name because the owners like oldies music.

[pullquote align=right]Every region has their own distinct type of arepa, and every Colombian believes that theirs is superior to the rest.[/pullquote]MiCocina (Cl. 13 No. 8-45, tel. 8/732-1676, noon-10pm daily, COP$25,000), where there is a cooking school within the restaurant, has earned a name for itself as an ever-so-slightly upscale restaurant serving the best of Colombian cuisine. After a calentado bogotano, a beloved hangover cure made with fried eggs and potatoes, save room for the cheese ice cream from Paipa. It’s mostly Colombian meat-based dishes here, but they offer a few vegetarian plates.

Locals tend to steer clear of the overpriced restaurants on the Plaza Mayor. When it comes to comida, it’s got to be buena, mucha, y barrata (good, plentiful, and cheap). Close to the Terminal de Transportes, but not too close, Los Kioscos de los Caciques (Cra. 9 No. 9-05, cell tel. 311/475-8681, noon-3pm and 6pm-8pm daily, COP$6,000) specializes in filling local dishes such as mazamorra chiquita (beef stew with potatoes, corn, and other vegetables) and cuchuco con espinazo (stew with a base of pork spine and potatoes). You can also order from the menu. It’s an atmospheric place, where you dine in thatched kiosks.

At the Saturday market, those in the know go to Donde Salvador (between Clls. 12-13 and Cras. 5-6, Plaza de Mercado) for mute rostro de cordero, a hearty corn-based soup with lamb. You can also, of course, pick up plenty of cheap and fresh fruit. La Parilla (Cra. 9 No. 9-17, 7am-9pm daily, set lunch COP$5,000) is an everyman kind of place. At the plaza, Estar de la Villa (Cl. 13 No. 8-58, tel. 8/732-0251, 10am-9pm daily, COP$8,000) is always packed, often with employees from some of the fancier restaurants nearby.

Traveling Taste Buds

Forget about counting calories as you try these local specialties near Villa de Leyva.

Wine

Villa de Leyva is one of a handful of areas in Colombia where wine is produced. Take a tour of Viñedo Aim Karim (Km. 10 Vía Santa Sofía, cell tel. 317/518-2746, 10am-5pm, COP$5,000) and try their Marqués de la Villa wine. Their sauvignon blanc won an award in Brussels in 2011.

Marqués de Villa de Leyva Vineyard, Colombia.
Marqués de Villa de Leyva Vineyard, Colombia. Photo © Edgar Zuniga, Jr., licensed Creative Commons.

Sausage

About 25 kilometers west of Villa de Leyva, the town of Sutamarchán is famous for its spicy longaniza sausage. The best place to sample this is at La Fogata (tel. 8/725-1249). It’s on the main road on the left as you go toward Ráquira.

Arepas

Most visitors to Colombia develop a love or hate relationship with arepas, corn-based pancakes that accompany just about every meal. Every region has their own distinct type of arepa, and every Colombian believes that theirs is superior to the rest. It would be hard to find anyone who could resist the famed arepa quesuda from the town of Tinjacá about 18 kilometers southwest of Villa de Leyva. Meaning “sweating arepa,” arepa quesudas are two small arepas with sweet, melted cheese in the middle. They’re a big mess to eat, but they’re so good.

Hot, sweet, and gooey–the arepas of Tinjacá are worth both the calories and the trip. Photo © Andrew Dier.
Hot, sweet, and gooey–the arepas of Tinjacá are worth both the calories and the trip. Photo © Andrew Dier.

Jam

Tinjacá is also known for its delicious jams made by El Robledal (Vereda Santa Bárbara, cell tel. 310/226-5299). Check out their exotic fruit jams such as uchuva, lulo, and rhubarb. Their products can also be found in Villa de Leyva at the Savia restaurant in the Casa Quintero on the Plaza Mayor.

Broiled Hen

Sáchica is an orderly, quiet town just outside of Villa de Leyva on the way toward Tunja. Here, the local specialty is broiled hen. Try it at La Candelaria (Cl. 3 No. 2-48, cell tel. 311/845-7786).


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Colombia.

Where to Find Cuban Arts and Crafts

The Cuban government bans the sale and export of antiques. Hence, there are no stores selling antiques to tourists. Fortunately, there are an abundance of galleries and markets that feature handmade items and artworks, from souvenir-style trinkets and kitsch to collectible pieces.

Off-street art gallery in Cuba.
Off-street art gallery in Cuba. Photo © Brian Snelson, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Habana Vieja

[pullquote align=right]The private galleries of artists are your best source for really good art bought at the source.[/pullquote]The city’s largest market is the Centro Cultural Almacenes de San José (Av. Desamparados at San Ignacio, tel. 07/864-7793, daily 10am-6pm), on the waterfront side of the Alameda and a.k.a. Feria de la Artesanía, selling everything from little ceramic figurines, miniature bongo drums, and papier-mâché 1950s autos to banana-leaf hats, crocheted bikinis, straw hats, and paintings. It has an Agencia San Cristóbal (tel. 07/864-7784) travel agency, Etecsa office with Internet, plus cafés and restaurants.

Habana Vieja contains dozens of galleries, many selling naíve works by the artists themselves; these galleries, called expo-ventas (commercial galleries representing freelance artists), concentrate along Calle Obispo. The Asociación Cubana de Artesana Artistas (Obispo #411, tel. 07/860-8577, Mon.-Sat. 10am-8pm, Sun. 10am-6pm) represents various artists.

Travel map of Habana Vieja in Cuba
Habana Vieja

One of the best galleries is Galería La Acacia (San José #114, e/ Industria y Consulado, tel. 07/863-9364, Mon.-Sat. 9am-5pm), selling artwork of international standard by many of Cuba’s leading artists. Similar pieces can be found at Galería Victor Manuel (San Ignacio #46, e/ Callejón del Chorro y Empedrado, tel. 07/861-2955, daily 10am-9pm), on the west side of Plaza de la Catedral. Around the corner is the Taller Experimental de la Gráfica (Callejón del Chorro, tel. 07/867-7622, Mon.-Fri. 9am-4pm), a cooperative that makes and sells exclusive lithographic prints.

You can buy handmade Spanish fans (abanicos) for CUC2-150 at the Casa del Abanicos (Obrapía #107, e/ Mercaderes y Oficios, tel. 07/863-4452, Mon.-Sat. 10am-7pm and Sun. 10am-1pm).

The Tienda El Soldadito de Plano (Muralla #164, tel. 07/866-0232, Mon.-Fri. 9am-5pm, Sat. 9am-1:30pm) sells miniature lead (!) soldiers, including a 22-piece War of Independence collection, for CUC5.45 apiece.

The private galleries of artists are your best source for really good art bought at the source. Try Estudio-Taller Ribogerto Mena (Calle San Ignacio #154 e/ Obispo y Obrapía, tel. 07/867-5884) or Taller La 6ta Puerta (Calle Oficios #6 esq. Obispo, tel. 07/860-6866), the gallery of Angel Ramírez.

Taller de la Graciva in Habana Vieja. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.
Taller Experimental de la Gráfica in Habana Vieja. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Centro Habana

This area doesn’t abound with galleries. An exception is Galería Galiano (Galiano e/ Concordia y Neptuno, tel. 07/860-0224, daily 9am-9pm), with works by top artists.

Vedado and Plaza de la Revolución

Vedado has an artisans’ market on La Rampa (e/ M y N, daily 8am-6pm).

The Casa de las Américas (Av. de los Presidentes, esq. 3ra, tel. 07/55-2706, Mon.-Fri. 8am-4:45pm) hosts exhibitions with works for sale.

Servando Galería de Arte (Calle 23, esq. 10, tel. 07/830-6150) represents some of the top artists in Cuba. And for beautiful evocations of Cuban landscapes check out Estudio de Mario García Portela (Calle 17 #815 e/ 2 y 4, Vedado, tel. 07/836-0425).

Playa (Miramar and Beyond)

Two of my favorite art galleries are Estudio-Galería Flora Fong (Calle 11 #4212 e/ 42 y 44, Playa, tel. 07/204-9543) and Lighthouse Studio (Av. 47 #3430 e/ 34 y 41, Kohly, tel. 07/206-5772 or 5281-6686), displaying the works of Karir López-Nieves.

For iconic one-of-a-kind prints signed by world-renowned photographer Roberto Salas, head to his Galería Robert Salas (Calle 30 #3709 e/ 37 y 39, tel. 07/206-5213), where he signs iconic images of Cuba during the past 50 years.

A visit to Casa-Estudio de José Fuster (Calle 226, esq. Av. 3ra, tel. 07/271-2932 or cell 5281-5421, daily 9am-5pm) is a must while in Havana, regardless of whether you buy or not. The “Picasso of the Caribbean” sells ceramics from CUC25 up, and main art pieces sell for CUC150 into the thousands.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Havana.

The Caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

A labyrinth of subterranean tunnels and jaw-dropping, otherworldly landscapes, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (TL20, Son Trach village, tel. 05/2367-7323, 7am-5pm daily, entry fees charged per cave) may be off the beaten path for now, but its anonymity is fading fast. Ever since a team of British cavers turned up in 2009 to explore the vast interior of Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, at 5.5 miles long and tall enough to comfortably house a high-rise, tourism to the area has taken off.

Paradise Cave is one of the few sights in the park that can be visited independently. Photo © Dana Filek-Gibson.
Paradise Cave is one of the few sights in the park that can be visited independently. Photo © Dana Filek-Gibson.

[pullquote align=right]Decked out in eerie, alien rock formations and spindly stalactites, these tunnels are estimated at around 3-5 million years old.[/pullquote]Just over 130 miles north of Hue, Phong Nha’s major draw is its three sprawling cave systems, Phong Nha, Vom, and Nuoc Mooc, which combine to roughly 90 miles of darkened passageways and have earned the area World Heritage status. Decked out in eerie, alien rock formations and spindly stalactites, these tunnels are estimated at around 3-5 million years old and, according to researchers, may be a mere handful of the caves in existence between here and the Laotian border.

It’s possible to visit the park without a tour group, but you’ll be limited to certain caves. For many of the more impressive caves, visitors must be a part of a tour group. Phong Nha offers cave tours only through certified companies and limits the number of annual visitors to Son Doong, which can be explored for a cool USD$3,000 a head.

Day trips from Hue are cheap, though these are hardly worth the effort, as the long drive to and from the park eats up most of your time. Staying closer to the park offers you the chance to experience Phong Nha in greater depth. On longer excursions, you may find yourself wading into a subterranean river, rappelling down a rock face, or camping out in a cave. While these adventures are a little more expensive than most, the quality of the park’s conservation efforts and the expertise of local caving companies more than justify the price tag.

Visit Phong Nha between February and September, when the weather allows for full access to its underground attractions. Rainy season, particularly the months of October and November, can be restrictive, as rivers rise and the area’s rainfall renders some of the more adventurous options unavailable. Phong Nha is a budding tourism destination, so don’t expect to find five-star hotels or fine dining. Travel to and from the area can require more time and money due to its remoteness, but those who do so will find this destination one of the most memorable in Vietnam.

Boats along the river in the National Park of Phong Nha Ke Bang. Photo © mihtiander/123rf.
Boats along the river in the National Park of Phong Nha Ke Bang. Photo © mihtiander/123rf.

The World’s Largest Cave

You could fit a jumbo jet or a city block inside Son Doong and still have room left over. This massive grotto stretches about three miles into the earth, with a range of landscapes you’d seldom imagine inside a darkened cave. A river roars through Son Doong, tumbling over cliffs and around corners. Clouds pass through its many chambers each day. Thanks to a pair of large skylights, Son Doong is also home to a jungle, complete with monkeys, snakes, flying foxes, and birds, not to mention a few new species discovered within its massive boundaries.

The discovery of this jaw-dropping subterranean world belongs to Ho Khanh, a local farmer who happened upon the entrance one day in 1991. At the time, the find was of little consequence, and so the man carried on but filed its location away in the back of his mind. Not until 2009 would Howard Limbert and the British Cave Research Association enlist Ho Khanh’s assistance in tracking down the cavern once more. The team of cavers was able to measure the size and length of Son Doong, and the results turned out to be far greater than Malaysia’s Deer Cave, the previous record holder. There is still plenty to be learned about Son Doong and the surrounding area—many believe there are even bigger underground chambers nearby.

An expert team of caving professionals at Oxalis (Son Trach village, tel. 05/2367-7678) have begun running six-day excursions into Son Doong at USD$3,000 a head. The outrageous cost makes at least some sense when you consider the number of porters required, not to mention the fact that you have to rappel down a cliff and trek through the jungle just to reach Son Doong’s entrance. In order to preserve the wildlife and landscapes of the cave, only 220 permits were issued in 2014. Oxalis is the only outfit with permission to enter the cave.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Vietnam.

How to Choose a Dive Shop in Cancún & Cozumel

There are more than 100 dive shops on Isla Cozumel, and scores more at Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Cancún, Tulum, and elsewhere. Choosing just one—and then placing all your underwater faith into its hands—can be daunting.

Red flags lined up on a dock with a charter boat waiting in the turquoise water.
The dock at Fiesta Americana’s Dive Resort Cozumel. Photo © Serge Melki, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

[pullquote align=”right”]If the staff is reluctant to show you the gear, either they aren’t too proud of it or they don’t see clients as equal partners in dive safety—both red flags.[/pullquote]

Safety should be your number-one concern in choosing a shop. Fortunately, the standards in Cozumel and the Riviera Maya are almost universally first-rate, and accidents are rare. But that’s not a reason to be complacent. For example, don’t dive with a shop that doesn’t ask to see your certification card or logbook—if they didn’t ask you, they probably didn’t ask anyone else, and ill-trained divers are as dangerous to others in the group as they are to themselves.

Also ask how long the shop has been in business, how much experience the dive guides have, how long the captain and crew have been with the shop, and how many divers per guide will be on the tour. “Cattle boats” are a sign of shops trying to maximize profits; even if they’re not unsafe, they often make for a less enjoyable experience.

Equipment is another crucial issue. You should ask to inspect the shop’s equipment, and the dive shop should be quick to comply. Although few casual divers are trained to evaluate gear, a good dive shop will appreciate your concern and be happy to put you at ease. If the staff is reluctant to show you the gear, either they aren’t too proud of it or they don’t see clients as equal partners in dive safety—both red flags.

Of course, the most important equipment is not what’s on the rack but what you actually use. On the day of your dive, get to the shop early so you have time to double-check your gear. Old equipment is not necessarily bad equipment, but you should ask for a different BCD, wetsuit, or regulator if the condition of the one assigned to you makes you uneasy. Learn how to check the O-ring (the small rubber ring that forms the seal between the tank and the regulator), and do so before every dive. You also should attach your regulator and open the valve, to listen for any hissing between the regulator and the tank, or in the primary and backup mouthpieces. If you hear any, ask the dive master to check it and, if need be, change the regulator. Arriving early lets you do all this before getting on the boat—ideally before leaving the shop—so you can swap gear if necessary.

Feeling comfortable and free to ask questions or raise concerns (of any sort at any time) is a crucial factor in safe diving. That’s where a dive shop’s personality comes in. Every dive shop has its own culture or style, and different divers will feel more comfortable in different shops. Spend some time talking to people at a couple of different dive shops before signing up. Try to meet the person who will be leading your particular dive—you may have to come in the afternoon when that day’s trip returns. Chances are one of the shops or dive masters will click with you.

Finally, there are some specific questions you should ask about a shop’s practices. Has their air been tested and certified? Do they carry radios and oxygen? Does the captain always stay with the boat? How many people will be going on your dive? How advanced are they? And how many dive masters or instructors will there be? How experienced are they? Above all, be vocal and proactive about your safety, and remember there are no stupid questions.

And, of course, have fun!


Excerpted from the Twelfth Edition of Moon Cancun & Cozumel.

Belize’s War Against Lionfish

The Caribbean region’s coral reef has been battling an invasive, voracious, and predatory fish—destructive enough that it can devastate an entire reef system: the red lionfish (Pterois volitans). Belize is no exception.

[pullquote align=right]Not only do lionfish have the potential to destroy reefs—which are already facing incredible stress—but they’re able to do so at an incredibly frightening pace.[/pullquote]Members of the scorpionfish (Scorpaenidae) family, lionfish were first spotted off the Belize Barrier Reef around 2001 but have appeared in greater numbers off the reef and atolls since 2008. Today, it’s rare to go diving and not spot them. They hover above sponges and off walls, and they are easily identified by their long spines, considered venomous. Don’t get too close!

Lionfish hovering over coral. Photo © Lebawit Lily Girma.
Lionfish hovering over coral. Photo © Lebawit Lily Girma.

Among several theories, it’s generally believed that lionfish, native to Indian and Pacific Oceans, escaped and got into the Atlantic and Caribbean after a lionfish aquarium in Miami was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Not only do lionfish have the potential to destroy reefs—which are already facing incredible stress—but they’re able to do so at an incredibly frightening pace. They consume prey over half their size and can keep over a dozen victims in their stomachs at a time. They also spawn over 10,000 eggs every five days. The fear is that they will consume native species, like lobsters, snappers, and groupers.

Countrywide, the war against the spread of lionfish is ongoing, led by ECOMAR, a nongovernmental organization in Belize, in partnership with the Belize Fisheries Department. Their efforts have included awareness campaigns, to educate local fishers as well as dive leaders. In addition, lionfish tournaments are held, in collaboration with other organizations, including the Coral Reef Alliance, leading to the capture of thousands per round. Visitors can play their part in preserving the reef and combating this invasive species by signing up for tournaments or even asking for lionfish at restaurants—it is particularly tasty.

ECOMAR also launched an “Adopt A Reef” program, where specific dive and snorkel sites can be adopted by marine guides and dive operators and kept clean of lionfish.

If you’re heading out on your dive with the goal of catching and handling lionfish, you can’t do it solo—head out with a licensed dive shop, as permits are required from the Fisheries Department, and it must all be done legally and safely.

To learn more about the Belize Lionfish Project and how you can help, contact ECOMAR Belize.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Belize Cayes.

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