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Visit Puerto Rico’s Toro Negro Forest

If you want to see thick, virtually uninhabited tropical jungle as far as the eye can see and travel so high up in the mountains that you can see both coasts, Toro Negro Forest (along Ruta Panorámica on Carr. 143 south of Jayuya) is the place to go. From these heights you can see clouds drift between the peaks below you and you’re surrounded by tangles of wild bamboo, banana trees, hibiscus, enormous ferns, impatiens, elephant ears, flamboyan trees, and miles of sierra palms, distinguished by their long straight trunks and pale green foliage towering 30-50 feet high. The roads are steep and twisty, putting a strain on small engines and inducing dizziness or—worse—motion sickness. But it’s one of the most exotic sights you’ll see on the island and well worth the effort.

Path through the foggy Toro Negro Rainforest of Puerto Rico. Photo © Jason Ross/123rf.
Path through the foggy Toro Negro Rainforest of Puerto Rico. Photo © Jason Ross/123rf.

[pullquote align=right]Driving through these mountains along La Ruta Panorámica, you can often catch a glimpse of the ocean off the southern coast. If visibility is clear, you can see the north coast, too.[/pullquote]The highest peaks in Puerto Rico can be found in Toro Negro, the tallest being Cerro Punta (4,390 feet). Driving through these mountains along La Ruta Panorámica, you can often catch a glimpse of the ocean off the southern coast. If visibility is clear, you can see the north coast, too.

Around kilometer 21 on Carretera 143 there is a small, rustic park on Cerro Maravillas where you can park and take in a stunning panoramic view of Ponce and the Caribbean Ocean. Unfortunately the picnic shelters and other structures are poorly maintained and marred with anti-American and anti-Semitic graffiti. It’s hard to say if it’s the work of rebellious teens or something more sinister. This was the site of a notorious incident in 1978 when police officers killed two independistas suspected of planning to sabotage a television transmission tower on the mountain’s summit.

In Toro Negro you can also see one of the island’s highest waterfalls, Salto de Doña Juana (Carr. 149, km 41.5). It can be viewed from the road (it’s on the left if you’re traveling south) if you look way up high. Although it’s not particularly wide, the water propels off the mountaintop with great force, making it a spectacular sight.

Salto de Dona Juana is one of the island's highest waterfalls. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
Salto de Dona Juana is one of the island’s highest waterfalls. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

The highest peaks of Toro Negro Forest contain dwarf or cloud forest, where the foliage has been stunted from the constant moisture in the atmosphere. The southern part of the forest features many rugged rock cliffs, jagged peaks, and waterfalls. Much of the forest has been subjected to clearing by the logging industry, but long-term reforestation efforts have helped repair some of the damage.

There are 10 trails in the forest, most of which originate from the Doña Juana Recreation Center (Carr. 143, km 32.4, 787/724-3724, daily 7:30am-4pm). One trail is a 10-minute walk to a natural freshwater pool (Sat.-Sun. and Mon. holidays 9am-5pm Apr.-Sept., $1 adults, children under 10 free). Another hike is a three-kilometer trek to Torre Observación lookout tower. A camping area with toilets and showers (but no electricity) is a 550-yard hike away.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.

New Zealand Work Visas

Moving across an ocean can be complicated, to say the least. But the great thing about immigrating to New Zealand is that if you meet their requirements, Immigration New Zealand would rather bring you in than keep you out. So you’ll find that the various officials you deal with along the way are usually both friendly and helpful. It certainly makes for a more pleasant experience than New Zealanders encounter when they try to move to the United States!

Paperwork aside, you’ll face a lot of decisions when you make the move Down Under. What type of visa do you need? How long are you planning to stay? Should you ship all of your possessions or start fresh? It’s enough to make your head spin.

New Zealand immigration entry card. Photo © Kristina D.C. Hoeppner, licensed Creative Commons usage.
New Zealand immigration entry card. Photo © Kristina D.C. Hoeppner, licensed Creative Commons usage.

The more of your immigration paperwork you can do before your move, the easier it tends to be. You’ll have a much harder time getting your hands on things such as birth certificates and police certificates that prove you do not have a criminal record once you’re outside your home country. Employers are also more interested in immigrants who have already shown the initiative to start applying for a visa. It tells them that you are serious about moving to New Zealand, and that considering you as an employee is not a waste of their time.

Working Holiday Visas

A Working Holiday Visa is a great way to live in New Zealand for a limited period of time, generally one year, and be able to pay for your stay by working. Working holiday programs are available to citizens of 42 countries, between the ages of 18 and 30. Although this visa allows you to do temporary work while in the country (you are not eligible for permanent jobs), you must have at least $4,200 available to show that you will be able to fund your trip. Most visitors on working holidays get seasonal work on farms, do temporary office jobs, or work in the tourism industry. You will have to register with the Inland Revenue Department and pay tax on your income, just like any employee.

Working Holiday Visas do not allow you to bring children with you, and your passport must be valid for at least three months after your planned departure date from New Zealand. Once you have been to New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa, you can’t apply to do it again, even if you are still under the age limit. Both the United States and Canada have unlimited spaces available for Working Holiday Visas, so there is no deadline for applications.

Work to Residence Visa

Work to Residence Visas are one of the most common ways to immigrate to New Zealand. They give you the opportunity to gain valuable experience inside the country for up to two years, which then helps you to gain residency later on if you want to stay. In addition to fulfilling the usual health and character requirements, you will need a job offer from a New Zealand employer for a duration of at least six months to qualify for a work visa. You won’t be able to apply for a visa with just any job offer, though. New Zealand has certain vocations where there are skill shortages, and immigration officials are focused on filling those shortages rather than letting in anyone with the ability to hold down any job.

There are three categories your job offer can fall under to qualify for a work visa:

  • Your job is on the Long Term Skills Shortage list, which is regularly updated.
  • Your potential employer has been accredited to recruit workers from overseas.
  • You have a recognized talent in the arts, culture, or sports (e.g., coming to New Zealand to star in a film or play for a professional sports team).

If you have come to New Zealand on a tourist visa and want to apply for a work visa while you are in the country, you are permitted to do so. But having an application in process doesn’t automatically extend your stay, so be sure to apply for a tourist visa extension before yours expires or be prepared to leave the country until your work permit is granted.

New Zealand resident visa stamp. Photo © Shujenchang (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
New Zealand resident visa stamp. Photo © Shujenchang (Own work) CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.

If you have a partner, he or she will have to apply separately for a work or visitor visa. The fact that you have been granted a work visa does not automatically permit your partner to remain in the country with you. However, once you have a visa, your partner and children should be able to apply under the Family stream, which takes into account whether you have a family connection in New Zealand who can help support you.

Temporary Work Visa

If you are not planning to make a permanent move, you can apply for a Temporary Work Visa instead of a Work to Residence Visa. Your visa will be connected with a specific type of work. It is a good option if you are coming to New Zealand for a specific event where you will be working (such as a trade show or film shoot) or you are joining a partner who is in New Zealand to study or work. If there is any chance that you’ll want to stay permanently in New Zealand, however, it’s better to try for a Work to Residence Visa so that you can transition to permanent residency more easily.

Silver Fern Visa

In 2010, Immigration New Zealand introduced a new visa category to attract young, skilled immigrants. The Silver Fern Visa allows people to enter New Zealand for nine months to search for skilled employment if they have a degree or trade qualification in their field. There is a limit of 300 places per year. To be eligible for the visa, you must currently live outside of New Zealand, be aged 20-35, and have at least $4,200 to support yourself during your stay. Once you find a job, you can secure a visa for two years under this policy.

Long-Term Business Visa

If you are planning to start your own business when you move to New Zealand, you’ll need to apply for a Long-Term Business Visa, also known as an Entrepreneur Visa. This visa allows you to be self-employed for up to three years to establish your business. First, if you have a good business plan, have at least $100,000 to invest in your business, and meet the health and character requirements, you will be granted a work permit for 12 months. This will allow you to get your business set up and running before you apply for the long-term visa. If you can show that your business is established and viable, you should be granted the Long-Term Business Visa for two additional years. You’ll need to show proof of your business, audited accounts, GST (goods and services tax) records, and other business documents. Your Long-Term Business Visa can be used as a step toward gaining residency under the Entrepreneur category. You can apply for residency as an entrepreneur after two years of successfully running your business or after six months if you have invested at least $500,000 into the business.

Renewing Your Visa

If you have been in New Zealand on a work visa for two years and wish to stay longer, you have two options: You can apply for permanent residency or for an extension of your work visa. Either way, you will need to begin this process well before your original visa expires so that your new visa or permit has time to be approved before you find yourself in the country illegally.


Excerpted From the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad New Zealand.

Discover Sayulita and the Riviera Nayarit

Once upon a time, not so many people made the effort to see what lies north of Puerto Vallarta along the beautiful and verdant Nayarit Coast. This has changed of late, however, as the “Riviera Nayarit” has emerged as a major tourist destination in Mexico.

Riviera Nayarit runs from modern, upscale Nuevo Vallarta north along the coast to the port city of San Blas, but for our purposes, we’ll start just north of Punta Mita along the coast, at Sayulita. The beauty of coastal Nayarit—lush mountain and shoreline forests, orchard-swathed plains, and curving yellow strands of sand—is largely natural. Dotted along in coves and sheltered bays are the hidden beach towns, some lively and thriving, others tranquil and serene. Sayulita, San Francisco, Lo de Marcos, Rincón de Guayabitos, Chacala, and San Blas—each of these towns is distinct and offers different types of lodging, dining, and recreational opportunities. Whether you are looking for a quiet respite from the crowded streets and beaches of Puerto Vallarta or a nonstop beach party with hundreds of potential new friends, there’s a place for you just a couple of hours away.

View of Sayulita and the bay from a house on Nanzal Hill. Photo © Justin Henderson.
View of Sayulita and the bay from a house on Nanzal Hill. Photo © Justin Henderson.

The first stop along the coast is Sayulita, once mostly the home of fishing families, coconut and mango farmers, and oyster divers. You can get to Sayulita directly from Punta Mita by the former “back” road, now rebuilt after the flood of 2010, which took out major sections of the road, and an easy-cruising two-lane blacktop. Or stick to Highway 200, also nicely refinished in 2012. You can’t miss the Sayulita turnoff from Highway 200, as many used to do; there is a giant Pemex gas station complete with an Oxxo store at the junction. Both are more pervasive than Starbucks or McDonald’s are in the United States, and far more garishly painted and lit.

Sayulita is now home to a decent-size group of primarily American and Canadian part-time expats—these are the people who own the houses on the hills—and also hosts a large seasonal migration of surfers, stand-up paddleboarders, vagabonds from the wilds of Europe and beyond, Mexican hippies, and a mixed bag of offbeat characters. During Semana Santa, Easter Week, Mexico’s biggest holiday, it seems half the student body of the University of Guadalajara comes down to camp on the Sayulita beach and party all night long. The Sayuleros, Mexicans and norteamericanos alike pack up and leave or batten down their hatches and stay while the town goes wild. It’s kind of fun to watch once or twice.

While the general feel is that of a fun and funky beach town, a bohemia with waves, Sayulita has managed to go upscale at the same time. There are gourmet restaurants, high-end boutiques for clothing and jewelry, and plenty of people with serious money—the hills are more than dotted with trophy second homes for a few hundred wealthy norteamericanos. But there are also hand-to-mouth hippies, craftspeople, low-rent surfers, mystics, lunatics, and all manner of strange characters.

Surfers in action at Sayulita beach. Photo © Justin Henderson.
Surfers in action at Sayulita beach. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Along with its natural beauty—an archetypal vision of a colorful, tranquil beach town on a perfect little bay—one of the things that makes Sayulita such a magical, welcoming, and unusual place is the mix. There’s space for everybody, and as long as you mind your own business and do no harm, nobody really cares what you do. The most aggressive people in town are a few of the local surfers, some of whom seem seriously annoyed that all these people have arrived in town to “steal” their waves. Purist tourists will complain that there are too many gringos, that it isn’t “Mexican” enough, that everybody speaks English, and so on—and they’re right. But that doesn’t diminish Sayulita’s charm.

A few miles farther north, San Francisco (locally called San Pancho) still retains its sleepy beach-village ambience, but it is also home to an established community of well-to-do North American vacationers and retirees, old hippies and old money comfortably intermingled. Nestled between the sidewalk restaurants and Internet cafés are art galleries, upscale boutiques, and international restaurants. If Sayulita is Greenwich Village, San Pancho is Greenwich, Connecticut. A gorgeous golf course and a working polo field where professional matches take place serve to further enhance the monied ambience. In San Pancho, they welcome a little bit of the Sayulita hippie vibe, but they would rather it leaves by sundown.

Beach and estuary in San Francisco, also known as San Pancho. Photo © Justin Henderson.
Beach and estuary in San Francisco, also known as San Pancho. Photo © Justin Henderson.

The magnet of Lo de Marcos is its wide, family-friendly beach, sheltered by headlands on both sides and bordered by a sprinkling of beach bungalows and palm-shaded RV parks and campgrounds. The same is true of Rincón de Guayabitos, but even more so. It’s the hands-down favorite resort with Mexican families of the entire Nayarit Coast, largely for its many budget but comfortable housekeeping bungalows and tranquil, kid-friendly waves. A battalion of North American winter RV retirees have picked up the same message and stay the winter, fishing, barbecuing, and playing cards with fellow longtime returnees.

The beach list goes on: lovely Playa Chacala, with its creamy half-moon beach, regal palm grove, homey local lodgings, gated and upscale new private development, nearby classic surfing wave, and a pair of rustic-chic hotel-spas; and farther north, the broad Bay of Matanchén, with its beachfront hotels, trailer parks, waterfall hikes, crocodile farm, and occasional world-class surfing around the north end of the bay at Stoner’s Point.

The ruins of an 18th-century church lie atop the hill in San Blas. Photo © Justin Henderson.
The ruins of an 18th-century church lie atop the hill in San Blas. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Next comes San Blas, rich in history revealed in its ancient hilltop fortress and its restored customs house and museum downtown. In the present, San Blas has become a jumping-off point for natural adventures. These include forest boat tours through its orchid-festooned, wildlife-rich mangrove wetland; an excursion to offshore marinelife sanctuary Isla Isabel; and an overnight in Mexcaltitán. The “Venice of Mexico,” it’s the ancestral island home of the Aztec people, who wandered east from Mexcaltitán around AD 1100 and within 400 years had built one of the world’s great cities and conquered Mexico.


Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Puerto Vallarta.

Shopping in Guatemala City

You can find almost anything you might possibly want or need in Guatemala City. In addition to many modern shopping malls stocked with the latest fashions and electronics, there are a number of department stores for household appliances and cosmetics. For grocery shopping, the local giant is Paiz, which was recently taken over by WalMart. La Torre is also a well-stocked local grocery chain. U.S.-style warehouse shopping is available at PriceSmart or at a number of local chains. Guatemalans love U.S.-made goods, which is easy to see given their wide availability. For organic grocery shopping and natural foods, head to Orgánica (Diagonal 6 16-23 Zona 10, tel. 2363-1819, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat., and Km. 15.5 Carretera a El Salvador, Condado Concepción Fase 1 Local #21, tel. 6634-7077, 9am-6pm Mon.-Sat.).

Aerial shot of Guatemala City. Photo © Al Argueta.
Aerial shot of Guatemala City. Photo © Al Argueta.

Handicrafts

You can shop the jam-packed stalls in downtown Guatemala City’s Mercado Central (8a Avenida and 6a Calle, 6am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-noon Sun.) for textiles, típica clothing, and leather goods. A safer and more enjoyable option can be found near the airport and Zona 13 museums at the open-air Mercado de Artesanías (Boulevard Juan Pablo II, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-1pm Sun.), with a fairly wide assortment of handicrafts and tourist souvenirs.

Recommended retailers include Lin Canola (5a Calle 9-60 Zona 1, tel. 2232-0858, 9am-6pm Mon.-Fri.), where the assortment varies from home decorative items to jewelry and everything between. This store is especially recommended if you want to buy Guatemalan fabrics by the yard. Its Zona 10 location, In Nola (18 Calle 21-31 Zona 10, Boulevard Los Próceres, tel. 2367-2424, 8:30am-6:30pm Mon.-Fri. and 8:30am-1:30pm Sat.), is more modern and contains much the same in a better part of town.

Selling fashionable adaptations on traditional designs for the home, Textura (Diagonal 6, 13-63 Zona 10, tel. 2367-2098, 9:30am-7pm Mon.-Fri.., 9:30am-2:30pm Sat.) is especially recommended for its beautiful and colorful hammocks.

Guatemalan <em>huipiles</em> are common handicrafts that are often hung in houses and hotels as decor. Photo © Al Argueta.
Guatemalan huipiles are common handicrafts that are often hung in houses and hotels as decor. Photo © Al Argueta.

Art Galleries

If you want to take in the work of local artists, head to Guatemala’s oldest art gallery, Galería El Túnel (16 Calle 1-01 Zona 10, Plaza Obelisco, tel. 2367-3284), featuring the work of more than 100 artists. Another good art gallery worth checking out is el attico (4a Avenida 15-45 Zona 14, tel. 2368-0853). Fundación Rozas Botrán (16 Calle 4-66 Zona 14, tel. 2366-7064) has rotating painting, sculpture, and photography exhibits in its spacious gallery.

Books

For a great atmosphere for unwinding with a cup of coffee or tea and a large selection of books (though mostly in Spanish), try Sophos (Plaza Fontabella, 4a Ave. 12-59 Zona 10, tel. 2419-7070, 9am-8pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun.). Also with plenty of books in Spanish is Artemis Edinter with several locations including Galerías Miraflores, Pradera Concepción, and Oakland Mall.

A number of bookstores cater to the expat community, stocking a variety of English-language books on their shelves. Vista Hermosa Book Shop (2a Calle 18-50, Vista Hermosa II, Zona 15, tel. 2369-1003, 9am-1pm and 2pm-6pm Mon.-Sat.) has books in English and Spanish and is in a quiet residential sector east of Zona 10.

Outdoor Gear

For anything you may have neglected to bring for your outdoor Guatemala adventures, head to Big Mountain (Centro Comercial Miraflores, 2do nivel, Kiosko K-96, tel. 2474-8547, 9am-8pm Mon.-Sun.), offering a good assortment of hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and camping gear, and name-brand outdoor clothing.

Another option for outdoor gear is The North Face (2nd floor of the Oakland Mall, Diagonal 6, 13-01 Zona 10, tel. 2336-6881, 10am-8pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat., 10am-7pm Sun.). There’s also now a location at the Galerías Miraflores shopping mall.


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Nicaragua’s Reptiles, Insects, and Amphibians

Part of a biological corridor that for millions of years has allowed plant and animal species from two continents to mingle, Nicaragua boasts an extraordinary blend of flora and fauna. Here’s a look at the reptiles, amphibians, and insects you’ll find here.

Reptiles in Nicaragua

Of the 172 reptile species in Nicaragua, nearly half are North American, found in Nicaragua at the southern limit of their habitat. Fifteen species are found only in Central America and another five are endemic to Nicaragua.

You’ll see a lot of the common Asian House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) on walls and windows, especially around lights, where they wait to catch bugs. They’re often referred to as perrozompopos, especially in Managua.

[pullquote align=right]Two beaches, Chacocente and La Flor on the Pacific coast, are the nesting grounds of the Paslama turtle and experience massive annual egg-laying events.[/pullquote]Nicaragua’s several species of marine turtles are all in danger of extinction. The Paslama turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) in the Pacific and the Carey turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in the Atlantic are protected, and much effort has gone into setting aside habitat for them. However, the struggle against those who’d like to harvest their eggs, meat, and shells is fierce. There are approximately 20 beaches in the Pacific whose conditions permit the nesting of these turtle species, most of which play host to only occasional nesting events. But two beaches, Chacocente and La Flor on the Pacific coast, are the nesting grounds of the Paslama turtle and experience massive annual egg-laying events between July and January (primarily during the first and third quarters of the moon). In them, 57,000 and 100,000 turtles crawl up on the moist sand at night to lay eggs. Only 1 out of 100 hatchlings makes it to adulthood. Armed guards on these beaches try to make sure the youngsters make it to the sea instead of the soup.

Caimans are plentiful along the river in Nicaragua. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.
Caimans are plentiful along the river in Nicaragua. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

Alligators, crocodiles (Crocodilus acutus), caimans (Caiman crocodilus), and the Ñoca turtle (Trachemys scripta) are frequently seen along the Río San Juan and some larger rivers of Jinotega. The garrobo is a bush lizard the size of a small house cat you’re more likely to see suspended by its tail on the side of the road than in the wild. Poor campesino children hunt and sell them to passing motorists who make an aphrodisiac soup from the meat. Similarly, the cusuco (Dasypus novemincinctus) is a type of armadillo with plated sides and sharp-clawed feet, commonly found in drier areas of the countryside.

Insects in Nicaragua

Each of Nicaragua’s different ecosystems has a distinct insect population. Estimates of the total number of species reach as high as 250,000, only 1 percent of which have been identified. Notable species to seek out are several gigantic species of beetles, including Dynastes hercules (found in cloud forests); several species of brilliant green and golden Plusiotis (found in Cerro Saslaya and Cerro Kilambé); the iridescent blue butterfly Morpho peleides, common all over the country, and its less common cousin, M. amathonte, found at altitudes of 300-700 meters, especially in the forests of Bosawás. Nocturnal moths like the Rothschildia, Eacles, and others are common. There is an increasing number of mariposarios (butterfly farms) in Nicaragua, notably in Los Guatuzos, Papaturro, El Castillo (Río San Juan), and San Ramón (Matagalpa).

Nicaraguan frog. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.
Nicaragua boasts 64 known species of amphibians. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

Amphibians in Nicaragua

Sixty-four known species of amphibians, four of which are endemic, live in Nicaragua’s humid forests and riversides. They include the Mombacho salamander (Bolitoglossa mombachoensis), the miadis frog, the Cerro Saslaya frog (Plectrohyla sp.), and the Saslaya salamander (Nolitron sp.).


Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.

Traditional Food in the Yucatán

Like many regions of Mexico, the Yucatán Peninsula has a cuisine all its own. The base is recognizably Mexican, but the dishes here are strongly influenced by traditional Maya ingredients and techniques, with dashes of Caribbean and Middle Eastern flavors. Some popular menu items include:

Cochinita Pibil is a traditional dish of slow-roasted pork. Photo © Alexander Mychko/123rf.
Cochinita Pibil is a traditional dish of slow-roasted pork. Photo © Alexander Mychko/123rf.
  • Cochinita Pibil: pork that has been marinated in achiote, Seville orange juice, peppercorn, garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper, wrapped in banana leaves, and baked. It’s typically served on weekends.
  • Dzoto-bichay: tamales made of chaya (a leafy vegetable similar to spinach) and eggs. It comes smothered in tomato sauce.
  • Empanizado: slices of pork or chicken that has been breaded and fried, often served with salad, rice, and beans.
  • Panucho: handmade tortilla stuffed with refried beans and covered with shredded turkey, pickled onion, and slices of avocado. Like a salbute plus!
  • Panucho. Photo © javiercorrea15/123rf.
    Panucho. Photo © javiercorrea15/123rf.
  • Papadzules: hard-boiled eggs chopped and rolled into a corn tortilla, smothered in a creamy pumpkin-seed sauce.
  • Poc-Chuc: slices of pork that have been marinated in Seville orange juice and coated with a tangy sauce. Pickled onions are added on the side.
  • Poc-chuc.
    Poc-chuc. Photo © jenniferwoodardmaderazo, licensed Creative Commons usage.
  • Salbute: handmade tortilla covered with shredded turkey, pickled onion, and slices of avocado.
  • Sopa de Lima: turkey-stock soup prepared with shredded turkey or chicken, fried tortilla strips, and juice from lima, a lime-like citrus fruit.

You can find Yucatecan dishes just about anywhere, from hole-in-the-wall taco joints to gourmet restaurants—discovering them is half the fun! But for a sure bet, check out La Habichuela Sunset (Zona Hotelera Cancún), Quesadillas Tierra del Sol (Downtown Cancún), Jardín Maya (Isla Mujeres), La Candela (Isla Cozumel), Restaurante Las Mestizas (Pisté), and Taberna de los Frailes (Valladolid).


Excerpted from the Twelfth Edition of Moon Cancún & Cozumel.

Culebra’s Beaches: Diving, Snorkeling, and Kayaking

Once you see Culebra’s craggy coastline of hidden coves, private beaches, coral outcroppings, and cays, it’s easy to imagine why pirates liked to hide out here. Playa Flamenco is the island’s most celebrated beach, and rightly so. But there are many less populated and more remote beaches to be found for those willing to hike in.

[pullquote align=right]Once you see Culebra’s craggy coastline of hidden coves, private beaches, coral outcroppings, and cays, it’s easy to imagine why pirates liked to hide out here.[/pullquote]If Playa Flamenco is too crowded, take a 20-minute hike over the ridge and bypass the first small beach you encounter to reach the more private Playa Carlos Rosario, a pleasant, narrow beach flanked by coral reef and boulders. It offers excellent snorkeling around the long, vibrant stretch of coral reef not too far offshore. Other great snorkeling and diving beaches are Punta Soldado (south of Dewey, at the end of Calle Fulladoza), which also has beautiful coral reefs; Playa Melones, a rocky beach and subtropical forest within walking distance of Dewey; and Playa Tamarindo, where you’ll find a diversity of soft corals and sea anemones.

Excellent deserted beaches can also be found on two of Culebra’s cays—Cayo Luis Peña and Culebrita, which is distinguished by a lovely but crumbling abandoned lighthouse and several tidal pools. To gain access, it is necessary to either rent a boat or arrange a water taxi. And be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and other provisions; there are no facilities or services on the islands.

Playa Zoni in Culebra. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
Playa Zoni in Culebra. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

At the far eastern side of the island at the end of Carretera 250 is Playa Zoni, which features a frequently deserted sandy beach and great views of Culebrita, Cayo Norte, and St. Thomas.

Playa Brava has the biggest surf on the island, but it requires a bit of a hike to get there. To reach the trailhead, travel east on Carretera 250 and turn left after the cemetery, and then hike downhill and fork to the left. Note that Playa Brava is a turtle-nesting site, so it may be off-limits during nesting season from April to June.

Like Playa Brava, Playa Resaca is an important nesting site for sea turtles, but it is ill-suited for swimming because of the coral reef along the beach. The hike to Playa Resaca is fairly arduous, but it traverses a fascinating topography through a mangrove and boulder forest. To get there, turn on the road just east of the airport off Carretera 250, drive to the end, and hike the rest of the way in.

Playa Flamenco

Playa Flamenco in Culebra. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
Playa Flamenco in Culebra. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

Named one of “America’s Best Beaches” by the Travel Channel, Playa Flamenco (north on Carr. 251 at dead-end) is one of the main reasons people come to Culebra. It’s a wide, mile-long, horseshoe-shaped beach with calm, shallow waters and fine white sand. The island’s only publicly maintained beach, it has bathroom facilities, picnic tables, lounge-chair and umbrella rentals, and a camping area. You can buy sandwiches and alcoholic beverages at Coconuts Beach Grill in front of Culebra Beach Villa, as well as from vendors who set up grills and blenders in the ample parking lot. An abandoned, graffiti-covered tank remains as a reminder of the Navy’s presence. It can get crowded on summer weekends and holidays—especially Easter and Christmas.

Diving

Culebra more than makes up for its dearth of entertainment options with a wealth of diving opportunities. There are reportedly 50 dive sites surrounding the island. They’re mostly along the island’s fringe reefs and around the cays. In addition to huge diverse coral formations, divers commonly spot sea turtles, stingrays, puffer fish, angel fish, nurse sharks, and more.

Among the most popular dive sites are Carlos Rosario (Impact), which features a long, healthy coral reef teeming with sea life, including huge sea fans, and Shipwreck, the site of The Wit Power, a tugboat sunk in 1984. Here you can play out your Titanic fantasies and witness how the sea has claimed the boat for its habitat.

Dendrogira coral is one type that can be found in the waters of Culebra. Photo © Ricardo Colaan/123rf.
Dendrogira coral is one type that can be found in the waters of Culebra. Photo © Ricardo Colaan/123rf.

Many of the best dive sites are around Culebra’s many cays. Cayo Agua Rock is a single, 45-foot-tall rock surrounded by sand and has been known to attract barracudas, nurse sharks, and sea turtles. Cayo Ballena provides a 120-foot wall dive with spectacular coral. Cayo Raton is said to attract an inordinate number and variety of fish. And Cayo Yerba features an underwater arch covered in yellow cup coral, best seen at night when they “bloom,” and a good chance to see stingrays.

The island’s sole diving and snorkeling source, Culebra Divers (across from the ferry terminal in Dewey, 787/742-0803), offers daily snorkeling trips for $60. One-tank dives are $85, and two-tank dives are $125, including tanks and weights. Snorkeling and dive gear is available for rent. It’s also a good place to go for advice on snorkeling from the beach.

Kayaking and Snorkeling

Aquafari Culebra (787/245-4545) offers a kayaking and snorkeling tour of Culebra for $55-75 per person, including ferry fare from Fajardo. Culebra Island Adventures (Wed.-Sun.) leads kayak and snorkel tours of Culebra for $75 per person. Ferry and air packages from Fajardo, Ceiba, and San Juan’s Isla Grande airport are available. Turtles tours are $29.

Seabreeze Culebra Water Sports (Carr. 250, km 1.8, 855/285-3272) rents kayaks ($25-35 an hour), stand-up paddleboards ($25), a Sunfish sailboat ($65 an hour), and an inflatable mini powerboat ($125 an hour). Daylong sailing, snorkeling, and hiking tours run $125 per person.

Day & Night Boat Tours (787/435-4498) offers daylong snorkeling trips to Culebrita for $75 per person, including drinks, snacks, and gear. Custom fishing, snorkeling, and sightseeing tours can be arranged.

Culebra Bike Shop & Kayak Culebra (Hotel Kokomo on the Ferry Dock, 787/742-0589, daily 9am-6pm) rents kayaks for $50 a day.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.

Pollo Campero: Guatemala’s Cult of Fried Chicken

Pollo Campero.
Pollo Campero. Photo © Jerry Huddleston, licensed Creative Commons usage.

If like most people traveling home from Guatemala you fly out on a commercial airline, don’t be surprised by the distinct smell of fried chicken onboard your aircraft. One look at the overhead bins will quickly reveal that they are crammed tight with boxes of fried chicken. Meet Pollo Campero, which along with coffee and bananas, may be one of Guatemala’s main exports.

[pullquote align=right]Many travelers take a box home for homesick relatives craving a taste of the land they left behind.[/pullquote]Guatemalans have always had an affinity for the stuff. It’s actually quite good, though I’ve never taken it along as a carry-on. Many travelers take a box home for homesick relatives craving a taste of the land they left behind. Although Pollo Campero has opened up shop in recent years in several U.S. cities, expatriate Guatemalans still make a point of stopping at the store in La Aurora Airport to pick up a box. To illustrate the utter hold it has on the Guatemalan masses, the airport shop operated out of a streetside trailer during the airport’s recent renovation at a time when all other businesses were simply closed.

You may be asked by U.S. Customs if you’re carrying food, and this question might specifically address your smuggling of Pollo Campero. Rest assured, customs officials are happy to let the cooked chicken cross the American threshold after applying the requisite X-rays. Some Newark Airport customs officers even claim to have the uncanny ability to distinguish chicken from a Guatemalan Pollo Campero versus that of a San Salvador outlet, though I’ve never taken them up on offers to verify their claims.

Pollo Campero is becoming more than just a Guatemalan phenomenon, however. An aggressive company expansion includes the opening of numerous new locations throughout North America, Europe, and even Asia in the coming years. In 2007, Campero opened outlets in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Shanghai, China, with ambitious goals to open 500 more restaurants in China by 2012. Campero already operates 220 restaurants in 10 countries, including 38 in the United States. It employs more than 7,000 people and is the largest fast-food chain in Latin America. With such aggressive expansion plans, Pollo Campero may be headed for a location near you, and I don’t mean seat 25F.


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Tips on Renting in Paris

Renting has its advantages over buying, the most obvious being a much lighter initial investment. For the French, housing laws that favor the tenant over the landlord make renting a safe and secure option. Even if you don’t pay your rent, a landlord can’t give you the heave-ho in the thick of winter, for instance. But as a foreigner entering the rental market, you won’t necessarily have all the same advantages extended to you—one reason why French homeowners seek out foreign tenants.

[pullquote align=right]“Furnished” is a loose term that can mean anything from a bare room save a single chair or bed to a decked-out space with all the mod cons in place.[/pullquote]Paris rental laws are particularly strict, and it’s technically illegal for owners to rent to anyone—foreign or not—for periods of less than one year. To do so legally would require owners to change the status of their property from private to commercial, and securing the coveted commercial status is next to impossible. Theoretically, the law was intended to ease Paris’s shortage of affordable housing; you’ll often hear the story of the lifelong Parisian sent packing to the suburbs because he can no longer afford the city’s astronomical rents. The law is easy to skirt, however, as evidenced by the number of ads offering short-term “furnished” accommodations. “Furnished” is a loose term that can mean anything from a bare room save a single chair or bed to a decked-out space with all the mod cons in place: microwave, television, sofa, etc. Short-term rentals bring in far more income for owners than long-term rentals, so flying under the radar and hoping not to get caught is a risk many landlords are willing to take.

Typical Parisian apartment buildings with iron balconies.
Typical Parisian apartment buildings with iron balconies. Photo © tupungato/123rf.

French bureaucracy doesn’t end at the front door of your new house or apartment, which can make finding a place to live a challenge, particularly if you are short on time or funds. If possible, rent a short-term place for a month while you look for your permanent housing, which will buy you enough time to find something that will feel like a true home and not force you into something less—or more—than you’d hoped for. You can find more affordable options for short-term and long-term rentals on Craigslist and FUSAC.

More expensive possibilities are also available via dozens of short-term rental agencies (again, check out the FUSAC magazine online), but they will charge higher rents and also include a supplemental fee for finding you a place to live that could either be a percentage of the overall rental period or the equivalent of one month’s rent. If you want to avoid the hassles of combing the want ads altogether, this is a viable option even for the long term, but note that nearly all rentals will come in varying degrees of “furnished.” So if you’re expecting a cargo container to arrive with all of your belongings, you’ll need to make sure you have the room for it or risk paying hefty storage fees.

You’ll be needing a dossier to rent a house or apartment from either an agency or a private party. Your dossier should contain the following:

  • copies of your passport
  • your last three bank statements
  • your last three pay stubs (French or otherwise)
  • proof of insurance (if you have it)
  • an attestation from a garant or cautionnaire saying you’ll be covered if you can’t pay your rent
  • personal letters of recommendation (translated into French, if possible)

Without these, it’s unlikely you’ll find any standard real-estate agency that will rent to you long-term. Even familiar North America-based companies like Century 21 have rigid policies that will exclude you based on missing documents in your dossier. The tricky part is that this rule doesn’t always hold. If you have time and tenacity, 1 out of 20 agencies you visit or speak with by phone (or email) might be willing to look the other way on missing documents if they like you, or more likely, like your bank statement. If you make a breakthrough and actually get someone to show you an apartment (be forewarned that some agents won’t even consider showing you a place until they’ve seen your paperwork), and you fall in love with the place, work those negotiating skills and see what happens. Some expats have reported that homemade brownies work as a form of bribery, but simply being personable and connecting genuinely with the person you’re hoping to impress is probably the best route to take. Their bottom line is, “Will she be able to pay the rent?” If you can convey a sense of trust and reliability, you’re halfway there.

Classified Information

Scouring the want ads for the perfect place to call home can be a fun pastime that helps you better imagine yourself living your French dream. If your language skills aren’t up to snuff, though, it can become frustrating drudgery. Don’t know your cuisine from your cave? Bone up on the essential real-estate lingo before you hit the immobilier (real-estate agency) to know exactly what you’ll be investing those hard-earned euros in.

Apartment blueprints in French.
Knowing the essential real-estate vocabulary will help in your housing hunt. Photo © Franck Boston/123rf.
  • à louer/location for rent
  • ascenseur elevator
  • à vendre for sale
  • bail à ceder for lease
  • cave cellar
  • chambre room, usually referring to a bedroom or main room in a studio
  • charges supplemental charges for water, garbage, maintenance, and sometimes electricity
  • chauffage heating
  • colocation shared rental unit
  • couloir hallway
  • cuisine kitchen
  • dépot de garantie security deposit
  • 2ème étage second floor
  • deux pièces standard one-bedroom
  • disponible available
  • équipée furnished (usually describes a kitchen with refrigerator and stove)
  • escalier staircase
  • gardien(ne) onsite manager
  • honoraire finder’s fee to the real estate agency
  • hors charges not including charges
  • immeuble building
  • immeuble ancien/neuf old/new building
  • jardin garden
  • loué already rented
  • meublée furnished
  • mezzanine elevated area, often a DIY loft space for sleeping that frees up floor space
  • pièce room
  • une pièce/studio studio
  • pierre/pierre de taille stone
  • placard closet
  • rénové renovated
  • rez de chaussée ground floor
  • salle d’eau washroom
  • salle de bain bathroom with tub or shower
  • sans vis à vis an unobstructed view
  • séjour living room
  • toilette toilet
  • T1/T2 – studio/one-bedroom apartment
  • tout compris, cc, or ttc – all-inclusive
  • vendeur/vendeuse seller
  • vendu already sold
  • vide empty

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad Paris.

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