11 Days in Havana

11 Days in Havana

Author: John McBay
Date of Trip: December 2016


Havana is a BIG city with over two million people, 30 miles from east to west and 13 miles north to south. But, most of the interesting stuff is in the area to the west of Havana harbor for 10 miles or so and within a mile or so of the coast.

Havana Vieja. By far, the most interesting part of Havana is Havana Vieja (Old Havana – the historic district). Less than one mile north to south and east to west. Vieja extends from Havana harbor to Paseo de Marti (Prado). This whole area is walkable and contains many of the most historic and interesting sights in Havana. The streets are narrow and much of the architecture is from the 19th century and earlier. If you have limited time in Havana, make sure to explore this part of Havana.

Centro. The district (neighborhood) to the west of Vieja is Centro. There are few reasons to visit Centro except by cab to visit a particular attraction, such as a restaurant or the Partagas cigar factory (worth the trip). See the finest cigars in the world rolled by hand.

Vedado. The district to the west of Centro is Vedado. This area contains many beautiful (and sometimes crumbling) houses and embassies. Portions reminded us of Ardsley Park in Savannah. Cementario Colon is an amazing cemetery. All travel here will have to be by cab.

Miramar. Continuing west, Miramar is notable for The Marina Hemingway, Club Habana (formerly the Biltmore Yacht Club) and Fusterlandia (a small town – Jaimanitas – and art studio covered in mosaic tile by Jose Fuster, a disciple of Gaudi). There are also sections of Miramar that have beautiful houses. All travel here will have to be by cab. These attractions are all about 10 miles west of Vieja.


You can’t use American bank issued credit or debit cards in Cuba because of the American trade embargo.

All transactions by tourists in Cuba are in Cuban pesos (CUC$). In this document any references to $ will be referring to CUC$. Ie 10$ = 10 CUC$ = 10 pesos. Cubans will usually refer to the currency amount as pesos.

A Cuban $ is approximately equal to a US dollar, depending on the current conversion rates (December 2016).
You obtain CUC’s by converting some other currency to CUC$ in Cuba. You can not obtain Cuban currency in the US.

If you take American dollars to Cuba and convert them, you lose more than 10% on the transaction. This is a “tax” that the Cuban government imposes on the conversion of US dollars.

You are better off buying Euros in the US and then converting them in Cuba to Cuban currency. In the long run you will save several percent over converting from dollars into CUC$.

Shop around and try to get the most favorable rate. Currency exchange is a crazy business. Exchange rates are all over the place. First try your local bank and see if they can get Euros for you. Triple A (AAA) can also obtain Euros.

To give you an idea of the crazy world of currency conversion; when we returned from Cuba we brought back 610 Euros that I wanted converted back to dollars. I called a popular currency exchange. They would give me $547. I went to a Chase bank and they gave me $595. That’s a 10% difference.

When you arrive in Cuba with Euros, the best place to convert them is at a bank. As of early December 2016, I was able to get about 103 CUC$ for 100 Euros in a bank.

I only used a currency exchange once while we were in Havana and that was at the airport. I only exchanged enough Euros to pay the taxi and have enough left over for dinner. I am not sure how good the exchange rate was.

Hotels will change Euros for you but it will cost you 5+% more than the official exchange rate.

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Hiking Diamond Head

Hiking Diamond Head

Author: Jill Weinlein (More Trip Reviews by Jill Weinlein)
Date of Trip: February 2017

When vacationing on Oahu, part of the Hawaiian Island chain, one of the most photogenic spots in Waikiki Beach is Diamond Head. The sun drums up the energy to rise above the dormant volcano and illuminate Waikiki Beach in the morning.
The Hawaiian name of this volcano is Le’ahi, because the summit resembles the forehead of an ahi fish.
On our last visit, we stayed at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Hotel and took the hotel’s complimentary Waikiki Connection Trolley to the base of the mountain to hike to the top. It’s a good morning activity for individuals, couples and families, before the sun heats up the two mile hike inside the volcanic crater.
In the late 1700s, Western explorers and traders believed the calcite crystals on the slope of the craters were diamonds. Soon the name Diamond Head became the common name of this area.
There is a paved and dirt trail, built in 1908 as part of the U.S. Army Coastal Artillery defense system. Historically, this coastal defense area was built to defend the island of Oahu from attack, however no artillery was ever fired during a war.
For a $1 admission fee, visitors and locals (wear tennis or hiking shoes to maneuver the many rocks, steep inclines, stairs and switchbacks) walk from an elevation of 200 feet to 761 feet.
Diamond Head is a semi-arid climate. Most of the plants and animals today were introduced in the 1800s. The Kiawe (in the mesquite family) grows in the shallow soil. Near the trees are birds that include cardinals, morning doves and sparrows.
Starting up the switchback trail, the army left a concrete landing with a rusted winch and cable that was used to lift materials from the crater floor. This is a good water break area offering incredible East views of the area. Continuing along is a steep stairway, with about 74 steps leading to a narrow tunnel. This tunnel is lit dimly and about 225 feet long. After the tunnel is another stairway with 99 steps. At the top is the lowest level of a Fire Control Observation Station.
Almost at the top is a spiral three level stairway, about 52 steps. This replaced a ladder and was installed in the 1970s. Once at the top, be sure to duck, because the ceiling is quite low.
The end result is worth all the exercise with sweeping coastal views of the seven beaches along Waikiki and the Diamond Head lighthouse, built in 1917 as a visual aid for navigation. The views of beautiful reefs along the southeastern shore towards Koko Head are awe inspiring.
Along the crater rim is a Bunker built in 1915.This area is now closed, however a few visitors ignore the sign and climb over the metal fence for photo opportunities.
Walking back down can be slippery at times, so take your time. Be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen and bring at least one bottle of water. The area opens at 6 a.m. for sunrise hikes and the last time to start a hike is at 4:30 p.m.
At the bottom is a concession truck with water, juice, shaved ice and smoothies. If you hike in on a Saturday morning, catch the trolley or walk to the KCC Farmers Market at the Community College. It’s open from 7:30 to 11 a.m., serving local farm-fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and street food.

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How the Trump Administration Could Affect Travelers

With every new White House administration, and indeed with every shift in Congress, the regulations, norms and mood surrounding the travel industry shift, sometimes significantly. The new Trump administration is no different, offering potentially both good and bad news for travelers. Here’s our look at how the Trump administration could affect travelers, along with some things to monitor as policies take effect and are adjusted, new developments are announced, and future plans are revealed.

donald trump

President Trump’s January 27 executive order banning individuals from seven countries from entering the U.S. sparked public controversy and generated a fair amount of uncertainty at airports around the country. After the original ban was put on hold by the courts, the president signed a new executive order this week that revoked the old order and made the following changes, according to the Washington Post:

– The ban applies to nationals of six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) rather than seven; Iraq has been removed from the list.

– The ban blocks only the issuance of new visas rather than keeping all travelers from the affected countries from entering the U.S.

– The ban takes effect 10 days after signing rather than immediately, and does not affect legal permanent residents, dual nationals, those with existing visas and those who’ve already been granted refugee or asylum status.

This version of the ban could cause less chaos for travelers than the original executive order. The 10-day grace period between the signing and implementation of the order should allow travelers and government officials alike enough time to familiarize themselves with the restrictions. And with green card and visa holders being exempted, fewer travelers should be affected by the ban. That said, there could be disruptions at airports if the new executive order inspires more protests or if there are legal challenges to the ban.

After the signing of the original travel ban, there was some concern in the tourism industry about a drop in planned travel to the U.S. The Boston Globe reported that several online booking sites saw declines of 6 to 17 percent in searches on international flights to the U.S. after the original executive order was signed on January 27.

According to the Guardian, Kayak.com saw more than 50 percent declines in searches to Tampa, Orlando and Miami from the U.K., with searches to San Diego down 43 percent, Las Vegas 36 percent and Los Angeles 32 percent.

In the Globe report, Mike McCormick of the Global Business Travel Association said that $185 million in business travel bookings had already been lost as of February 8. For perspective, David Scowsill of the World Travel & Tourism Council noted that post-September 11 policies led to a $600 billion loss in tourism in the subsequent decade; travel to the U.S. had returned to pre-9/11 levels only just last year.

It’s not yet clear what effect, if any, the new travel ban will have on bookings.

The Wanderlust Gene: Could It Explain Your Love of Travel?

If reduced demand for U.S. flights persists, it’s possible that it could lead to a drop in flight, lodging and car rental prices for Americans traveling to domestic destinations. The Guardian article linked above notes that hotel prices are already down 39 percent in Las Vegas and 32 percent in New York City.

There may well be savings on international travel as well; the Guardian reports that Kayak is showing double-digit price drops in flights to Mexico, Rio de Janeiro, New Zealand and Singapore, as well as to several European destinations.

The administration’s broader plans could lead to other benefits for travelers. The U.S. Travel Association expressed support for President Trump’s planned large-scale infrastructure expenditure, which would improve roads, bridges and airports.

The overall effort has bipartisan backing, as displayed by legislation introduced by Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) to uncap passenger facility charges to fund airport improvements. The legislation would almost certainly increase fees paid by passengers, however.


As time passes, keep an eye on these other travel issues:

– The European Parliament voted to require visas for U.S. citizens to visit Europe, which makes for a splashy headline but so far is just a non-binding resolution. It’s part of an effort to encourage full visa waiver reciprocity between the U.S. and the European Union (citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Romania and Cyprus currently must apply for a visa in order to visit the U.S., though Americans can visit all E.U. countries visa-free). These demands started under the previous administration, but it’s unclear how President Trump will respond.

– Plans for a border tax could affect the strength of the U.S. dollar, though it’s not yet fully clear how. A stronger dollar would be welcome news for Americans traveling abroad, who would have more spending power.

– There could be changes to the recent thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba that would affect Americans’ ability to travel there. Few details are available, but the administration has said the current policy toward Cuba is under review.

– The Department of Transportation is moving toward undoing some of President Obama’s consumer protections for fliers by putting on hold the public comment process for a policy that would require more disclosure of baggage fees and delaying for a year a regulation that would oblige airlines to report mishandling of wheelchairs and motorized scooters. Given the president’s commitment to roll back regulations across various industries, these might not be the last traveler protections to come under question.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Despite considerable uncertainty, there are things you can do to protect yourself, minimize hassles and delays, and get on your way.

1. Apply for Global Entry. This trusted traveler program will get you quickly through security lines and customs checkpoints. It involves a background check, an in-person interview and a $100 nonrefundable application fee. If you’re approved, membership is good for five years.

2. Allow plenty of time at the airport. Any changes in travel restrictions — and any protests in response — could lead to confusion or holdups at the airport. Keep an eye on the local news and arrive extra-early at your airport if necessary.

3. Stay informed. It’s no one’s responsibility but yours to know whether you need a visa for your trip to Europe or if there are new restrictions that might affect your trip to Cuba. Following the news can keep you abreast of any developments — positive or negative — that might affect your trip.

4. If you have a potentially vulnerable name or ethnicity, take extra care. It is an unfortunate fact of life that folks with certain names or appearances may be more likely to face scrutiny during travel. (Note that this is not new to the current administration; I have friends with names that sound Middle Eastern who’ve faced extra airport screening for many years.) If you are among these numbers, make sure that you carry all necessary documentation and that someone at home is familiar with your travel plans.

Regardless of the changing landscape, we at IndependentTraveler.com remain committed to exploring the world, and, as always, will do our best to…

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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Retiring Abroad: A Beginner's Guide

Americans are moving and retiring abroad in record numbers; some do so to fulfill a dream of tropical or alpine ease, some to save money, some for adventure. According to USA Today, nearly 400,000 American retirees are currently living abroad, and that number is expected to rise.

retire abroad senior tropical

The attraction of retiring overseas is not limited to those approaching traditional retirement age. In fact, many eager potential transplants are younger folks looking to “retire early,” or to escape the rat race, or to live a simpler (or even identical) lifestyle in their own idea of paradise. And some folks don’t want to retire at all per se; they may want to go lead rafting tours, run a B&B or offer photography workshops in their new home.

Whichever way your pleasure tends, here is a primer on making your dream of retiring abroad a reality.

Knowing a lot about a destination may be less important than knowing a lot about yourself. Suzan Haskins, senior editor for International Living, offers the following advice.

“Profile yourself ruthlessly,” she said. “Being a tourist is far different than being a resident. So knowing what makes you comfortable personally (especially from a cultural standpoint) and what drives you crazy is important.”

Haskins offers a great example: “If you’re a big city person and love to get away from the rat race on vacation and do nothing but hang in a hammock on an undiscovered beach, you may think that’s how you want to spend your retirement. But think hard about that — can you really give up the symphony and the theater and shopping malls? You may be better suited to a larger city with proximity to the beach.”

By the time a destination hits the “Best Places to Retire” lists (the mainstream media lists, at least), many of the best properties are gone, prices are up and Amerians abound.

Showing up late to the party may not always be a bad thing, however — not everyone has the fortitude to be among the first expats in a new location, and to have had some folks clear the logistical brush can be a tremendous help.

Whether leading or following, you will want to do a heap of research, especially on the more mundane aspects of everyday life.

“You need to research everything, from the climate during various seasons, the housing options, the infrastructure (including internet reliability), to all the legalities, including visa qualifications, tax obligations, requirements for bringing your pets and duties if you bring your household goods,” Haskins says. “Most importantly, be sure you will have good access to quality health care, and know your options for health insurance.”

Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There

When I was in college, an older friend and mentor spoke frequently about retiring to the homeland of his ancestors, and worked hard to save money to be able to retire there. Upon his retirement, he and his wife were gone within a month — and were back a couple of months later.

“It was terrible,” he told me. “It was cold and wet, the people were not welcoming, it was impossible to get around, and within two weeks I wanted out.”

As we all know from our own travels, very few destinations turn out exactly as expected, and this goes 24 x 7 x 365 for a place in which you intend to spend the rest of your life. If there is any one thing you should do before pulling up roots for good, it is to take a long, uninterrupted stay in your intended location. A long vacation or even a couple of weeks won’t quite cut it; shoot for a couple of months, a season or even a year.

“We always recommend that you not buy property at first, but rent until you get some experience under your belt,” Haskins advises.

While you’re there, see what it costs to get a week’s worth of groceries, what it costs to eat out and how easy it is to get simple services like a haircut or a car service. The mundane activities you ignore on vacation can become essential when you live there.

A big part of the expat experience, especially for retirees, is figuring out recurring expenses. The exercise of putting together a budget should include everything you pay for at home, plus:

– Increased electrical costs in a hotter/colder climate

– Potentially higher gasoline costs

– Cost of internet access and high-end electronics

– Home, car and health insurance

– Cost of transport for medical care

– Whether you will maintain Medicare, which does not cover you overseas but may be useful if you need to return to the U.S. for medical treatment

– Any unusual home expenses, such as security systems, waste disposal costs, etc.

– The cost of visits back home, whether to see family or for weddings, funerals, banking or estate issues, emergencies and the like

money currency

Other money concerns might be access to stateside bank accounts, whether your pension/Social Security/other check can be sent by mail or (even better) direct deposit, if there are local bank branches to do simple banking, if there are any really onerous tax implications, if your accountant can work with you remotely and more.

While it is true you can live overseas pretty cheaply, don’t ignore startup costs, which can be formidable.

“It’s quite easy to live in many locations overseas on $2,000 a month,” Haskins says (she and her husband Dan Prescher have even written a book about it), “but there will be startup costs. In the first months, you’ll need to pay for your visas and any associated legal costs. You’ll probably have a first- and last-month rental deposit, you’ll want to buy some one-time supplies and furnishings for your rental home, and so on.”

Living Abroad: 4 Ways to Make It Happen

Expat lore is rife with folks who did not seem to fit in at their new “home” until they truly mastered the local language. Some stick it out while others are driven away, but almost everyone thinks it is important.

Beyond the language issue, you will want to investigate the local culture and norms of behavior. The differences can be quite jarring; witness Vanessa Van Doren’s list of cultural shifts she needed to adapt to upon moving from the U.S. to Germany — and then compare them to Ed Keith’s very different experience after moving from the U.K. to Spain. Germany and Spain are only about 600 miles apart, but the cultural differences will make your head spin.

“The biggest challenge/surprise is probably culture shock,” Haskins notes. “Nowhere is just like your home country. There will be different laws (or lack thereof) and different ways of doing things. You may not be able to find your favorite brand of peanut butter or scotch, and if you do, it may be crazy expensive, thanks to import tariffs. And again, the language issue: The little things you take for granted (ordering a pizza, asking the guy at the hardware store for a specific item, going to the pharmacy) can be daunting.”

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

You might think of Ecuador as a hot, balmy country, but the most popular expat roost there is Cuenca, a mountain town with temperate weather year-round with a record high temperature of 80 degrees. The rainy season features sunny mornings and rainy afternoons. Farther north, the interior of El Salvador is similar but flipped, with frost in the morning and cooking sun in the afternoon.

So while you might think of South and Central America as hot all the time, this is not always the case; be sure to do your research.

Check out the nearest medical facilities — as a rule, the farther from the major cities you get, the more dramatically the types and quality of care drop off.

If you’re approaching retirement age, you may not want to live up on a mountain or in a treehouse.

Look into pet policies, including quarantine laws and local restrictions.

Research the requirements and timeline to get a driver’s license.

Know the local home ownership and property rights laws, including whether residency/citizenship is required to own property and whether you must reside in the house for a minimum amount of time each year.

How to Blend In with the Locals: 20 Tips

Finally, Haskins says that keeping your wits about you can make all the difference.

“The only thing I would add is not to leave your brains at the border,” she says. “There is a great big, wonderful world to explore, but do that with common sense and the same kind of careful deliberation and self-preservation you would rely on at home. Don’t trust someone just because they speak your language, for example. Give relationships time to develop. Keep an open mind and enjoy the experience. This is not rocket science … there are lots of great resources to help you and expat forums (such as those at International Living) where you can get advice and suggestions.

“All these little issues will work themselves out over time, and those who have a positive attitude and approach every day as an adventure will thrive and LOVE the experience. The biggest pleasant surprise is how much you will personally grow and change over time. Living in a different culture not only broadens your horizons but [also] keeps you young, and if you let it, it can make you a better person.”

Would you consider retiring abroad?

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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8 Ways to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality

Whether it’s written down or just lurking somewhere in your subconscious, many travelers have a travel bucket list of sorts — a wish list of dream trips they absolutely must take in their lifetime. But even the most serious world travelers often find themselves taking more conventional vacations than those found on their bucket list.

hiker in canadian rockies

Maybe they go to Paris, but don’t make a side trip to the French Alps to watch the Tour de France blow by. Or they drive to Hana on Maui, but don’t climb Mauna Kea in time to see the sunrise from a dormant crater. Or they watch timelapses of the northern lights online, but never go to Iceland and stay up all night to see the real thing. So close, but so far.

If you have a travel bucket list and want to start checking things off it, here are some tactics to help you not just plan your dream trip but also make it a reality.

The most common roadblock to tackling a dream trip is that the time doesn’t seem right: Work is really intense at the moment, or you just started a home renovation, or you don’t have the energy to make it happen. Maybe next year…

These are all valid concerns, but it is critical to realize these issues will never quite go away. The truth is that what a lot of folks are looking for is not really the right time, but instead the perfect time. And that time will likely never come. Settle instead for a time that you can actually do something, even if you have to sacrifice other things. So instead of waiting for the perfect time, or even the right time, look for a possible time. And then make it happen.

Bucket List Travel: Tips, Inspiration and Ideas

Writing down your bucket list, more or less in the order in which you rank each destination, is a good way to make it just real enough that you can actually start doing something about it. Once it is written down, it is something you can use in a few different ways:

– As a guide for when you are poking around the internet, reading or goofing off. During TV commercials you can call up articles on your dream destinations instead of hitting refresh on Twitter again and again.

– To help you see if everything on the list stands up to repeated scrutiny; some items on the list might not seem as interesting after you have looked at them several times, and could fall off the list in favor of other ideas.

While you’re at it, you might also write down the reasons you can’t get started on your bucket list — all the excuses may seem like just that once they are written down. When you read “Don’t have time to plan” after spending an entire weekend binge-watching a TV series, you may realize you have more time than you thought, and at the next opportunity will put your time to work for your goals.

Sharing your bucket list with friends, family or even a dedicated site like BucketList.org can give you several things:

– Motivation: As with a lot of things, telling someone else you are going to do something often provides a bit of inspiration actually to do it. Humans are funny that way.

– A dose of reality: A bucket list is often reflective of our idealization of a place or trip, and not necessarily what it is really like to go there. When you share your list with folks who may already have bagged a few of your choices, you can get a sense of what a place is really like.

– Good and hardscrabble ideas: Putting your network of friends and family on the task of making your trip a reality offers you an instant team of schemers and thinkers who can bring any number of ideas to the table.

What’s on Your Bucket List? Readers Choose

Once you get a sense of where you might go and when you might pull it off, you will want to narrow down your choices to the trips you most want to take. Unless one destination rates well above and beyond the others, I recommend starting to research two or three of your top choices; trying to plan for 10 very different potential bucket list options is unreasonable, and picking only one could set you up for disappointment if the logistics turn out to be forbidding.

Focus first on practical things like what time of year you can get off work versus the best time of year to go there, how much time it takes really to do the destination justice and how much money you will need to pull it off.

Here’s an example: If the Galapagos Islands top your list, you will quickly face a few logistical choices. The period between December and May has the calmest seas and weather, but June through August sees more active wildlife. If those times don’t work for you, you need to know that in September (and into November) many boats are in dry dock, so your choices may be a bit more limited.

sea lion and woman in galapagos

On top of that, there are strict limits on how many people can be there at the same time, and all visitors must be accompanied by a certified guide. Clearly heading for the Galapagos is not a last-minute impulse trip, and this is the kind of information you might not know until you do some serious research into logistics.

More prosaically, you might decide that August is the best time for you to tackle some bucket list travel, but if you are headed to a part of Europe that more or less shuts down that month when everyone goes on vacation, your ideal trip filled with locals and long nights might not synch up so well with the facts on the ground.

Because you might have to go a couple of trips down your list before the logistics start lining up, research two or three to start.

IndependentTraveler.com Staff Share What’s on Their Bucket Lists

If there is something without which a trip to a specific location would not be complete, you pretty much have to do that one thing, irrespective of cost or logistics. Need to pay a guide? Sure. It requires a ride on a seaplane? Do it. Have to rent four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to a waterfall? Go for it. No one’s idea of bucket list travel includes sticking to the tourist overlooks, skipping more remote spots or driving around in a Hyundai Accent. All of this is the point of bucket list travel.

To do your dream trip right, you probably don’t want to plan a “36 Hours in…” job, charging around taking snapshots in front of all the stuff you researched. Give yourself time to let a place sink in and take on some meaning for you beyond simply checking off your list. You want this to be a truly memorable experience, not just an elaborate mileage run.

This is probably the most personal of issues, as everyone’s financial means are different and complex. The fallback “skip the latte and put the money in the bank” has become a dreaded cliche for good reason — and for most coffee drinkers, this is not a negotiable purchase anyway. If it is 1:30 p.m., you need coffee, you are not near a decent coffee maker and there is a Starbucks nearby, you are not going to choose caffeine withdrawal over saving three bucks.

The idea of saving on overpriced and non-essential purchases is the right one, but you want to take actual money and make it pile up, not just skip a coffee and hope you put that money to better use later. Here are a few tangible tactics that really work for most folks:

– Get a big container and put every spare cent (and bill) you have in it. The last time I cashed one of these in, it came to more than $1,100.

– Set up an automatic transfer into a dedicated travel banking account of X dollars per week or month, and don’t turn it off until you have enough money for your bucket list trip.

– Instead of just thinking about saving when you need coffee, set up constant reminders in your environment that will help you save money all the time. Put a picture of your chosen destination next to your home computer to keep you from spending money online, or use it as your phone screensaver. Set up a system of daily calendar or email reminders to keep you focused and on track.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

To keep your inspiration up, you can hire companies and read publications that are dedicated to helping people complete bucket list adventures. Check out the following sites:




Inertia, fear, habit, laziness, procrastination, parsimony, excuses — none of us want to be accused of these things, but often they are the very things keeping us from the trip of our dreams. We hope the outline above will help you make your dream a reality.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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3 Secrets for Traveling Like a Local

Traveling like a local sounds simple enough but can be difficult to execute; certainly most independent travelers have had trips on which, no matter how far afield they ventured, they ended up surrounded by other folks from their own country. Or perhaps they found themselves unable to discover where the “real” locals go, and ended up somewhat neither here nor there — an eternal outsider.

man in night market

How does one find the secret entrances to a truly local, indigenous experience? It turns out that there are great opportunities to travel like a local via both tour operators and self-booked avenues, and sometimes through a mix of the two.

In response to the growing demand for authentic “insider” tours that are not forced marches amidst swarms of folks from the same country, a number of tour guide services offering a more intimate and unique “guided experience” have cropped up. A couple of well-reviewed services worth checking out are ToursByLocals.com and Vayable.com. Both will take you on hikes up to volcanoes and down to waterfalls in Hawaii, on bike tours in London and much more.

Poring over the ToursByLocals site, I discovered that your guide is emphasized nearly as much as the excursion he or she will be leading. In bigger cities where numerous guides are available, you can pre-determine the spirit and emphasis of your tour by the guides’ own descriptions of their background and tour type. Prefer a taxi driver with an encyclopedic knowledge of London? Try Lee C. Prefer a “Blue Badge Tourist Guide” with an interest in history? Try Dawn B.

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals

Vayable approaches tour selection a bit differently, emphasizing the topic or sights of the tour a little more — although when you click down to a specific offering, there is a lot of information about the person who will be giving the tour and how they tend to conduct things, whether with seriousness, humor, energy, etc. Vayable’s more upscale presentation doesn’t mean they are no fun — for example, one London tour focuses on how art meets function in the form of notable loos.

Lodging site Airbnb also recently jumped into the tour space with its new Experiences product. The offerings are a bit limited so far, but they sound fascinating — think learning the art of ancient pottery in Tokyo or exploring Havana’s music scene with a local singer.

ShowAround.com is a portal where you can choose a local guide in a particular city for a certain hourly rate. Eliana, a 21-year-old hotel receptionist, will show you around Lisbon for $6/hour, while a local guy named Tom offers free tours of Sydney’s Bondi Beach area. Many of the guides on the site don’t have any reviews yet, so you might need to trust your gut a bit. We recommend sending a message to guides you’re interested in to establish whether they seem like a good fit.

VRBO, Airbnb, HomeAway and other vacation rental sites offer interesting opportunities to travel like a local, as by nature you end up staying in neighborhoods where other people actually live instead of cloistered away in hotels in commercial/tourist districts. Then again, many vacation rentals are clustered among other vacation rental houses, so you can end up in a bit of a “tourist ghetto” even when living in an ordinary rancher that no one would ever think was a tourist hangout.

The Ultimate Vacation Rental Guide

An admittedly riskier approach in terms of quality (and at times safety), joining the couchsurfing revolution is an extremely promising way to approach total immersion in a culture, as you not only hang out with locals, but you also sleep in their spare beds, on their couches, on their floors, all while they are still living there. Couchsurfing.com is the leading site for this practice, which, if the sheer abundance of options is any indication, is a huge and growing travel tactic.

A search on the site for a place to stay in Seattle, for example, brings back more than 23,000 hosts — wow.

The site also hosts local events, such as meetups in bars or restaurants. As you might expect just based on the site name, the users tend to skew young and a bit adventurous, though not weird or spooky in any way — that is, it doesn’t seem to have turned into a website for drifters. When you are talking about 23,000 options in a single town alone, stereotypes tend to falter pretty quickly.

To learn more, check out this interview with a couchsurfing host.

woman sleeping on couch

Another option is Airbnb, which we have written about in the past (see Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals and 7 Airbnb Problems and How to Solve Them). You could consider Airbnb a hybrid of a vacation rental and couchsurfing site, as the site lists both very upscale vacation homes and “sleep in someone’s spare bedroom” options.

Finally, Homestay.com lets you book a night or two in local spare bedrooms; check out our interview with the Homestay.com CEO.

10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad

Often the best way to gain access into the local culture is to invite people into your own personal cultural experience, based on your own interests and passions. This has been my go-to approach over time. Below are some examples of how I got this to work for me; all you have to do is plug in your own interests, figure out where and how to make a first contact, and you are on your way. A few have to do with my own long association with rowing, which has led me to many unique experiences.

– While trying to visit a (now defunct) rowing club in Hawaii, standing around the locked boathouse looking at outrigger canoes led to a day’s wave-riding session in outrigger canoes with a local semi-pro wave rider.

– While visiting a friend at a boathouse in Spain, I asked about local surfing, and he shouted out to some amigos that I liked to surf; within hours we were all enjoying the famous break at Mundaka.

– A small guitar stuffed into the back of a rental car in Punta Arenas, Venezuela, led to a local asking to play it, and subsequently to an invite to a massive locals-only gymnasium party.

– A fairly serious interest in photography can open heaps of doors; taking decent photos of local folks and kids and then showing them the photos has led to countless fruitful introductions for me.

– Even something as simple as taking your children to playgrounds instead of expensive theme parks can offer tremendous opportunities to meet local folks.

With all of these, the rule is that when you’re willing to show and share a little bit of yourself, of how you like to live your own life, many people become much more interested in sharing with you how they live their lives. You can’t walk around with your metaphorical arms folded and expect to be welcomed with open arms. Give a little, get a little — or sometimes a lot.

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Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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How Annual Travel Insurance Could Save You Money

For folks who travel frequently over a long period of time, no litany of travel mishaps and inconveniences can do justice to the vagaries of actual life on the road. If you aren’t getting yourself in a bit of a jam once in a while, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

Sound familiar? You might be a perfect candidate for a neglected travel product: annual travel insurance.

happy couple on beach

Not many people even know about it, but annual travel insurance is an economical, convenient and common-sense option for people who travel multiple times a year. Instead of purchasing separate policies for each trip, you purchase a single annual policy that covers any travel you do in a given year.

As you would guess, annual trip insurance is primarily useful to folks who travel a fair amount, but the threshold is lower than you might think. Most travel insurance companies say that you will start to see savings and benefits if you insure three or more trips per year.

It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling for pleasure or business; all trips are covered — although if your company is paying for the insurance, you might want to get approval to use the policy while on leisure trips.

Most travel insurance companies have tiered plans for annual insurance. In the simplest terms, here is what you will typically find:

– A basic plan that includes medical coverage and evacuation, reimbursement for expenses associated with unexpected travel delays (meals, lodging, etc.), rental car insurance and perhaps baggage coverage

– A mid-tier plan for frequent travelers that adds in a limited amount of trip cancellation and interruption coverage

– A top-end plan tailored mostly to business travelers, with the most comprehensive coverage, including high coverage limits

Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know

Even if you are a frequent traveler for whom multi-trip travel insurance seems to make sense, this outline of the pros and cons of annual travel insurance may help inform your decision.


– Convenience: Buying travel insurance is just another hassle of the trip planning process, and having to do it only once per year may appeal to many travelers.

– Consistency of coverage: Knowing you have the same coverage for all trips can make the process of buying insurance and filing claims less confusing.

– Corollary to both of the above: You only have to read the fine print once.

– For folks who often book last-minute trips, having an annual plan already in place can be helpful.

– There is typically a cost savings when purchasing annual insurance versus individual trip plans.

– Travel emergency coverage is in place even for trips for which you might not normally purchase extensive insurance.

– This is also the case with medical and dental coverage; having a year-long policy that will cover unexpected problems on all trips offers convenience and peace of mind.

– For folks who travel with a lot of stuff (laptops, phones, cameras, etc.), travel insurance adds an important layer of protection.

– Some plans may include children under 17 for free (this is often the case with single-trip insurance as well).

10 Travel Money Mistakes to Avoid


– The consistency of coverage can be a negative if your travel is varied in type and destination; your insurance needs for a weekend trip to Disney are different from those on a two-week safari, for example.

– Because costs can vary so greatly by trip, trip cancellation coverage may be limited or not included in the most economical annual plans.

– If you run into problems on more than one trip, you might start to run up against policy pay-out limits.

– A common complaint with travel insurance is that it can be difficult to know what is covered, and this remains the case with annual insurance.

– There are limits to all elements of your coverage, so if you are traveling with expensive equipment, you will want to be aware of any caps.

man holding dslr camera while traveling

Single-trip insurance typically costs anywhere from 3 to 10 percent of the upfront trip cost. Pricing varies depending on your age and where you live. As a test I used my own information and found the following: To insure a single $2,500 trip with Allianz Global Assistance, plans range from $80 for the basic plan up to $130 for the company’s top product for a single domestic trip. The range for a similarly priced international trip was $96 to $176.

The corresponding annual packages cost from $125 annually for Allianz’s basic plan (which includes no trip cancellation or interruption coverage) to $459 annually for the executive plan; the mid-tier plan was $249 a year. These numbers show that you will break even after two to three trips, depending on the level of coverage you need.

Travel Guard offers the Travel Rite Annual Plan, which priced out at $267 for a 50-year-old from New Jersey, with a coverage bundle similar to the mid-tier plan from Allianz.

Seven Corners Wander Annual plan came in at $265 per year if coverage included trips within the U.S., and $195 if not (go figure); prices went up if any of your individual trips were over 30 days. Adding family members to your primary plan was economical, with a spouse and two children costing an additional $100 total for international trips.

Not all travel insurance companies offer annual insurance, and the cost and coverage components of annual plans vary by company. Here are several companies to consider:


To compare annual plans from a number of different companies, visit Squaremouth.com.

How to Be Safe and Culturally Sensitive When You Travel

Figuring out what is actually covered in any given plan can be a challenge. It’s important to read all the fine print before purchasing any policy.

Of the sites I visited, the Allianz site had the best way to figure out the best options, with a pretty slick webpage that switches back and forth to show you benefits by plan if you click the “Benefits” radio button, and detailed descriptions of what is covered if you click the “Covered Reasons” button.

The “Covered Reasons” are quite detailed. For example, all of Allianz’s packages cover the following: “Collision with Animal: A car you’re renting is damaged due to a collision with an animal while in an accident or while it’s left unattended.”

Figuring out what is not covered can be even trickier; when researching plans, check for exclusions, which can be considerable; this is from Allianz’s “General Exclusions” on annual insurance:

“In addition to any other exclusions that may apply to a particular benefit, no coverage is provided for any loss that results directly or indirectly from any of the following unless as specifically included: all extreme, high risk sports including but not limited to: bodily contact sports; skydiving; hang gliding, bungee jumping, parachuting; mountain climbing or any other high altitude activities, caving, heli-skiing, extreme skiing, or any skiing outside marked trails; existing medical conditions; intentional self-harm, suicide or attempted suicide; pregnancy (unless unforeseen complications or problems), fertility treatments, childbirth or elective abortion; mental or nervous health disorders, (like anxiety, depression, neurosis or psychosis); use or abuse of alcohol or drugs, or related physical complications; war (declared or undeclared), acts of war, military duty, civil disorder or unrest; participation in or training for any professional or amateur sporting competition; flying or learning to fly an aircraft as pilot or crew; nuclear reaction, radiation or radioactive contamination; natural disasters; epidemic or pandemic; air, water or other pollution or threat of pollutant release; unlawful acts; expected or reasonably foreseeable events or problems; financial default of a travel supplier; terrorist events; travel bulletins or alerts; and government prohibition or regulations.”


Trip cancellation in particular gets tricky; some insurance companies offer a “Cancel for any Reason” option if you are concerned about this, but for annual plans, that may have to be an add-on.

Many insurance companies sell cruise insurance as a separate product, but the offerings are pretty much the same. If you decide to purchase annual insurance, you might want to ask specifically about cruise coverage.

Many insurance companies permit you to purchase travel insurance until very close to your departure date, sometimes within days or hours. This can be helpful to the procrastinators and optimists among us.

Be careful, however, as an attempt to buy travel insurance to avoid problems due to a weather or other natural event that is already under way may not work; once something like this starts, only travelers who purchased their policies beforehand are typically covered. In addition, many insurers do not cover preexisting conditions, so if you have a medical problem before a trip and then buy insurance, you may not be covered for any travel issues related to that medical condition, depending on when it developed and the length of your policy’s lookback period.

This is the type of purchase where getting on the phone to discuss specific questions is well worth your time.

With five or six extended trips on my radar in the next 12 months, I may be considering annual insurance myself! What about you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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My Visit to Cuba As A Volunteer

My Visit to Cuba As A Volunteer

Author: Lynn Lotkowictz
Date of Trip: January 2017

In mid-January, I flew from Tampa to Havana on a trip that would introduce me to a country that has been off limits for me (and most Americans) for most of my life. I participated in a one-week service program in Cuba with Global Volunteers, a non-profit, NGO based in Minneapolis.

visiting a senior center in cuba

Along with 19 other volunteers ages 30-78, I spent a week on various work projects that included painting a fence at our base (The Cuban Council of Churches), spending time with seniors at a senior care center and working with students on English in an evening program. Another team did crocheting with a women’s group for part of the day.

Every afternoon we had a few hours of free time before working with students practicing English for about two hours. Later we all met for dinner, with our excellent team leader, Stephanie, at various locations. The trip was a combination of helping our host community and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom, had never been to Cuba.

Living with the Locals
We stayed in Miramar, a nice residential suburb of Havana near many of the city’s foreign embassies. All 20 volunteers stayed in guest houses within three or four blocks of each other. We were two blocks from the water and near our base at the Council where we met each morning around 9:00.

The joy of staying in a suburb is that you have the opportunity to observe people going to work and school and regularly interact with the locals. Put simply, it is a more authentic experience than staying in a hotel. You feel like a part of the community, particularly since you are there to help in some small way.

We walked throughout the area every day and night. I never felt nervous nor did we see anything that looked questionable. The only danger I encountered was the uneven sidewalks which like many of the buildings are in disrepair. Also in the evenings many streets did not have lights so we walked with caution and used flashlights when necessary.

Getting Connected
There is very little internet on the island. Missing connectivity, we asked our hosts about options. They told us there was an “Internet Park” about a twenty minute walk from my casa. There, they said, we could purchase a card from a mini mart or store, but we were told there are long lines and forms to fill out along with passport information. The alternative was to walk to a certain small park and connect with a young gentlemen and his pals who our hosts said would sell us a card for 5 cucs (approx $5.00 ) for one hour of internet. The card provides a password and username.

My three new Global Volunteer friends and I decided to visit the park. It was trashed with empty beer cans and bottles and many young people on their phones sitting on the ground. There was a group of men standing around that looked like possibly our connection.

We approached the young men, and they immediately offered each of us an internet card. With our $5. purchase complete we took a photo together with the “sellers” and then enjoyed the internet for about 30 minutes. (We kept the card for another day’s use.) Mission accomplished. As we walked back to our work site I wondered, would I even consider walking up to a stranger in, let’s say, Central Park or Chicago and purchasing an “off the grid” card with the hope it worked? And then take a photo with them? Probably not.

cuban classic car

Music, Art and Entertainment
If you choose to stay the weekend, you have the option of adding on the weekend package of people-to-people activities. Or you can make your own plans for the weekend. The Global Volunteers program includes a tour of the Ernest Hemingway House, art galleries, Old Havana and a morning lecture from two local professionals who discuss history, education and some politics. All and all it’s a great value that includes meals and accommodations.

My favorite weekend activity was the excellent quality live music everywhere day or night. Street entertainers, restaurants and bars and coffee shops all have talented solo or group performers. Artwork is plentiful and there is a wide variety of architecture including colonial, Spanish, Art Deco and contemporary.

Entrepreneurial Spirit
My students on two evenings were a young couple in their early 20s. Allen is an independent contractor at a tour company and is eager to learn English so he can better communicate with visitors. His wife Daniella takes care of the home. She knew some English and is eager to help him. We review his tour prices, look at what’s included and add some language to make the tours more appealing. We go over phrases such as, “Welcome to Havana, my name is Allen and I would love to show you my country. What is your name?

After some competitive analysis, we determine that he is competing with the fancy old American cars that all the tourists seem to love. Their hourly rate is $50 per hour. We work on an appropriate response. “Yes, those old American cars are beautiful, however, instead of $50 per hour you might want to consider my van at only $15 per hour.” Allen masters three or four sentences that we work on intensely for two nights. They are sure to enhance his business opportunities.

It’s a pleasure to see a 23-year-old happily married, entrepreneur with such enthusiasm and eagerness to succeed. When we finished the second night, he looked at me and said “God Bless you and thank you.” I was beginning to see how individuals can make a small but significant impact in a short time and, more importantly, understand these very warm and welcoming people.

In addition there are people who are operating and creating small businesses out of their homes or garages that are serving meals, coffee/beer and other small businesses like repair shops and such. Homes are renting out rooms to visitors for additional income. This is all new and Cubans seem very happy with new opportunities.

Yes, the streets, sidewalks and many buildings are in disrepair, run down and there is much need for improved infrastructure, painting, plumbing, electrical etc. Litter is an issue in some neighborhoods. For many, work is hard to find and salaries are low. Supplies of every kind are limited. Many of the local grocery store shelves are sparsely stocked.

selfie with kids

Looking Ahead
The refreshing thing is you sense the change that is coming. In a lively conversation with one of our casa owners, she described it like this. “It started like the snowball on top of the mountain, it’s rolling down and getting bigger and bigger and you cannot stop it.”

Tourists from all over world have been visiting Havana for years and now there are many American visitors. In Havana we saw a cruise ship, red double-decker tour buses and souvenir shops. Colorful flora and fauna are everywhere and a walk along the Malecon — a walkway along the sea wall — is the perfect place to people watch.

The city of three million is bursting with activity and a colorful history that people want to experience. It’s old, it’s new, it’s Spanish, European, modern, young and fun!

I only saw a small part of Cuba on this trip. But I’m sure I’ll return again to visit Varadero, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and other places on this fascinating island.

Lynn Lotkowictz
[email protected]


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12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel

Considering how precious vacation days are and how expensive travel can be, the urge to plan things out so you get the most from your travel time and dollar is almost irresistible. And it’s never been easier, considering the thousands of websites, apps and guidebooks full of travel information on just about every possible destination.

woman on bike

But something is lost when you can anticipate — nay, almost script — nearly every component of the travel experience. Not so long ago, the vagaries of travel were considered a normal and even welcome part of the experience; with daily life being so predictable, a good antidote was a wildly unpredictable trip to a faraway place.

To recover some of that wildness, many travelers are pulling back from “overplanning” and trying to craft a slightly more spontaneous trip — easier said than done for folks who are planners by nature. If you’re not sure where to start, I’d suggest thinking of spontaneous travel not so much as letting things happen to you, but more like “planning on the fly.” Have a general idea of what you want to do and see, plan out those things that you feel you just can’t leave to chance, and then improvise from there.

Below are 12 tips for having a more spontaneous trip.

If 80 percent of life is just showing up, then the most important things you need to plan are how to get where you want to be and a place to stay once you get there. If you choose a central location that has ready access to attractions and public transit, you are 80 percent of the way to a successful trip, even if you plan almost nothing else. With at least a few of the things you know you want to do nearby, once you tick those off you can wing it almost completely without feeling like you missed something important.

As I talked to folks about their most memorable spontaneous travel stories, a fair number involved scrapping a careful plan almost entirely, usually in favor of something impromptu. Of course, you’re less likely to change your plans if you’ve already dropped a couple hundred nonrefundable bucks on a hotel room. If possible, don’t keep yourself tethered to one spot for your whole trip. Unless it is peak season, most hotels can extend your reservation while you are still there — so book a shorter stay, and then if you decide not to move on, extend it. Booking a nonrefundable hotel for your first and last nights is less risky, since your flights are unlikely to change, but leave yourself a little more flexibility in between.

Turning your travels into a forced march from one attraction to the next can be grueling. It’s a vacation, not a whistlestop political campaign. If there are some things you absolutely must see, assign a time to get that done (early in the morning often works best), and let serendipity rule the rest of the day.

It’s hard to resist assigning at least one activity to every day, and then to start ticking them off once you arrive. We visited Berlin last week, and I admit that my thinking went a little bit like this: “Berlin … the Wall, Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the East Side Gallery, LEGOLAND for a kids’ outing, Potsdamer Platz … one or two per day, done.” As it went, we didn’t have the sightseeing stamina to go into the Reichstag, and instead ended up playing a game of tag on the giant lawn out front — which continued through the Tiergarten, past a very cool rock art exhibit.

Which part of the visit sticks with us the most now that a few days have passed? The Berlin Wall has few equals as a historical attraction with staying power — but the game of tag in the Tiergarten is up there.

Leave at least one entire day open, even if you have to crowd another day with a couple of activities. This way you can either fill the day or be content to wander around and find your own rock art adventure.

The 5 Worst Trip Planning Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

No matter how much planning you do, it is almost inevitable that the facts on the ground once you arrive will be different from what you expected. Distances are shorter or farther than you thought, you see stuff on the cab ride into town that seems interesting, or you overhear chatter about local attractions that aren’t in your guidebook. Leave yourself the option of figuring things out once you see how things really are.

For those things for which you do feel the need to have a solid plan, use all the tricks at your disposal to make them happen smoothly and as intended. Knowing the operating hours, taking the best route to and from, and having advance tickets to avoid lines will help you free up more time for spontaneous activities.

Thanks to capacious and information-packed review sites, travelers can make far better choices about almost every part of the travel experience. But if the review sites lead to fewer unpleasant surprises, they also present the risk of fewer pleasant surprises, which are of course an important part of exploring the world as a traveler.

8 Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene

The days of walking into a restaurant with no idea of what might show up at your table are mostly history, but you can reintroduce the element of surprise by not making every meal choice based on a Yelp review. This isn’t the best approach for everything — review sites can help you avoid hokey attractions or awful meals — but if the menu looks appealing and the place is bustling, why not skip the star rating and try your luck?

busy restaurant food hall singapore

A smartphone can be the ultimate way to plan on the fly. The simplest and often most useful function on your phone is the “near me” or “explore nearby” options on your mapping app; you can type almost anything into the search field — museum, restaurant, grocery store, coffee — and receive a decent suggestion.

Location-based apps like Foursquare can also offer superb results, with the added benefit of frequent use by locals. I checked results on Foursquare in a few cities that I know very well, and the suggestions were pretty good — all places I would recommend to a friend who was visiting the area, plus some others I didn’t know about and will have to check out myself.

While many daily newspapers are in trouble, locally owned (usually weekly) community newspapers are thriving. They’re packed with listings for activities, festivals, concerts, classes and more. Many big cities have alternative/entertainment weeklies, while smaller communities may have more news-based publications — but all of them are geared toward getting information out to the locals, and to travelers who are clever enough to have a look.

Few tactics rival learning about nearby attractions from a bona fide local. You can find them everywhere — the hotel front desk, restaurants, bars, grocery stores — anywhere you come into contact with folks who are working, shopping for mundane items and going about daily life.

Staying at a B&B may offer the ultimate in “ask a local” opportunities; the folks running the house usually live on the premises and understand that helping their lodgers get the most from their stay is part of the reason to choose a B&B over a hotel. To be sure, I have run into a few curmudgeonly B&B hosts over the years, but these places tend not to get the best reviews. You’ll definitely want to use the review sites when picking a B&B, paying particular attention to how helpful and available the proprietor tends to be.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

Getting off the tourist circuit can offer up plenty of opportunities for unexpected encounters and experiences. Going to a swimming pool or library or taking a yoga class, for example, can put you into contact with people who might get you off the rutted tourist roads and into the places and even homes of the locals, and then you never know what might happen.

Pursuing your own passions can often be the best way to open yourself up to these kinds of experiences. For example, when wearing a rowing shirt while traveling in Hawaii, I was approached by a local who owned a two-person ocean rowing scull who could rarely find another rower to go out with him. He asked me to join him, and we rowed out into the ocean and around a small island, where swells wrapped around the back of the island to meet in an explosion in the middle. We caught one of the waves, blitzed along at full speed and maneuvered at the last second to avoid the exploding waves as they met. Talk about an unplanned adventure.

Have any tips to help inveterate planners loosen up a little? Add them in the comments!

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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Diving into Caribbean yesteryear The Corn Islands,

Diving into Caribbean yesteryear The Corn Islands,

Author: Bill Mashek (More Trip Reviews by Bill Mashek)
Date of Trip: November 2016

Corn Islands Nicaragua
Bill Mashek

The Corn Islands are located about 50 miles east of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Little Corn is an interesting place; it is only about 1.5 sq miles in size, no cars, motorcycles or golf carts, but full of amiable folks, great diving, diverse cuisine, and lots of charm. You can walk an Island loop in about 45 minutes. Little Corn was the only destination where I experienced gregarious encounters with “friendly” nurse sharks on every dive.

scuba diver with shark

I am a multi-sport type person and a “budget” excursionist, so when I travel someplace, I don’t go to high end “resorts” and I like other options besides diving. Nicaragua is a great location for adventure sports. There is spear fishing, and great surfing on the pacific, even an accessible whitewater run . Going inland you have the colonial cities of Leon and Granada which is bordered by the imposing, Lake Nicaragua with the Volcanic Islands of Omatepe and of course The Corn Islands on the Atlantic. The Corn Islands have always been on my “bucket list” as a dive destination. When I got invited to a wedding in Nicaragua I got my excuse to go. We spent 6 days on the pacific, 2 inland and 8 days on the Corn Islands.

Getting here: First of all, travel in Nicaragua is situated out of Managua. All domestic flights and buses are based at the international airport in Managua as well. You can use a travel agency to get to Managua, (I just made my reservations online) but you have to book your own domestic flight to get to Corn Islands. It is recommended to do this a couple days in advance online. The cost at the time of this writing was approximately $184/person round trip. Hard core photographers should go light on your gear as there is a 30 pound limit On stored luggage. I just took my Cannon g-12 in an Ikelite case, no strobe, it fit fine in my carry on and I got great shots.

Though I had no problems with flights, I have been informed that La Costena airlines can be subject to delays, and on occasions your bag may arrive the day after you do! In other words don’t have a tight schedule. Allow for chaos, as anything can happen, especially during busy season (December to May). You will hear stories about saving money by taking a 6-8 hour bus trip to Bluefields and departing by freighter across the channel to Big Corn—don’t do it.

Tip: I found about this online: Domestic online booking fees can be expensive and they are going up. The fees were, 18/person when we were there. To get around this and to get the cheapest prices you can call La Costena’s office in Managua airport on (505) 2298 5360 (option 2) to get the standard fares without online fees.

As with most of Nicaragua, you can use either the local Cordoba currency here, (cheapest) but US dollars are also accepted everywhere, provided they are in good condition with no rips, tears or defacing. There is one ATM machine on Big Corn Island. Many places including our hotel, some of the restaurants and the dive shops accept credit cards however you will have a 6% Nicaraguan fee plus what every your local bank charges for international use. I used both cordobas and US dollars. But mostly US dollars as I didn’t want to come home with useless cordobas. I also booked with the hotel directly instead of going through the 3rd party sites. It was actually cheaper.

Once we landed in Big Corn, we took Taxi ($1.00/person for anyplace on the island)to our “guest”house and next day to the harbor and Catch the ponga ($6.00/person) to Little Corn. Check out: https://youtu.be/3UUNUNKY7i8. Again, plan for delays; If the ocean is too rough, you may not get across that day. And it can be a “wet and wild” ride, I would recommend bringing a garbage bag to cover your personal gear.

I was told that they are soon going to have a bigger enclosed boat which will handle the larger swells but this is a poor country and who knows when.

Big Corn has 2 dive shops, I only talked to one. It is called Dos Tiburones, (http://divecornisland.com/) We spent the night on Big Corn at Comedor Maris Danet’s Phone: (+505) 2575-5135, A very good location, excellent food ($9.00 lobster dinner) and only a couple hundred yards from Dos Tiburones. There is also a quaint little bakery next door with savory treats and great coffee. There are several dive sites off Big Corn including the infamous Blowing rock. If for some reason you can’t get to Little Corn you have other options.

sign in corn islands

Little Corn: I was watching the weather with anxious anticipation (mistake) and it looked like hostile conditions, I even called Adam at Dolphin Divers to see if they were going out. His response: “of course, we have great conditions, a little wind and bump but all is fine”. Unless there is a hurricane or 35 plus knot winds, you will still dive.

I made advanced reservations with Sunshine Hotel. The website said “only 2 rooms available. I think there were only 4or 5 other folks staying in this 20 plus room hotel. During busy season it is probably a good idea to make advanced reservations. ( www.sunshinehotellittlecorn.com ) Our stay at the Sunshine hotel included a simple but classic Nicaraguan breakfast each morning and 5% discount with Dolphin Divers ( http://dolphindivelittlecorn.com ). Sunshine is also the only hotel I found that had air conditioned rooms. The folks who run the place were nice and at $55/night a bargain. They also had the only (mini) “farmica” on the island. I would recommend staying here. There are several “rustic” piquant eateries nearby and It was less than a five minute walk to Dolphin Divers from the hotel.

Every day, After my second dive I would go to Havanas , a Cuban cuisine, between our hotel and Dolphin divers and get a delicious ham and cheese sandwich or fish sandwich on coconut bread.

Dolphin divers offer up to 3 dives per day and night dives. Since there are only a couple of dive shops on the island, I would recommend making advanced reservations during the busy winter season.

Because of all the weight restrictions and the extensive traveling we were doing. The only dive gear I brought was my Sunto “zoot” wrist computer, underwater camera set up, a mask and snorkel. Dolphin Divers supplies all equipment including wetsuit, if needed at no extra cost. They did not supply computers; –I think you can rent one. Their regulators and BC vest were well maintained and in good condition. For photographers, the boats are too small to hold heavy gear but they do have a shower and dunk tank at the shop.

The Diving:. Because of the underwater topography in Corn Islands, we dived reefs and small canyons but not walls. Subsequently, most dives are between 50-80 ft, except for Blowing Rock which is a small volcanic seamount, about an hour boat ride away.. It is considered the best dive site on the Corn Islands primarily, because of its’ preponderance and variety of fish. There are no deep channels and spectacular walls like Cozumel . The water temperature was a consistent 84 degrees F, making wetsuits optional.

I never prepaid for my dives, just showed up every day at the shop. However, the more you dive the cheaper the price is. A two tank dive is 65. And a 10 dive package is 280. I had 12 dives and at the end of the trip paid 28/dive plus my 5% discount. The boats launch from the beach less than 50 ft from the shop. The divemasters loaded our tanks and BCs, we were only responsible for carrying them back after the dive. Dive times varied, though usually 45 minutes unless folks were low on air. When it was just our group, we stayed down longer, especially in the shallower dives.

There were many good sites but my favorite was Suenos, It was about a 15 minute boat ride to get there. It was our last dive, the ocean was calm and pellucid blue-green. Visibility was well over 150ft. Here we saw several reef sharks. They were not as friendly as the nurse sharks and didn’t want to be approached. They did however, provide for interesting encounters. I saw several eagle rays, and a goliath Grouper the size of a wine barrel. We saw Parrot fish for the first time and more trigger fish. Also saw a hawksbill turtle here. Surprisingly, I saw only 2 turtles. I guess they don’t nest here.

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