A Taste of Antigua, Guatemala

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my food. My hobbies include breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not uncommon for me to be thinking about what I intend to eat for dinner whilst tucking into lunch. If I don’t eat I get ‘hangry’ so it’s best to keep me fed at regular intervals. I don’t cook but I have an appreciation for those who do and the way to my heart is definitely to cook for me or restaurant-hop with me, sharing delicious classics taken from cuisines around the world.

Before I travelled to Guatemala I had been warned about safety and told that the food wasn’t very good there. Numerous blogs I’ve read, and fellow travellers, praised the culinary scenes in North America’s Mexico City and Oaxaca but their Central American cousin Antigua is a burgeoning foodie heaven not to be overlooked. When I returned to Antigua, needing to base myself somewhere for a couple of weeks to invest time in developing my not-for-profit travel community the Artbird Network (you can read about this project here https://uncagedartbird.com/artbird-network/), I embarked on a culinary journey of the city with similarly gourmet-minded friends. I have since left Antigua but carry with me lovely memories of the meals enjoyed and good times shared.

*Whilst in Antigua, I stayed at Barbara’s Boutique Hostel – my Antigua home. The hostel is beautiful, with the loveliest staff who really took care of me. The rooftop has a great view of Volcan de Agua. The free breakfast gives you the perfect start to the day with pancakes, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit etc. The luxurious bunk beds have comfy mattresses, privacy curtains, a mini fan and night light. I loved my stay here and will definitely return again!

Here are some foodie recommendations for you:

Apetito – a wine bar and craft pizza restaurant in a lovely courtyard setting. The salmon appetiser is incredible!

Caoba Farms – a 20 minute walk from Parque Central, Caoba Farms Restaurant is a farm-to-table organic experience. Very popular with the ex-pat crowd on a weekend, you will find live music, a farmers market and delicious food on Saturdays and Sundays. On weekdays it is a quieter place, perfect for enjoying breakfast or lunch in rural peace.

El Viejo Cafe – offers traditional Guatemalen cuisine. Go to enjoy a good breakfast whilst sitting in the courtyard.

Frida – As a massive Frida Kahlo fan, this bar and restaurant was a firm favourite of mine. Happiness is a glass of sangria and shrimp tacos at Fridas…

Hobbitenango – visitors come here to see the hobbit-sized eco cabins and the spectacular view but you can actually tuck into an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast or lunch on Saturdays and Sundays as well as enjoy fabulous cocktails in the bar. It’s a bit of mission to get to but well worth it.

Kombu – the best ramen in Central America. Trust me. I ate here so many times!

La Bruja – cute vegan and vegetarian cafe located in the same courtyard as Apetito. Prepare to be dazzled by the build-your-own burger selection and the size of the portions.

Panaderia y Cafe Santa Clara – lovely bakery offering the tastiest pastries in Antigua.

Por Qué No? Cafe – super tiny but super cool bar and restaurant. You will queue here every night it is open (Mon – Sat) but you will be grateful you waited. The food is divine and you must leave room for their famous chocolate brownie.

Rincon Tipico – a budget-friendly option. Popular with locals and backpackers, this restaurant is a good place to try Guatemalen food. Expect to queue for a table. My roasted chicken and potatoes was so good.

Sobremesa – this is the place you go if you want to treat yourself. A fine dining restaurant/art gallery showcasing the work of owner Alex Ferrar. The food is great but go just to chat with the owner as he is a real character.

Toku Baru – another budget-friendly place popular with backpackers so you may have to queue for a table in the evening. Toku Baru offers full and half portions of curry dishes etc and their falafel comes highly recommended.

One for coffee lovers: Union Cafe (two locations) – phenomenal dirty chai latte! Serves certified organic Guatemalen coffee.

For a ‘Mayan hot chocolate’ head to the ChocoMuseo. You can sample all kinds of chocolate for free here, or sign up for their chocolate making workshops.

If you are just after some good drinking places, you can’t go wrong with these suggestions:

  • Antigua Brewing – huge range of craft beers, good live music venue and a hidden cocktail bar.
  • Cafe Sky – THE place to watch the sun set over the volcanoes of Antigua.
  • Cafe No Se – candlelit dive bar offering live music – do not go here unless you want to get very drunk, You have been warned 😉

My earlier post on Antigua with suggestions of things to do and some other recommendations can be read here: https://wp.me/p9u5hw-1n1

Selection of pictures from my stay:

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El Paredón, Guatemala

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  • Stayed January 2019
  • Accommodation: Paredon Surf House – love this place! Cannot recommend it enough! For $28 a night you can get a bed in the 10-bed ‘Group Loft’ dorm with fab views of the ocean, with breakfast and dinner included. The beds are comfy and come with a mosquito net to keep the pesky critters away while you sleep. Going to sleep to the roaring sound of the nearby waves is pure heaven. If you don’t fancy staying in a dorm, you can choose to stay in a beachfront bungalow, a seaview suite or a casita. The pool is clean and cool, so provides a great place to escape the heat. The bathrooms have no ceilings so you get to shower outside which is nice. All the staff are lovely. The three-course family dinner each night gives travellers an opportunity to get to know each other and make new friends, like I did. I originally booked three nights but extended my stay twice and felt sad to leave. I will definitely return one day!

Looking to stay in Paradise? Look no further. Get yourself to the sleepy fishing village of El Paredón in Guatemala. A blog reader suggested I go (thank you Bar, who blogs on http://www.bwildnfree.com) and I’m so grateful for the recommendation. I spent eight blissful days there and didn’t want to leave. Largely off the beaten track for most tourists coming to Guatemala, you will probably find that you have the beach to yourself. The unspoilt black sand beach gets incredibly hot between 12 and 4 pm so take some covered shoes with you if you want to walk on the beach during that time period otherwise save your beach walk for the early morning or evening. Most people come here to surf, lie in a hammock and relax so El Paredón is the perfect place to come to escape the outside world and de-stress.

With a population of around 1,500 people, tourism is only just beginning to impact here which is part of the attraction of visiting. There is not much to do in El Paredón but in the village itself you will find tiendas (small shops) selling snacks and toiletries, and a couple of eateries. Everyone is friendly and welcoming and there is no pressure on you to part with your cash unlike in more developed beach resorts. The one not-for-profit organisation La Choza Chula does excellent work to ensure that the local community benefits from the growth in tourism by training local tour guides to run various tours for tourists. With them, you can go fishing in the mangroves, learn to cook traditional Guatemalan food, learn how to make bracelets, or visit a sea turtle feeding ground (you can also release baby turtles if you visit in season). The tours contribute to the conservation of the local environment as well as providing an income for the community. There are no souvenir shops but you can buy locally made t-shirts, bags and bracelets at the La Choza Chula shop. There are no ATMs here so make sure you bring enough Quetzales with you. There is however an internet store – the majority of accommodation does not provide WiFi – though you may prefer to have a digital detox and unplug whilst in El Paredón.

That said, Paredon Surf House where I stayed has strong WiFi and could be a great place for a digital nomad to base themselves for a while. I’m working on building a worldwide network of quality hostels and boutique hotels that offer discounts to travellers (see my Travel Promos page for details https://wp.me/P9u5hw-1lC) and it was lovely to be able to work when I wanted to whilst also having plenty of opportunity for downtime when I needed it.   

Though El Paredón is a quiet village, you can party daily at the Driftwood Surfer Hostel on the beachfront. I personally would not choose to stay there as it’s a party all day hostel and there are nicer places to sleep elsewhere but all are welcome at the Driftwood and it’s a fun place. Go there if you are looking for a good time.

Suggested Eateries in El Paredón:

  • Yoli’s – behind Paredon Surf House. Some of the best value food in town.
  • Priscilla’s – the place to go for fried chicken apparently.
  • Sandra’s – offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Soul Food Kitchen – Thai and Indian food.
  • El Tiburon (in the Pacifico) – pizzas made in a brick oven.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

 

 

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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  • Stayed January 2019
  • Accommodation: La Iguana Perdida – a warm and welcoming hostel with a cracking lake view. Loved it so much I extended my stay twice. Eco-concious. Not the best showers for the dorms (lukewarm water) but if you pay more for a private room, you get a piping hot shower. I paid for a private room for my last night as I got a 24-hour bug and needed rest and a bathroom to myself. The family meals are great – an opportunity to meet other travellers and the food was always delicious. All of the staff were lovely and really helpful. They have dress-up Saturday nights which is fun – guests can help themselves to anything in the dressing-up cupboard and anyone who dresses up gets a free shot. Highly recommended.

Described as the closest place to Eden on Earth, Lake Atitlán, the mystical and mysterious lake that fills a large volcanic crater in Guatemala’s Southwestern highlands is considered by many to be the must-see destination of Guatemala. The lake itself is vast, with a luminescent beauty that can calm the soul of some and evoke weird dreams in others. It is certainly a peaceful place that provides an opportunity for travellers to unwind, contemplate life and reconnect with themselves if that’s what they’re looking for. Amongst the tranquility though, travellers can also find a good time in a few well-known party hostels. The lake is surrounded by villages that offer different experiences to travellers so consider what you want from your visit before booking your accommodation.  Most travellers will arrive by shuttle into Panajachel, a busy town with plenty of places to shop and eat, before travelling on by boat to their chosen village.

Here is a summary of the key villages to help you make your choice:

  • Santa Cruz La Laguna: This was the village I chose to stay in and was by far my favourite of those I visited. Two hostels are based here and both offer excellent views of the lake. Both provide family dinners (a three-course meal for a fixed price) as there are limited eating options in Santa Cruz. Iguana Perdida, where I stayed, has better accommodation options though, with dorms and luxury private rooms available. Free Cerveza has a treehouse dorm and tents for ‘glamping’ but a friend stayed there and showed me pictures of black mould in the tent he stayed in. Not nice. Free Cerveza also has an age restriction for guests – no over 40s allowed. As their name suggests, they give you a free beer on arrival and two hours of free beer between 5 and 7 pm if guests sign up for the family dinner. As attractive as free beer sounds, I’ve been told that it is common for travellers to spend a night at Free Cerveza and then move over to the Iguana. Other food options in Santa Cruz include Cafe Sabor at the top of the hill, run by local students and providing good food with a spectacular view; Holy Tortillas which does a tasty breakfast; and Arca de Noé which is next to the Iguana. All three places have WiFi which is handy as the Iguana has a no WiFi policy (but does have a computer room for guests) and Free Cerveza charges for WiFi.
  • San Marcos – this hippy Mecca consists of yoga retreats, holistic centres, and cafes/restaurants catering to the gluten-free vegan crowd. It has one main street leading up from the dock with some pretty street murals. In San Marcos you can partake in a cocoa ceremony that claims to open up hearts, enhance meditation, give energy and encourage creativity. Circles Cafe has lovely but expensive smoothies and I hear it does good food. I thought I would like San Marcos more than I did – I personally found it quite pretentious.
  • San Pedro – the party village of the lake. Travellers come here for a good time. There is lots to do here so if somewhere like Santa Cruz is too quiet for you, then San Pedro might suit you better. Its view of the lake is not as nice as Santa Cruz though.

Taking Boats

The main way to get between villages is by boat. There are public and private boats. Public boats run fairly regularly until 7pm – so keep that in mind if you head to San Pedro to party but have accommodation booked in another village. Don’t ask the boatmen how much the boat costs when taking the public boat because you will end up paying more than you should. For example, the boat from Panajachel to Santa Cruz costs 10 Q but I have heard of travellers being charged up to 25 Q for the journey. Santa Cruz to San Marcos should be between 15 to 20 Q and Santa Cruz to San Pedro should be between 20 to 25 Q.

*Just a note if you get seasick. Make sure you bring your medication with you. Most of the lake crossings I made were fine but one day the lake was very choppy even though it was a beautiful sunny day and I had a very rough ride to San Pedro and back.

Activities

The hostel I stayed in in Santa Cruz can arrange Spanish lessons, weaving and cooking classes, hiking, yoga, kayaking and has a dive centre for those looking to dive in the lake. It is a cheap place for beginners to learn to dive but perhaps not the easiest place to do it for the first time. Many divers come to the lake for altitude diving. Other than that, the lake is a great place to hang out in a hammock, enjoy a beer and watch the sun go down. 

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Journey So Far…

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Before I set off round the world in June 2018 I wrote the blog post Nomadsville to share what I’d learned and experienced during ten years of travels in my work vacations. I was excited to finally be in the position to live my dream of travelling full-time but also nervous/terrified about what might lie ahead and concerned about how I would manage my Fibromyalgia whilst on the road. Over six months on, I am still travelling – I’m writing this from Guatemala – and intend to continue for as long as I am happy and in good enough health to do so. The journey so far, from London to Guatemala, has had its highs and lows and as we are now in a new year, I thought it was time for a post to reflect on the last six months to perhaps give those who are thinking of pursuing their dream of long-term travel this year an idea of what they may be letting themselves in for… 

WHAT I’VE LOVED

  • Having the freedom to go wherever I wanted when I wanted.
  • Being able to be flexible with my plans and not restricted by work schedules – I will often extend my stay if I really like a place.
  • A stress-free life – my only daily decisions tend to be what do I want to do that day and what do I want to eat. 
  • Meeting some fabulous people who I have shared genuine connections with and will be friends for life (see above pic).
  • Having some unforgettable experiences – seeing the hot air balloons at sunrise in Cappadocia, hiking Pacaya Volcano, staying in the Banksy Hotel in the West Bank, watching quick-footed sensual dancers strut to live bands in Cuba, paying my respects at Auschwitz etc.
  • Learning about different cultures, eating local food, and learning new languages.

WHAT I’VE NOT ENJOYED

  • Some truly rubbish dorm mates. There are people who think it is OK to not silence their phone, to press the snooze button multiple times, to have loud conversations or use a hairdryer in the room when others are sleeping, to take up all of the space, to ignore people they are sharing a room with, to repack their bag in the early hours, to have noisy sex despite dorm mates being in the room… the list goes on. The selfishness of others never fails to astound me.
  • Exhaustion. Long-term travelling is not the same as being on permanent holiday and it can get exhausting travelling from place to place, not always getting enough sleep especially if you always stay in dorms to keep the cost down. To combat this I get a private room every few weeks to catch up on sleep and try to stay in places for longer than three or four nights to give myself some rest time. Having fibromyalgia means I have to make self-care a priority and I avoid travelling through the night as I don’t sleep and lack of sleep can trigger a flare up.
  • Being ill on the road. Getting ill when you are travelling really sucks. It can be hard to get the medication you might need to get better and difficult to properly recuperate when going from place to place. It can also make you feel quite low and lonely. When I developed bronchitis in Banff it took me weeks to get over it and made travelling a struggle. Luckily I was able to buy antibiotics over the counter in Mexico and I eventually made a complete recovery. 
  • When things go wrong. Despite being cautious about when I use my bank card abroad, my debit card was ripped off when I was in Jordan and I was not able to get the money back as I use a banking app rather than a standard bank account. You will lose things when travelling and things will be taken from you. A girl I met recently was unfortunately robbed of her phone and purse when counting down to the new year in Antigua as she had let her guard down momentarily. Another traveller I know of was robbed when getting off a bus late at night in San Miguel de Allende and his hand was injured with a machete. Sh*t will happen. Your resilience will help you cope and other travellers can be very supportive when things go wrong.
  • Unwanted male attention – it is what it is. The worst incident was being called a b*tch by a young local man as I walked around Amman, Jordan, despite minding my own business and being dressed very modestly. Most attention has been complimentary though and I just say thank you and don’t engage in conversation. If I want to explore a place undisturbed I will put headphones in but not play music. People think you are listening to music so they leave you alone but not listening to anything actually means you can pay attention and take in what is going on around you in peace.

I was chatting to a fellow traveller recently and she said that there are loads of travel blogs out there but no one ever writes about the dark side of travelling. She explained that everything she reads tends to glamorise long-term travelling and make places seem more exciting than they are. She made a good point. Unless you are fortunate to be staying in luxury accommodation during your travels, there is nothing glamorous about living life on the road. I live out of a medium-sized wheelie suitcase. I try to do laundry once a week but it can be tricky in some places and hand-washing is not always possible so I sometimes end up wearing things far longer than I would have done in the ‘real world’. Hot showers are a luxury and I have gotten used to having cold showers. I am a smellier and less put-together version of my old self. When I set off, in my toiletries bag I had a day and night moisturiser, cleanser and toner to remove make up and eye cream. Now I have a pack of face wipes and a tub of Nivea. It’s easier to travel with less and quite liberating to not worry so much about my appearance. In my old life as a teacher in Dubai I never would have left the house without putting on foundation, eye liner and mascara. These days I usually bumble around with just a slick of mascara applied. Long-term travelling strips away all the unnecessary stuff, makes you realise what’s important and what’s not, and that’s a positive.

What did my travel buddy mean by the dark side of travelling? Well, she meant some of the things I mentioned in my ‘What I’ve Not Enjoyed’ list. The difficulties and the downers. The endless round of ‘Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?’ conversations can get mind-numbingly repetitive. Sometimes I just can’t be bothered and don’t always feel like being sociable. When I’m in that mood I keep myself to myself and watch a movie, write or listen to music. It can be hard work spending time with people you don’t click with but at the very least you can be polite. The tough ones are the cling ons who want to spend all of their time with you but you’re not feeling it. I’ve had a few of those during my journey. I don’t like being impolite so I tend to do the typical British thing of being non-committal, e.g. ‘sounds good but I’m not sure of my plans yet…’ and hope they take the hint. One of the things she meant was the competitiveness that some travellers seem to feel – they like to boast about the places they’ve been and make you feel inferior when you say you haven’t been there yet. There is a thin line between giving other travellers tips and advice and being a smug know-it-all. I think the worst ones are the wannabe Instagram influencers. My Instagram account is essentially a hobby – I love sharing the pictures I’ve enjoyed taking and try to convey a sense of the places I visit – but there are some travellers who are so obsessed with getting the perfect Instagram pictures they forget to actually ‘be present’ in the place they’re visiting. I have heard of travellers doing activities that they didn’t want to do just to get a cool Instagram picture. Each to their own I guess. When you are travelling for a long-time you can get a bit over it – church and temple fatigue is common – which makes travellers sound ungrateful but you can get spoilt seeing so many amazing sites as you travel the world. Travelling at a slower pace and making an effort to digitally detox periodically can help with that. Ultimately travelling can be whatever experience you want it to be and people go on round the world adventures for all sorts of reasons. Before I went travelling I was the sort of person who liked to plan everything and be in control. At the start of the trip I would book accommodation for the month ahead, to feel secure, but now I am happy to book a few days at a time. I’m enjoying living a more flexible life and I am more relaxed and spontaneous these days. Six months on, I am not the same person I was. 

People often ask me what it’s like travelling with a chronic medical condition. Fibromyalgia generally makes life more difficult on a daily basis so it’s not easy managing it on the road. Since coming off Lyrica in May 2018 I haven’t taken any medication except for Ibuprofen when I need it for pain management. I try to make sure I get enough sleep and take rest breaks and rest days when needed. Two years ago I was struggling to get out of bed and maintain a normal life so I am amazed at just how much I am able to do – for example, horse-riding in Viñales and hiking. Sometimes though I pay a price for pushing myself. I fell over in Mexico City when I went out sight-seeing on a day I was feeling wobbly – which was instant karma for laughing at a guy I’d seen fall over days before and his trousers had fallen down, exposing his arse to the world. Poor guy. After a day of bike-riding in Valladolid I had lower back pain for three weeks afterwards which made it difficult to sit for long periods so I think bikes and I have now parted ways. I get excruciating pain in my left shoulder and arm when I’m over-tired but other than that, I’m doing good. I generally know my limits and don’t give in to peer pressure. If I don’t feel up to going out partying then I don’t. When in Antigua, lots of travellers told me I should do the overnight volcano hike to Acatenango but after doing the Pacaya day hike I knew the longer hike was going to be too much for me. I don’t like not being able to do everything I would like to but that’s life with Fibro. I’m grateful for my current state of good health and daily self-care means I am living a quality life that would have been unthinkable for me a few years ago. If you have a chronic illness too, don’t let that put you off going travelling. If you really want to do it, you will find a way and may find that being away from the stresses of work, relationship or family pressures etc, improves your health, like it did for me. 

If you are thinking of taking the plunge and travelling long-term this year, then do it! It’s not always easy but the rewards are great. You learn so much about yourself, other cultures, and the world; you will be changed in ways you cannot anticipate – hopefully becoming more open-minded, compassionate and tolerant along the way. Travel makes you braver, takes you out of your comfort zone, and you get to try/do things you may not ordinarily consider. There have certainly been lots of positives for me and travel life seems to suit me. In 2019 my travel journey continues and I wish everyone who reads this all the best for the year ahead. 

Take care, Lisa.

📧 uncagedartbird@gmail.com

Click here to access the full list of Artbird Network properties and other travel promos https://uncagedartbird.com/artbird-network/

Antigua, Guatemala

Click here to access the full list of Artbird Network properties and other travel promos https://uncagedartbird.com/artbird-network/

  • Stayed December 2018/January 2019
  • Accommodation: Barbara’s Boutique Hostel. A gorgeous hostel, with excellent dorm beds which have privacy curtains, and the loveliest staff. The free breakfast is decent. I stayed here for New Year’s Eve and guests were given free beer and a free meal which was very nice. I ended up extending my stay I enjoyed it there so much. This hostel comes highly recommended!

Antigua, a small gem of a city surrounded by volcanoes and known for its well-preserved colonial buildings, is an absolute delight to visit and stay. In fact many travellers come here for a few days and find themselves sucked in by Antigua’s charms and extend their stays, like I did. Antigua is a very easy place to be. There’s plenty to do and see and numerous restaurants/cafes and bars catering to tourists so you can have a good time here. Reminiscent of Mexico’s San Cristobal (which I also loved, see my post here https://wp.me/p9u5hw-1gl) but with generally a warmer climate, I spent most of my days just wandering the streets, visiting boutiques, churches and snapping lots of pictures as this is a particularly instagrammable city. The volcanoes provide an impressive backdrop, challenging yet rewarding hikes and spectacular views when you reach their summits. You haven’t really experienced Antigua if you haven’t scaled at least one volcano in the area and seeing lava cascade from a volcano at sunset is unforgettable.

If you want to climb a volcano there are two main choices. The most popular is a day trip hike to Pacaya which involves a very steep one hour 30 minute climb to the top (so you will need to be at least moderately fit). We did the 2pm pick up from Antigua to Pacaya (you pay the tour company for the bus – we paid 60 Q then you pay 50 Q for the entrance ticket when you arrive and a guide leads the group up) which meant we got to be on the volcano for sunset and the views were unbelievable. You get to toast marshmallows on hot lava rocks and then walk down in the dark (you can use a torch or your mobile phone to help you) which is atmospheric, returning to Antigua around 9pm. You need to take a warm layer of clothing with you as it can get cold and windy at the summit. The other option is to do the overnight trip to Acatenango volcano (which provides views of Fuego) and entails five hours hiking on day one, camping overnight, hiking up for about an hour on day two before descending. As I have the chronic medical condition fibromyalgia, I judged the Acatenango trip to be a bit much for me but really enjoyed the Pacaya day trip. I’ve been told that tour companies in the area provide coats, hats, sleeping bags, tents etc for hire for those that want to do Acatenango but again, you would need to take warm clothing with you as it’s very cold at night on the volcano.

In addition to the volcano views, you can’t wander around Antigua and not see a church. The main church that should not be missed is San Francisco el Grande, built in 1542 – the oldest church in Antigua still holding ceremonies. Within the complex you will find the church, the ruined monastery, the tomb of Hermano Pedro (a Spanish missionary and Guatemala’s only saint), and a museum dedicated to the man himself. Entrance to the church and tomb are free but it costs 8 Q to enter the museum and ruins. The museum is well worth a visit as it displays clothing and artefacts that belonged to Hermano and you really get a sense of how revered he is by the people of Guatemala. Other key city sites include the iconic archway Arco de Santa Catalina, the Iglesia de La Merced, Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas, Casa Santo Domingo, and the climb up to the Cerro de La Cruz, for a view of the city and Volcan Agua. The cavernous Mercado is an enjoyable way to pass time in the city, see the locals and pick up some bargains – you can buy everything in this market! Art lovers should stop by La Antigua Galeria de Arte, a free gallery which showcases 80% work from Guatemalan artists, and there is some great work on display on both floors and you could always pop in to Nimpot afterwards, a large warehouse of local arts, crafts and textile products, if you want to buy gifts. Items are marked with a price, rather than requiring you to haggle, so good for those who don’t enjoy bartering for a bargain. The rather dramatic Holy Week floats are sheltered opposite and also worth a look. The gate was only open one day I was in Antigua but you can see some of the floats through the gate and they are quite something.

If you tire of roaming the city streets, a fab option is to visit Santa Teresita Hotel and Thermal Spa. It’s around a 20 minute drive from the city but you can Uber it there and back without issue (there is free Wifi at the Spa). You pay for a package – we did the Piscine Relax package for 380 Q which gave us access to 11 thermal pools, the jacuzzi, and a 50 minute massage (one of the best I’ve had). We also got lunch at the cafe, thinking it would be just a small snack I ordered quesadillas, but the portion sizes were large and delicious. Overall, it was an amazing treat day. Highly recommended!

In terms of restaurants/cafes and bars, you are spoilt for choice in Antigua. Here are some I visited during my stay:

  • Fridas – Frida Kahlo-themed restaurant. Had lovely Baja Fish Tacos for lunch one day. Service was excellent.
  • Cactus Tacos – Great place with live music. Always busy. Loved my shrimp quesadillas. Our server was attentive and hilarious.
  • The Londoner – decent pub grub and live music. Good for those missing a taste of the UK on their travels.
  • Y Tu Pina También – This place offers all day breakfasts and I really enjoyed my Huevos Rancheros and smoothie after a late night out the previous evening. Service was not great unfortunately.
  • Samsara – good vegan options and excellent smoothies in a hippie vibe. Service was OK.
  • Rainbow Cafe – liked the quirky interior. Delicious Potato and Leek soup. Service was mediocre – pretty much ignored after my food was delivered.
  • Monoloco – busy American Sports bar. Not cheap. Tasty food though (sliders, chicken fingers etc) and good service.
  • Lucky Rabbit – perfect choice for those looking for a late night lively bar option (though places close at 1 am in Antigua). It has two rooms offering different music (latin pop in the main room and electronic house in the smaller room) and party goers can get the bus to the Saturday night after party (in a disused swimming pool) from this venue.

Antigua is a beautiful, though not necessarily cheap, city to visit so don’t be surprised if you don’t want to leave…

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Havana, Cuba

*Scroll down for tips on how to survive and enjoy travelling in Cuba

Click here to access the full list of Artbird Network properties and other travel promos https://uncagedartbird.com/artbird-network/

Artbird Network Travel Promo: Casa Romero. Scroll down for my review. You can also read the rave reviews on Hostelworld but email Yanet on ysr79@nauta.cu to book direct with my promo code ARTBIRD28 and she will give you 10% off.

  • Stayed December 2018
  • Accommodation: I actually stayed in four places during my time in Havana. I really enjoyed staying in different areas of the city and each one gave me an alternative perspective on Havana.
  1. Casa Rene & Madelyn – Calz de Ayesteran, #303 apt 105. Booked through HostelWorld. Rene is the loveliest man. He speaks some English and cannot do enough for his guests. If he hasn’t got room for you in his own apartment he will find you accommodation nearby. The breakfast, costing 5 CUC, was the best buffet breakfast I’ve ever eaten. We paid 18 CUC for a double room. The apartment is near Plaza de la Revolución which is a good 30 minute walk to old Havana so it was a little far for me but the bus into town is very cheap. He booked our next casa in Viñales for us. Contact: renesanchez581@gmail.com +535 2635757
  2. Casa Romero – San Jose (San Martin) #524 e/Lealtad y Campanar. Again booked through HostelWorld. I stayed here after travelling round Cuba, when my travel buddies had travelled on and I had a week in Havana solo. This was my favourite place to stay in Cuba. In Centro Habana – which is ‘real’ Havana as opposed to the pretty old town – and a short walk to the Capital building, the apartment is modern and chic. It was more expensive than the other casas I stayed in but totally worth it as you get a high end private apartment. My hosts Yanet and her sister were so kind and hospitable – they take good care of you! Yanet speaks decent English. They don’t live in the casa but they come in in the morning to prepare an amazing breakfast for you at a time of your choice. The casa also has access to WiFi which is rare in Cuba. Highly recommended! Contact: ysr79@nauta.cu +535 2637294
  3. Hotel Sevilla – I booked this for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as a treat because I really wanted a pool day on Christmas Day. I booked it on Expedia as Booking.com doesn’t work when you are in Cuba. For hotel bookings you get a better rate online rather than booking at the hotel in person. This hotel has a lot of history but my stay was mediocre despite how expensive it was. The first room I was given had ripped curtains which meant you couldn’t close them, dirty marks on the walls, a rusty bath and hairs on the bedding. When I complained I was immediately given an upgrade. The quality of customer service was hit and miss – for example the pool staff were rude to me when I wanted to use the pool and attempted to charge me 20 CUC for a towel before I insisted I was a hotel guest and towels are free for guests. I had a much nicer experience at the casas I stayed in so my advice is don’t bother with hotels in Havana.
  4. Art Hotel – Calle Habana 155. Booked through Expedia. Not cheap but the room was really nice, very modern. You pay more to stay in old Havana. Janet, my host, was great. She speaks excellent English, was always happy to assist me and she offers good rates to exchange money for guests which is useful. Recommended.

Havana is a city of contrasts and for me there are two faces to the city: ‘Havana Pretty’ and ‘Havana Sh*tty’. Some parts are chic, some parts are shabby chic and some parts are just plain shabby, but that’s Havana and I loved it, flaws and all. Most tourists come to Havana and they never really venture beyond Habana Vieja, the old town, but that’s a real shame. There is much beauty to be found amongst the areas of ‘real’ Havana and if you choose not to explore them then you haven’t really experienced the city at all. At no point did I ever feel unsafe in any part of Havana so I encourage you to leave the touristy old town and roam the whole city. Havana is a large, widespread city, so I would recommend focusing on exploring the sites area by area. Transport options include old American cars, bike taxis, Coco taxis (a yellow motorised vehicle for two passengers), public bus and walking. Havana does have a bus tour, which I think is a hop on hop off service but I didn’t bother with this as I prefer to walk everywhere as much as possible.

Suggested Activities

  • Visit the Jose Marti Memorial at Plaza de la Revolución. The best views of the city are from the top of the tower. It’s 1 CUC to walk around the base and 4.50 CUC to access the tower. The famous Che Guevara mural is opposite.
  • Visit the cemetery – El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón – which is huge and has some stunning tombs and memorials. 5 CUC entry.
  • Visit the Hotel Nacional de Cuba which is steeped in mafia and old Hollywood celeb history.
  • Tread in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway – visit the Hotel Ambos Mundos to see the room he used to stay in and write (5 CUC entry), drink a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio or a daiquiri at La Floridita (he is credited with helping to invent both).
  • Spend time people-watching in the plazas: my favourite one was Plaza Vieja but the other key plazas are Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de Armas.
  • Take a stroll along The Malecón – if the water is calm enough. When I visited the Malecón was off limits.
  • Stroll along Calle Oficios and Calle Obispo – you will find historical buildings, old pharmacies etc, and restaurants/bars offering excellent live music.
  • Visit Callejón de Hamel, especially if you are an art fan like me – it’s a cool alleyway showcasing the work of artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona: Afro-Carribean street art murals and sculptures.
  • Museum hop – Havana has excellent museums: Museo de la Revolución, El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes etc.

Recommended Restaurants/Bars

There is more to Havana than the tourist traps of La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floridita….

  • Azucar – Plaza Vieja – serves good food and amazing cocktails. I splurged on a bespoke gin and tonic on one occasion and it was fantastic! Nab a seat on the balcony to catch the sun and people-watch to your heart’s content. There is a tapas bar on the corner next to Azucar (the name has escaped me…) which is also good.
  • El Chanchurro – a cool place with the tongue-in-cheek slogan that Ernest Hemingway never visited. Tasty food and decent cocktails. It’s only a small place so expect to queue outside to get a table.
  • La Cava in the Teatro – touristy but my friends and I had a good time here. We had the set menu which included a main meal and a drink but if you want to treat yourself you can indulge in the after-dinner package which includes a cigar, rum and coffee. The lovely thing about this is the server comes to table, presents the cigar and smokes one with you whilst giving you information about Cuban cigars, how they are made etc.
  • La Taberna – Plaza Vieja – fab little place to grab a snack, cocktails and enjoy live music on an evening.

Travelling around Cuba gives you an insight into what travel must have been like back in the day when travellers didn’t have constant access to WiFi, smartphones and Apps that make life easier. It’s not always easy though so here are some tips to help you.

TIPS: How to Survive and Enjoy Cuba

  • Read up on the history of the Cuban Revolution before you go and make sure you are familiar with Jose Marti, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – all three men are revered in Cuba and it will help you to know and understand their roles in Cuba’s history before going.
  • Download the Google Translate App and download Spanish offline – or take a Spanish friend with you like I did 😉
  • Download Google Maps offline or Maps.Me to help you navigate your way around the country.
  • Take a currency other than US dollars with you – preferred currencies are the British Pound, the Euro or Canadian Dollar.
  • There are two currencies operating in Cuba but the reality is tourists are expected to use the CUC whereas locals use CUPs so you don’t need to worry about trying to use two currencies at the same time. Always check the change you are given though to make sure you haven’t been given CUPs instead of CUCs (one CUC is roughly 25 CUPs).
  • You can use your bank cards in some restaurants etc but expect to pay in cash everywhere else.
  • There are ATMS in Havana but you may not find many others in the rest of the country. When using an ATM, know that some only distribute 5 CUC notes, or only 10 CUC notes, or they may limit how much you can take out in one go (if your transaction is declined for example it does not mean you have insufficient funds, it just means if you want to withdraw a large sum that you may have to do it in more than one transaction and pay a charge each time).
  • Book your first night’s accommodation in Havana using HostelWorld, Booking.com (see my home page for a promo link…) etc and then your casa will help you book accommodation in the next place you want to go to.
  • Contrary to rumours there is food available in Cuba and you can eat very well here. The only difference is there are no convenience stores like 7Elevens for you to grab a quick drink and snack and no fast food places like McDonalds so you will always eat in restaurants/bars.
  • It can be difficult to find and buy bottled water. Believe it or not, beer and cocktails are easier to find. Get water when you can. Your casa may have water for you to buy or buy bottled water when eating out.
  • Most public bathrooms do not have toilet seats because post the collapse of the soviet union, Cuba underwent a time of extreme hardship and toilet seats are expensive to buy and considered a luxury. Expect to pay to use toilets in most places – 1 CUC is the usual cost – and you may be given toilet paper when you pay, though it’s a good idea to always carry a packet of tissues to use when travelling.
  • Solo travellers – hostels are not really a thing in Cuba though there are a couple in Havana (I’ve heard they are not good…). You will have to stay in casas and when travelling alone that can get costly as you will have to pay for the whole room, rather than just pay for a bed.
  • You are expected to have travel insurance and a return ticket to enter the country. If you are not sure of your plans, just book any flight out of Cuba that you can cancel within 24 hours of buying and then book the flight you really want when you are there.
  • You will need a tourist card to enter. We bought ours at Cancun airport for 360 pesos.
  • Take any toiletries and medications you need with you as you may find them hard to get in Cuba.
  • Download the Culture Trip App – a great site that recommends things to do, places to eat and so on, and you can save articles offline to use when you are in Cuba. I found this to be invaluable.
  • Overall, just have realistic expectations and understand that the people of Cuba are very proud people that have experienced times of poverty and hardship. There are still times today when you may not have bread as part of your breakfast buffet because there is a shortage of flour or no eggs because the host hasn’t been able to get them. Cuban people are warm and welcoming and if you reciprocate that attitude, you will enjoy excellent hospitality and hopefully make some new friends during your time in Cuba.
  • Cuba may not be the Caribbean paradise that most tourists envision before visiting but it is an incredible country and only by travelling around (rather staying put in the Varadero resorts) will you see all that it has to offer.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Trinidad and Santa Clara, Cuba

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  • Stayed: December 2018
  • Accommodation: Trinidad – Casa Vilma – this place was OK. Nice people but the room was musty with no window. Think there are probably much better places to stay in Trinidad ; Santa Clara – Casa Angel y Carmen – great casa. Lovely hosts and the adult daughter spoke great English. Bit far from the centre but Angel kindly drove us into town. Recommended.

Keen to see more of Cuba, after Viñales, we chose to visit Trinidad and Santa Clara before returning to Havana. We spent two nights in Trinidad, one night in Santa Clara and that was the perfect amount of time for both places.

Trinidad

Trinidad offers visitors a picturesque colonial old town, cobblestone streets, museums, decent restaurants and bars and the obligatory souvenir shops. You can easily get round it all in a day or two. We enjoyed our visit but didn’t like it as much as Viñales. Highlights include the Casa de la Musica, a music venue just steps from the historic Plaza Mayor lauded as the best in Cuba, and the excellent views from the top of the Bell Tower.

Suggested activities:

  • In the evenings catch live music and dance with locals at Casa de la Musica
  • Watch the sunset from the Bell Tower
  • Visit Playa Ancon – a lovely beach 15 minutes drive from Trinidad
  • Visit the Topes de Collantes National Park
  • Enjoy tasty food at restaurants Monte y Mar and Casa Shango.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Santa Clara

Capital city of the Villa Clara province, Santa Clara is one for the history buffs. Here you will find the final resting place of the revolutionary Che Guevara. The Che Guevara Mausoleum, topped by a large statue of the man himself, is free to enter and contains a museum with pictures and artefacts relating to Che’s life and his role in the Cuban Revolution, and a memorial room with an eternal flame and commemorative plaques for all of the key fighters of the Revolution. Well worth a visit.

Other highlights include the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, which honours the Battle of Santa Clara, and the Cafe-Museo Revolución, a fab little cafe/free museum that pays homage to the Revolution. The walls are covered with pictures and mementos, including original letters signed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Go and enjoy a Copa Revolución ice cream sundae!

Selection of pictures from my stay: