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Just back from: a day trip to Venice

Regular readers of this blog will know how I’ve made a number of day trips by air to some of Europe’s most captivating cities.  Yesterday saw me jet off to Venice, in perhaps my most ambitious trip yet.

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You’ll find a full list of the others on my Index page here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/index/

While I’m not suggesting for a minute you’re going to truly get under the skin of your chosen destination in such a short space of time, it is great when you have little or no holiday left but still have that pressing need to travel.  Or in my case, a desire to keep two dogs out of kennels and into Daddy Day Care which is always a priority.  If you believe those predicting Brexit will put an end to cheap European flights from the UK, time could be running out to snap up a bargain.  Here’s the how, where, when and what of Venice in a day.

Getting there

My local airport is Stansted, the main UK base of Ryanair, and once again it was to the controversial budget carrier that I looked for my cheap fare.  Normally, Ryanair flies in to Treviso airport, but while the airport has been closed for essential runway maintenance, flights are being rerouted to Marco Polo instead.  Marco Polo also has the advantage of being closer to the city and well connected by both boat and bus.  The current closure lasts until 18 October, but it’s worth keeping an eye out as it’s not the first time I’ve read flights have been diverted.  My flight departed on time from Stansted at 0620 and touched down ten minutes ahead of schedule at 0910.  The return left a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 2230 and taxied to the terminal to unload us at 2355, about 15 minutes late.  Total ticket cost this time was £34 return.  I should also add, as per usual I didn’t bother with a seat reservation and got a randomly allocated window seat on the outbound flight and an aisle on the return leg.

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To reach Venice from Marco Polo it’s possible to catch a bus.  An express service takes around 20 minutes to make the journey to Piazzale Roma, near the top end of the Grand Canal and the city’s Santa Lucia station.  Return tickets cost 15 euros.  But to arrive in style, I figured I needed to arrive by boat, though my budget most certainly doesn’t stretch to water taxis.  There are, however, direct transfers from the airport with Alilaguna who offer a reliable service on one of three routes.  This is double the price of the bus at 30 euros for a return, but in my mind well worth the cost.  However, I should mention you do sit low in the boat, which isn’t great for sightseeing if you aren’t tall.

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I opted for the orange route as it takes you via Cannaregio and then down the Grand Canal.  Journey time to the Rialto Bridge was just under an hour.  From there, the boat continues down to Santa Maria del Giglio, just short of St Mark’s.  It was busy, and I had to wait for one boat to leave before getting on the second one, which added about a 30 minute delay to my journey.  However, the boats serving the blue route were bigger and there wasn’t a wait.  They loop via Murano and Giudecca instead, and calling at San Marco on the way.  This is a really convenient option if seeing Murano’s famous glass is on your wishlist.  However, it does take about 90 minutes to get to San Marco and it doesn’t transit the Grand Canal.  The way I see it is that this transfer is part of your day out rather than just transport, but if time is the priority then the bus is a no-brainer.

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Note: From Treviso, an airport bus scheduled to coincide with arrivals takes around 70 minutes to reach Piazzale Roma.  Make sure that you’re on the ATVO bus and not the Barzi bus as the latter calls at Mestre station rather than Santa Lucia (requiring a second train journey to get to the city) and also Tronchetto Island which is again inconvenient for Venice’s top attractions.

The links you’ll need (including timetables, fares and maps):

ACTV bus and city boats: http://actv.avmspa.it/en

Ailaguna boat: http://www.alilaguna.it/en

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Getting around

Venice is time-consuming to get around, which is why I refer to this as my most ambitious day trip to date.  Because of the lack of roads, you either have to walk or take to the city’s canals.  It’s a pleasure to wander on foot, but the downside is that many alleyways are dead ends leading to canals or courtyards.  Without a good map (or even with one) you’re likely to get lost.  I relied on a combination of paper map, Google map navigation on my phone and a general sense of direction.

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Those of you who know me will realise the latter is pretty much non-existent.  Narrow streets and a maze of densely packed buildings mean that sometimes Google maps don’t quite have your location right.  I also struggled with night mode, as the canals and alleys have almost no contrast – the waterways are such an essential aid to navigation that I switched it back to day mode.  Fortunately even with very limited Italian, people were helpful to my pitiful “Scusi, dove Rialto Bridge?” attempts at conversation and pointed me in the right direction with a smile.

There has been a lot in the press about how residents are fed up with the city being overrun by tourists; the historic centre’s residential population numbers only 55,000 now, compared to an estimated 28 million visitors annually.  Do the maths: that’s more tourists per day than the number who actually live there.  Whether it was because I visited in the quieter shoulder season or whether such irritation has been exaggerated in the press, I didn’t see any indication of  frustration with tourists invading locals’ space.  But it’s certainly not an issue to brush under the carpet.

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Due to the unhappy marriage of being time-poor and totally incompetent at map reading, I decided to splurge on a day pass for the city’s ACTV boats.  This cost 20 euros and can be purchased at the many ticket booths near the jetties.  (The jetties themselves are easy to spot being a) near the bigger canals and b) on account of their bright yellow livery as in the photo below.)  You do have to validate the pass before you step onto a floating jetty, or risk a hefty fine.  Look for a white oval terminal as you step off dry land and tap the card against it.  I got my money’s worth hopping on and off, but you’ll need to make several journeys to cover your outlay.

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Things to do

With so many sights to choose from, whittling down what’s easily a month’s worth of sightseeing into the nine hours I had in central Venice was tricky to say the least.  It helped that this was my third trip to Venice, so I’d already seen the main attractions and (fortunately for me) years ago, well before selfie sticks had been invented.  I was also keen to test out the new policy of the Venice authorities which is to encourage people to explore off the beaten track.  You’ll find a wide choice of suggestions here (when they first pop up, you might think they’re written only in Italian but they’re actually dual language with English too):

http://www.veneziaunica.it/en/content/itineraries

I began my day by alighting at the Rialto Bridge boat jetty and crossing the bridge itself to the adjacent market.  Originally the market moved to this location in 1097, but a 16th century fire destroyed almost everything in the vicinity.  The market was rebuilt and depsite being a stone’s throw from the tourist crap which lines the bridge and its environs, manages to retain more than a little of its charm.  There’s plenty to see, including more varieties of mushrooms than you could ever expect to see back home, capsicums done up like posies of flowers plus of course a pungent but vibrant fish market.

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There’s a treat tucked around the back of the market in a hard to find alley (even with the address, Sestiere San Polo 429, it was concealed so well it took me a while to find either of its two doors) What I’m referring to is Cantina do Mori, the bacaro which claims to be the oldest in Venice.  This tiny bar whose ceiling is hung with dozens of copper pots still retains a customer base who are happy to share their local with tourists like me.  It’s been around since 1462 and once counted the infamous lothario Casanova among its clientele.  Today, it’s still a popular place to go and have an ombra (Venetian slang for glass of wine) and soak up the alcohol with some cicheti (or in English, cicchetti), the Venetian equivalent to Spanish tapas.

Eventually, I prised myself away from the bar and its surroundings.  I decided first to take a stroll in search of Venice’s narrowest street.  Calle Varisco is just 53cm at the little end, though mercifully for pedestrian flow, it widens as you walk down.  If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed; several properties off the street were having work done and there was a fair bit of rubbish around as a result.  Forget what you’ve read: it’s not the narrowest street in the world (that’s a German one) and it’s not even close to being the slimmest in Italy.

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Moving on, I headed north and picked up a boat which looped around the Castello district to bring me to the San Zaccaria stop.  I was hoping to see if the church’s flooded crypt was underwater, but it closes from 12 noon until 4pm each afternoon so was out of luck.  Nearby though, I passed Banco-Lotto No. 10 which sells clothing made by inmates at the women’s penitentiary on Giudecca Island.  Sadly, that too was closed, though it shouldn’t have been according to the sign on its doorway.  The clothes looked fabulous, even for someone with my limited fashionista skills.

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Next up was a bookstore, and one which proves that Amazon can’t provide everything.  The Libreria Alta Acqua is a treasure.  Books stacked in precarious piles fill every inch of available space.  Balanced on shelves, filling redundant gondolas and bath tubs, they represent what a bookstore should be.

This is a place to be savoured, to potter and to forget the time or anything else on your mind.  The store owner wandered about, leaving the rather scary looking cat to mind the till while he wheezed and tutted to himself looking for items unspecified but clearly important.  I think I could have watched him all day too.  Out back was the tinest of courtyards with a sign imploring people to climb up some wobbly stairs made of old books to see the view over the canal.

I couldn’t resist walking south via St Mark’s Square.  This might sound odd as I really hate the crowds and the tourist paraphernalia but I think I wanted to see just how bad it was.  On the way, in Calle del Mondo Novo, my nose caught the aroma of a cheese and ham store as my eye was drawn to a pig in the pizza shop window opposite.  Incidentally, I read that you should never eat pizza in Venice as wood-fired ovens are banned with just a tiny handful of exceptions.  The store, Prosciutto e Parmigiano, is known locally as Latteria Senigaglia (that was the name of the original family-run dairy produce store which was set up in 1940).

In St Mark’s Square, I navigated a sea of people who couldn’t have been more synchronised in pointing their mobile phones towards whatever their guide was pointing out had a musical soundtrack been in place.  Pausing only to recreate the famous shot of the gondolas lined up facing out across the lagoon, I hopped on another vaporetto.  This one was bound for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore.  From the top of its belltower, or campanile as they’re called, the views across the city are splendid and of course you look out over the campanile in St Mark’s Square rather than from it.  It costs 6 euros to ascend, but for that they provide a lift, and free entertainment when the bells chime the hour, frightening unsuspecting visitors.  Best of all – no queues.

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It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to explore a little more before I left, so I took a boat a short way up Canale della Giudecca, jumping off at Spirito Santo church to cut back through to the Grand Canal near the Peggy Guggenheim art collection.  Another vaporetto took me to Venice Casino from where I could cut through to the district of Cannaregio.  This is on the Venice authorities’ recommendations list and is where you’ll find the Jewish Ghetto.  It lacked the crowds of St Mark’s and it’s probably very uncharitable of me to hope that the city’s campaign is unsuccessful and it stays that way.

I had planned to have an early dinner in Osteria al Bacco, which is one of the area’s most highly rated restaurants, but got sidetracked by the wonderful Al Timon instead.  You do need to book ahead for dinner reservations, though they don’t always serve what they display in the window.  Get there right on the dot of six when they open to grab a table for cicheti and a Spritz – for something classically Venetian, swap the fashionable Aperol for Campari.

Time was ticking on so I took a last vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal and then bought a ticket for the boat back to the airport.  I’d definitely recommend a visit outside of summer and most importantly, away from the crowd.  Venice is never going to be one of my favourite cities, but it’s growing on me.

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Priorities

I sat up half the night to watch the Northern Lights.  She said she was cold and wanted to go to bed.

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I wandered the streets of New York all day.  She said her feet hurt and could we go back to the hotel.

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I saw three lion cubs playing in the grass just in front of me.  She said that the trouble with safaris was that you had to sit in a truck for so long before you saw anything.

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I drank mint tea perched on a packing crate deep in the souk.  She said was there a Starbucks anywhere because she needed a decent coffee.

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I found a quaint b and b to stay in. She said she wanted a choice of pillows and twenty-four hour room service.

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I said I worked to travel and saved every penny I had for my next trip.  She said she’d rather get those replacement windows in before the winter if it was all the same to me.


Monarch’s collapse: your rights

Sadly, this morning’s headlines that Monarch has collapsed wasn’t shock news. The company had been in trouble for years, with several bailouts brinking it back from the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. Once, it cleaned up on routes to Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt, but had been badly hit by the slump in tourist numbers to those destinations in the face of terrorist attacks. Its Greek business was hit by the economic crisis and in response, it turned to the saturated markets of Spain to try to balance the budget.

It’s the largest UK airline ever to fail.  That’s no consolation for the estimated 110,000 people stranded or left with their holiday plans in tatters.  This collapse affects at least a  further 300,000 people who are due to fly, perhaps more.

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What to do if you’re on holiday with Monarch right now

Sit tight.  For those booked with Monarch Holidays, the CAA are negotiating with hotels so that you can stay.  If you are asked to pay a bill, keep receipts.  The CAA are saying they will reimburse you, though the end date for this is uncertain as yet.  If you are due to fly home, the CAA are putting on flights to get you home.

A webpage has been set up by the CAA to provide information to travellers.  Find it here:

https://monarch.caa.co.uk/

On this website there are details of flight rebookings.  Click on the airport you are travelling back from and it will open up the flight number and timing of your new flight.  At present, just today’s flights are up, so if you’re due to travel in the next few days, you’ll have to check back later.

If you’re in the UK but have a future Monarch flight or package holiday booked

The CAA’s advice is repeated here:

Flights booked directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward

Customers with these bookings are not ATOL protected and are not entitled to make a claim to the CAA. You are advised to contact your card issuer, insurer or PayPal for advice on how to claim a refund.

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I add: if you have booked using a credit card and the cost of your flight is £100 or more, you are covered.  (If you book a return flight, the cost of the total must be over £100, i.e. each leg can be under £100 so long as when combined they’re over.)  The credit card company will reimburse you.  If you have booked with a debit card, you might be able to get your money back via something called Chargeback; contact your issuing bank for details.  If you have specific cover for airline failure in your travel insurance policy, this is also a route for recovering your money.  Note that this isn’t a standard clause on many insurance policies.

Back to the CAA:

Flights booked on or before 14 December 2016 directly with First Aviation Ltd trading as Monarch Airlines

If your flight was booked with Monarch Airlines on or before 14 December 2016 and you received an ATOL Certificate stating that your flight is protected with First Aviation, you are ATOL protected. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made as soon as possible to these UK customers.

We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until advised to do so.

Bookings made directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward are not protected by ATOL.

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I add: ATOL protection refers to the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence.  Basically it ensures you don’t lose your money or get stranded abroad if the company responsible for getting you home goes bust.  You receive an ATOL certificate with your holiday paperwork.  What happens is that companies lodge money with the CAA in case the CAA has to step in and get their passengers home.  Monarch’s ATOL licence ran out on September 30th and as they couldn’t afford to renew it, they were forced to call in the liquidators.

If the ATOL-bonded company goes bust, you apply directly to ATOL for your refund.  The CAA website explains what to do, as reproduced here:

Holidays booked directly with Monarch Holidays

Customers booked directly with Monarch Holidays are ATOL protected and will have received an ATOL Certificate when they made their booking. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made on these bookings as soon as possible, and we aim to complete this by the end of 2017 at the latest. We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until you are advised to do so.

Monarch flights and Monarch Holidays booked through another travel company or travel agent

If you booked a flight or holiday with another travel company or travel agent you should contact them directly about your arrangements.


How does a country come up with its name?

Have you ever wondered where a country’s name comes from?  Some, like Ecuador – named after the Equator which bisects it – link to their geography.  Others, named by those who rediscovered them, focus on history – Viscount Jean Moreau de Sechelles was France’s Finance Minister at the time and is now immortalised in the Indian Ocean.  For still more, the origin of their name is disputed or unknown.  Here are the stories of how five of the world’s countries got their names.

Pakistan
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Pakistan is a relatively new nation and its name is an artificial creation.  Yes, Pakistan is actually an acronym, combining some of the most important Muslim regions.  The first to use it was Choudhry Rhamat Ali, long before Pakistan was partitioned from India.  He referred to Pakstan (no i) in a pamphlet, combining letters from the five northernmost regions of the British colony – Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan (the latter providing the -tan suffix).  The extra i was added later to make the name easier to pronounce.

Argentina
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The word “argentine” means “resembling silver” and thus Argentina is the land of the silver.  When the Spanish conquistadors first set eyes on the Río de la Plata in the 16th century, some accounts refer to the silvery colour of the water in the sunshine.  More likely, the name comes from the gifts of silver given to members of Juan Díaz de Solís’ expedition.  They were also told of a mythological mountain, rich in silver.  They named it Sierra de la Plata, but it is more likely to have been Cerro Rico de Potosí, one of the largest silver mines found in modern day Bolivia.

Tuvalu
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Prior to independence, Tuvalu was called the Ellice Islands and governed by Britain first as a protectorate and later as a colony, in partnership with the Gilbert Islands (now known as Kiribati).  But by the 1970s there was a mood for change and the majority of Ellice Islanders wanted to go it alone.  They got their wish, becoming a separate British dependent territory in 1975 with full independence coming three years later.   The country’s fresh start warranted a new name: Tuvalu.  It means “eight standing together”.  Actually there are nine island groups but one is so close to sea level they probably classed it as sitting down.  Global warming is not going to be good news in these parts.

Burkina Faso
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Another name change though this time long after independence – the country used to go by the unoriginal moniker of Upper Volta.  In 1984, the then president Thomas Sankara chose Burkina Faso, which translates as the “land of honest men”.  Given that Sankara seized power in a revolutionary coup, not exactly the most honest way of filling those shoes, the name was somewhat aspirational.  Sankara himself was assassinated in a coup three years later.

Moldova
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Fans of the crappy 1980s TV series Dynasty will be familiar with Moldavia but few at the time realised it was a real place, a historic region now split between Romania and Moldova.  Moldova takes its name from the river that actually flows in the Romanian half.  Several theories exist as to how it got its name, the best of which is a legendary tale.  Dragos Voda, a Maramures nobleman was hunting with his pet dog.  The dog, Molda, chased a bison into the river and drowned.  The heartbroken Voda ordered that from that moment on, the waterway was to be called the Moldova River.

Want to add to the list? Why not post the meaning of your country’s name in the comments?


A beginner’s guide to Central America

The seven countries of Central America – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize – fill an ancient land bridge joining the continents of North and South America.  Volcanic, verdant and vibrant, they offer the traveller some of the best tourist experiences in Latin America.  The difficulty is not in deciding to go, it’s working out what to leave out from your itinerary when there’s just so much to see and do.  This guide is designed to get you started.

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Antigua’s famous arch frames Volcan de Agua perfectly

Getting there

For many years, getting to Central America from the UK generally meant an indirect flight, and often the cheapest flights are still those which hub through the USA.  Try looking for flights with United via Houston, American via Miami or Delta via Atlanta.  Some tour operators also offer flights without the need to buy one of their packages as well. Thomson (Tui) for example fly direct to Liberia in Costa Rica and they often have deals available last minute for around £300.  Schedules are less flexible, however and the once a week flight might not suit your needs.

If you’re looking for a European-based airline, British Airways can get you to Costa Rica non-stop and recently, Air Europa commenced the first ever direct trans-Atlantic flight to Honduras, departing from Madrid.  Another alternative is to combine Central America with Mexico – you’ll find plenty of deals via Cancun which is easily combined with Belize and Guatemala.  Similarly, you could combine Panama with delightful Colombian city of Cartagena.  Shop around.  You should be able to pick up return flights from Europe for under £400.

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Shop around for a good deal

Getting around

Depoending on your budget, you’re either going to be seeing a lot of airports or taking a long-distance bus.  Try Avianca El Salvador, formerly branded as Taca, and Copa Airlines, both of which have extensive networks across the region.  if your time is relatively short, this is a good way of freeing up time for sightseeing.  Book well in advance to secure the best deals.

As with elsewhere in Latin America, many companies offer relatively comfortable “luxury” coach services but you’ll also find plenty of chicken buses knocking around on the shorter routes which make up for what they lack in comfort with bucketfuls of character.  The big name in the bus world is Tica, kind of a Central American version of Greyhound.  I’ve also had good experiences with Hedman Alas in Honduras and King Quality.  At peak times you’re best to reserve your ticket a few days in advance.

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Local buses in Nicaragua

Check out point to point transfers too.  For instance, Gray Line offer hotel to hotel transfers at reasonable prices in Costa Rica and similar tourist shuttles are also easy to find between Guatemala’s main hubs.

One thing to note is safety.  In some parts of Central America, buses can be held up by armed gangs.  Opt for a better company who videos passengers on entry and screens luggage and pick a day bus rather than overnight travel on the most notorious routes.  Keep up to date with safety by monitoring the FCO’s travel advice by country.

https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

What to see

There’s way to much for me to cover here, so you should consider these itineraries just a start and delve into one of the many online resources or good guide books on the region to help you make your own detailed plans.

A week in Panama

Begin in Panama City and spend at least a day absorbing the atmosphere of the Casco Viejo, the city’s old town.  Some compare it to Old Havana and whether you agree or not, if you like Cuba you’ll like this too.

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Casco Viejo

The canal zone is a worthwhile day trip, easily accessed from the capital.  You’ll pass through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal as well as several locks before returning to the city.  I booked this through my accommodation La Estancia B&B, which has since closed, but the company they used is still very much in business and takes direct bookings.

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Panama Canal

Another excellent day trip is to Emberá Puru.  Guide Anne de Barrigon will take you into the rainforest to meet the Emberá tribe and learn a little of their way of life.  She knows her stuff – she married a villager!  Part of the journey involves travelling upriver in a dugout canoe which is sure to prove a memorable experience as well.

THE VILLAGE KIDS POSE FOR A PICTURE

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Extend your trip either by spending more time in Panama City or by kicking back and relaxing on one of Panama’s beautiful islands, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago or in San Blas.

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Isla Diablo, San Blas

Panama links:

Embera Puru:

http://www.emberavillagetours.com/

Canal transits:

http://www.panoramicpanama.com/en/panamacanaltransit

A week in Costa Rica

With so many national parks to choose from, it’s hard to whittle them down.  If you only have a week, I’d recommend splitting it into two.  Focus on Tortuguero for a two night stay.  I based myself at Laguna Lodge which from July to November can offer turtle watching walks.  The beach and surrounding canals offer a chance to see plenty of birdlife and just unwind.

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Tortuguero

Then move on to La Fortuna, a pleasant little town which is the jumping off point for Volcan Arenal.  There are hot springs, nature walks, horseback rides and of course, the chance to watch for any activity coming from this active volcano.  The Arenal Observatory Lodge makes a great base, especially if you choose one of the rooms directly facing the volcano.  Nearby, they can also offer activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting if the volcano isn’t making your adrenaline pump enough.

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La Fortuna with Arenal in the background

Costa Rica links:

Tortuguero:

http://www.lagunatortuguero.com/

Arenal:

https://www.arenalobservatorylodge.com/

A week in Nicaragua

My suggestion for a week in Nicaragua would be to base yourself in the charming city of Granada.  It sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and has a wealth of delightful streets to lose yourself in, crammed with historic buildings including the egg yolk yellow cathedral.  Tourist infrastructure is good and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.

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Granada

From the city, there are plenty of day trips to keep you absorbed.  Head up Volcan Mombacho where a truck will drive you up into the cloud forest.  Alternatively, stand on the crater rim of the active Volcan Masaya and sniff the sulphur.  It’s currently more active than it was when I visited; take a guide for a night tour and you might be able to see the lava lake that’s filled the crater.  Check conditions locally before you go.

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Masaya volcano

Laguna del Apoyo is another option.  This crater lake is now a nature reserve and there are plenty of activities that can be arranged here such as kayaking, swimming and boating.  Extend your trip by visiting Ometepe Island with its twin volcanic peaks.

Nicaragua links:

Volcan Mombacho:

http://www.mombacho.org/en/

Volcan Masaya activity:

https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/masaya.html

A week in Honduras

Getting around Honduras can be a little worrying as there are serious safety concerns within and between its two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa.  Persevere and base yourself in the safe and sleepy town of Copan Ruinas.  The nearby ruins are free of the crowds that plague other Mayan sites in the region and you’ll see plenty of raucous scarlet macaws to boot.

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Scarlet macaw at Copan’s ruins

It’s easy to arrange a trip to the nearby Finca el Cisne, which focuses on Criollo chocolate and coffee growing.  Day trips give you the opportunity to explore the plantation and take a scenic horseback ride in the surrounding countryside; it’s also possible to extend your stay overnight.

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Preparing the horses at Finca el Cisne

If you can drag yourself away, extend your stay with a trip to Roatan.  Honduras boasts a lengthy Caribbean coastline, but it’s the Bay Islands which draw the tourists.  The usual water-based activities are available and the sunsets are a spectacle.  If you’re looking for a guide to help you explore the island, then Cleve Bodden comes highly recommended.  He’s warm, funny and above all, knowledgeable about his island home.

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Roatan sunset

Honduras links:

Finca el Cisne:

http://www.fincaelcisne.com/

Cleve Bodden:

https://www.facebook.com/clevestoursandadventures/

A week in El Salvador

Beginning from San Salvador, the country’s capital, take a drive to Lake Coatapeque, popular on weekends as a family hangout.  Continue towards the picturesque Ruta de las Flores.  This 36km road winds through village after village adorned with flowers, dotted with art galleries and sprinkled with more cafes than you could ask for.  From Juayua to Ataco via Apaneca, there’s much to keep you busy.

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Ataco

Suchitoto should be your base for the rest of your week.  Team up with El Gringo, who can provide accommodation as well as tour guiding services.  Together, we visited Project Moje, a gang rehabilitation project, as well as the arts and crafts centres of Ilobasco and San Sebastian.

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Textile weaving in San Sebastian

El Salvador links:

El Gringo:

http://www.elgringosuchitoto.com/

Project Moje:

http://www.mojelsalvador.com/

A week in Guatemala

The obvious base to begin your week in Guatemala is the pretty town of Antigua.  There’s a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes and a well-developed tourist infrastructure.  The town has lots of attractions in its own right, including the chance to make your own chocolate, but also makes a convenient base for side trips to the atmospheric market at Chichicastenango and beautiful Lake Atitlan.

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Doing the washing, Antigua-style

If you’re looking for the other must-see, then it has to be Tikal.  Of all the Mayan sites in the country, this is the stand out attraction. Deep in the jungle, it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, but its iconic ruins make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Don’t miss the Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.  There have been issues with tourist safety in and on the way to Tikal so as with Honduras, it’s especially important to keep abreast of government advice.

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Tikal

Guatemala links:

Chocolate making:

https://www.chocomuseo.com/english/our-locations/antigua-gua/

Tourist shuttle service:

https://www.graylinecostarica.com/costa-rica-shuttle-services-and-tourist-bus

A week in Belize

Belize was known as British Honduras until 1981 and English is its official language.  I think this more Caribbean, less Latino feel is why it was my least favourite of the seven countries.  That’s not to write it off though.  Transferring at the airport onto a little plane to head out to Ambergris Caye was laid back and fun, but the views down to the water were spectacular.  The diving’s great, with access to the famous Blue Hole a possibility.

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Looking down on the islands from the air

It’s worth heading back to the mainland as Belize has some interesting Mayan sites to visit.  I visited Lamanai on a day trip from Ambergris Caye, heading inland on an old American school us and then up the New River by boat.  There’s a Mennonite community living in Shipyard, not far from the ruins, and you might get a glimpse of them going about their business as you pass by.  There are other worthwhile Mayan ruins to see in Belize, among them Caracol and Altun-Ha.

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Head upriver to Lamanai, whose name means “submerged crocodile”

If you want to extend your time in Belize, Placencia gets a good write up as a place to chill out and recharge the batteries.

Belize links:

Lamanai tours:

http://www.lamanaitour.com/lamanai-tour-ambergris-caye/

Ambergris Caye information:

https://ambergriscaye.com/

In summary

You’ll need several months to do justice to all seven countries in the same trip, but it’s easy to combine a couple of neighbouring nations and concentrate on one part of the region.  For me, the countries that are least developed are the ones I’m drawn to revisit – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.  But each one rewards the traveller, so whichever you choose, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!


What to do if you’re impacted by Ryanair’s cancellations

If you’re affected by Ryanair’s announcement that they are cancelling many hundreds of flights over the next six weeks, you’re going to need to know your rights.  This is how the news broke:

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/sep/16/ryanair-cancels-up-to-50-flights-a-day-to-improve-punctuality

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If your outbound flight has been cancelled at short notice:

First, see if you can rebook. According to Ryanair’s website, this should be possible online. People are reporting on social media that the Ryanair helplines are overwhelmed and they’re not able to complete a rebooking over the phone.  Obviously with so many people chasing so few seats at short notice, many are going to be disappointed.  So what then?

If you cannot find a satisfactory rebooking (e.g. your flight is being rebooked but so late into your holiday to make it as good as useless) then you’ll need to apply for a refund.  You may also be entitled to compensation. These are your rights under EU law if the destination is within the EU or if it’s an EU carrier like Ryanair:

Flight cancellation
Flights under 1500km – 250 euros compensation
Flights over 1500km – 400 euros compensation

Note: this only covers you if your cancellation occurs 14 days or less before your flight.  If you are due to travel in more than 14 days’ time and your flight is cancelled, this will be treated by the airline as a rebooking or rerouting.  You still have the right to cancel with a full refund of what you paid for the flights, but will not be eligible for additional compensation.

Delayed arrival whether with Ryanair or alternative carrier
Flights under 1500km – 2 hours
Flights over 1500km – 3 hours

If you are delayed, you are also entitled to food and accommodation vouchers.  Full details here:

http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=LEGISSUM:l24173

Note that it can take many months to secure this compensation, despite EU regulations stating refunds must be paid within a week.  Remember you will need to keep all receipts and boarding passes. It’s also a good idea to send letters recorded delivery if you are getting nowhere by email.

If you decide not to travel, have a look at what expenses you’ll incur, such as accommodation that cannot be cancelled at short notice.  The airline is not liable for this.  It will need to be claimed back from your travel insurance company.  Making a claim such as this doesn’t affect your right to EU compensation if applicable.

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If you’re abroad and your inbound flight has been cancelled:

The above applies but you’ll also have to factor in whether you need to be back home as a matter of urgency or can afford the time and money (up front at least) to extend your trip.  You might find it easier to  deal with staff face to face at the airport though this can add to your stress as there will be a lot of other angry passengers there which isn’t going to make you feel better.

You can try to persuade the airline that rebooking you with an alternative carrier e.g. a seat on a rival airline is a better idea.  You’ll have more bargaining power if the airline itself is very tight for space and is struggling to get you somewhere, especially if you’re stranded and they’re having to pay for your overnight accommodation.  Remember if you pay for your own alternative flights, you’re out of pocket.

It can be very hard to get them to pay, as I found out with CityJet a few years ago.  CityJet refunded their own flight (that they cancelled fifteen minutes before departure) but because I didn’t want to wait for an alternative with CityJet or spend another night in Paris even at their expense, I paid for the Eurostar alternative.  I eventually funded it out of the compensation I received eight months later.  Read the full story here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/finally-a-win-against-cityjet/

If you can get through on a helpline, that is often better, but you will need to be patient.  Be as calm, polite and flexible as you can, particularly if you need to get back home in a hurry.  Remember the person on the phone isn’t directly to blame and venting your frustration isn’t going to get you anywhere.

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If you’ve a flight coming up which is currently unaffected:

This currently is where most Ryanair passengers are, fortunately, and the social media furore should calm down for the most part now that people know where they stand.  Nevertheless:

Have a Plan B.  Research alternative airlines or other means of transport on the inbound leg.  Check your email on a regular basis so that if your flight is next to be affected, you’re amongst the first to know – and fight for the seats that might be available on alternative flights.

Print out or save to your phone a copy of the EU regulations (see link above) so that there can be no dispute with airline staff about your rights – it will be in black and white.

Double check your travel insurance, especially the limits and excesses for flight delays and flight cancellations.  Again, keep all receipts and boarding passes as you’ll need them to make a claim.  Keep proof of the cancellation.

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What now?

Ryanair’s lack of consideration for their customers, though not a surprise, is still a concern.  They won’t be the first and last airline to do this.  I’ve had similar late in the day cancellations from American Airlines (weather related issues leading to a 48 hour delay in New York when I should have been in Nicaragua) and as mentioned, with CityJet (who didn’t even inform us the flight was cancelled, just checked us in as normal and quietly removed our flight from the departures board).  But for the record, Ryanair, you need to remember who keeps your staff in a job and your planes in the air.

Update 17 September from the excellent Simon Calder at The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/ryanair-rights-400000-passengers-cancelled-flights-compensation-hotels-meals-caa-a7949916.html

Update 18 September of full list of cancellations on the Ryanair website:

https://www.ryanair.com/ie/en/useful-info/help-centre/travel-updates/flight-cancellations7


How to reduce your risk of being caught up in a Caribbean hurricane

As Irma finally begins to blow herself out, the US and many Caribbean islands have been left reeling from her effects.  Sustained 185mph winds have been recorded during this Category 5 storm, beaten only by Hurricane Allen in 1980 which registered winds of 190mph.  On top of that, of course, are the floods which result from torrential rain and the even more dangerous storm surges caused when winds slam ocean water back onshore with terrifying force.  Even a Category 1 hurricane is not to be taken lightly, as those who live in hurricane-prone regions will testify.  For casual holidaymakers unused to such events, it’s even more frightening.  So has seeing Irma’s devastation marked the end of your Caribbean holiday plans?  Here’s why it shouldn’t and how you can avoid getting caught up in such a disaster.

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Choose your island carefully

Statistically, some Caribbean islands are hit by hurricanes far more often than others.  According to data compiled by stormcaribe.com for storms between 1944 and 2010, you’re most likely to be affected if you’re in Abaco in the Bahamas, with Grand Bahama, Bimini and New Providence islands hot on its heels.  A couple of islands in the Netherlands Antilles also occur in the top ten, notably Saba and St Eustatius.  Making up the numbers are Nevis, Key West, Tortola in the BVI and the Cuban capital Havana.

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Conversely, the bottom of the list features some well known names.  Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent are much less likely to experience a hurricane.  Such severe storms rarely if ever take a southerly track, making the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire the safest bet in the region.  For the full list check out this link:

http://stormcarib.com/climatology/freq.htm

A broader picture (and more up to date, factoring in storms up to 2016) is offered by Hurricane City.  Their list factors in storms as well as hurricanes, giving a more rounded and perhaps more accurate appraisal of the risk posed for the Caribbean, Bermuda and the USA.  Joining the Bahamas to represent the Caribbean in the top ten are the Cayman Islands.  Because this list encompasses storms as well, there are a few northerly locations there too:

http://www.hurricanecity.com/rank.htm

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Avoid peak hurricane season

If you really want to go to the islands that lie in the path of potential hurricanes then you’ve got to be picky about when you go.  Technically, the Atlantic hurricane season begins in June, but rarely do we see really damaging hurricanes before late August.  2005 was a bumper year for big storms – Katrina among them – and was the year when we saw the earliest Category 4 storm (Dennis on July 8th) and Category 5 storm (Emily on July 17th).  The storm season officially comes to a close at the end of November though on rare occasions they can continue until December or even January.  Yes, you guessed it, that happened in 2005 too.  They’d already run through the named hurricanes by October when Wilma hit and eventually needed to borrow six letters of the Greek alphabet.  Tropical Storm Zeta finally brought the season to a close when it dissipated on January 6th 2006.

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Check the NOAA forecasts

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a forecast for the upcoming season.  They take in a number of factors such as ocean temperatures and, though it’s not an exact science, have a good track record in identifying busy years.  So far, 2017 is falling in line with predictions.  It kicked off with Tropical Storm Arlene in April – two months ahead of schedule – and with the likes of Harvey and Irma, is set to be another of those unforgettable seasons.  If you want to avoid being caught up in a severe hurricane, then if it’s been quiet, you’re much less likely to find yourself in trouble if you want to make a late booking.  And if the worst happens, this leaflet is packed with useful advice:

http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/hurricane/resources/TropicalCyclones11.pdf

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My thoughts are with those who found themselves in the path of recent Atlantic hurricanes.  I hope that those affected get back on their feet and that the impacted economies recover as quickly as possible.  Once they do, they’re going to need your tourist dollars, so don’t write off this beautiful region just yet.