Our two tiered sleeper train is quiet as I start to pen this blog. Of course, I’m using my iPad to type rather than pen and paper, and the irony of the complete contrast between rich and poor, Western & Indian, is not lost on me. Matt is in the upper bunk having a nap – we have had a week of 5am starts, which has made adjusting to the time difference even worse, and again another early start tomorrow. But more about that later… we are on a short train (only 2 hours for us but the entire journey is 36 hours,) to Jaipur, where we have a very busy weekend planned, having already visited Delhi, Agra, and a national park!
We have been waiting for this trip for a very long time. It’s our honeymoon, and we asked for contributions for our wedding gift list. We have a whole itinerary made up from activities gifted for us by our closest family and friends, and day five into our schedule, we have already witnessed so many different experiences.
So for now, a thank you to everybody reading this who contributed in some way towards this trip. I am sure you will see your personal thanks soon as we tick off the India bucket list! Having celebrated Kris’s birthday with our nearest and dearest in London, we flew with British Airways from London Heathrow direct to Delhi, with our trusty rucksacks from our last big trip to Central America, and arrived into Delhi at 7am Monday morning.
The 18th-century city tucked inside Philadelphia, where the United States was born at Independence Hall, swarms all year with curious tourists, history buffs, and children on school trips. Sprawling out from it is the other Philadelphia, firmly rooted in the 21st century and bustling with the activity of a rapidly evolving destination city.
‘Philly’ is quickly becoming my favourite American city to visit; beautiful neighbourhoods, some great shopping, top food spots, a vibrant nightlife, and a warm friendliness from most Philadelphians you encounter. It’s also under two hours on a train to New York City, so seeing this wonderful city whilst combining other trips is very easy!
Top Things To Do In Philly
Recreate Rocky’s Run (along Ben Franklin Parkway)
If you are a fan of the iconic film series, a recreation of the famous running montage (from the sequel Rocky II) is a must. Take in the sights of Benjamin Franklin Parkway (of which there are a lot). Start at the Rocky statue, located to the right of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then run up the steps to become Rocky, arms firmly in the air.
If you are not a fan, it’s worth starting here anyway! After leisurely strolling up the Rocky steps, turn and pause to see the beauty of the city behind you. I’ve visited the city in every season, and each one brings it’s own beauty; whether it’s the beautiful clear blue skies in summer or the crisp, red fauna lining Ben Franklin Parkway.
Make sure you stop into the Museum of Art whatever you do – it’s “pay what you wish” every Wednesday after 5pm, and on the first Sunday of every month!
Continue walking south east along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and you’ll come across the Barnes Foundation, The Franklin Institute, and the Rodin Museum, all of which are worth a dip in to experience some Philly Culture.
One of the cities best-known landmarks is Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture, located in John F. Kennedy Plaza (or LOVE Park, as it’s referred to by the locals). You will reach it’s translated sister-sculpture on this route first, the equally-impressive AMOR, in Sister Cities Park.
From here, you can take in the view of City Hall (the largest municipal building in the country) and then cross to South Broad Street for the best view in my own opinion.
My favourite spot for breakfast is not far from Ben Franklin Parkway. Sabrina’s Cafe (Callowhill Street) have a great menu for all day breakfast (and lunch/dinner items) and is the best spot I’ve found in Philly full of locals for the best breakfast around – I make sure I visit here every time we visit the city! Walk up to Spring Garden Street after to discover some fun wall graffiti!
Tour Independence Hall (the birthplace of the USA)
The Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia is a park that preserves several sites associated with the American Revolution, all of which are must-sees! While historical attractions are abound in Philly, Independence Hall holds monumental significance to the development of the nation. In 1776, the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in the building’s Assembly Room. Just 11 years later, representatives from a dozen states met here to lay the framework for the U.S. Constitution. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the centrepiece of Independence National Historical Park, and guided tours are available year-round.
Free, timed tickets are required and can be picked up at the Independence Visitor Center. But plan ahead — tours fill up fast! I would recommend booking a timed ticket online here which is only $1!. Tickets are not required in January and February, after 5 p.m. during summer hours, on July 4th, or on Thanksgiving Day.
See Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell was originally used to call the Pennsylvania Assembly to meetings. It was later adopted by abolitionists, suffragists and Civil Rights advocates, making it a symbol used by many today. The bell, which is free to visit year-round, draws people from around the nation to snag a photo in front of the soaring glass walls overlooking Independence Hall. No tickets are required.
See Philly from the Top (from One Liberty Observation Tower)
My first thought when I heard about this particular “sight” was that most observation decks in big cities are overpriced. This is not. $15 adult and $10 children is well worth the price, and it really is the best way to view Philadelphia. The observation deck was also very quiet when I went – no cramming through to get a view! Buy tickets in advance online, or rock up on a quiet day and purchase in person.
The Sun & Stars package allows a second visit within 48hrs to see the city at sunset into the evening and is well worth the extra couple of dollars for the return trip
Visit Reading Terminal Market
America’s oldest farmers’ market and current foodie paradise, this indoor food market is an almost unbelievable one-stop shop for everything from local produce and meats to artisanal cheeses and desserts. The public space also provides open seating where customers can enjoy meals from restaurants, ranging from hot roast pork sandwiches from DiNic’s to duck noodle soup from Sang Kee Peking. Be sure to check these out
Authentic Philly Cheesesteak (although here they just call them ‘cheesesteaks’)
The Philly cheesesteak is the city’s most famous food. Those in the know order their cheesesteak with two words only: cheese selection (provolone, American or Whiz) and “wit” or “without” onions. The debate about which local spot cooks up the best sandwich may never end, but for an iconic Philly experience, visit the corner of South 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, where rivals Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks feed the masses daily.
Admire the quiet beauty of Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill (pronounced “SKOOK-uhl”) River
A national historic landmark, the 19th-century boathouses lining the Schuylkill River consist of 10 charming houses. The structures have been associated with rowing since the 19th century, and the boat clubs that occupy them have produced many Olympic champions. Get an up-close view of the houses during a stroll along the Kelly Drive path or head over at night, when glittering lights framing the boathouses create idyllic reflections on the river’s surface.
Take a break from shopping in Rittenhouse Square
Shop till you drop on Chestnut and Walnut, and once you’re done, visit the peaceful Rittenhouse Square. Stop at the quant English pub “The Dandelion” for a pint, or “Howl at the Moon” for a livelier experience!
We usually stay in the Logan Hotel (part of the Curio Collection by Hilton), on Logan Square. It’s a luxurious and art-centric based hotel in the heart of everything you’d want to see in the city. The restaurant, Urban Farmer, is one of the best hotel restaurants you will experience, and on it’s own is one of the best steak restaurants I’ve ever been to. Gym & Pool access is provided, and again, one of the better hotel pools I’ve experienced.
After a wonderful few days of laying by the beach, drinking $1 beers, and discovering underwater treasures, we were due to the catch the morning ferry across to mainline Honduras when suddenly, we realised that we didn’t have enough cash to pay for our taxi to the ferry port in the morning as well as our ferry tickets if they didn’t take card payment. The ATM’s in the West End were empty when we tried to get some, and we struggled the next morning (we were travelling early Sunday morning and ATMs hadn’t been refilled yet!) to find another that was working. Eventually, we managed to get some cash at the airport (cash machine in the terminal building), and when we arrived at the ferry terminal, realised they did have card machines and just paid with that!
We paid US$25 to get to from the West End to the ferry terminal, which is in Dixon Cove.
Galaxy Wave offers two departures daily, leaving Roatán at 7:00am and 2:00pm. These then return to the island, leaving La Ceiba at 9:30am and 4:30pm. They recommend that passengers check-in around an hour before departure, but we rocked up about half an hour before and were fine. The only point to stress is that these tickets cannot be purchased online for international passengers, and so if the ferry happens to be full (there is a lot of local footfall), you will have to wait until afternoon which could ruin your onward travel plans – maybe we were lucky!
The crossing takes around 75 minutes and currently, a one-way ticket Roatán to La Ceiba costs US$32 (~£23). You can also travel in first class, which is in a separate area upstairs, but this really isn’t necessary. Check out their website for updated prices and schedules.
On arrival at La Ceiba, there is a long line of tables greeting you as you disembark. Passengers queue up and wait for luggage to be unloaded and placed on the tables for you to grab an attendants attention and swap your luggage tags for your bags. Be prepared for slaughterhouse type fighting – I’ve never seen a collection of folk scramble before like it! Hold your ground, split up if there’s more than just you, and you’ll be fine!
Unfortunately, the only direct bus from La Ceiba to Copán Ruinas is operated by Hedman Alas and departs at 05:15am. This takes around 8 hours, but at least you arrive in Copan by around 1pm. As we were still on Roatán at this time, this wouldn’t be possible. In fact, when we were almost going to miss the ferry because of the ATM debacle, our next plan was to get the later ferry to the mainland and stay the night in La Ceiba to take this direct bus the next morning! This could potentially be preferential, as the party scene in La Ceiba is meant to be quite good, so it’s worth considering an extra evening here to then travel in comfort!
On exiting the ferry terminal, we flagged down a taxi (not hard – there’s lots of them) to take us to the bus station (most non-luxury buses use the main terminal which is at Mercado San José). We were planning on getting a 09:30am bus which is ran by Catisa or Contraibal. This is not what happened though. We got taken straight to another bus terminal which was ran by the company Trans-Mirna, who we had heard of, but not what we wanted! It was 09:15am by now, and they informed us that the next was at 11am. Knowing that we had probably missed the bus we were aiming for, and knowing we were quite a way from the main terminal, we decided to wait. We paid 121 HNL (£3.50/US$5) each for our tickets.
The fun really began at San Pedro Sula bus station. We were arriving into the bus terminal at 1:45pm, and we knew that there was a 2pm bus leaving to Copán Ruinas that we wanted to be on. We jumped off of the bus, and tried to find out way around the terminal, soon realising it was vast. There are lots of shops and a huge food area, but eventually we found the window for Casasola. We had just missed the 2pm as it was full, but the next (and last) was at 3pm. We had an hour to chill with some food and drink, which actually was a blessing having been travelling since 6am! We paid 140 HNL (£4.25/US$6) each for our tickets.
Be aware that if you don’t think you are going to make this 3pm bus from San Pedro Sula, you will not make it to Copán Ruinas on this day! Budget hotels in San Pedro Sula are mostly in the downtown area south of Parque Central and this area is very dodgy after dark. Hostels tend to be in the more suburban areas, and you may struggle to find any on just walking around. If you know that you are leaving La Ceiba too late to make it, I’d suggest staying put and making your journey the next day as early as possible. Honduras can be a dangerous place.
This bus was long! We sat at the front of the bus so we could see the road ahead – bad decision. After a few hours, having been stuck in traffic too, it started to get dark, and the roads started to get worse. There were no street lights, and the headlights on the bus weren’t working particularly well. It was a miracle we arrived in Copan Ruinas in one piece!
When trying to decide where to go for our Easter Break (and a rare weekend we were both free!), I hadn’t really thought we would be flying off to the east to experience Soviet-led Belarus, and the irresistible sights of Lithuania and Poland. From Gothic spires to Stalinist capitals, Eastern Europe really is a warehouse of cultures waiting for exploration. In general, prices are low throughout these countries. A meal in a nice restaurant will not break the bank, and every museum we visited worked out under £5 per person. There is so much to discover, so why wait?!
When to go?
We made our trip in early May, and experienced some bitterly cold weather in Vilnius (it was snowing and lakes were frozen over still) and some boiling hot weather (it was 26C degrees when we landed in Warsaw!). High season is July and August, where you can expect high temperatures and high prices. Hotel rates can rise up to 30%! Big cities will also be crowded. May-June and September to October is often still pleasant weather, and you will beat the crowds travelling in this time.
Trying to imagine what Lithuania was like pre-1900 is quite difficult; much of its capital, Vilnius, boasts bleak Soviet-era remnants which are still sprawled throughout the city. Still, the charming 13th-century historic centre, the largest still remaining in central and eastern Europe, seems to flow seamlessly into the newer Soviet-inspired boulevards. It’s a changing city; adopting the euro in January 2017, it will soon be a top pick for weekend travellers looking for history, architectural heritage, and a bustling cafe culture that won’t break the bank.
We had planned 48 hours in Vilnius, and felt like we had enough time to explore the city. There were a couple of places we didn’t go to due to opening times, which we should have foreseen.
We flew with Wizz Air from London Luton to Vilnius. Beware that if you want to sit with somebody, you will have to pay for select seats; we didn’t do this and then were separated even though we checked in together and at the same time!
Arriving at Vilnius airport was easy. The airport building itself looks more like a grand train station, and it is small. There are a few options to get into town from the airport. The Bus 1 runs from the airport to Vilnius train station, a shuttle train service runs connecting the two (this should cost less than €1), or you can get a taxi. We opted for an Uber, which we tend to try and use when we’re away – it’s easy to track where you are and where you’re going, especially if you don’t speak the language! Our Über journey cost us only €5 (£4.30) and took only around 15 minutes.
On arriving at our apartment, we decided to walk around to get our bearings of the city and planned to take the free walking tour (more about that later!) tomorrow. We were staying right in the heart of the old town, and opposite our front door was St. Anne’s Church, so started there! This late-15th-century Gothic church built with red brick, ornate stained glass, and huge arches may seem impressive, but not much of it is original; most features are reconstructed. Even so, it’s worth a visit to admire the architecture, and whilst you’re there, take a look at the Bernadine Church behind it that dominates the local skyline.
Top foods to try in Lithuania
Bulviniai blynai (potato pancakes)
Cepelinai (potato-dough ‘zeppelin’ stuffed with meat, mushrooms, or cheese)
Bear or game sausages
Smoked pigs’ ears (we did not try these!)
Kepta duona (deep-fried garlicky bread sticks)
Be aware you will start to smell like garlic if you spend too long in Lithuania! Everything seems to have it in, and this along with the smell of fried potatoes will be your lasting smell of the country! Make sure you have some mints on you!
We ate at Lokys (Stiklių gatvė) that evening as we wanted traditional Lithuanian food on our first night in the country. This restaurant has become something of a Vilnius institution, and many a local and tourist can be found in the vaulted 16th-century cellars. Being a hunter’s restaurant (with animal busts hanging through the former merchants house), it’s best servings are its game; roast venison, boar, game sausages, quail and even beaver stew. Matt had the roast boar, and I decided to go for the “Lokys House Royale,” a selection of different meats with roasted courgettes and potato wedges.
On our first morning waking up in Vilnius, we did the 10am free walking tour with FreeTour. We try to take part in a free tour as soon as we arrive in a city, as they are often run by locals, and you get to find your bearings of the city without getting lost! Our guide, Rita, gave us a combination of both history, fun facts and stories from nowadays life that only the locals know about! We covered most of the highlights of the old town, as well as Uzupis, a district over the river which is now known for its swarm of artists that have settled there. Uzupis even has its own constitution, and considers itself an independent country (not UN recognised though!). The free tour sets off at 10am and 12pm from the town hall. Check out the website for different tours they run, including a Pub Crawl, Jewish Vilnius, and an ‘Alternative’ Vilnius.
Recommended by our walking tour guide Rita, we headed to Forto Davras for a traditional Lithuanian lunch. This restaurant feels like a bit of a tourist trap, especially as it is on the main road, but it serves good food at a reasonable price, so there’s no shame in eating here (in fact we ate here twice!). Good traditional food and cheap beer, set in the downstairs cellar (something that seems to be quite common in restaurants in Lithuania!)
We had read about a picturesque red-brick castle which seemed fairly close to Vilnius. Deciding it would be nice to leave the city for a little while and explore parts of Lithuania slightly more rural, we headed to the bus station and bought an open return for around €2 each. This is obviously a popular route, as the ticket officer had pre-printed lists of the return buses and their times. We would make the 2pm bus out, and they return up until around 8pm (ask for a list when you book at the ticket office!). The journey takes around 30 minutes.
Get the bus to Trakai from Vilnius – the bus station in Trakai is around a 20 minute walk through the town to the castle, whereas the train station is a longer walk and is more complicated to find. The bus journey is also a nicer journey, and there is more to see along the way, instead of staring out into forest. Trakai-visit has information on how to travel there.
Arriving at Trakai castle was quite overwhelming. We realised that the entire lake it is situated on was completely frozen over and people were walking on it to cross over to the castle. The castle was €7/£6 or €3.50/£3 for students, and any updates listed on the castle website along with opening times. As we were dealing with fairly poor weather conditions (it was snowing and sleeting by this time), we were happy to find lots of indoor exhibits (with quick dashes across the courtyard). The museum has an interesting collection of antiques and reconstructions from its 14th-century beginnings, as well as a few more modern works of art. Lots of reconstruction work has gone on over the last few centuries, taking the castle from almost rubble and disrepair, to the major tourist attraction it is today.
On the next morning, we walked from our apartment in the Old Town north-east towards the Museum of Genocide Victims. This haunting former headquarters of the Gastapo and then KGB houses a museum dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians who were deported, imprisoned, or murdered by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Union from WWII until the 1960s; exploring the basement prison is a chilling, but poignant and important experience. The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and cost €4 (£3.50) for adult admission, and €1 (85p) for students – this museum will ask for your student card!
I was a bit apprehensive about visiting Belarus. It is the closest country politically to Russia, and doesn’t see itself as European at all. Due to high tensions in Russia at the moment, particularly with LGBT rights, I was sceptical about enjoying our visit, but what we found the complete opposite – a friendly, welcoming country with a lot to take in!
Travelling to Belarus got a whole lot easier in January 2017 when President Alexander Lukashenko signed a document allowing nationals from 80 states visa-free entry into the country. You have to have proof of medical insurance for your stay in Belarus; if you don’t have travel insurance, firstly why not? But secondly, and more important for your stay, you can purchase travel insurance at the airport before security, and it will cost you €6 (£5.25) for the 5 days.
If you are travelling visa-free, there is a slight snag. You can only stay for 5 days (including the day you arrive and the day you leave), and you have to fly in and out of Minsk International Airport. Because of the times of inbound and outbound flights, it doesn’t really give you enough time to explore the country. If you are wanting to exploring further afield than Minsk, perhaps to Brest, you might be better off applying for a visa and spending more than 4 nights in the country. This would also make travel easier, as there are international trains that run to Moscow (requiring a separate Russian visa) or Warsaw (which was our next stop).
After exiting the airport, we again decided to take an Über from the airport to our apartment located just off of pr Nezalezhnastsi (Independence Avenue), one of the main streets in Minsk. It cost around 30 BYN (€12/£10.40) and took around 35 minutes.
Another tip would be to make sure you have any offline translations already (difficult for Cyrillic languages) downloaded, and you know exactly where you are going. We couldn’t find our AirBnb apartment and our greeter only spoke Belarusian or German. Luckily, we managed to broken translate from German, and then asked some locals nearby to help translate.
On arriving in Minsk city centre, we had planned to take part in a pub crawl organised by FreeWalkingTourMinsk (the company running the free walking tour on tomorrow’s agenda). This runs every Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 9pm and costs 35 BYN (€13/£12). Unfortunately, we had just missed it as it took us a while to get through security (a missing medical insurance certificate), so we headed into the first pub, Gambrinus. Self-proclaimed “spiritual gastro-pub” serves more than 100 varieties of bottled beer and 18 types of draft beer. They also offer a European food menu, and it is a great way to try national cuisine. We had local beers, and ordered the “assorted beer fries” for 30 BYN (€12/£10.40), which came out as a huge plate of onion rings, chicken nuggets, ribs and deep-fried bread!
The next morning, we met our tour guide, Roma, for our FreeWalkingTourMinsk. These run in English, and depart every day at 11am from the front of City Hall in Svabody Square, near the statue of Voigt, the bronze figure holding the key and paper. Unfortunately, it was wet and windy on the morning of our tour, but come rain or shine, our guide was ready to whisk us through the sights, with a stop at a coffee shop to warm us up on the way. The Old Town tour covers the Upper part of town (Old Town), the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald (the elleged assassin of former US President John F Kennedy), a park, the Opera House, and finishing up at the Victory Monument.
Recommended to us by our walking guide Roma, the Hrai restaurant set in the … part of town served great traditional Belarusian food at a great price. The draniki here was top notch, and we also had the buckwheat pancakes with pork and mushrooms.
Cuisine through Eastern Europe is very similar, with lots of countries boasting that their traditional way is better than their neighbours. Belarusian cuisine, similar to Lithuania and Poland, consists of lots of meals based around food from the earth. The most famous dish is draniki, which is a potato pancake (think hash brown) often served with pork, onions and mushrooms. Krupnik is a traditional Belarusian vegetable soup served in a loaf of rye bread, and pork ears feature widely throughout menus in the region. Similarly, buckwheat pancakes are heralded throughout history, known since the middle 18th century for being served at the court of King Augustus III, Stanislaw Poniatowski.
The quaint State Museum of the History of the Theatrical and Musical Culture is set in a former monastery, but includes lots of traditional Belarusian theatre and music exhibits. We were probably their only visitors for the day, and we had a personal tour by a museum steward. There are no English signs or captions, but it was a nice half hour looking at the exhibits.
On our second full day in Minsk, we decided to visit the castles of Mir and Nesvizh (Njasvich). We hired a car from the branch of Europcar based at Hotel Minsk (we had prebooked this online for £35), which was just around the corner from our apartment. An easy hour drive brought us to the small town of Mir, dominated by its impressive red brick castle. There’s not much else to see in Mir, so don’t feel like you have to make many pitstops, apart from maybe the pub-restaurant opposite for coffee or tea before you go in (this was well needed as it was cold and snowy as we arrived).
Entry fee for Mir Castle (as of June 2018) is 12 BYN(US$6/£4.50) or 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) at the weekends, with students going at half rate. Because of the inclement weather, we were happy to be inside exploring the history and original castle artefacts. The castle has towers and turrets to climb, and lovely views of the English gardens (which would have been nice to walk around had it not been snowing and sleeting!)
A lot of the museums and sights to see in Minsk are closed on a Monday. Because we were visiting the city over catholic Easter Sunday (Orthodox Palm Sunday due to calendars), a lot of these were also closed on the Sunday. To make the most of our time, we decided to leave the city for the day and visit the castles further south that were open on Mondays.
Another half an hour drive took us to the town of Nesvizh (Niasvizh or Njasvizh), where we stopped for lunch before heading onto the castle. This town has a few more sights, including a town gate, town hall and cathedral, but once you’ve driven past these, there is no need to stop. We ate lunch at Skarbnitsa, which sits opposite the town hall, and serves great draniki (I had the frying pan) and other traditional Belarusian food.
The walk from the castle car park to the castle itself is a nice walk along the lake, and the castle is impressive on first sight. Entrance is 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) and half rate for students. The exhibitions there are well laid out across different floors, and wind around the different areas of the castle (it is all inside apart from the run across the courtyard to different exhibitions!). Nesvizh Castle feels more traditional than Mir, and closer to what it would have looked like, and the interiors and decorations are fascinating.
We had devoted the next day to the great Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This museum hosts an excellent display detailing Belarus’ suffering and heroism during the Nazi occupation. It is an interesting look to see the national pride of the country and it’s close ties to the Soviet, and the role they played in helping the country; of course the Soviet’s “saved” Belarus from the Nazi’s, and the country has leant this way ever since. There is also a range of tanks, airplanes and artillery from WWII, and some great dioramas throughout, making it one of Minsk’s few must-see attractions. Entrance is 9 BYN (US$4.50/£3.30) or 7 BYN (US$3.50/£2.60) for students.
Another highlight of the museum is the stunning Victory Hall, which on a clear day, is one of the best architectural designs you will see on your trip!
After visiting the museum, we stopped by the haunting Zaslavsky Jewish Monument and the still snow-logged Memorial Gardens.
For dinner that evening, we ate at Kamyanitsa, located slightly further east on the north part of the river. This restaurant is a great grill restaurant serving loads of traditional Belarusian food, and is thoroughly recommended. We had the ribs from the grill, which were great!
This filled us up for our visit to the Opera House that evening, where we saw a Belarusian production of La Traviata. We had been told about the Opera House on our walking tour, and our guide, Roma, explained ticket prices are inexpensive due to state funding and low expenses. We paid a total of 18 BYN (US$9/£6.75) for two dress circle tickets! Bargain! If you have a free evening, and there is something on, I’d definitely recommend it!
The next morning, before heading back to the airport, we ate breakfast at My English Granny, and had a sorely missed fry up! The restaurant serves the closet thing to traditional food we found on the trip, and was a nice change to pastries on the move!
When leaving the country from the airport, be aware that most airlines require you to tag luggage, regardless of if it’s being checked in or carried on as hand luggage. We queued for 45 minutes to get through security to be told we didn’t have tags on our luggage and had to go back to check in (even though we had checked in online!).
What you will learn about Warsaw from your stay is that it is different to much of Poland, and other European countries. It has suffered the worst history imaginable, including virtual destruction, but it has survived, rebuilt itself, and flourished into a diverse, friendly capital. Our third and final city treated us to glorious weather throughout our stay. We arrived at the airport to 25 degree sunshine, and again took an Über to our apartment. This took about 30 minutes and cost around 30 BYN (US$15/£11).
I wouldn’t usually offer recommendations for AirBnB’s as I think they are so personal to what travellers require, but our apartment was beautiful. Jan was a great host, and has renovated the apartment perfectly; everything we needed was available, and we were just a five minute walk from the town centre. We were just sad we didn’t stay for longer!
Free Walking Tour Warsaw operate a huge amount of tours, and we met Agatha for the 4pm free tour of old town Warsaw. This fascinating walk took us around the city, and gave us lots of interesting local knowledge.
The legend of the Warsaw Mermaid
The City’s literature says that two mermaids from Denmark were swimming in the Baltic Sea. One, Den lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid), bored of swimming returned home to Copenhagen (where she now sits on the waterside), but her sister, Melusine (or Melusina), decided to carry on swimming and made her way to Warsaw, stopping on a riverbank near the Old Town. Fishermen noticed something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish. They planned to trap the animal, then heard her singing and fell in love. A rich merchant trapped and imprisoned the mermaid, thinking he could make money from her. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her. Ever since the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents.
For dinner we ate at Pub Pod Zegarem, which was recommended to us by Agatha from the tour. If you take a free walking tour, get a map and show it to the restaurant at dinner and you even get a free shot of Polish vodka! Here is the best place to try every type of food you’re supposed to try in Poland – we had the pork knuckle and the ribs (and shared both of them!)
The next morning, we had breakfast at Warszawski Sznyt to set us up for the day, and then made our way to the Palace of Culture and Science. This huge building is like marmite; half of the city hate it, and half love it. Given by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, this ‘gift of friendship’ is the tallest building in Poland, at 231m. The building basically houses some shopping malls and conference spaces, but take the high-speed lift to the 30th floor and there is an observation deck where you can see the span of the city. This costs 20zl (US$5.50/£4) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for students (in the summer they open the terrace in the evening as well, so you can see the city with the sun setting).
After viewing the city from above, we made our way towards the Chopin Museum. Being a pianist, Kris was very excited to visit this museum. Completely high-tech with interactive multimedia including images, videos and score extracts for you to listen to, this museum is a must-see for any music fan. They even have the last piano that Chopin owned on display! Entrance price is 22zl (US$6/£4.50) or 13zl (US$3.50/£2.60) for a reduced ticket, and it is recommended to book in advance as they limit the entrance of people to the museum.
To fully complete your Chopin story whilst in Warsaw, visit the Church of the Holy Cross (ul Krakowskie Przedieście), and find the second pillar on the left side of the nave. This pillar, adorned with an epitach of Chopin, contains what remains of the composers heart. It was illegally smuggled here from Paris after his death by his sister, who did it to honour the composers last will and testament; although he had body from Poland to France, his heart remained in Warsaw.
The museum is closeby to Łaziesnki Park, where we then walked to and explored. We stopped for a refreshing Aperol spritz at a cafe, and then spent some time spotting red squirrels in the trees.
Our last full day was spent visiting two great museums. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is a huge exhibition with lots of multimedia and interactive features, illustrating 1000 years of Jewish history. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for a reduced ticket.
We also visited the Warsaw Rising Museum, which is well recommended. This museum traces the history of the city’s heroic but doomed uprising against the German occupation in 1944. Filled with displays, photographs, film archives and personal items, there is even a bomber plane which fills much of the 1st floor. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 20zl (US$5.40/£4) for reduced rate (admission on Sundays is free!).
No matter where you visit in these three beautiful countries, you will always find friendly faces welcoming you to their home, and wanting to share as much culture with you as possible.
Roatán is the largest and most developed of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. Long and thin (50km long, but only 2km to 4km wide), the island is a real diving and snorkelling hub – almost all of its coastline is surrounded by a diverse coral reef teeming with tropical fish. Set 65km off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Roatán sits a golden jewel. Sandy beaches, cheap food and drink, and a surprisingly great vibe for an island whose mainland is currently experiencing the worst political unrest it has faced in years.
Roatán attracts a far more midrange crowd than its neighbouring island, Utila, with far more budget options for sleeping and eating. The main hub for backpackers is in West End, which is where we decided to stay.
On arrival at Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport in Coxen Hole (the ‘capital’ of Roatán), we haggled with taxi drivers to get to West End. We tried to share with a few other tourists that had been on our flight, but as the drivers here price per person rather than per journey, we weren’t really able to get it any cheaper. We had read in the Lonely Planet that a colectivo runs from the highway just outside the airport. We tried to strategy but could not find any kind of bus stop, or see any minibuses running. As we were about to give up, a taxi arrived dropping somebody off, and agreed to take us to the West End to US$10 (£7) for the entire journey, instead of the US$30 they wanted inside the airport compound. Maybe we were getting an unlicensed taxi, but it saved us money and was quick and easy!
A point to remember if you visit the island; there are only a few ATMs on the island, and most of the time these don’t work! The most reliable ATM is at the airport in the terminal building. There is one in the West End, but it tends to be emptied fairly quickly in an attempt to curb crime. Make sure you have enough cash for your entire time on the island – not all restaurants and bars accept card! We had a bit of a nightmare trying to get cash out on our way to the 7am ferry off of the island when we realised we wouldn’t have enough cash to pay our taxi driver!
Eating in the West End
There are a couple of really good haunts in the West End that the regulars will always swear by. Luckily, a lot of the finest eateries are based in the West End as there is so much more passing trade.
Creoles Rotisserie Chicken is described in the Lonely Planet as an “island institution.” It is exactly that. Umming and ahhing at the entrance, a local passed us and told us it was the best on the island. It offers excellent Honduran-style roast chicken (we had the half chicken and a number of sides including rice, carrot salad, and coleslaw). Let me say this; the chicken here was better than any creole chicken we’ve had, even in New Orleans!
Cannibal Café was the next choice for us. Seriously large tacos are a specialty with traditional Central American food in this relaxed eatery. We got stuck in a massive rain storm having finished our food, so kicked back with a few more Salva Vida’s (Honduran beers). Matt had a huge chimichanga, and I had sizzling chicken fajitas. This place also offers wine at an affordable price, which was a rare treat on Roatán!
Activities whilst on Roatán
Half Moon Bay, which forms the northern part of the West End, is a lovely sandy beach, with sheltered water. The few days we were on the island wasn’t the best weather, and because of this we only really had a little time on the beach, but I think this would be the best bet if it were complete beach weather.
Diving and snorkelling are obviously top of the list when it comes to activities other than lounging by the sea. There are a number of different companies based in the West End. We went with Eco Divers as they were offering a discount through our hotel. We paid US$15 each for an hour trip, and we basically had free reign of exploring. We were the only people snorkelling on the particular trip, and so we were joined by a few others doing scuba diving (one of whom was doing their first deep sea dive!) and once we were dropped off, we were allowed to swim freely for 40 minutes. We had a great vibe from the instructors, and a successful first snorkel! They even let us borrow the equipment for a couple of hours before to have a little swim around in the bay to get used to it, as it had been so long since either of us had done it. Check out a video here!
Being on Roatán for the weekend felt entirely different to what I thought it would. The island felt a lot more American than Central American, and it was easy to forget it’s Spanish roots being out on an island in the easy Caribbean. Honduras is currently experiencing a very bad political scene, but out in the Caribbean life is easier and there are no worries. We just hoped that the next few days travelling across mainland Honduras would be just as easy…
After our 48 hours in Granada were complete, we planned our trip up to the capital, Managua. We had arrived into Granada in style (okay – only a private taxi, but this felt luxury to us after a week of public transport!), but were planning on a much cheaper route this time.
Just south from Parque Central, on Calle Vega, is a bus station where shuttles run between Granada and Managua. Before even arriving at the station, a shuttle was leaving, and the bus boy grabbed our luggage and threw it onto the top of the bus in the middle of the road. We hopped on and realised it was completely full, so stood at the back of the bus clutching our backpacks. We paid 120NIO (70p/US$1) for ourselves and our backpacks (charged as a passenger!) and the journey took about an hour.
On arrival at the shuttle stop in Managua, we realised we were a 20 minute journey from our hostel. Gaby, our hotel manager in Granada, had warned us not to use the local buses in Managua. It’s too busy, takes too long, and is too complicated for two limited Spanish speaking Brits! We flagged down a taxi, but couldn’t explain where we were going and the driver didn’t understand our broken “Casa… Aeropuerto… Mañana…” Our second taxi driver again spoke limited English, but we were able to explain our hostel was right next to the airport. We had the cunning idea to phone the hostel and ask them to speak to the driver directly! I’ll remember that next time!
We stayed at the Flying Hostel – quite possibly the strangest place we stayed on the trip. It’s a converted house, in a gated community (hopefully for security!), and operates hourly shuttles to the airport. People obviously don’t spend an awful lot of time here, but it was fine for 5 hours sleep before our 4am shuttle to the airport.
We decided to fly to Roatan with Avianca (via San Salvador) and paid around ~£350 (~US$500), which is quite expensive for such a short flight, but well worth it considering the amount of miles we were travelling. The journey by land covers 775km and was a non-stop 13 hour trip which we had no idea how to even start! Yes, we could have stopped at Matagalpa in Nicaragua, or some spots in Honduras, but we simply didn’t have the time in our schedule. Sometimes speed and comfort out-trumps budget!
Enveloping visitors with the unmistakable sense of stepping into tropical Spain, arriving in the beautifully humid city of Granada in Nicaragua was truly a breathtaking experience. After being fairly secluded on Ometepe (and before that spending time in the cloud forest in Costa Rica), it was welcome change to see beautiful colonial architecture and to finally have some scorching sun. It’s clear to see why so many travellers use the city as a base, with such beautiful cobblestone roads full to the brim of magnificent photogenic elegance, to stunning attractions a short journey into the countryside, this city has it all. Here’s our top pick of things to see!
Top things to do in Granada
1. Climb the staircase at the Iglesia La Merced at sunset
Make sure you visit half an hour before sunset (sunset was at 5:30pm so we arrived at 4:45pm in January as the tower officially closes at 5pm). The view from the top is incredible and you can stay until they kick you out! It only costs 30NIO (about 70p/US$1) to climb the stairs up to the top of the clock tower, so you have no excuse not to go!
2. See the Masaya Volcano at night
It’s an hour drive from Granada, but visiting the active Volcano has to be high on your to-do list. Make sure you do the night tour – during the day you won’t get the full experience of the bright lava or feel the heat of it! I have never before seen an active volcano, and it did not disappoint! We paid US$35 each for our night tour with Erik’s tours. Once you arrive at the park entrance, you will sit in traffic for a long time. We arrived at about 5pm, but didn’t get into the viewing point until 7:15pm! They let a certain amount of vehicles in for 15 minute slots, and so if it’s busy you could be waiting a while! It will help if your driver gets fed up easily – ours did and so was overtaking people on the way up! Once your 15 minutes at the top are up, there is a small, informative museum to walk through (and bathrooms to visit) before you are whisked back into the van and driven back to Granada
As part of our volcano trip, we decided to visit the Masaya hand craft market. If you are set on visiting, a quick twenty minutes here would suffice – every item for sale is available in every other shop, and it almost seems as though everything has just been bought in bulk and imported in. I’d possibly say don’t bother; not quite the hand craft market we had hoped!
The pickup from the market to the volcano was also very late – we were worried that they had forgotten us, but we had learnt that Nicaraguan time is something of fluidity – times are rarely stuck to, but nobody seems bothered by this at all. Something will happen, just not when locals tell you it will!
When we arrived at Erik’s office to pay, the saleswoman tried to charge us far more than we were quoted. Luckily we had our email conversations handy and we paid US$35 per person for the Masaya Market and Volcano trip (instead of the US$55 she wanted from us originally!). We had heard similar stories about the same woman from other people on the trip, and the prices seemed to vary between people we spoke to on the trip!
3. Visit the Laguna de Apoya for a day of relaxing by the lake.
There are a few ‘resorts’ in the area that you pay for a day entry to use their area. We paid US$14 each for entry into the Laguna Beach Club (which was lovely and relaxing, and has free kayaks/body boards to use) and a return shuttle from the main office in Granada with Eric’s tours (for some reason, this isn’t listed on their website). We even managed to work out a trip to the Laguna, travel to the market, and then the evening volcano tour as one package. You can also get a taxi, or find similar shuttles from other tour operators.
4. Book a boat trip touring the Isletas
We paid US$27 per person for a morning boat trip, again with Erik’s Tours, around the 365 small islands found off of Granada in Lake Nicaragua. We had a beautiful couple of hours with just one other passenger exploring the different islands, and seeing the famous monkey islands.
5. Get a free cocoa tour at the Museo de Chocolate
The free tour at the Chocolate Museum (they also have museums in Guatemala, Peru, Columbia, Mexico) is worth a visit. The staff will explain to you how cocoa is grown and harvested, and transformed into the chocolate we know and love, with a bit of history along with it. There is no expectation that you have to buy something after, but why wouldn’t you?! The chocolate tastes great, and you can buy other treats like chocolate tea, chocolate liquors, fudge, brownies, and even chocolate beer!
6. Lounge by the exclusive pool hidden behind the Chocolate Museum
Tucked away at the rear of the Museum (you have to walk through the courtyard) you will find the most beautiful spot for sunbathing and swimming. There is a bar and changing rooms, so you don’t need anything else! We spent a couple of hours in the scorching afternoon sun.
We booked the same taxi driver that collected us from Moyagulpa port on our arrival on the island to take us back for the boat the next day. He charged us slightly more than the first time as we were two people instead of four people sharing, but we bartered down to US$30 for the whole journey. This was still cheaper than a newly flagged taxi would have been.
Try to keep a card from a taxi driver if you intend on staying somewhere for a while and will need to take more cabs. Although you may think that the drivers are just touting for business, once they have delivered you safely, sometimes their repeat services are a godsend when you cannot find an alternative.
We arrived at the ferry port at 10:50am expecting to get the 11:30am ferry, but after paying 50NIO (£1.15/$1.60) each (15NIO more expensive than the boat that we took on the way), the ferry left at around 11:10am. I assume our early departure was because the ferry was full.
This ferry was a lot bigger, and if you are prone to seasickness, I would certainly recommend the ferry over the boat – it is a much smoother ride!
When we arrived after 70 minutes, we were planning to get to Rivas bus station and find the local bus to Granada (which departs every 90 minutes or so, taking around 2 hours). However, we tried out some poor Spanish to barter with a taxi driver who was offering to take us straight to Granada. We settled on this route for US$30. Up until this point, we’d been relying on local transport to take us on our journeys wherever we could, but on this occasion we were keen to get to Granada and explore the city having been enjoying the quiet lift on the Isla de Ometepe, so deemed US$30 was worth the extra speed and efficiency!
The island of Ometepe comprises two volcanoes; Concepción in the north, which is still active, and Maderas in the south which is dormant. The small island has one main road which rings around Concepción, another road which rings around Maderas, and a third road which links the first two.
The main purpose of our visit to Isla Ometepe was to relax for New Years. We had treated ourselves to an Ecolodge which we had paid for months in advance, and it was perfectly secluded up a bumpy dirty track which took about 15 minutes to drive, and almost destroyed the underneath of any car that dared to venture on it. (This began to become a hassle rather than a treat, as if we wanted to leave the hotel to explore the island we had to pay US$8 to get to the main road. It took about 40 minutes to walk the dirt track, which we did on our first night after eating in Balgüe, but decided it was too much effort after a nice meal!). If we were to return, we would definitely stay in accommodation by the main road, even though our lodge was beautiful. Seclusion has its down sides!
All hamlets on the island are built up around the main road. We stayed in a lodge closest to Balgüe (and Santa Cruz), which in recent years has evolved into one of Nicaragua’s prime destinations for tourism. The best way to get around the island is by bike. It is a long walk between most hamlets, with just farmland and residential areas between the more built up areas.
As it was New Year’s Eve, we only found one restaurant open in Balgüe, which was Cafe Comprende. The meal was lovely, but the restaurant was probably suffering a little from the influx of hungry travellers, it being the only place open. We had heard good things about an Argentinian steakhouse called El Bamboo down the road, but this was closed during our stay. After our hike back to the hotel, we had a drink in the quiet hotel bar and played some games. Without a big party, we simply enjoyed the reclusiveness of the lodge, before watching fireworks across the lake from our patio at midnight.
The next day we got a taxi to Ojo de Agua (“the eye of the water”) – a small swimming hole which was about a 20 minute cab journey away. We would have got the bus from the main road, but being the holidays, it wasn’t running! We paid US$15 to get there and then US$5 each to get in. The hole was beautiful but busy with locals enjoying the sunshine. It would be nice to return on a quieter day to experience the relaxing pool and enjoy a Toña or two by the waterside.
We decided to walk back to our hotel, and this took around two hours, but included a beachside walk, and then a stop in a bar in Santa Cruz for a beer during a sudden downpour.
Other possible activities that we decided not to do during our stay included horseback riding, kayaking on Lake Nicaragua or (for the very adventurous!) a climb up the dormant volcano. Ometepe certainly has its fill of possibilities and many different areas to explore. We chose a relaxing few days, especially in light of our adventures in Granada which was the next stop on the itinerary!
Having spent five wonderful (but expensive) nights in Costa Rica, we were ready to cross into our next country. Having read a lot of horror stories about the Nicaraguan border, we were nervous but excited for the trip.
We had pre-booked a shuttle through CaribeShuttle.com to pick us up at our hostel in Santa Elena, Monteverde at 6am and take us to Liberia. This shuttle runs only once a day, and at US$35 per person, was the most expensive form of transport for us (bar other flights) but it was by far the best way to travel in this instance.
It was just us and another couple on the shuttle to Liberia, so it was nice and quiet, but the road to the highway was pretty rough. It went from perfectly smooth tarmac to bumpy stones every thousand metres or so, which really didn’t make for a smooth ride! After about an hour along this road (with some pretty stunning views if you aren’t fast asleep – see above) and half an hour on the highway, we arrived at the Santa Rosa Plaza, where the bus was terminating (likely following a short coffee stop just outside of Liberia). I thought it might be more of a bus station, but was literally a car park for a shopping centre!
Don’t fall for the taxi and shuttle drivers offering to take you from Liberia to Peñas Blancas or beyond. It is a five minute walk from the shuttle Park to the bus station and buses leave regularly (and transport beyond the border is easy and cheap too!)
As we reached the bus station, we saw a Peñas Blancas (the border) bus sitting ready to leave. We were able to get our luggage on and paid around US$4 each for us and the luggage (and receiving some change in colónes) before two other travellers joined, and the bus left!
The fun really begun at the border. We had heard so many nightmare stories about how people were queueing for up to five hours around Christmas, and we were worried the same would happen today on New Year’s Eve. An international bus had arrived moments before we arrived, so we were keen to be speedy and miss these passengers!
The first thing to do at the border is to pay your exit tax. When you arrive, there will be people calling for this and leading you to a shady looking building about 500 yards away. There we paid our exit taxes (around US$8 each). The next thing to do is to go to the border office. This is found to the right of the border, and there you get your passports stamped for exit. We then started walking through the border, which is a long, unpaved road between the two countries. We passed border security who made sure we had paid and had our passports stamped. Arriving at the Nicaraguan side, we then had to pay US$1 each at the door (we had used all of our small notes for the bus) and around ~US$12 each entrance fee (you can pay in US dollars if you don’t already have Nicaraguan Córdoba – “NIO”) at the desk where our passports were stamped for entry. We did this whole process in the wrong order at first, so it took a lot longer to retrace our footsteps than it should have!
Make sure you have lots of small US dollar notes for border taxes and exit/entrance
Take public transport where you can – it’s quick and cheap – the only place we couldn’t find it available was getting out of Monteverde to the nearest city, Liberia
Pay your exit tax as soon as you get to Peñas Blancas, and then start your walk through the border – ask somebody if you are unsure
We changed US$25 into NIO with somebody sat outside the office who had an official badge (we bartered to get a better rate!) and then as we were walking away, saw a chicken bus heading to Rivas about to leave. We jumped onto the bus and clutching our bags in the overhead shelf, we stood for the 45 minute journey to Rivas. This cost us 20NIO each.
Unsure where we were getting off, I kept an eye on the map, aware we had to get to San Jorge ferry terminal to catch our boat to Ometepe. The bus guard also knew this and shouted us off and helped us down with our bags.
Two different type of boats service the island; a boat costing 35NIO and a bigger ferry costing 50NIO. If you are prone to seasickness, the ferry is a much smoother ride. Ferries run less frequently though. The Ometepe website also advises that only the ferries run on a Sunday – this wasn’t the case for us, but that may have been because it was holiday season – we weren’t quite sure!
It was 11:40am and a 15 minute drive away, meaning the midday ferry we hoped to be on would be tight. We haggled with a taxi driver (difficult when he knows the ferry was leaving in 20 minutes) and he drove us to the ferry terminal for US$10 (we should have been able to get this for about US$5). We arrived with time to spare, but one of the ticket windows informed us it was too late. Somebody from another window came and told us the next smaller boat (not the ferry) was at 12:30pm and we could buy tickets from him. We bought our tickets for 35NIO, along with another couple who were also travelling to the island for ‘Año Nuevo’, and managed to get a taxi sorted for the journey on to our hotels from the arriving port for US$10 per person.
The boat was choppy, and took around 75 minutes, but we were rewarded with excellent views of the Isla Ometepe, and the two volcanos. Our pre-booked taxi driver was waiting for us on the other side, and we spent around 45 minutes driving around the island before our drop off at our ecolodge Totoco at around 2:30pm. The alternative would be to take Ometepe’s public bus. This wasn’t running over the holidays, but would be cheaper (and slower of course!)
The island of Ometepe is composed of two volcanoes, Concepción, which is still active, and the extinct Maderas. The small island has one main road which rings around the north volcano, Concepción, another road which rings around the southern volcano, Maderas, and a third road which links the two. The majority of the boat services run to Moyogalpa, which is on the north west of the island. There are some services that run to San José del Sur, which is to the south of the northern volcano. If you are staying south of the island, the San José ferry would save you some time once you are there, but the journey from Moyogalpa isn’t too long anyway!
Overall, a perfectly reasonable journey for what we thought could end up being a bit of a nightmare. We checked in for two evenings and brought in the new year! Read what we got up to in the next post!