Puerto Rico – The Island of Enchantment/Isla Del Encanto

San Juan, Puerto Rico: Since the pandemic started, I’ve waited for an extremely long time to get out of the US mainland, just to visit any new place…ANY NEW PLACE. I know many traveled during the pandemic. For me, traveling with uncertainties, like PCR tests and Covid related restrictions, didn’t really make me want to travel much.

I decided to fly to Puerto Rico solo at the end of last year and chose this place because it was a US territory and no test/quarantine was required. Plus, it was in the Caribbean…almost felt like visiting a new country and culture. First I asked my sister, then a few other friends, and then my cousin to join the trip. It ended up being 8 of us girls all together who went along on this trip (and 1 other friend who tested positive for Covid 2 days before we left and had to stay behind).

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Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

So, Puerto Rico…wow, what an enriched Caribbean island and…the birthplace of pina colada (eh, had to mention that somewhere). If I only knew that this place is packed with that much history, natural beauty, rich culture, laid back days, and crazy night life, I would have gone to Puerto Rico sooner. Nevertheless, I made it there and it was hard to leave this island behind.

Puerto Rico became part of the USA at the end of the 1800s and San Juan is the oldest city under the USA jurisdiction. With its centuries old architectural features and heritage, cobalt blue beaches, and rainforest, there is something for everyone in this Caribbean gem. This is a melting pot of Latin and Spanish cultures, mixed with African and Taino traditions, with a touch of American influence. 

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Colonial style buildings in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico

San Juan is the capital and the largest city of Puerto Rico. It is also the financial capital of this island. Unlike other capital cities, people here are very festive and laid back. I personally like to call it “The City of Cats” or “The City of Murals”…the number of cats you’ll see on the streets are insane (reminded me of Istanbul). Being a cat lover and a owner of 2 kitties, I loved those street cats. And you’ll see murals almost everywhere you go. 

If you are on the East Coast, plane journeys are way shorter than the ones on the West Coast. Direct flights from D.C or NY are very common and take only a few hours, which would make a great weekend getaway. 

Let’s get you some practical information on Puerto Rico now. Uber is super efficient and cheap here. Seriously, 8 of us stayed in San Juan for 4 days where we used Uber many times to visit all those places I’ve mentioned below and our combined Uber cost was about $407. Not bad at all. Keep in mind, you can rent a car in PR, but as one of the Uber drivers was saying, the parking fees for rental cars are huge everywhere you go. Not to mention finding a parking space in some places in San Juan is a big headache. Also, if your hotel/AirBnB doesn’t have a safe garage for your rental car, parking your car on the street can be dangerous as petty thefts and car break-ins are very common here. 

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Santa Maria Cemetery in Puerto Rico

Being a US territory, USD is the currency here and English is spoken and understood by most of the people. Knowing Spanish would definitely help since it’s the dominant language in Puerto Rico. Also, as a sign of respect to the locals and their culture, knowing a few basic Spanish words will go a long way. 

Our AirBnB: Since it was our first time in Puerto Rico and we were not going to rent a car, we wanted to stay close to OSJ. Our AirBnB place, called “Guava House” on Las Palmas, was a great location because most of the places we wanted to see were close by and the airport was only a 7-8 minutes drive. Yes, the neighborhood was a bit sketchy but I’d go back to that house over any resorts any time in Puerto Rico.

Our AirBnB was not just a home, it was an experience with unique decorations and interesting layouts. Nothing was fancy or luxurious in this home, but we had 9 bedrooms, an open dining area, an enclosed kitchen, stairs to the rooftop, 4 bedrooms with attached baths and a general area with 3 more bathrooms and 3 showers. This was better than what I expected from the descriptions and pictures. Oh, and the sound of roosters every morning was terribly annoying but charming at the same time. 

Time of Travel: We were in Puerto Rico the weekend before the Memorial Day holiday in 2022. The temperature during the day was somewhere from 90-95 degrees. We didn’t get much rain, except for the day we were leaving PR. 

Sunscreen and bug spray are highly recommended here. All of us got mosquito bites and sun burns. Carry a hat and a comfortable pair of shoes for any outdoor activities, especially if you are planning to go to El Yunque Rainforest or just for walking in OSJ. 

Eating and Shopping: Plantain is a very popular and staple food in Puerto Rico. But to be very honest, I have had better plantain dishes in South or Central America. Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican to try that’s made with plantains. I tried some shrimp mofongo from my friend’s plate, and man, it was good. Tostones are deep fried plantain chips that I’ve tried a few times…can be a bit dry and somewhere flavorless, if you are eating it just by itself. Seafood was something I felt was very underrated but so fresh and tasty. I had seafood for most of my meals and they couldn’t have been any better. Fresh red snappers and lobsters are very common here. Almost all the restaurants had options of ceviche and empanadas in their appetizers. And rice and beans will show up in many Puerto Rican entrees. 

Flamenco show dinners are a somewhat popular activity among the tourists. Make sure to make reservations ahead of time in these restaurants that offer flamenco shows while you are having a meal. 

For our first lunch, right after we arrived in San Juan, we went to a food-court-style place by the water, where multiple vendors were selling different cuisines. This was near Condado Beach and we just wanted to grab a quick bite. I just had a vege pizza but the location was fabulous. 

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View from our 1st lunch venue, near Condado Beach, Puerto Rico

Our second lunch was at a restaurant in Playa Luquillo, called Edelweiss, where I had freshly fried whole red snapper. Other girls tried lobsters, stuffed avocado, sampler platters, and etc. A fresh glass of pina colada was always something I ordered while in Puerto Rico. The restaurant was beautiful too, decorated with lots of umbrellas on the ceiling. 

Our first dinner after the El Yunque trip in San Juan was at Casa Emilio. I was actually looking for a live flamenco show with dinner but only this place actually picked up the phone and took our reservation. We made a reservation for this place about a month ago, since they have live music only on Friday nights. It’s popular among the rich local Puerto Ricans who enjoy posh platters and live music by local artists. Though there was no actual flamenco performance by professionals, the ladies in the restaurant eventually got up at one point and started dancing to the songs the artist was singing. That was a lively environment and a fun experience. I had beef steaks with tostones. The food is really good but can be a bit pricey. 

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Some dishes from Puerto Rico

Next day, for lunch we sat down at Singular, near the cathedral. I had ceviche and some chicken empanada (not my favorite in that restaurant). This is another small but very cozy place for meals or drinks and located at the heart of OSJ. 

That night for dinner, we came back to the above “Singular” restaurant vicinity where another restaurant called “Hotel El Convento” is located. It’s a restaurant inside the hotel I’m guessing. I had some tostones again, bite side mofongo, and some tuna pods (raw tuna cubes). 

The next day, our lunch was in Santurce at a restaurant called “The Mangu Place”. They had some of the best yet cheap local food. I had some fried fish and curry style fish with simple white rice. It was really good. The restaurant is mainly for locals and workers barely spoke any English but it was a nice experience to try some places outside touristy areas (thanks to my cousin for suggesting it). 

Our last dinner in Puerto Rico was a treat from one of our friends. It was at this trendy place in Carolina, called Corchea. They had a variety of seafood option. I had this fish called “wacko” or “whacko”…a white fish, also known as “queer fish”. Other people in the group tried fried red snapper, seafood paella, muscles, dumplings, and etc. This is a really good place to try if you are in the Carolina district. 

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More dishes from our trip to Puerto Rico

Try some fresh coconut or pineapple juice in Condado beach or near El Morro. I also had some fresh hibiscus juice from a street vendor near El Morro. And Puerto Rico being the birthplace of pina colada, this is a must try while here. 

If you are traveling with kids, many American chain fast-food places are almost everywhere in the city. For fancier or local eateries, La Placita is another place that was recommended by one of our Uber drivers where you’ll find dozens of restaurants and cafes, unfortunately we couldn’t make it there. 

For shopping, Old San Juan (OSJ) is one of the best places to find some unique and authentic Puerto Rican souvenirs. Yes, they can be expensive depending on what you are buying and which store you are buying from. But while walking around OSJ, you’ll see lines of stores from generic souvenirs to more artsy type souvenirs. 

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A souvenir store near Plaza Colon in San Juan, Puerto Rico

I personally bought ground coffee, cigars, some jewelry for my kids, a couple wood curved baby Groots, and a hand painted glass vase to bring back home. Wooden gift items are very popular here, especially mortar and pestle. If you are an art/painting lover, OSJ has some exclusive art galleries where you can find paintings by local artists for some hefty money. 

Places We’ve Visited: We stayed about 3 ½ days and 4 nights in Puerto Rico and focused mainly on San Juan this time. For next time, maybe exploring some nearby towns and districts would be the aim. San Juan and its surroundings have tons of stunning beaches, historic sites, museums, old ruins, and etc to fulfill everyone’s taste buds. Of course there are many water related activities for the adventurers. 

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Every turn in Old San Juan will take your breath away

Other than what we visited, a few things you can also check out in Old San Juan are Santa Maria Cemetery which we saw from Castillo San Felipe Del Morro…but didn’t really go there. Also, La Perla where the first part of the “Despacito” song by Luis Fonsi was filmed. 

One thing that everyone recommends doing in Puerto Rico is the Bioluminescent kayak tour at night, which none of us did – you get to see the microscopic organisms glowing at night under water while kayaking in the mangrove forest. I’m not a big water activity type of girl and I preferred staying in the city looking at colorful buildings in OSJ. Fajardo Bay is where the kayak tour starts after dark. Many other outdoor and water adventures start in the Fajardo Bay area. We wanted to go there even though we weren’t going to take the kayak tour, but it was too far from San Juan, almost 40 minutes drive, so we ended up skipping it. 

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Walking around Old San Juan in Puerto Rico

If you want to get out from the chaos of San Juan, an exciting day-trip is to take a ferry to Culebra island and spend some time on its sandy and much cleaner beaches. This is another trip we couldn’t do due to a shortage of timing. 

Below are the places we saw during our stay in Puerto Rico:

  1. Condado Beach/El Condado: This was only 10 minutes from our AirBnB and the 1st place we visited in San Juan. The part of Condado Beach we visited was very small but beautiful for its rock formations in the distance. It’s a relaxing beach for families with kids too. This is a great location to stay in San Juan for its flashy beach resorts and upscale hotels, along with many casinos and restaurants. We were there for about less than an hour just to take some pictures and get our feet wet. 
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Condado Beach/El Condado in Puerto Rico
  1. El Yunque National Rainforest: This is definitely a must-see in Puerto Rico, especially if you are a nature lover or like outdoor hiking and exploring. This is the only rainforest in the U.S. national forest system and a natural treasure. Just an hour and half drive from San Juan city, El Yunque was an amazing experience and a great place to see and learn about native plants and animals. We only saw one side of the rainforest but you can book more intense hiking tours in En Yunque where you can get a glimpse of more elaborate part of this rainforest. Hike the hilly paths, ride on the natural water slides, swim in the freshwater with fish, or climb some rocks in El Yunque…overall, this is guaranteed to be a great place for family activities. 
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El Yunque Rainforest in Puerto Rico

A proper dress up and an extra set of clothes for visiting the rainforest is highly recommended. It rains frequently here (although we got none). Being somewhat fit and able to do medium hiking/walking is suggested too. We didn’t want to go for the advance/longer hiking in the rainforest. Therefore, this was perfect for us to just enjoy and explore the rainforest with a little bit of exercise and water slide/swimming while not getting too tired from all the activities. El Yunque is covered with lots of tropical plants and trees. I wouldn’t recommend touching some of those trees, since some can give you real itchiness while others may have fire ants.

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El Yunque Rainforest in Puerto Rico

There are short and long hiking trails in the rainforest. Know how fit you are physically and go accordingly. We booked the Puerto Rico Instagram tour using Viator app and this was the focal point of the guided tour. Total cost of the tour was $100 per person, which included Old San Juan, El Yunque, and Playa Luquillo. The whole tour was from 6:30am to around 2pm. 

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El Yunque Rainforest in Puerto Rico
  1. Playa Luquillo: We got to visit this beach as part of our El Yunque Instagram tour. This is a beautiful sandy beach where locals come to enjoy with kids. Playa Luquillo is a great place for swimming or sunbathing. Grab some drinks from the nearby places, take a dip in the water, go shopping, and when done have some locally cooked meals in one of the restaurants. 
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Playa Luquillo, Puerto Rico
  1. Old San Juan/Viejo San Juan: This is the core of San Juan tourism. If you have just a day to spare in San Juan, you need to come to Old San Juan which still remains a walled city from the old world. 

The Island of Puerto Rico was founded in 1509 and by 1783, Old San Juan was fully encircled by masonry walls. These 42 feet walls are very imposing and were built mostly by the African slaves. But for many San Juan residents in the 1800s, the defensive walls made them feel like prisoners. Local officials finally convinced the military authorities to demolish a section of the city’s walls in 1897 to allow the overcrowded city to expand beyond the walls. 

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One section of San Juan wall in Puerto Rico

Most of the landmarks or tourist spots are within walking distance in OSJ. This is a place which you will enjoy early morning, mid-day, or at night when the city comes to live. 

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Puerto Rican flag – A very popular picture/Instagram spot in Old San Juan

San Juan National Historic Site is a protected section of OSJ which includes Colonial era forts, some sections of old city wall, and few other landmarks. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has some of the oldest and best preserved Spanish fortifications of the Americas. These sites offer stunning views of old architecture and are one of the top ranked in the whole Caribbean. This is also the home of art galleries, and museums. 

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Walking on Paseo De La Princesa in Puerto Rico

La Perla is a small, ocean-side neighborhood in Old San Juan that we saw from El Morro where we were planning to go but eventually didn’t. If you are a big Latino music fan, this is where the song “Despacito” was filmed partially. This is a bit of a slum district where a lot of illegal activities take place since no police presence is there. While many seasoned tourists may not advise you to go there, some locals (including our El Yunque tour guide) will highly recommend you to check this place out during daytime. 

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View of La Perla, partial Old San Juan, the harbor, and El Morro from San Cristobal in Puerto Rico

Below are the places we saw/passed by in Old San Juan and would recommend to anyone traveling there. 

  • The Old Town: The narrow alleys of Old San Juan are appealing and charming. Walking on the original cobblestones and admiring the colonial buildings, plazas, fountains are just what you have to do to feel this old district. The vast number of lined up colorful buildings with their artistic windows and doors are not only picturesque, most of them are Spanish colonial architecture in its purest form, sometimes with a little Moorish touch.
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Original cobblestones and colorful colonial buildings of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico

We ended up coming to Old San Juan almost everyday during our stay in Puerto Rico. But the first time when we came was with our Instagram tour guide and it was in the early morning. That was probably one of the best times to check out its serenity…empty alleys, quiet locales, and best of all, no tourists to block those gorgeous views. 

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Old San Juan has sculptures almost everywhere you go
  • Castillo San Felipe Del Morro: Also known as El Morro, (means the Headland – a high point of land that extends into a body of water), is a 16th century citadel that was built over a span of 250 years to guard the strategic and beautiful San Juan’s harbor. Located in the most northwestern point of San Juan El Morro was the key to defend San Juan and its harbor for almost 400 years. This massive fortification is now an iconic landmark of OSJ and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
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Castillo San Felipe Del Morro during sunset, Puerto Rico

It offers a commanding view of San Juan harbor and the sea. The extensive hillside, once a battlefield, in front of the citadel is a popular place for kite flying. If you can’t fly a kite here…then, you just can’t fly a kite. You have the sea on one side and the city on the side and with green pasture in the front…even if you don’t go inside El Morro, just being there will give you some breathtaking scenery of the surroundings. It was a 10 minutes Uber ride from Condodo to El Morro. We spent a couple hours outside the fort in its big green field, since it was already closed for the day. Admission to the fort closes at 4:30pm. But even walking around outside of El Morro was very enjoyable in the late afternoon. The view of the city, water, the old part of the town, and the cemetery from every corner was breathtaking. This is also a great place to catch a memorable sunset. 

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View of Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in Puerto Rico

San Cristobal, another landmark of OSJ is within walking distance and can be seen from El Morro. If you buy ticket to El Morro, that would cover San Cristobal as well.

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Surroundings of Castillo San Felipe Del Morro in OSJ, Puerto Rico
  • “I Love PR Sign”: As part of our tour, we were brought to the “I Love PR” sign by the harbor. This is a popular Instagram spot in the city…so, a photo is a must here. 
  • San José Plaza/Iglesia De San José: This was our another stop during the IG Tour. We couldn’t go inside this church from the early 16th century but this is the second oldest church in continuous use in the New World. The small plaza in front of the church was quite peaceful in the morning which is surrounded by plenty of restaurants and bars on the other side of the street. When we went back there the next day during day time, this same place gets crowded with lots of cars and people. 
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San José Plaza/Iglesia De San José in OSJ, Puerto Rico
  • Museo De Las Américas: This is the Puerto Rican heritage museum of arts, history, and culture. The building itself is a historic army barrack from the 1800s with arches, long corridors and a big courtyard. 
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Museo De Las Americas in Puerto Rico – a military barrack from the 1800s

This was definitely worth a visit since I got to see some paintings and sculptures by the local artists. This place gave me a better understanding of their culture and tradition through different forms displays. The museum presents an impressive overview of cultural development in not only Puerto Rico but in the Americas. 

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Some paintings and sculptures inside Museo De Las Americas in Puerto Rico

The ticket was $6 per person and took about an hour and half to see all the exhibitions. There are three permanent collections and a few temporary exhibitions in Museo De Las Americas.

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A sculpture in Museo De Las Americas in Puerto Rico
  • San Juan Cathedral/El Catedral de San Juan Bautista: Located on Calle Cristo, San Juan Cathedral is also from the 16th century. We couldn’t really go inside as multiple weddings were taking place while we were there. But the outer white edifice of the cathedral tells me the inside must be as elegant as its outside. 
  • Calle de Fortaleza: The western end of Calle de Fortaleza used to be known as the umbrella street, but now is decorated with white butterflies above the street. La Fortaleza here is the oldest governor’s mansion in continuous use in the New World.
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Calle de Fortaleza, which used to be the “Umbrella Street” in Puerto Rico
  • Plaza de Armas: It’s a beautiful public square on San Jose Street where the City Hall is located and a round fountain in the middle, called “The Four Seasons”. The fountain has numerous historic statues and the plaza itself is lined with many trees and shops on all sides.  We spent a couple hours at a corner coffee place, sipping drinks while chatting and laughing. 
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Plaza De Armas in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Old San Juan Gate/Puerto de San Juan: This used to be the traditional entrance to San Juan back in the Spanish era in the 17th century. We saw it on our way to see Paseo De La Princesa from San Juan Cathedral. As you cross the gate coming from the cathedral, this gate opens up to the beautiful water-front and a pier. Walk the pedestrian promenade of Paseo de la Princesa to get to the grand square, Plaza De La Princesa. The walkway is lined with trees, sculptures, and trees. 
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Old San Juan Gate in Puerto Rico
  • Plaza De La Princesa: Surrounded by the San Juan Bay on one side, Plaza De La Princesa is rather an elegant square in Old San Juan. Only 10 minutes walk from San Juan Cathedral, this is another spot where you want to be to watch a surreal sunset by the water. The square is decorated with an impressive fountain in the middle that features Puerto Rico’s city coats of arms. 
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Paseo De La Princesa around sunset time – Puerto Rico

The statue in the middle of the fountain at Plaza De La Princesa represents that Puerto Rican people are a blend of three different cultures. First, Taino Indians who populated the island for thousands of years before Columbus arrived. Second, the West Africans who were forced to labor as slaves for centuries on different plantations. And finally the Spanish, who ruled the island until it gained its independence. Three proud people in one. 

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Plaza De La Princesa in San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Plaza Colon: Christopher Columbus still has a monumental presence in Puerto Rico and Plaza Colon symbolizes that very significantly. This is less than 5 minutes walk from San Cristobal. It’s a big public square with a giant white statue of Columbus in the middle. When we were there, there were lots of vendors selling their hand-made trinkets. You’ll find many shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes in Plaza Colon.  
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Plaza Colon in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Casa Blanca: Located on the western end of Calle San Sebastián, Casa Blanca was the ancestral home of Puerto Rico’s first Governor Ponce de Leon family. The home was built somewhere in the early 1500s and is the oldest residence of San Juan. This is now a museum with 16th and 17th-century artifacts and some stunning views of the old city walls and the sea. 
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View from Casa Blanca, Puerto Rico

This is closed on Sunday and other days, it’s open until 4:30pm. Do make some time to go to this mansion and enjoy its different pockets of tranquil gardens with a variety of tropical trees and old fountains. 

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One of the most beautiful fountains and gardens of Casa Blanca in OSJ, Puerto Rico

By the time we tried to find the entrance to Casa Blanca, we walked too far away from it. Eventually only 3 of us went back up and the gate was almost closing. One of our friends requested the guard to let us in for 5 minutes just to see the surroundings. Thankfully, he not only gave us some minutes to look around but also mentioned visiting the rectangular fountain in one of the gardens. If we only had some more time, we could have easily spent an hour or two looking around this historic “White House”

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Walking around old gardens of Casa Blanca in Puerto Rico
  • La Factoria: This is Despacito’s lounge, where the song was partially recorded. If you are a big fan of Luis Fonsi or just that song, you must check out this place. By the way, nowhere in the entrance shows La Factoria, one of our friends asked and the owner confirmed that this is where the hit Latino song was filmed. It’s a small bar but very popular among the locals, even a few of our Uber drivers mentioned checking out that place. 
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La Factoria in Puerto Rico, where “Despacito” was filmed and a very popular bar/lounge in Old San Juan
  • Castillo De San Cristobal: This was the largest fort ever built by the Spanish military in the New World to protect San Juan from any land based attacks. Construction of San Cristobal was completed in the late 1700s and a must-see spot in San Juan. This was also used during WWII as Fort Brooke to search for enemy submarines and warships. The 1950s marked the last time that San Juan’s historic fortifications were used for military purposes. Therefore “it represents the final chapter in San Juan’s saga of fortification and defense.” 
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San Cristobal in Puerto Rico

You can see Plaza Colon and other parts of OSJ from different corners of San Cristobal. Enjoy the grand view of San Juan Harbor from this fort too.

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San Cristobal in OSJ, Puerto Rico

You can easily spend a couple hours here going through all the underground tunnels, upper viewing areas, and climbing old stairs. The ticket is $10 to enter the castle which covers San Cristobal and El Morro. The fort closes at 4:30pm.

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Walking around San Cristobal in Puerto Rico
  1. Santurce Murals: On our 4th/last day in PR, we took a short ride to Santurce which is known to be an open museum with lots and lots of murals painted by the local artists. This is another historic part of Puerto Rico and a cultural capital, also known as “The Brooklyn of San Juan”. A lot of these murals here and other parts of Puerto Rico are very political and can be seen as a way to express many oppressions and corruptions. 
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Some murals in Santurce, Puerto Rico
  1. Playa Isla Verde: As many other travel blogs have said, this is a great place to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, we spent so much time taking pictures in Paseo De La Princess, that we totally missed the sunset here. Even when we reached there, a restaurant attendant came and asked me if I saw the sunset…nope we didn’t. But the beach is nice for swimming or tanning. 

Isla Verde is in the district of Carolina. This is where a lot of the big brand name resorts and ocean view hotels are located. If you are trying to get away from OSJ scenes or just San Juan’s busy life, this is a great place to stay, especially if you are traveling with kids. 

Overall, Puerto Rico is a place where I’d go back again with my kids one day or just make a solo trip to relax for a few days. Having my friends and sisters on this trip made it more memorable in many aspects. The ease of traveling there, Old San Juan’s sweet and savory energy, astonishing natural beauty, and vibrant city-life are all I need when I’m on a vacation and Puerto Rico has it all. 

Guatemala City – The largest city in Central America

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA: Guatemala City is the biggest city in whole Central America (by population) and the capital of Guatemala. After Antigua was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, It became the capital of this country.

The name “Guatemala” means a place of many trees. This is one of the few countries in the world, interestingly, with the Atlantic one side and Pacific on another side. 3 of the most important volcanoes in Guatemala are Fire (Fuego) Volcano, Water (Agua) Volcano, and Pacaya Volcano. While Agua Volcano can be seen from the city, Pacaya is about an hour and half drive from the capital. Both of these volcanoes can be accessed and climbed by anyone.

Let me start by saying, Guatemala City is huge and very scattered, as far as the touristic places. To save myself some time, money, and energy, I booked a guided tour online before I reached Guatemala, called Guatemala City Tour. It was $29 per adult for a 3-hours tour. We were picked up by Gray Line Guatemala around 2:15pm and were dropped off a little after 5pm. It was a very rushed tour, especially because of the bad traffic conditions in the capital.

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A vendor in Mercado Central in Guatemala City

Some important facts: for US citizens, you don’t need a visa if you are going to be staying in Guatemala for 90 days. And 1 USD was about 7 quetzal during my visit in November 2019. 

 The capital is divided into 21 zones and Zone 1 is the historic center with old architectural touches. Getting in and out of Guatemala City overall is very time consuming because of traffic jams, especially during rush hours. “Chicken Bus” is a popular transportation system here for locals to carry goods from one market to another. But for tourists, I didn’t feel it to be that safe, especially if you don’t know the culture or language or if you are traveling alone or at night. 

If you can spare a couple days in Guatemala, visiting Tikal would be an ideal getaway to see a very important Mayan site. It’s recommended that you take a plane to Tikal, driving can be long and exhausting. I personally could not make it to Tikal…something to check out next time I am here. 

MY HOTEL: I stayed in “Oh Espana”…a bed and breakfast-style accommodation in Zone 13 in Guatemala City. The capital is divided into different zones; make sure to pick your hotel carefully, as some zones are not safe for the tourists. The owner lady and the cook were very friendly and helpful. Inside was very nice as well with a bed and breakfast feeling. Although a traditional breakfast was included, the location was not that great. It was in some kind of a military residential neighborhood…very safe and gated. But there were absolutely no restaurants or stores within walking distance. Thanks to my ramen cup noodles that I brought from home, which I had to eat for few of my dinners. It was only 3 minutes drive from the airport, and the hotel had free shuttle service…but again, I wouldn’t stay there again next time I go to Guatemala. 

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My Guatemalan breakfast at my hotel Oh Espana in Guatemala City

 

My recommendation, if anyone is going to Guatemala for a vacation, is to stay in Antigua. It’s about an hour away from the airport and costs about $20 per person for each way. You can book it online/Viator in advance for a better deal. But once you are there, it’s heaven. I know for sure, if I ever go back to Guatemala, I’ll stay in Antigua…especially Hotel Porta Antigua, which looked fantastic inside and out. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Guatemala during the long weekend of Thanksgiving, 2019. I had 3 full days to roam around different parts of the country. 2 more extra days here would have given me the flexibility to visit Tikal, the famous Mayan ruins site in Central America. It gets pretty chilly at night and early morning around this time of the year. During the day time, you can go out with a t-shirt and it’s very pleasant. But if you are traveling with kids in November to Guatemala, I would recommend carrying a sweater.

EATING and SHOPPING: The day I spent some time in Guatemala City was the only day I had breakfast at my hotel with eggs, fried plantains, beans, freshly squeezed juice, fresh fruits, and locally brewed Guatemalan coffee. I never miss having fried plantains at any meal…something you may want to try when you are in this part of the world.  

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Some local food in Mercado Central in Guatemala City

One of the dinners that I had in Guatemala City was at famous Pollo Campero. It’s a local fast food chain for fried chicken and biscuits. There are plenty of street food options in Guatemala City, but I would be careful of their hygiene and the way they handle food. 

Coffee, chocolate, vanilla, jade jewelries, textiles, pottery, hammocks, masks, and wooden trinkets are some of the popular gifts to buy from Guatemala. When in the capital, check out their underground market, Mercado Central, to go souvenir hunting or to buy fresh produce. 

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A line of souvenir stores in Centro Historico in Guatemala City

PLACES I’VE VISITED: As I mentioned before, I only spent a couple hours in the capital city with a tour company. To get around the town, tuk-tuk can be a nice ride but it does have the reputation that drivers sometimes rob the tourists or charge absurdly high prices if not bargained beforehand. 

Museo Popol Vuh is supposedly one of the most famous museums with a nice collection of archaeological items from the pre-Spanish Mayan world. Also if you get time, Plaza de la Constitucion (Parque Central) and Plaza Berlin are couple other touristy destinations. 

  1. AVENUE of the AMERICAS: This is a long boulevard which we just drove by slightly stopping at a couple places for only a few seconds. This is a long stretch of corridor honoring countries who kept good relationship with Guatemala. We passed many statues of different presidents, politicians, writers from American countries like Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Chille, Argentina, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and etc. A statue of the Pope, who came to visit Guatemala, can also be found here. This is one of the most important avenues in the city. 

Avenue of the Americas is located near a very rich neighborhood with luxurious apartments and residential houses. The park is closed on Sundays. 

2. AVENUE REFORMA: Like above, we didn’t stop anywhere on this long street of historic landmarks. Avenue Reforma was built in the late 1800s and throughout the 20th century, many more sculptures were added honoring notable people from the history of Guatemala. With about 2.26km length, it’s considered as one of the main thoroughfares of the capital. The boulevard has many statues of Guatemalan writers and past reformers. Two of the main statues that I remember our tour guide mentioned were Mother’s Day statue and a statue of the writer of 1st Guatemalan constitution. 

From the Avenue Forma, we passed by Mayan Language Institute, USA Embassy, and Iglesia Jurita which was a red Baroque style building…looked stunning from outside. 

3. ZONE 4: This is the civic center of the city with many of the important government and other buildings, like National Bank of Guatemala and Guatemala Tourism Building. Republic Plaza is a beautiful roundabout. We just drove by Zone 4 without stopping anywhere. 

4. CENTRO HISTORICO – Historic Center of Guatemala is located in Zone 1. This is one of the busiest areas in the city with elegant colonial style buildings. Many important government buildings can also be found here. There are some free guided/walking tours to explore Zone 1 – the historic center of Guatemala City.

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Historic Center of Guatemala City

    1. NATIONAL PALACE – Situated in Plaza Mayor, the National Palace was built between 1939 -1943. This was the most important building in the country at one point and was the headquarter of the President of Guatemala. The elaborate and imposing exterior of the building was designed in Renaissance and Spanish Baroque styles. We didn’t have time to go inside but there are organized tours that you can take you to get a peek at the interior courtyards, official rooms, wall murals, and decorative art works. 
    2. PASEO DE LA SEXTA/6TH AVENUE: This is a beautiful pedestrian zone in Guatemala City (a few minutes walk from the National Palace) with lots of stores and restaurants. Take a stroll on 6th Avenue to have a true cultural experience among Guatemalans. This is the heart of the historic zone in Guatemala City. There are few small parks around this area for locals mainly but a good atmosphere during day time to relax and do people watching. 
    3. CATHEDRAL of GUATEMALA CITY or METROPOLITAN CATHEDRAL: Built by the Spaniards somewhere from 1778-1850, this was a beautiful cathedral to visit. It’s big and bold inside and out. The marbles here were brought from Italy. 

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Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City

5. MERCADO CENTRAL: This was our last stop of the tour. You can spend a good couple hours exploring this unique underground market in the heart of Guatemala City. There are plenty of fast food/street food restaurants here serving typical Guatemalan dishes for very cheap prices. Inexpensive clothings, shoes, and leather goods can be found here too. But what I loved here was that you can get all kinds of tropical fruits in Mercado Central for a very good price. We barely had less than half an hour to spend here and I was able to buy a jade pendant for my daughter for 75 quetzal. 

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Mercado Central – an underground market in Guatemala City

 

 

What to Consider When Buying Your First Snow Skis

Skiing in a snowy mountainside can be an exciting adventure for someone who is getting into the sport. Though before you slide down the snow-covered slopes, you need to get snow skis that fit your level of experience.

But buying a snow ski for someone who does not have any experience can be difficult. Considering that even a seasoned skier might find themselves falling into the pitfalls of getting the wrong accessories, which will not only make their skiing experience uncomfortable but risky as well.

The Most Important Consideration When Buying Skis

There are lots of skis available in the market, and more often, people fall prey to its attractive design. One important thing to remember before buying such equipment knows your skills level. There are different types of skis from those that carve turns with fast charges to the surfy and bouncy skis.

If you’re a beginner, understanding the different types, how a camber and rocker work, and the right ski length will help narrow down your selection. Here are some essential details you should check when buying a ski:

  • Choose a ski based on terrain: Often omitted by beginning skiers, the ground should speak a lot about the type of equipment you should purchase. There are several skis available in the market based on the terrain where it is going to be used. This includes downhill skiing, free-riding, terrain park, and powder skiing.
  • Have a general idea about the length of the ski: Skiing experts always advise selecting a ski that reaches your chin to possibly the top of your head. You can also use a size chart when buying, for a precise fit.
  • Ski dimensions affect your skin quality: As a general rule, always look for snow skis based on your skiing style. For example, wider skis provide a bouncier and flotation effect in deep snow while angular skis are made for carving deep turns and groomed runs.
  • Know how a ski’s camber and rocker will affect your ski experience: The rocker of a ski is the early rise of the ski profile, found between a full camber and a reverse camber. If you prefer skiing on groomed slopes, a snow ski with a traditional alpine camber or one with a tip rocker might be fitting. But if you’re more on the daring side of the adventure and prefer deeper snow, a tail and tip rocker or even a full rocker snow ski will be the ideal choice.
  • Consider a separate or an integrated binding: A ski binding is a device connecting the ski to your ski boots. Built-in binding is more convenient and provides quality performance and suitable for beginners. For skiers with an intermediate to advanced skiing levels, a separate bind can be an optional choice.

Getting the best out of your skiing experience

Skiing is a beautiful sport that helps boost your mood, strengthen your lower body muscles, and improves your flexibility. But with all benefits, being prepared with the ideal equipment from gears to snow ski is a must.

Getting the right ski for your first adventure will not only help you gain a better skiing experience but provide a level of safety and comfort. Always understand that buying a ski takes into account specific criteria to match your level of expertise and the amount of experience you want to have.

 

 

Chichicastenango – one of the oldest Mayan Markets in Central America

CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET and LAKE ATITLAN, GUATEMALA: Visiting Chichicastenango Market is almost a must if you want to experience the unique culture and centuries old history of Guatemalan Mayans. This is a perfect place to talk to the locals, get a glimpse of their lifestyle, or just to enjoy their daily hustling while doing some shopping. 

There are 25 different cultures in Guatemala and 22 of them are from Mayan ethnic group. Unfortunately, (what our guide told us) Mayan language is only taught in private schools here now. 90% of the highlands people in Guatemala are Mayans and visiting Chichicastenango gives you a small window to that rich heritage. 

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A scene of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

This was my first excursion in Guatemala. I booked this online couple weeks before reaching the country. It was $75 per adult for a 12-hours of day trip from Guatemala City, organized by Gray Line Guatemala. We were picked up around 6:30am and were returned to our hotels around 7-ish in the evening. Lunch was included with the package. It was a small group of only 6/7 people in a big van. I won’t lie, this was a long trip and we were in the car for more than 3 hours before reaching Chichicastenango Mayan Market. But I have to say Gray Line Guatemala was a very friendly and accomodating tour company and I loved our guide, Juan Pablo. 

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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

MY HOTEL: I stayed in “Oh Espana”…a bed and breakfast-style accommodation in Zone 13 in Guatemala City. The capital is divided into different zones; make sure to pick your hotel carefully, as some zones are not safe for the tourists. The owner lady and the cook were very friendly and helpful. Although a traditional breakfast was included, the location was not that great. It was in some kind of a military residential neighborhood…very safe and gated. But there were absolutely no restaurants or stores within walking distance. Thanks to my ramen cup noodles that I brought from home, which I had to eat for few of my dinners. It was only 3 minutes drive from the airport and hotel had free shuttle service…but again, I wouldn’t stay there again next time I go to Guatemala. 

My recommendation, if anyone is going to Guatemala for a vacation, is to stay in Antigua. It’s about an hour away from the airport. But once you are there, it’s heaven. I know for sure, if I ever go back to Guatemala, I’ll stay in Antigua…especially Hotel Porta Antigua looked fantastic to me inside and out. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Guatemala during the long weekend of Thanksgiving, 2019. I had 3 full days to roam around different parts of the country. 2 more extra days here would have given me the flexibility to visit Tikal, the famous Mayan ruins site in Central America. It gets pretty chilly at night and early morning around this time of the year. During the day time, you can go out with a t-shirt and it’s very pleasant. But if you are traveling with kids in November to Guatemala, I would recommend carrying a sweater.

EATING and SHOPPING: Our lunch was included in the package and it was in Chichicastenango Market. It was in a cozy, 2-floored restaurant, called St. Thomas. While I was waiting near the balcony on the 2nd floor and looking out the door to the local vendors on the street, I was served with some black corn tortillas with a bowl of soup. For the main dish I ordered chicken in papiene sauce (a pepper sauce) that came with potatoes and avocado on the side. While I didn’t really enjoy the chicken main dish, the soup and the black tortillas were amazing. The restaurant itself is decorated beautifully with colorful local decors and comes with very friendly waiters. 

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My delicious lunch – black corn tortillas with soup in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

FYI, with 10 different species of corn in Guatemala, I guess, trying out different types of corn is a must. 

Chichicastenango Market is a heaven for souvenir hunters, like me. It’s a colorful and attractive outdoor market with variety of items from fresh vegetables, fruit, and local dishes to textiles, wooden masks, potterries, and other decors. Most of the vendors here are Mayan women. Don’t forget or feel frustrated bargaining with each vendor…it’s their culture, so enjoy it without overthinking the process or fear of losing money or getting a better deal somewhere else. I bought 6 small wooden bowls for $20 and 5 table runners (combination of cotton and silk table runners) for $120, which I later found out, I probably could have gotten these a bit cheaper price. 

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Traditional Central American dolls in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

Coffee, chocolate, vanilla, jade jewelry, textiles, pottery, hammocks, masks, and wooden trinkets are some of the popular gifts to buy from Guatemala. 

PLACES I’VE VISITED: This tour was about 12 hours of long journey which highlights only 2 places…Chichicastenango Market and Lake Atitlan. I had 2 more extra days in Guatemala for which, I spent a day in the capital and my last day in historic Antigua.

  1. CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET: Chichicastenango Market was about 3 hours drive from Guatemala City. So you have to start the day very early. This is a Mayan market which is more than 500 years old and believed to be one of the oldest outdoor markets in Central America. The city of Chichicastenango itself a beautiful city on a small hill which we passed by upon entering and has about 60K people.

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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

After reaching the market, we pushed the crowded small streets of vendors to reach our first spot. It was the big indoor area where fresh produce and other local food items are sold. It’s very colorful and is an energetic place to see locals going on with their daily lives. Mostly Mayan women are the sellers in this market. This is a crowded place with lots of vendors, local buyers, and tourists. Therefore, this is a very common place (as we were told by our guide) for pick-pocketing…keep your belongings very careful here. 

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Indoor market of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where fresh produces are sold

Next we were taken to St. Thomas Church. This Catholic church is located at one end of Chichicastenango Market and was built around mid to later part of the 16th century by the Spaniards.

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Right outside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

While outside of the church was packed with flower vendors on the stairs and countless people nearby, this is a very simple church inside with a calm and peaceful courtyard. Interesting fact and a beautiful scene in this church is that, you can see both Catholics and Mayans are doing their own rituals and using it equally. While the beautiful incense were burning and spreading mystical smell, we saw Catholics were praying closer to the main altar and a Mayan woman walking on her knees to the altar. This was beautiful to watch as they kept their own heritage while being very respectful to the other believers. 

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Inside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

One of the most beautiful places in Chichicastenango city is the colorful cemetery where we didn’t go but saw from the hill from a bit far away. The color of the tombstone in that cemetery represents the favorite color of the person who passed away. 

In the market, especially near St. Thomas Church, it’s very easy to get lost. In fact, for a few seconds, I couldn’t find my group and was frantically looking each direction for them. Thanks to our assistant tour guide who saw me and told me where they are. Use some basic cautions when you are there, especially if you have kids or traveling with a large group.

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Some locals of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

2. LAKE ATITLAN: The drive from Chichicastenango Market to Lake Atitlan was about an hour and fifteen minutes in the district, called Solola in Guatemala. We stopped at San Francisco Panajachel town to visit Lake Atitlan and spent anywhere from 30-45 minutes by the lake, just walking around the lake, taking some shots, and checking out the Mayan market. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

The lake, in a massive volcanic crater, is surrounded by mountains, especially 3 volcanoes around the lake. We were told by the guide that the lake is 23km long and the deepest point of the lake is 350 meters. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of Lake Atitlan for the effort and time it took to get there from Chichicastenango Market. Lake Atitlan is a beautiful place with mountains and volcanoes, but the long winding journey was not fun and if I knew, I would have just gone with half a day to Chichicastenango Market.

Things You Have To Get Right When Travelling Around

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Travelling the world is something that everybody should have the pleasure of doing. Obviously, you’re free to do whatever you want in this life (within reason); if you’d like to stay in your hometown for the entirety of it, then that’s fine. Seeing what else the world has to offer can do so much for an individual, however, so it’s a highly recommended thing. 

If you’ve ever been tempted into hopping to the other side of the planet in order to be amongst different cultures and creeds, then you’ll know that it’s not exactly a case of getting on a plane and leaving everything behind. 

Keep Everything As Comfy As Possible 

You’re going to be heading out of your comfort zone when you travel to an unknown area. While it’s good to be out of your comfort zone, you’ll still need to have a few things around that will keep you content. Constant discomfort won’t be good for your mindset, so make sure you make things easier for you. For instance, you’ll probably want to have the right backpack and the correct footwear. These kinds of things might seem pretty basic, but if they’re not handled, then you’ll notice their absence.

Don’t Forget Anything!

It’s very easy to forget certain items whenever you leave the house, right? Well, you’re going to be leaving the house for a significant amount of time if you choose to go travelling! Make sure you have absolutely everything you need. Make a list and go over it a bunch of times. When you’re packing, be sure to triple-check everything.

If the situation is appropriate, then you could always hire a moving company to help you out. Sure, it’s not the most orthodox approach, but some movers do specialize in long-distance travel. You can always Learn More by heading online and checking out some of your local moving companies. 

Bring The Right Company 

This is pretty important. If you’re going places with your friends, you might want to make sure you bring the correct ones. We all have people in our lives that we can only spend so much time with, right?! It sounds harsh, but even our best pals can get a little frustrating if we spend too long with them! Choose someone (or a group) that you’ll be able to be around for an extended period. We talked about keeping things as comfy as possible, and this is just another example!

Get Insured!

You never quite know what can happen to you or your things when you’re away on your travels. You’re getting away to enjoy yourself and to take in new experiences, but that doesn’t mean you and your items are going to be invincible. Valuables might get stolen or lost during transit. You may fall a little ill when away from your natural habitat. Flights around might even get cancelled, and that’s no good for you. 

If any of these instances (or anything else negative) should arise, then you’re going to be in a pretty awful situation. That’s where travel insurance will help you out. You obviously don’t need to take some out, but you can never be too sure. They’ll be able to cover you should anything go awry. 

 

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