Cuba travel guide

A blue classic car parked outside a house in Trinidad, Cuba

Travelling around Cuba can feel like you’ve stepped back in time – the iconic classic cars from the 1950s are everywhere, the architecture is from a bygone era and it’s perfectly normal to see a horse and cart in the street or a man using oxen to plough his field.

The Caribbean island, famous for its rum, salsa music and cigars, is a fascinating country boasting attractive scenery and great food and drink, and is home to a warm, hospitable people. I spent a little over a week travelling around the western and central parts of the island, and loved every minute of it. So without further ado, here’s my mini-travel guide to Cuba…

Havana

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

The Cuban capital is a must for anyone visiting the country and the old, historic centre is easily explored on foot. Browse the second-hand books and posters for sale in the market in the Plaza des Armes (above), stop for a drink in Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar La Bodeguita del Medio or step inside the beautiful Catedral de San Cristobal.

Memorial to Jose Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana

The Plaza de la Revolución is a fascinating tribute to the revolution and the men who inspired it, with an incredibly tall monument dedicated to José Martí, a national hero in Cuba, at its centre (above). Before I went to Cuba, I was told if I did one thing in Havana, I should go to the Hotel Nacional and enjoy a cocktail on the veranda – I did and it was wonderful.

Pinar del Río

Shelves full of bottles of guayabita flavoured rum liqueur for sale in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Situated on the western tip of the island, Pinar del Río is best known for its cigars and rum. During my brief trip to the city, I visited Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién, a small cigar factory where I learned about cigar-making while watching the staff hand-rolling and cutting cigars, as well as a rum factory. Pinar del Río produces its own particular type of rum liqueur, guayabita (above), made from little guava fruits and is a must-try if you’re in the area.

Viñales

The countryside around Vinales in Cuba

The beautiful Viñales Valley (above) boasts superb scenery thanks to the unusual and distinctive mogotes (the limestone rocks covered in lush green vegetation) that dot the landscape. There isn’t much to do in the town itself, but the countryside is well worth exploring. I had a wonderful time in Viñales walking through the countryside and meeting some of the local fruit and tobacco farmers.

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

The southern coastal city of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its perfectly-preserved historic centre. Parque Marti in the middle of the city is surrounded by beautiful, historic buildings, including the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción and the Teatro Tomás Terry, which is well worth a look inside. With its enchanting bay-side location and historic centre, the city has been nicknamed the Pearl of the South.

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

Walking around the centre of Trinidad can feel like you’re in another era thanks to its cobbled streets and colourful colonial-era buildings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was my favourite place in Cuba. There’s a laid-back charm to the city and I happily spent a couple of days mooching around, popping into its shops, restaurants, museums and churches, browsing the handicrafts market, and soaking up its rich heritage and culture.

The view over Trinidad and the surrounding countryside from the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

If you like cocktails, make sure to visit Canchánchara, a small bar in the city that’s famed for its namesake cocktail – a delicious concoction of honey, rum, lime and water. And don’t miss the nightly Casa de la Musica on the stone steps beside the Plaza Mayor (above) where Trinidadians come to dance, listen to music and sip mojitos.

Santa Clara

Memorial to Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba

If you’re looking to delve into Cuba’s revolutionary past, then head to Santa Clara. For the city was the site of the last, decisive battle in the revolutionary war of the 1950s. The Tren Blindado Monument recreates the train derailment, orchestrated by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, that prevented the then-dictator Batista from moving his soldiers and weapons to the east of the country.

The city is also where Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is buried and his burial site is surrounded by a jaw-droppingly enormous memorial, the Conjunto Escultorico Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara (above), that has to be seen to be believed. The site also includes a small museum dedicated to the guerilla leader.

Food and drink

Cuba tends to have a bad (and unfair) reputation for its food. There’s a lot of pork, rice and beans on menus, but I feasted most nights on delicious platters of seafood. My favourite meal was lobster and shrimp with plantain chips and salad (which I ate a lot), but I also enjoyed a great paella, red snapper and a scrumptious tuna sandwich, which to my surprise consisted of a flavourful marinated tuna-steak and salad in a roll.

A cup of canchanchara at the Canchanchara bar in Trinidad, Cuba

The island is famous for its rum and the spirit beloved by sailors can be found everywhere – bottles of the ubiquitous Havana Club rum are incredibly cheap. Rum is most often drunk in cocktails – you’ll find piña coladas, daiquiris, cuba libres and mojitos on most drinks menus. But you’ll also find the odd local speciality, such as Trinidad’s Canchánchara cocktail (above), and Pinar del Río’s guayabita rum liqueur, too.

Where to stay

To experience some Cuban hospitality, it’s worth staying in a casa particular, a private home that rents out rooms or apartments to paying travellers for the night. It’s a handy way for Cubans to earn a little extra money. I stayed in two casa particulares when I was in Cuba – one in Viñales, the other in Trinidad – and in both cases, my hosts were warm and friendly, and the accommodation excellent. They also served superb breakfasts in the morning.

Currency

If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, it’s worth noting that you can’t buy Cuban money outside the country. And confusingly for first time visitors, the country has two currencies – the Cuban Peso, which is mostly used by Cubans, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (known as CUCs), which is mostly used by visitors.

You can buy your CUCs from a kiosk at Havana Airport, as well as at banks and cadecas throughout the country. British Pound Sterling and Euros are accepted. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the country charges travellers a departure tax – so you’ll need to keep 25 CUCs aside to leave the country.

Have your say

Have you been to Cuba? If so, please feel free to share your travel tips in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the island, too.

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Edinburgh travel guide

View over Edinburgh New Town and the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh Castle

Settled around two extinct volcanoes and steeped in history, Edinburgh is a cultural, culinary powerhouse boasting dramatic scenery, excellent food and fabulous shopping. With lots to see and do, it’s a great destination for a weekend city break. If you’re planning a trip to Auld Reekie, here’s my mini travel guide to the Scottish capital…

History

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop one of the city’s two ancient volcanoes, Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed (above). The huge fortress is home to a royal residence, the legendary stone of scone, the Scottish crown jewels, the city’s oldest building (St Margaret’s Chapel), the national war memorial and a few museums (a couple of regimental museums and another on prisoners of war). While the ruined David’s Tower was the site of Scotland’s very own ‘red wedding’ when the young head of the Black Douglas clan and his brother were murdered during a banquet in an event known to history as ‘the black dinner’.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Down the hill from Edinburgh Castle, at the end of the Royal Mile, is Edinburgh’s other royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above), the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is also the site of another infamous royal murder – that of Mary, Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio by her husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Inside the palace you can tour Mary’s apartments and explore the ruined Holyrood Abbey (below), which once upon a time hosted the coronations and marriages of many a Scottish monarch.

A passageway inside Holyrood Abbey

Delve into the capital’s more recent history and pop inside the Scottish Parliament opposite Holyrood Palace. The parliament, which is free to visit, offers guided hour-long tours focusing on different aspects of the building – you can choose from a parliament tour, a photography tour, an art tour or an architecture tour.

Museums and galleries

There are a number of world-class museums and art galleries in the Scottish capital, but the best by far is the National Museum of Scotland. The enormous museum extends over multiple floors and features exhibitions about Scottish history, the natural world, technology, science, fashion and more.

The museum’s most famous artefacts are the Lewis Chessmen, a series of 12th century ivory and walrus-tooth chess figurines discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Eleven of the glorious chessmen – they each have unique facial features – are on display here, the remaining 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby

On leaving the museum, don’t miss the statue of Greyfriars Bobby opposite (above), outside Greyfriars Kirk. JK Rowling found inspiration for many a Harry Potter character’s name in the churchyard – the names on the gravestones include Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Potter and Moodie.

Art lovers should make a beeline for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a gorgeous red brick building in the New Town, the enormous gallery is home to a host of portraits of fascinating, world-leading Scots (I had no idea how many Scots had shaped our world until I visited). Flora MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are among the famous Scots whose portraits are on display.

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery (above) beside the city’s Princes Street Gardens features works by a slew of famous artists such as Constable, Monet, Degas and El Greco. While modern art fans should plan a trip to the city’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where you can see works by the likes of Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Rene Magritte.

Plants and wildlife

Edinburgh’s most famous gardens are the Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The popular gardens are a great place to while away an hour or two with a book on a sunny afternoon. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the north of the city centre span some 70 acres and are home to more than 13,500 plant species. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, meanwhile, looks after the UK’s only giant pandas (Tian Tian and Yang Guang) and koalas (Alinga, Goonaroo and Toorie), along with penguins, lions, vultures, hippos and more.

Walking

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When a city boasts two extinct volcanoes, you know there will be plenty of opportunities for long walks and hikes. The best hike in the city is the magnificent Arthur’s Seat (above), which overlooks the Palace of Holyroodhouse and has breathtaking views over Edinburgh and out towards the Firth of Forth. There are various trails you can follow to the peak, some steeper than others, and depending on the weather, it can get pretty windswept at the top.

If you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the nearby Calton Hill, which is topped by the  distinctive, unfinished Parthenon-like national monument, is a better bet. For those who dislike hills, the Water of Leith walkway follows the path of the River Leith from the suburb of Balerno to the port of Leith and extends over 12 miles in total. But for a shorter walk, start in the city’s picturesque Dean Village and follow the river through the city to Leith, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Shopping

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s shopping mecca, awash with the usual high street names such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, but make sure to explore the streets and alleyways behind it in the city’s New Town. The area is filled with independent boutiques that are well worth a browse. Edinburgh’s quirkiest and most interesting shops, though, are to be found in the city’s Grassmarket area and along steep Victoria Street that curves from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket.

Food

Outside London, Edinburgh is one of the UK’s brightest culinary hot spots featuring a host of exceptionally good restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite places is The Scran & Scallie gastropub, co-owned by renowned local chef Tom Kitchin, which serves modern, seasonal British fare. Be sure to rock up on a Sunday evening when folk musicians play in the bar area – there’s a lively atmosphere and it makes for a fun evening.

Chez Jules, an unpretentious French bistro in the New Town, is also worth checking out, as is Hendersons, an Edinburgh institution that serves excellent veggie and vegan dishes. It’s my go-to breakfast place in the city. For a quick caffeine fix, Wellington Coffee in the New Town is a tiny, basement delight. Order the hot chocolate – it comes with a giant, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side.

Day trips

Fancy seeing some sights outside the city? You’re in luck as the area surrounding the Scottish capital is brimming with places to visit. Fans of symbolism and/or The Da Vinci Code should hop on the number 37 bus from Princes Street, which will take you to the village of Roslin, home to the romantic 15th century Rosslyn Chapel and its copious, intricate stone carvings. Sadly, there’s no sign of the holy grail.

The courtyard inside the ruined Linlithgow Palace

If Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse failed to satisfy your appetite for all things royal, the haunting Linlithgow Palace (above) is a short 20-minute train ride away. The ruined shell of a palace was the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. While the imposing and impressive Stirling Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Inchcolm Abbey

The beautiful Firth of Forth is also a short train ride away – alight at South Queensferry where you can catch a boat to Inchcolm Island. The small island in the middle of the firth is home to a splendid, partially-ruined abbey (above). While sailing across the firth, keep your eye out for puffins (their distinctive orange beaks make them relatively easy to spot) and soak up the magnificent views as you sail under the iconic Forth Bridges.

Getting there

Edinburgh Airport is well served by airports in the UK and abroad. Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get into the city is via the express bus service. Buses run every 10 minutes and cost £7 for a return ticket. The bus’s final destination is Waverley Bridge, overlooking Edinburgh Waverley train station, in the heart of the city.

Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Petra is the reason most people visit Jordan and it was certainly why I booked my trip. I’d long been keen to visit the ancient Nabatean city, but little did I realise it’s just one of a number of incredible places to see in this fascinating country.

Jordan is home to wonderfully preserved Roman ruins, the lowest and saltiest point on Earth and Moses’s alleged burial site, as well as cracking Crusader castles, spectacular deserts, and relaxing beach resorts. It’s also one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen and boasts breathtaking scenery that rivals the great American vistas of Zion and Arches national parks.

Jordan has a long and fascinating history, playing host to a number of cultures and peoples over the millennia; the food is delicious; and the people are warm, friendly and hospitable. I spent a week travelling around the country last year and needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Here’s my mini travel guide to Jordan

Sightseeing

Amman

I wasn’t hugely impressed by Jordan’s capital city Amman, it didn’t seem to have much of a centre to it and you needed to drive everywhere, so it felt a little soulless. But there are some impressive places to visit, including the old Citadel (above) on top of a hill in the centre of the city and the Roman amphitheatre below it. The Jordan Museum, which is home to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is also worth a visit – it’s small, so only takes an hour or so to look around, but it’s full of interesting exhibits about the country, its history and its culture, and has an excellent display about the origins of language.

Jerash

One of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world, Jerash is a fascinating place. The ancient city is much bigger than I was expecting and even though we spent a good two-and-a-half hours there, I still felt as though we rushed our trip and didn’t quite see everything there was to see. The spectacular ruins include two almost perfectly preserved amphitheatres, numerous temples and an intriguing mosaic on the floor of an old church.

Dead Sea

The mineral-rich lake that lies between Jordan and Israel is 411m below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. There are a number of resorts dotted along the edge of the Dead Sea where you can while away an afternoon floating in the thick salty waters.

Make sure you don’t spend longer than 20 minutes in the sea at any one time before washing all the minerals off your body and avoid getting the sea water in your eyes or other sensitive parts of your body. Look out for small pockets of mud along the shore, which you can use to slather over your body, then wait for the mud to dry before washing it off in the sea – it will leave your skin super soft!

Biblical sites

As part of the Holy Land, Jordan is home to a number of important Biblical sites. Mount Nebo, for example, is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which commemorates the prophet Moses who reportedly saw the promised land from the spot, and features Moses’s reputed burial site, as well as some fantastic mosaics. The mountain, which lies at the top end of the Dead Sea, also boasts fantastic views over Israel (you can just make out Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the distance, above).

St George’s Church in the town of Madaba, meanwhile, features an incredible 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land (above). Only parts of the map remain, but what’s there is fairly topographically accurate and it’s possible to make out the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

Kerak

Perched high on a hill and dominating its namesake town, the crusader castle at Kerak is enormous. The sandstone structure is an imposing and formidable fortress. Much of it is now in ruins, but you can clamber about inside the dark chambers and passages, exploring what remains and there are fantastic views over the nearby valleys.

Petra

The jewel in Jordan’s crown and one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra does not disappoint and is a must for anyone visiting the country. The most surprising thing  about Petra is its size, it’s enormous, and you’ll need at least two, if not three, days to see it all. I spent two full days in Petra and could have done with an extra day.

Petra is famed for its ancient tombs, but surprisingly, they’re not the most spectacular part of the city. Rather I was blown away by its incredible landscapes – it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The colours in the rocks – greens, reds, whites, purples, blacks, even bright blues – are like nothing I’ve seen before.

Petra gets very busy, especially the area around the Treasury (above), so it’s worth getting there as early as possible. It was incredibly hot and sunny when I visited in May, so we did the bulk of our sightseeing in the morning before the temperatures became unbearable.

Petra’s very hilly so you’ll need to do a lot of hiking to reach some of the more interesting parts of the city. My favourite place was the Monastery (above), high on top of one of the city’s hills, and for me, more spectacular than the iconic Treasury. My surprise when I turned around and saw it after a long hike to the top of the mountain will stay with me forever.

It’s also worth carrying on past the Monastery to the look-out points on the rocks nearby. There’s one overlooking the Monastery and one further on with a Bedouin tent on top of a precarious-looking rock – don’t miss either highest point and stay for tea with the friendly Bedouin. The view from the rock over the Wadi al Araba is extraordinary and one of my favourite travel moments.

Wadi Rum

The beautiful desert of Wadi Rum was immortalised by Lawrence of Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his detailed account of his time in the Middle East helping unite the Arab tribes. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after a rock formation in the wadi (an Arabic term for valley) and there’s even a carving of TE Lawrence on a rock in the desert. Wadi Rum is also home to an old, unused train station with a train you can clamber aboard, as well as ancient Nabatean carvings. You can also spend the night sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin camp where you’ll be treated to great food, music and dancing.

Aqaba

Aqaba lies at the top of the Red Sea and is the only port in this otherwise landlocked country. I spent a day on a glass-bottomed boat on the sea, snorkelling in the coral reefs. The current in the sea can be very strong, but the marine life is incredible – I was lucky enough to find myself snorkelling with a turtle, which was definitely a pinch-myself moment.

Food and drink

Jordanian food is fairly typical Middle Eastern fare – think lots of delicious salads, hummus, baba ghanoush, pickled vegetables, tabbouleh, falafel and flatbreads. Other foods to look out for include kibbe, which are little meat croquettes; mansaf, a dish of goat or lamb served with rice and topped with a yoghurt sauce; and mussakhan, a chicken wrap with onions.

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Alcohol is rare in Jordan – the only places I saw it for sale were in Petra and Aqaba – and instead you’ll find lots of fantastic fruit juices in the restaurants. My favourite was lemon and mint juice, which you’ll find everywhere, although it varied in taste depending on where I had it. Sometimes it was sweet, other times really sour. I also drank lots of mint tea while I was there and tried some fermented goat’s milk, an interesting local delicacy, during a picnic in Wadi Mujib.

Climate

Wadi Rum

Jordan is in the heart of the Middle East and so is a hot, dry country. It’s baking hot in the summer, but cooler in winter, around 5°C to 10°C in January. I visited in May when the sun was searingly strong, so I tried my best to avoid the midday sun, venturing out in the morning or late afternoon and seeking as much shade as possible. I still struggled with headaches and overheating though, despite taking every precaution to protect myself.

Safety

“Is it safe?” was the one question everyone asked when I told them I was going to Jordan. “Yes,” I’d reply wearily, “it’s perfectly safe.” And it is. I didn’t have any concerns about my safety during my trip, and if anything, I probably felt safer there than I do in most European countries.

The Jordanians take their security seriously, so every tourist site has a police presence and there were numerous police checks along the roads. There was also airport-style security at the entrance to a number of hotels. I didn’t find this scary, rather I found it reassuring that the Jordanians know the country’s a likely target for terrorists given its location and are taking the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.

Share your experiences

Have you been to Jordan? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it and if you have any tips I haven’t covered here, please share them in the comments.

Costa Rica travel guide

A teeny frog sits in between two leaves

My mini-travel guide to Lisbon seemed to go down well, so I thought I’d put together another mini-travel guide – this time to Costa Rica. I recently spent a week travelling around the Central American country and this is my mini-guide to the friendly, wildlife haven that’s been voted the happiest place on earth (sorry Disneyland!).

In brief

Costa Rica is home to a number of very different landscapes and it’s worth travelling around the country to get a flavour of the contrasting environments. From volcanoes to rainforests, cloud forests and idyllic beaches, there are lots of diverse landscapes to explore. It also boasts an abundance of wildlife, with five per cent of the world’s species calling the country home. On top of that, there are activities galore (think zip lining, white water rafting, snorkelling, mountain biking, and so on), which means you’ll never be short of things to do.

Arenal

Arenal Volcano

Dominated by the magnificent Arenal Volcano (above), which slumbers peacefully in the background, the Arenal region is home to some great hiking trails. It was here I saw my first sloth (albeit so far up a tree I could barely make it out), venomous snakes and a turkey-like bird. I also heard howler monkeys and cicadas for the first time.

A small orange frog on a large green leaf at night

Do try some of the activities while you’re here – I visited a couple of hiking trails in the national park, and tried my hand at horse riding (loved it) and mountain biking (hated it).

The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is fantastic – there are so many species of birds, insects and flora to see, plus there are fantastic views from the bridges high above the ground.

Also do not leave without paying a visit to one of the hot springs around the town, they make blissfully relaxing use of the thermal waters. Sipping a pina colada in the bubbling hot waters was the perfect way to soothe my aching muscles after a day of hiking and horse riding.

And if you get a chance to go on an evening frog hunt, do – the many species of frog are super cute.

Monteverde

The lush, dense cloud forest at Monteverde

Cloud forest country high up in the mountains, Monteverde is an excellent place for hiking and I saw lots of wildlife here, including howler and capuchin monkeys, more snakes and frogs, and lots of unusual birds and insects.

Do take part in a night-time safari through the forest if you can – it’s fantastic. I saw toucans sleeping high in the trees, tarantulas and even an armadillo!

Mural of people picking coffee berries at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Monteverde is also coffee country and I joined a coffee tour at El Trapiche to: find out how they farm coffee, sugar cane and chocolate; have a go at making sweets; and try the best coffee I’ve ever tasted (and as someone who hates coffee that’s saying something).

Do have a go at zip lining in Monterverde, too – it was terrifying, but great fun once I got over the whole ‘Oh-dear-God-I’m-100ft-high-in-a-tree-with-nothing-but-a-rope-to-stop-me-plummeting-to-the-ground’ thing.

Manuel Antonio

One of the idyllic golden sandy beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

Situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Manuel Antonio is home to lots of picture-perfect beaches. It was also the most touristy place I visited. I toured the national park where I came face-to-face with more capuchin monkeys, raccoons, more sloths (including a mother and baby), lizards and crabs. I also took a boat trip out to the Pacific Ocean where I went snorkelling – and got stung by tons of miniature jelly fish.

Weather

A waterfall by the roadside in Costa Rica

There’s rain, there’s Welsh rain and then there’s Costa Rican rain. If you’re planning to go to Costa Rica and stay dry, think again – it’s nigh on impossible. I ended up skin-soakingly wet at least once a day during my week-long stay because when it rains, it really rains and it’s far too hot and humid for sweaty waterproofs. Umbrellas are no match against the fierce onslaught of rain either. There’s also no point trying to wait it out as the torrential downpours go on and on and on…

You’re far better embracing the rain and accepting you’re going to get wet, repeatedly, no matter what. The only problem is, it’s so humid it’s almost impossible to dry your clothes and after a few days, everyone’s damp clothes start to pong. Thankfully, the hotel laundry services are a lifesaver – unless you want a super stinky suitcase, make liberal use of their services.

Food

Ceviche with tortilla chips

There’s nothing hugely remarkable about Costa Rican food, but it is good and if like me you love fish and fruit, you’ll be very happy. I ate a ridiculous amount of ceviche (above)  – it’s on the menu at a lot of restaurants and that irresistible mix of raw fish, lime juice, chilli and coriander with a helping of tortilla chips on the side was a winner every time.

Casados is a Costa Rican staple, a mix of grilled meat or fish served with rice, refried beans, vegetables such as plantain, and salad. I often ate this for lunch and it was consistently good – but be warned it’s very filling, so definitely not a light lunch. Fruit is also abundant – ripe, juicy watermelon, pineapple and banana were all in season when I visited.

Cactus flower ice cream

Do try the local coffee, the local sugar cane spirit, and if you can find it, cactus flower ice cream (above) – it’s a vivid pink colour. Sounds weird but tastes delicious.

Be warned sometimes the food combinations are a little odd. In the first restaurant we visited I ordered tea with milk – which turned out to be a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it. Not quite what I was expecting. I also ordered some vegetable nachos at a restaurant in Arenal. I was expecting the usual combination of tortilla chips with tomatoes, guacamole, cheese and sour cream, and instead got nachos with boiled carrots, broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. It was edible, if bizarre.

What to pack

  • Loose cotton trousers – these were useful when I was hiking in the jungle and helped shield my skin from the pesky mosquitoes
  • Waterproof shoes – given the constant downpours, these came in super handy
  • Hiking shoes – there are lots of hiking trails through the jungles and good footwear is essential
  • Insect repellent – in all likelihood you’ll get bitten anyway, but it’s worth spraying yourself silly regardless
  • Hand sanitiser – the traveller’s best friend for those inevitable visits to soap-free bathrooms
  • A good camera – I was really glad I took my long-lens camera, it came in especially handy when trying to get photos of the wildlife (sloths, monkeys) high in the trees

Have your say

Have you been to Costa Rica? If so, and you have any comments or suggestions about what to see and do there, please leave them in the comments below.

Lisbon travel guide

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A couple of months ago, I found out that a mini-travel guide to Lisbon I’d put together for a friend was doing the rounds of our friends and friends of friends. According to the friend I’d written it for, “it’s like a proper travel guide”. Which got me thinking that, as I have a travel blog and my friends seem to find it useful, I should probably post it.

I’ll blog about my trip in more detail later this year, but for now here’s my mini-travel guide to Lisbon. I hope you find it useful, too – and if you have any other recommendations, please share them in the comments.

City centre

There’s not much to do in central Lisbon itself in terms of sightseeing, I just mooched around the different districts. But the castle on top of the hill, Castelo de São Jorge, is well worth a visit as it has amazing views over the city.

Belem

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Belém is one of the suburbs and there’s loads to do. Just hop on the number 15 tram from Praca da Figueira (you pay on the tram) and it will take you there. There you’ll find the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastery is quite cool to walk around, although the queues are long so it’s worth getting there early. There’s also an amazing palace up on the hill that no-one knows about, the Ajuda National Palace, that’s definitely worth seeing.

Belém is also home to the café that popularised the Portuguese custard tart and you have to visit it – the tarts are fantastic! The Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is just down the road from the monastery, so I popped in there for breakfast before starting my day.

Other sights include the Torre de Belém, a tower on the river, but to be honest it’s a 20-minute walk away and nothing special, so might be worth skipping. I also went to the electricity museum, which was weird, but cool – it’s housed in an old electricity sub-station and is one-half electricity museum, one-half art gallery.

Beach

I went to Cascais, a little fishing port outside Lisbon. It had a little beach and wasn’t really worth the trip, but on the way there loads of people were hopping off the train to go to the various beaches en route to Cascais. I got the train from Cais do Sodré station, so if you want the beach, I’d hop on the train and follow the locals.

Sintra

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My favourite place I visited. It’s a little town in the mountains just south of Lisbon (get the train from Rossio station). Quinta da Regaleira is a world heritage site in the mountains. It’s a bizarre folly/country house with extensive gardens where they’ve built towers, caves and lakes, and is great fun to explore.

The other thing to do is to follow the knights’ templar trail up the mountain to the castle and palace at the top (it looks horrendous from the bottom, but it’s not actually steep or tiring). You can get the bus to the top of the hill, but I don’t think it would be as much fun.

The Moors’ Castle was built on top of the hill by the Moors in the 10th century and is a series of castle ramparts that go all over the top of the mountain. It’s spectacular to walk around and the views from the top are incredible.

The Pena Palace, meanwhile, is a quirky, kitsch palace with an art deco exterior and extensive grounds. It’s kind of crazy and a complete contrast to the palace at Belém. There’s also a palace in the middle of Sintra, the National Palace, but it isn’t as interesting, so I’d leave it ’til last and do it if you have time.

Food and drink

Time Out Mercado da Ribeira, 18.05.15

The Bairro Alto is Lisbon’s food and drink district, and is teeming with restaurants and bars. I had the most amazing clams (a Lisbon speciality) at Petiscos No Bairro on the Rua da Atalaia. I also had a great meal at O Cantinho do Bem Estar, it’s really rustic, home cooked food. The portion sizes are enormous, it’s crazy cheap (I had a massive plate of food and half a jug of wine for 10 euros) and the people that run it are lovely.

Time Out runs a food market (above) at the market across the road from Cais do Sodré station. There are 30-odd stalls from top Lisbon restaurants, food shops and bars, and you take your pick from them and sit down at the tables in the middle of the market. It’s great and you can try loads of different stuff.

I didn’t get round to it when I was in Lisbon, but Tagide is supposed to be great for lunch. You can get a three course meal, plus wine and coffee for 12 euros or so, and all the food guides recommend it.

You should also make sure to try Ginginha, a Portuguese cherry brandy (sounds disgusting, but really nice!), and white port, it’s not as sweet as regular port and hard to come by outside Lisbon. Also, do you like cinnamon? A lot of the desserts have cinnamon in them, especially those that are branded ‘Portuguese’.