Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Day in One Place - Guatemala

A Day in One Place - Guatemala

If you're fortunate enough to have the easy hop from IAH to GUA then you will most likely have arrived and have enough time to see quite a bit of Guatemala City in one day. Just prior to landing you will be given a customs card to fill out. I suggest getting two because you will need to fill out another one once you check-in and before you head out through GUA immigration. Immigration is rather easy and quick. Make sure they stamp your passport, however. You will then proceed to baggage which is also as easy then get in line to have your items scanned at customs. There are a few third party agents at baggage who will check your claim ticket against your luggage so keep that claim check handy. I just showed them my ID.

One hotel I enjoyed was the Mercure Casa Veranda. You can set up a shuttle pick up by emailing the hotel. They will send you a confirmation email and bill it to your room. The shuttle driver will be outside the airport doors with a sign and YOUR name on it. The hotel will charge you approximately $5 USD for this service both ways. I tipped USD and then was able to get a few Quetzals at the hotel. The hotel is located in a pretty cool and hip area called Zona Vida. There's quite a few hotels including the Best Western, Days Inn, Crown Plaza, Westin, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental and others. Once you have checked in, it's time to return to the lobby and request a cab to the city center or Capital de Cultura. There is a "cab manager" out front that will work with the hotel to get you a cab that takes a credit card. They are either green or yellow. Indicate you want a cab that takes credit cards (unless you are using Quetzals) and that you either want it to wait or come back and get you at a mutually agreed upon time and spot. My cab cost $80Q which is about $9-11USD with a time frame of about 2 hours. Have the cab first drop you off at the Iglesia Metropolitan. This is a large church in the square. You will notice it by its size as well as the giant Guatemalan flag in the center of the square. Spend some time visiting the church and the square area. There may be a "pigeon man" in a little box (no kidding) who sells pigeon food. And you will see ALOT of pigeons. EWR has nothing on this square. There are also some street vendors that sell ice cream, fruit and religious trinkets out front. They take Quetzals and some will also take USD. I bought a religious figure for like .89 USD. If you are in the church, exit the church and make a right onto the sidewalk. 

Go to the next street and turn right. Go up about maybe two blocks to the Central Mercado on your right hand side (under a parking garage). You may see some fruit vendors outside. Take the stairs down and explore. Just remember which side you entered it as this is also a good spot to have you picked up. I initially went into the church, took a few photos, then returned to my cab out front who then drove me to the market literally two blocks away. He returned to pick me in front of the mercado when I was finished. I then walked back up the street back to the square to explore. (This is an option). In the mercado, they sell meats, fruits, snacks, party supplies, candles, etc. I also sat at one of the many food stalls and ate some delicious food and had some tamarind juice. The whole thing was like $1.99 USD. It's like eating with family. You don't need to speak the language. After I finished with the market, I went back up the stairs I came down and turned right to the next street, then right again (You should see a McDonald's). This street has a ton of vendors and you can pick up some very inexpensive souvenirs. There are also bakeries and other eateries. Don't be afraid to try the fruit or horchata or other food offerings. Be careful both on the street and market about taking pictures. Some do not want their picture taken. After you are done, walk back to your designated pick up area (or call your cabbie when you are ready). I felt safe and kept my small purse as a cross-body close to me. I was told by one of the food vendors that thieves would cut it if it's on your side. Just use caution. There is also a presence of tourist police and police with automatic rifles. Just don't be "that" tourist!

Back at the hotel, I got ready for the evening. Exit the hotel and go right and walk to two lights then make another right and explore. I dined at Tacontento and had like four tacos for cheap. Gallo is also the national beer apparently. They also take AMEX. Other choices in the area include San Martin Restaurant and bakery (great to pick up that croissant fix for like .89). There's also Kloster, BBQ Barn, Jack Russell Burgers, Pitaya Juicery, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald's, Applebee's, TGIFriday's, Hard Rock Cafe plus a few along your walk. I found chocolate at Zurich which is also a cafe. There are also a bunch of small "tiendas" or stores to get snacks and water. However, most did not take credit cards. There is another shopping center called The Plaza Village. There is also a Starbucks in a fancy mall called Fountainbleu, I think, with additional restaurants and wine bars. Again, I felt safe walking around and returned around 8pm. Depending on the day you are at the hotel, there may be music in the bar/lobby area. You should be able to see the Mercure above the buildings to guide you back if you get lost. Try and skip the chains and eat outside of your comfort zone.

The morning of your return to the airport, the shuttle leaves at the top of the hour every hour. Just be down a few minutes before and to settle your bill. The shuttle drops you right in front and I tipped him the remaining Quetzals I had. Also in front are street vendors. This is a good place to pick up really cheap items before getting in the airport. There is security before you enter the terminal checking passports so have it ready. Once you have checked in, you will go through immigration with your second form then security. However, there are a row of shops just before this that you can pick up some additional items. I found them cheaper then actually the shops by the gate. They take credit cards. Also, you will need to take off your shoes. I had the fun experience of watching them take every single item out of my backpack one section at a time. There is a small food court between gates with a McDonalds and a coffee and snack place. There are a few beer kiosks as well and additional shops. I had no issue taking water on the plane. Now might be the time to try some Guatemalan coffee if you haven't already. Some of the duty free stores were not open when I was there but there's plenty to see. Oh, and I was able to get Wi-Fi only at the gate under "Claro". It was free. I could not get it anywhere else in the airport. Board your plane and off you go!

Viajes Seguros!


Items to buy: Coffee, chocolate, little woven items such as coin purses, belts, sandals, little Guatemalan dolls, flutes, toy guitars

A Day in One Place - Rio de Janeiro

A Day in One Place - Rio de Janeiro

Samba. Warm breezes. And Caiprianha. You've reached one of South America's Crown Jewels and you only have one day. As you exit the airport from baggage, go all the way down to your right across an island to the last shuttle stop marked with Linx on it. You will need to call for the shuttle. The Linx hotel is about 8 minutes away from the airport. If you have arrived overnight, your room may not be ready. The front desk should be able to hold your luggage. I was fortunate enough to only wait an hour, so I changed in the restroom and used the free wi-fi and charged my electronics. Take a business card from the hotel so you have the number and address to show any other cab drivers for the return ride back. You may be at another hotel in the city, if so, disregard this tip.

I signed up to see Cristo Redeemer through Viator. Since the tour company doesn't pick up at the airport but in Copacabana, you can put Copacabana Palace as your pick up point. If you are able to check-in, then quickly drop your items upstairs, freshen up and go. Ask the front desk to get you a taxi to Copacabana. I tried to get one that accepts "credit card". However, the card reader wasn't connecting with my bank and I had to pay using USD, which the driver took. You can get Reals upstairs in the airport, which I recommend because I had to scramble in town to find another bank. Copacabana Palace will not let you use their ATM because you are not a guest. If you want to confirm your pick-up location prior to arriving to Rio, call the US support number and have them reach out to the Grey Line tour bus company that will pick you up. I suggest backing a small bag/pack with a bottle of water, snack, maybe a towel and bathing suit to hit the beach later since it's ridiculous to go back and forth. The cab should cost you about 65-75 Real which can be like $20-25USD. Traffic can be slow. If you are staying in Copacabana, you should still find an ATM at the airport to pull out a few reals. Currently, Uber has a strong presence, and I have used it for subsequent visits; and it is even less money.

Copacabana Palace from the outside is gorgeous and one of Rio's premier hotel destinations. Once on the bus, tell the tour guide your name, take a seat and relax. They will also want your paper voucher. There may be a few more stops along the way to pick up other guests, but it takes only a few minutes before you are on your way. The tour guide will point out a few places of interest.

You will arrive at Christ the Redeemer and be dropped off. We arrived a little early for the next cog train up the mountain, so the tour guide let us have a few minutes to roam. Stay close or they will leave without you. Once you reach the top, you can take either the elevator to the very top or walk the stairs. There are a few shops and cafes up there. Again, not all take card, only Real. You have about 45 minutes up top to take pictures and enjoy the view. Try and buddy up with someone else on the tour who can take photos of you and the statues. The best spot is just a few more feet in by the stairs. There are lots of people that can shoot a photo for you, too. Sometimes you have to lay on the ground to get the best angle. Up top you will see all sides of Rio including its other attraction, Sugarloaf Mountain, the bay and Ipanema. The descend down is interesting, too, but can often be packed with tourists so hold tight.

There are two famous beaches in Rio, Copacabana and Ipanema. Once you return back to Copacabana around 3pm, you can either stay at the beach a little or walk around. There are little vendors and palapas all across the beach for snacks, coconut water and other treats. I was able to find a bank a few blocks away for Reals. Find where the vendors are for the coconuts. I think it was $3RL

Then, grab a cab, either on your own or from one of the hotels. Ask them to take you to Gavota de Ipanema. It is a famous restaurant where the song, Girl from Ipanema was written. Brazil is known for their picanhna and other meats. The Picanha here is generally served for two people but they might do it for just one. I opted for the grilled Filet steak and fries which was excellent. They also have wi-fi and a restroom! There is a little boutique next door that sells shirts and other items. Once you exit, go across the street and take a frontage picture. Then, walk up by following the signs towards the McDonald's. This is a good area to walk around, get some souvenirs, There is also a Starbucks in this area. Stop into McDonalds for free wi-fi and get an ice cream cone with chocolate. Order in the back, take receipt towards the front. I grabbed a cab around 9pm. I suggest writing down the name of the restaurant and address to show the cab driver since many do not speak a lot of English.

Your second day you can either get up early and do the Sugarloaf tour which would require you to be at the pick up location around 8am. Or, take a cab back to Ipanema and relax on the beach for a while which is what I did. This is where you can also enjoy a coconut water in a real coconut. I then headed back to Gavota de Ipanema for a late lunch. This time I also had the fried cheese balls and cream papaya dessert. I left the city around 4pm to get back in time to retrieve luggage and freshen up in the lobby restroom. The airport counter opened at 6:45pm. Once through the check-in and pre-security and you have dropped your bag, head to the restaurants and shops located on the upper level. There is also a food court (it's okay) also pre-security. One thing to try while there is the Brazilian coffee and pao de quijero (pow duh Kay joh) which are tiny cheese bread that are to die for! It's like 2.80 Real for 6 pieces or one large one which is like .80. There is also a Brazilian shop that sells logo'd t-shirts and Havianas flip flops for like $5-8 USD! I did not see much 2016 Olympics items here except for a beach towel and a few shirts. There might be more since it's closer to the Olympics. There is also a great chocolate cart across from the coffee cafe that sells amazing chocolate. You can spend a little bit of time here before your late, overnight flight. Once through security and into the departure halls, there are a few more shops and a McDonalds, which by the way, made the best Big Mac I have had in a while. You should also pick up coffee here if you haven't already. Other than that, the airport is unimpressive.

Boarding starts then off you go!

Songs: Girl from Ipanema
            The Coffee Song by Frank Sinatra
            Rio by Duran Duran