Why now is the perfect time to plan a trip to Cuba (unless you are a US citizen)

Recent announcements of further restrictions on travel by US citizens to Cuba is likely to significantly reduce the numbers of tourists visiting the country. This has had immediate impact, with the major cruise lines responding to the announcement by cutting Cuban ports from existing itineraries.

While no-one knows at this point just how much impact there will be on Cuba’s tourist industry, there is no doubt that US visitor numbers will drop in the short to medium term. The Cuban people who depend on income from tourists – and a LOT of Cubans benefit from tourist dollars – are nervously expecting to experience increasingly straightened circumstances. Access this link for some insight into the Cuban people’s perspective.

For the rest of the world, this is an opportunity to experience the country with fewer fellow travellers dogging your heels. As globalisation sweeps the world towards increasing homogeneity, Cuba provides visitors with unique experiences and insight into an ‘other’ society, that is a truly fascinating place. This move is likely to help preserve the ‘time capsule’ that is Cuba, for at least for a little while longer.

Living in a time capsule means:

Eating ice cream in an old-school ice cream parlor instead of buying a take-away cup or cone.
Your local pharmacy looks like this (and may not stock what you need).
Taking trips in vintage taxis and never getting stuck in traffic jams (not enough vehicles for traffic).
Fishing for dinner, rather than for recreation.

Visiting Cuba is the best way we can support the Cuban people in what will no doubt be a time of need. When we travelled to Cuba in April 2019, we were told by Cubans that they were already experiencing a depressed economy, following earlier steps by the Trump administration to tighten the screws on its socialist neighbour. During our visit we got some insight into what it means in practical terms when Cuba falls out with its neighbours. Following a disagreement with the newly elected right-wing government in Brazil, Brazilian flour imports to Cuba ceased. And suddenly our casa particular (i.e. Airbnb) host was apologising to us for being unable to supply bread for our breakfast! And if the privileged tourists can’t have bread, you can bet the locals are going without first.

The spectre of hunger is real in Cuba. Many people are already very thin and animals are generally in a noticeably worse state than other Latin American countries, with skinny horses and neglected-looking cats everywhere you go. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, drastically reducing international support for Cuba, a period of famine across the country led to widespread malnutrition and intensification of food rationing. Food rationing continues today and we saw queues of people lining up to buy imported products, such as cooking oil or potatoes.

Despite its challenges, Cuba is an amazing country offering visitors access to world class beaches, well-preserved colonial cities, world heritage sites, stunning natural scenery and a thriving music and dance culture.

The beach at Varadero has been voted no.2 in the world – and for good reason! With 20kms of fine white sand and crystal clear warm water, it’s a supermodel of a beach.
Matanzas – easily visited when you need a break from the beach at Varadero – has been recently refurbished.
Lovely Cienfuegos has a French-influenced architectural style.
The incredibly beautiful Vinales valley is a world heritage site and riding horses or walking in it is highly recommended.
The El Nicho Waterfalls are stunning and swimming in the crystal clear pools at the bottom was refreshing!

But it’s the Cuban people themselves who make travelling here so unforgettable. We bounced from one warm and generous casa particular host to the next, always feeling supported and well looked after. On beaches and in the streets we met friendly strangers who sought nothing further from us than a chat and were keen to help us out with advice where they could.

Inevitably, sooner or later, the US embargo on Cuba will lift and the country will get the chance to play catch-up with the rest of the world. Get there before you miss it!

So many cenotes!

Cenote swimming in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico by Maille and Eliane

What did we do with 10 days in Mexico? Well mostly, we jumped and swam in cenotes. About 10 different ones in all.

So what are cenotes anyway?

Cenotes are natural pit, or sink holes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Most cenotes are found in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and were sometimes used by the ancient Mayan people who made sacrificial offerings.

A cave cenote near Chemuyil.

How are they formed?

Cenotes are formed when porous rock, that is typically limestone, collapses, exposing a hidden, subterranean cave filled with water.

Letting catfish nibble our feet in Cenote Samula.

What sort of cenotes did we find?

Cenotes can be classified into four different types:

  • Jug or pit cenotes: named after their shape, jug or pit cenotes have a wider water diameter then their surface entrance.
  • Cylinder cenotes: defined by their vertical walls.
  • Basin cenotes: have a shallow water feature that is shaped like a basin.
  • Cave cenotes: usually have an entrance from the side, rather than the top.




Why are there so many cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula?

Did you know that some people think cenotes are connected to the extinction of the dinosaurs? That the asteroid that wiped them out created cenotes? The asteroid smashed into the earth making a 180km crater and the rain and sea water came in and soaked into the rock creating ground water. The ground water ate away the limestone, forming tunnels for the water to flow freely. Meanwhile, as rain splashed onto the stone, the once pure water became acidic and burned holes in the rock to create the cool blissful pools we swim in today.

Some of our favourite cenotes

The Temple of Doom

I’m flying Daddy!
Don’t jump now!

The Temple of Doom is a jug or pit cenote. It is half cave and half hole. It has other holes next to the big hole. There is a ladder and you can jump in. The only thing that is bad about it is that there are lots and lots of people, so best to come early.


Tamcach-Ha is a cave cenote. It is a big cave that has a small hole to get into the cave. You come down a staircase. There is a ten-meter jump and a five-meter jump. I did the five-meter jump and Daddy did the ten-meter jump. My sister dived down really deep to get someone else’s goggles, when no-one else could.

This place is huge!
View from the 10 meter platform.


Zaci is a cylinder cenote that has cat fish. It has little jumps and high cliffs and this man did a back flip from very high up. It is a really big cenote in the middle of the town of Valladolid.

Our local neighbourhood cenote at Chan Chemuyil

This was one of three – free – little cenotes within a 5 minute walk from our house at Chan Chemuyil.

We picked our local cenote as one of our favourites because it was so peaceful. We found a small place to plunge into the cool refreshing water that fills the blissful pool. It feels like you are having a bath but with fish that nibble the dry skin off your toes. Sometimes you meet a family too as the local people come there to swim.


This sunny green cenote is full of life from the plants on the bottom to the fish in the water. It has two jumps, both similar sizes, and a ladder to climb into. This wonderful spot is great for snorkelling and simply swimming. They also do diving tours which are probably amazing for there are dark underwater caves at either end.

Cenote Oxman

At this cenote there was an awesome swing that swung out right into the middle where you let go. I went on this about fifty times. The water was crystal clear but you still couldn’t see the bottom because it was so deep! Tiny little catfish swam around Big vines that hung down from the roof. The hole in the roof shone light beams onto the water so it looked like blue glass. This cylinder cenote was one of our favourites.   

Snorkelling at Caye Caulker

By Eliane

Caye Caulker, Belize is an amazing base for snorkelling trips because:

  1. It is a lovely and beautiful place to stay in.
  2. It has friendly people.
  3. It is a party place so everyone can have fun.
  4. It has good value snorkelling trips with incredible fish, coral and crystal-clear water (by Australian standards).
  5. It has a great ice-cream place right in front of the main dock!
Everyone needs ice-cream after a long snorkelling trip.

The snorkelling trip was the highlight of our stay at Caye Caulker. Our guides were called Captain Keith and Marf. They were both very helpful and Captain Keith was very passionate about keeping the coral and other marine life alive.

On the way we stopped to see some tarpons. Tarpons are big fish about a metre long and are very strong. Their tails were strong enough to break a bone inside or out of the water. They are inedible because there are so many bones and it’s illegal to catch them anyway. Marf and Dad were putting their hands out over the water so the giant fish jumped up to try and get them. It was very stressful to watch because they were only just pulling their hands away in time.

Our boat went through the channel and past The Spit, which is the main party place.

Finally we were off, off to the first snorkelling spot…the shipwreck. This particular ship had been carrying tons of concrete so it was not surprising that it sunk. It had been under the water for a while so there was sea fan and other corals growing on it. It was really cool because you could see the ladder and some of the inside through the holes in the roof.

One of my favourite places we went to was the coral gardens. In the coral gardens we not only saw amazing corals but amazing fish too. The guides showed us a beautiful little fish that had tiny electric blue dots all over it and we met a sting ray that thought Mum and I were quite interesting so it followed us half way back to the boat. There were loads of different types of corals as well, there were little blue ones and big red ones, purple sea fan, brain corals and heaps more.

Lastly, Shark Alley. Shark Alley was my favourite by far, as soon as our boat arrived they started circling the boat. They were magnificent, beautiful brown nurse sharks. Some were one metre some were one foot, but they were all beautiful. Nurse sharks are quite different from the normal sharks for they do not have razor sharp teeth ideal for biting, ripping and tearing instead they have suckers. Their suckers are extremely powerful, they are strong enough to kill someone. But luckily they don’t go for humans so we were able to swim with them. As you can see Caye Caulker is the best place for snorkelling by far. I love it.

These sharks were hoping we’d feed them.
Maille wasn’t very keen to get in the water with the sharks!

Fun in the jungle

By Maille

At Martz Farm we were living in a treehouse, that looks like this.

Our treehouse bedroom.

The people there are lovely, especially Jose who was very funny, writes poetry and tells funny stories. There are seven dogs, but they don’t hurt. The food there is delicious. We went on a horse ride and it was really good.

We rode the horses up to the ridge past an ancient Mayan village.

We also went to a dam. On the way to the dam we sat on a boat and a tractor pulled it down a steep hill.

The ride behind the tractor was pretty exciting!

The dam had waterfalls. First, we went on a boat, up and down the river. Then we went to place this where there was a little beach. It also had two little waterfalls. We swam there and jumped off the boat and daddy jumped off a swing. After we had lunch, which was sandwiches. Then went swimming again and then got on the boat.

The dam looks more like a river!
Relaxing on the boat.
We saw baby crocodiles and a big one in the water.
I’m flying!

After that we went to this amazing waterfall. It was cold!

This is the Rio Frio (cold river!)
Jose painted Eliane’s face.

Jose let Eliane and I drive the boat, it was really FUN! I recommend Martz farm.

What to eat and drink in Latin America

Food, glorious food. An essential, integral part of the travelling experience. Before we left home, I wondered: what would the food be like in Latin America? Would the kids eat it? Rice and beans, said James. They eat rice and beans. OK then, I said. Well, at least we have Europe.

As it turns out, while rice and beans are indeed common, the cuisine of Latin America has moved on. Peru now scales the culinary heights, with three restaurants in the world’s top 50, and many, many more offering delicious offerings, including Peruvian-Japanese fusion food. At the other end of the scale, fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza and pasta are ubiquitous, ensuring unadventurous palates are also catered for. We have enjoyed a varied and mostly delicious diet. Here are many of the highlights, as well a couple of low-lights.


While Lima is famous for its wealth of innovative restaurants, we enjoyed the food in Arequipa more. Meals at Pasta Canteen were incredibly cheap and delicious with high quality home-made pasta and salads that came in cute jars (add dressing and shake). The highlight was a splurge lunch at Zig Zag, that included a trio of meats – including Alpaca – seared and served on a volcanic stone. Eliane was in raptures over a dessert involving passion fruit mousse, burnt caramel and meringue.

Maryluz’s home cooking using locally grown organic ingredients on Isla Amantani also stood out – quinoa pancakes for breakfast anyone?

You can find the lovely Maryluz and Henri on Airbnb. We highly recommend them for a taste of authentic local life on Lake Titicaca.

While we didn’t partake of the local delicacy, Guinea Pig, we observed a number of people who did and it’s clearly not always an enjoyable experience. We recommend waiting for a restaurant that’s known to specialise in it or it could turn out to be a real low-light.


Ecuador for us was all about seafood. I still dream about the rich crab risotto (more crab than rice!) and BBQ prawns and octopus we had in Guayaquil. That meal was a revelation to Eliane, who announced that she finally understood why people eat seafood! Since then, her attitude has radically transformed and she now orders and enjoys fish, octopus, prawns and other seafood for the first time in her life.

I had my own revelatory moment at the Kioskos in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, when I ordered a shrimp ceviche. Ceviche is a regular feature on menus throughout South and Central America, but I wasn’t in raptures over it until I tried the soupy Ecuadorean version with lime, coriander, tomato and red onion. Such a fresh taste! This was the start of a ceviche love affair that continued all the way to Cuba.

This street in Puerto Ayora is blocked off each night so the restaurants lining it can set up tables in the street. You can walk along and inspect the fresh seafood displayed before choosing your dinner.


We ate a lot of menu del dias throughout South America. With the kids sharing one serving it was a very economical option. The best was in a little restaurant in Salento called Etnia arte y sabor and comprised a starter of AMAZING carrot soup – oh I wish I had that recipe – followed by a main of either grilled chicken, pork or local trout with rice, beans and salad. Everything beautifully cooked and seasoned to perfection. To finish there was a teeny-tiny brownie with a generous blob of dulce de leche (i.e. caramel) on top. Of course, every menu del dia also comes with a glass of freshly squeezed juice or a limonada.

This pasta carbonara at Restaurante Cafe Salento Plaza was another dish that hit the spot.


Mmm…organic burritos!

We found the food in Antigua to be better than other parts of Guatemala. Highlights included our colourful organic meal at Caoba farm cafe and Randy’s sausages, particularly the Argentinian chorizo with chimichurri. We had another very tasty menu del dia at Rincon Tipico, comprising a huge plate of roasted chicken, potatoes, coleslaw and as much fresh juice as we could drink, for an extremely low price.

A Randy’s hot dog and fries. Image courtesy of https://www.guatemala.com/guias/gastronomia/restaurantes-baratos-en-antigua-guatemala/randys-sausage-.html


Now Belize is definitely a rice and beans kind of country. At Martz Farm we had home-cooked meals and while rice and beans often featured, each meal was wholesome and hearty and the food was one of the highlights of our stay.


Mmm… Mexico. We got off to a great start with lunch at our taxi driver’s family restaurant on the side of the road. We all dug into a heaped bowl of ceviche, followed by amazing tacos and a garlic prawn dish. Add tortillas (fried and fresh), salad and a big jug of ice-cold limonada and there was no way we could finish it all.

Mango-coco-ginger icy-poles on the beach at Tulum stand out in our memory and there are plans to try and recreate them when we get home.

OK, this is not a food pic. But it was one of the great beaches at Tulum. The icy-poles were all gone before I could take a photo!

We enjoyed the traditional Yucatan food in Valladolid at almost every meal, but the best was at La Selva. The girls were happy to try all the different, unfamiliar looking offerings including lime soup, salbutes and panuchos (deep fried tortillas filled or topped with local meat or vegies) and lomitos de Valladolid, pulled pork in a tomato sauce topped with chopped boiled egg. The tacos here were the best we’ve ever tasted anywhere, ever.

Image result for images salbutes
Salbutes. Image courtesy of https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salbute

Yucatan Food, Yucatan Cuisine, Mayan dishes, Mayan Food, Yucatan Foods
Lomitos de Valladolid. Image courtesy of https://www.foodieflashpacker.com/yucatan-food-mayan-food/


The pig! We were so lucky to be invited to a traditional Cuban meal on our first night in Cuba. This ranks as one of the most memorable meals of my life. Deceptively simple, it consisted of arroz negro (i.e. rice and beans), a coleslaw-like salad, steamed or boiled cassava and that completely delectable, melt-in-the mouth pork, with its crunchy/chewy crackling… Although the pork was undoubtedly the star of the show all the other elements were so well-cooked and tasty that we just kept eating and eating until we couldn’t stuff another bite in.

Best roast pork EVER!

In Cuba we finally got to eat lobster, at last. While lobster was a regular feature on menus in parts of Ecuador, Colombia, Belize and Mexico, it was never available as our travels coincided with the lobster breeding season. My hope is that by the time we got to Cuba the lobsters had finished breeding, because we ate it, again and again. Even when we didn’t specifically order lobster there would be big segments of tail in seafood pastas and paellas – it was hard to avoid! We did have one slightly uncomfortable experience though, when a woman at the next table ordered lobster and the meal was so large that she left a huge chunk – fully half a large lobster tail – on her plate. Once we noticed we quickly averted our eyes, it just looked so WRONG.

It was in another Cuban restaurant that we experienced the biggest culinary low-light of the trip, so far. It should have been great, one of the best rated restaurants in lovely Cienfuegos, with a stunning view out over the bay. But my shrimp was too salty to enjoy and the girls’ meat was so tough it was literally inedible. What made it worse was having to pay more than US$50 for the privilege!

Picture taken before the food arrived.

In terms of breakfasts, Cuba wins hands down. We only stayed in Casa Particulares and paid our hosts extra for a home-made spread. Every casa we stayed at provided a veritable feast, which typically included: freshly squeezed juice, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, toast, honey, jam, butter, eggs, a fruit platter artistically arranged, another platter of salad and cooked vegetables, a cheese and ham platter or cheese and ham toasties and some type of dessert – perhaps cake or flan or sweet biscuits. Our final casa, was the best of all, including cooked shrimps and home-made natural yoghurt, in addition to the rest.

Just part of the full breakfast spread (which didn’t fit on the table).

But what about the drinks?

Before we left Australia our kids routinely drank water and almost never had soft drink or juice, which are both full of sugars. That all changed in South America where freshly squeezed juice is likely to appear as part of breakfast or lunch and is super cheap, by Australian standards. Depending on where you are, you can find strawberry, cherry, raspberry, pineapple, mango, guava, passionfruit, tamarind, papaya, orange – and a whole host of juices from fruits you never heard of before!

These drinks at Cafe Sabor Cruceno on the shores of Lake Atitlan blew us away.

And while the kids were drinking juice, we were drinking cocktails. We tried to keep it authentic, with pisco sours in Peru, margaritas in Mexico, and Cuba libres, pina coladas and mojitos in Cuba (it’s all about rum in Cuba).

My favourite: a pisco sour.
Two virgin pina coladas and a more – ahem – experienced one.

As well as cocktails, James drank various beers and we also drank wine when we could get an acceptable one for a reasonable price (tip: look out for Gato Negro). But on the whole, when life’s a beach…

you may as well suck down a coco-loco when it’s delivered to your palm tree!

CocoLoco 🥥 #magiccoconut #beach #rum #coconut #cayoJutias #Cuba
Image courtesy of https://instogram.pro/media/1974417806884065558_56188143

How to: Tikal

Tikal ranks as one of Guatemala’s most important attractions: an ancient city that was of premier importance in the Mayan world for much of the classic Mayan period from around 400 to 900 A.D. Almost lost to the jungle after the fall of the Mayan civilisation, excavations began in 1956 and are ongoing today.

Tikal was filmed by George Lucas for the movie Star Wars, probably because it has another world-like atmosphere that fires the imagination of kids and adults alike. Pyramids and many other ancient structures loom out of the jungle within a huge park, just waiting to be explored. Along with the ruins, the park is full of animals to spot, including Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, Coatis, Toucans and possibly even a Jaguar if you get lucky. The calls of the Howler Monkeys around dawn or dusk create an especially eerie atmosphere. Tikal was one of the top three sites we were looking forward to visiting in South and Central America, along with Machu Picchu and Cartagena, and we were beyond excited to get there.

Coatis having a drink.

Or we would have been, if we hadn’t arrived dazed with fatigue after an 18-hour journey involving 4 different buses from the shores of Lake Atitlan, in southern Guatemala.

Guatemala isn’t very big, but if you plan to visit Tikal from the south of the country you need to appreciate just how bad the roads are, and how insane the traffic is, and be mentally and physically prepared for the journey, which involves both bone-chilling air-conditioning and sweltering heat. And the odd golden moment, such as when your bus stops so the driver can drink milk squeezed fresh from the udder of a goat on the side of the road!

Recommendation number 1: If possible, budget for a flight from Guatemala City to Santa Elena airport or drive from Belize. If this is not possible wear all your warmest clothes on the overnight bus ride. And thermal underwear.

We did one important thing right though – we splashed out on two nights’ accommodation at Jungle Lodge Hostel, literally right next door to the entrance to Tikal. When we arrived exhausted and hungry, we ate a huge brunch on the hotel veranda and literally fell into the swimming pool.

The pool area turned out to be a great place to view wildlife, with two types of monkeys visiting the surrounding trees and the closest view of a Toucan we have achieved in our travels through Central America.

Spider monkeys

Our lazy afternoon meant we were well rested and ready to walk into Tikal early the next morning, before the bus loads of tourists arrived from Flores and further afield, and before the heat of the day arrived.

Recommendation number 2: Stay at one of the 3 hotels within the Tikal park to avoid 3 hours travel time between Flores and Tikal. Your all-day pass to Tikal means you can come and go as you please, avoiding both the crowds and the heat.

Three hours of climbing pyramids and exploring the ruins turned out to be plenty of time for our initial visit. Particularly as it was stinking hot by 10.30am. We decided to head back to our hostel for a swim, lunch and a rest. As we walked down the path towards the exit, we felt SO sorry for the families we passed coming in – with their children already wilting in the heat.

Recommendation number 3: You might as well eat at your hotel rather than at one of the more local restaurants in the park. We tried a recommended one and it wasn’t good value, being almost as expensive as Jungle Lodge but with inferior quality food.

We returned to the main plaza not long before the 6pm closing time, to experience Tikal in the late afternoon light. Once again, it was almost deserted and we could appreciate the beauty of the setting sun making the pyramids glow.

Recommendation number 4: Visit Tikal at sunrise and/or sunset for the most magical experience.

Tranquil times at Lake Atitlan

In Guatemala we stopped for a rest. We spent two weeks in a cottage on the outskirts of San Pedro La Laguna, one of the Mayan villages on the shores of Lake Atitlan. San Pedro is a chaotic and dirty town, with narrow, winding lanes and tuk-tuks barrelling up and down the steep streets. It’s full of life and colour – and is a bit of a party town in backpacker circles. Most of the local Mayan people keep their customary ways, and the majority wear traditional dress every day. People are super friendly; many will greet you in the street, call you amigo and even the tuk-tuk drivers often take a rejection with a smile and a wave.

After a fairly hectic travelling schedule through South America we were ready to sit still and relax and our Airbnb, Hummingbird Heaven, with its garden setting and stupendous lake views, was the perfect spot. We spent many hours in the swings and hammocks or sitting with a drink on the patio watching the gathering twilight across the lake.

Patio for morning coffee.
Parents’ sanctuary with balcony.
Danny the dog was always ready for pats.

In the second week there we bestirred ourselves and visited some of the other lake villages, which all have their own distinct character.

Basketball outside the church at Santa Cruz.

San Juan is the home of numerous Mayan women’s cooperative weaving businesses, where Eliane and I learnt to use a back-loom and weaved our own scarves.

San Juan morning

San Marcos is the ‘hippie’ town, attracting alternative types from around the world. It’s one of the best places for a swim and is probably the prettiest village, with many winding paths through a jungle-like background.

Swimming at San Marcos.

At Santa Cruz we visited a restaurant that must have one of the best views in the world – and also some of the best drinks. We were just sorry it was too early for lunch.

Cafe Sabor Cruceno

Finally, we walked from Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, via La Casa del Mundo, a gorgeous boutique hotel on the side of a cliff, where we swam from flooded balconies, meditated on the view and enjoyed delicious food.

This is about Spanish School…

What it’s like to learn Spanish in Guatemala

Our Spanish School day began at 8am and finished at noon, Monday to Friday. I was allocated the same teacher for the week, who gave me 1:1 instruction in a little hut in a well-tended garden, where hummingbirds visited and squirrels played in the trees.

This intense learning was broken up by an official morning tea break around 10:30am, where tea and coffee and a snack was provided, which was often a traditional Mayan food. To me the break was a welcome relief after 2 ½ hours of concentration, and an opportunity to socialise on the terrace with the other pupils and teachers. The 15 minutes always went by very fast!

In my case, having already spent a considerable amount of time trying to learn Spanish on my own in Australia, we started with the basics but moved through content quite quickly. My teacher was adept at discovering where the gaps in my knowledge were and it was a process that clarified and revealed many answers to aspects of the language that had previously confused me. I spent hours talking to my teacher – in Spanish of course! She would ask me questions to initiate a conversation and interrupt gently (and often) to correct my errors. Sometimes I did written exercises or tests and we also spent a lot of time learning grammatical and other rules, especially for verb conjugations. I took many notes for later revision, including all rules studied and all new words. At the end of each day’s class she would give me homework to bring back the next day – usually ten long sentences using the verb conjugations we had studied that day.

Walking to Spanish School.

The benefits of Spanish School for us

The benefits went well beyond improving our understanding of and ability to speak Spanish – although that also improved! Firstly, I think it gave us all more confidence to have a go at speaking Spanish to native speakers – something that seems to be a big hurdle for many people. I am now confident that I can make myself understood – so long as the other person is patient!

Attending Spanish School was a great opportunity to meet other people and start to feel part of a community again. After being an isolated family unit for so long we really enjoyed spending time in a small town where we bumped into people we knew virtually every time we left home. Our Spanish School offered daily extra-curricular activities, which we usually participated in, either free or at a very low price.

Kayaking to a beach for a swim.

We also learnt the basic steps for salsa dancing. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) there are no photos!

I think we all enjoyed the challenge of studying Spanish and the opportunity to exercise and focus our brains. Spanish classes for the kids involved lots of fun art and craft activities – the kind of activity they haven’t had much of since leaving Australia.

What the kids thought about Spanish School

In short, both kids loved it and are keen to return for more classes – once Mum and Dad have saved the necessary cash to return to Central America!

How we chose our Spanish School

Guatemala is well known as a great place to learn Spanish, partly because Guatemalans speak Spanish slowly and clearly and partly because there are many different schools and it’s very affordable. One week’s tuition at our school, the Cooperativa Spanish School, cost us a total of AU$585 for 4 people, with 3 teachers. It would have been cheaper if James and I had shared a teacher.

We could have attended a school in Antigua, but we wanted to spend more time at Lake Atitlan. I actually chose our Airbnb accommodation before selecting the school, which narrowed the options to San Pedro La Laguna – although there were still a lot of schools to choose from! In the end cost was a factor, but so was the cooperative structure of our school – where more of the profits go back to the community – and the great reviews our school receives.

What we would do differently next time

We loved our Airbnb ‘Hummingbird Heaven’ and our delightful host Nancy, but next time I would study for longer (4 weeks would be great) and include a home stay for at least part of the time. If you want to, the school will organise a very affordable homestay with a local family, that includes meals. The advantage of a homestay is a deeper immersion in the language, with plenty more opportunities to practise your Spanish!

Bean to Bar at the Choco Museo

By Eliane

I reckon that Antigua, Guatemala, has the best Choco Museo we’ve been to so far. If you ever come to Antigua I highly recommend you to book the bean to bar workshop there because it is very interesting and fun.

Our guide with cacao pods and a cacao plant.

The process is a lot like the coffee process because it involves roasting, fermenting and grounding. It starts with picking the pods and splitting them open to reveal the cacao beans. There can be up to 50 cacao beans in one pod. Fresh cacao beans are actually not brown at all, they are white and taste completely different to chocolate. Next the beans must do the fermenting process, by leaving the pulp and beans under palm or banana leaves. The fermentation process changes the flavour from bitter to more chocolatey. This is also when the beans turn brown. After that they are dried, cleaned and roasted and the shells are removed. Then you break the cacao beans down into coca butter and chocolate by pounding the nibs.

Cacao beans and pods.

One of the most interesting bits I found was the different types of chocolate. Really there is only two different types of chocolate because white chocolate is actually not CHOCOLATE, it is not chocolate because it has no cacao solids in it. It is only made up of cacao butter, sugar, milk and a couple of oils, so it is really unhealthy.

Grinding the nibs.

They dressed us up in an apron and chef hat and we set to work on making the chocolate. The mixture was already ready so all we needed to do was pour it into the mould and decorate. There was a variety of different moulds from chocolate bars to lollypops. The decoration was my favourite because they gave you a heap of different things to sprinkle on top that makes it absolutely delicious. Then we put them in the fridge to harden.

After that we played a game. They gave us some cacao beans that we had to turn into paste in two minutes. It was fun but hard. Then we made the drinks.

We made three different drinks, including a Mayan one that the king and queen drank, a hot chocolate and a tea made out of the cacao shell. Throughout the workshop we learned a lot about the history of chocolate from Mayan times to recently. For example, the new Italian hot chocolate was the first hot chocolate to be made with milk and cinnamon, which is where the word chocolate comes from because milk in Italian is ‘latte’.

I really enjoyed this workshop because I had an amazing time, I learned heaps and I got chocolate!

Climbing an active volcano

By Maille

The volcano that we climbed up was called the Pacaya volcano. The Pacaya volcano is an active volcano, that is one hour away from Antigua. The walk to the volcano was one hour and a half. You could get a horse up and down, but we didn’t. I found the walk pretty easy because I’ve done Machu Picchu and Colca Canyon.

This was one of the tricky bits of the trail.

Once we got up so we could see the volcano we stayed there for a while. We toasted lots of marshmallows in some holes in the lava field. We saw some lava come down from the volcano sometimes and lots of smoke coming out the top. I liked the walk and recommend going there if you’re going to Guatemala.

The smoke on the side of the volcano is lava coming down.

Fact: Guatemala has thirty-six volcanoes.