We're planning a trip to Cuba for later this year and are trying to devise a two-week itinerary. We'd like to take in as much of the country as possible (we're budget travellers) and do a bit of diving along the way. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.
It's a truly fascinating time to be visiting this Caribbean gem.
As well as having the usual Caribbean attractions in abundance - from the white sand and palm-fringed beaches of Playas del Este to the lush scenery of Isla de la Juventud - Cuba has one of the world's most fascinating histories, extraordinary musical and dance traditions all of its own and a rich national architecture. The vibrant capital, Havana, is famous for its kicking Caribbean nightlife, down-to-earth residents and beautifully restored old city.
The easiest way to plan an itinerary is to start by breaking down your stay according to the number of nights you'd like to stay in one place. You could spend a week in Havana alone. Your next stop could be a couple of nights in Vinales to explore the cave scenery and perhaps take a bike ride. You could easily spend three or four nights in Maria la Gorda, with some of the best diving in Cuba. Trinidad should be next, where you'll need two nights to drink in the city's colonial atmosphere. Your last stop could be two or three nights on the palm-fringed beaches of Varadero.
Staying in private homes (casas) is one of the best ways to get to know the locals, and Vinales and Trinidad are two of the best places to do this. You can either do some research before you leave (try Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree travel forum), or wait until you arrive and choose a casa at random. Getting around Cuba is best by car, especially if you want to head off the beaten track. Renting a car is straightforward, but resign yourself to paying over the odds for a badly maintained vehicle. You can rent a car in one city and drop it off in another for a reasonable fee. However, reservations are ultimately meaningless, so the best thing to do is call around the car-hire places on the day you want a car and head straight over there if they have something available. Hotel outlets can often be better bets than the main offices.
Check over the car carefully before driving off, as you'll be responsible for any damage or missing parts. The more Spanish you speak, the better. If hiring a car is out of the question, you're better off avoiding trains and using buses operated by Viazul.
Independent travel in Bali
We're going to Bali in August and would like to take a two-day trip to Yogyakarta (Java) to visit Borobudur and Prambanan. Can we do this without taking the set tours? Is it possible to go independently or can we hire an independent driver and vehicle?
The colossal Buddhist temple at Borobudur is one of Southeast Asia's true marvels, right up there with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar. Just 17km northeast of Yogyakarta are the temples at Prambanan village. Built between the 8th and 10th centuries, these are the best remaining examples of Java's period of Hindu cultural development. Getting to Yogyakarta from Bali involves a long bus trip from Denpasar (best to take a luxury bus with toilet, for about $30) or a flight with Lion Airways (about $42). Expect to pay from $45 to $50 for a car and driver for the day. You could arrange this with a taxi driver or contact an agency such as Great Tours. Guides can be hired at the complex entrances for about $8.
To get to Borobudur independently you can travel from Yogyakarta's Umbulharjo bus terminal (1 hours, $1.50). Walk or take a bemo (minibus) to hop from temple to temple. To get to Prambanan take the bus from Yogyakarta ($1), get off at the Jl Cik/Ditiro/Jl Terbau corner and then take a bemo to the Prambanan bus terminal. You can visit all the temples here by bike.
Be aware that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (MFAT) has issued a travel warning for people travelling to Indonesia due to the continuing high risk of terrorism, especially in Bali and Jakarta. It is currently advising against all tourist and other non-essential travel. For more information, go to www.safetravel.govt.nz.
A taste of Central Asia
I am travelling to China, including far western China, later this year. I will be in Urumqi and, being so close to Central Asia, I'd like to get a taste of this part of the world. Where do you recommend I go for just a few days and what flight options do I have from Urumqi?
Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, is a booming, cosmopolitan place and you won't be disappointed with a flying visit here. The country's economic prosperity is palpable here, and though it was always a heavily Russian-influenced city, the ethnic Kazakh presence is gradually getting stronger. This is the place to enjoy many green parks as well as excellent museums, theatres, shops, markets and some lively traditional restaurants and bars.
Almaty is also the country's main transport hub and you'll find many travellers passing through on their way to Kazakhstan's stunning mountainous southeastern corner. If you can find a couple of days to travel out of the city, there are some great excursions, notably into the Zailiysky Alatau range climbing south to the Kyrgyzstan border. There are many peaks here over 4000m, lots of glaciers and firs on the steep valley sides. In summer the valleys are used as summer pasture and herders set up yurt camps. These mountains have some excellent day hikes, including Medeu, Chimbulak and Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake, all easily reached from Almaty by bus. China Southern Airlines flies from Urumqi to Almaty (for about $460). Read MFAT's travel advisory for China before setting off at www.safetravel.govt.nz. It currently states there is some risk to travellers' safety in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (where Urumqi is).