11 Things You Need to Know Before You Visit Bhutan

Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Bhutan

The tiny kingdom of Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayan mountains, sharing a border with India, Nepal and Tibet, home to 800,000 people. The landlocked country is full of historic Buddhist monasteries, fortresses, beautiful mountain landscapes and some of the world’s happiest people.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Bhutan is definitely worth a visit, even though there’s a little preparation needed. Here’s what you need to know before you go:

You need a visa and a tour guide
As I wrote in a previous post, everyone (except citizens of India, Maldives and Bangladesh) must apply for a visit and use the services of a local tour operator. Your tour company will assist you with the visa process.

Keys to Bhutan
Me with my Keys to Bhutan guide and driver

You’ll pay a daily tariff to the tour company, which ranges in prices from $200 to $250 depending on when you’re visiting. Although the price may sound steep, the cost includes your accommodation, food, services of a tour guide and transportation.

Here’s what it will cost you to visit in 2017:

Groups of 3 people or more:
US $200 per person per night during the months of January, February, June, July, August, December
US $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, November

If you’re a solo traveler, you’ll need to add $40 per night. If you’re traveling as a couple, you’ll add $30 per person per night.

Additionally, there’s a $40 for the visa itself.

Once your visa is issues, look at it closely to make sure your name isn’t misspelled. There was a typo in my visa and a lot of drama ensued at the Delhi airport, which I would’ve preferred to avoid.

Monk robes at the Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Monk robes at the Punakha Dzong

The Best Time to Visit
Bhutan is a year-round destination so the best time to visit is really a personal preference.

You’ll see spectacular flowers if you visit in the spring (March to June) and you’ll have crisp, clear days if you visit in the autumn (September to November). The largest and most colorful festivals (tsechus) also take place around this time and attract a large share of tourists. This is definitely high season so you’ll want to make sure to book in advance so that you have your choice of accommodation as well as flights.

Fields in Punakha Bhutan
Fields in Punakha Bhutan

Summer (June through August) is a great time to visit since the daily tariff is lower and the valleys are lush. Even though it’s monsoon season, my guide said it usually rains once in the afternoon and it isn’t too heavy.

I try to travel during the off-season whenever I can so I visited in the winter (late January). There were very few tourists and the plane was half-empty on arrival.

The temperatures are pretty cold and it’s not uncommon to see snow. If you plan on visiting rural areas, you may want to fly on Druk Air since the roads may be impassible due to snow fall.

This chart will give you an idea of which months are busiest:

Bhutan Tourist Arrivals by Month

Getting There & Away
There are only three land border areas open to tourists: Phuentsholing, which is 6 hours away from Thimphu, Gelephu, which is 10 hours away from Thimphu and Samdrup Jonghkhar, which is 3 days away from Thimphu.

Most tourists will arrive by air to Paro, Bhutan on one of two airlines: Drukair and Bhutan Airlines. There are currently flights from the following locations: Delhi, Bangkok, Kolkata, Bagdogra, Bodh Gaya, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Guwahati, Singapore and Mumbai.

Bhutan: Paro Airport
Paro international airport

If you’re flying from Nepal or India, make sure to request a window seat on the left seat of the plane on arrival for spectacular views of the Himalayas. If the weather is clear, you’ll see Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga.

If you can, I recommend buying a business class ticket on Druk Air. You’ll enjoy a much more comfortable seat (complete with footrest) and amazing service.

The Food is Spicy
Good news for spicy food lovers: Almost all the local food in Bhutan is served with red and green chilis. If you like fire-in-your-mouth levels of spiciness, you’ve come to the right place.

My guide, Dhoji, told me that a lot of tourists don’t like Bhutanese cuisine because it’s too hot. I think he was surprised when I ate a meal with him and enjoyed every dish on my plate.

The country’s national dish, ema datse, consists of fiery chillies and farmer’s cheese, served with local red rice. To make it even more spicy, it often has dried chillies on top.

Ema Datshi, chili dish in Bhutan
Ema Datshi in Bhutan

If you’re not a fan of spicy food, don’t worry. All the hotels serve dinner and they tone the spicy level way down for westerners. You’ll find a lot of Indian dishes, western dishes as well as some Bhutanese dishes with fewer chilis.

Momos in Bhutan
Momos in Bhutan

One note about meat in Bhutan: no animals are slaughtered in Bhutan but meat is consumed in the country. It’s brought to Bhutan from India via refrigerated trucks.

Bring Cash
While there are ATMs in Paro and Thimphu, they aren’t always reliable so make sure you bring USD or Indian rupees with you in case you can’t withdraw your funds. The ngultrum is the currency and it’s tied closely to the Indian rupee.

Monks crossing the bridge in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Monks crossing the bridge in Punakha Dzong

Bhutan is a stunning place to photograph and while smartphones take wonderful pictures, I recommend bringing along a real camera.

Prayer wheel Bhutan
Prayer wheel

Keep in mind that photography is not allowed inside most monasteries and temples. If  you have to take your shoes off, you probably aren’t allowed to take a photo.

Bhutan: At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest Monastery
At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Keep Your Eye Out For the Royal Family
Since Bhutan is such a small country, you may encounter the royal family. One morning in Punakha, the driver pulled the left side of the road and waited for some oncoming vehicles to pass. He told me that the entire royal family just drove by and they had likely visited the Punakha Dzong. If you do happen to spot the royals, don’t take their photo unless you have explicit permission.

Along those lines, don’t disrespect the royals. The Bhutanese people hold the monarchy close to their hearts and you’ll see photos of the royal family in museums, restaurants and shops.

Bhutan: Prayer flags on the hike up to Tiger's Nest Monastery
Prayer flags on the hike up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Get a local SIM
Your cell phone may not get service in Bhutan (mine certainly didn’t). If you need to stay connected, plan on buying a Bhutanese SIM card.

Wifi is available in all the hotels but is probably much slower than what you’re used to back home. I was able to check Facebook but downloading email and trying to use FaceTime was pretty much impossible.

Bhutan: Paro Dzong
Bhutan: Paro Dzong

Bring appropriate clothing
I visiting in the middle of winter and the temperatures ranged anywhere from 30 F to 65 F in the course of a single day. If you’re visiting in the winter, plan on bringing a warm jacket, gloves, hat and warm pants. When you’re hiking, particularly at Tiger’s Nest, you’re going to want to shed your jacket so make sure you have a warm shirt underneath.

You’ll also need to dress modestly and respectfully at temples which means long pants and covered shoulders. You’ll need to remove your shoes when entering the temples so I definitely recommend wearing socks so that you don’t have to walk around barefoot.

Punakha Dzong
Me in front of the Punakha Dzong

While all the hotels have heat, it wasn’t as strong as I was used to so plan on bringing along a warm pair of pajamas in the winter.

Bring sunscreen
Bhutan is at a high altitude so you’ll need to bring sunglasses and wear sunscreen, regardless of the time of year.

Learn some dzongkha
Bhutan’s official language is dzongkha, with an additional 19 languages being spoken throughout the country. You’ll primarily hear dzongkha in Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Haa, Wangdue and Phodrang. Even though the words are incredibly challenging to speak, you’ll earn respect from the Bhutanese for attempting the language.

Here are some basic phrases:
Hello: Kuzu zangpo la
Nice to meet you: Nga shoe da chebay sem ga yi
My name is: Nga gi ming _____ in
Thank you: Kadrin chhe la

Stupas at Dochula Pass Bhutan
Stupas at Dochula Pass

Beware the dogs
Packs of dogs roam the streets of Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. They seemed pretty harmless and begged for food when I was hiking up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. That said, I still wouldn’t pet them since they’re wild and may bite.

Of course, the packs of dogs are active during the day and spend all night barking as loud as possible. You’ll need to bring earplugs so that you can block out the sound of all-night barking and yelping.

Things You Must Know Before Visiting Bhutan

11 Things You Need to Know Before Your Visit Bhutan




Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Visa to Bhutan

Everything You Need to Know About Bhutan Visas

When I told my friends and family that I would be visiting Bhutan solo, one of the most common questions was “how did you manage to get a visit?” Many of my fellow Americans believe that travel to Bhutan is restricted and only a certain number of visas are issued a year, which is completely false.

A lot of people also think the visa process is incredibly complicated and while there are a couple of steps involved, it’s pretty straightforward.

All tourists visiting Bhutan must apply fora visa, unless you’re a citizen of the Maldives, India or Bangladesh. As part of the visa process, tourists must pay a daily tariff, which aligns to Bhutan’s tourism policy of “High Value, Low Impact.” Bhutan wants people visiting to respect their culture and the environment and requesting that tourists pay to visit the country is one of the best ways to ensure that.

Watching the fish at Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Watching the fish at Punakha Dzong

As mentioned above, you’ll pay a daily tariff in order to visit Bhutan. The daily tariff varies depending on when you’re traveling and how many are in your group but here are the rates for 2017:

Groups of 3 people or more:
US $200 per person per night during the months of January, February, June, July, August, December
US $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, November

If you’re a solo traveler, you’ll need to add $40 per night. If you’re traveling as a couple, you’ll add $30 per person per night.

Additionally, there’s a $40 for the visa itself.

These fees sound pretty steep but the cost is inclusive of the following services

  • Your accommodation in a minimum 3-star hotel. If you want to stay in a luxury hotel (and there are several in Bhutan), you’ll need to pay extra
  • All meals (this includes eating out at restaurants, which I did several times. I was a fan of the local food but some people aren’t and prefer to eat at the hotel)
  • Licensed Bhutanese tour guide as well as a driver. Note: You are required to hire a guide unless you’re from India, Bangladesh or the Maldives. You will have your very own tour guide and won’t be put on a coach tour with 30 other tourists, unless that’s something you want and specifically request. I traveled with Keys to Bhutan and I highly recommend them.
  • All internal transport (excluding flights)
  • Camping equipment for trekking
  • Entry into all monuments and temples
  • 35% of what you pay goes to the government, which helps pay for things like healthcare, education and infrastructure

The only extra things I paid for during the trip were a few soft drinks, a couple beers (yes, there’s a local beer company), a few souvenirs and the tip for the guide and the driver.

The local currency is the Bhutanese Ngultrum and your guide will help you exchange money before the trip starts.

Bhutanese Food: Momos and spicy chili in a cheese sauce
Bhutanese Food: Momos and spicy chili in a cheese sauce

Tour Company
Rather than arrange the visa yourself, your tour company will do this for you so it’s important to pick one out fairly early in the process. As I mentioned above, I used Keys to Bhutan based on their responsiveness to my questions and some other reviews that I read on Tripadvisor. If you have special interest such as trekking, seeing festivals, arrange an overnight stay with farmers, viewing wildlife, your tour company should be able to arrange this for you very easily.

Keys to Bhutan
Me with my Keys to Bhutan guide and driver

On most tour company websites, you’ll see suggested itineraries but since you’re getting a private tour, you can tweak the itinerary. It’s important that you decide where you want to visit before you arrive since your visa will specify where you can and can’t go in the country.

The tour company can also arrange your flights for you or you can book them yourself on Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines. I decided to book my flights myself since I had already paid for my tour and didn’t want to pay another wire transfer fee.

Arriving on Druk Air: Royal Bhutan Airlines
Arriving on Druk Air: Royal Bhutan Airlines

Before your tour company will officially apply for your visa, you’ll need to pay for the full cost of the tour in advance. You’ll be asked to wire money to your tour company via the Bank of Bhutan. I know this sounds sketchy but the tour company will provide you with instructions and it’s how every tourist books their trip. I went to my local Bank of America branch and the staff walked me through the process and two days later, the tour company had the money.

Your tour guide will also take care of booking your hotels for you so let them know if there is a specific place you want to stay, keeping in mind there are extra fees for luxury hotels. During my trip, I was booked at Dorji Elements in Thimphu, Meri Punesum in Punakha and Tenziling in Paro, which were all adequate 3* hotels.

Bhutan: Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest Monastery
Bhutan: Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Around two weeks before your departure, you’ll receive a confirmation of your visa which you’ll need to print out and bring with you. Doublecheck your visa very closely. Unfortunately I didn’t notice a typo in my last name and the staff at the Delhi airport weren’t going to let me board the Druk Air flight. After a couple hours of stressing out, they finally gave me an indemnification form and told me that I’d need to pay 40,000 rupees if I was denied entry into Bhutan. Once I arrived in Bhutan, they didn’t even mention the typo on my last name and I was through immigration within 5 minutes.

Bhutan: At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest Monastery
At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Is the Daily Fee and Visa Process Worth It?
Absolutely. As I mentioned in a previous post, you’ll get to experience a unique country in this little land-locked country. From stunning vistas to learning about Buddhism to eating the spiciest food you’ve probably ever tried, Bhutan has a lot to offer.

While the country isn’t as cheap to visit as some other countries in Asia, it’s definitely within reach of many travelers. As a solo traveler in January, I paid a daily fee of $240 USD, which included delicious meals, a private guide and transportation, which puts it at the mid-range level. If you want to splurge, the luxury hotels certainly add up but I found the 3* star hotels to be clean and comfortable.

Definitely consider adding Bhutan to your bucket list. It’s easy to get there on Druk Air via several cities in India, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore.

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How to Get a Bhutan Visa

In Photos: Beautiful Bhutan

52 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Bhutan

In my last post, I talked about some of the reasons why you need to visit Bhutan. If you’re still not convinced, I’m including even more photos below that will make you want to visit The Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Bhutan: Why you need to visit the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan: Tiger's Nest Monastery
Bhutan: Tiger’s Nest Monastery

In late January, I finally checked off a bucket-list item I’ve had since I was 12 years old: visiting Bhutan, also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon. I started collecting postcards with my grandmother, Nana, when I was 10 years old and a couple of years later, I received a beautiful postcard from Bhutan. The people in the postcard were wearing their beautiful natural dress and the mysterious and alluring Paro Taktsang, also known more commonly as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, was shrouded in a layer of fog. I had no idea where Bhutan was located so I went to the school library and did as much research as I could by using our encyclopedias. I knew that one day I would visit Bhutan but I didn’t realize it would take 23 years for it to happen.

Keys to Bhutan
Me with my Keys to Bhutan guide and driver

Bhutan isn’t the easiest country to visit. Their strategy around tourism is “high quality, low impact” which means that there are some barriers to visit that aren’t in place for nearby countries like Nepal. In a future blog post, I’ll talk in more detail on how you can plan a trip to Bhutan.

Here are some reasons why you need to visit the Land of the Thunderdragon as soon as possible:

Sustainable Tourism
The country is not overrun with mass tourism the same way other countries like Nepal, India and Thailand are. The government imposes a $250 per day for all tourists, except those from India, Bangladesh or the Maldives. While that may sound steep, the cost includes your accommodations, guide & driver, entrance fees and food. A portion of the daily tourist tariff (35%) goes towards free healthcare, education and tourism infrastructure.

Bhutan: Paro Dzong
Bhutan: Paro Dzong

They Love Chilis
I am a self-proclaimed spicy food addict and have been known to visit Santa Fe, NM just so that I can get my fill of hatch green chili.

I was happy to discover that Bhutanese cuisine is also incredibly spicy and almost every local dish has just as much chilis as veggies & meat. Within the first few hours of my arrival, I told my guide that I want to eat at local restaurants whenever possible since I’m not a huge fan of hotel buffets. He warned me several times that the food is incredibly spicy and most tourists can’t tolerate it. I think both he and the tour company manager were amused when I ate all my food at a local restaurant in Thimphu.

One of the most well-known dishes is Ema datshi, a spicy dish made with green chili peppers in a cheesy sauce. When I took my first bite of Ema datshi at the hotel, I mistakingly thought the green chili peppers were green beans. Whoops! At least I enjoy spicy food.

Ema Datshi, spicy green chilis in Bhutan
Ema Datshi, spicy green chilis in Bhutan

My favorite dish though, had to be Kewa datshi, which is potatoes with red chili peppers in a cheesy sauce.

If you can’t tolerate spicy food, don’t worry. The hotels serve a mix of Indian/Chinese/Western food so you can avoid the local food entirely if you wish.

No Western Chain Stores
While there are a few international chain hotels, such as Starwood’s Le Meridien Thimphu and Le Meridien Paro, no chain restaurants or stores exist in Bhutan. You won’t see a single McDonald’s, KFC, 7/11, etc. The only country I’ve traveled to that had zero western chains was Cuba, although that’s quickly starting to change.

Bhutan: Shopping in Thimphu
Bhutan: Shopping in Thimphu

Rest & Relaxation
There’s a lot of to see in Bhutan but there are no big cities with your typical traffic jams and crowds. The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, only has 170,000 residents and zero traffic lights (although there is one man directing traffic at the largest traffic circle). Much of my time was spent walking and taking in the fresh air and beautiful scenery.

Although my hotels had wifi, the signal was very weak, making it too difficult to check work email, which enabled me to unplug the entire time I was there.

Bhutan: Field in Punakha
Bhutan: Walking through a field in Punakha

Bhutan is an incredibly unique. They have more monks than soldiers. No traffic lights or fast food chains. There’s a national dress code. Traditional architecture must be maintained. They’re one of the few, if only countries, to measure their Gross National Happiness and until 1999, they didn’t have access to the Internet or cable TV. Even today, only 40% of the citizens use the Internet.

Walking around in Thimphu, you’ll see some teenagers and other folks in a sweatshirt and jeans, talking on their cellphone but it’s still much more rare to see western dress than the traditional kira or gho.

Bhutan: Women wearing the traditional kira
Women wearing the traditional kira

As a visitor, you won’t see hordes of tourists but you’ll have the opportunity to observe daily life in the temples, villages and even in the capital, Thimphu. When I wandered around Thimphu, it was the day before the new school year and parents were rushing to buy backpacks and school supplies.

Bhutan: Back to school shopping in Paro
Back to school shopping in Paro

To Experience a Unique Local Flavor You Won’t Get Anywhere Else
When we were driving down the road in Punakha, the driver pulled to the side of the road and told me that the entire royal family was passing. Apparently it’s not uncommon for tourists to have encounters with the royal family, given that it’s such a small country. People in Bhutan genuinely love the royal family and you’ll find their portraits in almost every home, restaurant and temple.

Bhutan: Penis in Punakha
Phallus in Punakha

The town of Punakha is also home to an unusual buddhist shrine, Chimi Lakhang, dedicated to Drupka Kunley. Kunley is better known as the Divine Madman as well as the “Saint of 5,000 Women.” Due to his teachings, you’ll see cartoon-like phalluses painted on homes in business in Punakha as well as other small towns, which are thought to keep demons at bay.

The Plane Landing
While it’s possible to travel overland via India, most visitors to Bhutan land in Paro, flying on either Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines.

Part is considered one of the world’s most dangerous airports due to the unique landscape and there are only ~25 pilots qualified to land there. Paro is surrounded by peaks as high as 18,000 feet as well as small hills close to the airport. Flights are only allowed to land and take off during the day.

Bhutan: Paro Airport
Paro international airport

If you fly from Delhi to Paro and sit on the left side of the plane, you’ll also have an amazing view of Mt. Everest.

I had 5 full days to explore to Bhutan and I look forward to returning one day, possibly during festival season. In a future article, I’ll share some practical tips and advice for booking a trip to Bhutan.

Why You Need to Visit Bhutan

Why I love traveling solo, even though I’m married

At the top of the Eiffel Tower in a chilly February morning
At the top of the Eiffel Tower in a chilly February morning


I recently returned from a 2-week trip to Bhutan, Bangkok and Laos, where I hiked up Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro, tried some delicious street food from a floating market near Bangkok and watched the morning alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang. I created all of these new memories without my husband by my side.

Once you say “I do” and sign the marriage paperwork, most people assume that you’ll be glued at the hip for the rest of your life. Just because you get married doesn’t mean you should give up the things that you’re most passionate about.

Some of the most frequent comments I hear while traveling sans husband include: “He’s actually letting you go by yourself?,” “My husband would divorce me if I ever went on a trip without him,” “Isn’t he worried sick about you all by yourself,” “Don’t you get lonely without him,” “I’d never let my wife ever travel without me.” My husband knew that I have a huge case of wanderlust before we got married and that I would travel with him as well as on my own. So no, I don’t ask for his permission before I book a trip and I’m thankful to be married to someone who accepts me as I am.

So why do I enjoy traveling without my husband?

Sometimes I want to go somewhere my husband has zero interest in visiting. For instance, India has never been high on his list and it would be a huge waste of money to pay for both of us to go. Instead, I went on my own and splurged on business class tickets for the long flight. On the other hand, if there’s a destination that I know he really wants to visit (Japan, for example), I’ll hold off on planning a trip until I know that we can both visit.

I actually like traveling solo. The amount that you learn about yourself while traveling solo is incredible and you’ll be forced to step outside your comfort zone. You don’t have someone else to rely on so you have to get creative in solving problems. When I was almost denied boarding on a Druk Air flight from Delhi to Bhutan due to a typo in my visa, I had to take charge of the situation and figure out how to fix the situation without anyone else’s help.

I’m a huge introvert and have always struggled with confidence and assertiveness. Traveling solo has helped me face my fears and I’ve brought these skills back with me to my daily life. I’ve learned to stop worrying about all the “what ifs” and just go.

I meet more people. Romantic vacations for two are great for reconnecting but not for forming life-long friendships with other travelers from around the world. Whenever I’m traveling solo or joining a group trip like Intrepid Travel, I meet like-minded people who often become very close friends. I’ve also noticed that locals will often up to me in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m traveling for others. While driving out to the Kuang Si waterfalls in Laos, my driver shared his life story with me, starting with stealing money from his family so that he could leave and get an education. That’s not to say that connecting with others doesn’t happen with you’re traveling as part of a pair but I definitely experience more openness when I’m on my own.

I have different interests. Sometimes I want to book an all-day horseback riding excursion through the mountains, followed by a street food tour in the evening with a 5am wakeup call the next day to photograph sunrise. A trip like that would exhaust my husband and make him fairly grumpy. I often like to relax and slow down but there are times when I want to maximize every minute of my vacation time and that style doesn’t always work for other people.

I’m thankful that my husband is supportive and encouraging when it comes to my worldwide adventures. I’ve had quite a few married friends over the years who were yearning to get out and explore the world but their spouse was reluctant to let them go. They always say that maybe next year, they’ll finally book that trip they’ve been dreaming about.

Stop waiting around for it to happen. Book your dream trip now. Your marital status should have absolutely no bearing on pursuing your passion. If your passion is traveling, even if your spouse doesn’t want to join you, you should feel supported and encouraged to discover the world.

Hiking in Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Hiking in Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Have you ever traveled without your spouse?


18 Things Americans Need to Know Before Visiting Cuba

Car in Havana, Cuba
The cars in Havana are amazing

I visited Cuba for a week at the end of May with a small group tour company called Cuban Adventures. Growing up in Miami, I was exposed to Cuba culture (and the delicious food) at a young age and have always wanted to visit the country. I kept putting it off until I saw articles about huge masses of tourists visiting the island. I wanted a chance to visit before the country is officially opened up to Americans because I imagine it will start to change pretty quickly.

It’s not the easiest destination to visit but this beautiful and mysterious country is well worth a visit. I’ve included a few tips and pointers, especially for my fellow Americans.

Visiting legally or illegally. As of May 2015, Americans could not legally visit Cuba unless they fell into one of 12 categories, ranging from journalistic activity to support of the Cuban people. Prior to January 2015, Americans had to apply for a license in advance, using one of the 12 allowed categories. After January, the rules changed such that Americans no longer need prior approval the government trusts that you’re going for the reason you specified.

I’m not sure if this happens with all airlines but when I flew from Mexico City to Havana with Aeromexico, all the Americans were given a form and we had to select one of the twelve categories. Given that I have a travel blog, I chose journalism.

On the way home from Mexico City, the American customs officers never looked through my passport. Could’ve been due to the fact that I have Global Entry but even if they had, I was prepared to tell them that I went to Cuba under one of the 12 allowable categories. I have no idea if they would’ve pulled me aside or waved me through. None of the other Americans traveling on my tour had any issues re-entering the United States.

Outdoor bookstall in Havana
Outdoor bookstall in Havana

Bring Euros or Canadian dollars. While you can exchange US dollars in Cuba, you’ll get slapped with an additional 10% fee. Change money at your local bank and bring extra cash in case you have an emergency. As of May, there was no way for Americans to access money using ATMs or credit cards. A guy on my tour didn’t realize he needed to bring cash and tried several ATMs without success. Unfortunately, he only had US dollars so he had to pay the extra fee to exchange his money.

You can try calling your bank to see if they will allow you to access your money in Cuba but even then, I would recommend bringing cash.

Cuba has two currencies. One is the Cuban convertible peso (or CUC for short), which is aligned to the USD. One CUC = 1 USD. There is also the Cuban national peso (CUP), which is used by locals the same way Americans used ration stamps during the war. Locals can buy food and supplies with it and it’s rare for tourists to encounter this currently.

Do not exchange money at the airport. If you must exchange money, limit the amount to a small transaction. I had a driver waiting for me at the airport and as I walked over to the exchange desk, he warned me that tourists are frequently ripped off. Instead of exchanging a few hundred dollars, I opted to exchange $50 instead. I found out later that two ladies in my tour group had $200 stolen from them at the exchange desk.

Another helpful tip: Have your passport ready when handing over your cash. Regardless of where you travel, you almost always need a passport to exchange cash. If you hand over your money first and then start digging around for your passport, it gives the other person the opportunity to steal some of your money. After you’ve received your money, you should count it back just to make sure it’s accurate.

Gorgeous car on the streets of Trinida, Cuba
Gorgeous car on the streets of Trinida, Cuba

Your luggage may take forever to arrive. I waited for 2 ½ hours for my checked bag to arrive off the luggage belt. It was hot, humid and I was getting incredibly stressed out. The airport workers assured me that my bag would arrive any minute but I was losing patience. Cuba is not really the place where you want your luggage to get lost or delayed since it’s a bit more difficult to replace clothing, toiletries and other necessities. Turns out that the Havana airport, despite being fairly small, is just incredibly slow.

Bring all your basic necessities. Basic toiletries, like bug spray and sunscreen, can be difficult to find and/or expensive. Make sure you pack just about everything you need rather than relying on buying items once you’re in Cuba. My suitcase was a little heavier than normal since I brought more sunscreen, bug spray and shampoo than I actually needed but better safe than sorry. I also left behind the extra at various homestays since American products are difficult for Cubans to obtain.

The food is bland. This one surprised me since I’m used to the flavorful Cuban food served in Miami. The food in Cuba wasn’t bad but it was very bland and wasn’t what I was expecting. I wish packed a mini bottle of hot sauce with me since there is none in Cuba. I’m assuming that the food is bland due to the embargo since it’s so different from what you’d typically get at a Cuban restaurant in the U.S.

You need a visa. All tourists need a visa in order to enter Cuba. You can purchase a visa from the airline taking you to Havana but I opted to order mine online before I left from Cubaism. On arrival at the Havana airport, the immigration officer will stamp your card and give you half of it back. Do not lose this half of the card. I don’t know what happens if you lose it but I imagine you’ll be dealing with a lot of unwanted bureaucracy.

Print out your travel documents. Finding a working printer can be difficult in Cuba. Make sure you print out all the documents you need, such as airline confirmations, hotel reservations, travel insurance information, etc before you arrive.

Book a tour. While I’m sure it’s easy to travel solo, I opted to book a tour with Cuban Adventures since I wanted to see as much as possible in 8 days. The guide was spectacular and there was plenty of free time at each stop. Instead of staying at hotels, we stayed at casa particulars, which are houses owned and operated by individuals, sort of like a bed and breakfast. What’s nice about the casa particulars is that they help families earn extra income.

Passport stamp. Customs will more than likely not stamp your passport but you can always to make sure. Since I thought the chances of being caught on the way home were slim, I asked the customs officials to stamp my passport. I love collecting passport stamps and didn’t want to miss out on one.

The rum is delicious. Havana Club rum is sold everywhere and is often less expensive than buying a bottle of water. I may have returned with a few bottles in my luggage.

Insurance. You must have insurance when visiting Cuba and it’s possible the immigration officials will do a spot check to see if you have it. Not all American travel insurance providers will cover your trip to Cuba. To find ones that will, check out Insure My Trip.

Beware the Jineteros. Hustlers in Havana, also known as Jineteros, are common in Havana and there’s no way to avoid them. If you feel like someone is being overly friendly and they speak good English, chances are they’re a Jineteros and they’re looking for more than just good conversation. They’ll often suggest a nearby restaurant that you should join them at and if you do, you’ll get stuck with the bill. This happened to two women on my tour and it was an expensive evening for them.

The touts in Old Havana do get tiring after a while. I tried to relax in one of the central parks but had a stream of taxi drivers, musicians and other solicitors trying to get me to spend money. Thankfully, I didn’t see Jineteros in other towns I visited, such as Vinales, Cienfuegos or Trinidad.

Learn the language. While some Cubans speak English, many do not, especially as you leave Havana. None of the owners of the casa particulars I stayed at spoke any English at all. While I had a Spanish dictionary with me, I wish that I had brushed up on my Spanish before I left.

Internet access is limited. Internet access in Cuba is limited to higher-end hotels or a government-run location, where it will run you $5 for an hour. The speed is dial-up slow so don’t plan on uploading a lot of photos to Facebook or Instagram while you’re there. I used the Internet a few times while I was there to check in with my husband but otherwise, it was nice to detox from all things digital.

Take salsa lessons in advance. Salsa dancing is everywhere in Cuba. While you can take lessons once you arrive, it’s handy to have a few basic steps down so that you can participate without looking completely out of place.

Cell phone service. When I went to Cuba in May, there was no cell phone coverage anywhere on the island. The only two useful things my phone could do in Cuba were taking photos and waking me up.

While traveling in Cuba has its unique challenges, I definitely recommend a visit. The Cuban people are among the nicest I’ve encountered in all of my travels.

18 Things Americans Need to Know About Visiting Cuba

In Photos: Why I love window seats

When it comes to airplane seats, most of us are firmly in the window seat or aisle seat camp. I hate getting stuck in the middle seat or the aisle, unable to stare at the clouds or the passing scenery. After the stress of boarding the plane, the view from 35,000 feet calms my soul.

Here are 13 of my favorite window seat photos: Continue reading “In Photos: Why I love window seats”

48 hours in Edinburgh

How to Spend 48 Hours in Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh, the second largest city in Scotland, is my favorite city in the world. The combination of scenic hikes, cobblestone streets, gothic churches, Greek Revival architecture, gardens, fascinating museums and variety of cuisine make it a destination that anyone can enjoy.

While I recommend spending a few days in Edinburgh if possible, you can see the main highlights in two days since the old portion both the city is fairly compact and easy to explore by foot.

Related: While you’re in Edinburgh, check out these 10 fantastic vegan restaurants

What to see:

The order in which you visit the sites below really depends on the weather. If the forecast calls for sunny weather on your first day in Edinburgh, visit the outdoor destinations and save the museums and indoor activities for the second day.

The Royal Mile
Located in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Royal Mile connects Edinburgh Castle with the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace at the other end. The main street includes a mix of historical sites, such as St. Giles’ Cathedral, along with kitschy souvenir shops. Make sure to venture off the main street and explore the narrow staircases and closes.

Time spent: 1 hour

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland
The Royal Mile.
The Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Cute little street just off the Royal Mile.
St. Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh
St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile

Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace is the Queen’s official residence while in Scotland, located near the Salisbury Crags. When the Queen is not in residence, visitors can take a tour of the palace and get a glimpse of modern royal life. On my second visit to Holyrood Palace, I was unable to tour the palace since Prince Edward was in residence. I spent a few minutes taking photos from the main gate and was able to meet his super friendly dog.

Once you’re done with the palace tour, spend some time wandering around the abbey ruins and gardens.

Time spent: 2 hours

Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland
Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland
Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace from above, Edinburgh, Scotland
Holyrood Palace from above
Abbey Ruins at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland
Abbey ruins at Holyrood Palace.
Holyrood Palace Abbey Ruins and Gardens
The palace gardens and ruins.
Abbey ruins, Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland
Inside the ruins.
Holyrood Palace unicorn
Unicorns are everywhere, if you know where to look for them.

Edinburgh Castle
Perched atop an extinct volcano, the 11th-century castle dominates Edinburgh’s skyline. Not only is the massive fortress beautiful, it’s also rich in history.

The castle served as the royal residence for Scottish Kings and Queens until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. St. Mary’s Chapel, the castle’s oldest building, was created by David I and is still used for weddings and religious ceremonies today. The Great Hall was built before the death of King James IV in 1513 and was primarily used for state assembly.

Other areas of the castle house the National War Museum, Crown Jewels and the Prisoners of War barracks, one of my favorite areas of the castle. Here you can see where Americans, French, Irish and other prisoners were housed during the American Revolution. I especially loved the sign about Americans = pirates.

Time spent: 2 hours

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle


Edinburgh Castle Prisoners of War
Americans got less rations because they were pirates.
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Inside Edinburgh Castle.
Lion statue at Edinburgh Castle.
Lion statue at Edinburgh castle.
Scottish Parliament
Located across from Holyrood Palace, the Scottish Parliament building sits in stark contrast to the more classic buildings nearby. If Parliament is in session, you can observe the proceedings from the public gallery.Time spent: 15 minutes

The National Museum of Scotland
Perfect for a rainy day, the National Museum of Scotland houses over 20,000 artifacts from prehistoric times to recent history. My husband and I spent several hours in the museum, mostly in the Scottish history section.

Time spent: 4 hours

The National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
The National Museum of Scotland.

Calton Hill
Calton Hill is famous for its collection of Greek-inspired monuments, giving Edinburgh the nickname “Athens of the North.”

The views from Calton Hill are spectacular and they’re even better at the top of the 143-stair Nelson Monument.

Other monuments on Calton Hill include the Dugald Stewart Monument, Old Royal High School, City Observatory and the  National Monument, created to commemorate the Napoleonic Wars.

Time spent: 1 hour

View from the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill.
View from the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill.
Calton Hill, Edinburgh
Calton Hill, overlooking Princes Street.
Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland
Calton Hll, Edinburgh.
National Monument, Edinburgh.
Looking down at the National Monument from the top of the Nelson Monument.
Princes Street, Edinburgh Scotland
Princes Street, as seen from the top of Nelson Monument
Salisbury Crag, Edinburgh, Scotland
Looking towards Salisbury Crags.
Nelson Monument, Edinburgh
The Nelson Monument.

Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat
Located in Holyrood Park, Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat are among my favorite places in Scotland to relax and just enjoy the view. The climb up to Arthur’s Seat is steep but the views of Edinburgh are well worth the effort. If you don’t feel fit enough to make it up to Arthur’s Seat, spend time on the paths around the rim of Salisbury Craigs, where you’ll also get great views of the city. Keep your eyes peeled for the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel, built in the 1300s and the only remaining building in Holyrood Park.

Once you’ve finished with your hike, reward yourself with ice cream from the Mr. Whippy truck, located in the parking lot.

Time spent: 4 hours

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
Walking around Holyrood Park.
Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh
You can see the top of Arthur’s Seat.
Holyrood Park, Edinburgh
Walking around Holyrood Park.
St. Anthony's Chapel, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh
The ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel
Salisbury Crags, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh
Walking around Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park.
Salisbury Crags, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh
At the edge of Salisbury Crags

How to get around:
Edinburgh is a wonderful walking city. During my two days there, I walked everywhere and only hailed a cab once, when my feet were tired after hiking up Arthur’s Seat.

Edinburgh has an extensive network of local buses and you can take advantage of Lothian Buses DayTicket, which allows unlimited daily travel around the city.

Since Edinburgh’s streets are maze-like and parking is expensive, I do not recommend renting a car in the city.

Other helpful tips:

  • The weather in Edinburgh is very unpredictable. Always layer your clothing and bring an umbrella or a rain coat.
  • If you’re arriving from London, consider taking the train. It’s an enjoyable way to get to Edinburgh and you’ll arrive at Waverly Station, right in the center of the old city.
  • The roads are very narrow and maze-like so avoid bringing a car into the city if possible. If you’re going to explore other areas of Scotland, rent a car at the airport and go from there.

Import note: Edinburgh is actually pronounced Ed-in-bruh. I thought it was pronounced Ed-in-burg, which resulted in some funny looks. Trust me on that one.