Guatemala TikalGuatemala has been featured in both editions of The World’s Cheapest Destinations and there are a lot of reasons to put the country on the short list. It’s a screaming bargain, it’s easy to get to from the U.S. or Canada (or overland), there’s a distinctive local culture, and you have a lot of options on how to travel and where to go. Plus there’s Tikal (pictured here) which is probably reason enough on its own.

To see a good rundown, check out this new article from SmarterTravel called Six Ways to See Guatemala. It’s a good overview on the possibilities (though I’d advise skipping past the cruises page.) It touches on volunteering and Spanish language immersion classes, with some useful links. As they note, “Basic accommodations are cheap; a night in a hostel often costs less than $5, while staying in a more private guesthouse generally runs under $10 per night.” With those prices, you can travel for weeks as a backpacker without blowing much cash.

The Tequila region of Mexico gets a UNESCO World Heritage designation and starts gearing up for more visitors.

agave tequilaThis blog has been quiet for a while as I have been off the computer chair and on the road in Tequila country. There really is a town called Tequila, where a few distilleries such as Sauza, Don Eduardo, and Jose Cuervo are located. (The pic to the left is a Cuervo worker chopping up agave hearts before roasting.) But the whole region is agave territory and I’m holed up in Guadalajara—Mexico’s second-largest city. Most of the iconic images of the country come from this area: mariachi bands, charro Mexican cowboys, big sombreros, cacti dotting the hills. And the national drink—tequila.

Last year, the U.S. passed Mexico as the leading consumer of tequila. Plenty of the cheaper stuff has always been downed by shooter-slamming 20-somethings and patrons of restaurant chains who are sucking them down from the frozen margarita machine. The main reason for the swell in demand, however, has been the rising demand for quality 100% agave tequila.

After drinking more than my fair share over the past couple of days, I can say for sure that you really do get what you pay for. Most of the spirit’s negative connotations come from memories of college parties and shots downed with a wince. The difference between that stuff and aged “anejo” tequila is like the difference between Miller High Life and Samuel Smith or Rogue beer. Between Gallo white zinfandel and Opus 1. Rot gut vodka and Grey Goose.
guachimontesWatch for this area of Jalisco to become a hot spot in the glossy travel media about three or four years from now. Some of the elements are already in place: distilleries to visit, beautiful landscapes, pretty town squares, interesting local crafts, and the newly escavated Guachimontones archeological zone (pictured here). Of course the glossies won’t come calling until a fancy schmancy hotel is open nearby, so that’s in the works. Plans are moving to the development phase for one with a spa, golf course, and all the rest. Meanwhile, there’s plenty to pick from in Guadalajara (about an hour away) and some budget places closer to the land of agave fields.

If you’re ever down this way, check it out before the hordes arrive next decade. The making of tequila is a fascinating process and this is a spirit with a strong sense of place.

Trying to compare airfare prices from Cleveland to L.A. for different dates is pretty easy these days and checking possibilities from the U.S. to Mexico or the Caribbean is not much worse with visits to two or three sites. Beyond that, however, it’s still a battle to compare international airfares and see what the best options are, across a range of dates.

Travelocity used to have a pretty good tool for it, but they had to disable it after not being able to comply with full tax and fee disclosures. There’s a backdoor way at sister site zuji.com though, according to this entry on the SmarterTravel blog:

Here’s how to make it work for you. Head over to zuji.com and, from the site’s homepage, click on “Other” in the area that reads, “Please select your location from the list below to access the best deals from your local ZUJI website.” Then, select the “Flights” tab and “Flexible date” option. Now you’re in business.

Of course, to keep the DOT happy I should note that zuji.com is not intended for those of us here on U.S. soil. Near as I can tell, though, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t (or shouldn’t) use it to find the best fares on our international routes.

I ran a few different test scenarios. One to Santiago came up empty from three different departure points, but the others worked out well—including a $486 round-trip flight from London to South Africa and a $258 one from my home town to two different cities in Mexico.

There was a great sketch on Saturday night live that enacted a sample meeting of TSA workers and their bosses. It’s not on the official NBC site yet, but for the moment you can find it here.After being told that it is now okay to bring 3 ounces of liquid on board because “it has been determined that 3 ounces of liquid cannot blow up an airplane, the TSA employees in the meeting ask some great questions:

“But 4 ounces can blow up an airplane?”

“What’s to stop two people from having 3 ounces and then meeting on the plane to combine them?”

“What if I am a passenger that does not have three ounces with me, but is confident I can produce 3 ounces myself on the flight?” (“You mean producing a liquid?” the supervisor asks. “Or a gel” the employee answers.”)

A new study out this week says that the Danes are the happiest people on Earth. Other rich European countries also scored highly, while the U.S. came in at a respectable #23. Money may not buy happiness, but it certainly helps. Bringing up the rear were Zimbabwe and Burundi. The real surprise was Japan–by most accounts the most expensive destination on the planet–which fared a shocking #90. Maybe they’re just tired of eating raw fish?

I’m excerpting this part verbatim because it’s quite profound:

Good health may be the key to happiness, but money helps open the door. Wealthier countries, such as Switzerland (2) and Luxembourg (10) scored high on the index. Not surprisingly, most African countries, which have little of either; scored poorly. Zimbabwe, which has an AIDS rate of 25%, an average life expectancy of 39, and an 80% poverty rate, ranked near the bottom at 177. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis gave fellow Africans in Burundi, ranked 178, even less to smile about, despite their having a slightly lower poverty rate of 68%.

Capitalism, meanwhile, fared quite well. Free-market systems are sometimes blamed for producing unhappiness due to insecurity and competition, but the U.S. was No. 23 and all the top-ranking European countries are firmly capitalist—albeit of a social-democratic flavor.



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