Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. You can use the search function in the upper left corner of this screen to look for particular destinations. You can also simply scroll through the more than 100 postings. Or you can click on one of the terms below to find postings on a variety of topics and destinations.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When a Travel Agent Is Better Than the Internet

Seth Kugel, the New York Times' Frugal Traveler columnist and blogger, has made a startling discovery. Sometimes, travel agencies can get you a fare lower than anything you can find online.
Keep this tip in mind for your next trip abroad, especially if you're going someplace far away that's not served by loads of international carriers. If you're going to Croatia, for example, a Croatian travel agency in New York is probably a good bet. Agents who are from your destination country and specialize in travel to that country, are likely to know about airlines and strategies that Kayak and Expedia don't. That said, it helps to be in a big city like New York that has a lot of travel agents who primarily serve immigrant populations. You can, however, contact such agencies by phone or email.
Click HERE for Seth's report.

Nicaragua: Selva Negra Offers a Coffee Plantation Experience (and More)






AT LEFT, a mural at Selva Negra depicts the coffee harvest.

During our three weeks in Nicaragua in January, Jane and I tried to see as much of the country as we could. One place we're particularly happy to have visited is Selva Negra, a coffee plantation a two-hour drive northeast of Managua. It's in a cloud forest in the mountains above Matagalpa, itself a pretty neat destination with a large cathedral, decent shopping and good restaurants and coffee bars.

AT LEFT, a path leads to one of the guest cabins.

Selva Negra (CLICK HERE) is a largely self-contained plantation, producing its own foods, housing its own workers and showcasing an amazing natural environment. Its coffee beans (most of its production is purchased by Whole Foods for sale in the U.S.) grow on bushes spread out as understory plants in the cloud forest.

AT LEFT, a variety of flowering plants occupy the top of the double roof on our one-bedroom cabin.

Selva Negra was founded more than a century ago by German immigrants and is today owned and operated by two of their descendants, Eddy Kuhl and his wife, Mausi Hayn.

AT LEFT, Mausi Hayn explains to us how coffee beans are processed at Selva Negra.

Lodging options range from beds in shared rooms in a hostel to multi-bedroom private chalets. Meals are served in a big dining room overlooking an artificial pond. Selva Negra makes its own cheeses and the large but inexpensive cheese plate may be the best food value in Nicaragua. Most of the food on the fairly extensive menu comes from Selva Negra's farming operations.

AT LEFT, a wild orchid blooms at Selva Negra.

Guests are offered a range of activities: tours of the coffee operation (the coffee estate is often referred to by its original name, La Hammonia), horseback riding, birding walks, hikes and more. We were fortunate in having Mausi Hayn show us around the property herself. There are tree-hung swings scattered around the property, which is a popular weekend getaway for people from Managua and elsewhere in Nicaragua.

AT LEFT, an open-air stone chapel that the Kuhls built in 2000 for the marriage of one of their daughters. Selva Negra now offers it to guests for their weddings.

Selva Negra is a model of environmental sensitivity. It uses human and animal waste to create methane gas, which it uses. Taking advantage of its rainy location high in mountains, it has created its own hydroelectric system to capture the energy of water that flows from the plantation to the valley below. Even paper waste there is recycled -- magazine pages and other pieces of paper are folded into impossibly tight strips that are woven to form purses, tote bags and other products. Plastic water bottles are used as insect traps among the coffee plants.