Tobago and South America

I spent a week on Tobago diving a few years ago and have combined those reviews with a couple of South American hotels.

Diving in Tobago

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by koshkha on July 20, 2010

It was October and we wanted to go diving. We couldn't face the Red Sea again - and despite the bombings in Sharm there weren't any good bargains to be had and I just didn't think that Egypt represented good value. Earlier in the year we'd already spent too much money on other holidays so we wanted something that would be new and different without costing a fortune. After reading a lot of diving brochures we chose to go to Tobago for a week and were really pleased that we did.

We booked with one of our favourite dive operators, UK-based company Regal Dive. They flew us over with late and unlamented Excel airlines who unsurprisingly went into receivership a couple of weeks ago. I'll admit I was nervous - there were some dreadful reviews of that airline doing the rounds but it really wasn't anything like as bad as it could have been.

We split our holiday between the Toucan Inn at Crown Point and the Inn on the Bay at Lambeau and in both places we dived with the World of Watersports dive centre which is based at the Hilton. This company was excellent and rang the reception of the hotels each day to reconfirm our pick up times the next morning and turned up promptly every day.

We were really impressed by World of Watersports as a diving company.We were picked up on the first day and taken to the dive centre to get our equipment together. The staff were all friendly and welcoming and the centre was efficiently run. The equipment we hired was of a high standard, and the manager of the dive centre ran a very tight ship. The guys who run the boats and the dive staff were all funny, friendly and helpful, but were also very attentive to health and safety. One of the dive instructors was an ex-Commonwealth Games martial arts medalist.

All the great equipment and wonderful staff are worthless if there's nothing in the water. So the important thing was, how would the diving be? It was absolutely exceptional. No dive had more than eight divers in the water at any time and we never saw any other dive groups on the same sights. We shared the water with nobody other than the fish! The standard of the coral was outstanding because the sites have only ever been lightly dived. There are plenty of fish and the sea was calm and turquoise.

World of Watersports took us up to the North end of Tobago island on one day to dive near the site where Ian Fleming used to live. That was a bit rougher at sea but gave us a chance to see more of the island. On our free day at the end of the week, they also arranged a tour around the island and a walk to a waterfall to keep us entertained whilst we were barred from diving before our flight home.

The dives are all done in the morning and the afternoon is left free to do what you want. I would advise hiring a car so you can get around. We didn't and we struggled a bit to fill our afternoons.

A few practical points to think of. Wetsuit requirements are for thin wetsuits or shorties because the water is very warm. We were advised not to wear gloves but I asked for permission to use them on the descents down ropes because my hands are very sensitive to rough ropes and barnacles and there was no problem. I just took them off when I reached the bottom.

Tobago is a longhaul destination from Europe and some people won't want to go so far for just a week. However on the positive side the destination offers excellent value for money (I think we paid about £529 plus diving) outstanding reefs, and inexpensive good quality food and drink.

It's important to keep in mind that Tobago and Trinidad are a single country but the two islands are very different. If you read or hear bad things about Trinidad, don't assume they apply to Tobago. It's a much quieter, gentler place. I was told that there were no direct flights from the US to Tobago which means there are very few American divers there which helps to keep the prices down - wherever American's like to holiday, it tends to put the prices up.

We've dived a lot all over the world and this beats almost every other place we've been. From the UK it's quite a long flight but I do think it's worth going further because there's nothing of this standard that's much closer to home.

Toucan Time

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on July 17, 2010

My husband and I booked a week diving in Tobago and split the time so that we had 4 nights at the Toucan Inn and then had to move to the sister hotel - Inn on the Bay - because someone had booked the entire hotel for his 40th birthday party and was flying over family and friends. I suppose that's proof positive that some people love this hotel. I quite liked it but not the extent that I'd drag my family over to stay there and I probably wouldn't rush back for another go.

The hotel is near to the airport - about a 4 minute transfer in a car or you can walk there in 20 minutes. It's on a quiet residential street and there's not much around other than a small parade of shops at the end of the road where you can stock up on beer, ice cream and sun cream and get conned by locals who know every scam in the book. We tended to stay in the hotel in the evenings because we didn't feel very secure wandering around after dark. There's also a couple of fast food places if you don't want to find a restaurant or eat at the Toucan.

The hotel has a great reputation for its restaurant which is called 'Bonkers' and is named after the hotel's tame toucan who lives in a large cage with another bird and squawks a lot. The restaurant is semi-open air with ceiling fans and a straw roof and the food is good although the service is on Tobago-time (i.e. really slow) so if you are in a hurry, nip down the road for a takeaway. The prices are around £10 a head for two courses with beer and water and the restaurant is always busy with both locals and tourists. The cocktails are famous across the entire island. Breakfast is good, freshly cooked and there's lots of it.

There are two types of rooms - those set around a sort of courtyard and pool-side huts. We had a courtyard room which wasn't as pretty as the poolside rooms but was much quieter - especially at night when the bands playing by the pool would have driven us crazy. Our room was of moderate size with a seating area and a large bed and a small terrace outside. The room had air conditioning and a good bathroom which was clean but basic and had a nice strong shower.

We paid very little for the holiday so we didn't expect a lot. The nearest little town is quite busy and there are lots of restaurants but it's was so hot and humid so we didn't tend to venture too far and having gone for the diving (which was excellent) we were mostly too exhausted to want to do much else after diving every morning. If we went again (and the diving was so good that I'd be tempted) we'd probably hire a rental car because there was very little to do in the area where we stayed and all organised tours seemed to be very expensive. Not having transport also restricted our options for eating out.
Toucan Inn
Box No. 452
Crown Point, Trinidad and Tobago
(868) 639 7173

Quiet, Friendly Beach-Front Hotel

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on July 17, 2010

In 2004 my husband and I booked a dive holiday in Tobago. We picked the Toucan Inn as our hotel but were disappointed to hear that it was full for the last few days of our trip. The tour company offered to put us in the Toucan Inn for the first few days and then transfer us to the Inn on the Bay for the rest of our trip. Since the dive operator was going to be the same with both hotels, we went along with the plan.

The Inn on the Bay was actually a nice hotel than the one we spent the first half of the week in. The rooms were bigger, better decorated and very pleasant. And we were much closer to the beach which was directly in front of the hotel, though across quite a busy road. The Inn on the Bay also benefited from having a nice bar, and a good restaurant (though not as famed or popular as the Toucan Inn) that offered value for money meals and a good breakfast. I also liked the reception area which was large, filled with comfortable seating and had newspapers and books to read.

The maid who looked after our room was very amused when she discovered on our last day that we didn't have a child with us. She'd been making the beds and putting my bear back on the pillow whilst assuming that there must be 'a little girl' that she hadn't yet met.

The downside to the location is that there's nothing anywhere nearby and we didn't have a car. Other than the beach, it's a long walk in either direction (and in very humid weather) to find anything at all.

Could I Have my Shoes Back, Please?

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on July 17, 2010

I stayed at the Hotel Quito in October 2004 when my husband and I were part of a tour group doing a 3 weeks trip around Peru, Ecuador and Galapagos. We stayed at the Hotel Quito twice - one night before and two nights after the Galapagos leg of our journey. The rooms were booked by our tour company but typically should cost between $50 and $100 per night.

Getting to Quito had been an ordeal and we’d been through a hairy time in the Peruvian rain forest. Our flight out of Porto Maldonado, a one-horse gold-mining town, had been cancelled due to rain (it’s a rain forest, you’d think they’d be used to it) and we’d been stranded in the only scummy hotel in a bandit town that had any rooms. Then when the airline was bullied into putting on a ‘rescue’ flight we flew to Lima in the wee small hours to spend a couple of hours in a hotel before flying on to Quito. As you can imagine, by the time we got to Quito we were all bit jaded and fed up especially as we weren't supposed to be there at all.

The bus transfer from the airport took about 30 minutes. The first thing that will hit you on arriving in Quito is the altitude. We thought we’d be acclimatised because we’d been at similar altitude in our first week in Peru but the time in the rainforest had knocked that out of us. Take everything slowly or you’ll pay for it later with nausea, sleep problems and sickness.

The Hotel Quito is in a business and shopping district, the sort of place where countries have their embassies. There’s nothing particularly notable on the door step. It’s about 10 minutes by cab from the more funky backpacker district and 20-30 (depending on traffic) from historic old Quito. The hotel is on top of a hill with great views and you shouldn’t have any problems walking around the hotel area during the day – maybe not such a good idea after dark. There is a small craft market just down the hill from the hotel looking into the valley. You can buy knitted clothes, paintings and other curios. Taxis are not expensive – although you should check the price before you agree to go anywhere – so it isn’t too important where you are in Quito.

When we arrived at the Hotel Quito we were very surprised. After staying in an ‘eco-lodge’ (compost toilets and lots of bugs) and a flea-pit zero star hotel this seemed like a bit of a treat. The hotel is described as being Art Deco in style – I think that’s rather a generous assessment. Architecturally it’s ‘high 1960s’ with a bit of a soviet block look to it. However the lobby is stunning.

In the centre of the lobby there’s a large table with a fantastic flower displays several feet wide filled with beautiful fragrant roses. Ecuador we learned is one of the world’s major exporters of flowers (and frozen prawns!). The lobby has dozens of sofas and arm chairs and is two storeys high with a mezzanine swooping around. The main draw is the window – an enormous floor to ceiling view out over the valley beneath with snow capped mountains behind.

Apparently the hotel was built as a ‘convention resort’ for an ‘Inter-American Convention’. It was probably very impressive when it opened but now it’s just a bit sad and jaded. Over the decades it has passed through the hands of various hotel groups and was owned by Compass Hotels when we were there.

Our check in was easy. As part of a group we sipped our cold ‘welcome’ drinks whilst looking out of the windows. We filled in some registration forms and were handed our keys. My husband began his regular battle to get our valuables into the safe deposit box and several of the group tried unsuccessfully to get some money exchanged.

We trekked off to our room - the corridors were plush with deep carpets and the rooms had a complex double door system to keep the corridor noise to a minimum – a little pointless with a busy road outside and a location under the flight path to the airport.

After the opulent lobby it was a bit of a surprise to find that the rooms were reminiscent of a 1980s Travellodge – adequate but entirely forgettable. We were on the road side of the hotel both times we stayed so we had a view over some unexciting gardens. Others in the party had hillside rooms with views of the mountains and the pool. The rooms were large with two beds, a desk, a TV, cupboards and everything you’d expect.Our ground floor rooms opened onto the garden – not that it was the kind of garden you’d want to sit out on unless you like watching the traffic.

The bathrooms had plenty of hot water (which was our main priority) but were otherwise unmemorable. International cable TV and internet access were available but we didn’t use either. Some of our group used the business centre to access the internet but we found it easier and cheaper to use the ‘backpacker’ internet cafes in the touristy district.

Included in the deal was a 'welcome' cocktail up in the penthouse bar with spectacular views over the city. We went up for our free Cuba Libres (Rum and Coke). Prices were not cheap but were fair for a hotel of this standard and I really recommend visitors use the bar for the views. Next to the bar is the Techo del Mundo restaurant which offers international cuisine of a good standard at not-too-frightening prices.

In addition to the penthouse bar and restaurant, you can get drinks and snacks at the poolside and there’s another bar called the Havana Cigar Club – not being a smoker, I can’t tell you anything about that.

During our first visit, we left very early before breakfast service started. However, the hotel did a good job of laying on a small buffet service in the mezzanine of the lobby which did the job. On our return, we had the full breakfast up on the top floor which had a very wide choice of food and was of very good quality.

There’s a very nice outdoor pool which we didn’t use because it was raining and because doing anything very active at that altitude isn’t wise until you’ve got used to the thin air. There’s also a gym – same logic would apply. The hotel has lots of meeting rooms and convention facilities which won’t interest you as a tourist.

~OK, now onto the trouble!~

We spent one night in the Hotel Quito and then packed up all our excess belongings and put them into storage. We were about to fly to Galapagos and the airlines are really strict about weight limits. We left one bag - locked up - in the store. On getting to Galapagos I gave my poor husband a real ear-bashing for forgetting to pack the binoculars and I sulked at my stupidity for forgetting to bring my most comfortable shoes. On returning to the hotel we found that the binoculars weren't in the bag we had left and neither were my trainers.

We are pretty nice folk and we hate to get hotel staff into trouble but the lost items must have gone astray before we left the hotel (the bags were locked during the flight so the items must have disappeared during our first hotel stay). We reported the items to the front desk and asked them to check lost property. At the airport when we were leaving, we discovered that another member of our party had also lost a pair of trainers as well as an expensive pair of prescription bi-focal glasses. The poor chap had spent a week in Galapagos unable to see anything very clearly. He'd been in the room adjacent to ours and it seemed that he had also been the victim of some wandering fingers. We both reported the incident to the tour company on return but with no joy.

We always put our valuables in hotel safe-deposit boxes but nothing would have prepared us for the idea that our shoes and binoculars needed to be locked up as well.

I wouldn't say don't stay at the Hotel Quito - but I would advise you not to unpack your suitcase and if you have a lockable case, leave everything that could tempt a thief, inside your case.
Hotel Quito
Av. González Suárez N27 142
Quito, Ecuador
+593 2 254 4600

The Real Macaw

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on July 10, 2010

On a three week tour of Ecuador and Peru, one of the highlights was to be a trip to stay in an eco-lodge in the Amazon rain forest. Things were looking shaky when the local airline, Lan Peru, was under threat of being wound up and we thought we might not get there, but the government stepped in and stopped the company closing because it was so important to the tourist industry. Thus we were very relieved that we actually managed to get flights.

We flew into Puerto Maldonado, a dreary town that seems to exist only to offer R&R to rough chaps working in the rain forest and to act as a hub for eco-tourism tours. We hopped on a bus, then on a boat and about an hour out of Puerto Maldonado we arrived at our destination, the Posada Amazonas rain forest ecocamp.

I don’t really know what it was that I was expecting but the place was simultaneously better than I expected and massively more disappointing. The accommodation was better but the general sense of 'not that much to do the moment the sun went down' and that the rain forest was full of lots of things that bite you, brought me down somewhat.

The rooms are bizarre; you get three walls made of some kind of woven grassy stuff and the forth wall, well it just isn’t there. The forth wall is the rain forest viewed through your entirely absent wall. The world of bugs and beasts is only a mosquito net away from your sleeping (or nervously insomniac) body. And the jungle wakes up ludicrously early and very noisily, normally with a large number of howler monkeys doing a very good impression of 1000 cappuccino machines all going into mega-froth mode. If you can sleep through that, you’re inhuman. The bathrooms are en suite so the monkeys and snakes can watch you on the loo and the showers are cold, though that’s not a bad thing because it’s just such a sweaty place to be. The nights are long because once the sun’s gone down, there’s almost nothing to do. You can’t even get enough lighting to sit and read a book.

The food was very good and we got three course dinner every night. As a non-meat eater, the choice was limited but a couple of beers help to numb that disappointment. The lodge provides unlimited free filters boiled water which is good, and of course eco-friendly because there are no plastic bottles. The dining room is a high roofed wooden place that’s open to the elements and has long wooden benches and there are seating areas where you can gather to squint at books and magazines and to watch videos of macaws at the famous salt lick nearby.

Animal highlights include nature walks with the Posada’s expert naturalists. One of these found a green tree frog, pointed to it, panicked it and the poor little fella bounced straight into my husband’s face. I’m not sure who was more scared and shocked, him or the frog. The absence of anything bigger than a frog was disappointing but people did fall in love with the troops of leaf-cutter ants marching along the trails. I got eaten alive by bugs and found it all very uncomfortable and I was unable to relax after dark because I'm perpetually in fear of being eaten alive.

There's a 'hide' for watching macaws at the salt lick which was a rather unsatisfying experience as the macaws weren’t in the mood the day we went. Some of our group took a trip to a local village which was apparently quite interesting and one of my favourite attractions was a massive scaffolding tower which we visited one morning. It's a bit rickety to climb up but once you are at the top, it's the perfect place to watch toucans and macaws flying over the canopy. I loved that but regretted leaving the binoculars with my husband who’s scared of heights and refused to go up.

© LP 2000-2009