Quito, Ecuador

By Rob Rachowiecki
June 4, 2005

A bewildering succession of five presidents occupied Ecuador's Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) in Quito from 1997 to 2000. It was during this turbulent spell that El Niño devastated the country, the nation's largest bank collapsed, the government defaulted on its international loans, and the devaluation of the country's currency was the worst of all Latin America. Visitors from around the world found prices to be insanely, even criminally, cheap. In 2000, current President Gustavo Noboa stabilized the economy by making the U.S. dollar the only legal tender. Prices have risen a little since, but still, Ecuador remains one of the cheapest places on earth. Quito, Ecuador's capital and South America's loveliest city, lies just 14 miles south of the equator, but its pretty perch at 9,300 feet in the Andes ensures a refreshingly springlike climate for its 1.5 million inhabitants. Visitors enjoy the mild climate, too, and once in Quito, they realize the city is a superb base for day forays or weekend jaunts. (Why keep packing and unpacking your bags in a new hotel room every night?) They find a budget room and use the absurdly cheap public transportation system to visit Indian villages, crafts markets, Andean cloud forests, and hot springs, all within one to two hours by bus. Or from here, they easily book the best budget cruises to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands (see Budget Travel, Nov/Dec 2000).

Quito's historic center is a justly proud, church-filled, red-tiled, cobblestone, UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, set beneath the volcano of Pichincha (15,729 feet). The colonial gems of the Old Town anchor the new-a glistening tumult of white skyscrapers and green parks stretching to the north, where most of the city's best hotels, restaurants, cyber-cafes, nightclubs, museums and residential areas are found. The recent debut of an efficient trolley system allows quick, easy, and cheap movement from the historic center to the newer district.

Must-sees for little money

Strolling through old Quito's beautiful buildings and stunning churches is a must, and it costs little to view the quarter from a hilltop or church tower. To preserve the colonial feel, billboards and street signs are banned, and on Sundays so is vehicular traffic (visit then to experience a veritable step back through time). And of course, a short bus ride north to the ecuador (equator) itself is mandatory - where else can you comfortably have a foot in each hemisphere?

The Quitu people lived in Quito almost a millennium ago, but the Incas were in control when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1526; the Inca general Rumi¤ahui, rather than submit, razed the town, which explains the lack of pre-Columbian sites. The next best thing is at the Museo del Banco Central, housed in an unmistakable mirrored circular building at the corner of Avenidas Patria and 12 de Octubre near the south end of the new town. Here, $2 gains admission to Quito's archeology showcase, where stone fetishes, gold masks, obsidian mirrors, turquoise ear plugs, explicitly erotic pots, beautifully deformed skulls, huddled mummies, and scary surgical instruments are splendidly displayed. And go upstairs for a look at Ecuadorian art from colonial to modern. Arrive at 11 a.m. when an English-speaking attendant will show you around for free.

For best city views, most guides tout colonial Quito's Panecillo ("little bread loaf") hill, topped with a huge statue of a uniquely winged Virgin Mary. You can do better. From the Museo Nacional, grab a $1.50 cab to the Basilica, begun in 1926 and still not quite finished. No matter; adventurous souls pay $2 to climb up its three soaring towers. An elevator makes it halfway, and the route continues up ever-narrowing stairs, finally emerging at the church bell.

Beyond, a series of steep, slender metal ladders, protectively labeled with the word cuidado (careful!) and a picture of a figure falling, leads the visitor higher still, emerging at the very apex of the highest clock tower. Here, paneless windows allow access onto tiny outside ledges, 328 breathtaking feet above the street below. Hold tight! The view of the old town to the southwest and modern Quito to the north beats any to be had in the city. And you'll most likely have it all to yourself.

Once back to the relative safety of the cobbled streets, descend eight blocks southwest along Calle Venezuela into the Plaza de la Independencia, the heart of the colonial city. Two Nutcracker-like presidential guards prevent visitors from entering the Palacio de Gobierno, but underneath, a basement vault contains, of all things, an old-fashioned barber shop providing the public with $2 trims inside the country's seat of government!

Within four blocks of here are seven colonial churches; Quito must have been a supremely religious capital in early days. Most churches charge $1 admission and all are worth a look; make sure to see La Compa¤¡a, which Quite¤os (locals) consider their most ornate church, where a reputed seven tons of gold was used to gild just about every available surface.

To head back to the new town, hop on an electric trole which for 20: whisks you north along Avenida 10 de Agosto. Modern Quito has a thriving sub-culture of cybernauts who crowd dozens of cafés to surf the Web for just $1 an hour, drink coffee, and swap stories. With tropical names like Papaya Net, these places are a dime a dozen along Calam and nearby streets, an area so jammed with popular cheap hotels, restaurants, and foreigner-aimed travel agencies that it's been dubbed gringolandia by the locals, although the real name is the Mariscal Sucre district.

High-altitude hotels, low rates Arriving at 9,300 feet, visitors feel tired, so a good hotel is essential while acclimatizing. The Mariscal Sucre district has over 20 hostelries crammed into a few blocks.

Mariscal Sucre has experienced a rash of muggings recently. Although policing has improved (private security guards have been hired to increase safety), most residents suggest using a taxi at night. Nevertheless, many budget travelers stay here, as do business people residing in high-rise hotels on the edges of the area - perhaps these folks are the ones whom thieves are fishing for.

Recommended places in Mariscal Sucre include the funky Albergue El Taxo (Calle Foch 909, 2225-593, hostaleltaxo.com) with artwork galore and comfortable old couches in the public areas. Dorms are just $5 per bed, and private rooms (shared baths) are $8 per person, most of whom are young international backpackers. Spartan but spotless, the nearby wood-floored Crossroads Cafe & Hostal (Calle Foch 678, 2234-735, crossroadshostal.com) is popular with river-rafting groups and backpackers. Rates are $6 in dorms, $10 and $15.50 for singles and doubles with shared bath, $13.50 and $22.50 with private bath. The café is inexpensive; or rustle up your own vittles in the guest kitchen. Another fave for budget travelers of all ages is Posada del Maple (Calle Rodr¡guez 241, 2544-507, posadadelmaple.com) with dorm beds at $7.25. Rooms with shared bath are $13.50 for a single and $22.50 for a double; a private bath will cost $15.50 to $20 for singles and $25 to $29 for doubles. Buffet breakfast is included, and rates are seriously discounted in the low season. Plus: A guest kitchen provides free tea and coffee, a rooftop terrace invites relaxation, and a cybercafé is next door.

To escape gringolandia, I recommend the residential La Floresta district, a 15-minute walk south. Several bus lines connect La Floresta with both the old and the new towns, and a cab will be under $2. Cheap, friendly, and funky, La Casona de Mario (Calle Andaluc¡a 213, 2544-036, lacasona@punto.net.ec) charges $6 per person in private rooms with shared baths in a rambling older house. The mainly young guests enjoy kitchen and laundry privileges, and crowd into the TV lounge or the garden. Nearby, the very secure El Ciprés (Calle Lérida 381, 2549-558, turisaven.com) has friendly owners who'll pick you up at the airport and who run an on-premises travel agency-facilities which make Ciprés popular with budget travelers of all ages. Rates range from $6 in dorms to $12 to $14 for singles and $16 to $18 for doubles with private baths and TV. Continental breakfast in the skylit dining room is included, and guests use the Internet for free. Best features are the fireplace (surrounded by Indian masks) for cold evenings and the hammock on the lawn for sunny days.

The colonial old town has dozens of ultracheap dives, most with nothing to recommend them beyond their cheapness. A notable exception is Hotel San Francisco de Quito (Calle Sucre 217, 2287-758, hsfquito@andinanet.net), a renovated colonial building two blocks from Plaza de la Independencia. Rates are $12 single and $20 double in clean rooms with small but functional private baths (all Quito's budget hotels tend to skimp on bathroom space) and a TV. Breakfast is included.

Upscale budget lodging

A step up is the well-placed 52-room Hostal Plaza Internacional (Plaza Leonidas 150, 2505-075,hostalplaza.com), just two blocks from the U.S. Embassy or the Museo del Banco Central and a few blocks out of the Mariscal Sucre. Rooms are cozy but clean, with TV, phone, and private bath; the staff (some English-speaking) is helpful, and there's a restaurant. What more could you want for $26 single/$36 double? A similarly good-value choice ($26 single, $36 double) is the intimate, family-run Hostal Charles Darwin (Calle La Colina 304, 2234-323, ecuanex. net.ec/hostal_darwin), with an inviting garden. It's on a quiet side street in the aptly named La Paz ("Peace") district, a few minutes east of Mariscal Sucre.

Quito cuisine

Coffee and people-watching come first. Café Amazonas, at the corner of Avenidas Amazonas and Roca in Mariscal Sucre, is one of several sidewalk cafes on Amazonas. It's always full during daylight hours, with regulars holding court and visitors writing postcards. A coffee buys you the right to sit for hours.

And then, your meals. For tasty low-cost lunches ask for an almuerzo or men£ - the weekday set lunch ordered by local office-workers (almost every establishment offers one); ordering & la carte costs twice as much. Because the high altitude slows the digestive system, Quite¤os eat a large lunch but a small supper. A typical inexpensive set lunch of a vegetable soup, light main course served with rice, and a juice or fruit dessert, costs $1 to $3, depending on how classy the place is.

Sightseers in the old town find few culinary delights, and most head back to the new town for decent dining. My advice: the time-tested "eat where the locals eat." One locally popular place is Chifa El Chino (Calle Bol¡var between Venezuela and Guayaquil) with almuerzos for just over $1. Chifa means a Chinese restaurant, and though you'll find the usual cheap - and - filling heaps of noodles and rice, you can also ask for a local churrasco, a slice of grilled beef with an egg, french fries, beets, and rice - you won't leave hungry.

In the Mariscal Sucre district, I like La Casa de las Menestras (Calle Lizardo Garc¡a 356), where $1.50 buys a meal in pleasantly bohemian surroundings with few tourists. (In fact, anything with menestra - bean stew - in its name is probably going to be cheap.) More upscale is French-run El Para¡so Perdido (Calle Baqueadano 409, 2506-630), also in Mariscal Sucre, where the recommended men£ ejecutivo sets you back $2.50.

For all the classic Ecuadorian dishes, but at a low, low price, the place to go for decades has been Mam Clorinda (Calle Reina Victoria 1144), in Mariscal Sucre, popular with gringos and locals alike. Seco de chivo (goat stew) or llapingachos (fried mashed-potato pancakes) are my favorites, but less-adventurous chicken, beef, and fish dishes are also available. Big lunches or early dinners (it closes by 8 p.m.) are $4 to $6.

Vegetarians favor Windmill (Calle Col¢n 2245), less than a mile west of Mariscal Sucre and adjoining a health-food store. At the south end of Mariscal Sucre, Super Pap (Calle Juan Le¢n Mera 741) celebrates that most Andean of vegetables, the potato. You can have a baked spud stuffed with anything from chili to chicken-filling, delicious, and never more than $2.75, depending on the stuffing. Both open for lunch and dinner.

Quitting Quito Any pink-striped bus marked "Mitad del Mundo" traveling north on Avenida América, on the city's west side, will reach the equator for 35:. In 1736, Charles-Marie de La Condamine's French/Spanish/Ecuadorian expedition made measurements here that gave rise to the modern metric system. (It's exactly 10,000 kilometers - 6,700 miles - from the equator to either pole.) A 98-foot-high monument marks the spot; admission is 50: or another $3 if you wish to ascend the monument and inspect the ethnographic exhibit of regional tribal groups. In my mind, the 35: bus ride is more fun than the museum, but the equator is the equator - don't miss it.

Markets, volcanos, and hot springs

Few things beat an Andean market for sheer color, with thousands of Indians bartering in murmurs and gentle gesticulations - yelling is out of order! Thursday is market day in the village of Saquisil¡, where half a dozen plazas are packed with produce. My favorite is the animal market, with strings of piglets topping the bill. Feeling dry? How about a basket of 50 small tangerines for the ubiquitous dolarcito ($1). Or 10: for a greasily yummy llapingacho hot off the griddle. Reach Saquisil¡ by a two-hour dawn bus ride from Quito's terminal terrestre to Latacunga ($1.40), and transfer to a local bus (25:). That fabulous snowcapped volcano looming over the route? It's Cotopaxi (19,348 feet), Ecuador's second-highest peak and the world's second highest active volcano. (Several other glaciated peaks are seen on the ride as well.) And if dawn bus rides aren't your thing, Latacunga has a dozen hotels well under $10.

Papallacta, two hours east by bus, is the country's hot-springs capital. From Quito's terminal, take any bus ($2) to Lago Agrio, Tena, or Baeza and get off at the sign for Termas de Papallacta (2557-850, papallacta.com.ec). A gravel road leads a mile uphill to this comfortable resort in the high Andes. On a good day, Antisana (18,892 feet), one of Ecuador's remotest, mist-shrouded peaks, puts in a stunning appearance. Pay $3 for an all-day pass to the superclean hot-springs complex with glacial river-water plunge baths, steaming waterfalls, and half a dozen other pools. Or stay in the basic Hostal Antisana (6320-626) immediately outside the resort, where beds are $7 and meals are available.

Birding - and then Otavalo Between coast, Andes and rain forest, tiny Ecuador has more ecosystems and wildlife than do most of the world's countries. Birdwatchers are enthralled by over 1,500 species (twice that of the U.S.), including 120 species of hummingbirds. An excellent place to see them is Mindo, a sub-tropical cloud forest village two hours below Quito on the western slopes of the Andes, an area identified by the Nature Conservancy as one of the planet's ten most diverse bioregions. Birders will spend a night because the best animal activity is in the few hours after dawn or before dusk. Stay at the seven-room Caba¤as Armon¡a (2765-471, mindo_mundo@hotmail.com), where rooms with shared baths are $6 per person, or $12 in cabins with private baths, including breakfast. Two of the owners, Efra¡n Toapanta and Hugolino O¤ate, are trained local guides and arrange (multilingual) guiding for $12 per day for small groups (fortunately, even the Spanish-speaking guides know the birds' names in English).

Your trip is over, bar the final shopping spree. The Otavale¤o Indians have that covered. The men's signature calf-length white trousers and black ponytail, and the women's embroidered white blouses and golden, blown-glass bead necklaces, are recognized the world over. The crafts market here is the most successful on the continent. It's a two-hour ($1.60) ride from Quito, but many visitors elect to stay overnight in one of dozens of lodgings. Recommended are the quiet, family-run Residencial El Roc¡o (Calle Morales 11-70, 6920-584), where rooms are $3 per person with shared hot baths, the century-old Riviera Sucre (Calle Garc¡a Moreno 3-80, 6920-241), with a flower-filled courtyard surrounded by units with shared and private bath at $5.60 and $9 per person, or the Indian-run Hotel El Indio (Calle Sucre 12-14, 6920-060), with modern rooms at $10 per person and one of Otavalo's most authentic restaurants.

Saturday is Otavalo's main market day, when streets around Poncho Plaza are clogged. Check out the food and animal markets as well, and wander down to the main plaza dominated by a huge bust of Rumi¤ahui (the Inca general who razed Quito). The proud Otavale¤os were horrified by a recent suggestion that he be replaced by Simon Bolivar!

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Carl Sandburg was wrong. Chicago is less the City of Big Shoulders than the City of Big Appetites. In our search for "Little Wonder Restaurants" charging less than $12 for a full-scale meal, we've encountered larger servings in Chicago - more copious sauces and sides, bigger mountains of meat, higher stacks of rolls and loaves - than in any other U.S. city we've surveyed. In Chicago, eating cheap doesn't mean eating lean or meagerly. It means tucking in to vast platters that crash through calorie limits and leave you near-catatonic at the end of the second course. Here are nine enthusiastic recommendations, of which five are old standbys that have fed frugal Chicagoans for at least two generations. The Berghoff 17 West Adams St., 312/427-3170. From just $10.95 for a taste of history (and some of the best German food in the Midwest) Where else could we begin this eating tour but at The Berghoff, in the heart of the Loop and a Chicago institution since 1898? An oversize beer hall, it survived prohibition (and nabbed the very first liquor license when the ban was lifted), and has wursted and knocked the masses with elan ever since. While dinner will take you a buck or two over our usual limit, lunch is still a budget treat, easily coming in at under a dozen dollars. To get the full experience, stick with the classic Teutonic dishes on the menu: savory sauerbraten ($9.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner); the famous Wiener schnitzel, as long as your forearm and served with the equally famous electric-green creamed spinach ($10.25/$11.95); Rahm schnitzel, a breaded pork cutlet ($9.50/ $10.95); or any of the sausage dishes. A starter soup is just $2 per cup, or try the classic Caesar salad ($3.50). Whatever you consume (and many "hop" by just for a stein of the house brew), having a meal in this turn-of-the-century gem with its stained-glass windows, dark wood paneling, original brass chandeliers, and stand-up bar is an experience in itself. Closed Sundays. The Parthenon 314 South Halsted St., 312/726-2407. A Greektown delight with soup and entree for as little as $6.65 At a good Greek restaurant, a meal is never just a meal. It's a celebration with jaunty music in the background and waiters bellowing "Opa!" as the plates of flaming cheese sail by. The owners of this Greektown culinary institution are not only throwing one of the best nightly parties in town, they claim to have invented (back in 1968) the "flaming saganaki" presentation that's become a dramatic standard in Greek eateries across the nation. Whether or not that's true, the waiters pull it off with aplomb, lighting the platters with a flourish and bearing the plate-size infernos like Olympic torches across the crowded dining rooms. But who cares about pyrotechnics? It's the food that counts, and The Parthenon delivers-and then some. Here I've enjoyed some of the tastiest Greek food in my not-so-young life. The best of bechamels, topping every helping of those wonderful Mediterranean casseroles, moussaka ($5.75 small portion, $8.50 monster-size), and pastitsio ($5.25/$8.25). Moist and flavorful lamb ($11.25), which you'll see roasting on a spit as you enter. Flaky spinach and cheese pies ($4.50), exquisitely tart egg-lemon soup ($1.75 cup), and exceedingly tender octopus in white wine sauce ($6.75). The eggplant dishes require special praise. The Parthenon's chefs have tamed the tricky aubergine, turning what can be a tough and seedy vegetable into the most melting of treats. Try the eggplant spread ($3.75), the baked stuffed eggplant ($8.50), or the melitzanopita ($8.50), which is cheese and eggplant encased in phyllo. All are delish. While The Parthenon is not the most up-to-date of the restaurants in the area (most now look like the Greek Isles as imagined by a Pottery Barn exec), it's a colorful, oversize place with fun, hokey murals (blue seas, men in togas) and the kind of old-fashioned hospitality that can't be faked. Open daily. It's a bit out of the way, unfortunately, so drive or cab it. Andalous 3307 North Clark St., 773/281-6885. Marvelous Moroccan meals at a bit over $10 Some restaurants strive to be exotic, others simply are. Andalous falls into the latter category, seemingly plucked off a St. in Marrakesh and plopped down one long pitch from Wrigley Field. There are few accommodations to American tastes here. The lamb is adamantly bone-in, and it's a big bone at that. The couscous is laden with ungainly slabs of vegetables. The owner's one-year-old periodically scoots through the spare dining room on a little play car, followed by her smiling, kerchiefed mother. But are we complaining? Of course not. This restaurant is a delight, with food that's unfailingly pleasing. Try the lemony harira ($2.25) or the thick, garlicky lentil soup ($2.25) to begin. Then make your choice from the many kebabs, couscous, bastillas, and tagines. We particularly like the lamb tagine ($9.99) with prunes and the chicken tagine doused in lemon confi (pickled rind), for $9.50. If you have room left, spring for any of the nutty, honeyed pastries, just $1.25 each. Lunches and dinners all week; take the El to Belmont. Foodlife 835 North Michigan Ave., 312/335-3663. Right in the heart of the Magnificent Mile, an abundance of options for as little as $8.15 for two courses We don't normally recommend food-court dining, but a phenomenon called Foodlife is so imaginatively executed, so well located, and most importantly, so well priced, that I'd be remiss not to mention it. Mimicking a charming town square, down to the cobblestone floors and arbors strung with fake grapevines, the ambience is much gentler than that of your local mall. A host greets you at the gate and then seats you at a table after first giving you an "eat the world" credit card that allows you to go from kiosk to kiosk, charging your food (you pay as you exit). Then you get up and wander through this "global village," choosing barbecue chicken ($6.95) from the "Kickin' Chicken and BBQ" area, or the jambalaya ($5.95) at "Creole King," a bottomless bowl of Italian wedding soup ($5.50, or $2.20 for a cup) at "Souplife," a brownie sundae ($3.25) from "Sweetlife." We could go on. While we can't pretend to have tried everything available (that would up us a dress size), the grub we grabbed was all quite tasty, high-quality stuff. Open seven days. Heaven on Seven 3478 North Clark St., 773/477-7818; 111 North Wabash Ave., 7th floor, 312/263-6443; and 600 North Michigan Ave., 312/280-7774 Almost as fun as baring your breasts on Bourbon St., this New Orleans-style eatery is cheap: from $7.95 for soup or salad and entree. It's Mardi Gras every day at Heaven on Seven, which celebrates the New Orleans version of that holiday in all its tacky glory. The restaurant is festooned with carnival beads (the drinks are too!), there are masks everywhere, and a museum-worthy collection of hot sauces graces one wall as you enter. Tables are loaded up as well - we counted a full 25 hot sauces at our four-top. But don't overdo it with the sauces, since much of the food already packs a fiery punch, as it should. This is real, down-home Cajun cooking, bravely spiced and as flavorful as anything you'd find in the bayou. All the standards plus a few unusual picks are here: jambalaya ($9.95), red beans and rice with andouille sausage ($8.95), a creamy cheese grits and shrimp platter ($10.95), southern-fried chicken ($9.95). All entrees come with your choice of soup, gumbo, or salad. By the way, this is a great place to take kids. They'll love the decor and music, and there's a special children's menu ($4.95) for blander palates. Open daily (Wabash location closed Sundays). Hi Ricky 941 West Randolph St., 312/491-9100; 1852 West North Ave., 773/276-8300; and 3730 North Southport Ave., 773/388-0000. Noodles and starters from just $9.90 Somehow the humble noodle has become a vehicle for high-concept cooking, as sleek au courant eateries have popped up in cities across the country. One of the smartest is the cheerfully named Hi Ricky, which mixes things up a tad by introducing a slew of fab satays into the mix. These meats-on-a-stick are a great way to start your meal and affordable, too, at just $3.95 to $6.25 per trio of skewers (there's shrimp and tofu, too). If you're not a big carnivore, the salad ($2.95) is a distinct treat, garnished with crispy noodles and dressed in a succulent sesame vinaigrette. Then move on to the pasta, which ranges from fiery, cabbage-laden Indonesian bakmi goreng ($7.45) to curried thin Singapore noodles ($7.45) to the pad Thai classic ($6.95). You do your noodle-slurping in some stylin' settings, by the by. Hi Ricky has that "industrial with just the right splashes of color" look down. There are terrific photos of Asia on the walls (in corrugated tin frames, of course), and the background music is tres alternative. Open daily. Pizzeria Uno 29 East Ohio St., at the corner of Wabash Ave., 312/321-1000. Soup or salad and the thickest pizza ever, from $6.98. he pizza joint that inspired the chain. If only its namesakes in other burgs were as good! Forget about fast food! "The pizzas we make are all done from scratch, so they take about an hour to cook," the host at the door explains to somewhat stunned patrons. "I'd suggest you order now." And with that he hands you the menu, and you choose your toppings, as quickly as you can. Then you take a seat, ordering the simple but fresh salad ($2.95), zippy wings ($4.99), or the thick minestrone called Florence's soup ($2.69) in honor of the founder's wife. And you wait. And wait. And wait. Is it worth it? Assolutamente. More "pie" than "pizza," the densely layered concoction that arrives at your table is certainly more interesting texturally than your average thin pizza. The massive crust is crispy on the edges, soft and doughy towards the center. It's topped with just the right amount of sauce and an extra-gooey layer of cheese. If you order meat, it's nicely peppery. If your choice is vegetables, they arrive still crisp atop the pie. But don't over-order. Remember, these pizzas have girth - a medium can easily feed a family of four. And that's just what founder Ike Sewell planned when he created the "bigger is always better," Americanized version of the Italian classic in 1943. Yes, this is where Chicago-style pizza was invented, so eating in this old-fashioned joint, with its pressed-tin ceiling and down-at-the-heel charm, is as much a pilgrimage as a meal. Open seven days a week, an easy walk from Michigan Ave.. La Creperie, 2845 North Clark St., 773/528-9050. Fattening French food (ah, don't we love it?!), two million calories, and a swell time for a mere $9.50. La Creperie inspires a fierce loyalty among Chicagoans. As I recently stood outside, scribbling notes about the look and menu, three passers-by stopped to encourage me to go in. "The best crepes in the city," one told me, and I had to wonder how much competition there was. No matter, this remains one of the top buys, an oh-so-Parisian little joint, redolent of frying butter and decorated with colorful, if faded, travel posters. You might think of crepes as a light in-between-meals snack. Not here. These are crepes to tickle a trucker, dinner-plate-size and plumped with heavy if savory fillings: coq au vin ($7.25), boeuf bourguignon ($7.25), spinach creme ($6.50), ham or cheese ($5.50), egg ($5.50), broccoli with cheese ($6.50). You can start with soup ($2.25) or salad ($4.25), or finish with a dessert crepe (from $3.50), but we doubt you'll be able to do all three. Portions are midwestern (read: big) and addictive - you won't put your fork down until the plate is clean. Closed Mondays. Ann Sather, 929 West Belmont Ave., 773/348-2378. As little as $9.95 for a Swedish feast 'Tis a gift to be simple, according to the old Shaker hymn, and our final pick has that gift in spades, serving food that is proudly simple but far from plain. A Second City fave since 1945, this was once one of many Scandinavian restaurants on Belmont. As demographics shifted, so did tastes, and Ann Sather is the last buffalo, overlooking an urban meadow of funky shoe stores, tiny theaters, and crowds making the trek to nearby Wrigley Field. It still has a sedate Scandinavian look with "Rosemaling" murals on the walls (those swoopy, whimsical paintings you see across Sweden and Norway), a dignified portrait of founder Sather above the fireplace, and upgraded diner banquettes throughout the two large rooms. While the restaurant serves a wide range of American fare, we'd suggest you stick to the Scandinavian specials, all of which come with a starter and two side dishes. We like the Swedish fruit soup, although it is an acquired taste, a peachy concoction filled with massive chunks of mystery fruit (the composition changes daily, but expect prunes, apricots, figs, dates, or kumquats); also good is the pickled herring. For the meat of the meal, choose...well, meat. The Swedish meatballs ($9.95) are a treat, lighter than you've ever tasted and subtly nutmeg-scented. Roast duck with lingonberry glaze ($10.50) is another champ, as is the surprisingly delicate potato sausage ($10.50). Open seven days; take the El to Belmont.

Can Americans Benefit from the Airfare "Bucket Shops" of Britain?

The "bucket shop" was born in Britain. And though the name for these once-shady, now-thoroughly-legal airfare discounters has grown respectable over the years (most are known today as airfare "consolidators" or "brokers"), they're still pulling off eerie and unsettling feats of low pricing from London to remote destinations throughout the world. A knowledge of how to find the British "bucket shop" is a mighty weapon in the arsenal of budget travel. (Note: The phone numbers in this article are written for dialing within the U.K. When dialing from North America, use the prefix 011-44 and drop the first zero from all of the numbers listed below.) Dropping into the buckets A similar matchmaking resource, cheapflights.com, is Web-only and has been running since 1996. Its site lists 290 British sellers (again, paid subscribers) and some current sample prices. On a recent visit to London, I found the rates were not always available when I called the listed companies, but they were usually close. From company to company, the prices I found through both services were similar. After all, the vendors know they're being stacked against one another. To join both, companies must be bonded, which means they're insured should your chosen air carrier go belly-up. In Britain, only unbonded sellers are today called "bucket shops," while insured ones are known by the loftier "consolidator" (call a consolidator a "bucket shop" and you'll receive a flinty glare). Since, generally speaking, there's no price difference between the two (and they jockey for the same customers), go with a bonded one. Also consider paying with a credit card, despite the 2-to-5-percent surcharge. Should trouble arise, you won't find yourself struggling to get a refund from the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean. You can also find a handful of consolidators through their ads. To-the-minute specials can be found in the major London newspapers, especially the daily travel pages in the Evening Standard (about 50 [cents]), or the weekly magazines Time Out (about $2.50) and TNT (free at most hostels). Once you have your list of contenders, it's time to shop for prices. Bargains, pound for pound First of all, pick your dream destination from London. Because of enduring links to the "mother country," places as far-flung as Sydney, New Delhi, and Johannesburg still do a great deal of culture-sharing with Great Britain, as family members and workers shuttle between them. With London's five bustling airports (Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, City, and Heathrow, the busiest in Europe), lots of seats are flying, so lots of seats need to be sold, and it's easy to hook a bargain you'd never find in the United States. Of course, to make this method work, you must get to London cheaply, too. Aside from the usual airline sales, try an American discounter (consolidator); three big ones are Travac (800/872-8800, thetravelsite.com), Cheap Tickets, (888/922-8849, cheaptickets.com), and TFI Tours (800/745-8000, lowestairprice.com). All three companies have round-trip winter departures selling at $275-$450 from most parts of America in the low season of November to March, and high-season seats for around $600 in summer. In order to secure the best last-minute flights, be prepared to stay at least five to ten days in London. Better yet, use an air/hotel package to London, which will fly you there round-trip and give you a bed while you look for those treasured onward ticket steals. With go-today.com, you'll spend as little as $399 per person in winter (November through March), $599 in shoulder months (April/May, September/October), $749 in peak summer, and $150 more from the West Coast, for round-trip airfare plus six nights' hotel. You can usually delay your homeward flight for up to three months-ample time to find a bargain and take a meaty trip-within-a-trip. While you're speaking to the American consolidators, get prices to your final exotic destination as well. That way, you can compare the fares from your home airport in the U.S. with the London-airport prices through ATAB or Cheapflights. If the two prices (once you add transportation to England) are close, then you don't need to visit the British bucket shops -- unless you really want to break your journey with a stay in London. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, some destinations are more cheaply reached from the U.S. -- it depends on your home airport. Thus, because of their proximity, South America and the South Pacific are always cheaper from your own doorstep than from London. Everywhere else is in a grey area. Because of strong ties to North America, much of East Asia (including Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Seoul) can often be had for $600-$800 round-trip from our West Coast -- although last-minute British bargains occasionally beat that. Australia can be a better buy from the U.S. West Coast, but East Coasters will usually benefit from a London departure. Despite those general advantages, no matter where you live and no matter what the destination, you can (and should) do a little price research online before flying across the Atlantic Ocean to visit the bucket shops of Britain. For many destinations, the best deals await in London. Big deals under Big Ben The same tickets would have cost me $1,244 and $1,300, respectively, from the East Coast during the same period. So even with the added $400 I spent on my trip to London, I would have saved $125-$327 getting to South Africa or Australia. And I would have broken my journey with a stay in one of the world's most fascinating cities -- London. Or how about this: an eleventh-hour fare from a British bucket shop to New Delhi, India, was [British Pound] 299 ($430). From New York, flights to New Delhi can cost over $1,200, so I would have saved about $400 using the London method. There are dozens upon dozens of London consolidators, but for the record, I got those prices at Just the Ticket (28 Margaret St., 020/7291-8111, justtheticket.co.uk), Trailfinders (1 Threadneedle St., 020/7628-7628, trailfinders.com), Lupus Travel (189 Regent St., 0870/830-8158, lupustravel.com), and Benz Travel (83 Mortimer St., 020/7462-0011, benztravel.co.uk). The London method isn't just for long-haul flights. Five cheapo London-flying airlines sell popular European destinations for under $100 round-trip (such as Ryanair, Go, Buzz, easyJet, and Virgin Express), far less than flights of comparable length in the U.S. The lowest prices appear months earlier, so book those from home, quickly and for free, on the Web. Then hop to London to catch your dirt-cheap flight on these Euro "upstarts." Booking three months ahead, I was able to buy a round-trip seat from London to Athens for a mere [British Pound] 44 ($63). Even if I spent $350 to get to London, the total would still be a few hundred dollars less than the $550-$650 spent getting to Greece from America in the winter -- and I'd get six nights in London to boot. Last-minute package tours are also fair game. Using Cheapflights.com, I found unsold seven-night vacations from London to Marbella, Spain, including airfare, hotel, and rental car, for $444 in the middle of December (from Airline Network, 0870/241-0011, netflights.com). I also had my pick of cheap European weekend getaways, such as two nights at an Amsterdam B&B, including airfare, for $228 from Travelscene (020/8424-9648, travelscene.co.uk). A few vendors also specialize in last-minute charter flights, mostly to Mediterranean destinations favored by pasty British holidaymakers. One of the best-known is Charter Flight Centre (19 Denbigh St., 020/7828-1090, charterflights.co.uk), near Victoria, which profits in seats the big travel packagers can't fill. I found one-way prices like [British Pound] 59 ($85) to Faro, Portugal, and [British Pound] 69 ($99) to Malta. British truth-in-advertising laws are quite strict, so if you spot a very low fare - I saw Sydney return for [British Pound] 385 ($553) from GM Tours (020/8686-8486) -- rest assured it isn't for sometime in 2006. You can buy it, traipse around Europe for a week or two, and come back to England for your long-haul flight. Consolidators exist in other European hubs, but English-speaking London is the cheapest to reach and easiest to navigate. But you've gotta be ready to leave at the drop of a bowler hat.

Budget Lodgings at Spiritual Centers

Though they are normally pictured as Gothic castles on rural hills, America's spiritual centers (with in-house accommodations) are also found smack-dab in the center of some of our biggest and most heavily visited cities. And there they provide some of the most suitable budget lodgings in all the nation for travelers in search of both frugality and propriety. Here, if you'll excuse the alliteration, is cost-conscious comfort in contemplative surroundings. New York City Even the most enthusiastic tourists can find New York's high pressure a bit daunting. Here, by contrast, is serenity - on a budget. The Leo House (332 W. 23rd St., 212/929-1010, fax 212/366-6801) was already a 100-year-long mainstay when its surrounding Chelsea district recently became a trendy center of chic restaurants, art galleries, nightspots, and the performing arts (don't miss the Joyce dance theater). Self-styled as "A Heart in New York," it has a wood-paneled breakfast room that today is filled with multilingual chatter as guests enjoy a $6 buffet, complete with home-baked breads. The emphasis here is on the quiet and clean. But it has all the creature comforts you'd want, including cable television and telephones, although in compact rooms. Some units have private baths; others share a shower, but all have a sink and toilet. Singles start at $62 and doubles at $70, with a few larger rooms for families. St. Hilda's House (621 W. 113th St., 212/932-8098, ext. 345, outpourings@chssisters.org) is a big leap uptown, just steps from Riverside Church and the giant Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (a don't-miss sightseeing attraction). It is a retreat house of the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit, consisting of three converted brownstones in which neat single rooms rent from $65 a night (there are three doubles, which cost $130 a night), and most guests share a bathroom. The nuns center their lives around daily prayer services, and anyone who spends the night is invited to join them. Landmark Guest Rooms (3041 Broadway, 212/280-1313, tcabrera@uts.colum bia.edu) of the Union Theological Seminary near the Upper West Side's Columbia University, with its English Gothic architecture and tree-filled quad, is like a time machine transporting you to the past. And yet its recently redecorated rooms all have air-conditioning, cable television, a mini-fridge, and private bath. With continental breakfast included, single rooms start at $150, making this one of the priciest of our properties. The House of the Redeemer (7 E. 95th St., 212/289-0399, fax 212/410-7899, info@redeem.org), on the elegant Upper East Side of Manhattan near Museum Mile (Metropolitan, Guggenheim, Frick), is a retreat where guests in the third- and fourth-floor rooms sleep under the same roof that once housed Edith Shepard Fabbri, Cornelius Vanderbilt's great-granddaughter. Ms. Fabbri donated the house to be used as "a place apart," and it's often filled with quiet groups. When it's not, others can enjoy its splendid fifteenth-century Italian library and newly redesigned chapel that overlooks Central Park. Rooms in this peaceful bit of paradise start at $60 for a single with a shared bath. Chicago Carl Sandburg called Chicago "Hog Butcher," "Tool Maker," and "Stacker of Wheat," but obviously he never stayed at one of the city's ultragenteel guesthouses. Urban Meditation Retreat Center (1710 W. Cornelia Ave., 773/528-8685, fax 773/528-9909, buddha@enteract. com) is a quiet beacon for those with busy lives, particularly blessed by its pleasant sunroom and open deck devoted to restful reflection. At this Zen Buddhist temple, visitors attend early morning meditation and stay on the fourth floor, which has been fitted out with single or dormitory-style rooms with access to kitchen facilities. Located only 15 minutes from downtown by bus or elevated train, it attracts young professionals with accommodations priced at only $45 a night. Imani House (1340 E. 72nd St., 773/643-0359), whose name means "faith" in Swahili, is a rambling building that over the years has served as both a Catholic rectory and a convent, and is now a lodgings place for transient visitors when people on formal retreats are not in residence. Up to 35 guests can choose rooms that range from singles to triples, and the kitchen, dining room, and sitting rooms make it feel like home. Somewhat off the beaten track, this South Shore facility varies prices to match group size and season, but in general the charge is $15 per person per night. Bethlehem House (1125 North La Salle Blvd., 312/642-3638) is next door to the Convent of St. Anne, in the heart of Chicago, and both buildings date from the late nineteenth century. The guesthouse, which once served as a butler's residence, has five single rooms with a shared bath. Its quiet convenience costs just $25 a night. Benedictine Bed and Breakfast (3111 S. Aberdeen St., 888/539-4261, fax 773/927-5734, porter@chicagomonk.org) is a two-bedroom loft apartment operated by monks dedicated to their order's long tradition of caring for travelers. They offer far more than the usual B&B amenities, including a dataport in each bedroom, a fax machine, and secure, off-street parking. With a complete kitchen, dining area, and study, there's plenty of space for up to four guests. Rates range from $145 to $185 per night with breakfast treats such as pineapple topped with Wisconsin maple syrup, delivered to the door with a morning newspaper. It's even possible to make reservations via their Web site at www.chicagomonk.org. San Francisco It's been a long time since San Francisco was founded by Spanish missionaries (as Yerba Buena, on the Bay of San Francisco), but there are still open doors for those seeking a spiritual connection in the "City by the Bay." San Damiano Friary (573 Dolores St., 415/861-1372, fax 415/861-7952) is just two blocks from the historic Mission San Francisco de Assisi, the city's oldest structure. Both it and its neighbor, St. Francis House (see below), are run by orders associated with the city's namesake. Visitors to San Damiano stay in simple single rooms with a shared bath, for a self-determined donation. Despite the brothers' busy schedules, which include work in health care, teaching, and the arts, their hospitality includes sharing their evening meal. St. Francis House (3743 Cesar Chavez St., 415/824-0288, fax 415/826-7569) is also in the area known as the Mission District. The nuns here welcome visitors to a small guest apartment that sleeps three and comes with a complete kitchen. Set off from the street, it also has a garden that is ideal for quiet reflection. The donation is $30 a night. Incarnation Priory (1601 Oxford St., Berkeley, 510/548-3406, ohcmonks@ohcmonks.org.), just a 20-minute ride on the BART train system from San Francisco proper, is a short walk up the hill from the BART station and right on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus, near coffee bars and bookstores. Don't be put off by the apartment-house exterior; this is a real Anglican priory with a complete guest apartment (housing as many as four) on the second floor. The priory asks $40 per night for the entire apartment. Incarnation Monastery (1369 La Loma Ave., Berkeley, 510/548-0965) will require a bus or taxi, but it's well worth the trip. The monastery is built on the side of a hill with a sweeping view that includes the Golden Gate Bridge and the mountains beyond. The $45-per-night guest rooms share bathrooms, but breakfast is included. And the splendor of the setting is enhanced by the stillness of the monastery. The San Francisco Zen Center (300 Page St., 415/863-3136, ccoffice@sfzc.org), just a block from very hip Haight Street, refers to its guest facility simply as the "City Center." Here guests will find single and double rooms, some with private baths, renting from $55 to $93. While those rates do not include meals, vegetarian fare is plentiful and available at the Center for under $8 a big plate. This elegant building was designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan; its impressive courtyard invites introspection and relaxation.


English-speaking and just a tad larger than New Jersey, lush Belize looks like a Caribbean island accidentally washed ashore on the Central American mainland. Its pace is molasses--slow, its populace smiling and easygoing--and its politics not perfect but relatively open and stable. With reggae rhythms, coconut palm-lined beaches, and breathtaking scuba diving (on the world's second-largest barrier reef), it's easy to mistake it for any of the more famous tradewind-kissed island "paradises" out to sea further east. But there's a key difference: Belize has none of the megaresorts, casinos, and sprawling development that have ruined so much of the Caribbean, looking instead to low-key cultural tours and ecotourism. The lack of large, glitzy resorts and hotel chains means an abundance of inexpensive, laid-back mom-and-pop guesthouses, and the low per capita income means an abundance of affordable restaurants and other services. The Belizean dollar is stable and pegged at 50: to the U.S. greenback (no need even to waste commission fees on changing money; almost any tourist establishment will take U.S. dollars and give you change in Belizean dollars at a rate of two to one). For the budget-minded looking for a relatively close and multifaceted tropical vacation with Maya culture to boot, friendly Belize is one of the cheapest places on earth. Why multifaceted? Because there's plenty of life beyond the reef and beaches: Belize's interior is a 65-percent uninhabited wonderland of deep jungle rain forest, exotic native species, and myriad Maya temples. The country's populace is an English-speaking rainbow mix of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, and even German Mennonite, in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbors like Honduras and Guatemala (a mere two decades ago, Belize was British Honduras, one of the last British colonies in the Western Hemisphere). Most visitors opt for "surf-and-turf": a few days of inland adventure (usually in the lush Cayo district), then some R&R on one of the offshore islets called "cayes" (pronounced "keys"). Belize City is mostly for passing through, having little of interest - not to mention a somewhat dicey reputation. Belize was hit by Hurricane Iris in October of 2001, devastating the once popular backpacker beach village of Placencia on the country's southeastern shore. Luckily, the remainder of Belize's verdant and wild beauty was left for the most part unscathed. Your basic costs The most popular way of getting around - for tourists and locals alike - is "puddle jumping" on small aircraft, since Belize is home to only four paved roads (and just four traffic lights, which in any case are usually out of order or simply ignored) and boat rides can be wet and bumpy. Most flights use Belize City as their hub; Tropic Air (26-2012, tropicair.com) and Mayan Island Air (23-1140, ambergriscaye.com/islandair) both operate short flights throughout the country. Round-trip airfare from Belize City to the cayes, for example, costs you $52. Most accommodations in Belize are on the simple side, with ceiling fans and no TVs, but their prices are nothing short of astounding. All offer much cheaper rates in low season (roughly Easter through Thanksgiving - which includes the autumn rain-and-hurricane season). You can try your hand at bargaining hoteliers down below their asking rates in low season, but winter usually means everything is booked up, so planning ahead is crucial. One very special accommodation option is the Maya Homestay Network (72-2470) in the southern Toledo district, where you can stay with a Maya family and learn local cooking and traditions for as little as $5 per person per night (plus a $5 registration fee) and meals for $2 each. The Cayo district: the jungle interior Ultrabudget travelers or those just passing through stay in town - otherwise, most tourists opt for the more comfortable jungle lodges around the area. If you're in San Ignacio, try the cheekily named Hi-Et (12 West St., 92-2828), in an old-fashioned plantation-style building with wraparound porches. Five basic but bright rooms with double beds, shared baths, and fans are located directly above the friendly host family's living room and cost a mere $12.50 per person for a double. Within a short drive of San Ignacio, rain forest lodges are made up of quiet, stand-alone cabins with two double beds and private bath, as well as inexpensive restaurants on the premises. My favorite is the Black Rock River Lodge (92-2341, blackrocklodge.com), ten miles outside San Ignacio and perched on an ancient Maya site within its own steep, dramatic valley of limestone cliffs visible above a rain forest river below the property. Spacious cabanas with shared baths are $25 per person per night, and for $8, John, the friendly manager, will whip you up an American breakfast with unlimited coffee and juice. A little closer to town is Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916). Its simple but comfortable thatched-roof bungalows sit aside the Mopan River, where you can swim and play in inner tubes. Your own private bungalow with bath is $20 per person ($32.50 in winter's high season), and the vivacious host, Chena Galvez, serves a hot and filling breakfast including fruits and local "fried jack" biscuits for only $4.50. For in-town chow, the best-known travelers' tavern in San Ignacio is Eva's Restaurant & Bar (22 Burns Ave., 92-2267), where local characters enjoy the chairs on the sidewalk and a wall of notices announces shared rides and cheap excursions. The food's so-so (entrees from $5) and the service iffy, but the atmosphere's a gem. Another budget traveler favorite is Martha's Kitchen (10 West St., 92-3647), serving up T-bone steaks with veggies and fries for $7.50 and stewed beef or pork with fried plantains for $3.50. Three thousand years ago, Belize was a thriving home to more than one million Maya, and Cayo is where you'll find a good selection of ruins from their great civilization. Two fascinating and popular sites are Cahal Pech and Xunantunich ($2.50 entrance fee each). Cahal Pech was once a royal residence and is perched on a hill right above San Ignacio, while Xunantunich is the country's most visited Maya site, eight miles west of town and accessible via a hand-cranked ferry across a small river, then a milelong road to the site. The panoramic views from the top will make your head spin. San Ignacio is also used as a base to visit the impressive Tikal ruins in neighboring Guatemala, about a two-hour drive away; Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916) offers a full-day trip from San Ignacio for $50 per person (minimum two), including lunch. The area's other great draws include eco-adventures like rain forest horseback riding (typically $40 for a day) and exploring Maya caves filled with ancient pottery ($25 for a three-hour tour). Most of these excursions have standard prices and can be arranged through lodges, except for the extraordinary full-day adventure innertubing through river caves offered by the terrific, deep-jungle Jaguar Paw Resort (888/775-8645, jaguarpaw.com) for $70, including lunch. On the way back from Cayo along the Western Highway to Belize City (between Milepost 29 and 30), stop by the fun Belize Zoo (81-3004). Hilariously clever placards explain the land's unique fauna, and this may be your only chance to see disappearing wildlife like the black howler monkey (with a cry as loud as an elephant's), tapirs, ocelots, crocodiles, scarlet macaws, and rare black jaguars. And it's all for a cool $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for kids. The offshore isles: first, Ambergris Caye Right on the water, the three-story Rubie's Hotel (26-2063, fax 26-2434), at the south end of Barrier Reef Drive, has been a budget anchor of Ambergris for 20 years, offering 24 basic but pleasant double rooms with private baths and fans for $12.50 per person ($15 in high season), including three with shared bath for $7.50 ($10 in high season). A short walk south of "downtown" San Pedro is the Exotic Caye Beach Resort (800/201-9389, belizeisfun.com) with a pool and bar, plus four small hotel doubles for $25 ($35 in winter) as well as large condos featuring balconies, lofts, separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, and full kitchens that rent for $60 per person ($87.50 in winter). Munching out in Ambergris can cost mere pennies: Celi's Deli (26-2014) just next to the San Pedro Holiday Hotel on Barrier Reef Drive, has an amazingly inexpensive menu of take-out food like 58: chicken tacos, 50: beef meat pies, and $1.15 slabs of rum cake; you're welcome to eat them on the hotel's oceanside back terrace. A popular town eatery called Elvi's Kitchen (26-2176) features wooden benches, a smiling waitstaff dressed in bow ties, and a thatched roof built around a tree. Rice, beans, and a quarter of a stewed chicken go for $6.90, while a huge plate of "Maya chicken" (served in banana leaves with fried plantains) is $10. Ambergris Caye is ringed by sandy beaches with so-so swimming (due to lots of sea grass), but the snorkeling and diving on the nearby reefs is extraordinary - with prices that are rock-bottom compared to most you'll find in the Caribbean. For instance, SEArious Adventures (26-2690) zooms you out to both the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley (where you can touch wild stingrays and toothless nurse sharks) for a half-day trip of snorkeling for a mere $20, while various full-day dive trips start at $40 - all including equipment and gear. And then there's Caye Caulker Built on a walkable grid of spacious dirt roads, most of Caye Caulker town lies just south of "the Split," a hurricane-carved channel. Adjoining the Split is a small sandy area where folks enjoy lounging in the bathtub-warm water. Caye Caulker's caught on with the young crowd, but you don't need to stay in a crowded hostel or sleep in a hammock (although the latter can be had for a laughable $5 a night if you ask around). Trends Beachfront Hotel (22-2094, fax 22-2097, cayecaulker.com/trends.htm) is a baby blue and pink two-story hotel with eight comfortable rooms, all with both a double and a queen-size bed, fridge, ceiling fans, and large private baths. Double rates are $20 per person in summer, $30 in winter. Sandy Lane Guesthouse (22-2117) has individual cabanas with private bath, kitchenettes, and funky decor, sleeping three for an amazing $20; shared bungalows go for $7.50 per person. The very pleasant Lazy Iguana Bed and Breakfast (22-2350, lazyiguana.net) presents four tidy rooms in a four-story building in the southern part of the village, including 360-degree views from the roof deck and hammocks, as well as hearty breakfasts cooked by friendly Texan hosts Mo and Irene Miller. Rates are $37.50 per person in summer, $42.50 in winter. Cheap eateries abound in Caye Caulker, but Syd's and Glenda's, both located in the inland part of the village, are where the islanders flock for cheap eats. Syd's is a white, rather spartan-looking affair, but dishes up yummy plates of three garnachas (mini-tostadas) for 50: or lobster burritos for $2 each. Glenda's is in a blue island-style home, with kitschy touches like a hanging beach towel depicting Leonardo's Last Supper. Here, chicken, rice, and beans (the local mainstay) are $3, and locally famous cinnamon rolls, 25: each. Belizey does it In some cases you may save money by opting for independent packages (airfare, transfers, and hotel, but no organized touring). America's top budget-friendly Belize specialist is Capricorn Leisure (800/426-6544, capricorn.net), which offers three nights in Cayo and four nights on Caye Caulker this winter with a three-day car rental and round-trip air from Miami for $708. Tara Tours (800/327-0080, taratours.com), meanwhile, is selling a $658 five-night package at the Spindrift Hotel in Ambergris Caye, including round-trip airfare from Miami. Marnella Tours (866/993-0033, marnellatours.com) has great three-night dive packages (with five dives, while staying at a beach resort) for around $700. A somewhat cheaper but more grueling alternative: Take a charter flight to Cancon, Mexico, from a selection of U.S. cities for about $300 with Apple Vacations (available only through travel agents; applevacations.com) and $400 with Sun Trips (800/357-2400, suntrips.com), then undertake a ten-hour, two-bus road odyssey from Cancon. ADO GL buses (800/702-8000, adogl.com.mx) leave daily from Cancon to Chetumel, Mexico (five to six hours) for $20, with video movies to distract you from the lack of scenery. From Chetumel, you switch to a Novelo's bus (27-7372) at Nuevo Mercado for the four-hour drive to Belize City for $10; the last bus leaves at 5 p.m., so be sure to time it right and secure a safe hotel in Belize City for the night. Get more tourism info at 800/624-0686 or at travelbelize.org, belize.com, belizefirst.com, belize.net, gocayecaulker.com, ambergriscaye.com, and cayecaulker.net.