A Road Trip Down Puerto Rico's La Ruta Panorámica

By Josh Eells
December 22, 2011
1112_Road Trip_Puerto Rico_25
Whitney Tressel
Puerto Rico's rugged 167-mile "scenic route" leads to waterfalls, coffee plantations—and a wild side of the island you won't find at just any old resort.

I'd already stopped to ask the old man for directions twice when he decided to take matters into his own hands. We were in the tiny Puerto Rican town of Castañer, where horses seemed to outnumber people, and I'd spent the past 15 minutes driving around in confused circles. Eventually the old señor took pity on me and climbed into his beat-up Toyota pickup to guide me. "Up there," he said in Spanish, smiling through missing teeth. And after that? He smiled again and angled his arm upward. Sube, sube, sube—climb, climb, climb.

Such is life on La Ruta Panorámica—literally, "the scenic route." The 167-mile byway is Puerto Rico's answer to Route 66: a capillary-like network of back roads spanning the island. Often only a single lane wide, with white-knuckle curves and the kind of minimal signage that makes getting lost a near certainty, it's not for travelers in a hurry. But for anyone with the time and inclination to wander a bit, the Ruta offers an irresistible window into the island's agrarian past.

This is the Puerto Rico you won't find at your classic coastal resort: wild horses trotting along the road, Cliffside barras selling $2 pork sandwiches and 93 cent cans of Medalla beer, nary a Starbucks in sight. To spend a few days puttering along the Ruta, winding from the coffee plantations of the central highlands to the sugarcane fields of the south, is to glimpse an older, quieter Puerto Rico—and all its beauty, frustrations, and charms.




If you can fly into San Juan, you can access the Ruta at its eastern end, in nearby Maunabo, or you can fly into Rincón and begin, as I did, at its western terminus in Mayagúez. It was a bustling Tuesday, hot and full of traffic, but within 15 minutes I was high in the hills, where it was 10 degrees cooler and the only sound was the wind rustling trees. This was the start of the Cordillera Central. Topographically, Puerto Rico is shaped like a stegosaurus and the Cordillera is the plates running along its spine. The going is slow: Speed limits top out around 35 miles per hour, and the switchbacks require constant attention. You know how kids pretend to drive, yanking the steering wheel back and forth in a manner that bears little resemblance to actual driving? Well, that's the way you really do drive on the Ruta.

But going slow is part of the point, because the scenery is too gorgeous to miss: gold-green valleys towering tabonuco trees, bamboo trunks the size of football goalposts, crushed pink flowers carpeting the road like fine powder. Every turn held something stunning, all the way to Utuado, six hours away, where I finally stopped for the night at the Casa Grande Mountain Retreat (Road 612, Barrio Caonillas, Utuado, hotelcasagrande.com, bungalows from $105)—20 bungalows on a 100-year-old coffee plantation, run by an ex-lawyer from Long Island who offers yoga classes along with delicious churrasco steaks. After a long day of driving, the sound of the coquí frogs was the only relaxation I needed as I opened my windows to the mountain air and drifted quickly off to sleep.


Puerto Rico's tropical upland is also the heart of coffee country. Business has declined from its late-19th century heyday, but some small, family-run operations still survive along the Ruta.

My first stop was in nearby Ciales at Museo del Café (42 Calle Palmer, Ciales, 787/871-3439, free espresso), whose proprietor, an avuncular man named Pedro Maldonado, has a trove of records dating back to 1850, when Puerto Rican coffee was the toast of Europe. As he held forth on the island's history, I perused his antique grinders, sipping a cup of the free espresso he pours for every visitor. After that, it was on to Hacienda San Pedro (Jayuya, cafehsp.com), a small coffee farm in Jayuya where a worker named Ernesto gave me an impromptu tour "from bean to bag," trailed by a chocolate Lab named—what else?—Café.

Now that I was sufficiently caffeinated, it was time to burn some energy. Enter Cerro de Punta—at 4,389 feet, the highest peak on the island, near Jayuya. It's a steep 30-minute climb to the top—or a five-minute drive, as I learned from the family who pulled up in a Subaru. Either way it's worth it, as verdant hills spread out to the sea under a deep blue sky. By the time I descended—did I mention it was steep?—I was ready for a dip in nearby Salta de Doña Juana, a 120-foot waterfall. There I found young locals picnicking on sandwiches and beer, and a father and his three teenage sons spear fishing in the crystal-clear pool below.

Just a short drive down Carretera 143, near Jayuya, is Hacienda Pomarrosa (Carr. 511, Esq. Carr. 143, Barrio Anón, Sector Hogares Seguros, near Jayuya, cafepomarrosa.com, doubles from $125), a coffee farm and guesthouse run by German transplant Kurt Legner. We sat in the shade sipping cups of Arabica and snacking on homemade banana bread baked with fruit from the hacienda, interrupted only by the squawk of one of the farm's chickens. Afterward, Legner strolled through the rows of coffee plants—they'd only recently shed their springtime blossoms—pointing out the rose apples that give the hacienda its name and the pine trees he planted to remind him of his home in Düsseldorf. "I miss it sometimes," he said. "But here, it's much better."


The 95-mile section of the Ruta between Hacienda Pomarrosa and the coast is its most scenic stretch, slicing past lookouts where you can see both the Atlantic and Caribbean and skirting the mighty San Cristóbal Canyon. After the halfway point at Aibonito—which literally means "Oh! Beautiful!" (and lives up to it)—the trees open up and the mountain vistas burst into view.

It's a brisk ramble through the misty Bosque Estatal de Carite cloud forest, then the Ruta drops like an elevator, the smell of salt air wafting on the breeze. This is sugarcane country—the humid lowlands where t he sugar industry flourished for centuries, until prices dropped in the 1940s. The ghosts of the past still live on in Yabucoa, where the towering husk of the Central Roig sugar mill stands like a monument. One of the last working mills in Puerto Rico, before it closed in 2000, Central has been overtaken by groves of wild banana and papaya trees. Squint a little, though, and you can see what it must have looked like, before the tourists and hotels.

After Yabucoa, the Ruta comes to a sudden end near Maunabo. I took a sunset dip in the bay, then zoomed up the six-lane expressway toward San Juan, which, after the past three days, felt like traveling at warp speed. I sat outside a bar in Old San Juan and watched the revelers near the Plaza de Colón—crowds of young people, perhaps the grandchildren of those same old factory workers or hacendados, sipping café con leche or tumblers of rum. It felt like now I knew a little about where they came from.

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6 Things You Need to Know About Getting Medical Care Abroad

If you wouldn't drink the water in some foreign countries, why would you consider going overseas for a risky procedure—with a doctor you've never even met?First of all, we're not talking backroom surgery here. More than 400 health-care organizations in 47 countries are accredited by the international division of the Joint Commission, the same nonprofit that accredits U.S. health-care facilities. In addition, many top American programs have aligned with international clinics: Harvard Medical School Dubai Center is a prime example. In general, it isn't all that hard to find a doctor overseas who follows U.S. standards, and if you'd prefer, who was trained at a medical school in the U.S. It still seems like a risk. So why do it?The savings can be staggering. Prices obviously vary widely by country and procedure, but according to the nonprofit Medical Tourism Association, or MTA (medicaltourismassociation.com), you can save anywhere between 20 to 80 percent of the cost you would otherwise incur in the U.S. For instance, the price of LASIK surgery in America for both eyes averages $4,400 total. In Costa Rica, on the other hand, it's just $1,800; India, $500; and Malaysia, $477.* Will my insurance still pay for medical work done overseas?Elective procedures aren't typically covered anyway, so that doesn't change. But some corporations are starting to encourage their employees to go abroad for surgeries that are covered by insurance because it saves them money. Many large companies are actually self-insured except for the most catastrophic medical costs; they typically pay the first several thousand dollars of an employee's claim, with the insurance provider picking up the rest. It's obviously very much to the company's advantage if its employee gets his heart bypass done in, say, India, where it costs an average of $5,200, rather than in the U.S., where it runs $144,000. "The company sometimes pays for air travel for the patient and a companion," says David Boucher, the president of Companion Global Healthcare (companionglobalhealthcare.com), which is a subsidiary of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and works with companies and individuals to set up medical-tourism trips. "Some will share the savings of the procedure with the patient, too." Case in point: Boucher says that the Blue Lake Casino in California actually gives its employees 10 percent of the savings as an incentive to travel abroad for treatment. So if an employee needs a $50,000 hip replacement, for example, then by going to Thailand, where the cost is only $7,879, he would not only have his deductible fee waived, but he'd also get to pocket $4,212—or 10 percent of the $42,121 saved. But for surgeries that aren't covered by insurance, the savings all belong to the patient, right?Yes, and that's why cosmetic, dental, bariatric (obesity), and orthopedic surgeries are the most commonly performed overseas, according to Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the MTA. People are traveling for pricey checkup procedures, too: In Mexico, for instance, a colonoscopy not covered by insurance would cost just $800, versus $3,080 in the U.S. There's also a fringe benefit to overseas health care: the trip itself. Say that you need dental implants on four teeth. If you stay home to get them, the approximate cost is $2,800 per tooth, and you'll likely spend your two-day recovery slumped on the couch watching TV. In Costa Rica-one of the most popular overseas destinations for dental work-the implants cost just $900 per tooth. You can fly to San José, have the procedure, rest up in a hotel, and then head off on a weeklong cruise to spot monkeys and see the jungle. Even after the cost of a cruise (from $2,399 for seven days, windstarcruises.com), the flight (about $500), three nights' stay in a hotel in San José (about $400 altogether), and the surgery ($3,600)-a total cost of $6,899-that still beats paying $11,200 for the procedure in the U.S. and hanging in your living room watching reruns. How do you plan a trip like this? Can you do it on your own, or are there tours for this kind of "vacation," too? Are you going to call your travel agent and say, "Book me a nose job"? Not likely. But if you are an experienced traveler and know exactly where you want to go, DIY is an option. "Some hospitals have international-patient coordinators," Stephano says. "You can call the facility, get options, and organize the trip on your own." That said, if there was ever a time to enlist the help of a professional, arranging for surgery in a foreign country is definitely it. The MTA website lists 33 medical-travel facilitators—also known as brokers, agents, or concierges—based in the U.S. and abroad who specialize in setting up medical trips overseas. They can help you pick the best place to go for your procedure, contact the doctor and hospital, get a price proposal, transfer your medical records, arrange for visas, even set up transportation, hotels, and an escort, if you need them. Their expertise will cost you—Companion Global Healthcare, for example, charges a flat fee of $700—but the peace of mind may be worth it. Whether you go on your own or use a facilitator, it's particularly important to check the credentials of the surgeon yourself: Ask about her record with the type of surgery you're considering; check her ability to explain things in English (on a phone call or via Skype); and get a clear understanding of the services, risks, and expectations. It's also a good idea to contact some of her former patients for testimonials and—in the case of cosmetic surgery—before and after photos. What about recovery and follow-up care? Well, you won't be able to go river rafting after getting a knee replacement, and your doctor will likely forbid both sun exposure and alcohol after cosmetic procedures. But that doesn't mean you can't relax at a resort or on a cruise ship. The length of your flight is something else to consider. Surgery increases the risk of blood clots, which can be dangerous on flights over four hours long. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons advises people to wait at least seven days after surgery before flying. It's particularly important to see your doctor at home before you get on the plane, both to make sure you're fit for the trip and to inform him that you're undergoing treatment. You don't want to be in a situation where you arrive home and have to confess: "Guess what, Doc?!"   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: World's Prettiest Castle Towns Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012 America's Best Food Regions 5 European Countries Where Prices Have Decreased the Most Weirdest Hotels of All-Time

6 Graceful Strategies for Dealing With an Annoying Seatmate

You've got a fresh copy of the new John Grisham novel, an issue of Budget Travel, and a plum spot—exit row, aisle seat—for your six-hour flight to California. Best of all, you've just shut off your cell phone and are officially out of reach. But before you can even switch on your overhead light and take a cursory glance through the SkyMall catalog, you hear the dreaded question: "So do you live in San Francisco? Or just visiting?"For many travelers, a chatty-Cathy seatmate is the kiss of death. So what are some subtle, effective ways to fend off conversation when you want to commute in peace? We asked body-language expert Joe Navarro—former FBI agent and author of Louder Than Words and What Every Body Is Saying—for some surefire tips. 1. Avoid Eye Contact From the Start Looking someone in the eye is a great way to foster communication, bonding—even flirting. And that's exactly why you should steer clear of it if you want to be left alone. "As soon as you make eye contact, it's like a license to make conversation," Navarro says. But, he continues, "I do a lot of traveling, and I'll tell you, there are a lot of people who just don't get it."Why is it so hard for someone to take a hint? "People seek the comfort and company of others when they're anxious," explains Maureen Erber, a social psychology professor at Northeastern Illinois University. "So one reason people may insist upon connecting with their seatmates, in spite of signals to the contrary, may be anxiety." Plus, Navarro adds, "There are those who talk just because it's the social thing to do." 2. Turn Slightly Away From the Person "I have a saying about this: 'Belly away, don't want you to stay,'" Navarro says. "It's actually called ventral (versus dorsal) denial. You rotate so [your seatmate] sees more of your shoulder."Practically turning your back on someone should work with most seatmates, Navarro notes, since it's a trick that's elementary: "Children at a very young age learn to turn their belly away when they don't want to engage." 3. Have an Object That You're Focusing on Make it clear that your attentions are elsewhere, Navarro suggests—whether it's a book or a smartphone or listening to music on your headphones. "Or do some writing," he says. Still, he's quick to warn, "You'll still have people who will try to engage.""While we think that a behavior such as reading a book clearly sends a sign to others, it might not be immediately perceived that way," notes Greg Willard, a social psychologist and research associate at Harvard University's department of psychology. It's helpful in these situations, he says, to try to understand that the person is most likely not being rude—just a bit thickheaded. 4. Close Your Eyes and Lean Back If all other nonverbal cues are failing, Navarro says, "Just close your eyes and lean back, as if you're trying to get some rest." And, hey, maybe you'll actually drift off while you're at it. The bottom line with Navarro's suggestions, he says, is this: Are your nonverbal cues being read in the way you want them to be?"People do not always notice the things that we think they've noticed," Willard points out. 5. Answer a "Hello" With a Polite Smile Only You can respond to a direct greeting, Navarro says, but not with a "hello" or in any other verbal way. In fact, he advises, you shouldn't even nod, which is an invitation to engage. Just flash a polite (not toothy) grin, and then immediately get back to something—anything—that keeps your attention away from the seatmate.However, Willard adds, "When it comes to the distinction between rejection and ostracism (being ignored completely), research finds that ostracism can hurt in even more profound ways." To really make yourself understood, he suggests, "it is best to [tell someone directly] if you do not want to talk." 6. Give Curt Answers If your previous signals fail and your seatmate insists on talking, just be sure to give very curt, short answers. Navarro says, "That indicates: 'I don't want to get involved in conversation.'""People generally do not deal well with ambiguity," Willard continues, so instead, be direct and explain that you need to stop talking because, for example, you have to get some reading done. Usually, Willard says, "Any reason whatsoever will do." What If You WANT to Engage in Conversation? For every person who doesn't want to chat up a fellow flier, there is someone who does. "Once I sat next to an archaeologist, and we had the most fascinating conversation," gushed one Budget Travel reader. Another said: "It's my favorite part of traveling. We share this world, why not enjoy it together?" Rather than dive right in—for the reasons we've mentioned above—it's best to give signals that you are open to communicating and then look for positive responses, Navarro suggests."The best way to engage is to say "hello" and arch your eyebrows or flash your eyes, which communicates, subconsciously, that you are genuinely interested, or that you care," he says. "Even babies recognize this." Tilting your head to the side, he adds, also conveys your interest. And then? Simply follow up with the surefire, "So do you live in San Francisco? Or just visiting?"

Top Travel News of 2011

For travelers, 2011 was the year of the shake-up. Old certainties were challenged; former ways of doing things, rethought. Travelers saw Southwest merge with AirTran. Deal-a-day site Groupon gave online travel agencies their first serious competition in ages. The year's other online travel sensation, Airbnb—a site that offers lodging in people's homes—dealt with news that one renter had trashed and robbed a site member's home, renewing questions about the kindness of strangers. Looking abroad, the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East shifted travel patterns—most dramatically in Cairo, where famous museum halls echoed emptily for months. Cruise lines suspended stops at a couple of Mexican ports, prompting local officials to introduce measures to better protect passengers. Meanwhile, some international travelers took advantage of opportunities to fly the new, high-tech Dreamliner 787 from Boeing. Back at home, the government tested new ideas in airport security and permitted Americans to visit Cuba as part of licensed educational tour groups. Finally, officials opened Manhattan's oft-debated memorial to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Here, a chance to cap off 2011 and learn (or remember, in some cases) the biggest stories of the year that affect how we travel and see the world now—and in years to come. Compare this news to the events that rocked the travel world in 2010. Flying Started to Get More Comfortable Anyone who swears that it's just about the journey, and not the destination, has never logged hours crammed into an economy-class seat on an airplane that feels as dry as the Sahara. But a new era in comfier cabins dawned in 2011, thanks to the debut of a high-tech aircraft design. In October, Boeing's latest jumbo jet, the 787 Dreamliner, took its inaugural flight. (See Budget Travel's post "The 787 Dreamliner Debuts This Month.") The 787's cabins maintain higher humidity levels than traditional ones, sparing passengers from dry eyes and mouths. The 787s also pressurize their cabins to a more earth-like level than older planes, avoiding the altitude sickness some fliers feel in the air. They're quieter machines, too, and sound like you're riding in a hybrid car instead of a gas-powered one. The first airlines to use the aircraft are in Asia; United will bring the plane into U.S. service next year. Boeing's aerospace rival Airbus plans to launch similarly designed planes, dubbed the A350 series, within a year or two. It looks like high-tech cabins will soon be commonplace. Sure, no matter what a plane is made of, flights remain nasty, brutish, and not short enough. But we applaud every aircraft improvement travelers can get. Cruise Lines Become Wary of Mexico Mention Mexico, and some Americans think of violence linked to a government crackdown on drug trafficking and turf battles between various narcos. Case in point: In Mazatlán, two visitors were shot in the parking lot of a hotel frequented by foreign tourists, prompting cruise lines to suspend port calls. In the first half of 2011, the number of cruise-ship passengers to Mexico dropped from about 500,000 to 58,000. Puerto Vallarta faced similar security concerns after incidents there. (See Budget Travel's post "Puerto Vallarta Says It's Safe, Despite Princess Canceling Calls.") Yet nearly all of the violence has taken place far from cruise ports. Cancún, for instance, has remained safe, except for an attack in August on a bar in an outlying residential area. At Mazatlán, officials have put into place additional security measures, too, such as beefed-up police patrols and strict supervision of tour buses as passengers board them for day excursions. So expect more cruise lines to return to full itineraries soon. Princess Cruises Lines, for one, will begin calling on Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta again in 2012. The Arab Spring Causes Unrest in Popular Tourist Destinations Nothing prepared us for what happened across the Arab world this year, with uprisings toppling repressive regimes in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya and protests continuing in Bahrain. But it was the revolution in Egypt that set off the biggest political shockwaves—and prompted the largest travel industry shake-up, too. Egypt is thought to have drawn only 10 million international visitors in 2011, down from 14.8 million a year earlier. Experts note that not a single tourist has suffered a scratch because of the turmoil to date. But the ongoing political uncertainty concerns many, and understandably so. Here's hoping that the country's commitment to keeping travelers safe remains solid during Egypt's continuing march to democracy. 9/11 Memorial Opens in NYC No one in America—or, perhaps, the world—was left untouched by the events of September 11, 2001, so it’s understandable that erecting a memorial to such a monumental event would be difficult. How does one pay tribute to each and every person affected by that tragedy? (See Budget Travel’s post "A Sneak Peek at the 9/11 Memorial Site.") Ten years to the day after the 9/11 attacks, the United States finally opened its much-debated commemorative site (911memorial.org), which consists of a pair of recessed pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Around the pools' edges, bronze plates bear the names of all 2,983 victims in New York, Washington, D.C., and Somerset County, Pa. The memorial has received much praise, instantly becoming a must-see memorial of equal power as those along Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. (See "15 Places Your Kids Should See Before 15.") Its next-door neighbor the 9/11 Museum is set to open next year. Southwest Stopped Being a Budget Carrier Formerly nicknamed The Love Airline, Southwest Airlines was once a scrappy discounter, bedeviling its larger rivals. Yet this year, it swallowed up AirTran, one of the last low-cost competitors. Now tickets booked on Southwest a couple of weeks in advance often seem little different from fares touted by United, Delta, and other giants. (See Budget Travel's post "Is the Era of Cheap Airfare Ending?") Salting the wound for budget-minded travelers, Southwest also revamped its loyalty program in March, requiring the typical vacationer to fly 10 round trips—up from a former eight—to earn a free ticket. (See our article "Southwest Waters Down Its Rapid Rewards Program.") To be fair, Southwest is still a traveler's best friend when it comes to keeping fees to a minimum, such as with its free checked-bags program. It's also great at offering (comparatively) reasonable fares for tickets booked at the eleventh hour. That said, while Southwest's stock symbol is LUV, fewer budget-conscious travelers are feeling the love from it these days. Airlines Made Tracking Lost Luggage a Priority Know how FedEx and other shipping services allow you to track the location of your package in real-time online? This year, Air France and Delta proved that airlines could provide passengers with similar high-tech tracking for similar precious cargo: luggage. Since February, Air France has invited fliers to sign up for its free Connect service during booking to receive updates via email or text message about changes to their trip, including alerts whenever a bag has gone missing. Earlier in the year, Delta created a page on its website where passengers can punch in the code on their bag tag to learn the status of their luggage. The airline also added this tool to its apps for iPhone and Android. Neither Delta nor Air France are providing quite the same level of detail as FedEx-style services do about shipments, but every bit of progress helps. In the meantime, given how airlines keep piling on the fees for checking luggage, you may want to hand your bag over to FedEx for domestic delivery in the first place and skip the uncertainty. (See Budget Travel’s post "How to Ship Your bag, From $70 Each Way.") Deal-a-Day Sites Took the World by Storm In July, 2011's biggest shopping phenom—the daily-deal site Groupon—teamed up with the largest online travel agency, Expedia, to create Groupon Getaways, a site devoted to e-coupons for travel. Discounts typically range from 30 to 80 percent off list prices. A recent example is a weeklong stay at one of hundreds of vacation rentals for $399 (valid for travel within the next year). The competition among daily-deal sites keeps growing, though, with companies like TripAlertz jockeying for dollars, too. At the same time, the discounts tend to be unprofitable for the companies providing them, and Groupon itself has just started turning a profit. At year-end, some critics wondered if the daily-deal sites might themselves expire soon. That's all the more reason for travelers to nab bargains while the going's good. ¡¡Bienvenidos a Cuba!! The headline of a Budget Travel blog post from July says it all: "We Can Now Travel to Cuba!" But there's a catch: You still can't hop a plane to Havana all by yourself and wander freely along the concrete seashore, puffing on Sancho Panzas–brand cigars. No, unlike Canadians, Europeans, and other nationalities, los yanquis have to travel as part of an educational tour group run by a handful of licensed companies—Insight Cuba, for example. Government rules require that the tours be packed with a "full-time schedule of educational exchange activities," such as meeting with local art gallery owners or children in orphanages. To our ears, these tours sound interesting. So we're not surprised that tour demand is strong. Here’s hoping the U.S. government licenses more companies to meet that demand soon. The TSA Tests "Chat Downs" In August, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began testing a new type of inspection technique at Boston's Logan Airport: "behavioral profiling." Specially trained officers quiz passengers about their journey. If anything seems suspicious, a passenger may be subjected to additional screening. In October, this trial expanded to Detroit. (See Budget Travel's article "4 Common Airport Security Questions—Answered!") In the same month, the TSA invited a select group of fliers to volunteer information about themselves—such as their home addresses and phone numbers—in advance of their trips, in exchange for a chance to zip through speedier screening lanes, which wouldn't require them to remove their shoes or jackets. This experiment is currently still taking place in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, and Miami and includes selected travelers in American and Delta airlines' frequent-flier programs. Critics of both experiments remain concerned that the new wave of security may squash some people's privacy rights without boosting safety. The "Airbnb Robbery" Highlighted the Risks of Peer-to-Peer Rentals Travel-site sensation Airbnb broke new records this year, announcing that it had helped travelers rent places to stay (homes, rooms within homes, even boats) from ordinary homeowners more than 1 million times. Quite the achievement. But then the company raced into the public-relations equivalent of a 12-car pileup, when a San Francisco homeowner reported that her place had been trashed by an Airbnb renter. The company responded by rolling out an automatic $50,000 property guarantee to all hosts. It also introduced more thorough vetting of its site members, such as allowing hosts to screen out potential guests whose phone numbers haven't been verified, among other safety checks. (See "How Is Airbnb Dealing With the Robbery That Rocked the Vacation Rental World?") Renting from ordinary persons, rather than from companies, is part of a trend called peer-to-peer travel. The risks of such travel—for both renter and rentee—aren't confined to any one website, though. When it comes to free or cheap lodging, users of Crashpadder, Roomorama, Couchsurfing, and other sites are all taking small gambles. Yet given that there's been only one sensational incident reported during a time with more than a million happy rentals and swaps, the odds of enjoying a good experience remain solid. Believing in the essential goodness of humanity remains a winning proposition to travel by.   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: World's Prettiest Castle Towns Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012 10 Most Interesting Beaches 4 Most Common Reasons Airlines Lose Luggage World's Best Affordable Hotels Weirdest Hotels on the Planet

A Coffee Addict's Guide to the World

Choosing a cup of coffee is about more than just milk or sugar. From the Ethiopian countryside where coffee was first discovered to the baroque cafes of imperial Europe to the high-tech streets of Tokyo, coffee has adapted to almost every culture—even infiltrating tea-loving strongholds such as India and Hong Kong. Here's your global guide to regional coffee styles: some that have caught on across the globe, some that represent a unique link to the area—and some that are just plain weird. SEE HOW FOLKS AROUND THE WORLD TAKE THEIR COFFEE   Italy: Espresso Description: The perfect cup should have a caramel-colored crema layer on top that is thick enough to support a spoonful of sugar for a few seconds before breaking.Sip Tip: Espresso should be downed in one gulp while standing at the bar; if you sit at a table, that privilege will cost you up to four times more than standing.Cafe: Experts claim you can find Rome's best espresso near the Pantheon, where water is sourced from springs by the Aqua Virgo, an aqueduct built in 19 B.C. The most popular with locals is at Caffe Sant'Eustachio, where Romans have been stepping up to the stainless-steel bar since 1938 for their morning brew—always presweetened here. Piazza Sant'Eustachio 82, santeustachioilcaffe.it, espresso $1.50. Austria: Melange Description: The most popular drink in Viennese cafes, Austria's take on cappuccino combines espresso and steamed milk, topped with milk foam or sometimes whipped cream. Sip Tip: Cafes usually serve a glass of water with coffee, meant to be drunk between sips to hydrate and cleanse the palate. Cafe: With its elegant rococo interiors and elaborate sugar displays in the front window, it's no wonder that the Demel cafe once served as the official confectionary of the Hapsburg imperial court. Don't skip a slice of Vienna's signature dessert, Sacher torte (chocolate cake, apricot jam, and dark chocolate icing). Kohlmarkt 14, demel.at, melange $5.40. Ethiopia: Buna Description: In the birthplace of coffee, the drink may be served with salt or butter instead of milk and sugar (and a side of popped sorghum kernels) in the countryside, but sugar has become increasingly popular since the 1930s Italian occupation. Sip Tip: If invited into someone's home for the elaborate hours-long coffee ceremony, don't stop drinking until you've had cup number three (called bereka), which is considered a blessing. Cafe: Addis Ababa's Habesha Restaurant brings Ethiopia's rural traditions to the heart of the capital city: The coffee ceremony is performed throughout the day in a thatched hut in its outdoor dining area. Bole Rd. (next to the Sabit Building), 011-251/11-551-8358. Mexico: Café de Olla Description: Traditionally drunk at all-night Mexican wakes, the spiced drink is brewed in an earthenware pot with cinnamon sticks. Sip Tip: Don't add extra sugar—the drink comes presweetened with piloncillo (unrefined dark brown sugar). Cafe: Mexico City's El Bajío is widely considered one of the top spots for home-style Mexican cooking in the world. The original location is a bit off the tourist path in the northern district of Azcapotzalco, but their Polanco branch sits squarely in the city's upscale boutique-and-gallery district. Alejandro Dumas 7, carnitaselbajio.com.mx, café de olla $1.50. Saudi Arabia: Kahwa Description: A hallmark of Bedouin hospitality, the cardamom-infused drink is almost always offered with sweet dried dates, which counter the bitterness of the coffee. Sip Tip: A younger person is always expected to pour coffee for his elders. Cafe: Note that women are typically not welcome in Riyadh's traditional coffee and shisha (water pipe) shops. To get your caffeine fix as a Western tourist, you'll want to stick to the capital's more upscale hotels. At the Caravan Stop in the Hotel Al Khozama, you can sip coffee with traditional desserts like rosewater custard and almond puff pastry. Olaya Rd., al-khozama.com, desserts from $9. Turkey: Türk Kahvesi Description: A remnant of Ottoman coffeehouse culture, this thick brew is made in a copper cezve (a long-handled pot) and often served after meals with chewy Turkish delight candy. Sip Tip: Don't drink the thick layer of sludge on the bottom of the cup. You won't want to end up chewing on leftover grounds; besides, they can be used for a special form of fortune-telling called tasseography. Cafe: Founded in 1923 in Istanbul's Kadıköy market, Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi offers its small cups of Turkish coffee in flavors like cardamom, vanilla, or mastic—an aromatic resin used in Mediterranean desserts. Serasker Cad.Tarihi Kadıköy Çarçısı 1a, fazilbey.com, Türk kahvesi $2.50. Hong Kong: Yuanyang Description: An East-meets-West mix of coffee and tea (and milk), this unlikely pair is named for the Mandarin duck—a species in which the male and female look totally different but mate for life. Sip Tip: A proper cup should be made with Hong Kong–style milk tea, a strong blend of black tea filtered through a fabric bag that looks remarkably similar to pantyhose (in fact, it's sometimes nicknamed "silk stocking tea"). Cafe: The most popular places to find Hong Kong comfort food and milk tea are the 24-hour, retro-style diners called cha chaan tengs. Among the best is Tsui Wah, a spot known for its giant neon sign and its all-hours crowds. 15–19 Wellington St., tsuiwahrestaurant.com, yuanyang from $1.90. Greece: Frappé Description: The ubiquitous foam-topped iced drink is made with Nescafé instant coffee, cold water, sugar, and evaporated (or regular) milk—and always served with a straw. Sip Tip: Any self-respecting Greek knows a frappé should always be shaken, not stirred. Cafe: A great place to sip the cool stuff is Thessaloniki, Greece's seaside Second City and the drink's hometown—it was reportedly invented here in 1957 at the Thessaloniki International Fair by a representative of the Nestle company. For the best views, stop by the stylish Kitchen Bar, which sits on the harbor overlooking the city's famous White Tower. B Port Depot, kitchenbar.com.gr, frappé $2.70. India: Kaapi Description: Brewed with chicory, this South Indian variety comes with a layer of foam formed during the cooling-down process: The server pours the coffee back and forth between two stainless-steel tumblers in long, sweeping arcs to aerate it. Sip Tip: You might see this coffee referred to on menus as "meter coffee" or "coffee by the yard," a reference to the desired height from which the coffee should be poured between tumblers. Cafe: Opened in the 1950s by a coffee workers' cooperative, the Indian Coffee House is a popular national chain, well-known for its extremely cheap eats. Perhaps the most famous of the branches is Kolkata's College Street location, which has attracted its fair share of students, intellectuals, and even revolutionaries, such as the founders of the Indian Communist Party. 15 Bankin Chatterjee St., indiancoffeehouse.com, kaapi 16¢. Vietnam: Ca Phe Sua Da Description: Made tableside by pouring hot water through a stainless-steel filter (phin) balanced over your glass, the coffee drips slowly onto a layer of sweetened condensed milk. Sip Tip: If the beans are too finely ground, the coffee will drip through the filter too quickly, making for a weak brew. Cafe: Hotel Continental's La Dolce Vita Cafe, with its whirring ceiling fans and wicker terrace chairs, will immediately call to mind colonial Saigon. 132–134 Dong Khoi St., continentalhotel.com.vn, ca phe sua da $3. Cuba: Café Cubano Description: This Italian-style espresso shot gets its unique taste from adding raw demerara sugar, resulting in a sweet brown foam on top called espumita. Sip Tip: The best way to achieve the perfect espumita is by mixing the first few drops of coffee with the sugar—creating a sugary sludge—before adding the rest of the coffee. Cafe: The coffee daiquiri on the menu may not be the most traditional, but everything else at Café el Escorial, which is housed in a colonial mansion overlooking Havana's Plaza Vieja, screams Old Cuba. Mercaderes No. 317, 011-53/868-3545, café cubano from 75¢. Indonesia: Kopi Luwak Description: This infamous brew starts its trip to the cup by passing through the digestive tract of the civet, where enzymes are said to make the beans smoother, richer, and less bitter. The catlike mammal eats the ripest coffee berries and then excretes the undigested inner beans, which farmers harvest from their droppings. (This may not be any comfort, but the beans are then thoroughly washed!)Sip Tip: The world's most expensive coffee (it's often sold for hundreds of dollars per pound) has spawned a slew of counterfeiters. Be wary if you see the coffee being sold at a deep discount—chances are no civets were used in the making of this bean. Cafe: Located in Jakarta's Chinatown, the city's oldest coffee shop, Warung Tinggi, opened in 1878 and traces its history back to Indonesia's days as a Dutch colony. Bonus: Jakarta sits on the island of Java! Jl. Batu Jajar No. 35B, warungtinggi.com, kopi luwak $150 per pound. Malaysia: Pak Kopi/Kopi Putih/Bai Ka-fe Description: Introduced to the Perak region by 19th-century Chinese tin miners, this lighter brew—also called Ipoh white coffee after the town where it was developed—is made by roasting coffee beans in palm-oil margarine. Traditional Malaysian black coffee (kopi o) is roasted with both margarine and sugar, resulting in a darker roast. Sip Tip: Unlike in most other countries, in Malaysia the term "white coffee" does not mean that milk is included—it simply refers to the lighter color of the roast. Nevertheless, like the rest of Southeast Asia, Malaysians will most often serve white coffee with condensed milk. Cafe: With its stark tiled interiors and Coca-Cola sign over the door, Sin Yoon Loong in Old Town Ipoh is decidedly no-frills, but this is the original white coffee cafe. Try the specialty for breakfast with toast and homemade coconut jam. 15A Jalan Bandar Timah, 011-60/05-2414-5601, white coffee 45¢. Argentina: Cortado Description: Taking its name from the Spanish word for "cut," this drink is a simple espresso "cut" with a small splash of milk. The connection to Italian espresso is no coincidence—Buenos Aires is the Latin American city with perhaps the closest ties to Europe and its old-world cafe culture.Sip Tip: If you like your coffee (much) milkier, order a lágrima ("tear" or "teardrop" in Spanish), which reverses the ratio: a lot of hot milk with a splash of coffee. Cafe: Founded in 1858 by a French immigrant, Buenos Aires's Cafe Tortoni is the country's oldest cafe, offering nightly tango shows in its simple basement venue. Avenida de Mayo 825, cafetortoni.com.ar, cortado $2.50. Australia/New Zealand: Flat White Description: Though the Aussies and the Kiwis still feud over who invented the drink, they agree on one basic fact: It's not a latte! A flat white is coffee mixed with steamed milk, served in a ceramic cup with a handle; a latte also includes froth on top and should be served in a tall glass. Sip Tip: A flat white shouldn't be made with just any milk—the recipe calls for micro-foam, the non-frothy steamed milk at the bottom of the vessel. (Macro-foam, or dry foam, comes from the top of the steaming pitcher, includes more bubbles, and is used in cappuccinos.) Cafe: First they tackled wine. Now they're onto coffee. Both Australia and New Zealand have turned into countries of caffeine connoisseurs (snobs even!) and have followed by opening a slew of sleek, urban cafes. Campos Coffee, a tiny timber espresso bar in Sydney's Newtown neighborhood, is known for its crowds, the speed of its baristas (up to 200 coffees served per hour), and its quirky house blends: The Obama includes beans from both Kenya and the Americas (193 Missenden Rd., camposcoffee.com, flat white $3.55). In Auckland, Espresso Workshop ups the coffee-snob quotient with an on-site roastery, barista lessons, and coffee-appreciation classes (19 Falcon St., espressoworkshop.co.nz, flat white $4.15). Spain: Café Bombón Description: This sweet combination of equal parts espresso and condensed milk originated in Valencia and has since become popular throughout the country. Sip Tip: The drink is most often served in a small glass (similar to a shot glass) to show off the distinct layers of the black coffee and the off-white condensed milk. In order to keep the layers separate, the espresso must be poured into the glass very slowly, often over the back of a spoon. Cafe: If you're in search of a café bombón, chances are you have a serious sweet tooth. Don't miss one of Madrid's famous churrerias, where you can dip sugary sticks of fried dough into insanely thick and rich hot chocolate. Locals prefer Chocolat, an unassuming churro spot tucked into a neighborhood side street a 10-minute walk from the Museo del Prado. Santa Maria 30, 011-34/914-294-565, café bombón $2.30. Morocco: Café des Épices Description: A delicious by-product of Morocco's spice markets, this brew can incorporate a number of flavors depending on the whims of the cafe owner, including ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, cinnamon, sesame, cumin, and cloves. Sip Tip: The sweetness of your cup of coffee is often dictated by the occasion, with sweet coffee served symbolically at happy occasions like weddings and bitter, black coffee served at funerals. Cafe: Aside from the spiced coffee—hence the name Café des Épices—this cafe in the Marrakech medina offers mint tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice, flatbread sandwiches, and rooftop seating from which to gaze out over the buzzing market. 75 Lakdima Rahba, cafedesepices.net, café des epices, $1.80. France: Café au Lait Description: This quintessential morning drink made with hot (but not steamed) milk is often served in a wide-mouthed bowl to accommodate the dunking of baguettes or croissants. A similar drink you may see on menus is café crème; many say the drinks are nearly identical, but crème is more often ordered in the afternoon. Sip Tip: If you'd like only a little milk in your coffee, do as the locals do and ask for café noisette (hazelnut coffee)—it has nothing to do with hazelnut flavoring, but instead takes its name from the toasty, nutty color imparted by the dash of milk. Cafe: Situated in the 6th arrondisement on Paris's Left Bank, the Café de Flore looks much the same as it did when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir argued about existentialism here during World War II, with its famous red-leather booths, mahogany paneling, and mirrored walls. 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, cafedeflore.fr, café crème $7. Finland: Kaffeost Description: Especially popular among the local Sami population in the eastern region of Kainuu, this dish/drink is made by submerging chunks of leipäjuusto (a cow- or reindeer-milk cheese curd with a caramelized crust that makes it look like bread) into a cup of black coffee, fishing them out, and then drinking what's left.    Sip Tip: If you're looking to make the treat yourself, the distinctive cheese is sold under a number of different names: leipäjuusto (bread cheese), juustoleipa (cheese bread), and narskujuusto (which refers to the squeaky sound the curds make on your teeth). Cafe: This rural treat is more often made at home rather than purchased at a cafe, especially in cosmopolitan Helsinki. You can pick up leipäjuusto at most markets and dunk it yourself. Or head to Zetor, a Finnish-countryside-themed restaurant that is decorated with tractors and milk jugs and serves classic dishes like reindeer and leipäjuusto with cloudberry jam. Mannerheimintie 3–5, ravintolazetor.fi, cheese $10.75. Ireland: Irish Coffee Description: Served in a stemmed whiskey goblet with a heaping dollop of whipped cream, this warming drink—more classic cocktail than morning pick-me-up—is made with hot coffee, sugar, and Irish whiskey and was reportedly invented by Chef Joseph Sheridan in 1942 to warm up arriving passengers at what is now Shannon Airport. Sip Tip: Don't stir the cream into your coffee! The hot coffee is meant to be drunk through the cold whipped cream. Cafe: Though the Irish coffee may be a relatively recent addition to the centuries-old pub scene, the drink has become all but ubiquitous across the Emerald Isle. In Dublin, sipping an Irish coffee is all about the atmosphere, and it doesn't come much more authentic than the Brazen Head. Established in 1198, the pub claims to be the country's oldest—although the present building dates back to the still-impressive 17th century. Plus it's only a 10-minute walk to the Irish whiskey motherlode: the Jameson Distillery. 20 Lower Bridge St., brazenhead.com, Irish coffee $8. United States: Frappuccino Description: Starbucks has become synonymous with American cafe culture, and this milkshake-coffee hybrid has become the ultimate symbol of the brand: a ubiquitous, endlessly customizable, massive seller tailored to the country's sweet tooth. Taking into account the bottled version sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, annual Frappuccino sales have exceeded the $1 billion mark. Sip Tip: Looking for an extra boost? Frappuccinos can be ordered "affogato-style," which means they come topped with a shot of espresso. But you won't see this drink listed on any menus. In addition to the 87,000 combinations advertised by the brand in the past, the truest Starbucks connoisseurs speak in a language of off-menu secret specialties (a "Short," for example, is a third smaller than a Tall and comes at a cheaper price). Remember that, though relatively common, these drink orders are not official, so don't get too mad if your barista doesn't know what you're talking about! Cafe: Whether or not you're a Starbucks skeptic, you can't miss Seattle's Pike Place Market location. The first link in the ever-expanding global chain opened here in 1971. 1912 Pike Pl., starbucks.com, Tall from $2.95. Netherlands: Bakkie Troost Description: Literally translating to "cup of comfort," the Dutch bakkie troost usually comes black and served alongside a single spice cookie (you may also commonly see the drink simply referred to as kaffe). If you want a latte, you'll have to order koffie verkeerd, or "coffee wrong." Sip Tip: Know your terminology! A bruine kroeg (brown cafe) is a tobacco-stained, pub-like bar, known for its untranslatable sense of gezelligheid (similar to coziness); a koffieshop (or simply "coffee shop") is the infamous Amsterdam shop that sells marijuana products; a koffiehuis will sell coffee and light meals; and a cafe is similar to a restaurant with a bar. You can find a good cup of coffee in any of them, but you should know what you're getting yourself into before going inside. Cafe: Amsterdam is a city of coffeehouses, from less than savory to gleaming and grand. Often, the most rewarding spots are those steeped in centuries of history. Situated in one of Amsterdam's oldest wooden houses, Cafe In 't Aepjen (literally "In the Monkeys") gets its odd name from the tavern's storied history as a sailor's haunt. Reportedly, men returning from Asia in the 16th century sometimes paid out their tabs with monkeys they had picked up in their travels. Zeedijk 1, cafeintaepjen.nl, kaffe $3.17. Brazil: Cafezinho Description: The diminutive name of this drink (meaning "a little coffee" in Portuguese) belies a big fact about Brazil's coffee economy—the country produces almost a third of all the world's coffee beans. The national coffee is filtered through a cloth strainer and often served in tiny plastic or china cups, and comes very sweet and very strong. Sip Tip: A cafezinho often comes free at the end of a meal in a restaurant. Cafe: Skip the European-style grand cafes and head to one of Rio de Janeiro's botequins (neighborhood bars) like Café Gaúcho. At this popular sidewalk spot, guests must follow a few steps to fit in like a local: Pass coins to the cashier, get a small receipt, bring it to the man behind the circular counter, and receive your distinctly bitter cup of coffee. Rua São José 86, 011-55/25-339-285, cafezinho 50¢. Poland: Kawa Parzona Description: Also called kawa naturalna, this traditional Polish-style coffee is made by simply mixing ground coffee beans and boiling water directly in a glass with no filter. Sip Tip: If you want to steep your coffee the traditional way, look on the label for drobno mielona, which is an extra-fine, Turkish-style ground. If the label just reads mielona, these beans have been ground and are suitable for a regular drip coffee pot or an espresso machine. Cafe: Finding traditional Polish coffee is becoming increasingly difficult in the country's major cities, but it's simple to make the drink yourself once you buy the correct grounds. Though the coffee may come out of a copper pot rather than brewed in your individual glass in the traditional manner, Warsaw's Cafe Blikle serves up one of the most classic Polish cafe experiences. While most of the capital was damaged or destroyed during the two world wars, this spot has been going strong since 1869, thanks in no small part to its world-famous pączki (doughnuts). Nowy Świat 35, 011-48/022-826-0569, kawa $2.75. Japan: Kan Kohi Description: Introduced by the Ueshima Coffee Co. in 1969, canned coffee (which became kan kohi through Japan's system of adapting foreign phrases) is found in most grocery stores and vending machines, from which it is dispensed hot in the winter and cold in the summer. Sip Tip: Though canned coffee is perfectly portable, that doesn't mean you should bring it everywhere. Eating or drinking on Japanese subways, for instance, is generally considered rude. Cafe: Searching for the best place to find canned coffee in Japan is akin to searching for the best place to buy Coca-Cola in the United States—it's everywhere. The country operates an estimated 6 million vending machines (that's about one for every 23 people).   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: World's Prettiest Castle Towns America's Best Food Regions Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012 5 European Countries Where Prices Have Decreased the Most Photos: Weirdest Hotels of All-Time