Many Americans are working long hours to offset smaller work forces, stagnant incomes and other such trials and tribulations of our economic malaise. Needless to say, we could all use a vacation. But the same weak economy that has worked us to exhaustion has also decreased the value of the American dollar so much so that a getaway seems virtually unfeasible. Though the U.S. dollar has seen a slight recovery of late from previous all-time lows, it's still losing to many other major currencies, including the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Chinese yuan, the Mexican peso, the British pound and the euro. Hard-earned and hard-to-come by American dollars would be squandered on sky-high exchange rates in many desirable destinations.
So what's an R&R-deprived American to do? Help is here, in the form of seven unique and exciting destinations where the U.S. dollar travels as far as you do.
Previously known as the backdrop to many a war film, Vietnam is becoming more popular with vacationers in recent years. French colonial charm blends with Eastern influences from centuries of Chinese hegemony in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital and second-largest city. The local currency is the dong (VND), and $1 is worth approximately 20,595 of them. Though you'll have plenty of money to haggle with vendors at the Night Market in the lively Old Quarter, sample eccentric local delicacies from dog meat to cobra, or maybe even take a Vietnamese cooking class, Hanoi offers a handful of free activities as well. Visit various outdoor wartime sites, watch locals practice tai chi by the peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake, or join one of the free student-run tours around the city. To save even more, find a bed and breakfast in town for as little as $15, sample various rice dishes from street vendors for $1, and wash it down with a fresh, light and cheap Bia Hoi, a Vietnamese beer ubiquitous on the streets of the Old Quarter.
Until the dollar rebounds, trade the Eiffel Tower for an equally beautiful cultural landmark: Machu Picchu, Peru, where the U.S. dollar gets you 2.75 Peruvian nuevo soles (PEN). Cuzco, the capital of the Incan Empire, is one of Peru's largest and liveliest cities, located just 75 miles from Machu Picchu. The journey will take a little effort, including a taxi and a train, and some money (the trip costs just over $50 each way), but the favorable exchange rate guarantees a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a relative steal. Cuzco's myriad accommodation options begin at less than $10 a night in a hostel. In addition to walking, taxis are a common and inexpensive way to get around the city, with short rides costing only 2 to 4 soles. Local buses and vans are even cheaper. For bargain meals, shy away from fancy restaurants serving foreign food and stick with the smaller joints offering local fare such as chifa, a fried rice dish brought over to Peru by Chinese immigrants, or cuy, a regional specialty of roasted guinea pig. Since Cuzco is known for its indigenous population, you can find unique local products at a great price, but watch out for tourist traps. Both food and goods cost less the farther you get from the bustling main square.
While Bucharest remains Romania's capital and largest city, Sibiu, in southern Transylvania, was coined the European Capital of Culture in 2007 thanks to its old Germanic charm, colorful squares, stunning medieval architecture and plentiful culture and music festivals. Despite rising economic development and Romania's recent admission to the European Union, Sibiu offers plenty of bang for the America buck. The national currency is the leu, of which one U.S. dollar buys almost three. Dinner for two with multiple courses and drinks at a good restaurant in the popular Small Square will only cost about $35 — an affordable opportunity to sample regional specialties such as a clear sour soup called ciorba and tuica, a local plum brandy. Guesthouses in the main square start around $31 a night while hostels start at just $14. Regional products such as wools, leathers, fur, wine and artisan food products are great buys for American visitors. Visit Sibiu's unique museums, hike the nearby Fagaras or Cindrel Mountains, or simply stroll the old medieval town, which is the main attraction in and of itself.
Though it may cost a few American dollars to get to India, you'll save once you're there, considering that one U.S. dollar is worth nearly 45 rupees. Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is India's fourth-largest city, with direct flights from North America. Formerly known as Madras, Chennai was one of the first outposts of the East India Company, and its foothold, Fort St. George, was built in 1640 and still stands today. There is much to do in Chennai, from visiting India's first zoo to viewing Mughal-era paintings at the National Art Gallery and bargaining for bangles at the Pondy Bazaar. Chennai is also known for its beautiful beaches (but don't count on taking a dip — strong currents mean swimming is prohibited). Restaurants range from budget, many of which are strictly vegetarian, to upscale. Try one of the many South Indian fast food stands where masala, pongal and dosa cost only a couple of dollars. (Spend the money you save on bottled water, as tap water can be risky.)
San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala
Find inner peace and topographical splendor in the spiritual oasis of San Marcos La Laguna, a quiet town on Lake Atitlan in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. One U.S. dollar gets you more than 7.5 quetzal, Guatemala's local currency. The beautiful volcanic Lake Atitlan is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country, and San Marcos is a quiet — and cheap — way to experience it. Still present in San Marcos is a rich Mayan culture, evident from the brightly colored clothing to the local cuisine. Drive or take a bus for less than $5 from Guatemala City to the quaint town where you'll find more footpaths than roads. Once you're there, travel the lake in lanchas, small boats, for about $1 to $4 a ride to the various surrounding towns. Climb the dormant volcanoes for stunning views of the country, or relax with reiki, massage or yoga. Vegetarian cuisine is dominant in San Marcos and you can purchase inexpensive fresh produce at open-air markets. Hostels can be found for as little as $7 a night per person while resorts and eco-lodges, where meals are sometimes included, can range anywhere from $40 to $140 a night.
For an unforgettable getaway that will overwhelm your senses but not your wallet, head to Fez, Morocco, home to the best-preserved old city in the Arab world. The original walled city, or medina, comprises thousands of sinuous streets and alleys filled with historical buildings, old Arab architecture, vibrant street life and endless souqs, or markets, selling everything from slippers to spices, and ceramics to cell phones. Since $1 gets you about 7.8 Moroccan dirhams, local goods are great buys — if you know how to bargain. Other major sights in the medina include the colorful and pungent tannery, where leather-making and dying techniques remain unchanged since the Middle Ages, and the centuries-old University of Al-Karaouine. Though the university is part of a mosque, which non-Muslims are not permitted to enter in Fez, the courtyard and library are worth the visit. Street food in Fez is often just as good as in restaurants and half the price, offering delicious regional specialties such as couscous, meat kebabs or harira (soup with meat, chickpeas or lentils) for just a few bucks. Traditional guesthouses called riads start at around $65 a night, while hostels start at $25 and can even include breakfast, all-day tea and Wi-Fi.
Formally referred to as Lao People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, it is known to many visitors, drawn to its relaxed lifestyle, as "Lao -- Please Don't Rush." Though the capital city is becoming more popular, Vientiane retains a small-town feel and is perfect for those looking to relax. Popular activities include watching the sunset on the city's stunning Mekong River while drinking Beerlao, the national beer of Laos, indulging in a Lao massage (which will only cost you about $3 to $6), and chatting with local monks at Sangha College. The local currency is the kip, and one dollar gets you 8,000 of them. Vientiane has no shortage of restaurants ranging in fare from regional specialties to Tex-Mex. For those on a tight budget, noodle shops offer $1 meals. Even the most upscale of restaurants in the capital top off at $20 per person or less. Laos is known for its silk, which you can buy for a fraction of the price as in the U.S. (but beware of synthetic imposters).
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