Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ten Essential Items to Always Keep in Your Daypack or Carry On

Fully-stocked backpack waiting for the bus in Patagonia, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)  

At times, as exciting and life-changing as travel is, it can also be a bit of a challenge, especially in the developing world. Having things close at hand on a long trip can make your traveling life a little easier and even possibly help to avoid a disaster. Here are a few things that I keep stocked in my daypack or carry-on at all times:


1) Toilet paper: few countries outside North America or Western Europe regularly stock public bathrooms with toilet paper and when camping and hiking in remote areas it is almost never available. Keep two rolls of toilet paper in a Ziploc or other waterproof bag with you always; you’ll be glad you did. This is one item you don’t want to get caught without in emergencies (see below).


2) Diarrhea medicine: this malady always seems to strike in the second hour of an 18 hour cross-country trip on a bus with no working bathrooms. It’s comforting to know that diarrhea medicine is close at hand and not stuck in a pocket of your full-size backpack on the roof of the bus. At the very least, a tablet or two can get you to your next stop and a visit to the doctor or pharmacy.


3) Wet wipes: towelettes in a resealable plastic packet are useful for so many things: cleaning face and hands, sanitizing phones or remote controls in hotel rooms, wiping up messes, cleaning cuts and blisters or removing stains from clothing. They can also be very refreshing during long, hot trips when a shower is hours away.


Early morning on the bus from Junin de los Andes, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

4) Something entertaining: a book, a crossword puzzle and pen, Sudoku, an Ipod or an Iphone; anything that will help pass the time between flights or buses or on long trips. Much of travel involves long, often unexpected, periods of waiting and it’s nice to have something to pass the time.


5) Toothbrush and toothpaste: if your luggage goes astray or you are at the end of a long trip, you will at least be able to have clean teeth and fresh breath.


6) A flashlight: indispensable for convenience, reading and personal safety on airplanes, overnight bus and train trips, campsites, dark trails, unlit city streets and hotels with unreliable electricity.


7) Band-Aids: nothing is worse than being stuck on a hike with a blister or two and nothing to help alleviate the discomfort. These are great to have on hand for blisters and cuts, but can also be used to repair small holes in your daypack or Ziploc bags or to help secure small items.


On the way to the campsite, Junin de Los Andes, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

8) Socks and a sweater: long distance buses, especially in tropical countries like Venezuela, tend to crank up the air-conditioning to below-freezing temperatures. Having an extra sweater, socks, a cozy scarf or hat can be the difference between an enjoyable and an intolerable trip.


9) Snacks and a bottle of water: take something like a bag of pretzels, dried fruit, peanuts, trail mix or crackers for those times when restaurants are closed or food is scarce. Having a little something to eat can carry you to the next real meal.


10) Notepad and pen: to record travel impressions, write down hotel recommendations or email addresses of fellow travelers, bus schedules or directions.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sierra de la Ventana, Argentina Travel Journal

 
The natural window at the top of Cerro de la Ventana, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

This month, Luis and I are hiking and camping our way through Patagonia so that we can meet up with our friends from New York in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. We have a very loose plan (read: we have no idea what our route will be), but are generally heading south so that we arrive in Chile at the agreed upon date of Jan. 5th. Since we had already traveled down the coast of Argentina a couple of years ago, stopping in places like Puerto Madryn to visit the stunning Peninsula Valdes (aka Poor Man’s Galapagos), we decided to travel inland this time. We arrived first at the tranquil town of Sierra de la Ventana, known for its artisans, laid back atmosphere and its beautiful green spaces, including the provincial park, Parque Provincial Ernesto Tornquist, home to a small mountain/large hill with a natural “window” or hole at the summit. We were planning on staying with someone local that we found on the CouchSurfing website, but unfortunately he cancelled at the last possible moment and, after an overnight bus trip from Buenos Aires, we found ourselves stranded in the town at 6am without a place to stay. No worries, though, tent in hand, we strode over to the nearest campsite, El Camping Paraiso run by a friendly couple name Joseluis and his wife, Mabel.


Sim and Luis taking a rest at the midway point of the climb
 
  A pleasant, clean and quiet place, the campground has room for tents but also has private cabins and shared clean bathrooms with hot showers…perfect! The price for camping was $10 for two people per night and the cabins were $16. As we were setting up the tent, Luis suddenly stopped, looked at me and said ”Are we crazy for sleeping on the ground when, for $6 more, we could have a private cabin with a nice soft bed?” I replied “Yes, we are.” And so we promptly took down the tent and moved into a warm, cozy cabin. When we were settled, we explored the town. It’s fairly small, but has plenty of restaurants, shops, cultural events, a municipal pool open to tourists and nature spots nearby to explore. Local residents are extremely friendly and helpful and we were invited to several parties, cultural events and art expositions in the first few hours of our arrival. The next day, one of the business owners gave us a ride to the provincial park so that we could hike up the Cerro de la Ventana (“hill of the window”) to see the natural hole carved in the mountain by water and wind erosion.

A family of wild horses traverses the hillside (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We started at 10:30am and hiked until 6:30pm, but it was a tough hike. The mountain is steep, very rocky and filled with tree roots and the trails are not clear, although the signage is generally good. Our feet and legs were aching because of the constant impact of the hard surfaces (there is only a short part of the trail that is on soft earth) but the view from the top was fantastic. The natural hole channels and concentrates the wind, so we had to hold onto the rocks to keep from being blown over by the force of the winds. As we were descending, families of guanacos (a smaller, caramel-colored cousin of the llama) and wild horses, foals in tow, passed above and below us on the rocky precipices, while groups of screeching red hawks flew overhead. The wildflowers were colorful and abundant, in shades of bright yellow, pink, violet and flaming, almost glowing red. In the late afternoon, the colors of the surrounding hills and fields deepened into tones of deep blue, grey, gold and green and we could see clearly for miles around us. We finally descended into forests of pine, eucalyptus and jasmine, slumping on to the grass tired and aching, but surrounded by an incredible mix of natural perfumes under the shade of the tall pines. It was worth every blister!

Guanacos on a rocky ledge, Cerro de la Ventana, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Great Gifts for Travelers (or Would-Be Travelers)

Christmas ornament from the Washington Monument, Washington D.C. (photo by Simone Cannon)

There are lots of lists of gift ideas for the travelers in your life, but what to buy for the vast number of armchair travelers that you know and love (perhaps yourself included)? They are those many friends and family members who aspire to travel but just can't make the leap. They have the soul of a traveler but just need an extra push to get out there and see the world. Maybe all they need is a little spark of inspiration and you can be the one to provide it. The end-of-the-year holidays are a wonderful time to take stock and make resolutions for the new year. Here are some great gift ideas to help your loved ones add "Travel More" to their list of New Year's resolutions:     

1) Travel Books: there are so many possibilities in this category, from travel guides to travel journals to glossy coffee table books filled with gorgeous, colorful photos. All are sure to inspire, but here are a few of my favorites:


A wonderful gift for prospective travelers (photo courtesy of Amazon.com

2) Language CDs or Classes: perhaps a fear of having to communicate in a foreign language is holding back a potential world traveler. Berlitz and Rosetta Stone make excellent language CDs and DVDs, but you can also buy less expensive versions in almost every new and used bookstore or online. If your loved one is more of a face-to-face learner, consider buying a series of group or private language classes. The most popular, useful and easiest-to-tackle beginning languages for English speakers are generally Spanish, French, Japanese or Italian.

3) Travel Gift Cards or Certificates: Orbitz, American Express, most airlines, cruise lines, spas and hotels offer gift certificates in denominations as small as US$25.


Paper prayer knots, Gokoku-ji Temple, Tokyo, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

4)  Travel Documentary DVDs: Globetrekker, National Geographic, the Travel Channel and PBS all offer excellent and informative travel DVDs of their regular TV series or specific destinations or themes. 

5) Movies: Roman Holiday; Out of Africa; Eat, Pray, Love; Seven Years in Tibet; The Motorcycle Diaries; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; City of God; The English Patient; Lost in Translation; Under the Tuscan Sun; Into the Wild; French Kiss; Shirley Valentine; Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Romancing the Stone; Thelma and Louise; The Talented Mr. Ripley; any Indiana Jones or Lara Croft movie...the list of inspirational travel movies is endless. Everyone loves movies and there are hundreds of DVDs available to inspire travel in general or a visit to a particular dreamed-of place in the world.  

6) Exotic Souvenirs: bring back holiday gifts from your next trip or visit local import shops for unique items such as Tibetan singing bowls, colorful Peruvian blankets or bags, Japanese origami ornaments, Murano glass, Finnish modern vases or terracotta pottery from Mexico...all will be appreciated and treasured and may even inspire a little globe-trotting.

What's your idea of the perfect travel gift? We'd love to hear from you!

Shopping for Peruvian handmade textiles, Colca Canyon, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How to Sleep Very Cheaply When Traveling

Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Traveling costs can add up quickly, especially when moving from one exotic place to another. Traveling extensively is exciting and interesting, but can increase your transportation and lodging costs exponentially if you're not careful. One way to cut expenses is to use cheaper lodging alternatives such as hostels, homestays or camp sites. There are so many interesting ways to spend the night (but that's another blog...) and to save money that the choices are almost endless. If you are flexible and open to new experiences, you will find a much wider array of sleeping options available to you. Here are a few suggestions that you may already know and some that you might not have thought of:

Beach side at dusk, Koh Samui, Thailand (photo by Simone Cannon)

1) Hostels: the most popular budget option by far, hostels will generally run about US$18-$20 a bed per night in a dorm or a spot at a hostel campsite. Private ensuite rooms or smaller 2-4 bed dorms with shared bathrooms are also widely available at hostels but are more expensive. Hostels vary in quality, location, cleanliness and noise level, so it's best to book through a trusted website with a ratings system like Hosteling International or Hostels.com. Pick hostels near the top of the rating scale, but keep in mind that many rating systems include a category called "fun" which generally translates to "noise" and "late-night parties", so you may want to exclude that category if you are looking for a tranquil place to stay. Most hostels are geared toward younger travelers, although all ages are welcome, and they often host BBQs, Meet and Greet events and can organize tours and excursions. Hostels are an especially helpful option in more expensive countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the countries of Scandinavia, as the hostels in those countries tend to be very well-maintained and clean and often include amenities such as clean swimming pools, breakfast buffets, wi-fi, free internet and group rates.  


Colorful flags flutter on a boat dock, Ubud, Bali (photo by Simone Cannon)

2) Couch Surfing: nothing is cheaper than free and the idea of crashing on other people's couches has been around for years, but has recently become organized (and much safer) thanks to social networking sites like Facebook, Thorn Tree and CouchSurfing, a website dedicated to organizing the couch-surfing community and currently hosting 2,377,653 registered members. The idea is to sleep on someone's couch or spare bed in exchange for other members using yours (although CouchSurfing staffers emphasize that this is not obligatory; you are under no pressure to let someone stay with you if you're not comfortable with the person asking for accommodation). The site stresses security by recording all written communication, encouraging feedback and providing a ratings system. CouchSurfing.org operates in 245 countries and territories around the world and almost 80,000 cities, so the options are numerous and varied. If you are planning on visiting a city, just search the database for available couches and contact the member via the site. Although it's a great way to get to know new people and to learn about (and share) local culture, you can also just meet someone for a cup of coffee or a meal if you are not comfortable staying with someone else or hosting someone in your home.

Waiting for the Astronomical Clock to strike, Prague, The Czech Republic (photo by Simone Cannon)

3) Colleges, Universities and Convents: most college campuses around the world become deserted once classes wrap up, yet the university properties still need to be maintained, so many administrations opt to rent out their dorms to travelers during unoccupied months to offset their costs. Convents and monasteries similarly find that they often have to burden the expense of unused living quarters and often offer services such as lodging and meals. Be aware, though, that most of these places have strict noise, behavior and cleanliness rules and curfews so they may not be the best option if your travel goals include partying with other travelers, but for a clean, quiet place to stay that is generally located on picturesque grounds, this is a great choice. Ask at your local university campus for information and directories or contact universities in the city in which you are traveling. Keep in mind that university accommodations are usually only available during school holidays. In London, for example, institutions such as Imperial College and The London School of Economics open their dorms up to travelers during winter, spring and summer breaks. For available convent, abbey and monastery lodgings and prices, check websites such as Good Night and God Bless or 5star Accommodation.
Mt. Hood, Portland, Oregon, USA (photo by Simone Cannon)

4) Homestays: in many regions, particularly economically recessed areas, homestays are an excellent budget choice. Owners hoping to make some extra money open up their private residences to travelers, usually providing a private room and bathroom (although occasionally shared), full breakfast, travel information, transportation and the chance to stay with locals. Depending on the country, these can be extremely cheap places to stay and the owners will often negotiate with travelers. I once stayed in Tonga for four days for a total cost of US$24, including four nights accommodation, four breakfasts, laundry service and a day tour of the island in a private jeep. Many Latin American countries, for example, offer lodging in casas particulares (private houses) to tourists. The owners often speak some English, but have little exposure to the outside world and are therefore fascinated by travelers of all kinds. On our first night at a homestay in Puerto Varas, Chile, the owner invited the entire extended family over to dinner to meet us (and Latino family sizes are nothing to shake a stick at). For a total cultural immersion and one-of-a-kind experience, homestays can't be topped. Contact websites such as Homestay Agencies or ask at airport, train or bus station terminal tourist information booths when you arrive.       

Can you suggest lodging ideas that are even cheaper? Please let us know...you could be part of the next lodging blog post!      

Road meets ocean, Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga (photo by Simone Cannon)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island: Ten Reasons to Visit The Other New York City

The Mets Citi Field Stadium, Flushing Meadows, Queens (photo courtesy of http://www.wootickets.com/)

New York is and will always be my favorite city in the world. It has everything: theater, restaurants, fashion, sports, green spaces, business, interesting people, impressive architecture, great public transportation and a vibrant buzz. And I'm not even talking about Manhattan. There is much more to NYC than first meets the tourist eye. Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens are the overlooked jewels in the crown of New York City. Most tourists are only vaguely aware of the Outer Boroughs (and come to think of it, the same is true for many Manhattanites), but the boroughs are treasure troves of culture, history, excellent food and interesting people. Once you’ve hit the major tourist sites of Manhattan, hop the subway to the rest of New York City…you will be pleasantly surprised. Here’s a short list to get you started:

Summer rose in bloom, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Simone Cannon)

1) Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Botanic Gardens: less crowded than Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum is the place to go for a relaxing day of art. Take the 2 or 3 subway line to the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum stop and stroll through the galleries before visiting the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The gorgeous museum features extensive collections in various styles from all over the world including Asia, Africa, America and Europe as well as Islamic and Modern Art. The stunning botanical gardens change with the seasons and are within walking distance of the museum, so you can make a day of viewing world-class art in the morning and the art of nature in the gardens in the afternoon (or vice versa, depending on the weather).

2) Queens’ Ethnic Restaurants: die-hard foodies already know that Queens is one of the culinary meccas of New York. Some of the best food in the city can be found in the distinct ethnic neighborhoods of Queens: Greek, Indian, Italian, Russian, Armenian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Venezuelan, Brazilian, Jamaican and Chinese restaurants are just the tip of the iceberg. For the best experience, travel around the world: eat your appetizer in one “country”, your main course in another and go for dessert in a third. The pleasant bonus of this eater's paradise is that the food is generally much less expensive and the atmosphere is more casual than in Manhattan.


A park visitor takes a break on a trail bridge, Greenbelt Park, Staten Island (photo courtesy of http://www.sigreenbelt.org/)
 
3) Staten Island Parks: take the Staten Island Ferry in the late morning, after the morning crush of commuters has left Whitehall Street Station, and cruise to Staten Island for a day of wilderness hiking. Although just a few minutes from Manhattan by boat, Staten Island is probably the least explored of all the boroughs, yet it is filled with some of the most beautiful green spaces in New York. When you arrive at the port, head for parks such as the Greenbelt, at 2,500 acres, Staten Island's largest park or Wolfe's Pond Park, a 170 acre park with 20 acres reserved for swimming, boating or fishing. Walk the trails, observe the wildlife (e.g. blue herons, purple martins, squirrels), people watch, breathe the air and unwind.

4) The New York Transit Museum, Brooklyn: even if you’re not a fan of public transportation per se, this well-organized and interesting museum is worth a visit for insight into the history of NYC. Another good choice if you are traveling with kids, the museum maintains a fleet of subway cars from past eras which you can explore, as well as collections of old tokens and other memorabilia, exhibits on the construction of the extensive Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) system and even has facilities for hosting birthday parties. The museum store features unique NYC souvenirs such as subway token jewelery, MTA Christmas ornaments and silk scarves imprinted with the MTA subway map. Check the directions and hours on the MTA website; which subway you take will depend on where you start out.


A baby lemur clings to his mom, Bronx Zoo (photo courtesy of http://www.mammalz.com/)

5) The Bronx Zoo: This popular and wonderfully maintained zoo is just a subway ride away and a relaxing way to spend a day, especially if you are traveling with kids. The animals roam freely in large, landscaped enclosures and the zoo offers numerous educational programs for both children and adults. Exhibits include the Congo Gorilla Forest, The Wild Asia Monorail, Tiger Mountain and the newst exhibit, Madagascar! From Manhattan, take the 2 or 5 train to East Tremont Ave/West Farms Square stop and look straight ahead for signs to the zoo (or just follow the crowds).

6) Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn: if you’re a history buff or a dead celebrity watcher, the Green-Wood Cemetery is the happenin’ place to be. Built in 1838, the beautifully landscaped cemetery is still functioning and is the final home of over 600,000 souls including such diverse residents as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, composer Leonard Bernstein, mobster Joey Gallo, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, the infamous and corrupt New York political leader. Guided tours are available and highly recommended as the knowledgeable guides provide history and fascinating stories which will greatly enhance your visit. Take the R train to 25th Street Station and walk east one block.


Movie goers at the Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo courtesy of Julienne Schaer/ http://www.brooklynbridgepark.org/)

7) Brooklyn Bridge Park's Movies With a View: every summer, the Brooklyn Bridge Park and SyFy host outdoor movies at Pier 1 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. Film goers bring blankets and picnics, and sit on the large expanse of grass, watching movies and gazing at the jeweled night skyline of Manhattan. Last years movies included Annie Hall, The Big Lebowski, Rear Window, Brokeback Mountain, Dreamgirls, Blues Brothers, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What better way to spend a summer night?

8) Citi Field Tours: baseball fans flock to the new Mets stadium, Citi Field, in Flushing Meadows, Queens, not just for the games, but for the well-guided tours. The one-hour tours are $10 a person (discounted group rates are also available) and include such highlights as the Clubhouse, Field and Dugout, Productions Area (scoreboard control room), Press Box, Suite Levels (Sterling and Empire) and the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum. The tours are very popular so it's best to call ahead or reserve tickets online. Construction of the new stadium was completed in 2009 and replaced the aging Shea Stadium. The new stadium is also used as a concert venue, with Paul McCartney and Dave Matthews performing in 2009 and 2010. Take the 7 train to the Mets–Willets Point station.

A green on Van Cortlandt Golf Course, The Bronx (photo courtesy of http://www.golfinnyc.com/)

9) Van Cortlandt Golf Course, The Bronx: if you thought that NYC was the last place that you'd find a lush golf course, think again. There are several courses of varying size in the outer boroughs, but golf history buffs will want to take a trip to Van Cortlandt. Known as "Vanny" by locals, the Van Cortlandt Golf Course is the oldest course in the US. Constructed in 1895, it sits in the North Bronx, close to Yonkers and is the most easily accessible golf course by subway (take the 1 train directly from Manhattan; the stop is just a few blocks away from the course). After a recent four million dollar renovation, the course features seven new greens, additional cart paths and upgraded bunkers. Past golfers have included Babe Ruth, Sidney Poitier and Willie Mays. Take No. 1 or 9 trains to 242d St.

10) Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island: at the entrance to New York Harbor, on Staten Island, lies one of the oldest and most important military sites in US history. Built in 1663, it was the longest continually manned fort until 1994. Now managed by the National Park Service, park rangers give regular tours of the fort and surrounding area, including the old catacomb-like passageways, Battery Weed and some of the most panoramic views in the city. An excellent and interesting choice for military or history buffs, but worth the trip just for the incredible vistas of New York Harbor and the New York City skyline.









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