Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Joy of Guidebooks

Any Flavor You Like

Any Flavor You Like

When it comes to souvenirs, most people have an area of particular interest. Some go for the obligatory t-shirt or hat with the name of the destination emblazoned for all to see. Others collect spoons, bells, thimbles, or other such trinkets. And yet others are just content with the stamp in their passport to go along with photos as reminders of their trip. While I consider myself a connoisseur of all such areas of interest (with a particular leaning toward hat pins, local musical instruments and not just a t-shirt but the properly artistic RIGHT t-shirt) my first and often favorite keepsake is the purchased before I ever leave—the guidebook.

Yes, my personal library is dominated by travel guidebooks—my earliest accomplices in planning my travels. I’m not 100% sure why they hold such fascination for me. Perhaps it’s because of the promise they hold—that something inside will lead me to a decision that will take me thousands of miles from my home just to experience it in person. Perhaps it’s the validation that if I commit to buying the guidebook then I really must be going to that destination. Or perhaps it’s because I just like to look at pictures and gather ideas on how to make them my own.

Regardless of the underlying psychology, travel guidebooks are still a tremendous resource despite the overabundance of information available on the Web. Below are some of my favorites and why.

1) Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com)

It’s my impression that in the clique of travel guidebooks, Lonely Planet is like the cool kid everybody wants to be like. While other (in fact almost all) guidebooks offer more in the way of color pictures of a destination, when it comes down to cold, hard facts about even the most obscure villages in the remotest parts of a little-known country, I’ve found the entries in Lonely Planet guides to be spot on. Not only are their suggestions about lodging and sights really dependable, but there are extensive maps that come in really handy. So while I’ll usually check out three or four guides from my library for a more complete picture of a given destination, it’s usually the Lonely Planet guide that I buy—especially now that you can purchase only pertinent chapters in .pdf form. It’s also worth mentioning that they offer guides covering a lot more countries than most.

2) DK Eyewitness Guides (www.us.dk.com)

If you’re more interested in learning visually than in simply reading, DK Eyewitness Guides are probably your best bet. Not only are there color photos on nearly every page, but when it comes to examining major points of interest, such as palaces, ruins or other noteworthy monuments, there are illustrated guides and cross-sections showing in great detail the buildings in question. There are also illustrated close-ups of key neighborhoods, which is some pretty useful information when on site. The write-ups of lesser towns or points of interest may be a bit limited, but the visual treat is well worth it and serves to stoke the flames of wanderlust.

3) Insight Guides (www.insightguides.com)

When it comes to pictures, Insight Guides are my favorite. They strike a fine balance between information and visual stimulation. They also have a great free app that offers a daily travel photo of the highest caliber. When I’m looking for ideas I often look at Insight Guides.

Naturally there are many other guides—all with their own virtues. The key is in finding out which brand tells YOU the things YOU want to know. My suggestion is to go to your local library or bookstore and peruse your options before making a purchase. And from there it’s all bliss poring over the information that you would someday make your own. Then you too, can experience the joy of guidebooks and get a leg up on purchasing your first souvenir.

Do you have a favorite guidebook brand? Leave a comment and tell us why!

Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & The Sacred Valley

For decades the forlorn majesty of the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu have drawn travelers the world over. Ever since I first saw that first picture of those terraced green slopes precariously protruding out of the Andean jungle, I vowed to someday see it for myself. So I booked the flights, arranged my transport and lodging, and felt that thrill of knowing nothing was going to stop me from realizing my dream. Then, in early 2010, something did—namely water. Lots of it. Whole mountainsides full of it. So much water that the flooding and ensuing mudslides critically damaged the only infrastructure to and from that iconic outpost, with repairs due a very inconvenient month or so after I was scheduled to return home.

Bummer.

However, due to a bizarre combination of factors that might possibly disrupt the time/space continuum if I tried to explain it, it would have cost more for me to cancel my trip to Peru than to go. So, in order to protect the universe as we know it, I went, and in return received the mother of all consolation prizes: A memorable stay in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley completely unencumbered by that show-stealing, wanderlust-inducing prima donna up to its neck in water less than 100 miles away. Yes, the sideshow had become the main attraction and I couldn’t have been happier.

Despite my clever moniker, I need to be (kind of) serious for just one paragraph. If you intend to visit Cuzco or any other location situated over 11 thousand feet above sea level, be certain your lungs can handle it. Not five minutes after disembarking the plane, my father, whom I was traveling with, began struggling to breathe. Apparently the high altitude exacerbated a previously unknown respiratory infection, so instead of joining me in this Inca wonderland, he spent most of his time in a Peruvian clinic, sucking down giant tanks of oxygen like it was…well…air. Granted, this was an extreme and unforeseen case, but I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that nugget of information along. So, if you don’t want to go the way of the conquistadores, see your doctor first before you book. That said, most people suffer little more than some mild shortness of breath and fatigue when they first arrive, which dissipates rather quickly the longer you stay.

Cuzco, once the capital of the far-flung Incan Empire and believed by them to be the center of the world, fell to Spanish invaders in the 1500’s. In turn, the new overlords denuded the city of its riches, tore down many structures and promptly built their own right on top of the existing (and much sturdier) Inca-built foundations. The result is a unique mix of architecture that blends Old World charm with even Older World engineering. Inca masonry consists of blocks of hewn stone in irregular shapes and sizes so perfectly fit together without mortar, that in many spots it would be really difficult to fit a knife blade between them. Picture in your mind a massive game of organic Tetris (cue maddeningly addicting music here) and you’ve got the idea.

At the hub of this menagerie of terra cotta and plaster is Plaza de Armas, the main square and site of the city’s famous cathedral. Branching off in all directions are narrow streets lined with souvenir shops, hole–in-the-wall restaurants, and indigenous people dressed in traditional garb standing next to the family llama, hoping for a few coins in return for the photo op. Seriously, there were so many llamas everywhere that I felt I was trapped in the end credits of Monty Python & the Holy Grail (you Anglophiles know exactly what I’m talking about).

Llocals with their llama, Cuzco

Llocals with their llama, Cuzco

Llamas aside, there are also a few museums and churches of note, but my favorite experience by far was just wandering the backstreets (not too far back—the neighborhoods can get kind of gritty), perusing the alpaca-centric handicrafts, and enjoying a grilled meat dinner (at times alpaca-centric as well) to be washed down with a pisco sour (the national drink) or a bottle of hyper-sweet Inca Kola, which I highly recommend for anyone who has ever wondered what liquefied bubble gum would taste like.

Once you’ve satisfied your taste for colonial Spanish culture, it’s time to venture outside the city limits to see those Inca ruins that bring so many people here in the first place. At this point I must stress the necessity of having already purchased a Cuzco Visitor’s Ticket, which grants entrance to most attractions both in the city and in outlying regions. If not, you may find yourself stuck outside with the llamas. Most visitors opt for conveniently packaged tours that take in the numerous ruins on the outskirts of town, which can be arranged ahead of time or by one of the many travel agencies in town which rival the llamas in terms of sheer numbers. Since I was divvying my time between sightseeing and my father’s bedside, I can also vouch for the simplicity of just negotiating a price with a local cab driver, which will likely not be as informative, but certainly more flexible to your schedule.

Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru

Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru

The largest attraction just outside of town, is by far the imposing ruins of the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, perched on a bluff overlooking the city. Pronounced as the English term sexy woman, though with no apparent correlation, this cluster of monolithic stones and grassy ramparts made me wonder how any army might have gained mastery of it while being defended. It also made me wonder what I was thinking in telling my wife later on that I went to see Sacsayhuaman (sexy woman) today. And since her appreciation of the subtleties of Quechua terminology are tragically limited, I emptied my pockets of coins and took a great picture of an adorable baby llama just for her as sort of a peace offering.

Not much farther down the road are the ruins of Qenko, Puca Pucara, and Tambo Machay. Here there are great examples of traditional trapezoidal-shaped doorways and windows, an ancient altar, and just a great Inca vibe. In fact, most of the aforementioned ruins just begged the questions: Where is Indiana Jones? Where are they hiding that giant rolling boulder? And what’s with all these llamas? Now that you’ve whetted your appetite for all things Inca, it’s time to venture out into the heartland—the Sacred Valley.

Leaving the congestion of Cuzco behind, a favorite stop is Pisac, known for its colorful market and terraced hillsides above the town. Once again shopping opportunities abound, and yes, you can take a picture with a llama here as well. Following the meandering (and as was the case during my visit) swollen banks of the Urubamba River past the small, touristy town that bears the same name, visitors arrive at what could easily be the main attraction if it weren’t for that ‘other’ set of ruins that people come to see—the living Inca town of Ollantaytambo.

Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Nestled at the base of the verdant valley, the terraced layers reach precipitously upward, forming an amphitheater with stunning views of the village below. Approaching the top of the fortress—once a strategic military post—there is an impressive set of granite monoliths forming a wall that both attests to the endurance of Inca craftsmanship, and leaves one silently pondering just how many llamas were necessary to haul them up there.

Back on the valley floor, there are preserved examples of stone irrigation and other structures that give a glimpse into the past, so long as you can envision the town without souvenir stalls. Still, standing there and looking around at the remaining buildings clinging to the mountainsides and absorbing the authenticity and sense of history, it was completely possible for me to say “Machu who?”

I know quite well that Cuzco and the Sacred Valley will always play second fiddle to the diva out in the hills, and honestly, I’d welcome the chance to return and compare them for myself. But to all potential travelers to the area, I say make some room for exploring the stage, not just its biggest star, and your trip to Peru will have been worth the effort. If not, you can take comfort in knowing that somewhere, very close, there will be a llama waiting just for you.

Categories: Destinations, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

If You’re Going to India, Turn Right at Finland (And Other Stopover Ideas)

Many experienced travelers are familiar with the art of the stopover—that bonus destination on the way to your intended destination. For the novice, this is when your flight passes through another city on the way to your final destination, and you’ve arranged to stop over, and spend some time there before moving on. For many, any unnecessary stops are a nuisance, but if you play your cards right, you can use such stopovers to maximize your trip’s experience.

 

I’ll get into my “maximizing” concept in another post, but for now I’ll just say that those pesky stops on your way there or back can offer the chance to sample a destination you may not have initially targeted. And if you’re already in the neighborhood, why not take the time to stop over and smell the roses?

 

A Day in Helsinki Was A Free Bonus On My Trip To India

A Day in Helsinki Was A Free Bonus On My Trip To India

As a case in point, on my way to New Dehli, our flight (on Finnair) stopped in Helsinki, arriving at 8 in the morning and not continuing on until 8 that evening. What to do with that long layover? Why, head out into the city and explore, of course! Our group had coffee downtown, toured the sprawling World Heritage Site at the Suomenlinna Fortress, and navigated the subway system before returning for our onward flight. Did we see everything? No. Did we see enough? I think so. And in this case, the gray, Scandinavian orderliness served as a tremendous contrast for the colorful chaos of India. The best part? There was no extra charge for seeing firsthand another world capital and gaining some insight on another culture—albeit it one with far too many vowels.

 

Sometimes airlines will charge a fee for a stopover, but usually this isn’t much (less than a hundred dollars). Almost always it’s worth the price. Traveling on Iberia Airlines, my wife and I enjoyed a few days in Madrid on our return from Rome—for only about $45 apiece. Definitely worth it to see some original paintings by Dali and Picasso in the capital of a former empire. Not to be forgotten too is arranging stopovers on award travel. So long as the space is there, often airlines will be willing to oblige at least one stopover on your itinerary. And again, if you’re not paying for it, why not?

 

When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?

When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?

A key factor in effective stopovers is your choice of airline. Most national carriers have their hubs in key cities. So if you’re heading out to Bangkok and always wanted to see Hong Kong, try Cathay Pacific. If you wanted to see Singapore, use Singapore Airlines. I think you get the point. Your routing makes all the difference as to which stopover options are available.

 

So instead of selecting the nonstop only button when choosing your flights, why not expand your horizons and see where that stopover might take you? The bonus experience will be the icing on your trip’s cake, and allow you the chance to explore yet another small piece of the big wide world.

 

Have you ever deliberately arranged a trip to take advantage of a stopover? Leave a comment for us all to discuss.

Categories: Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

You Can Tell Where You Are By Who Comes To Arrest You

Entering the Gerlache Strait counts as visiting Antarctica

Entering the Gerlache Strait counts as visiting Antarctica

I’ve found that when people ask me about my travels, there’s often some debate about what “counts” as a visit. Does it require setting foot on land? Being within one’s field of vision? Traveling a certain distance inland from the coast? Here I will attempt to clear up once and for all what does and does not count as a visit for anyone as lame as myself that actually keeps score.

What Doesn’t Count:

I think I speak for all travel enthusiasts when I say that flying over a country does not count as a visit. On my way to India I looked down across the breadth of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and other assorted ‘stans’, before landing in Delhi. In terms of sheer acreage I probably saw more of these countries than I did India, but in no way, shape or form did I “visit” them. So just because another country is visible, doesn’t mean it counts. The same goes with sailing some distance off the coastline (a.k.a. more than a stone’s throw).

What Does Count:

These South Africangame park rangers would have no problemn reminding you of what country you're in

These South African game park rangers would have no problem reminding you of what country you’re in

Obviously, if you set foot on land in any given country, you’ve been there–regardless of whether you are in transit toward another destination. On my way to South Africa, our plane stopped in Dakar, Senegal and we waited on the tarmac for an hour or two before continuing on our way. Some may argue that this doesn’t count, but I insist that a basic rule of thumb applies: You know where you are by who comes to arrest you. For instance, if you happen to be detained by Turkish Border Police, it is safe to assume that at the moment of your apprehension you were within the borders of Turkey. So, using this standard of measure, yes, I “visited” Senegal, even though I did little more than breathe in the desert-scented air and stare out at the dusty roads around the airport. I was there, and I know this because it would have been the Senegalese Army to throw me in prison if I stepped out of line.

Now as for travel by sea, I feel the lines blur a little bit. I don’t think gazing out at the hazy silhouette of Cuba from a cruise ship counts as a visit. But if the vessel you are on is well within territorial waters to the point of being in port or surrounded by the country in question–such as on a river cruise or enclosed harbor–or you can speak to someone on the shoreline because you’re just that close, then yes, in my book you’re there. How do I know this? Once again, just ask yourself: if I decided to commit a felony right here and now, who would come to arrest me?

As a case in point, when I visited Antarctica I never actually set foot on land. But at one point we entered a harbor on King George Island where we were completely surrounded on all sides by the snowy shoreline. At another point, we cruised down the Nuemeier Channel where it would only be a moderate snowball’s toss to hit the penguins and Weddell Seals lazing on the icy banks. We were not near another country (though technically Antarctica isn’t a “country” and therefore doesn’t have any police to arrest you) and there could be no doubt as to where we were. In fact, sometimes the proof of a visit can be ascertained by asking the question conversely: If I ‘m not in Antarctica right now, where in the world am I?

I hope this clears things up a bit, and I know others may feel differently. Feel free to leave a comment to let me know where you stand and I’ll be happy to post a follow-up with the audience’s thoughts.

Categories: Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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