As the COVID-19 pandemic rages worldwide, I consider myself fortunate for two reasons. The first is that neither I nor any of my loved ones have been infected (as of the time of writing). The second, while less-important, is something of a miracle: In one of the rare moments of my adult life, I had no trips planned even before this virus began running amuck.
This is not to say I can’t empathize or even sympathize with the millions of people who did, and now have to somehow accept that in addition to the loss of employment, health and the freedom to dine-in at their favorite Mexican restaurant, there’s the loss of that much-anticipated vacation that is now put on hold, perhaps even indefinitely. If that describes you, know that you have my condolences. I too mourn your loss of the vacation that never came to be.
In the meantime, while we’re (mostly) all at home, binge-watching TV and avoiding our bathroom scales, there are three easy steps that you can take that will help to temper this loss, even if it can’t replace it. I’ve dug through the Trip Accomplice archives to bring you these still-pertinent suggestions, which I can sum up in three words: Relive, Review & Research.
Early on I shared some insights on the benefits of keeping a travel journal in the post An Accidental Autobiography. At this point I’ve chronicled more than 26 years worth of travel in this very manner, and now that I’m stuck at home with more time than usual, it has been a great opportunity to read through their pages and relive the memories that would be completely forgotten had I not written it down. I’ve also taken the opportunity to interrupt my TV viewing with videos taken from past trips, allowing me a glimpse of the world at large that I am currently unable to experience in person without a ventilator.
With weeks if not months of quarantine ahead, this is a great chance to catch up on going through those thousands of digital photos from your last few trips that exist solely on your hard drive, and do something that will bring them to the light of day. Years ago I wrote a post Photo Book Basics for the Traveling Photographer in which I detailed some tried and true techniques to transform those gigabytes of unseen data into a showcase presentation that will properly preserve your trip. In summary, it’s time to choose the best 150-300 of your travel photos and organize them in a way that will tell the story in a way to engage even the most apathetic of audiences – with the added bonus that you can do everything online and have it shipped straight to your house with no social distancing necessary. Sure it takes some time, but for most of us that’s a rather moot point at the moment.
If history is any indicator, this too shall pass, which means that at some point we’ll all be free to move about the planet to fulfill our wanderlust postponed. So why not get yourself ready by starting your research? One of the first posts on this blog was me waxing poetic about the joy of guidebooks, a nod to the pleasure that comes from planning trips, not just going on them. You can address your wanderlust, if not sate it, by discovering the details you may have overlooked during your original trip planning, or get started on a new one. Of course YouTube is filled with travel videos of varying degrees of watchability, where you should be able to find some video footage of your intended destination. And if you haven’t already read it, I shamelessly must recommend my 2015 travel ebook You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper (a surprisingly-prophetic title I might add) for some great advice on destinations across all seven continents.
Stay Safe and Dream On
It’s still too soon to predict the when and how this current scourge will pass, but hopefully by following the abovementioned advice it can do something to fill in the time and even allay the anxiety and disappointment of vacations lost. By turning your attentions to something you can control, perhaps you too will be able to subsist on memories and projects until it is once again time to venture out into this amazing planet, where we will be free to gather with friends, to embrace our loved ones, and find paper hygiene products in abundance, the way life should be.
Do you have a suggestion or comment on how to handle wanderlust postponed? Leave a comment below.
I know I’m not the first to be captivated by a fascination with the Amazon Rain Forest. For anyone with even a slight case of wanderlust, the very concept of an ecosystem so large that it dominates the majority of an entire continent is traveler’s catnip. So when my circumstances led me to travel to Ecuador, I made it a specific point to see this mysterious landscape for myself.
Of course, being so large, there are countless areas from which to begin an exploration. Even in Ecuador itself, there are many reserves and national parks preserving wide swathes of rain forest as it descends from the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains. After researching my options, I decided that the Cuyabeno Reserve in the northeastern part of the country – just a few miles from the border with Columbia – would be my point of entry, and my gateway to one of the most exotic of all exotic destinations.
In the course of my research I learned a lot about the region, what to expect, transportation options and accommodations. If you’re one to hear the call of the wild, I invite you to read on for a detailed rundown of planning a trip to the jungle.
Where is Cuyabeno Reserve?
As I just mentioned, it is in the northeastern section of the country, close to the borders of Columbia and Peru. The nearest commercial airport would be Lago Agrio (LGQ) in the gritty oil town of Nueva Loja, which can be reached via an 8 hour bus ride, or a 45 minute flight (I highly recommend the flight).
How Do I Get There?
Even if you just spent the night on a bus getting to Nueva Loja, your travels are far from over. From the city it takes a two hour bus ride through jungle-clad hills awash in green to a place called “El Puente”. As the names suggests, this a bridge, where you will then disembark, use the facilities at a snack bar/visitor center, then be loaded onto a canoe for another two hours of travel down the river. Most accommodation is centered around Laguna Grande – a large lagoon with various ‘resorts’ tucked away along its tributaries. Outsiders are not allowed to visit the reserve without being accompanied by a guide, so it’s important to book a tour (usually including accommodations, meals and the aforementioned guide) with one of the many outfitters that offer them – including many agencies in the capital city of Quito. As for me, I booked directly through the Caiman Eco Lodge website.
What Are Accommodations Like?
In general, the lodges in Cuyabeno are not ‘luxury’ properties by most people’s standards. While costing quite a bit more than staying in a hostel – a pastime highly favored among young backpackers – the facilities are still on the rustic side. But have I mentioned that you’re in the middle of the Amazon jungle? What else do you expect?
The Caiman Eco Lodge was par for the course as far as Cuyabeno accommodations go. You arrive at a long wooden dock where there is an unused lobby and steps leading up into an open area lined by thatched roofed huts that house several bedrooms apiece. Anchoring each end of the clearing are larger buildings. At the far end is a tower containing more hotel rooms until you reach the top, where you can relax in a small lounge or climb up to the roof for a canopy-eye view of the lodge (and apparently the next one over as well). Near the dock is the main building, which houses the open kitchen, a large dining area, some comfortable seating and the tiny bar. Connected to this via a raised walkway is the building near the dock, which on its upper floor houses a room full of hammocks overlooking the river. Personally, this was my favorite place on the property.
The room comes standard with screened windows, a tiny porch with a clothesline that would be useful if the sun decided to show up, and mosquito netting to go over the beds. There’s a private bathroom and shower, but bear in mind that the toilets are for organic materials only. So if it didn’t come out of you, it shouldn’t go in there. There’s a small trash can for any paper used, which honestly should be changed more often than it was.
Though cramped, rustic, and not at all soundproof, the accommodations did not disappoint. A trip like this is supposed to make you feel like you’re on an island of civilization in the middle of the wild – mainly because it is. And while I personally didn’t have too much of the ‘wild’ come into my room to visit – besides a pair of frogs that took us by surprise – I should mention that the potential is there. I’m not going to lie – every trip to the bathroom was first accompanied by a sweep with my flashlight for any unwanted visitors.
How Is the Food?
Since you’re literally hours from the nearest town, it’s not like you can just go out for a bite to eat. Meals are included in all packages and served at set times, usually just before or after included activities – which I’ll go into more in a second.
At the Caiman Eco Lodge I found the food to be far better than expected. Breakfasts were full and tasty, lunch usually consisted of a soup, main dish and dessert and dinners were much fancier fare than one would suspect to find so far out in the jungle. As an added bonus, there’s lots of opportunity to mingle with other guests during meals, and the camaraderie created makes for a greater shared experience.
What is There To Do & See in Cuyabeno?
Each lodge offers its own guided activities, but generally speaking they break down into a few basic universal offerings.
By far the most popular activity is to head out on a motorized boat or canoe to search for wildlife (more on that soon). Another popular option are guided hikes through the jungle with explanations of the various flora and its use by native peoples. In my case, we didn’t see a whole lot of wildlife on the hike, but the trek through the swamp due to early flooding left a lasting impression on both me and my pants.
While I decided to sit it out in favor of some rest, the package also included a visit to an indigenous tribe to sample the native lifestyle and consult with a shaman. Also included was a night hike to see the vast array of giant creepy-crawlies that emerged unnervingly close to the lodge. Remind me never to run through the Amazon in the dark.
My favorite activity – animal encounters aside – was when we finally had an evening with no cloud cover and were able to take a sunset swim on the lagoon. We were offered the use of a paddle board and splashed around as the golden light faded into an amalgam of orange, blues and pinks. Watching the sunset from the water was a truly satisfying moment – the kind that motivates a traveler to come so far in the first place and to treasure the gift of life and the amazing experiences to be had. It was also helpful to forget about whatever dangerous marine life might have been swimming all around me at that very moment. Like I said, this is the Amazon Rain Forest . . .
What Kind of Wildlife Will I See?
This was the foremost question on my mind as we took off from El Puente and curved around one bend in the river after another. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to see a flock of macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys leaping through the branches and even a sloth – which are much easier to photograph in action than the others for obvious reasons.
During the rest of the trip, we got up early for birdwatching, and while I can’t recall the name of every bird I saw – the majority of which decided to stay inconveniently high up in the canopy so that I wouldn’t get a clear shot with my camera – there were plenty to see. From the lodge itself I saw adorable tamarinds playing in the trees, caught sight of a caiman in the creek behind us and there’s no mistaking the disturbingly loud howls of howler monkeys as they pass by – especially when it’s four in the morning.
On the river we caught glimpses of pink river dolphins, who sadly are not as curious or playful as their open water brethren. Every so often there would also be disturbances in the water from what our guide assured us were very big fish, so keep an eye out for real life river monsters.
In addition, we saw lots of other types of monkeys, more sloths, and even caught a glimpse of an anteater who was in a hurry. During the night walk there were some hand-sized fisherman spiders, and just as scary-looking smaller ones that are still bigger than the biggest spiders where I’m from. I didn’t see any tarantulas but was assured that they’re out there. We even saw a scorpion spider, which is neither scorpion nor spider, but still gave off the whole heebie-jeebie vibe.
A highlight for me was seeing not just one but two anacondas on our ride back, as well as a black snake whose body disappeared into the brush. Apparently after rainy days they’ll sun themselves on tree branches along the river, and thus make great subjects for up close photos.
Since this kind of trip is all about immersion in nature, bear in mind that electric power is only available at certain times, so be sure to charge those cameras and batteries when you can. Speaking of cameras, much of the wildlife you’ll see will be beyond the normal zoom range of your lens, so if you come looking for National Geographic type shots, you’d better invest in a dedicated zoom lens if you’re going to capture the facial expressions of a troop of capuchin monkeys in the upper canopy.
Considering how much time and effort it takes to get to Cuyabeno, I highly recommend a stay of at least 3 nights or even more if you really want to take your time without the threat of a few bad days of weather ruining your trip. This is the rain forest, so expect some rain, which literally puts a damper on wildlife viewing trips and sort of defeats the purpose of a sunset swim. Ponchos and rubber boots are provided, but long pants and long sleeved shirts for night walks – as well as a flashlight – are your own responsibility. Note too that due to the ‘black’ water surrounding the area, which is high in organic materials and acids, mosquitoes are not an issue and there’s no real threat of malaria – but you never can be too sure, can you?
Getting to the Amazon was high on my list of travel goals. This sort of natural immersion was just what I needed and exactly what I wanted. Honestly, aside from that amazing sunset swim, my favorite experience was lounging in a hammock and listening to the cacophony of noise from a myriad of insects and who knows what else as night approached. That’s the mystique of the Amazon region: you never know what’s just around the next bend in the river, and in my book, such mystery will forever be considered muy bueno.
With each passing year it seems that cruise ships become increasingly large. I’m sure that given enough time they’ll eventually have Formula One racetracks, regulation size soccer fields and 50 acre horse farms on board. But for now the current giants of the seas are content with such “compact” amenities as ice rinks, rock climbing walls and wave riding pools. Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas is just such a ship, and I recently had the chance to sample some of these over-the-top experiences while at sea, plus many more. Here’s a rundown on the good, the bad, and everything in between.
The first pro for me was a convenient departure port. Living in Houston meant that in just a little over an hour’s drive I could be down in Galveston, ready to board. Though fog had closed the port until the time of our intended departure, the staff did their best to get us processed and in our staterooms in the timeliest way possible considering the circumstances. Which brings me to the next pro…
With so much homogeny among cruise lines, its the little things that set them apart. I had to say that I was very pleased with not only the friendliness of the staff, but the sincere effort to be of help that they exuded. Normally I don’t pay all that much attention to such things, only noticing when something isn’t right. But I give them credit – all those guests and they still had a smile that didn’t appear to be just a mask hiding the raging desire to throw any and all tourists overboard.
Another pro was the ship itself. These days, the massive behemoths plying the cruise circuit are intended to be a destination unto themselves, and the Liberty is no exception. The top decks are literally overflowing with attractions – from a pair of waterslides, to rock climbing walls just perfect for public embarrassment, to a simulated surf pool where bleacher seating guarantees your public embarrassment. There are ample pools, both for kids and just for adults, plus two hot tubs extending out over the side of the ship for some vertigo to go along with your soaking.
In the interior of the ship there’s a long promenade that not only serves as an effective conduit and point of reference, but also hosts a variety of shops and specialty restaurants (more on that later). The gym is sufficient and there’s a dedicated walking/running track outside just in case you didn’t work up enough sweat exercising in the air conditioning. I’m not a gambler, so I can’t really comment on the casino’s merits, but it seems ample and rather (in)conveniently placed when traversing the ship. I should also mention that despite the large amount of passengers onboard, there are lots of quiet places tucked away throughout the ship where you can find some peace and even (gasp) some solitude.
Lastly, I should also mention that RC is consistently at the lower price range on their cruises, making it a great value for the money. With that in mind, we have a better context for the cons.
Honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot to complain about, but since I’ve already dedicated a section to doing so, I might as well do my griping now.
My first observation upon entering the ship – other than awe at the cavernous space I was standing in – is that there were a good number of ‘attractions’ that weren’t included. In fact, during a stroll down the promenade there are numerous little restaurants and shops that incurred additional fees, like anything other than regular (weak) coffee or a treat from the cupcake shop. There’s a Johnny Rockets onboard, where you could really pig out for a flat fee, but if I’m going to consume my entire daily caloric intake in one meal, I want to do it for free – know what I’m saying?
Of course, there are several specialty restaurants which require additional fees, and I think that I’ve already made myself clear on how I feel about that. Considering that the main dining rooms – artfully tiered over several decks at the stern – offered better than average fare, I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to try them unless you see something on one of the menus that you’ve really got a hankering for.
I know that cruise lines make a good portion of their profit from onboard sales, but these days many cruise lines, much like the airlines, now give the vibe that they see you as a ripe cash cow just waiting to be milked. Cocktails were unnecessarily pricey – which is expected – but what annoyed me the most was the blatant markup of even basic products in their store. When my wife came down with a cold, I nearly got sick myself when I had to pay $17 for a small bottle of Day-quil. Naturally, I still got it for her, but come on guys – is that really necessary? Are you somehow associated with the company that makes Epi-Pens?
The only other minor complaint would be with the general communication with the guests. When we had some unexpected delays, they weren’t all that quick to convey this, resulting in lines at the Purser’s Desk and confusion regarding shore excursions. Not that this ruined anything, but when it turns out that I didn’t have to get up until an hour later than what was originally said, I got a little cranky (FYI- not a morning person).
Lastly, and I really can’t say it is a con in and of itself, the itinerary – Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica – is rather pedestrian. Those places are nice to be sure, but are so cliché to anyone who has cruised more than once, that I feel at least one port beyond the ordinary would do much to make the destinations as appealing as the ship.
A Great Not So Secret Deal – The Chef’s Table
Remember when I implied that it felt like guests were being viewed as a bunch of sunburned dollar signs? Well, this actually worked out well to our advantage on at least one occasion. While munching on lunch in the Windjammer Café that every ship seems to have, a waiter approached us with an interesting proposition. For about $85 per person, our group (adults only) could have a very special dining experience in a select, secret location. Intrigued, and feeling a little cheap that we didn’t splurge on any of the specialty restaurants, we all decided it was a good idea (especially when Dad decided to treat everyone!) and as a result I had one of the top two best meals of my life. The other was on the Italian island of Ponza, but that’s another story…
To start we were asked to meet at Vintages – a wine bar on the promenade, where we were given a glass of champagne (all alcohol in this package was included). Once sufficiently ‘relaxed’ we followed our host to the stern, where on the top tier of the dining venues, right at the balcony overlooking it all that I earlier had said ‘wouldn’t it be cool to eat at that table’, we were seated around a private table screened off from the riff-raff of our fellow guests. The head chef came out and told us about how he personally was preparing this meal, what we could expect, and how much we were going to enjoy it.
At first I was a little skeptical, especially when they brought out our appetizer of scallops that were so finely sliced I thought it was just a film on our tiny little dishes. They were tasty, but if we were going to be in for some weirdo kind of dining experience where the food came in spray form or a beam of light, I wouldn’t be having any of it. But when the soup came out – tomatoes roasted for 6 hours and poured hot into a bowl with soft cheese – all fears dissipated. In fact, it was so tasty I just wanted to stand up and punch somebody.
This was followed by a main course of filet mignon so tender I could use it as a spread, plus a shared order of truffle ravioli so delicious I wanted to cry. We finished off with some fantastic dessert, and I should also mention, finished off another round of wine. Each course came with a specifically (and sometimes expensive) paired wine, which left us feeling beyond full, yet very happy. It wasn’t cheap, but I’m sure it beat any specialty restaurant out there.
Odds and Ends
The entertainment on board ranged between ‘that’s pretty cool/funny/nice’ and ‘meh’. The shows were usually packed, so unless you get there early you might be forced to stand – that is if you can, after dinner. The ice show was definitely worth seeing, and really what’s not to like about watching pretty girls being flung around, often inches from the ice? I’m a bit too old and married to be hitting the clubs, but even in the evening it didn’t seem much like a party ship – whether that’s a pro or con depends on you.
Weighing the pros and cons, I’d definitely have to give it to the pros. Sailing on the Liberty of the Seas was a great value and a good time despite the run-of-the-mill itinerary. Sure it’s big, and yeah, just about every point on the ship is about half a mile from your cabin. But in a sea of giants, with bigger giants on the way, this one was gentle enough to be worth the walk.
Have you cruised on the Liberty of the Seas? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below.
Well, it’s January again, which means it’s time to take a quick look in the rear view mirror before moving on to the year ahead. Below is a recap of the articles that have appeared here on the Trip Accomplice blog – I invite you to take a look in case there was something you missed. I’ll even refrain from mocking you for it.
This year I’ve led my readers on a tour through destinations in 7 foreign countries and 2 famous spots in the U.S.A. Along the way I’ve recounted some amazing experiences available at said destinations, as well as practical advice, points of interest, and even a few tips.
The subjects of my posts this past year were overwhelmingly slanted toward Asia-to the tune of seven out of seven. Considering that most of the world’s population and landmass resides there, this should come as no surprise. Add to that the fact that my past two journeys abroad were a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia and a few weeks in Sri Lanka via a stop in the Middle East, and the implications are clear.
The first post was on the amazing opportunity visitors to Bali are afforded in: Mantas Need Showers Too-Diving Nusa Penida. If you ever wanted to float among giants, then this post is worth checking out. Even if you don’t have the guts, but are curious to see a maniac like myself doing so, it’s still worth a look. Next I focused my attention to the next archipelago over in Touring Manila Without Pushing The Envelope – an overview of what to do and see in the Philippine capital. Spoiler Alert: there isn’t much, but if you happen to be there, I’ve got some suggestions for you.
The next stop on our Asian tour focused on another awesome experience, this time outside of the city of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. As the title would suggest Rafting with the Wild Man of Borneo, this is a destination piece that not only details the perils of whitewater rafting in the primordial rain forests of Borneo, but the incredible nature of the setting. Even if you’ve never picked up a paddle (or ever intend to) it’s still a fun read. From there I crossed the South China Sea for two posts about the underrated destination of Vietnam. In Good Morning Vietnam/Goodnight Saigon I recounted the sights to see in Vietnam’s most vibrant city through the lens of an American who grew up in an era where that was the war featured in pop culture’s attention. Next I shared some practical details about two out of three of the top sights of Central Vietnam in Da Nang, Vietnam – Where Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. For the record, this area could have easily occupied several weeks of activity, instead of the single day I had at my disposal. If you’re looking for some tropical/historic vacation ideas, you’ll definitely want to take a peek at what you missed.
Shifting to Central Asia, I posted my longest piece of the year-a rundown of not only the best destinations to see in Sri Lanka, but everything a potential traveler would need to know before going in the post India Lite: An Overview of Sri Lanka. The nearly three weeks I spent there in June/July of 2017 gave me a great view of both the highlights and the challenges. If I had to sum it up in a few words: the good outweighed the bad. The next post touched on a little jitney I took on my way there, entitled Day Trip to Musandam, Oman. Since I had over 24 hours to spend in Dubai, UAE, naturally I had to venture further afield. This post tells you the practicalities and pros and cons of doing so.
Lastly, I once again wrote about Southeast Asia in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay – Where Myst Meets Pandora, which tells about the biggest difference in the city/state since the last time I had visited in 2003. Filled with references from my younger years, it’s a good place to start for anyone considering a trip to Singapore.
Destinations At Home
2017 saw me visiting two famous American destinations – one for the first time, the other for the first time as an adult.
In The Best-Kept Secret Spot in the Grand Canyon (Don’t Tell Them I Told You) I shared specific details on finding this special place away from the crowds in arguably the most majestic site of natural beauty anywhere. Not only is the Grand Canyon an absolute must for any serious traveler, but the “secret spot” is a must for those who wish to enjoy it in relative privacy.
The other popular U.S. destination I featured was in the post A Day in the Vineyard (Wine Optional), which was a rundown of the sights and logistics of visiting the New England gem of Martha’s Vineyard. Though not terribly different geologically than my birthplace of Long Island, this staple of summer fun was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.
What’s Next in 2018?
The only concrete travel plans I have in 2018 are on a Western Caribbean cruise beginning in February which will take me back to three places I have visited previously – Mexico, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. The last time I visited the former and the latter was over 17 years ago, so I’m sure I’ll have some updated information to share. Besides that I have some ideas in the works, but won’t speculate too much until they firm up.
Speaking of what’s next, if you, dear reader have a destination you’d like me to speak about, or speak more about, please leave a comment below and perhaps you just might get your wish before the 2018 Year in Review. And as always, thanks for being a loyal reader and accompanying me around the world. It wouldn’t be the same trip without you.