Month: February 2011

A Guru to Help Find a Good Airplane Seat

Flying economy class needs to be as enjoyable as possible and a good seat can make all the difference, especially on long-haul flights. As seasoned travelers we know that all seats are not created equal. We really cannot control who sits around us, but to some degree, we can control where we sit.

Some airlines block available seats until the last minute and it is hard to get the coveted bulkhead and exit aisle seats. Those seats cannot even be requested until you are at the gate. I personally prefer to sit next to the window on the left side of the plane, just behind the wing. So when I am booking my ticket and reserving my seat I am also checking out to find which are the best of the available seats on my particular flight.

Among other things it comments about each seat per aircraft- which ones are good, have drawbacks, seat pitch, seat width and which ones have a power port. This information makes finding a good seat much easier.

Unfortunately SeatGuru can’t help us avoid the armrest hog, the seat-kicking child or the inconsiderate recliner. I think pure luck is needed for that.


Exploring Wild Madagascar Webinar

Did you know that there are 12 species of lemurs living on the island of Madagascar? Get up close and personal with them and other rainforest wildlife through your computer.

Natural Habitat Adventures is hosting a free webinar on March 2, 10:30am MST. Conrad Henning, the world’s leading authority on nature travel in Madagascar, will be leading the webinar. Register here.


Bargaining in the World Markets

Whether it is buying spices in Marrakech, carpets in Istanbul, tea in Kathmandu or leather goods in Florence, a fair price can be found with a little haggling. To be honest, I have not always haggled. Sometimes the prices are quite fair and to bargain for a lower price feels like I am robbing the vendor. Nonetheless vendors expect you to bargain and it is worth it to try to get the best deal for souvenirs of your journeys.

Here are some things to remember when shopping in the world markets…

Stroll along– Take your time while shopping and do not feel obligated. Check out all the stands and shops. Many vendors carry the same or similar items. See who has the best selection, quality and price.

Walk away– Do not look as if your trip will be ruined if you do not purchase the item. Instead, look indifferent as if you can take it or leave it. Be ready to walk away.

Determine worth– Decide how much you are willing to pay before you start the bargaining process. Having cash on hand can sometimes insure a better price.

Be friendly– Bargaining is a cultural interaction as well as shopping experience. Being friendly is courteous and could also be advantageous to the price.

Let the haggling begin– The vendor should be the first to suggest a price. Counter offer with a price you feel comfortable with, but also does not insult the vendor. A good rule of thumb is offer half as much as he offered. A happy medium can usually be met. Worried about a language barrier? English is spoken in most markets, but if not, vendors also communicate by using a calculator or the old-fashioned pen and paper.

Exude confidence– No matter what your bargaining skill level is, be confident that you can get the price you want by being confident in your haggling abilities.

Borders & Customs– Know what is allowed to be taken out of a country and what is allowed to be brought into your own.

Buy it– Once you and the vendor have settled on a good price then purchase the item. It is insulting to the vendor to go through all that and then not buy it.

I find it hard to resist these colorful marketplaces so I make sure I leave room in my suitcase to bring my treasures home.


U.S. Customs Global Entry Cards

We have all experienced this before. We arrive home after a long international flight, the plane pulls up to the gate and the seat belt sign goes off. That is our cue to begin the mad dash out of the plane and through the terminal to hurry up and wait in the slow customs lines.

Well, we can relax. Now U.S. Customs is offering Global Entry Cards so we do not have to wait in the lines when reentering the U.S.

Global Entry is a program that allows travelers to be issued a pass to skip the customs lines and check in at a kiosk in minutes.”

I came across this article from Gaby Varela that anyone who has sat in U.S. Customs for any length of time will appreciate. There is some upfront paperwork and an interview involved, but once approved, it will be quicker to get through customs. I find it appealing that one of the benefits is that other countries are getting on board with this program and allowing U.S. citizens to clear their customs faster as well.

By skipping the customs lines I will have more time to get a good position at the baggage carousel.


Basic Adventure Skills 101

“Being prepared means being able to survive with what’s in your pants.”

Here is a great, detailed article by Frederick Reimer on the basic skills every adventure traveler should know. It covers everything from landing at an airport to bribes, basic travel gear to expedition funding and whether or not to buy travel insurance. It is packed with a wealth of information, some of which you may already know.

I never knew about the decoy wallet filled with expired ID, cards and money. And I was glad to learn what a fixer was in case I might need one in the future.


Mexican Beach Sanctuary

It was one of those gorgeous afternoons.

As our airliner descended over the turquoise coast of Guerrero, Mexico, passing the built up resort cities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo it circled over arid flatlands and landed at Zihuatanejo’s modest international airport.  The dry, fragrant heat, the old rescue vehicles stationed off the tarmac and the sway of coconut trees behind the one and only hangar gave us that inescapable rush of adrenalin you feel when you know you just set foot on foreign soil.

We could smell the sea.

We were whisked through customs and jumped into a taxi and headed south, in the opposite direction of Zihuatanejo. We drove for forty minutes or so on the main highway -Carreterra Federal 200- through a cluster of tiny towns until we reached Juluchuca, a small village where it seemed sleepy dogs and scampering chickens outnumbered the population. We entered Juluchuca and traversed its only lumpy, sandy road and pulled up to a shack of a house on the edge of the tiny community. There the driver rolled his window down and asked a woman in Spanish, “Si pasamos?” (“Can we pass?”). She beamed and nodded with a laugh. He turned to me and said. “Vamonos!”

Thus began our love affair with the casual and friendly nature of the people we were to meet on the next two weeks throughout Mexico.

Within a few minutes our little taxi forged across a river with laughing, naked children and sweaty women doing their laundry. We continued on along the solitary road for another ten minutes or so, cactus and hardy, knotty foliage hemming us in on both sides.  Suddenly we came up over a rise and found ourselves at the end of the line.

If there are two words that can sum up a getaway that captures the essence of luxury rustic and yet is a model of harmony with its natural surroundings, then here it was, right in front of us…

Playa Viva.

A team of architects and ecological experts from the Bay area of California headed by David Leventhal have created an off-the-beaten-path escape that not only defines everything a self sufficient, sustainable retreat should be but takes it to another realm that all visionaries should follow.
We didn’t even have time to get out of our taxi before we were surrounded by the ear to ear smiles of our wonderful hosts.  We were led over sand to our guest quarters, a stunningly designed open-air suite that summed up what beach living is all about. But perhaps the crowning touch was that the adobe-like walls and palm frond roof of our “hut” were separated by a gap through which the warm breeze and sounds of the ocean would fill our dreams for the next few days.

Ahhh…the beach…

Within seconds our sandals were off and we were standing in front of a wild, honey-colored, sweeping beach that disappeared in either direction. The sight of rolling, jade-colored waves cast its spell as we stood hypnotized and watched a giant, glowing red disc dissolve over the horizon in what would be our first of memorable sunsets.

In the days that followed we would walk this 10 kilometer stretch of beach for hours, not a soul or dwelling in sight…seriously. We watched as whales breached and dolphins frolicked seemingly just beyond our fingertips, as manta rays and fish skimmed along cresting waves and pelicans glided by on their mysterious missions. Playa Viva literally means “Beach Alive” and it became easy to see why it had been given this title.

I could go on forever about the sensational hospitality of the on site crew that took care of us at Playa Viva, of their wonderful, sincere smiles and the mouth watering, traditional dishes they prepared every day. I could describe how special it was to visit the nearby Turtle Sanctuary , a shelter built down the beach to provide a protected, birthing habitat for the threatened turtle species in this part of Mexico.

The superlatives quickly pile up.

But there was something else about Playa Viva that struck us and needs to be mentioned.

Playa Viva was not only a gorgeous escape from our daily grind elsewhere but a reminder that a more conscious focus on the conservation and nurturing of our surroundings is possible…while traveling. From the organic gardens that supplied virtually all of the food we ate, to the rainwater-trapped irrigation system and solar powered energy, Playa Viva was not only a profound example of what little impact we can achieve abroad while chilling out but of a philosophy and practical approach to our environment that we should take with us when we go back home.

As travelers, vacationers, beach bums, thrill seekers, whatever, it’s critical to be aware of how we tread over this planet. If there was one thing we appreciated above and beyond the staggering beauty of this beach haven it was that we ended up indirectly being some small part of a project –not just a retreat- that pays respect to the very soil it was built on and strives to protect the environment that surrounds it.


Aztec Escape

It’s mid winter, frozen tongues of ice hang from your gutter, the sky is dark grey and the ominous moan of a painfully cold wind curls around your house. What do you do? You ignore the dire US Homeland Security warnings, turn your back on the negative images splashed across your computer and TV screen, stuff some clothes and sun block into your travel bag and head to…Mexico.


But what about all the violence? The uncontrolled drug warfare?

Having just got back from there, I can honestly say that the charm of our southern neighbor was intoxicating and my wife and I felt utterly safe.  Yes, you will notice an increased police presence but contrary to what you might think, it made us feel safer and they were certainly respectful of the comfort level of foreigners.

Let’s understand one thing.

The reports of unprecedented narco-violence are distressing to say the least.  I would not be doing justice to an outsider’s fears if I didn’t mention that. But consider this; as is often the case in sensationalized international media coverage, the worst problems are usually very isolated issues, both geographically and psychologically. Most of Mexico’s drug cartel warfare outbreaks are close to the US border. International borders -by sheer virtue of being an official division between cultures -create spontaneous and often ugly cities that harbor all manner of transactions and interactions between both nationalities. Sadly, sometimes those negotiations breed unpleasant results.  Bear in mind though, virtually every international border in the world is a hotbed of illegal activity. Mexico is no exception. Nonetheless, and not to downplay the violence, Mexican border towns such as Ciudad Juarez have some serious problems to overcome and we can only all hope that the Mexican government will take command and find a way to genuinely end the gang warfare that has claimed so many innocent lives.

Mexico is a big country.

Its culture and geography twists and morphs from the northern deserts of states like Chihuahua to the paradox of pine-clad mountains and jungle-strangled lowlands of its most southern state, Chiapas.  Not to be outdone by other -perhaps more popular- tourist destinations, it may be surprising to know that Mexico is in the top 10 most visited countries in the world, contains the most UNESCO Heritage sites in all of the Americas and has one of the largest, fastest growing economies on the planet.

It has 500 yr old colonial towns, world class museums, colorful, indigenous populations that remain virtually unaltered from the Spanish Conquistadors, fantastic ancient pyramids, a cuisine that has my mouth watering just writing about it, butterfly covered forests, endless rivers, stunning canyons, and literally thousands of miles of beaches.

What more do you want?

My wife and I only had 2 weeks to play with so our golden rule of travel raised its hand immediately.

Quality over quantity.

We decided that we needed to ease into Mexico.

Our memories of rugged chicken buses and endless journeys on prehistoric trains didn’t sound that appetizing either. As another rule, we like to go places we’ve never been before so we set our sights on the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, central Mexico, with the intention of arriving on the coast and traveling overland to the throbbing heart of Mexico City to depart back to the States.

Zihuatanejo is a small city on Guerrero’s Pacific coast that happens to have an international airport and thus a convenient entry point. What was once a sleepy, fishing village, “Zihua” –as it is known by locals- has become very developed. I did some research and discovered a long, tranquil stretch of beach called Barra de Potosi that lies about twenty minutes south of the Zihua frenetic buzz.  My online surfing suggested the Barra was a pleasant alternative but not perhaps ideal. I have to admit, we wanted the impossible…a beautiful, rustic palace, gourmet food, a sunset beach that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, a beach where our only companions would be turtles, whales, dolphins and the odd seagull…

…And we found it.

If you read my next post maybe I’ll let you in on the secret…


Travel Bucket List: A List Worth Making

Everyone who enjoys traveling and getting out there to see the world probably has a travel bucket list that’s inspiring. Personally, my list is long and I seem to be continually adding to it. Once I experience the top two I will have completed my quest of being to all continents. That doesn’t end my quest by any means: as there are there are so many places spanning the globe that are so rich with interesting places, people and activities I’ve yet to experience.

My top 10:

1. South America– I’d like to experience the wonder of the Galapagos Islands, the mystery of Easter Island and the wild of the Amazon. To explore Patagonia, hike to Machu Picchu and walk the upper and lower catwalks for an up close experience of Iguazú Falls. With so many countries the discoveries are endless.

2. Antarctica: One of the largest and most inhospitable places on the planet for humans, but the place Emperor penguins call home.   I must time my visit to coincide with the birth of baby Emperor Penguins.

3. A Bengal tiger safari in India: Hands down my favorite animal is the Panthera tigris. To watch them in their natural habitat is something I have to see.

4. An East Africa Safari: The elusive leopard stayed hidden from view on my Botswana safari. With any luck I might get to see one of these solitary cats in Kenya along with the other wildlife that’s plentiful there.

5. Explore Ancient Egypt and Jordan– Egypt and Jordan have both fascinated me since I studied their art, history and culture at University.

6. Scuba dive the Red Sea- The sea life is still very rich, colorful and unspoiled here and so I feel it’s a great destination for my first dive.

7. Volunteer for endangered species expeditions- Giving of my time with hands on volunteering to help endangered species from becoming extinct would be more personally rewarding to me than just writing a check.

8. Camel trek in Morocco- Maybe I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia one too many times. Traveling over the dunes of the vast Sahara Desert on camel back just calls to me.

9. See the Aurora Borealis– I am eager to see the Northern Lights, imagining it would be twice as amazing as seeing the Milky Way on a dark, clear night.

10. Explore these islands: Fijian, Maldives, Seychelles, Tahitian– I love exotic islands. Plain and simple. Each one has its own unique attributes, from the sand surrounding it, to the water lapping up on its shores, to the night sky above and the sea life down below.

What’s on your travel bucket list?