Browsing Posts in Destination reports

Africa travel

There have been times in my travel life where I’ve practically had a location to myself.

Tens of thousands of tourists canceled trips to India when I was there the first time, in the mid-1990s, because a plague had broken out in one city of one state and it was on the cover of every news magazine. Hotels for foreigners were suddenly empty across the whole country, even though a total of 52 people died over two months (in India!) and it never spread beyond one region.

The normally popular area of Tana Toraja on the island of Sulawesi was empty in 1998 after riots hit Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, more than 1,500 miles away. We found a terrific hotel for cheap and every tour of the sites was a private one.

My family had our pick of empty hotels in normally packed Playa del Carmen back in the summer of 2009. Drug cartel violence was making the news from incidents near the U.S. border, more than 2,000 miles away. There was a swine flu scare at the same time keeping people away, even though more cases had been reported in the United States than in Mexico by that point.

Remember when people canceled trips to Vancouver and Banff in 2003 because of SARS disease in Toronto, more than 2,200 miles away?

Ebola is to Tanzania as a Raven is to a Writing Desk

Now we have the Ebola scare, which has led to a massive drop-off in tourism to all of Africa, even though this is a giant continent and the virus is concentrated in one portion of West Africa. Africa travel map

As this Epidemic of Ignorance article points out, “Those stricken West African countries are closer to Madrid, Paris and London than they are to safari hot spots, such as Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania.” They’re blaming it all on the map-challenged Americans, which is fair criticism, but it can’t just be my countrymen if business is down 70% like some are saying. Surely people besides the Yanks travel to Africa to see wild animals.

But anyway, the panic is surely unjustified as even travel to the nation of South Africa has taken a dive. Even though “There are no Ebola cases reported in South Africa and the country is 3,300 miles from the nearest outbreak in West Africa.”

safari female lion

I find it kind of ironic though that CNN has an article out called Ebola Fears Crippling Africa’s Safari Industry. This is especially rich coming from CNN as lately people have nicknamed it “The Ebola News Network” for pounding the story into the ground day over a 24-hour period day after day. Gee, I wonder why people are scared? Maybe because your whole business is built around scaring people regularly?

Apparently wealthy people are smart enough not to watch cable news networks. “Rose Hipwood of the Luxury Safari Company says the top end of Africa’s safari market hasn’t been hit as hard by Ebola fears ‘since many of those clients are international travelers and can look at the situation sensibly.'”

Be a Contrarian Traveler

If you’re well-traveled and can read a map, you can make out like a bandit in these situations. If you see that the panicked masses are heading one direction, you can scoop up some amazing bargains in the places they have deserted. And those who run businesses there will do their best to make sure you’re happy.

Zihuatanejo beach

Scary Zihuatanejo

This is a great time to get a deep discount on a safari trip or a flight to Africa. Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo beach resorts in Mexico are probably going to be cheap this winter. They’ve got the bad luck of being located in the state of Guerrero, where 43 protesting students disappeared from a town in the interior and are probably dead. Roatan in Honduras is probably the cheapest place in the world for a dive vacation now since one of its two largest cities (114 miles away by plane) has been declared as having the highest homicide rate in the world outside of war zones.

Hey, I’m not saying to book a trip to Syria or Afghanistan. But if the troubles you’re hearing about are nowhere near where you’re really planning to go, filter out the noise and benefit from the fact that most people won’t bother.

 

Panama blue oceanIf you ask people what they think of Panama, the ones who have never been will generally stumble, shrug, or bring up some negative like the rude taxi drivers in the capital or (generally) boring food. It’s not a country the uninitiated generally have on the bucket list unless they’re the type that geeks out about The Panama Canal or they’re lured by the retirement benefits.

I’ve written about Panama before though since I’ve been there three times, including on the advantages and costs of living there. There are many aspects to this varied country. In the capital the main tourist impressions are glitzy high-rises, hip boutique hotels, and luxury digs. I’ve written about exploring by small ship, doing coffee tours, and checking out the adventure travel options.

This is a bigger country than most people expect. It’s not all that wide, especially where the canal cuts through, but if you wanted to drive from one end to the other on the Pan-American Highway it would take you a few days even if you drove all day and didn’t stop. You probably wouldn’t want to do that though. There are, after all, 477 miles of Caribbean coastline and 767 miles of Pacific coastline to explore. That means lots of hidden beaches like thisPanama hidden beach

And this:

Panama Pacific

The big tourism draw here though is the wildlife. This is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and one look at a map of the Americas will show you why. This little strip of land is the only connection between two continents, so a good number of the 900-some species of birds in Panama are migrating one way or the other and stopping here to rest a while. birdwatching Panama

Of course there are a lot of tropical birds that don’t go anywhere, whether it’s the Resplendent Quetzals I spotted on Mount Baru or the sea birds I always saw in abundance anywhere near the coasts, like this one just strolling along on Coiba Island.

The diversity extends to the plant life as well. Visit a market and you can see the wide bounty of food that can be grown here—from berries to coffee to pineapples to nuts.

cashew nut on fruitThis photo is a cashew on a tree: you can eat the fruit part, but that one cashew nut that clings to the bottom needs to be individually processed to remove the poisonous skin on the outside. (It can burn your fingers.)

They also grow sugar cane, which means there’s local rum. Ron Abuelo has been around since the 1930s and like most anything you eat and drink that’s domestic, it’s a bargain. (See this earlier post on boozing it up for cheap in Panama.)

If you go hiking in the highlands of the Chiriqui region, you can spot all kinds of wildlife and get a crash course in botany. Lots of orchid varieties you’ve probably never seen grow here, like this:

Central America orchid

And this:

Panama orchid

If you’re near the Pearl Islands or Coiba Islands, you can see hammerhead sharks under the water while scuba diving or go fishing for marlin and sailfish. Near the shore you will certainly see swarms of hermit crabs stripping coconuts clean and maybe a lizard like this cruising by your boat:

wildlife

The souvenir shopping here is much better than in neighboring Costa Rica, where there’s not much handicraft history to speak of. Here you’ve got more indigenous people creating interesting basket and the famous molas like you see here:

molas

The Panama Hats are actually not from Panama. They were just used here by canal workers and the name stuck. They’re really made in Ecuador. The woven hat that’s really from Panama looks like the array in this guy’s shop. He and his family make all of them that they sell.

real Panama hat

Some other countries in Central America get more adventure travel press, but there’s enough to do in Panama to occupy you for weeks. Even if you don’t surf. Around 25% of the land in this country is protected or is a national park, so there’s no shortage of opportunities for hiking. Pick from lowland jungle areas filled with howler monkeys or volcanoes like Baru where you can spot rare birds, butterflies, and maybe a jaguar. (We saw fresh tracks anyway on my hike.) You can also climb that mountain for the sunrise and see both oceans.

hiking Baru

One perception many people have is that the Panama Canal is just a man-made narrow ribbon going across the land. In reality, ships cross Lake Gatun in the middle, in an area that was flooded to make it deeper. There’s actually an incredible amount of wildlife around that lake and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center is on one of its banks. If you book the right tour, you can go kayaking in this area and spot 50 different birds without trying.

kayaking Lake Gatun

There are many tribal people who have mostly shunned the modern urban world. The Kuna people live on the San Blas islands and are known for their colorful embroidery work. The Embera Cocoe groups near the Darien Gap have traditionally tended to not wear much clothing at all. They’d rather cover their body with tats, like these musicians.

musicians

So…if you’re planning an overland trip down through the Americas or a spin through Central America, you might want to kick back for a while in Panama. It’s not the cheapest and it’s not the easiest, but you haven’t already seen 5,000 pictures of it already and it will probably surprise you on a regular basis.

Also, Copa Air has their hub in the capital city and they’re part of the Star Alliance for cashing in points. For guidebooks, my favorites are the Footprint Panama Handbook by Richard Arghiris and the Moon Handbook by William Friar.

Louisiana travel

Are you my mother?

The November ’14 issue of Perceptive Travel is out, with some of the best travel stories on the planet from book authors on the move. This month we’ve got tales from Louisiana, Greece, and Southeast Asia.

Judith Fein goes traveling in order to put aside the recent death of her mother, but keeps finding reminders of not-so-dearly departed mom when she explores the swamps of Louisiana. See Did I Have an Alligator Mother?

James Dorsey ventures to the top of a rocky outpoint in Meteora to find a gifted Greek monk creating religious masterpieces in obscurity. See Painting as Prayer in Greece.

ziplining Laos

Michael Buckley goes zipping through the canopies in Southeast Asia and even zips to and from his treehouse lodging in one spot. He finds that ziplining in Thailand and Laos may not be the worry-free soft adventure pursuit it is in countries that have been doing it a lot longer. See Zipping Into Big Trouble.

William Caverlee checks out two new travel books on long-term journeys and one on the rape of Tibet (by Mr. Buckley above).

Graham Reid spins some new world music albums worth listening to from Mali to Mongolia to Scotland.

Win Some New Luggage!

granite-gear1Each month we give away something cool to our loyal readers at Perceptive Travel and boxes of Kind & Strong bars are on their way to three people who entered last month.

This time we’ve got a brand new, just-came-out, hybrid carry-on bag from Granite Gear. It’s a suitcase, it’s a backpack, it’s a rollaboard duffel/backpack! If your sad suitcase could use an upgrade before your holiday travels, check your inbox if you’re on our newsletter list already. Sign up here for future ones if not. Meanwhile, you can follow us on Facebook and see the entry details there several times in November.

And don’t forget, several times a week our regular writers post something new on the travel blog. It’s full of stories you won’t read elsewhere, whether that’s a Portland Brewcycle tour, the mountains of Nebraska, music-focused North Ireland road trip, or where to eat in Canggu, Bali.

Athens Greece travel

Most of Western Europe is tough to pull off as a budget traveler and despite the economic crisis, Athens is still not a bargain on the level of Sofia or Budapest.  If you plan it right and take your time, however, you can stretch your money much further here then in many popular capitals to the north.

You’ll probably be reading a lot about Athens if you read many travel blogs since there were some 700 travel bloggers converging on the city last week for TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) Europe. Just hosting a bunch of travel writers isn’t enough, however, if they don’t have a good time. We did, and I’d go back in a heartbeat with my family for vacation.

Accommodation in Athens

If you search for Athens on Hostelbookers, you’ll find loads of dorm beds in the $10-$20 a night range, which by EU standards is quite good. And these are places in convenient locations, not in the outskirts. If you search a regular hotel site like (TBEX sponsors) Expedia or Trivago, you can find central Athens double hotel rooms for less than $50. I paid that amount for a place right off Syntagma Square, a block from the bus I needed to take to the airport in the wee hours. It wouldn’t win any style awards, but it had fast Wi-Fi, a hot shower, and an elevator.

That value proposition extends all the way up the chain. As someone from Visit Athens said to me, “a 5-star hotel here will cost you what a 3-star hotel does in France or Italy.” If you want to rent an apartment, say from TBEX sponsor Housetrip, you can find an even better deal. While Greece isn’t all that cheap, it’s housing is proportionally less expensive than other things locals spend money on. So you can find an apartment for two for $50 to $70 per night pretty easily and have a kitchen and more space. But you can really get a great deal if there are four or six of you.  This great kitchen below is in a place that’s $138 a night and has two bedrooms.

Athens apartment

Transportation

This city is a dream to get around by subway and it’s not going to set you back too much. A trip all the way from the airport to the center is 8 euros, or you can take the express bus (like I did on the way back) and that’s €5. Getting around locally on the metro is €1.20 adults, half that for students. Passes can make it even less: one for an entire month is just €30.

Taxis are a bargain by European standards, despite fuel that’s $8 a gallon. The flag drop is €1.19 and it doesn’t tick up too fast after that. From the airport to the center is is fixed €35.

Greek cheese

Food & Drink

I didn’t have as much experience with this as I usually do as I was at a conference and related events much of the time, but you can find a souvlaki lunch with a salad for as little as two euros and there are loads of sandwich and snack places serving up something filling for €2-3. For a quick hunger killer you can get a koulari (semit in Turkey) sesame bread ring for half a euro or less. In general, basic worker places are going to seem on par or cheaper than what you would pay in the U.S., but nice restaurants can be all over the map. You”ll find plenty of good finger food for a picnic though, like Greek cheese, olives, and bread.

You can grab a beer at a kiosk and drink it on the street for one euro, or pay €2-4 in a bar depending on size and atmosphere. Wine is a real bargain in stores, with good bottles going for €5-12, but in a restaurant you’ll probably be ordering house wine by the half liter or liter and paying about the same.

The cheapest options are distilled tsipouro grape liquor (Greece’s version of grappa) made from wine production’s leftovers, and anise-flavored ouzo.

Coffee prices vary widely, along with the quality and if you want an American-sized one to charge up your day you’d better hit a Starbucks.

Greek ouzo

Cheap and Free Sightseeing

It’s pretty pointless to come to Athens and skip the attractions, so set aside some money in the budget for admissions. Again though, compared to typical prices in Western Europe or even Turkey, you’re not going to get hit too hard. It’s €12 to get into the Acropolis–the most expensive attraction in town—and just €1 to get into the museum. From there it drops down to €7 for the National Archeological Museum and then a whole slew of other ones are €5 or less. Many are free, either all the time or on certain days, so you could do days of sightseeing for next to nothing if you planned it out right. Here’s a good guide to prices and free days. If you’re a student, bring your ID! You’ll get half off at most places.

Like any capital city, Athens has its fair share of free things to do as well, from summer concerts and free museums to leafy parks and fun flea markets. The National Gardens and Zappeion building inside often have events going on. Check the local print rags like Athens Voice for what’s new. There are several companies offering a free walking tour if you want to get your bearings after arrival.  You can see the changing of the guard outside the parliament building gratis or head out to one of the nearby public beaches in the summer.

If you’re a budget backpacker, you’ll be much better off in Albania, Macedonia, or Bulgaria in this region. But if you want a classic European experience without breaking the bank, for mid-range travelers or short vacationers, Athens is a good value. See more at the This is Athens website.

Martinique

It’s time for the October issue of Perceptive Travel, home to interesting travel stories from wandering book authors. This month we visit three exotic sounding places with lyrical names but go beyond the usual lyrical waxing about attractions and icons.

Beebe Bahrani returns for another tale from Spain, this time in Tarragona. She and a friend sit down for a lovely lunch in an outdoor cafe, where all goes great…for a while. See A Spanish Death in the Afternoon.

After years of talking about it but never making it there, I finally spend some time in the Mexican city that is a dream destination for food lovers, mezcal aficionados, and handicraft buyers. See Handmade in Oaxaca.

garnache Oaxaca

Darrin Duford visits the Caribbean island of Martinique and tries to trace back the places music heritage while ignoring the smog in paradise. See Following the Grooves in Martinique.

Susan Griffith checks out new travel books on Asian food, motorcycling and memorable walks.

Laurence Mitchell spins some new world music albums from Europe, the USA, and South America.

Perceptive Travel Readers are Winners

Each month we give away something cool to our readers who take the time to enter our contest (not a ton, so your odds are pretty darn good). Last month I gave away a Committed package and a book copy for A Better Life for Half the Price. Congrats to Brenda R. and Mark G. who came out of the randomizer.

savory snack barsThis month we’re giving away something that everyone with a mouth can enjoy: three, yes three readers from the USA or Canada will win a box of 25 Strong & Kind savory snack bars from Be Kind. Hey, get your 10 grams of protein every day and they’ll last you almost a month. I tried these at an event where they were pairing them with different beers and I can attest that even if you don’t think you like healthy snacks, these are delicious.

As always, if you’re on our newsletter list, you just watch your inbox (or check your bulk folder) to find the monthly newsletter. If not, you can follow Perceptive Travel on Facebook and hit the “most recent” option on your timeline so you’ll actually see the notices.