AK-47s and the Smoke that Thunders – Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls

Exclusive for Vagobond by Carl Grooms

Vctoria Falls, Zimbabwe © 2011 Carlton Grooms
© 2011 Carlton Grooms

You feel the rumble in the earth before you hear it. You see wisps of mist rise high into the sky as if a forest fire has commenced. As you draw closer your ears begin to pick up the roar, you feel it in your soul. The locals call it the Smoke that Thunders. You have arrived at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.

The falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the boarders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Here the Zambezi river drops almost 400 feet across a 1 mile wide face into a remarkably small cut in the earth, making it the largest falls in the world. The attraction is part of two national park systems. Mosi-ao-Tunya (translated to the Smoke that Thunders) National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe.

I awoke before the sun, on my first day. Eager to capture the falls in good light from the Zimbabwe side, I hired a taxi to fetch me and get me to the entry prior to opening. The silence enveloped us as we sat in the dark, waiting. I began to question my safety. Alone, with a strange driver, holding over $15,000 in camera gear could prove to be a poor idea. Young men walking past, AK-47’s on their shoulders, interrupted the silence. They were on their way to relieve the night shift guarding the border and bridge to Zambia. I’m starting to imagine the headlines that the western press will print when they find my body later today. Undeterred I await the arrival of the park attendant to let me in.

The Zimbabwe side of the falls is far more developed than the Zambian side. However, with the political strife and humanitarian crimes being brought upon the population by Robert Mugabe, their leader (in no sense of the word), hotel occupancy is low. The Zambia side has record occupancy and capital investment in facilities is up. An argument could be made that the falls are just as beautiful from that the other side, but I want to photograph them coming straight at me. So I’ve come to Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls at Sunrise
Victoria Falls at Sunrise © 2011 Carlton Grooms

This is the second journey of my life to this region of the world. I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia 450 miles and a 12 hour drive north, in the mid-80’s. This was during the civil war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and during apartheid in South Africa. The ‘freedom’ fighter, Robert Mugabe lived in exile in my Lusaka neighborhood. Too bad he survived to release so much human tragedy upon his people. When I lived here the first time, we couldn’t come to the falls because of the war. Today, my first, I’ve come to photograph for my book, “Portraits of Our World”. The book is meant to build schools for the poor children in this region of Africa. The perceived risk sitting on this border today is worth it.

Perhaps the idea that this trip is allegedly risky is the point. I do not believe it is. The people of Zimbabwe are very warm and hospitable. They are often delighted to have you. The preponderance of the crime that occurs in this region is related to economics, motivated by the need to eat and feed one’s family. The Mugabe regime itself will not hassle you, as you bring hard currency and commerce. The hotels are at low capacity, meaning great rates. Now is a good time to visit.

The Vic Falls lookout area is not all that large. Big enough only to face the main body of the falls, it is easily walked carrying whatever gear you decide to bring. In reality you will be left surprised that there isn’t more too it. As you pay your small entry fee and move through the gates you are greeted with a spectacular rain forest made possible by the water spray of the falls. You will see mahogany trees, ferns, palms and various vines that you cannot see anywhere else in the area.

The Smoke That Thunders
The Smoke That thunders © 2011 Carlton Grooms

As you emerge on the other side your senses are inundated. The roar resonates at a bass level that you feel in your bones. Depending on the wind and time of year, you may not be able to readily see the falls because of the great mist it generates. The resulting, and always present, rainbow serves as the crowning jewel. Keep moving along the face and you will eventually find the perfect spot.

For the true adventurer you can hire a helicopter to fly up over the falls. We did this and were able to capture the most amazing images as you can see here. Don’t spend your entire time behind the camera. It is too easy to be caught up in capturing your surroundings and forget to actually enjoy the experience yourself.

There are a number of things you can do in the area to further enjoy the destination when you are done with the falls. White water rafting on the Zambezi is very popular. The river is very violent be forewarned. Don’t miss the chance to sample wild game meat. My favorite is the The Boma Restaurant, located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The $50 charge per person is worth it. Note that Zimbabwe no longer has it’s own currency. They rely on the US Dollar, South African Rand, Botswana Pula and the Euro instead.

In order to more fully appreciate my adventure I departed Zimbabwe via the bridge over the Zambezi to cross into Zambia. With loaded backpacks, together with my wife and children (11 and 12 at the time) we made the crossing. After stamping our passports upon departure, the border guard let us across the barrier.

Vctoria Falls Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls Aerial Shot of Bridge © 2011 Carlton Grooms

We crossed the bridge, a one mile long no man’s land between the countries. We had a surreal feeling as we walked towards the Zambian side, their armed border guards looking on. We were readily welcomed, cleared through and on our way.

Traveling is a matter of pushing all your senses beyond the daily norm. New people and cultures, new food, new smells, even new fears. Sometimes the fears are unfounded which allows you to open your eyes a little wider and gather the courage to head off to another life changing destination that is mistakenly avoided by the masses. Sometimes your new reality simply serves to open your mind to the world you live in daily. Either way, a journey to Victoria Falls can be much more than simply visiting the Smoke that Thunders.

Carlton GroomsCarl Grooms is the editor of the island focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines. He produced his latest book, “Portraits of Our World” after a one year trip around the world. He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions. At last count Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, braved the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.

Five Far Out Wildlife Retreats in Costa Rica

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai

In recent years, Costa Rica has emerged as a premiere destination for wildlife lovers and ecotourism. People pull their kids out of school early to vacation here. Celebrities hoard beachfront property like marbles in a shooting out. Though some places may have become “gringo-cized”, Costa Rica maintains its mission to preserve the biodiversity on which its reputation is built. No matter where travelers disembark, a wildlife retreat is never far.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

monteverde costa ricaCalled bosque nuboso, Monteverde Cloud Forest stretches over 35,000 acres in northern Costa Rica and is home to over 1200 species of wildlife, including all 6 cat species: jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis. In all the woodlands of the world, only 1% hold the cloud forests designation. Existing in Panama, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Costa Rica, these ecosystems sit above the regular rainforest. Mist and fog roll through the vegetation, settling on leaves, and hydro-fueling the biosphere. The coating of fog prevents the sun from drying the forest and the entire area blooms in emerald hues.

Visitors to Monteverde come for nature and adrenaline. Birding is a leading activity. Tours can be arranged from any hotel. Nature hikes range from well-marked easy trails no longer than .2 miles (.3 km) to challenging trails over a mile long that traverse several elevations of the cloud forest. For the lionhearted, zip lining and repelling are also available.

Tortuguero National Park

iguana in Costa RicaMeaning Turtle Catcher, Tortuguero National Park is dedicated to the preservation of its various turtle-residents. Sitting on the northern Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is serviced by a village of the same name, where tours and boats help travelers access the park. The admission fee at the gate is $7. But it’s advised to hire a guide or join a tour group. At 8am, visitors cross the narrow waterways and enter Tortuguero. No camping is allowed in the park. However, you can set up camp by the administration offices and the ranger station for $2 per day.

While fishing and kayaking are big draws here, turtle nesting is the main attraction. Between July and October, Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles come ashore during the waning moon while Leatherbacks prefer the February to April season. Called arribados or the great arrival, the mother turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, and slip back into the sea to the sighs of international tourists. Admission at night is prohibited without a guide. Make arrangements well beforehand and please remember that you are a guest. Shield your camera’s flash, and do not touch or interfere with the arribados.

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

basilisk lizard in costa ricaThe largest of 5 volcanoes, the Rincon de la Vieja sits on the northern Pacific side of Costa Rica. Still active but deemed calm, the Rincon reaches a height of 1895 meters. The national park surrounding the volcano encompasses over 14,000 hectares. Hikers who’ve a penchant for heights can climb the Pacific flank of the cordillera between February and April when the weather is drier. At the summit, you’ll be able to see the Guanacaste Plain, Nicoya Peninsula, and Lake Nicaragua on a clear day.

Nature seekers can walk the moderate trails surrounding the park headquarters. These trails intersect with more difficult trails to Las Pailas. In the 50 hectares surrounding this area, hikers can find thermal springs, waterfalls, vapor geysers, and coldwater pools. Along the paths, wildlife burgeons with quetzals, toucanets, eagles, howler monkeys, and sloths. Guides are recommended since cloud coverage often obscures trail blazes and markers.

Manuel Antonio National Park

costa rica wildlifeOne of the smaller national parks, Manuel Antonio National Park ranks among the most popular in Costa Rica. The park contains 1700 acres of land and over 135,000 acres of marine reserve. Before Christopher Columbus, ancient societies lived here. Along the shore, you can still see the remains of their turtle traps. Now, the primary and secondary forest is home to species ranging from squirrel monkeys and capuchin to sloths, hawks, and kingfishers.

Whitewater rafting and sport fishing are core activities in the park as well as snorkeling and kayaking. Besides hiking, visitors can arrange for canopy, horseback, and bicycling tours. Many head to the mangroves for day-long explorations. But keep in mind that only 600 visitors are allowed admission during the week, 800 on weekends and holidays. On Mondays, Manuel Antonio is closed. Park rangers often state that if the quota is met at 9:15am. They close the gates at 9:15.

Marino Ballena National Park

Nestled on the southern Pacific coastline, Marino Bellena is a small national park, teeming with wildlife that often roam free from the flood of tourists that other ecosystems must endure. South of San Jose, Marino Bellena boasts 9 miles of white-gold sands, quiet mangroves and the largest coral reef on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Officially, a $7 admission fee is required upon entering but the gate is often unmanned, reflecting the relaxed and more remote feel of the park.

From December to April, lucky visitors may glimpse humpback whales tossing in the tide as they make their way to traditional mating waters just off the shore. During low tide, the marine life is abuzz, unconcerned about human faces in the waters. Nocturnal visitors in May through August can view mother turtles nesting and laying eggs in the moonlight. Unlike other parks, authorities do not monitor these activities closely. Please be aware of your surroundings, keep your voices down, and shield your camera’s flash.

Since the 1980s, traveling options to these wildlife retreats have exponentially multiplied. Visitors from around the world converge on Costa Rica’s national parks to see animals unique to these biospheres. Accordingly, the travel industry has grown. But, whether you’re flying into Liberia to visit Monteverde or into San Jose for a long stay in Manuel Antonio, please remember to respect the ecosystem and leave the grounds as you found them.

Thanks to its compact size and well developed transport infrastructure, all of these national parks can be accessed with ease. Contact a Costa Rica tours operator for suggestions on itineraries.

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 2

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco

Jerry offered me a glass and I took it. Almost everybody did and as soon as I drank it my body relaxed, my stupid laughter stopped, I warmed up and began to breathe properly.

Peruvian bridge jumpersSuddenly, it was my turn. I stood holding the rail; I could see the mountains covered in green vegetation for miles. The blue sky was speckled with clouds spreading around as if they were daring the sun to show its face. The only thing in my life at that moment was the idea of jumping into an abyss, like if I were given the opportunity to fly.

The first three steps were crucial. Freddy and the assistant were go to hold me steady. Jerry would be on the other side of the bridge to check me after I had jumped. All I had to do was focus on jumping as if into a swimming pool, stretching my arms as much as I could and literally intend to fly.

The only thing in my mind was then Freddy’s words, he went on motivating me, telling me how easy and amazing this would be. His words were just part of the wind, I couldn’t pay attention anymore. I just held his shoulders and took my first step. Then, not even in a second, I knew there was not going back, just upward.

At the precise moment of jumping from the bridge I didn’t see anything other than the landscape flowing around me. The feeling of pure adrenaline invaded my body, replacing the panic that I had accumulated.

My heart raced briefly but then, just as quickly, I felt an overwhelming sense of sheer calm. Everything was over; I was swinging on the ropes like a little girl, lying on the sky, at 150 meters in the air and without a worry in the world. Someone passed me a rope and pulled me back to the ground. I went up the bridge where everybody was waiting and clapping for me.

 

I sat on a rock next to the other jumpers Miguel, one of them, showed me some photos he had taken. He also told me how he had done this several times before.”No matter how many times you do it, the feeling of fear never goes away.”

One by one, we watched all the participants jumping, each of them at their own pace but without giving up. Before long, a few drops of water announced the possibility of rain. The sun was hiding behind ominous clouds. We had spent hours there and yet it all seemed to have gone in a flash. I felt completely exhausted and absolutely starving, thankful for the snacks I had saved from earlier.

On our journey back we stopped at Barba Blanca, a tiny village hidden among the mountains. There, the locals rushed to our bus to offer drinks and food. We had corn and cheese, fruit, chicken wings and even burgers. After five minutes of devouring anything edible that came into our sight we resumed our journey home.

fishing in Peru sunsetNobody said a word, everybody was sleeping and my body had stopped responding to my commands. I had exhausted my body and my mind, the adrenaline and extremes of the day had flushed my entire system and I felt ready to face anything. I knew I would be able to succeed no matter how difficult it seemed or how high the jump would be.

A Puenting trip can be organized by almost any tour operator but be sure to check for a reliable outfit with a good safety record.

This specialist in South America tour packages offers various adventure activities.

Travel This Year And Next: Where You Should Consider

Right now you may feel like travel is just a dream away. Something that we once found so easy has now become something we have to plan and account for during the next few months and beyond. We have all just been through a global pandemic, and while it isn’t over yet, things have started to ease and because of that restrictions are beginning to lift. This means that travel is a real possibility now that things have started to ease. 

 

So now that travel is possibly an option when it comes the rest of the year and next, you may be wondering where to go and what to do. We now won’t take travel for granted again. However, if you are starting to dream about it, you might be wondering where to go. With that in mind, here are some of the destinations that you might want to think about for next few months and beyond. 

Image source – Pixabay – CC0 License 

 

Head to Canada to enjoy a winter experience

 

Depending on where you are in the world, winter might not be as you see in a picture perfect scene on a postcard. You might not experience much snow or chilled weather, and in fact, it could just be rather grey and wet. So you might want to book a vacation somewhere in the winter for the real experience. Canada offers the chance to see real snow and enjoy the many activities you can enjoy in the snow, such as skiing, snowboarding or just relaxing and building a snowman. Places like Mont Tremblant in Quebec can offer a relaxing getaway for friends or family to enjoy the slopes and wonder. Canada also has a lot to offer when it comes to cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. It could definitely be a great option to consider. 

 

Travel to Thailand for an amazing value for money getaway

 

Thailand might seem like an extravagant holiday destination, but in fact, once you are there it can offer real value for money. The cost of living in regards to accommodation and food can be very reasonable, meaning it is an achievable holiday to take. Thailand offers the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, but also you can take a more relaxing vacation island hopping to places like Koh Samui or Koh Phangan. Offering beautiful scenery, white sandy beaches, and glorious blue oceans. What more could you want? Some people would say that Thailand isn’t usually a family orientated place, but there are some beautiful destinations perfect for family travel and the slower pace and are an excellent opportunity for children to really relax and bond as a family unit. 

 

Educational destinations in Asia

 

While Asia may not be normally on the list for family travel, places like India, China and Japan can offer excellent vacations where education is at the heart of it. From different cultures and diverse landscapes to learning all about the future technology as most of what we use today comes from locations such as Japan and China. It could give you an excellent opportunity to explain things like this and to learn about different technology elements. Also Indian and Chinese food are two of the inch-loved cuisines that many love, so it definitely gives you a chance to enjoy it more authentically. Further to that, you could think about seeing some of the most iconic sites such as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall Of China. 

Image source – Pixabay – CC0 License 

 

Do you want to travel to the USA?

 

The USA has many different destinations to visit, and possibly some of them may already be on your bucket list. Locations such as New York, Florida and Las Vegas. However, there are so many other locations that you might want to think about. One question you might have is – how to fly from California during COVID? With the location being on the news in recent months, there are restrictions in place but it is still a location you could travel to in the future. Other places to think about would be Texas and seeing cities like San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. Or even places such as Vermont or Missouri could be locations that you could add to your bucket list for sure. 

 

Explore Australia on a road trip to remember

 

Australia is a vast country and could be seen as one of those places that is a trip of a lifetime to take. So make the most of your time there and take a road trip to explore as much of the country as possible. Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne offer amazing city vibes. Melbourne is, in fact, been voted as the most liveable city in the world and definitely could be a great option to consider for a future visit. But while you are there you must take a swim in the Great Barrier Reef. It is one of the seven wonders of the world and certainly could be a great experience of a lifetime. However, you might want to consider using more time for this type of holiday. The country is so big that you wouldn’t be able to see even half of it during a standard holiday. This could certainly be a trip of a lifetime for sure, and definitely might be a place that you might want to try and go back to more than once. With ease of lockdown travel restrictions to Australia should be lifted soon enough. 

 

Enjoy a cultural experience in Europe

 

Europe really has a lot to offer, and it can certainly be the perfect location for family travel adventures. A cultural stay in Europe means you could take in the sights and sounds of France, the history, and food that Italy has to offer or even enjoy the green landscape that England has to offer. As a family, there can be a lot to do in some of the most culturally enhanced places but there are also some beautiful seaside resorts that you can enjoy. Europe has a lot to offer anyone wanting a vacation with a difference, mixing city history with beach locations you are truly spoilt for choice. 

 

Let’s hope this has offered you a bit of inspiration for your future travel plans. 

 

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 1

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco.

I had spent weeks absorbed with the stress of my son’s diagnosis for attention deficit disorder and transfer to a specialist school. “I need a break,” I was thinking when I decided to sign up to go puenting. Puenting translates literally as “bridging”, the perfect way to describe what I was about to do: jump from a bridge into a 170m deep canyon held only by a 20m rope.

jumping off bridges in PeruI didn’t mind getting up before dawn to reach the meeting point in Lima, Peru’s capital city and gateway to the country’s many adventure destinations. A friend was taking care of my son and I was going to spend a day working off the stress.

We headed out of the chaos of the city and up towards the highlands, in the foothills of the Andes, just two hours away from my downtown home. Stopping for snacks along the way I realized I was too apprehensive to be hungry, so I ended up stashing my biscuits for after the jump.

As the road climbed, the polluted city seemed to fall away from behind us, with mountains and greenery replacing the urban grime.

There were two guides with us, Freddy and Jerry, and eighteen people. Most of them were university students, excited by their impending adrenaline rush. The bus was full of nervous chatter and laughter, conversation occupied by final exams, presidential candidates and the elections, although I expected only as a way to put the fear out of their minds.

But for me, the most terrifying prospect was the perilous road and the steady flow of vehicles racing past us, often no more than inches away from our bus.

jumping off bridges in PeruFinally arriving in one piece, we got off the bus and stood on the bridge looking out over the Autisha canyon. The mountains were overwhelmingly high and incredibly steep. The canyon seemed like an enormous throat ready to swallow us whole as we jumped in. At the bottom, rocks pointed out of the earth in forms that seemed purpose designed to scare us, far above. From this distance, the narrow ribbon of river didn’t even look like it was flowing.

Freddy provided a detailed explanation. Basically, the secret of a successful jump lies on not thinking about it too much. “Great!  “I thought to myself, as if that would work. When they asked for volunteers I raised my hand immediately.  Every muscle in my body had tightened and I noticed myself laughing over every meaningless comment I heard.

One of the assistants helped me into my harness and spoke some encouraging words. “My mind hears you, Italo, but my body doesn’t,” I thought.

Then Freddy and Jerry brought over a sports bag that contained the ropes and the rest of the safety equipment. Plus several bottles of pisco, Peru’s famously potent liquor. “Ok,” said Freddy. “How about some pisco to overcome your fear?”

It sounded like a joke but it was true. I looked at the bottles and looked at Freddy smiling. Then I thought:
“First, I don’t drink pure pisco. Second, why would I drink pisco when doing a sport? Third, ok, who cares if I drink a bit?”

La Fiesta Mama Negra in Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

While the northern hemisphere hunkers down for cool autumn months, Ecuador blooms with warm breezes, clear skies, and the beginning of the festival season in October.

Peru FestivalsDown the spine of the Andes Mountains just one hour south of Quito, the city of Latacunga fills its streets with streamers and parades the cathedral’s statue of the Virgin and Child through several neighborhoods.

Locals and visitors alike gather in the main plaza. They snap pictures and dance to the bands. They buy snacks and pop open bottles of Pilsener beer. Horses enter the courtyard and astride one is the figure of Mama Negra, the city’s protector against volcanic eruptions and destructive weather. The band strikes a fast beat and Mama Negra herself unveils a black bottle and sprays the crowd in a ritual cleansing.

At the Fiesta of Mama Negra, prepare yourself for dancing in the streets and non-stop festivities.

On each plaza corner, bands whip up festival-goers with hip swinging music. All year long, musicians and townspeople have been saving up for this event.

And they don’t hold anything back. Pastel-hued colors burst across the promenade. Pink coats and blue skirts twirl to the melody. Costumed men carry portal altars on their backs, offering devout tokens of respect to the patroness that include a dozen bottles of whiskey, roasted chicken, smoked guinea pig, and one immense BBQ pig.

Ribbons decorate the spaces in between as each man hews the altar down the parade route. Even small boys get involved as each one carries a miniature sized offering.

While bands blast trumpets and beat drums, each parishioner dances euphorically through the streets of Latacunga. In between altars and bands, they strut their choreographed hips through the cobbled avenues.

With handkerchiefs men guide their partners through the routine, hollering and celebrating each step. The women purse pink lips, swirling with the beat and smiling with pride. At the Fiesta de Mama Negra, the parade snakes up and down the streets for miles.

For hours, the bands march and dancers dip and twirl their partners. Mama Negra sprays the crowd with alcohol and gangs of masked men cleanse innocent bystanders with branches of green leaves. In the crowd, onlookers share beer and whiskey. They cheer and push each other into the midst of the dancing parade. Amongst friends and family and strangers, they jest and joke from noon past midnight.

Latacunga, a city high in Ecuador’s Andes, offers an authentic insight into everyday life in the mountains and is a great cultural extension either in between the usual tours to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu.

Making Travel Plans for a Safer Future

With the current pandemic still an ongoing situation that is disrupting travel to many countries, travel lovers are unsure when they might be able to travel freely again. Everyone wants to be safe, but beyond taking responsibility for yourself, you also need to pay attention to the travel rules that many countries have put into place. While some nations are now starting to allow international travel again, there are some that are still restricting travel or are requiring periods of quarantine for new arrivals into the country. While you might not be able to go on a spontaneous trip right now, you can make plans for the future and even careful plans to travel now in some cases.

Here are some of the ways you could be making plans to travel for both now and when things are safer.

Image from Pixabay – CC0 License

Staying Up to Date with the Latest News

If you’re desperate to start traveling again, keeping track of what’s changing day-to-day is a must. Things are changing all the time, and it’s important to stay up to date with the different travel restrictions and guidelines that are in place. There are plenty of places where you can get information about the places you want to travel to or even suggestions for which are the safest countries for traveling right now. Official government travel information can be the best resource much of the time. As well as looking at the information provided by your own government, check out the official government or tourist board information from the place that you want to travel to.

Keep an eye on the news in general, too. You will likely find news items about what changes certain countries are making and what rules they have in place for travelers. These things will be changing gradually over the next few months, and there is a chance that they may not always move forward. Sometimes, restrictions might need to be tightened again if the need arises, so make sure you always have the most recent information.

 

Keep Your Plans Loose

How do you plan to travel when you’re not sure where or when you might be able to go? You most likely don’t want to end up having to quarantine yourself when arriving at your destination, either, which adds another level of complication. It might be best to keep any travel plans as loose as possible for now, especially if you’re planning to travel for fun and not for anything particularly necessary. You might want to make a plan for where you want to go and what you want to do, perhaps even thinking about some rough dates. However, it might not be the right time to book anything just yet.

 

Use Tech to Be Prepared

Technology can always help you with your travels. It makes it easier to plan and book your trips and to get the information that you need both before and during your travels. There’s plenty of tech that could prove to be useful when you’re making plans for travel in the near future. Still traveling? 6 apps could be all that you need to stay organised. Traveling can always be tricky to manage, but it’s even more difficult during this time. The right apps for booking travel and accommodation can make it easier to plan any journey, whether it’s for now or later.

 

Technology can help you to make travel plans in other ways too, even if it’s only through using spreadsheets to stay organised. Spreadsheets can help you to keep track of information, as well as things like budgets and how much you can expect to pay for things where you want to travel.

 

Make Bookings Far in Advance

Do you have a dream trip in mind? Maybe you can’t wait to get out there and see the world, but you know that now isn’t the right time to do it. However, maybe you want to get your next trip locked in now, or you’ve spotted a deal that you don’t want to let pass you by. If you really want to have something to look forward to, it might be a good idea to book a trip far in advance. Booking something for at least a few months down the line will help to improve your chances of being able to go where you want to and do what you want.

 

Take the Time to Save

Waiting for things to go back to normal might have you feeling antsy. However, you can also take advantage of the time that you have available. One of the ways you could benefit from being at home instead of traveling is that you have time to save. Maybe you have a big trip that you’ve always wanted to take, but you’ve never managed to save up for it. Or perhaps you just like the idea of spending a bit more money on your next trip so that you can enjoy a little luxury. Now could be time to do some serious saving and perhaps create a savings plan to help you to reach a specific goal.

 Image from Pixabay - CC0 License
Image from Pixabay – CCO License

Pay Attention to How to Stay Safe

If you are planning to travel anytime soon, you should make sure you know how to stay safe during your travels. Firstly, you need to know about the regulations for your destination, and anywhere you might be passing through. Do you need to wear a face mask and, if so, when and where do you need to wear one? Will you be expected to quarantine or perhaps give the address of where you will be staying? Apart from the official rules and regulations, make yourself aware of the expert advice on how to keep yourself safe and how to help keep other people safe and healthy too.

 

Stay Close to Home

It might not be the best time to travel internationally, right now. But if you really want to get away, traveling close to home could be an option that works for you. In fact, even booking into a hotel close to where you live could be a new way to experience your home. A staycation is the ideal way to do something different and get some time to relax without having to travel too far. You can find new things to do in your own town, or you could travel to the next town or city to see what you can discover.

 

Build Flexibility Into Your Plans

You’re not sure what’s going to happen in the near future, but you still want to book some time away. How can you make plans while still being able to change them if necessary? Paying a little bit more for flexibility could be the key to getting your plans right. Usually, you can pay a higher price for a more flexible booking, whether you’re booking a hotel, flight or something else. If you do want to postpone your trip, rearrange it or even cancel out, you will be able to do so more easily and affordably. You can usually choose from the cheapest and least flexible option for a room or ticket, or a more expensive but more flexible option.


Image from Pixabay – CC0 License

Consider Cancellations Carefully

There might be an occasion when you decide that you do need to cancel a trip that you have planned. Even if there is nothing official stopping you from traveling, you might not feel safe taking your trip because you feel that the risk of infection is too high. If you do cancel, it will be easiest if you have chosen to build some flexibility into your trip. If the things that you have booked have good cancellation terms, it may be easier to cancel and to get your money back if necessary.

Even if you can’t recover your money with a simple refund, there might be other options that allow you to get your money back. If you booked using a credit card, you might be able to get a full refund. Sometimes you might need to put some effort into chasing a refund if you really want one. Another thing to keep in mind is that it can be all about timing, too. If you leave it too late, it will be more difficult to get a refund.

 

Think About Traveling Differently When It’s Time

When everyone can travel freely again, consider how exactly you’re going to approach your travels. Many businesses and communities are being affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and many have not survived or will not survive before it’s over. For those that are left, they will need support to keep going. You might want to consider how you can give your business to local services and communities so that you can support them. You can help to rebuild the places and people that have suffered due to not having the visitor levels that they would usually rely on.

It might be a while before things are back to normal, but that doesn’t have to stop you from making travel plans.

 

Peru’s Chavin de Huantar – Epic Archeological Adventure

Guest Post by Greg de Villiers

Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.

Ancash Peru, Hiking in PeruAncash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.

The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.

Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.

The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.

The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)

The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.

The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.

The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.

A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.

Getting there:

The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.

Volunteer Travel in Baños, Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

Volunteer Travel Makes a Difference to You Too

“We’ll sing the Preposition Song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.” My husband Neil passed out copies of song lyrics. In a tight semi-circle, twelve people from around the world congregated inside the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños for the weekly language exchange called intercambio. A guest volunteer, Neil led the session with an activity geared toward learning English and Spanish prepositions. We introduced ourselves, practiced translating, and sang aloud on our feet without shame that we might be off key. Volunteer travel rocks!

VoluntourismEach Monday, the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños or BIB begins its week like a well-oiled machine. Coordinators Karl and Mazz sit at the head of a large table, welcoming new volunteers and reviewing the previous week’s accomplishments.

Though technically not volunteers, Neil and I had become good friends with the staff and were invited to attend their weekly meeting. Laughter mixed with serious brainstorming as Karl eyed the clock and Mazz kept minutes. From all over the world and of every age, volunteers commit to a month of community service: running English classes for local youth, holding cinema nights, and participating in the popular language exchange. They live together, share household chores, and help local Ecuadorians learn English. International and domestic travelers stop in Baños on their way up and down the Andean Mountains, and like Karl and Mazz, many stay.

Volunteering in Baños, Ecuador

Volunteer teaching in South America
The Library in Banos

In general, Baños de Santa Agua is a major stop along the tourist trail. With hot springs and fusion foods, Baños offers a getaway from Quito and mountain retreat beside the Rio Pastaza. Package tourists soak in mineral waters and return to the capital within the week. Long-term backpackers camp out in local hostels. But BIB volunteers are different. Immersed in the community, they get to see what real Ecuadorian life is like. They read to school children and shake hands with thankful parents. At night, people wave “hola” to volunteers and often—because they know Karl—their drinks are discounted at popular bars.

TEFL courses online
It’s not easy being on center stage!

Each weekday at 3pm, the BIB’s painted shutters open and young children begin calling out for their favorite teacher. Karl knows each child by name, hugging one and rustling another’s hair. On beanbags and benches, the volunteers sit with Ecuadorian children. They read Curious George, Star Wars, and Cinderella in Spanish and English. During Halloween, they parade through town in costume, handing out flyers for the BIB’s programs. As Karl stated, “We’ve lots of volunteers, but we can’t have a BIB without the children. So sometimes we have to remind the town that we’re here.”

During meetings, I can see that each volunteer loves this program in a different way. “Listening to [the kids] read in their own language has helped me learn Spanish quicker,” said Drew, a volunteer from Massachusetts. “They pronounce every syllable carefully and it helps me too.” In many ways, volunteering in Ecuador is symbiotic. Both volunteers and students benefit. Kids receive language lessons and role models from overseas. Volunteers become part of a mission to help the local community and experience Ecuador differently than most travelers.

Living as a Volunteer at the BIB

working with kids abroad, voluntourism
In travel, it is the relationships that matter.

One multi-story building and a large courtyard comprise the BIB property. On the second and third floor, double and triple rooms line the shotgun hall. A large kitchen and living room offer common areas for reading and relaxing. On the first floor, a learning lounge opens to the street and welcomes students with shelves of Spanish and English books as well as comfy beanbags. Off to the rear, a crafts center has long tables and painted murals for art and group projects. Through a generous donation, the BIB also has a movie projection and sound system for Wednesday’s cinema night.

While living at the BIB, volunteers work together and care for the house, courtyard, and sidewalk. Each week during the Monday meeting, chores are divvied up so that floors are mopped, the street swept, and bookshelves organized. At night, volunteers enjoy each other’s company with walks around the basilica and drinks at the bars. Life is relaxed and fulfilling.

make a difference in your travel
You can travel and make a difference in the hearts and minds of kids anywhere.

During Neil’s intercambio, the atmosphere continued to be laidback and welcoming. Four Ecuadorians sang the Preposition Song and several foreigners translated phrases into Spanish. The hour and a half ran quickly as participants chatted with each other and joked about strange diction. By the end of the session, we laughed about the singing competition that turned into rap songs about prepositions. Karl closed up the BIB and we waved “Hasta luego!”

“See you in an hour.” I said to Mazz, who smiled and waved back.

“Yep, see you at the bar.” She turned to ring her boyfriend and get ready for a nightcap in town. Unlike an office job or regular internship, volunteering at the BIB is about an expat lifestyle centered on social living.

Details & How to Become a Volunteer
To become a volunteer at the BIB, applicants should contact Karl and Mazz at artedelmundo21@gmail.com with a letter of introduction and ability to commit up to 3 months in Baños, Ecuador. Volunteers do not pay for the program. However, participants are expected to pay a monthly donation for their room, starting at US$120 per month that includes bedding, utilities, laundry access, WIFI, and cookery. Accepted applicants should inquire about paying in advance in order to receive a discount. Baños de Santa Agua is located in Tungurahua, 3.5 hours south of Quito, 9 hours east of Guayaquil and 7 hours north of Cuenca via bus.

 

The Choquequirao Trek or How to Be a Weekend Warrior in Peru

By Maureen Santucci

I love to trek – it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do. It’s one of the reasons I chose to live in Peru in the first place. In fact, I love it so much that I somehow decided to go on one of the most infamously difficult treks without properly preparing for it.

Choquequirao PeruWe were heading for the Inca ruins of Choquequirao: famed as the lesser-known “sister” to Machu Picchu. Ruins perched atop a distant and isolated mountain, said to be the last stronghold of the Inca.

To keep me company on the adventure I brought along two old friends, also trekking enthusiasts. We all knew it was going to be tough but had no real idea what we were getting into. I started getting a clue, however, when discussing it with my guide, Alfredo Fisher, along with another friend who intended to come with us. She has bad knees and had thought she could ride most of the way.

One look at Alfredo’s face told us that was not happening. Bless him, he can be overly optimistic but he doesn’t lie. He informed us that there were many areas of the trail that were too steep to ride on. With hindsight maybe he was lying: I’d say there are areas of the trail that were too steep to WALK on, let alone ride.

We set out by car from Cusco at around 5 in the morning and traveled a few hours through the hills to a town called Cachora from where we were to begin our trek. There, we met up with our horses that were to carry all the equipment and our bags, their handler (Don Julio) and our assistant cook. The cook had come with us from Cusco.

That first day we soon found out what Alfredo meant by steep. Before long we had left the smooth rolling fields behind us and entered the towering gorge of the Apurimac valley. An unspeakable distance below us thundered the river. Between us and the water stretched the thin line of our trail, following the near-sheer drop to the valley floor.

We negotiated the precipitous trail right into the fearsome heart of the valley. We descended such distances that the climate visibly changed around us, getting warmer and subtropical until the trees were dripping with ripe mangos and avocados. Just hours before we’d been shivering in the chilly, thin Andean air!

Part of the fun of trekking is the camaraderie at the end of each day’s hiking, enjoying a few drinks at camp after dinner. Not for us on day one of the Choquequirao trek: we ate dinner at the valley floor and took our weary legs to bed.

What goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and on the morning of our second day we looked back up the other side of the valley, trembling with the prospect of climbing all the way back to the top.

The trail followed a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks, each turn blending into the last. Legs burning, mid focused on making it to the next turn, I almost forgot to look up from time to time; whenever I did I was virtually bowled over by the site of the enormous valley and up ahead, peaking out of the clouds, our destination; the ruins of Choquequirao.

When we finally reached our camp for the second night, the view was simply breathtaking. Eating dinner with the sun setting behind the mountains and the ruins almost within our grasp, we soon remembered why we willingly put ourselves through such ordeals: the payoff is easily worth the pain.

Waking up the next morning to the panoramic view is one of the reasons I love these treks. The scenery is so dramatic it is almost impossible for a camera to do it justice.

An hour or so after leaving camp we reached the gates of Choquequirao. Although not built with the same Imperial grandeur as Machu Picchu, the site is still an amazing place, if only for its isolation and lack of visitors: we had the entire place to ourselves.

trekking in PeruIt can take days to explore the ruins in their entirety and archeologists reckon most of the ruins are still hidden. Experts believe the city was originally an administrative centre for the region. It has a bloody and dramatic history: these mountains provided the final stronghold for the beleaguered Inca as the Spanish chased them from their capital in Cusco. The gates of Choquequirao were among the last to fall before the once mighty Empire was vanquished once and for all.

We took our time exploring the ruins; partially through fascination, partially through trepidation of resuming our hike through the valley.

After lunch we began the hike back down the canyon, on a trail that turned out to be the most treacherous part of the trek. Coming across a series of steep stone steps, our porters were forced to unload the mules for fear of losing them to the canyon.

Almost crawling along the last stretch leading to the trailhead, my self esteem received a welcome boost when our cook caught up with me, only to declare that this was the first and last time he would ever work on the Choquequirao trail! I wasn’t alone, and even better: my pain was being shared by someone born and bred in the highlands, accustomed to hiking and working on the mountain trails!

Thanks to the grueling trek, Choquequirao remains an under-visited site, but is within easy reach of Cusco and makes an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail. Maureen travelled with Alfredo who can be contacted on: pachamamawawakuna@hotmail.com. Alternatively book in advance through a reputable Peru trips provider.

There Ain’t No Party Like a Trenchtown Party! Jamaica Rocks

Guest Story and Photos by Edward Williams

partying in Trenchtown, JamaicaHigh expectations before a holiday can often leave you disappointed, so, despite my excited anticipation and romantic views of Jamaican culture I braced myself for a let-down; would I get mugged, murdered and left in a ditch, or racially abused for the historical misadventures of my ancestors? I seriously hoped not!

First on the list of priorities was a visit to the Bob Marley museum on Hope Road, very interesting and well worth a visit but the best thing to come out of it was an invitation to the Culture Yard at Trench Town. This is where Bob learnt to play the guitar; where he’d hang out and watch Georgie make the fire light, and leave log wood burnin’ t’ru da night… Trench Town is also one of Kingston’s most deprived and notorious ghettos.

Sophia Dowe, the wonderfully powerful and welcoming tour guide at the Culture Yard came out to meet us. When we stepped out of our taxi-bubble we could feel the atmosphere in the streets instantly; tough and poor, just like the people milling about on them. Having said that, the friendliness of the people we met soon eased our nerves and the tour of the yard was a very real, enlightening and informative schooling in the history of this famous ghetto. And it was very nicely finished with a cold bottle of Red Stripe in the local bar afterwards!

Kingston street art - JamaicaThe Culture Yard itself is like a living museum, one in which local artists still produce and sell their work, and it’s also a place where people congregate for meals, ‘reasoning’ and jamming sessions, just like they always have done. You don’t need an invitation to go there either, but a call to let them know you’re coming would be appreciated.

One of the beauties of travel is how one thing leads to another; “What are you guys up to this evening? There’s a yard party going on at the top end of Trench Town, you wanna go?” Wow! Of course! Thank you Sophia!

Six of us from the hostel were up for the party, but Sophia told us the appetiser would be a couple of hours in a club in Tivoli Gardens – another famous ghetto in Kingston. Tivoli Gardens is famous for being the home turf of the Shower Posse, headed by Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke who’s now serving 23 years in the US for drug trafficking. Despite the formidable reputation and intimidating look of the streets we had a good time in the club while our taxis waited outside, just in case anything untoward kicked off. It was still early though so it’s not as if there were many people in there…

Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica partyBack in Trench Town a couple of hours later we jumped out of the cabs and headed straight for the dancehall rhythms we could hear rumbling across the street. By two am the party was getting into full swing – a camera crew from the local party channel had turned up and plenty of revellers were shaking their booty’s and showing off their moves in the limelight when, all of a sudden, two armed cops barged into the party. Er, should we stay or should we go now?? We stayed. Nervously. Two minutes later the biggest, bald headed cop appeared again and grabbed the microphone, he told everyone they’d come to check for weapons but that everything was cool and we could start the party again. The DJ dropped the record in and then the cop, who still had the microphone, let rip with a wicked bit of freestyle mcing that sent the crowd absolutely wild! The atmosphere for the last two hours of the party were electric – as sure as the Sun rises in the East, there ain’t nothing like a Trench Town Party! Once again, many thanks to Sophia. Without someone like her we’d never have got to experience such a night.

I’d also been hanging out in the market just south of Twin Gates plaza with a record shop owner, Martin. He’s an old school reggae buff with an amazing collection of rare and collectable vinyl that he off loads to tourists, and he’s Trench Town born and bred – as tough as they come! “Eh bwoy, wha’ you do tonight? There’s a Trench Town derby on, a Jamaican Premier League spectacular! You wanna come?” I was there as soon as asked!

After a couple of warm-up drinks at the Michelle’s Halfway Pub in Concrete Jungle we walked to the stadium, it was still an hour or so before kick-off. By going so early Martin had given us the chance to watch the crowd and the atmosphere build. All the fans were mingling together, there wasn’t a cop to be seen in the stadium and the pre-match entertainment was in true Jamaican style – dancehall playing through the PA system and several dancehall-style cheerleaders showing off their athletic routine in the middle of the pitch. The home team, Arnett Gardens, were the strong favourites but after no more than fifteen minutes they were two goals down. Boys Town were getting all the luck, and the home fans were getting tetchy. The second half was a proper barn-stormer; Arnett Gardens managed to pull one back, and then a quick second to make it 2-2. The excitement was all too much for a group of fans on the terrace opposite us, a fight started and caused a bit of mayhem but credit due to the Jamaican fans because, with no police in sight, two minutes after it started it was all over and back to normal again. No harm done. Arnett Gardens then went and scored a winner, at which point the home fans erupted as did I! What a night! It was back to Michelle’s again for a few high-spirited post-match Red Stripes and a late taxi home…

Jamaica obviously has much more to offer than a few nights out in Trench Town, but if you’re going there on holiday try and tear yourself away from the beaches for a day or two; the real Jamaica is a lot less scary and a lot more fun than you might imagine!

Mt. Pelion – Mountain Villages in Greece

Mt. Pelion VillagesWhile the sailing in the Gulf of Volos is wonderful, it would be a shame to miss out on the beautiful views of the Gulf from the villages which sit on the slopes of Mt. Pelion, home of the Centaurs and wise and noble Chiron in Greek myth.
While there weren’t any mythological battles or sacred schools that I saw, it was still a very pleasant way to spend a morning while some maintenance was being done on the yacht. ( Which by the way is a shocking statement since the idea of me talking about maintenance to a yacht was something I never expected to hear)

It was in Mount Pelion, near Chiron’s cave, that the marriage of Thetis and Pelius took place. The uninvited goddess Eris, to take revenge for having been kept outside the party, brought a golden apple with the inscription “To the Fairest”. The dispute that then arose between the goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athene resulted in events leading to the Trojan War. Read about our visit to ancient Troy here.

Portaria HotelTo get to the villages of Makrinitsa and Portaria, I went to the Volos bus station and bought a ticket for about one and a half Euro. The busride was about 20 minutes winding up the mountain and on the bus were some young couples, school kids, and a few villagers bringing things back from Volos.
As the bus wound up the mountain, I was struck by the change in vegetation. Lots of streams, thick forest of beech, oak, chestnut and what looked like maple (but why don’t they have maple syrup anywhere but North America?) Springs and rivers, stone caves and of course typical Greek village architecture and more than a few monastaries, churches of Saints and a park where there were statues of Centaurs. Okay, so I did see one centaur after all.
Makrinitsa, GreeceThe rooftops were made of grey slate on the older and the newer buildings – obviously traditional is back in fashion. Those that were built during the past fifty years or so seemed to have mostly red clay roofs.
Here’s a bit from wikipedia on the typical architecture of the region

Pelian tradition calls for three-level houses, with the ground floor used for work (tools, kitchen, storage, washing, weaving), the middle floor used for socializing (common rooms), and the top floor for private rooms (bedrooms). Heat is provided by fireplaces, the chimneys of which run through the walls to provide heat to the upper levels, whereas the top level, being well ventilated, provides for summertime cooling. Interior construction is usually of chestnut timber, stained dark brown and often elaborately carved. Many of the larger Pelian mansions (the archontiká or “lordly mansions”) have been converted into boutique hotels and hostels.

As we went upward the climate seemed to shift from that of California and the Med to that of the Pacific Northwest with plenty of apple trees and lots of blackberries. There were also lots of walnut and fig trees and I figured that for my walk down I would dine al-Frescoe natural.
My first stop was Makrinitsa which meant taking the bus all the way to the turn around point. Nicknamed by locals the balcony of Mt. Pelion, the name is well deserved since no village sits higher and no view of the Gulf of Volos is better.
Greek villageAs I walked through the cobblestone streets to the village square, I couldn’t help noticing how similar Greek Orthodox priests and Muslim Imams look to one another. But even older than the priests were the trees in the square. Ancient walnuts that must be 600 years old if they are a day. Massive things. The nearby water fountain seems to keep the atmosphere calm and tranquil and in the coffeehouse there is a fresco by the famous greek painter Theofilos. This is obviously a big tourist destination since nearly every shop was oriented to sell tourists trinkets or specialty Makrinitsa food items, but in fact, there were probably only ten tourists in the entire village while I was there and despite that, there was no one trying to hustle us.
Still, as I looked upward, I thought I could actually see the peak of Mt. Pelion. It seemed like about a mile of hiking would get me there and since I hate to be near the top of a mountain without topping it..I set out walking upward. Leaving the shelter of the trees it instantly became hotter and as I walked on and on, I realized that it was more than a mile…but I kept going. I reached what had looked like the top…and realized there was another top further on…when I reached that one, I saw a further one. And finally, realizing that this could go on for quite a long time I gave up on my idea of seeing both the Gulf of Volos and the Aegean though it should be possible from the top of Pelion – in theory.
Mt Pelion peakReaching some woodcutters and a small shrine to the Virgin, I figured it was time to go back since the woodcutters told me that the top was on and on and on. Slightly disappointed but invigorated by the hike and the view of the Gulf of Volos I walked back to Makrinitsa and on to Portaria.
Along the way I ate tons of blackberries, drank from an artesian spring, ate walnuts, figs, and even had an apple. Plus, I bought a delicious bar of chocolate before I left Makrinitsa. It wasn’t a terribly long walk, just a few kilometers and I was in Portaria which is like Makrinitsa but more developed. After a few more km, I caught the bus and headed back down to the yacht waiting in Volos.

 

Black Robed Kaffir: Adventures on the other side of Pakistan

Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisI am sitting in a small hovel just off the main street of dusty Chitral town, not far from the Afghan border, where a couple of old blenders, two dirty tables covered with an army of flies, some broken benches, and a very large slab of ice serve to create a mango shake parlor. I am surrounded by eight wizened old men with long wispy beards and skull caps staring at me, all of whom look exactly like Osama Bin Laden. At first glance, the traveler might find Pakistan to be a bit daunting.

However, minutes later, the bearded men have treated me to two delicious mango shakes, a wonderfully cool reprieve from the 40 plus degree searing temperatures outside, and after finding out I am American, the men are full of questions, wanting to know if I find their country safe, and why tourists no longer come to visit.

To say that Pakistan is a land of extremes is not to exaggerate. Home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, from barren and baking deserts to the huge and jagged Karakoram Mountains; where dozens of indigenous tribes eek out an existence under towering peaks and massive glacial upheaval. Baking hot in the summer, a frozen wasteland in the winter, and yet containing some of the most beautiful and lush valleys in the world, with abundant fruit and vegetables during the harvest season.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisThe international media portrays Pakistan as a land of lawlessness and evil, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda mobs, and there are indeed areas such as Waziristan in the Northwest Tribal Frontier, which are very much off limits to foreigners. In Waziristan, everything off the main road is not subject to government jurisdiction, and the land is ruled by feudal clans who have been suspicious of outsiders for years. The inhabitants here sleep with their doors open, with the women in the family placed next to the door to serve as a frontline against intruders, while the turbaned men lie in bed clutching their Uzi’s, AK47’s, and just about any other of the latest military hardware, all of which can be copied from an original in 30 minutes in small villages whose existence serves only to replicate weapons.

Yet the traveler to Pakistan will never be allowed into these areas, and outside of the political violence that has disturbed the big cities, the rest of the country is safe and hospitable, especially in the north, with one being far more likely to be crushed by the never ending cascade of boulders falling onto the Karakoram Highway on an hourly basis than by any act of terrorism or violence.

The sectarian violence and Al Qaeda related jihad groups are restricted to most of the far west and south of the country, and government troops make sure that visitors cannot enter these areas while they are busy battling insurgents. Meanwhile, the north of the country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups and even religions, with Ismaili Moslems (following the leadership of the esteemed Aga Khan) and various tribes of the Pamir mountains making up a majority. Every bend of the raging Indus River brings about a language change, from Burusheski to Gojali or Chitrali, and often the only way one can tell the difference between a Baltit from a Hunzakot is by the color of his hat.

In the northwest, near the Afghan border in the Chitral district are the famed Hindu Kush Mountains, stretching across northern Afghanistan. In the shadow of the Hindu Kush, live one of the most interesting and remote ethnic groups in the world, the Kalasha, also known as the Black Robed Kaffir. The Kalasha are a non Moslem animist group with light skin and European features. Legend has it that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great, who traveled through the region on his journey from Europe to India. How the Kalasha have survived over the years is quite amazing. They are the only non Moslem group between Turkey and India, and they inhabit only three remote valleys, surrounded by conservative Islam on all sides, and a Taliban inhabited region of Afghanistan just across the border.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn contrast to most of the neighboring villages, where women often are not even seen outside of the home, the Kalasha women are unveiled, attired in colorful headdresses made of cowry shells, pillbox hats, and embroidered skirts, and all are smiling and welcoming, even engaging in drinking wine and smoking cigarettes!

The Kalasha are pastoral, and make cheese, grow walnuts, wheat, apricots, and mulberries, which they store to survive the harsh winters that they endure. The valleys they live in are ringed by steep mountains and angry rivers, and the paths between the valleys are challenging treks over some extremely vertical terrain. In the river gorges, Kalasha men can be seen braving the whitewater rapids trying to free logs that have been cut to send downriver to be sold as timber. Each year, several men are swept away to their deaths by the powerful currents.

Pakistan by Dave Stamboulis

In the 1990’s, anthropologists, biologists (the mountains surrounding the Kalasha valleys are home to some of the largest populations of markhor sheep in the world), and tourists invaded the Kalasha area, and many feared that the consequences of large scale tourism would irreparably damage their indigenous lifestyle. But the September 11th attacks and subsequent war in Afghanistan virtually brought the tourist industry to a standstill, and the Kalasha have been left in peace ever since.

There is still a large selection of guesthouses in the Bumburet and Rumbur valleys, and I spent a week calling one of them home. My lodging was run by Engineer Khan, a jovial and energetic man who is the first university educated Kalasha from the valley, and now Rumbur village’s one and only esteemed school teacher. Interestingly enough, Khan received his first name not due to his being an engineer, but because his father wanted him to go to school and study, and his son took him to task, even going as far as leaving home to attend college in Chitral town.

Khan speaks Kalasha, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, English, and a smattering of other languages, and is happy to show visitors into local homes, the traditional funerary totems of his people, and to indulge in long evenings of astute conversation over several bottles of mulberry wine and local moonshine, a boon for the visitor in mostly alcohol free Pakistan.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisKhan doesn’t worry too much about the political instability in Pakistan or the fundamental Taliban push from neighboring Afghanistan, as he figures the Kalasha have survived far worse throughout the hundreds of years they have inhabited the valleys around Chitral. He worries more about young people leaving for the cities to find employment, about dependency on western medicine instead of traditional remedies, and about overpopulation, a topic he is hot to teach in school. As he warmly jokes, “I have five kids, so it is too late for me, but I think that about three per couple for the future generations would be just right.”

I am amazed at the continuous warmth that the Kalasha show me in household after household. Even trekking over the steep 3000 meter Donson Pass to get from Rumbur to the neighboring Bumburet Valley I am constantly greeted with warm cries of “ishtapa baia,” the Kalasha words meaning “welcome brother.” Women out tending the goats invite my guide and me in for tea and rest, interested to know if we have news from neighboring valleys, as the vertical landscape and dangerous river crossings make regular travel between settlements a rigorous undertaking. I still have a hard time getting used to the fact that I can have free and open dialogue with the women, as in most of the rest of rural Pakistan, women are wrapped in burquas and not allowed to have conversations with strange men, let alone even look at them.

The freckles, green eyes, and blond and even red hair that I see on many children as I walk makes me forget I am in Asia and for all I know I could be in the countryside of Ireland or Scotland, but then one look around at the towering peaks and endless alpine ridges reminds me that I am in a landscape far more magnificent and on a much grander scale.

 

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn the Bumburet Valley, many of the villages have been heavily populated by Moslems, who now run guesthouses and shops for the Pakistani middle class, who make up the majority of the tourist trade these days. Chitral can be reached by airplane, and the Kalasha Valleys are then a short drive away, a welcome respite from the summer heat on the plains, not to mention that nobody seems to make a big secret about the mulberry and other local wines openly available for consumption in this dry country.

The Kalasha seem to have survived the visitations, invasions, and designs of just about anyone for a long time, and it seems likely that their genetic makeup just might guarantee them to outlast the most stubborn of intruders. And if that is not enough, then the giant mountain walls of the Karakorams and Hindu Kush will provide the rest.

 

Travel Tips:

From Islamabad and Peshawar, local flights go to Chitral, and there is land transport available from Peshawar on a daily basis. From Chitral, local vans go to the Kalasha Valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.

Accommodation: Hotels and Guesthouses to suit all budgets can be found in cities. In Chitral town, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Commission) Hotel (#412683) is one of the nicer options, the Chinar Inn (412582) is basic, clean, and welcoming, and the HinduKush Heights (413151) is a swank resort just out of town.

In the Rumbur Valley in Grom village, Engineer Khan runs the Kalasha Home Guesthouse (email: ingeneerk@yahoo.com).

 

 

 

 

 

Five Offbeat Destinations in Morocco

Azrou, MoroccoMorocco is one of the most photogenic countries on the planet. From the markets to the sahara there is never a lack of wonders worthy of a photograph. Here are five off-beat destinations that you may not have heard about but are worth your time. Don’t forget your camera.

Azrou. In the Middle Atlas mountains there are vast cedar forests that the Phoenicians used to build ships. The mountain town of Azrou is a picturesque village with a lively market on Tuesdays where the Berber tribes from the surrounding regions converge to sell blankets, rugs, and handicrafts. If you trek into the mountains, you will find Barbary Apes swinging in the cedars.

SefrouSefrou. Sefrou has been eclipsed by it’s neighbour Fez, but the old medina (walled town) of Sefrou is actually older and more manageable than that of Fez. Just 28 kilometres south. Sefrou is great for a day trip. The waterfall just outside of Sefrou is a cool destination on hot summer days.

Sale. The ancient pirates of Morocco were based in Sale and caused problems for Europeans for hundreds of years. This was the center for white-slavery and nefarious deeds. Today it is a relaxed seaside city where you can find delicious seafood and uncrowded beaches.

OuarzazateOuarzazate. Morocco is famous for the Sahara and most people miss out on visiting Ouarzazate, also called the Hollywood of Morocco. It was here that films like The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gladiator were made. Most recently it has been a location for the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones. There are studio museums and ancient desert fortresses that have been well preserved by the dry desert air.

MarrakechMarrakech. Everyone has heard of Marrakech, but most people go there for the old medina, Jmma el Fna, or the ruins. It’s the new parts of Marrakech you don’t want to miss with red hot world fusion cuisine, great chefs, fabulous nightclubs, and an annual red carpet Film Festival that brings some of the biggest stars from around the world.

Monkeys, waterfalls, pirates, mummies, and movie stars – I’ll bet you had no idea Morocco could offer so much!

Six Hair Raising Caribbean Nature Adventures

Caribbean holidays feature many breathtaking destinations for vacationers to choose from. The crystal clear blue water, white sandy beaches, lush greenery, exotic food and engaging music is a fantastic backdrop against welcoming inhabitants. Below are some of the natural wonders we found to be the most intoxicating.

cc Image courtesy of Frank Peters on Flickr1. Jamaica – Dunn’s River Falls. With its awesome 600 foot waterfall, the stone steps lead into clear, blue waters. The cold water runs over stone steps to the warmer Caribbean waters below. Be careful though – the steps can be very slippery, as we found out after landing on our behinds. Guides may offer visitors interesting historical facts and stories. After we were lucky enough to reach the finish line we were rewarded with a breezy marketplace full of interesting local fare.

2.Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands – The Baths. Not to be confused with the Roman or Japanese type, the mysterious, gargantuan boulders invited us in along the edge of the water. The cavernous structures may either spook some visitors, however. We found a welcome respite in the tidal pools for a swim. Adventure seekers may also snorkel or dive. Best to wear a bathing suit to transition easily from land to sea.

cc image courtesy of Paul-W on Flickr3. Cayman Islands – Stingray City. Unlike the “Survivor” television show that failed in the UK, this adventure featuring relatively docile stingrays is sure to amaze (notice I said, “relatively docile”). If diving is your thing, you are in luck here. Divers can easily conquer the 12 foot plunge into refreshing, crystal blue waters. The less daredevil inclined can visit the shallow, or “kiddie” end of the “pool” at the Stingray City Sandbar.

4. Barbados – Harrison’s Cave. The largest cave of its kind in the region, this limestone monstrosity is at the end of a Disneyland-esque electric train ride. Along the way, we passed all manner of amazing spectacles such as a 40 foot waterfall and many underground streams and pools.

cc image courtesy of Neil Chatfield on Flickr5. La Soufriere, St. Lucia – Volcano. This volcanic island is truly one for the books . A beach holiday in St. Lucia is one thing but the volcano takes it to a whole new level. Visitors either drive their cars or take a tour vehicle as near as they dare. Then they trudge with a guide (if they are smart) through a fault. The over 5 acres of hissing, bubbling crater and sulfur smell is not for the faint of heart, however.

6. Puerto Rico – EL Yunque. I found that this magnificent 28,000 acre rainforest is best visited with an expert tour guide to meander through any one of its 13 hiking trails. If you’re lucky, you may see a green parrot (unlike us), unless they have gone completely extinct. But not to worry. We’re told there are well over 67 other birds to choose from. The plentiful flora, blooms, greens and over 240 tree species are also sure to wow anyone.

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