Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

France’s Loire Valley in Winter

Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley in February

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Which means that its beautiful places are overrun with tourists much of the year. The Loire Valley, with dozens of historic chateaux, fortresses, villages, and foodie delights like vineyards and farmgate sources, not to mention beautiful natural spaces, is no exception. When we visited in late January and February, we could tell by the acres of parking stalls that the larger sites are braced to receive hordes in spring, summer, and fall.

But in winter, those parking lots were nearly empty. We strolled through any site that interested us on a given day–no need to buy tickets in advance or line up. Once inside, it made no difference what the weather was doing outside. If it was a bit chilly, it made us appreciate more the challenges the original inhabitants faced in keeping warm. One of the chateaux had big wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces, which added to the historic ambience and put a lovely hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Beyond the chateaux, those charming medieval or Georgian streets are still there for your enjoyment, although you might need to bundle up for your stroll and sit inside the cafe or patisserie rather than on the patio (some restaurants do have a heated area outdoors). Cafe au lait or chocolat chaud is especially pleasant on a chilly day and you can savour the French food without guilt, knowing that you’re burning off extra calories when you walk in the brisk weather. And speaking of food, even the tiny gastronomic restaurants have space for last-minute dinner guests and the local farmers’ markets run right through the cold months.

The cooler temperatures and lack of crowds made the whole experience of visiting a site less tiring. I hate it when vacationing becomes an endurance test, i.e., I’ve paid 15 Euros to get in here, I have to stay X number of hours and see the whole bl**dy thing to get my money’s worth, even though I’m overheated, exhausted, and my feet are numb. This scenario is far less likely in the winter.

Whether you’re driving around or taking public transit, everything will be quieter. Parking in the villages will be easy. Churches and cathedrals remain open year-round and you will often have them to yourself on weekdays if you, like me, just like to sit in the pews and drink in the magnificent surroundings.

A few things to keep in mind if visiting in the winter:

  • Some sites are closed, especially in the second and third week of January when apparently many tourist-focused businesses shut so that employees can vacation after the busy Christmas season. Those that are open may have reduced hours.
  • Some amenities are unavailable, such as guided tours or onsite restaurants.
  • If a site’s gardens are a primary attraction for you, this is not the time to visit. The gardens will be immaculately maintained and pleasant to stroll, weather permitting, but trees will be bare and few, if any, flowers out.
  • Yes, it rains. And it’s windy sometimes. The temperatures are much like in the BC Lower Mainland, mostly hovering above zero. I believe that in the four weeks we were there, we had a couple of frosty nights. But we also had gorgeous sunny days with clear blue skies, as you’ll see in the photos.
  • The banks of the Loire (and other local rivers) are frequently flooded in winter. As many of the beautiful walks in the area run along the river shores, some were too wet or muddy to use. However, we never had any diffculty finding somewhere near the river to perambulate, if that’s what we desired.

Is housesitting for you?

Leon, our charming host in France.

Following a recent housesit in France, I have had a number of queries from curious friends and family for more information about how housesitting works. I hope this post will answer a lot of questions and give you a sense of whether you might like to try it.

Mark and I began housesitting about three years ago. I had bumped into housesitting sites on the Web and thought it an interesting idea.

In the typical housesit, no money changes hands. The sitter lives in the host’s home for free while the host is away and performs certain duties without pay. Those duties may include pet care, plant or lawn care, pool maintenance, etc. The sitter is also expected to keep the house tidy and clean to the standards of the host. There are variations on this model e.g., I’ve seen ads where the host expected the sitter to pay for utilities during their sit, or where the sitter was asked to look after an AirBnB suite, but these are not common. Sometimes the host will allow the sitter to use their car. Out of five sits that we’ve done, two gave us the keys to their car.

So that’s it in a nutshell: free accommodations for the sitter and free house/pet sitting for the host.

Sit periods can range from a couple of days to a year. There are sits available in major cities like Bangkok, London, and Los Angeles as well as in very rural settings. They are in sprawling farms and in tiny apartments.

To find a sit, you might want to belong to a housesit website, which will list available sits as well as available housesitters (should you be a homeowner seeking a sitter). I’ve dealt with three sites: nomador.com, trustedhousesitters.com, and housecarers.com, but I’m sure there are many others out there. Nomador (about $90 per year, with a free trial option) has a lot of sits in French-speaking countries plus other countries. Trustedhousesitters ($130 annual fee) I haven’t accessed for a long time, so I’m not sure whether they specialize in certain areas. Housecarers (US$50 per year) is the one I’ve used the most and the one where I’m still a member. It has a lot of sits in Australia, but also worldwide. You can browse all of these sites without becoming a member so you can get an idea of the kind of sits available, but if you want to apply for a sit, then you need to become a member.

Once you are a member of a site, here are some tips for getting the housesits you want:

  • Develop a good resume. Do a couple of sits so that you can advertise experience. You can do sits closer to home in order to gain this experience. Our first house sit was on Mayne Island.
  • Get references. Remember, from the host’s point of view, this is all about trust, so you need to do everything you can to gain their trust. Start with personal references and an RCMP background check (currently $25) then add references from hosts as you accumulate experience.
  • Be diligent about checking the site. An interesting offer will attract a number of applications quickly, so if you don’t see it for several days, you may have already lost out.
  • Be flexible and ready to commit when you see something you like. In the case of France, we had just returned from a trip to Panama and had already committed to a sit in Nanaimo over Christmas. I knew we had open time from mid-January to end of Feb, but I wasn’t seriously searching for a sit and I actually never considered France. However, when the French sit popped up and the time frame was ideal, I did some quick research on the area and thought, Wow, this would be a great place to spend several weeks. I also checked flight prices (terrible) and considered the ongoing general strike in France before applying. The point is, from first seeing the ad to applying was only a few hours, and there were already several other applications.
  • Keep your online profile up to date. Add photos. Mention previous sits and locations. After your initial contact message, your profile is your best chance to impress hosts with your reliability, personality, and character, so make it good.
  • Have a backup plan. We have not had any problems (crossed fingers) but I have read stories about hosts (and sitters) cancelling at the last minute, so I’m sure it happens. Since you’ve already made various arrangements—booked flights maybe, rented a car, taken time off work—what are you going to do? Cancel the whole thing and pay the penalties? Or go ahead and make other arrangements for accommodations? Either way it’s going to cost you more money than you planned, so it’s best to consider this in advance.

Housesitting has been a great experience for us. We’ve really enjoyed spending time in places we wouldn’t necessarily have visited otherwise and having a “home” rather than a hotel to relax in. We’ve also loved spending time with the pets we’ve met and getting to know our hosts.

If you think this might be something you’d like to try, do your research. Visit the sites I’ve listed and look for others to find the one that best suits your own needs. Read through their rules and browse the available sits before becoming a member. It’s a different way to travel but it might just be right for you!

Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?

When is a Direct Booking Not a Direct Booking?

Travel is a never-ending process of learning, and so is travel planning.

A few days ago, I was working through bookings for an upcoming trip to Mexico. I had narrowed down my accommodation choices for one particular city and was ready to reserve. My usual policy with bookings now is to avoid third-party sites (e.g., Booking.com, Expedia, etc.) if the prices offered on the hotel or airline site are comparable and if booking directly is reasonably feasible.

My reasoning is that I’d rather deal directly with the business in question, just in case there’s an issue. I’ve had situations with reservations made through a third-party site where the hotel seemed to care less and actually said something to the effect: “Too bad. It’s booked through Expedia, so we can’t do anything about it.” That’s not what I want to hear when there’s a problem. Airlines, too, may shrug their shoulders if there’s a flight change or other muddle—not necessarily your fault—and you booked through a third-party site. I’ve also wondered sometimes if Expedia bookings get dropped to the bottom of the priority list when it comes to assigning rooms or other things left to the discretion of hotel staff, but I have no proof of that.

Finally, I imagine that the third-party sites take a commission for handling bookings, so I’d rather give that money to the hotel or airline and support the business.

In this case, I went to the website of the hotel. After obsessively reading every page of the site (sorry, that’s just what I do), I went to the booking page to reserve. I clicked on the “Book now” button and was flipped into the reservations page. I had planned to book two nights, but as I was filling in the reservation, something occurred to me that made me decide to book three nights instead.

Great. All done. I get my reservation confirmation within minutes.

Then I recall something about a “romantic getaway” package that I saw on the website. Yup, there it is: book three nights and get free wine, flowers, and a discount. But you must book directly. Okay, I’m thinking, that’s worth following up. After all, I just booked the stay moments before, directly through the website, surely they will be gracious about awarding us the perks.

I write to the manager, explain the situation, and ask if they will honour the package deal.

No, he says, that’s only for bookings made directly.

I’m scratching my head: I did book directly. I point that out. He then explains that bookings through the website are not considered direct bookings.

Say what?

He further explains that a booking through the website actually takes you to a form on—you guessed it—Booking.com. So that’s not a direct booking, in their eyes. A direct booking is only if you telephone or email the hotel.

Now, I’m not really worried about getting the package perks, but I am concerned about this odd definition of “direct booking.” Especially since, when I clicked their “Book now” button and I flipped into the reservation page, the page setup and background visually matched the hotel website. There was no indication I was no longer on their website, unless I decoded the enormously long URL in the browser window. How would I even know that I wasn’t booking directly?

Well, lesson learned. I now know that booking directly through a hotel (or other business) website may not actually be a direct booking by their definition. I must needs be more careful in future. Sadly for the businesses involved, this may also mean I’m less inclined to take the trouble to book “directly” through their sites, if I’m just going to end up on Booking.com anyway. Thus, they will lose out on the commission they pay to the booking site.

What are your experiences with booking through third-party sites and/or directly with hotels? Let me know in a comment.

The Romantic Road Bus Part 2: Escaping the Castle

Ancient painting of Harburg area. Photo of painting (and additions) by Marian Buechert.

 

When the Romantic Road bus finally dropped us off in Harburg, we discovered that their bus stop is nowhere near the town and a looong way from the castle. We were left standing with our luggage outside a boarded-up guesthouse on the edge of a semi-rural area, with no way to get to the town or up the mountain to our castle. There were no taxis and no commercial buildings other than one small grocery store across the street. Now, this isn’t the fault of the driver, but the company should warn customers about this situation and not just strand people who probably don’t speak the local tongue and may not have a phone (we didn’t).

I walked over to the store to see if I could get any information from the staff or maybe find a phone. All the staff were very busy, so no one to talk to. I wandered back out and spotted a man climbing onto a bicycle. Aha, thinks I, obviously a local. I will attempt to extract useful info from him in my rudimentary German.

It was our lucky break. This kind man not only answered my questions (Yes, a looong hike up a steep path. With luggage, not possible.), but once he understood our dilemma, he immediately said he would get us a ride. He looked around the parking lot and, spotting someone he knew, asked if the guy could take us to the castle. No problem, we would just have to wait until he did his shopping and he would drop us right at the door.

And so it was, with the generosity of two gentlemen of Harburg, we finally arrived at the castle gate.

Happily ensconced in our castle turret room, we nonetheless still faced two major challenges on the morrow.

Number 1: How to get back to the lonely bus stop. If we had to walk, we would at least be going downhill, but it was still a long hike. Number 2: If we could get there, would the bus driver even stop? If he didn’t know to stop there with us on the bus shouting at him to stop, what were the chances he would merrily whiz by on the freeway without a glance at Harburg?

Once again, we were lucky enough to encounter a kind soul; in this case, the gentleman who ran the hotel (he may also have been the owner; if so, I apologize for calling him the manager). Despite being extremely busy with a large party of guests, Herr Marzahn took the trouble to phone the drivers to ensure that one of them would indeed stop in Harburg. He then drove us to the bus stop.

The rest of this part of our journey was smooth: the bus picked us up and the driver was prepared with our train tickets for the onward leg from Augsburg to Munich.

Although we enjoyed the scenic route the Romantic Road bus took through the countryside and we did, eventually, reach our destinations—which were lovely—I must warn travelers away from this company. They are still having major issues with reliability and service and don’t seem to have any concern for their customers’ safety or peace of mind. Do the Romantic Road, but do it by car.

As for us, we’ve chalked this up as another travel adventure: stressful at the time, but kind of a funny story in retrospect. I realize that it’s getting harder and harder to travel without a phone, simply because everyone is expected to have one. Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get by, but then there’s that one situation where it’s vital.

The best part of this experience, however, is that it has reminded us how wonderful people can be in reaching out to help inept travelers. Many thanks to our three white knights who rescued us from our castle plight.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

—Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire    

Have you escaped from a travel dilemma through the “kindness of strangers”? Tell me about it in a comment!                                        

The Romantic Road Bus Part 1: Bumbling through Bavaria

The very romantic medieval streets of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The Romantic Road. Sounds charming, right? The website hype reads “[B]uses…connect the Romantic Road, Germany’s most famous and popular holiday route, with the international gateways of Frankfurt and Munich. As there are no direct rail links, and only a few towns and villages can be reached by train, the bus with its ‘hop on – hop off’ concept, offers the ideal way of organizing one’s own individual voyage of discovery.”

Apparently, at one time, the Romantic Road bus was charming and fun. So despite negative reviews about this tour, my sister and I wanted to see for ourselves if perhaps the company had heeded travelers’ complaints and improved service. Bad idea. (Note to self: Unless you’re being paid, you never want to check out whether bad reviews are accurate.)

We caught the bus in Frankfurt. It was half an hour late. The group of tourists waiting—including us—became confused and concerned that we were somehow not in the right place. When the bus finally showed up, the driver muttered something about traffic. No smile, apology, or explanation.

We learned later from talking to other travelers that this was not an uncommon experience.

On the bus, things were about as expected. Typical long-distance bus: comfy and with good windows. (We won’t go into the WC; it was not pleasant, but I gather fairly standard for those buses.) The bus wasn’t even half full, so there were many empty seats and passengers could easily move around if desired.

There was no mention of the promised audio guides (supposedly available in various languages with a deposit). An on-board announcement system with pre-recorded info provided some cursory comments in English and German. We felt sorry for the many Asian tourists on board whose needs were completely ignored. There was a box full of printed cards with info in a variety of languages and you were welcome to dig through it to find your language. No English versions of the card seemed to be in stock and the pre-recorded voice over the PA was usually inaudible due to the driver’s music playing loudly and the ambient noise of a bus roaring along.

Although the bus stops in some smaller towns along the route, some are not visited unless the driver has a prearranged drop-off or pick-up in that town. The stops in the major towns are scheduled, some for 15 or 30 minutes. Since we were so late leaving Frankfurt, the driver attempted to make up time by shortening the stops, so we had only enough time to jump out of the bus, walk around the square and then race back to our seats. Forget getting lunch or even an ice cream, unless you wanted to eat on the bus. If the public WC was more than a hundred metres from the bus stop, it was a no-go.

At one stop, a local guide from the nearby historic palace came on board to scoop up as many of us as were willing to take a condensed 25-minute tour of the building and gardens. I suspect most of the travelers didn’t have a clue what she was offering, since their English/German was minimal, so we ended up the only takers. It was only one Euro, so we figured we couldn’t lose. It took five minutes to walk to the palace and five back, so the tour was actually about 15 minutes. She showed us the most important room in the building and left us for five minutes to gawk, then whisked us outdoors to the gardens for another 10 minutes of gazing around at lawns, bushes, and statues. That was our memorable visit.

We eventually arrived in Rothenburg, our first destination, without further ado and enjoyed that town’s charms for two nights. Our pickup from Rothenburg went fine, the bus was on time. Different driver this time.

When the driver read our tickets, he said “Remind me after XXX town to stop at Harburg” (our next destination). That seemed odd, because surely he had a daily manifest that told him where to stop? Since we had pre-booked our stops, he should have known that we were getting off in Harburg.

Oh well. We settled back to enjoy the drive through picturesque villages and winding country lanes. After XXX town, we duly reminded him to stop in Harburg. “Yes, Augsburg,” he replied. We looked at each other in alarm. “NO,” my sister said, “Not Augsburg, HARBURG.” “Yes, yes,” he said.

A few minutes later, we started to see the signs for Harburg and waited for him to turn off the highway. Nope. We saw a castle on the hillside that looked suspiciously like Harburg Castle (our accommodations for the night)—and the driver went right past it.

My sister spoke to the driver again and reminded him that we needed to stop in Harburg. “Still ahead,” he said. What do we know? Maybe there’s a special route he’s taking. We watch the last of the Harburg signs disappear behind us.

Twenty minutes later, we start seeing signs for Augsburg. Now we know there’s definitely something wrong. My sister talks to the driver one more time. “Harburg! We need to get off in Harburg!” He finally pulls the bus over and phones in to his office.

It turned out that it was his first day on the job and he didn’t know the route at all. Neither his English nor his German was very good, so he didn’t understand what we were talking about. Now he had to turn the bus around and go back nearly 30 minutes, putting the rest of the passengers probably close to an hour behind schedule.

Next week: Part 2—Escaping the Castle

Malarial Muddle

Worldwide distribution of malaria: green is malaria-free, blue is eliminating malaria, red is controlling malaria. Image source: thelancet.com

 

 

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might be inspired to think about travelling to destinations like Thailand, Cambodia, Ecuador, or South Africa. All wonderful places to visit, but all home turf for malaria.

Malaria is nothing to take lightly; the World Health Organization estimates that in 2016 there were 216 million new cases of malaria worldwide resulting in 445,000 deaths. Thank you, Wikipedia, for those uplifting statistics. I got to witness the effects of this disease first-hand in 1972, when my mother was infected somewhere along the journey from Lebanon to Yemen. Luckily, she contracted a non-recurring form of malaria and recovered.

So when we travel to places where malaria hangs out, we always err on the side of caution. We get the best anti-malarial prophylactics we can buy and we take them religiously, even in zones where there is minimal risk. Any risk, I say, is too much.

In the early 1980s, Mark, my husband, travelled to South America. He planned to visit the Amazon and consulted a doctor here at home about malaria prevention. The doctor told him that the medication was much cheaper if you bought it in South America, and recommended he pick it up in one of the cities before he ventured into the jungle. When Mark arrived in Lima, Peru, he went to a number of pharmacies to buy the pills, but none of them had even heard of the drug, either by its common name or by its chemical name. He ended up cancelling the Amazon portion of his trip because he couldn’t get the necessary malarial protection.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when we went to a specialty travel medical clinic to get a prescription for Malarone, the current drug of choice for preventing malaria. We each needed 13 days of pills to cover the time we’d be in the Amazon region, plus a week afterward (as prescribed). When we arrived in Quito and prepared to take the first dose, we discovered that we had only 13 pills in total; either the doctor ordered the wrong amount or the pharmacy dispensed the wrong amount. In my busyness before departure, I hadn’t bothered to count the pills in the bottle. My mistake.

Well, we figure, no big deal, we can just go to a local pharmacy and buy more. Surely, people go in and out of the Amazon through Quito every day, so they must sell Malarone. Nope. Once again, the pharmacists looked completely baffled when we asked for Malarone. We tried the chemical name. Nada. We explained where we were going and that we needed something against malaria and they just shook their heads. We used the Web to try to find a source for Malarone in Quito and discovered to our dismay that the drug is not sold in many countries, particularly the countries where malaria is common. What the heck?? Apparently, the company that makes Malarone is restricting where they sell it in order to stave off drug-resistance and keep the medicine effective for as long as possible.

Whatever. The hard fact remained that we were in a pickle. Only enough pills to protect one person, no way to get any more. Options: travel unprotected or cancel our jungle excursion. After discussing it, we decided to proceed. The area we would be visiting wasn’t high risk and we both had waited a long time to visit the Amazon.

So who got the pills? Well, with half my internal organs either missing or severely diminished and a depressed immune system, I could not chance being infected, whereas, we reasoned, Mark’s more robust constitution should see him through in the unlikely event he did get malaria. Not a happy choice but one that seems to have worked out: a month after returning from our trip now, we are both feeling fine, and, in fact, we didn’t run into a lot of mosquitos in the Amazon.

Lesson learned: always buy your travel health prescriptions before you leave home and count your pills!

Afterword: Now I read that counterfeit antimalarial drugs are commonly sold in some Asian countries, including Thailand and Cambodia. Yet another reason to buy at home.

What would you have done in our shoes? Take the risk or cancel? Let me know in a comment.

Ecuador for Lazy Birders

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We hope to see this funky dude on our trip–as long as it doesn’t take too much effort. Image source: neotropicalecuador.com

So, the Great Big Map of Ecuador is up on my kitchen wall, coloured dots marking destinations. After months of planning, the itinerary is finally in place. The central focus of this trip will be seeing and photographing as many birds as possible—within the constraints of a fairly leisurely and comfortable journey. Ecuador boasts over 1600 species of birds, so even without lengthy or steep hikes, extensive domestic travel, or rough locations, I figure we should tally a good number. Yes, even without visiting the Galapagos, which we decided had to wait for a future trip. Although the itinerary is built around birding, I hope to include dashes of local culture and points of interest.

After much research and dithering, I settled on flights from Vancouver to Quito via San Francisco and Panama City. The price was significantly better than one-stop flights (partly because I used points for the YVR to SFO leg), the departure and arrival times more convenient, and the total flight time not bad, considering the two stops. This plan also allowed me to build in a couple of nights in San Francisco to take in the sights and it falls within my winter travel imperative to avoid east-coast routes with their attendant risk of snowstorms and nightmare layovers.

My immediate goal upon arriving in Quito is to rest up and acclimatize to the altitude, so I’ve kept the first few days simple and quiet: three nights in the San Jorge Eco-lodge and Botanical Reserve just outside the city. We’ll spend those days checking out the bird feeders and walking their private trails and probably not much else.

The San Jorge group of lodges form what their promo likes to call “The Magic Birding & Photography Circuit.” It’s a smart idea: offer travellers a variety of lodges located in different bioclimatic zones (read: more species) with comfortable accommodations that cater specifically to birders and other nature nuts. I admit, I fell for it and ended up booking three of their properties, starting in Quito.

Just before the weekend, we’ll head off for one of Ecuador’s must-do’s, the Saturday artisan market at Otavalo, staying two nights at the Hostal Doña Esther. If time permits, we’ll try for the Parque Condor bird of prey centre housing rescued raptors.

Next, back to the “Magic Birding Circuit” for three nights at the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge and three at San Jorge de Milpe. Both lodges promise comfy rooms, good food, and features such as feeders, birding trails, ponds, and waterfalls. All of the San Jorge lodges offer packages with guides included, but I opted for bed and board only, preferring to explore independently.

Two nights in Quito will provide a short break from the birding lodges, although a planned tour to nearby Antisanilla Reserve should yield some sightings, including Andean Condor nesting sites (fingers crossed). We’ll try to squeeze in some time at the Museo Etnohistorico de Artesanias del Ecuador Mindalae (Whew! That’s a mouthful.), which happens to be located just around the corner from our snooze site, Hostal de la Rabida.

Heading east through the Andes, we’ll spend three nights at the Wildsumaco Lodge poised between the mountains and the lowlands. On the first morning, I’ve booked a half-day of guiding for an introduction to the area and its creatures.

Sacha Lodge. Image source: sachalodge.com

Then it’s down to the town of Coca to connect with our small boat up the Napa River to Sacha Lodge, deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Visiting the Amazon jungle is on my bucket list, so I’m trying to keep my sky-high expectations under control. I hope we get the chance to visit the clay lick where hundreds of parrots gather to supplement their diets with healthful minerals.

We’ll fly back to Quito just in time for the week-long fiesta leading up to the holiday that celebrates the founding of the city. Music, street parties, and sightseeing in the Old Town should fill up our days and we’ll spend our nights at the Casa el Eden, recommended by a friend of a friend. Somewhere along the line, I’m sure we’ll find time to check out the chocolate, coffee, and helado (ice cream) shops.

Does this itinerary sound like fun or folly? Let me know what you think in a comment.

Quito mural. Image source: muralcomunitario.com

7 Tips for Reading Online Reviews

“Worst experience ever! I’ll never stay here again.”

“Cheerful staff, good pub-style food.”

“Slept like a baby. A real find!”

“Terrible. We waited an hour for our food and then they got the order wrong.”

Oh, those online reviews. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, Google Reviews, Expedia, Airbnb, VRBO, blogs, and travel sites; there are more every day.

Every time I read an online review, I wonder what it’s worth. How can I allow anonymous opinions to influence decisions that may involve thousands of my precious dollars? But I do. It’s hard not to. In pre-Internet days, I relied heavily on recommendations in travel guides. I still read those guides, but the sheer volume of online reviews and the specifics of those opinions make them irresistible.

Is there any way to be sure that reviews are fair and accurate? The simple answer is no. You can never be sure. However, with a willingness to invest some time and basic common sense, I think those reviews can work for you. Here I’ve listed some ideas for sifting through online reviews.

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, bad or good. This is the crucial point. Read every review with a critical eye. Stilted, “bumpfed-up” language that sounds suspiciously like promo copy is a red flag that the review may be a fake posted by the business owner or her mother. On the other side, a review that runs down a business in vague terms and suggests you patronize a specific competitor instead may come from the rival (or his mother).
  2. Read between the lines. Is the reviewer complaining about a situation beyond the business’s control? Could it have been a one-time problem? Is the reviewer so angry about something that he or she is completely unfair? Sometimes a negative review is clearly based on a situation where any reasonable person would side with the business; e.g., I’ve read a review where the writer complained that the manager shut down their fun late-night party “just because” other guests were disturbed by the noise. This is not a legitimate basis for a negative review.
  3. Match your own expectations and standards against those of the reviewer. What you want from a hotel, restaurant, or tour may not be the same as what the writer wants. He might complain that meal portions are small, but if you’re a light eater, you might prefer small portions. She may be thrilled that an establishment allows smoking; you may not.
  4. Watch the numbers. The more reviews, the better. It’s unlikely that the manager will fake 50 reviews. Also, if there are 100 reviews and 97 say it’s great and 3 say it sucks, that’s significant. Read the ones that buck the trend: sometimes it will be clear that the dissenting reviews are unreasonable. Sometimes they will make a valid point.
  5. Notice the specifics. A long review with many details is more believable than a one-liner. In addition, the details can be very interesting. A review based on a visit during a specific time period could yield valuable information about what it’s like to be there during that time. If you’re planning to visit the Amazon during January, try to find reviews from people who went in that month. They may mention how bad the mosquitos were, what the weather was like, or how the humidity affected their electronic devices, great things to know in advance.
  6. Check the room tips, if they are included. Again, your preferences for noise/quiet, front street/back courtyard, clawfoot tub/walk-in shower may not align with the writer’s, but you can still use those room details to make a better choice.
  7. Flip through the photos. Photos can be faked, but for most people, it’s too much bother. Looking at photos can give you an idea how far the official business description veers away from reality. The classic case is references to “views.” Many properties will tout their “ocean view” or “mountain view,” but when you look at the photos posted by guests, you may notice that the “view” is a tiny sliver of distant horizon visible only when you stand in one corner of the balcony and lean way over the railing. This is the kind of truth-stretching that disappointed guests love to jump all over with photos revealing the actual picture.

Booking anything sight unseen is a risk, but it’s hard to avoid doing that when you travel. Reading reviews is just one way of reducing that risk. While reviews must be approached with a healthy degree of caution, ignoring the collective experience and knowledge of the online community would be foolish.

PS: Don’t forget to post your own reviews. It can be fun and certainly helps other people—some of my reviews on TripAdvisor have been read over a thousand times! It can even help the business in question if you provide a great review or point out a problem that they can fix. If you’ve used review sites yourself, it’s only fair to contribute to them.

Do you read or post reviews? Have you had a bad or good experience with an online review? Let me know in a comment.