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.

Calidris Reads: World Heritage Sites

In my house, there’s a book that never gathers dust on the shelf.

It’s in almost constant circulation: sometimes in residence on the back of the toilet,* sometimes resting on my bedside table, ready to furnish a quick read before I nod off, sometimes shared out loud in the living room as we discuss our destinations.

Currently, I count six Post-It notes protruding from its pages, marking sites of probable or possible future destinations. If you flipped through its pages, you would notice the handwritten checkmarks sprinkled sparsely throughout; my way of keeping track of which sites I’ve visited, from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada to the Fossil Hominid Site Sterkfontein in South Africa.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) catalogues, names, and conserves sites around the world that have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Each year, they add to their list, and every few years, they publish a guide to all the sites on the list: World Heritage Sites: A complete guide to 878** UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Sample entry from World Heritage Sites.

In the guide, entries are given in chronological order by the year in which UNESCO recognized the site. Indices allow you to search for sites by country or site name. Each entry provides info on the year the site was recognized, in which country the site is located, a small map showing the site’s general locale, the criteria under which the site qualifies as a World Heritage Site, and a short description. Many, but not all, entries include a photo.

A typical opening sentence for an entry might be: “The karst formation of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has evolved since the Palaeozoic era, some 400 million years ago, and is the oldest karst area in Asia.” Not exactly scintillating prose, but it does provide a very brief summary of why you might want to visit that site.

I use the book in two ways. When I begin to research a country that I might visit, I use the country index to discover which sites lie within that country. Some I already know—like the Galapagos in Ecuador. Others are an intriguing surprise, such as the works of Antoni Gaudi in Spain. (I knew of Gaudi, but didn’t realize his architecture had been recognized as a World Heritage Site.)

But for me, the real pleasure of this book is in the browsing, just opening it at random to any page and reading. Who knew, for example, that “[t]he Solovetsky archipelago comprises six islands in the western part of the White Sea….They have been inhabited since the fifth century BC and important traces of a human presence from as far back as the fifth millennium BC can be found there”?

Yes, I realize it’s a completely subjective list that is almost certainly culturally biased and I don’t care. It simply provides me with one more focus for my travel. I figure, hey, if a place has internationally recognized importance to the heritage of all humanity, it might be worth an hour’s detour. Besides, I’m just childish enough to get a kick out of ticking off the ones I’ve visited.

Rating: 5 knots Highly recommended

*You don’t want to know.

**The number changes with each edition. 878 was the number on the first North American edition in 2009, the edition I own. There are now 1073 sites on the World Heritage Site List and six editions of the guide.

World Heritage Sites is published by UNESCO Publishing (Firefly Books in North America).

Which books inspire your travel? Let me know in a comment.

The Joy of Junk Mail

When I was a strange, reading-obsessed child, I would comb magazines from the library, looking for those tiny ads that promised to mail me something for free. “Ten Tips for Training Your Advanced Reining Horse.” “The Colorful Stamps of Gabon.” “Hinterland Who’s Who: The Beaver.”

All this information available for just the cost of a stamp! Who could resist? What did it matter if I hardly knew what a reining horse was, much less owned or trained a horse of any description? The material would arrive in the mail addressed to ME—very exciting for a seven-year-old. I would devour every word and carefully file the item away in my drawer.

As an adult, the appeal paled. After all, I got so much junk mail every day. Why in the world would I ask for more? For a while, you had to write away to be taken off mailing lists. (I suspect that such requests were actually received as carte blanche to treble the amount of junk sent. “Here’s a live one, Joe. Mark that address for extra deliveries.”)

Nowadays, everything is on the Web. The most obscure information available at the click of a mouse. It’s great for instant facts. But it can be too easy to go directly to the info you want. Sometimes you do require straight-up cold, hard data. But sometimes you want to drift, to sample. You want to dream.

After my father died suddenly, my mother was left a widow at 51. She was lost. My father had been the centre of her life, her children were grown. She was financially comfortable but did not know what to do with herself. One day, on impulse, she walked into a travel agency and picked up a pile of brochures. She and I pored over those brochures together. We talked about the places she could go. I remember she became quite enamoured with the idea of taking a round-the-world cruise. We talked about it for a while. And then she let the notion drop. I think it was the idea that she could do this if she wanted that helped her move forward. Instead of feeling that her life was over, she started to see that she had choices, and some of them might even be fun choices.

I recently found myself clicking on a Facebook ad for a region I have never visited. It was the promise of “Birdwatcher’s Paradise” that pulled me in. Once I was on the website—a nicely constructed one, I may add—I browsed a bit, mildly interested. Beyond the birds, it was the usual “we’ve got wineries, we’ve got charming accommodations, we’ve got golf, etc.” But what drew my attention like a magnet was that little button: “For maps, tour suggestions, and a 64-page vacation guide, click here.” Filling in my name and address took me straight back to the excitement of my reining horse days.

Yes, I know that somewhere in cyberspace, personal information collection software is gleefully adding me to its database. But I don’t care. When that thick envelope arrives in my community mailbox slot, I will hurry home, snuggle into a comfy chair, tear the envelope open, and browse the old-fashioned way. I will unfold the maps, flip through the glossy-paged booklet, and peruse the “special offers.” I will read through the suggested itineraries and trace their routes on the maps. I may turn down corners of pages that interest me or circle text that I want to remember.

The experience of being taken on a carefully planned journey through information, as you hold a booklet in your hands, cannot be replicated by a website. The travel booklet presents information in a crafted sequence. I understand that the sequence is all focused on getting me to commit emotionally before thinking about practicalities like cost. But knowing that, I can still sit back and enjoy the ride. Do your best, I think happily. Sell me, if you can. This could be my next vacation, so go ahead and tell me why it should be.

Because I’m a travel junkie, even when I’m on a trip, I scan the horizon for free travel literature. Staying in a birding lodge, for example, often yields thick, slick, bird tour promos filled with stunning photos. On our meanderings around Cape Breton last year, I happened across a 66-page book advertising the upcoming Celtic Colours Festival. Although we were too early to visit the festival that year, I carried the book home and found it a treasure trove of information and inspiration for a potential future visit. (I’m hoping to visit that festival next year.)

Just so you know, downloadable brochures don’t cut the same mustard. They can be useful, but are just second-class citizens in the travel world. Clicking through an e-book is not the same as turning tangible pages. You may be saving trees by reading an electronic version, but just think of all the viruses and malware that a download could be carrying. At least when I open my paper copy, I don’t suddenly get the sniffles or find that my hands are off-line until I pay a ransom to some hacker.

No, as long as there’s snail mail, I’ll keep looking forward to my free travel literature. Anyone for a cup of tea and a copy of The Visitor’s Guide to Amish Country?

Am I dating myself terribly by clinging to my hard-copy travel brochures? Given a choice, do you prefer downloadable info and websites, or something you can hold in your hands? Let me know your opinion in a comment.

 

 

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 2

In steps 1 through 6, I talked about buying a map, doing research, and creating a travel calendar.

7/ Start to personalize your Great Big Map. At different times, I’ve used these three methods:

  • Take your GBM and put sticky dots on places and events which interest you. If you want to be really obsessive (I’ve done this once), use one specific color sticky dot for events, another color for natural attractions, and another for historical sites; OR
  • Mount your GBM on a corkboard and stick pins into places of interest; OR
  • Photocopy your GBM and draw directly on the photocopy with dots marking your events.

It’s fun to post your GBM in a prominent place at home where you can stare at it often and imagine yourself journeying in the places you’ve marked.

8/ At this point, I’m going back and forth between my research materials (websites and travel books), my calendar, and my GBM. This phase could last for weeks or months. From my Internet research, I bookmark sites for hotels, events, and stores and put them all into a special favourites folder.

Each box on your calendar might initially have multiple items: a couple of hotels, some activities available on that day, a store that looks interesting. Eventually, however, you will need to eliminate some options. This can be tough, but think of yourself as a kid in a candy store: choosing just one treat is hard, but whatever you pick, it will likely be sweet.

Don’t forget to note any driving (or other transport) times. For example, if I’m driving from Quito to Mindo, I would write on that date: Dr 1.5 hr to Mindo. That way, I can quickly see how much time I have to build into the day’s schedule for transit between locations and I can plan the rest of the day’s activities around that. Nowadays, it’s easy to get driving times instantly: just Google “driving distance Point A to Point B.”

9/ As you fill in your GBM, with luck you will start to see some clusters of dots. These are the areas you should focus on in your itinerary planning. Ideally, you can stay in one place for several days and do day trips in the vicinity.

If there are dots all alone and far from any others, you are going to have to decide whether that one thing is worth travelling to. If not, you’ll have to shelve that item for this trip.

Also, you need to start considering how far apart your clusters are. Can you drive between or will you need to fly? How much is that going to cost you, in time or money? Should you narrow down the geographical scope of your trip? E.g., You might start by thinking you would like to visit “Spain,” quickly realize that seeing the whole country is far too ambitious for a two-week trip, and eventually settle on a more realistic focus of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia.

As you develop your itinerary, keep in mind that you can fly out of a city other than your arrival point if this works better for you. I learned recently that flights aren’t necessarily more expensive if you do this (although you will almost certainly pay a bit more for your rental car), so be sure to investigate options.

10/ Okay, you have a map, a calendar, and a tentative itinerary—and you’ve had quite enough of all this research. Time to start booking.

Whether to book accommodations first or flights first is a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. Most flights are non-refundable, so you don’t want to have to cancel them because the lodge you’ve set your heart on has no availability for the week you’ve chosen, but they do have an opening the following week. On the other hand, there’s not much point in getting your accommodations lined up only to discover that the flight you need is sold out. I usually try to check availability for the important accommodations just before I book flights.

Although you might be tempted to book your accommodations in order, starting with day 1 etc., it’s probably wiser to first reserve the ones that are most important to you or most likely to be full up. That way, if Pepe’s Perfect Jungle Lodge is unavailable on your first choice of dates, you can be a bit flexible with your itinerary. If you’ve already booked a bunch of other lodgings, you might find it impossible to fit Pepe in. You don’t want to miss out on Pepe’s!

If you’re having trouble booking parts of the itinerary, don’t be afraid to try shuffling the pieces around or even running the schedule backwards, if that might help.

This is how a typical itinerary looks before I start booking.

Aus calendar

11/ As you book each item on your calendar, mark it green. That way you can see at a glance which items still need to be booked and which are fixed.

Some of the information I like to note on my calendar once something is booked:

  • Name of hotel or event
  • City
  • Reservation #
  • Name on booking (yours or your companion’s)

As you get closer to your departure date, you might want to flag unbooked items on your calendar with red to remind yourself that action is still needed.

12/ In addition to the calendar (because not everything will fit in those little boxes), keep notes on each destination: activities, museums, theatres, markets, restaurants, tours, and shops that you may or may not have time for.

Once your entire calendar is glowing with green, you can relax and look forward to enjoying the fruits of all your labor.

Oh, yeah, there’s still the packing to do…but that’s another list.

Am I crazy for doing all this? How do you plan your trips? Or do you plan at all? Let me know in a comment.