The Naked Truth – A Beginner’s Introduction to Austrian Saunas

Obergurgl - The Austrian Alps

My palms were far beyond clammy.  They were completely committed now to downright slick and sweaty. As I grimaced and wiped them on my towel, I couldn’t help but imagine them turning prune-like.  They had devolved into the type of palms that make a soft slapping sound mid-handshake and cause the person you’ve just met to grimace in thinly hidden disgust while trying to quickly retrieve their hand….desperately looking around for something or someone to wipe it on.  Which, you might think, is to be expected given my seat perched inside the beautiful and newly renovated upscale dry-sauna on the fourth floor of the Hotel Josl in Obergurgl, Austria.  After all, isn’t the whole point of a sauna to sweat?  To allow ones body to purge itself of contaminants? To sooth the muscles and to encourage a hearty rush of circulation through the body?

The catch was, I’d just entered the dry sauna and assumed my seat.  My body hadn’t had time to warm to its core. This was nerves plain and simple. I’d spent the day with fantastic guides introducing me to the finer parts of ski culture.  The gear. The locations. How to ski. The snowshoe hike. But now?  I was on my own with only a confusing mixture of poorly written online guides to sauna culture and etiquette bouncing around my head. As I sat inside the wood-lined room trying to relax and enjoying the intense heat I stared straight ahead.  I’m not sure why, after all, without my glasses on the world was one giant blur. Then, of course, there was the fact that the room itself was empty.  Never the less, it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Just as I’ve found myself standing at a stop light in the pouring rain at 4AM with a small group of Danes at a deserted intersection here in Denmark waiting for the light to turn. Social protocol demands it.  Even when it goes in the face of reason and common sense.

I’m not sure how or why I’d never done a sauna as an adult.  I remember them as a child, and even from my high school days, but those were different.  I just followed along with what the others were doing and for whatever reason (it being conservative Arizona a likely factor) we always wore our bathing suits. About a year ago, some of you may recall my awkward introduction to the Turkish Hamams…which…I suppose…was a very similar experience minus the naked massage and the rotund Turkish man rubbing my nearly naked body down. It was with some shock then that I strolled into the hotel’s sauna expecting the usual American structure – sex segregated changing rooms, lockers, people in swimsuits, etc. – only to discover a room full of quasi-naked people relaxing in naught but their towels with a bank of mixed-gender shower alcoves along the side wall. My face went white as I quickly realized that the jeans and t-shirt I was wearing over my swim-trunks beneath the robe the hotel had provided were grossly out of place.  I was completely over dressed. I quickly made a U-turn and headed back to my hotel room.

In a flurry of key strokes I searched the web trying to find a more in-depth write-up on the etiquette of sauna culture. My original research had obviously been flawed. After finding a few posts that argued the finer points of nudity, I toyed with tossing in the towel and abandoning my adventure.  Then, reminded by the ache in my knees and back from a day spent learning to ski, I sucked it up, stripped down to my swimsuit, wrapped my towel over it to try and hide it, tossed on my robe, and made the trip back to the 4th floor.  I was ready.  I was prepared. I was strangely terrified…and then the elevator doors opened.

Snowshoe Hike - Obergurgl, Austria

This time as the door slid open I kept my eyes peeled, watching what the others were doing and then carefully trying to emulate them while looking as casual as possible.  I kept my composure and made my way towards the three shower alcoves, only losing it slightly as an older gentleman exited completely naked and shrugged back into his robe. That’s when I realized that I was STILL over dressed.  My American prudishness was in full form….which left me somewhat annoyed with myself. I don’t mind being naked, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy it.  I also don’t have any moral objection to people spending time together socially in their natural state. Yet, at the same time I also come from a culture where even in high school after gym class none of the men would shower out of fear of being naked around other people.  Even simple things like a visit to the doctor for an annual check-up is the source of anxiety for a lot of young American men. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part young people in the US have been drilled with a puritanical message that you only spend time naked with romantic partners. Anything else opens you up for judgement and/or comes with the risk of implied ulterior motives (read: how you doin’ darlin’).

So. There I was, staring at the three open shower stalls trying to decide what to do.  Do I just go for it, pocket my swimsuit, and embrace it?  Or, do I keep the swimsuit on and chicken out? It was right about that time that the first woman I’d seen in what I had thought was a male-only sauna area emerged and walked over to the recovery/relaxation area.  Needless to say, I chickened out and left the swimsuit on. All the while internally mocking myself for being such a giant baby about it. I stripped off my robe, tossed the towel aside, and quickly rinsed off. Then in a flurry of motion I toweled off quickly, eager to re-disguise my swimsuit.  I made the brief trip to the now empty sauna, swung the door open, slid in, and plopped down on a bench.

Feeling self-conscious and convinced I was making a plethora of faux pas, I sat staring straight ahead. The door opened and butterflies lurched in my stomach. A middle-aged man made his way in, still wrapped in his towel and sat down.  Good I thought – maybe I’ve got this figured out.  Then the door opened again and another man entered.  This one yanked off his towel, spread it out on the wooden bench and then settled in. He was stark naked.  The whole time I did my best to stare at the wall with a blank look on my face.  20 seconds later the door opened and this time two women entered. The butterflies were back.  Is this normal?  Is he going to cover up?  Are they going to join?  Just how exactly does this work?

They peeled off their towels and tossed them onto the bench before settling in around me completely naked.  At this point the small sauna room was also getting somewhat full, which meant simply staring at my wall was no longer an option.  I needed to move to make space, which also meant violating my sprawling space bubble and saddling up nearly knee-to-knee with one of the other men and one of the newly-arrived women. Then it dawned on me. This was a new first.  In my nearly 28 years, I’d never been surrounded by so many naked people, in such close proximity.  Which, you can imagine, did little to help the internal narrative running through my mind – a raging debate between my intellectual brain which casually noted that naked bodies are not inherently sexual and that the experience itself was only minimally arousing.  Luckily, as I started to relax it dawned on me that it was just a comfortable extension of the shared experience we’d have all been engaged in if we were clothed. Meanwhile, my paranoid brain raged with fear and uncertainty – what if my primitive brain won out and arousal ensued. How embarrassing,  humiliating, and what sort of violation of the common norms would that be? All the while the wealth of obtuse American norms and cultural quirks polarized the experience…a fascinating counter to the much more relaxed approach to nudity and group nudity I’d encountered already in Denmark, and knew was much more common within Austrian and German culture.

All the while sweat slowly began to form all over my body and time ticked by.  It was only then, as I watched the others from the corner of my eyes that I observed and realized that the “decorations” I had seen earlier were in fact hanging sand timers which we could use to judge how long we’d been in the sauna.  It was a fitting moment of clarity and epiphany as my brain otherwise raged against itself trying to find balance.

Slowly the nervous sweat that clung to my palms was replaced by the clean sweat of relaxed perspiration. My sore muscles gradually gave way and the heat penetrated me to my core replacing the cold of a day spent outside covered in snow.  My condition as an uncertain and nerve-wracked mass of self-consciousness and uncertainty had now transformed into comfort and growing confidence.

As I left the sauna, rinsed off, and headed to the relaxation chairs I enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the Alps. I realized that the experience had been far more than an introduction to sauna culture.  It had been an opportunity to enrich and truly mature my personal relationship with the human body.  As I laid there relaxing, I realized the next time I was ready to join the others. Strange as it is to say, in a way, it felt like a small piece of me that was long neglected finally grew up.  I silently resolved that on my next visit I’d leave the suit behind and embrace the vulnerability that goes hand-in-hand with spending time naked with others. As fate would have it, I wouldn’t have long to wait before I put my resolve to the test but THAT is a story for next time.

**My visit and stay at the Hotel Josl occurred as part of a press trip arranged by the Tyrol Tourism Board and their local partners during which I was hosted as their guest**

Trip Update: Off to Africa and Back Through Europe

David on an Elephant in Zambia

Ack! Where’s this week’s Ask Alex?  In light of my impending departure early next week I’ve opted to swap out this week’s Q&A with a quick update about what I’ll be doing for the next month and a half.  Needless to say, I’m super excited about the upcoming trip though you probably haven’t heard me talk about it much here on the site.

On July 3rd I’ll be throwing an odd assortment of stuff into my backpack before setting off for London where I’ll be re-connecting with my folks.  It has been just under a year since I left Arizona and moved to Denmark and this will be the first time we’ve been able to see each other since my move.  After connecting in London we’ll jump a long flight on Emirates down to Dubai where we’ve scheduled an extended layover. After all, it would be a shame to pass through the famous (infamous?) city without pausing to see what all the talk is about and to take a peak at the Burj.  After a bit over a day and a half in the city we’ll re-board our flight and continue the 2nd 7 hour leg (ouch) to Lusaka, Zambia. Wait, Zambia?  Yep! Zambia!

Why Zambia?  Well, as it turned out my brother and I decided to make it really easy on our folks.  Out of the blue we both decided to head abroad for two years.  For me it was a 2 year Masters Degree here in Denmark.  For my little brother, David (pictured on the Elephant), it was a 2 year commission in the US Peace Corps.  Happy but hard news for any parent, right?  To make matters worse we both left within 3 days of each other….and haven’t been home since.  As it turned out David got deployed to Zambia where he has been assigned as a health volunteer in the country’s far north, just outside of Mansa along the border with the Congo. For those of you who are about as familiar with Africa as I was before his deployment, it’s actually a pretty good gig.  Unlike many of the countries in the region (here’s looking at you Congo) Zambia has experienced relatively competent management and been largely peaceful since the Brits pulled out a few decades ago.

Now that he’s a year into his 2 year commitment he finally has some time to explore.  So, instead of letting him wander around aimlessly, we’ve decided to get the band back together and to make him play tour guide.  After all, who better to introduce us to things like dehydrated caterpillars, termites, and other local culinary delights?  We will be in Zambia between July 8th and August 3rd.  During that time we’ll be visiting Victoria Falls (which is the last of the big three for me, I’ve already done Niagra and Iguazu), jumping into Botswana for a mini safari, seeing his village, wandering about aimlessly and doing a world class photo safari with Shenton Safaris and when I say world class, I mean it!  It’s going to be our first time in Africa and I’m incredibly excited.  It will also be my first trip that far off the traditional grid.  About the most  rural trip I’ve done previously was to parts of Guatemala, but we still had two niceties which will be lacking during parts of the Zambia leg of our trip – running water and electricity. Oh, and flushing toilets.  I’m already practicing my squats.  No small feat for my 6’4″ (193), 200 pound build.  I’ve already decided I need to do FAR more yoga.

On August 2nd we’ll be forced to undergo a tear-filled goodbye as we leave David behind and let him get back to work.  The folks and I will just be getting warmed up, however, as we’ll head straight from Zambia to Prague, across to Berlin and then up to Edinburgh by the 11th of August.  Once there I’ve signed the folks up for a 6-day backpacker themed tour which will see the three of us in a small 16 person bus wandering our way through the Scottish Highlands, over to the Isle of Skye (with a stop at the Old Man of Storr), past a few ancient standing stones, and then up and across to the outer Hebrideas to explore the Isles of Harris and Lewis. Don’t worry, we’ll likely also pause at the Tullibardine Distillery for a wee bit of Scotch.

By August 20th I’ll be back in Copenhagen and furiously working on getting photos and posts written to share the adventure with you all.  In the meantime, however, I’ll be posting updates where possible to the VirtualWayfarer Facebook Page and my twitter account.  I’ve also scheduled a number of fantastic posts about Italy and Turkey to keep you busy in the meantime!   You can also learn more about what my brother is doing in Africa and his past adventures and observations on his blog

It’s going to be quite the adventure and a startling contrast between incredible cultures and completely opposite climates.  I can’t wait and look forward to sharing it with you all!  Also, keep in mind that later this year (in October), I’ll be following this trip up with another to Churchill, Manitoba to partake in a 3 day polar bear watching tundra excursion thanks to the Canadian Tourism Board.

Lot of amazing adventures and stories to share with you over the following few months.  As always, I treasure your feedback and the time you take to following the blog.  If you have a special request, question or some advice to share please don’t hesitate to let me know!



Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!

20 Days in Central America for less than $2,500

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

One of the most common questions I receive from friends and readers alike is how do you afford it? The assumption is that a 16-20 day trip abroad must be terribly expensive.  People commonly expect the trip expense to be somewhere in the $5,000-$10,000 USD range.  Which, given the structure and cost associated with most of the vacations Americans take, isn’t unreasonable.  When I tell them that my average trip costs me less than $3,000 most people are surprised, and more than a few don’t initially believe me.

I recently wrote a post explaining how I’ve managed to save for/budget the ~$6,000 I need each year for two 16-20 day trips abroad in my blog post, “Tallying Up the Cost: How I Afford to Travel“.  My goal with this post is to share with you my real world application of the techniques I outlined previously.

A few things to keep in mind: I could have done this trip for several hundred dollars cheaper.  I splurged on food on a regular basis, opted for mid-tier budget accommodation, and took a number of tours which I could have done solo/on my own for half the price.  I was also traveling during Central America’s peak season (December/January) which resulted in a significantly more expensive flight ticket and increased prices for the tours I did.

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

What It Cost

A round trip ticket from Phoenix to Cancun with travel insurance:  $530 USD.

Total Credit Card expenses: $280.29.

Total ATM Cash Withdrawals: $1,461.99.

Misc. expenses (ATM Fees/Reserve USD): $87.

Total price: $2358.81 for everything.

Actun Tunichil Muknal - Mayan Cave

Evaluating the Real Cost

That’s not the end of the story.  It’s important to put that figure into context.  Keep in mind that I was gone for 20 days.  An extended period during which I would have had a number of basic expenses regardless of where I was located.

In a given day at home/work I spend at least $20 on food.  That means that my average food expense had I stayed at home would have been at least $400.   I also go through about 1 tank of gas a week at an average cost of about $40 per tank.  At nearly 3 weeks on the road, I would have spent around $100 on gas in total.  Then add a conservative projection of about $150 total for entertainment expenses (bars, movies, etc.).

The end result is about $650 in expenses that I would have spent anyway, had I been at home.

This drops the real added expense burden down well under $2,000 to about $1,710 for the trip.

Is it cheap? Not necessarily, but is it significantly cheaper than you were probably expecting?  Most definitely.  Is it doable for most people?  Most definitely, IF you’re willing to prioritize and set some money aside.

Thoughts?  Questions?  Comments?  Leave a comment or shoot me a tweet @AlexBerger.  I look forward to your thoughts!

Next Adventure Booked: Central and Eastern Europe

Prague at Sunset

Hello readers!  I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just booked my next adventure!  Where to this time?  Well, I’m not EXACTLY sure where just yet.  What I can share is that most of my airfare is booked and the trip is starting to take form.

I’ve booked a ticket from Phoenix to Dublin on Friday June 25th.  Once in Dublin, I’ll be arriving early in the morning on Saturday – which should give me time to find my way back to one of my favorite hostels in the Isles: Kinlay Hostel.

My stay in Dublin will be brief.  By Monday the 28th I plan to be on a budget flight to Central Europe.  There is a strong probability that I’ll be flying into Budapest, Hungary.  From there I’ll be making a large loop (The loop may include Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic, Germany) before flying out of Nuremberg, Germany on July 13th.

For those curious, I’ve added the Dublin portion as a way to cut costs.  Airfare this summer is ridiculously high during the late June->August period. Fortunately, it should give me a quick opportunity to re-visit the Cliffs of Moher which I love. Unfortunately, I’ll also be flying US Airways to cut costs (can we PLEASE get more airlines to open hubs in Phoenix?). To say that I’m not thrilled about that fact is a gross understatement.  Their track record thus far has been miserable, but the price was right – and I guess at this point I know what I’m getting myself into..

I’ve visited Prague and Dublin previously, the rest of the cities and most of the countries will be new.  I can’t wait to explore the Czech countryside in greater depth and am really looking forward to getting back into Bavaria (Munich on previous trips).  I’ve heard nothing but praise about Budapest and am very curious to see what incredible cultural, physical, culinary and natural beauty the region has to offer.

Have must see/stay places along the route?  Post them in a comment! I’d love to hear your tips and suggestions!

The Island-City of Flores in Guatemala

Flores - Guatemala

The city of Flores is an unusually picturesque city. Situated on a small island in the middle of lake Peten Itza, Flores is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.  The causeway connects Flores to the two surrounding towns which are home to most of the area’s population. The two neighboring towns are Santa Elena and San Benito both of which sit along the shores of Lake Peten Itza and service Flores.

Map of Flores from Los Amigos Hostel

The island of Flores is an odd oasis.  Still concretely Guatemalan, the island has evolved into a tourist oasis.  Cleaner, more secure, and significantly more upscale than Santa Elena and San Benito, Flores is home to a wealth of hotels, restaurants, small stores, internet cafe’s and nick-knack shops.  Roughly circular in nature, the island offers an incredible 360 degree view of the lake and surrounding towns, jungles and neighboring islands.

View from Flores, Guatemala

Unlike most small islands its size, Flores sits on top of a relatively tall hill.  The hill itself is mostly invisible, submerged under hundreds of years of development, modification and cultivation.  The city has a large outer loop road which wraps around the waterfront and then a series of internal rings in smaller circles which are bisected by cobble stone streets on a gentle incline which point towards the city park and Cathedral which rest on the flattened top of the hill in the center of the island.

Outdoor Market - Flores, Guatemala

The mainland is home to the airport as well as a large series of semi-permanent outdoor market streets.  The most interesting of which was a long market street which features a ramshackle collection of street side fruit and vegetable vendors.  The sheer amount of produce was incredible. The photo above showcases one stand and is representative of the 30-50 similar stands which were set up side-by-side along the street.

Outdoor Market - Flores, Guatemala

For those feeling inquisitive it’s possible to fork off of the main drag, which serves as the produce street, onto one of several smaller mixed goods streets.  These are a seething mass of humanity, clutter, smells and small motorcycle Taxi’s called Tuk-Tuks.  As an Argentinian girl from the hostel and I made our way through the market, we paused periodically to enjoy the vibrant pulse of the marketplace.

Though the market seemed safe enough, the always visible military and security personnel standing on every other street corner with automatic weapons or sawed off machine guns at the ready, were a vivid reminder of the economic and political turmoil currently plaguing the region.

Though the market itself had a fairly visible security presence, it paled in comparison to the amount of security, police and military personnel on the Island of Flores.  In many ways the police presence left me feeling as though I was in an island fortress in the midst of some sort of great turmoil.   Stores of any significant size and even some restaurants had armed security guards.  At night the police were out in force – some 10+ motorcycle officers, each heavily armed with extended clips clearly visible.

At one point I came across an armored truck making its rounds while replenishing the local ATMs.  Most of the places I’ve traveled in the past, armored truck guards are…lazy.  They meander in, meander out and while somewhat diligent are not overly concerned.  Not so in Flores.  The guards were out of the truck, shotguns in hand, eyes sharp as they hustled in to the ATM, re-filled it, then with a jump to their step made their way back out and back into their armored truck.

Despite the general sense of added vigilance and the silent threat of violence and crime – my experience was entirely positive.  The people were friendly and helpful.  The city safe. The weather beautiful.

As the Argentinian and I finished our exploration of the island we hopped in a Tuk Tuk and for less than $1 USD a piece were shuttled back out to the Island.  The Tuk Tuk was a fun adventure.  Though I barely fit, it offered a fun view of the city as we wound through traffic, small back streets, and then eventually made our way out to Flores.  All the while our driver was on his cellphone, driving one handed, except of course, when gesturing at other drivers or honking a horn in hello.

Los Amigos Hostel - Flores, Guatemala

Once back on the island it was time to relax, eat, and then settle in for a bit of socializing in the common area.  The hostel – Los Amigos – offered one of the most pleasant atmosphere’s Ive ever found in a hostel.  The entire common area was decorated with lush vegetation, hanging ornaments, or books.

Dog at Los Amigos Hostel

The hostel itself had as much space dedicated to the gardens and plant life as to beds and human comforts.  From swinging rope chairs and vegan food options to a TV documentary zone the place oozed a relaxed hippy culture. In addition to the local owners, the hostel was also home to two dogs, an Albino bunny rabbit and a parrot.  All of which had a free run of the hostel.

If you find yourself in Guatemala and are considering a trip to Tikal, Flores is a must!

My stay was entirely too short.  With new years fast approaching, I found a direct bus from Flores to Chetumal (the border between Belize and Mexico).  After confirming that the colectivo was a tourist bus, I booked my ticket and prepared for what promised to be a full day of travel.  You see, Guatemala and Mexico don’t connect directly in the north.  The only option was to back track from Flores to San Ignacio, then into Belize towards Belize City before turning north and striking up to Chetumal on the border. The trip took about 7 hours.  From Chetumal I had to wait an hour or two due to full buses (I was traveling on the 31st) before transferring to a 1st class bus to Playa del Carmen.  Nervous that I’d arrive late and lose my hostel/miss new years, I sent a hasty e-mail from the bus station, telling Hostel de lay Playa in Playa del Carmen that I was still coming and to save my new years reservation.  After three more hours on the bus I arrived – with only an hour and a half to spare – at 10:30PM.  I splashed some water on my face, checked in…and set out to welcome 2010….but that is a story for tomorrow!

Why I Travel – The British Isles and Central America

Today’s post is short and simple.  The video above showcases brief clips from my two major trips in 2009 and includes footage from Ireland, Scotland, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico.   Sit back, dim the lights, and enjoy! If you enjoy it, comments and video ratings are always appreciated.

Belize Bound – What Should I See?

My next trip is booked. Well, the airfare and time off work is at least!  I’m now in that month(s) long stage of tantalizing anticipation as I eagerly wait to throw my gear in a backpack, fold myself into a crappy airline sardine can and kick off another adventure.

The Trip

I’ll be departing Phoenix on December 16th with a round trip ticket to Cancun, Mexico with a return date set for January 4th. Wait, why Cancun? Airfare! The cost of a round trip ticket to Cancun was some $200-$400 cheaper than airfare into Belize proper and having never been to Cancun before, I figured why not kill two birds with one stone! The unfortunate thing about travel between Dec. 15th and January 10th is that it’s holiday high season.  Which means all of the airfares skyrocket. If i’d been able to extend an extra 3 or 4 days on the front or tail end of my trip i’d have knocked some $150-$200 more off of my airfare at least.

Total cost of the airfare with insurance was $530 ($488 sticker price) for a direct flight from Phoenix->Cancun on US Airways.  Interestingly, the price for a direct flight was about $100 cheaper than a flight with a layover.  Also noteworthy – the direct flight/route prices didn’t show up in Orbitz’s general search results.  Only search results that requested direct flights only. This caught me off guard as conventional wisdom is that more layovers = cheaper airfare.  It was also peculiar, since sites like Kayak etc. missed the cheaper airfare (probably for the same reason).

The Plan

My current plan is to arrive in Cancun and bunk up in a hostel for a day or two before catching a Bus towards Belize.  I’d like to explore Cancun in greater depth but am thinking about doing it on the tail end of the trip (around new years) when I head back to Cancun to catch my flight back to the states.

This is my first trip to Central America, so i’m expecting it to be significantly different from my previous trips which have mostly focused on North America/Europe.

Tips and Suggestions

So, here’s the deal. I know a lot of you have done Cancun/Belize and the surrounding areas and have a lot of tips/tricks/warnings/suggestions to share. In an effort to centralize all of your suggestions I’ve created this post which I’ll be able to access while on the road.

So, let’s hear it! Must see/must avoid places?  Good hostels to stay in? Incredible ruins, natural wonders, or spots to see/dive/snorkel?

Please post them in a comment below! I treasure your wisdom and suggestions.