With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year. As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered. These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination. A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul. I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country. I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight. Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong! Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit. If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often. I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.
1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country
For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving. Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers. Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.
While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain. Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe. You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen. It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.
The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks. The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state. The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects. The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA. This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.
When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul. It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam. While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.
Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey. It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.
2. Turkey Is An Arab Country
One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country. Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country. In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs. Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.
Turks have a strong national identity. They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads. This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.
3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol
For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal. Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey. While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul. You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests. It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.
The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs. I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal. You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey. When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.
4. People Are Rude
I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone. I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants. Boy was I wrong. The Turkish people are incredible. They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products. They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here. I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority. These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.
5. Turkey Is Dangerous
Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities. The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe. Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.
6. Turkey Lacks History
Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities. Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.
7. It Is Primitive
Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones. While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half. Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.
8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere
While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey. What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination. Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.
Turkey is an incredible destination. I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless. Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.
While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more. If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.
My hostel in Hamburg was a massive sprawling multi-story building that was clean and bustling with travelers. The rooms were a nice mixture of built in bunks and free standing beds. Unfortunately, the place was poorly equipped for the heat wave, which made sleep difficult and served as a solid motivator to get out and explore the city. Eager to explore, I set a time and place to connect with my friend Philipp whom I’d met during my previous trip in December of 2009. Philipp and I had gotten to know each other through the Hostel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico then struck out with two others in a rented car to explore Tulum, Dos Ojos and Akumal. As luck had it, he was an expert on Hamburg and volunteered to show me around. We met up in the hostel and I gave him a quick tour before we set out to see the city. Our first stop? The subway station! I always get a kick out of large subway stations. There’s something fun about entire tiny cities located underground, complete with fruit vendors, magazine shops, and even clothing stores. The station in Hamburg didn’t disappoint.
Our first stop dumped us out near the main river. After a quick 10 minute walk through a light rain we passed the old trading docks, the Landungsbrücken, complete with beautiful old carved buildings showcasing statuary highlighting various global destinations and their native cultures. As we wound around the buildings Philipp led me to an odd secondary building.
While old it looked fairly unremarkable. As we entered the oddly domed building, I paused to stare at the sign out front. As it turned out, the structure was actually a massive elevator building which dates back to 1911 and has 4 independently operated elevators. The Elb Tunnel is just under 100 years old and has allowed vehicular and pedestrian transit underneath the Elbe River far longer than I would have imagined. Each of the elevators is large enough for one small-medium sized car, which would drive in, and then be lowered hundreds of feet into the bottom of the chamber. Once there, the wooden doors open allowing the car access to one of two one-directional tunnels, just wide enough for a car’s wheels. Astonishingly the tunnel is still in active use. The nearly 1,400 foot long tunnel stretches underneath the river at a depth of around 80 feet.
As pedestrians we made our way down a long series of wrought iron stairs which wrapped around the inside edge of the circular building. In many ways it felt as though we were descending into a well. Especially given the river’s close proximity, just a few hundred feet away. As we wound down the stairs, the temperature dropped away. Where it had been fairly warm at the top, I was easily able to see my breath by the time we reached the bottom.
Once at the bottom I paused, still amazed by the narrow car elevators, the age of the entire undertaking, and the complexity of the process. From there Philipp and I made our way across through one of the tunnels, before catching the elevator back up to the surface on the south side of the Elb. Despite a light rain, we popped out, made our way to the river bank and took in an excellent view of Hamburg’s old city before making our way back to the north bank.
As we wound inland towards the city’s old town, the light misting quickly turned into a heavy rain. Luckily, we were both starving and dove into a small kebab shop right as the rain hit. Munching away contentedly on our chicken kebabs with ice cold cokes in our hands we relaxed and waited out the 15 minute rainstorm. From there, it was onward once again. This time back down along the river toward an area that had recently been re-claimed and re-developed. The architecture in the re-purposed wharf area was chic. Very modern buildings, many of which were obviously profoundly expensive and boasted what I can only assume to be the architectural designs of famous architects lined the path. As we walked Philipp explained the area’s recent real estate woes as well as the general development plan for the district. This included insights into their plan to build a brand new theater/opera house which had been fairly controversial. As he finished his explanation, we came upon a small building which had been designed to give people an idea of what was being built, including a miniature version of the opera house which you could stick your head up/into.
From there it was back towards the heart of the city, which took us along the remaining portions of the old warehouse district, the Speicherstadt. A fascinating area, it embodied the industrial revolution and looked like it was straight out of the 1800s with large brick warehouse buildings lining the canals and sporting a variety of windows and dock entrances. The whole area seemed movie-like, both in its uniform feel and interesting character.
As we wound along the canal we eventually cut in towards one of the major cathedrals. As it turned out the largest Cathedral nearby was St. Peter’s Cathedral. As we explored the inside, we noted signs mentioning that the spire was available for a visit. Eager for a commanding view of Hamburg’s old city we opted to pay the 1 Euro fee. Where we expected a fairly limited ascent through a winding stone stairway to the building’s roof, we were pleasantly surprised to find a brief landing which dumped us at the foot of a massive set of MC Escher-esque stairs. Excited to attain our view and reach the top we set upon the stairs, legs pumping furiously.
Only, to our surprise, every time we thought we were close to the top, the winding stairway ended and a new set began. This continued through several sets as the tower walls narrowed around us. The heat also started to increase noticeably. Apparently, a large, hollow copper structure without ventilation accrues significant heat, even when it’s fairly cool outside.
As we reached the last set of stairs they changed from traditional zig-zagging stairways to a large circular staircase that gradually narrowed as it climbed dizzily towards the top. Eventually, we reached the top of the stairs which dead-ended in a tiny trap door and small room which was barely large enough for the two of us. The tiny room put us somewhere near the very top of the spire, which I believe is around 430 feet tall.
The room had a series of small porthole windows, which offered a spectacular view of the city. As we looked out back towards the river we could see the Warehouse and Wharf district and the old harbor. From the other side we could see the city’s gorgeous, palatial looking City Hall. The view from one of the other portals offered a wonderful view of a large lake which sits immediately next to the old city and is connected by a large canal. Sweating, and nearly ready to faint from the heat, we rested briefly before balancing unsteadily on mushy legs and winding back down towards the base. The view and ascent had been a fun little adventure and was well worth our entrance price.
The town hall, or Hamburg Rathaus is a beautiful building which is both massive in size, noteworthy for the attention to detail, and excellent in its symmetry. It opens up on a large plaza, which is bordered on one side by a picturesque canal that connects to the Binnenalster or inner city Alster lake.
As we paused in the city square for pictures, I quickly noticed an amazing number of swans in the distance. Curious we made our way over to the canal, where I was shocked to see young children sitting (and feeding) a group of swans.
I must confess I maintain a rather low opinion of swans. In truth, while I find them beautiful, I also view them as unfriendly, mean-spirited, large, dangerous and in all likelihood, far better eating than company. Some of you may recall, that I’d already been chased off once while in Norway by three rather unfriendly swans. The swan I had encountered in Copenhagen had glared a bit, but largely ignored me, and so it was with some surprise that I greeted the tame friendliness of Hamburg’s swan army.
Veritable pets, the gaggle of …..does swans work in this case…were a pleasure to watch as they struggled for food, interacted with locals, and generally made a show of things. Before long, feet rested, Philipp opted to continue our exploration with a loop around Binnenalster before heading back to the harbor where he suggested we head to the beach. That’s right! I said beach. More than a bit intrigued we caught a ferry up the river, which wound along with the city on one side, and the region’s world class/massive dock-works along the other. The rocks were an incredible mass of cranes, vast cargo ships, dry docks and stacked containers.
The ferry deposited us at a small dock next to a small ship museum which had a variety of traditional sailing ships docked. We paused for a few quick photos before winding down and making our way around a corner, where sure enough, there was a long sand beach with a goodly number of people relaxing along it. Several swimming. As we settled in, I tossed my shirt aside and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Beautiful German women lounged on blankets all around us, as we begrudgingly watched an extremely drunk guy make an absolute wank of himself. Drunk beyond reason and only passingly being watched by his friends, he spent his time throwing sands at his friends, tackling them in the water, or lounging spread-eagle in a pair of wet boxers which did little to cover his manhood.
Eventually with the heat getting to us, we decided it was time to track down a quick beer, which we quickly located back at the original dock. Philipp suggested we grab a traditional snack – a slice of pickled herringtopped with a large pickle on a slice of bread – which was absolutely delicious. It was at this point that I was also introduced to Alsterwasser or lemonade beer. It was delicious and perfect for a hot summer day. Exhausted, we decided to call it a day and head back to the hostel where I’d take a long sweaty nap, before waking up and meeting a group of Russian girls. Before long we were sharing drinks, and decided to set out to catch the last game of the World Cup/explore the city. They made great company and we had a blast wandering the streets and enjoying the celebrations and festivities. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Philipp for serving as a fantastic tour guide and sharing his city with me. I absolutely loved it and learned a ton about the city, while catching a number of things I’d have otherwise missed.
This concludes my narrative posts about my Scandinavia/Germany/Ireland trip. After a delightful night out on the town, I wound down my trip with a rail ride to Nuremberg where I arrived late and caught a plane back to the US. My time in Hamburg was the perfect grand finale for what had been a positively amazing trip. Thank you to everyone who entertained me along the way, and thank you for letting me share it with you. Stay tuned! Argentina is next!
It’s not something widely mentioned. However, get a few travelers gathered around a fire or in a circle at the hostel bar, and you’ll start to hear it talked about: the surprising regularity at which travelers run into each other. Often these reunions happen several times over the course of a trip, sometimes hundreds (thousands?) of miles and countries apart. It’s always a surprise, though it shouldn’t be, and is usually a welcome occurrence. It happens in internet cafes, hostel common rooms, and even at random on the city streets. It seems to defy common sense – after all, the world is a big place, isn’t it?
The truth is, we make the world we explore significantly smaller by following pre-established paths. The most significant of which is what I’ve come to call the Lonely Planet Trail (LPT). If you’re like most20-30 somethings planning a backpacking/hosteling style trip you probably opted for a Lonely Planet guide book. Why? Because frankly Fodor’s, Rick Steves‘ etc. have done an excellent job servicing their own niches but lack real value for the average backpacker. Meanwhile Lonely Planet has targeted backpackers and done a great job developing a useful resource. A resource which has become the go-to guide for backpackers the world over and holds a special spot in most backpacker’s packs, right next to their socks and underwear.
It makes sense when you think about it – no matter how random or willing we are to go off the beaten path, we’ll still take all the help we can get. That help (hostel information, things to see/do, even a map) typically comes in the form of a blue book with big white text on it. Which, comically enough, adds a certain level of standardization to our travel route. The most entertaining part is, that it’s almost inescapable. I can be a bit of an Ox at times and it’s not unusual for me to take off on a trip without doing a lot of research, having an itinerary or taking a guide book and yet, I’ll still find myself on the Lonely Planet Trail. Why? Because the recommendations I receive, tips and must sees are all driven, in large part, by Lonely Planet.
Going to Guatemala? What should you see? What should you do? Where should you stay? It’s all there, just a few well worn pages away. Ask ten backpackers and you’ll probably find that 80% of their responses are similar/nearly identical and not without good reason. Lonely Planet does make very legitimate recommendations. But, those recommendations are also something to be very mindful of when charting your trip. There’s a lot of stuff out there that didn’t make it into LP or that the author’s might not have liked/missed. Don’t assume that if it’s not in the book, it’s not worth seeing.
Personally, I enjoy traveling along the LPT – in no small part because it ensures a more social experience. It’s not, however, ideal for those who are really looking to break free and engage with the local population. People often complain about how little time they spent away from other travelers. I’d suggest that it’s often because they mistake hostel travel for truly immersive travel – which isn’t always the same.
My biggest suggestion for people who find themselves traveling the LPT is to take a critical look at the suggestions before making decisions. Is LP great for finding accommodation? Yes. Is it good for finding local “must see” attractions? Usually. Is it good for budget/authentic food recommendations? Definitely not. Tour companies? Hit or miss.
At the end of the day, I think the thing to keep in mind is that once a company/venue is featured by Lonely Planet, they’ve become the default go-to source for that service. Which often results in a decrease in quality, increase in prices, and a decrease in availability.
As you chart the course for your next trip, make sure to take these factors into consideration. Remember, your ultimate goal is to get what YOU want out of the trip and the best way to do that, is to examine even our most trusty travel tools with a skeptical eye.
Until next time, I’ll be keeping an eye out for YOU on the Lonely Planet Trail. No doubt, we’ll share a pint soon!
Though the ATM Cave tour was the highlight of my trip to Western Belize, I enjoyed my time in San Ignacio. A small town which gently sprawls along a beautiful, slow moving river a brief 15 minute taxi ride from the Guatemalan border, the city of San Ignacio definitely harbors its own character and charm.
The evening before had been enjoyable. Earlier in the day I’d bumped into a friend i’d made during the Raggamuffin Tour in the local internet cafe. When I’d last seen him we’d been setting sail and heading south towards Placencia, leaving him marooned on Tobacco Caye for Christmas (upon his request). After finish up our e-mails home and quick blog posts, we struck out on the town to rustle up some chow. The place we eventually found started out promising but ended up being disappointing. A small place, upstairs and across from the main tourist hangout in town – Eva’s, pictured above – they offered a menu with several cheap specials. Upon inquiry as to what the “pork” plate came with/entailed I got confused shrugs and mixed answers. Ordering a 2nd Belkin Stout I figured what the hell and ordered it anyway. The plate ended up coming with a variety of rice, beans, salsa and some sort of pork chop/pork loin that was so over cooked I was tempted to use it as coal. It turns out, the cook was playing computer games behind the bar…which explained a bit about the service, and even more about the over cooked nature of the food.
From there it was down to Eva’s for a drink or two more before turning in. I ended up crashing at the PACZ Hotel which was very clean, affordable, ideally located, and had a wonderfully warm and friendly owner/manager. If you find yourself in San Ignacio, definitely stop by and ask for Landy. He not only was friendly and helpful, but had a wealth of stories and even went so far as to share with me a local DVD of Belize’s marine life and natural wonders.
The following morning I set off to find a bit of food, only to discover that the town’s outdoor market was bustling with activity. As I wandered through the outdoor market, it struck me that the wealth of bananas, colors, and fresh produce made for a beautiful sight. With my mouth watering I paused briefly and picked up a shucked Coconut and fresh Banana before setting off to find lunch.
Just across the street, a few paces down a small side alley I stumbled into an open front restaurant bustling with local activity. The kitchen was a small open area off in a corner with a small flat space for plate preparation and a blender for fresh horchata and juice drinks. I sat down at an open table, only to realize that it didn’t offer any leg room. After a few minutes with my legs sprawled out to either side one of the girls working as part chef/part waitress noticed, chuckled at me and herded me over to a different table, which had just cleared. In heavily accented English she told me the two plates they were offering and offered a suggestion. I followed her suggestion and opted for the Belizean specialty; stewed chicken, rice and beans served up with a side of salad and a fried plantain served up with a side of horchata, which i later followed up with a Coca Cola. It was hands down the best Chicken, Rice and Beans I had in Belize which is saying something.
Stuffed, I continued my exploration of the city. Wandering down along the river I paused to watch and ponder the strange garb, traditions, and out of place appearance of the local Mennonites in the market place, before poking a hole in the coconut I’d purchased earlier and downing the fresh coconut water. One of the things I love about traveling in tropical environments is the presence of fresh coconuts. Coconut water is a great way to re-charge, very healthy, and perfect for re-hydrating.
After exploring the town for a bit, I made my way back past a colorfully painted bus to the hotel where I settled in for a relaxing afternoon.
The following morning a new adventure, and country awaited.
Of all the cities I spent time in during my stay in Belize the city of Placencia was the least captivating. Despite being located on a long peninsula with a beautiful crescent white sand beach. I’ll admit, that my experience was no doubt colored by what had proceeded it. It’s hard not to be overshadowed by 3 days and 2 nights exploring pristine white sand beaches and crystal clear waters along the barrier reef. In comparison Placencia’s mangrove groves, sand beach, small cement boardwalk, and smattering of small restaurant-bars and Chinese markets had a lot to compete with.
We arrived in port around 3 or 4PM in the afternoon, said our temporary goodbyes and set off to find accommodation. It was Christmas eve which made us all a little nervous, but eventually ended up being anything but a problem. The town and peninsula is divided into two main thoroughfares. The first is the main road which runs along the inside of the peninsula. The second is a small 4 foot wide winding cement “boardwalk” that runs about a block back from the beach. The two are connected by a series of small sand walking paths that cut across the block or so between them.
Sweating in the humid afternoon sun, I quickly made my way down along the boardwalk inquiring at several hotels along the way. There were two main budget hotels, one of which – Omar’s – had a decidedly ramshackle appearance. After a quick look inside I opted to continue looking, eventually finding a room for $40 BZD a night or about $20 USD. To my surprise the private room I had paid for came with 2 single beds and a double. A fan in the middle of the room and a bathroom with toilet and shower. The shower, like most I’d encountered in Belize lacked hot water. The shower head was a PVC pipe that hung about a foot out of the wall with a nozzle near the tip. The water was a bit bisque but refreshing and a welcome opportunity to wash the saltwater off. I washed up, and struck out for food – ending up at a local restaurant on the main street. The food was sub par, bland and expensive. Unfortunate.
Feeling socialized out after the close quarters I’d been sharing for the last 3 days I headed back to my room, settled in with a book and enjoyed an easy night to myself. Laughing from time to time as small explosions echoed through the walls of the flimsy two story structure my room was in. Fireworks, you see, are a major part of Christmas in Placencia – not only are they a major part, but a major part in celebrations that stretch through the night.
Christmas Day I got a lazy start to the morning. Found internet and let the world know I was ok, and then bumped into a bunch of other members from the Raggamuffin tour. We explored the town, hung out, ate, and generally enjoyed a relaxing day. From what I can tell the majority of Placencia was wiped out in a major hurricane in 2006 or so. Since then a lot of internationals (predominantly Americans and Canadians) have immigrated and purchased property. Rebuilding, opening restaurants and hotels and generally setting the city’s price structure at a level comparable to what you’d find in the US or Canada. The end result? In my opinion a fairly beautiful, highly over rated, expensive tourist trap.
That said, I enjoyed myself – spending time with my friends from the Sailing trip, exploring the island and generally recharging. It was a wonderful opportunity to refresh myself a bit before what ended up being a major push to the north. I ended up splitting off from the others with Steve to grab Christmas dinner at one of the local venues – an overflowing plate with ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and more – a meal that easily made up for the disappointing food I’d run into the night before.
It’s important to note that when I told people about the dates for my trip – the most common reaction was surprise. People found it hard to believe that I was willing to spend Christmas abroad, especially as a solo trip. I have to admit that when I was gearing up for my December 08′ trip to Spain the year previous, I’d harbored a lot of the same concerns. Even as someone who’s not religious and who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it is a very social time in the U.S. – one where a lot of time is spent with family, friends and a time of the year most of us would prefer not to be alone.
My decision to travel over Christmas two years in a row definitely confused a few friends. I’m VERY close with my parents and brother. To the point where I typically have a daily 20-50 minute phone conversation with my Mother and Father when stateside. I suppose that’s part of what makes these holiday trips more viable for me. I try and live life in a way where I don’t need an excuse to spend time with loved ones, but rather integrate it into my day to day routine. To that end, Christmas just becomes another day with a little extra pomp and hype.
And was I lonely? Not really. I’ll admit, this year’s Christmas paled in comparison to the amazing time I had in Cadiz Spain in 2008. The food wasn’t as good, I was in a private room instead of a fantastic hostel, and I didn’t especially care for the town I was in – but despite that, was I lonely? Not at all. Was I happy and enjoying myself? You better believe it! I spent Christmas with friends, in an amazing part of the world listening to music, sharing stories, and eating good food. It’s an experience I definitely recommend!
The Trip to San Ignacio
The following morning I woke up early, nervous that the bus and water taxi to the mainland would be running on a holiday schedule. My goal? Head inland. Where? Well, to be honest – I hadn’t really gotten that far. I’d heard good things about San Ignacio and knew that I wanted to try and make for Tikal/Flores in Guatemala. I’d also heard good things about Antigua to the south in Guatemala and figured that between the three destinations, I’d be able to find a bus/route that would get me to one of them.
As I waited for the water taxi I met older Canadian couple who were making their way to San Ignacio. We got to talking bus schedules, cities, and towns and still undecided I took a quick look at their Lonely Planet guide. San Ignacio looked good – why not? Besides, this way I had traveling companions.
We caught the water taxi through the mangrove groves to the city of Independence on the mainland. From there we took a quick taxi ride to the bus stop and waited some 5-10 minutes for a bus to Belize’s tiny capital: Belmopan.
The trip started out well, the bus wasn’t overly packed and I found a seat where the seat-back in front of me was broken and collapsed forward without support. This gave me a little extra knee room – a very welcome change of pace on a regional bus. Unfortunately, I underestimated their willingness to use a broken seat and over sell the bus. Some hour or so into the bus ride the bus’s ticket man walked back – pointed at a guy, pointed at the chair, fiddled with it a bit, stood the chair up – which fell back against my knees…and considered that “good enough”. Needless to say the remaining hour of the bus ride to Belmopan was less than enjoyable, especially on the occasions that the man in front of me leaned back, decided to doze off, or adjust in his seat. On the upside, the fabric pattern imprinted into the skin of my knees looked cool.
Glad to be done with the adventure, we disembarked in Belmopan, only to be greeted by a Bus terminal which was completely swamped. The buses were overloaded, and after watching one fill up like a subway car during rushhour the Canadians and I teamed up with a Philippino woman who lived in San Ignacio, a Spaniard and several others to split two taxi cabs to San Ignacio. Eventually we ended up with 8 people split between the two cabs – mostly other travelers. Between us the taxi ride, split as it was, ended up costing us some $15 BZD a piece, which was less than the overflowing bus would have. A brief 15-20 minute ride later we arrived in San Ignacio. Said our good byes and set off to find accommodation.
More on that in my next post – as well as one of the trips greatest adventures! Stay tuned!
**Please be advised that an updated version of this list is available on VirtualWayfarer’s new sister site http://ultimatepackinglist.com. In addition to a more comprehensive list, the site features additional travel packing videos and a hostel/backpacking specific amazon shopping list.
The following is a comprehensive list of general travel advice specifically tailored to backpack/hostelers and the Euro zone. However, I believe no matter where you are traveling or what approach you will be taking, you’ll find a lot of good – and some unique information below.
Notify your bank & credit card company – Credit Card companies have a number of checks in place to help protect you from fraud. Unfortunately, these checks can be a real nightmare if you forget to notify your bank/CC company that you’ll be leaving the country. Make sure to call and notify them that you’ll be traveling. If they start seeing a lot of charges from a foreign location, they may put a hold on your card thinking it has been stolen. Make sure to provide dates you’ll be gone as well as the countries you expect to visit. There is nothing worse than trying to get a replacement credit card company while on the road.
Choose the right card – You’re going to pay a currency penalty no matter what you do. However, how much you end up paying can vary widely. Almost all credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee. These fees vary, but are often as much as 3%. What percentage they charge varies from card to card and from bank to bank. Make sure to find out which of your credit cards gives you the best deal. The same goes for bank ATMs and debit card use. Find out what the fee is, and what type of ATM’s are in your bank’s extended networks. Many travelers unwittingly spend $6+ on fees for every $100 in purchases or cash withdrawals they make. The FlyerGuide.com wiki offers one of the best breakdowns/easy to use charts i’ve found.
Currency Exchanges – I avoid these if at all possible. By using ATMs and following the advice I’ve outlined for reducing ATM fees I’m able to get the best currency exchange rate possible. Exchange booths are expensive and take a fee. They also tend to give outdated currency values. When you use an ATM to withdraw funds you will typically receive a better, more up to date, fairer exchange rate.
Travelers Checks and Money Transfers – Travelers checks are huge in the movies, and so are money transfers. In reality though, these two things are expensive and inconvenient. I typically use Visa/MasterCard credit cards/ATM cards while traveling and have never had an issue. Research the countries you’ll be visiting and figure out what cards are commonly used. In most cases credit cards or cash will be far more welcome than travelers checks.
Xeroxing important information – Few things are more inconvenient than losing or having your passport, important documents and/or credit cards stolen. Take the 5 minutes to copy the photo page of your passport, and both sides of your credit cards. Make two copies. One to stash in some obscure part of your backpack and one to leave with your stateside contact. Remember to keep a close eye on the xerox copies – they’re a great asset if you lose the originals, but can also be used to steal your identity if they get into the wrong hands.
Email yourself – If you have a web based e-mail platform, e-mailing yourself scans/copies of credit cards, important documents and passport info is a great alternative to the xeroxed copies outlined above. It’s easier to access, less likely to be compromised/stolen, and guaranteed to always be on hand.
Blog from the road – Do yourself, your friends, and your family a huge favor. Set up a blog before you leave. It’s free, easy and a great way to update friends and family. Sure, you can send a postcard out – but why not give them the chance to share your adventures with you? I highly recommend using WordPress – you can get a free, hosted WordPress blog at WordPress.com. In addition to saving you from writing 10-15 separate e-mails to friends and family, a trip blog creates a journal which you’ll be incredibly greatful for as you reminisce about your trip a year or two from now. Be descriptive and share your adventures – it’s a wonderful gift to friends, family and yourself. Internet cafes are common place on the road and the hour every day or two you’ll need to write an update can be a welcome rest period. Don’t know what to write? Check out some of my past travel posts from the road.
Resources – There are a lot of wonderful travel communities out there. It’s somewhat newer but TBEX or Travel Blog Exchange is a wonderful way of finding fantastic travel blogs and connecting with experienced travelers. If you’ve got a question or are looking for ideas – I highly recommend perusing their members lists. Need other sites or resources? Just let me know and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.
Vitamins – Yeah, yeah I know. It’s basic. However, it’s something commonly overlooked. When you’re traveling – especially if you’ve just started the trip, vitamin intake is a lifesaver. It’s not enough to just take your daily vitamin. Keep in mind that you’re exposed to a whole spread of new foods, new germs, and are temporarily drastically changing your lifestyle. During the first 3 days of any trip I double up on my multi-vitamins with a heavy focus on making sure I have a very high B vitamin intake. B vitamins are fantastic, they’ll give you more energy, improve your metabolism and help repair the added strain/damage your body is taking. I’m also a huge fan of anything with amino-acids in it. Especially if you’re doing a lot of foot-based touring. One great source is products like EmergenC. It has B vitamins, amino acids and a boatload of Vitamin C all in one hit. Sure they say it doesn’t work, but I call baloney. 2 or 3 of those a day and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.
Hydrate – Sure, drinking water is common advice…but it’s a pain so most people don’t do it. Big mistake – especially if you want to reduce jet lag. Sure, it’s difficult to know when your next bathroom break will be, but do yourself a favor – amp up your water intake and skip the soda/carbonated beverages for a few days. Taking your vitamins and staying hydrated will keep your body much healthier, improve recovery time, and increase the resilience of your immune system. Getting chapped lips or peeling cuticles? Drink more water – you’re dehydrated.
Timing is important – In my experience one major element that contributes to jet lag is that of mental adjustment. If you’re traveling trans Atlantic make sure to set your watch forward as soon as you board the plane. Use the 14 hour flight to adjust mentally instead of spending 14 hours in flux and then trying to adjust once you’ve arrived. Once you’re on that plane operate exclusively on destination time and try not to think about what time it is at your point of origin. It sounds silly, but it makes a huge difference.
Leave the suitcase at home – Even if you aren’t planning to “backpack” in the conventional sense of the word, ditch the suitcases and trade them in for a quality backpack. A suitcase with wheels is all well and good, but 8 out of 10 times those wheels will only be useful 5-10% of the time. A backpack is effective 100% of the time. It also encourages you to pack more effectively. Wearing the pack also gives you increased security but more on that later. There are cheap options out there, the blue pack in the video’s I’ve attached below was made by Outdoor Products, cost $45 and was purchased at Walmart.
Keep the straps in mind – The one downside to a backpack is the need to protect the shoulder straps, waist belt, and clips. A lot of newer backpacks have zip up covers which allow you to protect your straps when traveling by bus, plane or train. If yours doesn’t, you might consider purchasing a small, cheap duffel bag which you can roll up and strap to the outside of the backpack while traveling. This also makes securing your bag in hostels or hotels significantly easier.
Roll your clothing – Folding may be all well and good for a suitcase, but it’s terribly inefficient and can result in badly wrinkled clothing. A far better option is to tightly roll your clothing. It naturally eliminates a lot of the air which takes up spare space, allows for easier access to your clothing, and allows you to fit significantly more into the same space. Don’t just roll pants and shirts though! Make sure to roll it all, towels, jackets, boxers and sweaters!
Bulky items – Inevitably I find most people (myself included) lose a lot of space to 2 or 3 bulky items. Sometimes it’s unavoidable – let’s face it, jackets are big and puffy. However, usually at least one of the items isn’t actually necessary.
Towel time – Ditch the bulky bath towel. There’s only one way to go when traveling – microfiber travel towels. I’ve been using PackTowl Personal for years and love them. They dry quickly, are soft, are incredibly absorbent, and roll up to take virtually no space. To top it all off, you can get what you need for less than $20.
Pants and shirts – Take whatever you’ve packed and halve it. You don’t need to take a week’s worth of outfits with you. In fact, I can tell you right now you’ve over packed. If you are not 110% confident that you’ll need and wear the items you’re packing multiple times, don’t pack them. Have more than two pairs of pants? You shouldn’t. More than 4 t-shirts? Time to axe a few.
Power converters – It’s often a lot easier to get these once you reach your destination. However, don’t rule out picking up converter plugs before your trip if you know where you’re going.
Bags & shoelaces – Sure, you can get them at any time during your trip but I highly suggest throwing an old pair of shoelaces into your bag, a plastic shopping bag, and a few Ziplocs of differing sizes. Think of these as your traveler’s duct tape. You never know how or when they’ll come in handy. Example: While exploring the Scottish Isle of Skye we spent a day in nasty light rain and strong winds…not enough to keep us inside, but enough to damage any non-waterproof camera. Luckily I had a ziploc bag on hand and was able to create a waterproof case for the camera. The result? A bunch of amazing photos I would have otherwise completely missed out upon.
Super Glue – I’d suggest only purchasing this when needed to avoid having it explode in your bag. That said, Super Glue is phenomenal for quick on-the-road repairs. I’ve used it on multiple occasions to reinforce ripped seams on my backpack/bags/shoulder straps, on small cuts and as a quick way to make other general repairs.
Footwear – Two fundamental sets of footwear you’ll need for any trip. The first is a good pair of shoes walking/hiking shoes. I’ve been using Keen’s Men’s Targhee II for years because I love the fit, price and support. Make sure the shoe fits, can be worn in a variety of settings and is light enough for days spent exploring cobblestone streets but capable of slugging through rural highland mountains. Make sure to try them on in a store before you buy. Find one that works? I saved $30 by ordering the shoes off Amazon.
The second piece of footwear you shouldn’t be caught without is a pair of plastic shower thongs/sandals. Make these as cheap and light as possible. All you want is a basic, plastic $2 pair that dries fast. You do NOT want a nice pair of sandals and definitely should avoid sandals with leather.
Flip Video Camera – Recording your trip is always a challenge, especially as a hosteler/backpacker. You need something portable, affordable, but still high enough quality that the video is worthwhile. The new line of portable video cameras are great. In late 2008 I shot the two packing videos below with a first generation Flip Ultra. I liked the product so much that I’ve since upgraded to the Flip UltraHD Camcorder which records up to 2 hours, has better audio quality and shoots in HD. The cameras range in price, but the top of the line versions run right around $200. They’re the size of a cellphone and work beautifully for capturing video – most people think they are a cellphone.
Here are two videos from my last trip – a December voyage to Spain. The videos illustrate the rolled packing technique and provide a step by step walk through of things I took with me. Note: Despite going out of my way to pack light, I still over packed:
Not your parent’s hostels – The modern Euro hostel is totally different than what the movies and old stories have probably led you to believe. Most are clean, modern, and have fantastic amenities. In fact, it’s not uncommon for hostels to provide communal kitchens, en suite bathrooms, free/charge internet access and all sorts of organized events. Heck, believe it or not – a lot actually have on-site bars! Oh, and the whole…bring your own sheets or a sleeping bag…Not anymore! In fact, leave the sleeping bag and spare sheets at home. In order to prevent bed bugs and for health reasons mainstream hostels now provide linens and in most cases prohibit you from using your own. One thing to be prepared for (and personally I think it’s a huge asset) is mixed-sex dorm rooms. While almost all hostels provide female-only rooms, the vast majority offer rooms in a mixed gender dorm format.
Booking – Depending on what time of the year you’re traveling, you might want to book ahead. Regardless, you’ll want to do some research (no better way to avoid bad experiences and bedbugs). There are three fantastic resources for booking and research. The first (and largest) is hostelworld.com The site allows easy booking and has a huge database of user submitted reviews which are invaluable. Slightly smaller, but equally valuable is hostelbookers.com. A third and relatively newcomer to the hostel database/online booking industry is the industry travel site bootsnall.com. Keep in mind that it’s sometimes possible to get a discount rate by booking with the hostel directly, and that many hostels have an extra cache of beds available (so even if one of these sites isn’t showing availability – sometimes another will have access to vacant beds).
For those of you traveling in Europe – one word of caution about Hosteling International hostels. HI was one of the first major hosteling groups and still clings to the outdated hostel model. A lot of their hostels have lockouts, group showers, charge extra for linens and are dirty. They are most prevalent in Italy where hosteling outside of major tourist destinations can be tricky.
Lockouts – Most hostels have abandoned the lockout model, but you’ll still find some shoddy ones that have lockouts. When booking online always make sure to check if a hostel has lockouts before you book. The standard lockout process means that the hostel locks the front doors during the day and late at night. For example, a standard lockout would be from 10AM-4PM and from 11Pm to 6AM.
Basic Hostel Etiquette – There are basic rules. I’ll cover them in greater depth in a different post, but here are four main ones to keep in mind.
*Noise – you are sharing a room with a number of strangers. Be respectful. If you know you’ll be returning late in the evening, or leaving early in the morning make sure to pre-pack/unpack. Most hostels have 24/7 receptions. That means you’ll have the option of getting back at all hours of the night. Follow the golden rule.
*The light switch – after 11PM the lights stay off with few exceptions. Sure, you can turn them on, but unless the room is empty or your party makes up the sole occupants – do whatever you need to do in the dark. Same principle as with noise applies – have your stuff ready and easily accessible. If you slap the lights on at 3AM in a drunken stupor, you’re going to look like an idiot and make a lot of enemies very quickly.
*Clean up after yourself – hostels are usually staffed by other travelers. If you’re lucky enough to stay at one with a kitchen or common area, don’t leave a mess and then walk away. There’s no housecleaning and there’s no maid – that’s why you’re paying pennies on the dollar for the room. When you leave a mess, you’re punishing everyone else.
*Be friendly and inclusive – One of the best parts of hosteling is all of the people you meet. Don’t be bashful when it comes to reaching out to fellow travelers, and make an added effort to invite your fellow hostelers to tag along. Don’t worry, it’s not weird to ask a perfect stranger if they want to head over to the nearby market with you.
Internet Cafes – There was a time when taking a trip meant complete disconnect from the rest of the world. Of late, it’s become common for travelers to travel with laptops, mobile phones, and other similar peripherals leaving them connected in ways previously unimaginable. However, some of us enjoy a happy medium. If you’re planning on traveling and are worried about staying connected, but don’t want to take a laptop – don’t worry. Internet cafes are significantly more common in Europe than the U.S. and Canada. Rates are also typically very affordable (In Europe they range from 1-3 Euro an hour in most locations). Keep in mind, however, that the connection quality can vary widely. Also, it’s not uncommon to find internet cafes that are running specialized software which at times restrict the use of peripherals (Double check that you’ll be able to connect and access your camera before you settle in).
A locker lock – Security in hostels is fairly lax and can take some getting used to. That said, there’s seldom need to worry. Most hostels provide security lockers for your gear and/or valuables. The standard approach is to provide a locker (think back to your high school days). Lockers are typically associated with your bed and are present in the room. I’ve seen them in all different shapes and forms – from metal, to wood, to enclosed caged racks. One thing is always the same though: you provide your own lock should you decide to use one. For this reason it’s advisable to pick up a small but sturdy lock that will fit a wide variety of locker types. I used a small luggage lock and very rarely had any issues. Be mindful that larger, sturdier locks may not always fit. It’s also important to note, that some hostels also provide in- room, programmable safes. These are a luxury and convenience, but also a growing trend. Typically an electronic key card is provided when safes are available.
Don’t stand still – Know that annoying guy at the airport or on the subway that just won’t stand still? Sure, he won’t stop moving or pacing and it’s a bit annoying, but it’s also a fantastic way to avoid pick pockets. Train yourself to perpetually move, even if it’s as simple as shifting your weight from side to side. By randomly moving and not standing perfectly still, you’ll make yourself a more challenging target. Thieves and pickpockets will have to deal with a moving target, and risk bumping you – both of which increase the chances that you’ll be alerted to their presence. No need to pace, but a little minor motion can go a long way to helping discourage criminal fingers.
Abandon your back pockets – I love to wear jeans when I’m traveling and as a guy I’ve always got a wallet on me. Like most guys my wallet is usually in my back right pocket and fairly bulky. When I hit the road though it takes the place of my car keys in my front pocket, where I’ve trained myself to casually brush my hand on a regular basis. My back pockets? Reserved for things like maps, bulky papers, fliers, and random tickets. I like keeping my maps in my back pockets (folded) because it adds the appearance of bulk/a wallet without endangering valuables.
Photo & Video backup CDs – Any time I’m on an extended trip I’m always paranoid about losing my photos and videos. What if my camera gets stolen or the memory card dies? Most camera stories have digital development kiosks. For less than $10 and 15 minutes you can usually create a backup DVD with all of your photos on it. Or if you’re game to do a bit more work, you can usually save a few dollars by burning your own DVD at a local computer cafe. I suggest making backups every 4-700 photos. One thing to definitely keep in mind – don’t delete the photos after burning the backup. DVDs scratch fairly easily, especially while traveling. Keep the DVD as a backup – not – as a replacement. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but if you do – it sure beats losing your images, or the quality loss that occurs when you try and re-download photos you posted to Facebook.
Travel Cards – Websites like Facebook and Twitter have made keeping in touch with fellow travelers much easier. Add e-mail into the mix and you’ve got a pretty cool tool to keep in touch with the amazing people you meet during your trip. However, it’s often difficult to track each other down/get accurate contact information. I can’t tell you how many people I missed out on keeping in touch with because I couldn’t read their handwriting or the note I’d written on a random scrap of paper had gotten smeared. Consider creating travel cards – basically business cards – but to share with fellow travelers. You can get 250 business cards for 20 minutes and $20 or less through Staples or another similar service (cheaper options online). Things to include: Your name, blog url, twitter url, e-mail, website, and if you can shorten it – the link to your Facebook profile.
Airfare – There’s a lot more to getting a great rate than just booking in advance. I’ve found that airfare tends to spike about 30 days before the departure date. Also, conventional wisdom is to try and book on a Tuesday or Wednesday if at all possible – and in my experience this still holds true. If you’re flexible and looking for a great deal I suggest utilizing airfare search sites like Kayak.com. I’ve done very well by signing up for an account and running flexible date searches. Don’t stop there though, most people check once – then book. That’s a major oops (airfare typically fluctuates hundreds of dollars from day to day). If you’ve got time, set up several searches to airports in the area/region you want to explore and for different dates, then sign up for their (free) daily e-mail updates for each. Once a day you’ll receive an e-mail with the current airfare and the $ change from the previous day. Monitoring prices this way works well, but you need to be ready to book when you see a great deal.
Another thing to keep in mind is specials. Airlines are always operating specials of some sort or another. Usually these are only so-so deals, but with a little research and patience you can usually find a fantastic deal. Sites like TravelZoo.com and Airfarewatchdog.com typically provide a good summary of current airfare specials. It’s also important to note that you should not limit yourself to the airlines that immediately come to mind. A lot of travelers (especially North Americans) forget about the wealth of high quality foreign airlines. These airlines are almost always extremely safe, usually offer better service than domestic airlines and can be much cheaper.
Discount Airlines – Don’t forget your discount airlines. The quality is usually rough, and you’ve gotta do your research to make sure you don’t get stuck paying any number of random fees – but the price is usually right. If you can book a day or two ahead discount airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir are typically cheaper and faster than long distance train rides. Keep in mind they also lack the amazing cross country view that train and bus rides offer. If you’re flying with a discount airline read up ahead of time. They typically fly into secondary airports which can result in costly/timely commutes between the airport-actual city if you’re not prepared. For a complete list of budget airlines world wide check out whichbudget.com.
Rail – When available, travel by rail is an excellent option. It is scenic, relatively comfortable and in western Europe, typically drops you off in the heart of the old city. Faster and more comfortable than bus travel, rail travel is typically also somewhat more expensive. If you’re traveling to eastern Europe be aware that bus travel is probably a better option as countries like Greece and Croatia have poor rail infrastructure. When buying rail tickets you typically have 3 options. You can purchase online, in advance, or the day of. Online and advanced tickets are typically significantly cheaper. Also, most countries have regional trains that, while slower moving, are 2-3 times cheaper than the faster commuter trains. Once you purchase your ticket, be sure to validate it before getting on the train. In Italy, for example, tickets are good for several months. To assure that they can’t be used multiple times, you have to validate the ticket in the yellow machines readily available in the train station. If you are riding without a validated ticket, there are stiff fines.
Conventional travel wisdom is to use a rail pass – do your research. Rail passes are no longer as good a deal as they once were – many countries (eg: Italy) charge seat reservation fees which can cost more than a lone ticket would. That said, in countries like Germany where rail travel is significantly more expensive, a rail pass can save you a lot of money. Another must explore site is seat61.com which has a lot of general information for those considering rail travel.
Bus – Far from the most comfortable way to travel, buses are a cheaper and still pleasant option. It is not uncommon for long distance buses to have bathrooms and many are equipped with ceiling mounted T.V.s providing entertainment. If you’ve got extra time or are traveling in eastern European countries, bus travel is a fantastic option and will give you a great view of local villages and rural countrysides. The air conditioning can be a bit rough, but it’s also a great way to interact with and meet natives.
*Special thank you to Cody Paris for the ongoing suggestions and feedback he has contributed.
Have a question or tip of your own? Please post it in comment form below. Also, please note that I will be constantly adding to this list as new tips, tricks & information come to mind.
After a day spent exploring the Alhambra’s countless secrets I made my way back to the hostel where I washed up briefly before heading to the hostel kitchen for the night’s special event – a group dinner. For 5 Euro the hostel provided all we could eat paella, a big bowl of soup, and a drink from the bar.
What is paella you ask? Paella is a cornerstone of Spanish cuisine and a must try for anyone visiting the region – cooked in large pans, not all that unlike the pans used for stir fry, the dish is predominantly seasoned saffron rice with large pieces of pork, horseshoe muscles, calamari, small clams, shrimp and peas. Depending on your region in Spain, and the cook, various other meats and delightful tidbits may be added. The pan used by the hostel was about 3 feet across and circular. It was quite the sight.
Stuffed and in good company we repeated the previous evening’s rituals. Starting in the hostel bar drinks and stories flowed before we set out to explore the city’s night life and enjoy Spanish music, culture and sights.
Despite morning coming far too early I awoke to a beautiful, crisp winter day. Blue skies, gentle and warm – far from what one might imagine a December day in Spain would look like. Eager to explore the surrounding area and the Sierra Nevadas I made my way through the city to a large square where I’d been told I could catch a bus into one of the small cities in the mountains. The walk took me into parts of Granada I’d previously left unexplored and added to my love of the city. After about 20 minutes of walking I found the square and began asking around…trying to discover which of the regional buses would take me to Guejar. Before long I’d narrowed down the approximate area where it paused along it’s route to collect people…and had a good idea of when to expect it. I’ll confess that my pronunciation of Guejar was abysmal and my heart was racing as I tried to figure out the bus system and isolate which of the 10 bus stops along the square was mine.
Finally feeling fairly confident that I wasn’t going to miss my bus, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and relaxed by the shallow river that stretched along one side of the square. There I watched a father and his two children at play. It reminded me of my time in Europe as a child, exploring grand cities and embracing experiences which fostered the curious passion for travel which drives me to this day.
Before long the bus arrived. One Euro Eighty cents later, I had my ticket in hand and was cozily sandwiched into one of the small bus seats. I’d picked Guejar at random and didn’t know what to expect, beyond that it was in the Sierra Nevadas. As the bus snaked through the narrow Spanish streets we quickly left the city behind and began winding our way up through several small canyons toward the mountaintops. Each time the bus slowed down and paused at a bus stop I felt my pace quicken and my stomach leap into my throat. I had no idea what to expect. What would Guejar look like? How long was the drive? Would there be a bus stop or would it be a proper station?
Resisting the urge to hop off each time the bus slowed to a stop I sat, taking in the scenery as we climbed deeper into the mountains. The snow capped Sierra’s drew gradually closer as the road hung on to the side of a rather steep valley. Soon, I found myself looking out my window and down the steep slopes below – the narrow roads, tiny guard rails and steep drop offs along a lot of European roads is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely comfortable with.
Before long we came upon a large dam. The dam was significant in size and filled in some two-thirds of the valley. The water it held back was an emerald green with rich, gorgeous waters lazily soaking up the winter sun. I knew immediately it was something that I needed to explore in greater detail. The quick views as the bus wound along the valley wall hundreds of feet above wasn’t enough. As I watched it wind away behind me I decided to get off at the next stop – even if it wasn’t Guejar.
Luckily, just a few minutes up the road from the dam we pulled into a beautiful small city which lazily clung to the side of the valley wall. Somehow, the bus pressed its way through the narrow streets and down tiny alleyways before coming to a stop on a steep incline next to a small square. The doors opened and the passengers began to disembark. I soon realized I’d reached Guejar!
Eager to explore the city I quickly set off from the square and into the small town. The streets were a delightful warren of small open spaces and narrow corridors – many of which suddenly split or dove off down the hillside. There were beautiful plants everywhere and interestingly most of the doorways had hanging rugs of them. I’m not sure if it was to keep out the cold, or a regional tradition – either way it added a fun element to the streets and brought them to life with their own special character.
Legs burning from the steep ascent and descent as I explored the small town, I spent a good 30 minutes wandering up side streets and down back alleyways before setting off back the way I’d come in the hopes of reaching the azure waters I’d seen from the bus.
As I left the town I quickly ran into a problem. The narrow winding road we’d used to reach the town was just that – a narrow two lane road with a steep drop off and small guardrail. This left very little room for me to safely backtrack along the road – leaving me sandwiched between a steep drop on my left and oncoming traffic on the right. Undeterred, I pressed on, carefully utilizing the narrow space between the guardrail and the steep drop down to the river below. It took me another 5 minutes of careful walking before I reached a bend in the road and paused to snap the photo you see above.
I lingered and took in the view – one that reminded me in a way of the Grand Canyon and Colorado river. Don’t get me wrong, the view was vastly different – but there was something about it that captured my heart and mind in the same way. It left me slightly awed. As I paused and shot a few photos/took some quick video I considered my options. I could continue along the road which continued from my perch for a short ways before winding back behind a small hill and away from the dam for about a quarter of the mile – or I could climb down the hillside a ways and get a better view of the lake, valley and several interesting structures on the opposite side. Careful not to fall and die, I slowly made my way down the steep hillside – heading towards a slightly flatter area which had been leveled off during the construction of several large power lines – why not right? What better than large power lines to ensure my safety as I climbed down a steep hillside.
Eventually, I found my way down to the flattened area – where I paused for a drink, some photos and to take in the sights. The descent had taken me down some 1/3 of the hillside and left me across and slightly above a group of goats and a shepherd I’d been observing from the roadside earlier. Having descended below the power lines, I finally had an unobstructed view of the lake. What better place to stop and read for a while? Enjoying my perch and the moment I pulled out my book and read for about 20 minutes before plotting the next stage of my exploration. I considered my location, looking back up the steep hillside I quickly decided that down was a far more interesting (and less difficult) alternative – and why not? I hadn’t hurt myself yet!
In a hail of small stones, mumbled curses and periodic gasps I eventually made my way down two thirds of the way to the river. The whole affair would have no doubt made the most clumsy of mountain goats proud. Eventually, I found a small path and decided to follow it instead.
Wondering if I was trespassing and about to get chased off by a local farmer with a pitchfork, I followed the path as it wound back towards Guejar in the general direction of the shepherd and his goats. The path quickly cut up and took me immediately them…leaving me under the watchful stare of two of his goats. One of which had an amazing, billowing goat beard and large set of horns.
I wound up, around, between properties and soon found myself back in the city. With ample time to spare I set to satiating my burning hunger. No easy task given the quiet nature of the city. Differentiating between tapas bar, bookstore and hardware store was far more difficult than one would think. None of the residents needed signs.
After exploring the city for another 20 minutes or so I finally found a little hole in the wall joint. The food was good, the price was incredible, the floor was dirty and the place was populated by old Spanish men – perfect. I headed inside, ordered and carefully tried to take the following incognito video…my apologies on its…authenticity:
After a quick meal, I headed back to the square – checked my watch and relaxed in the winter sun as I read my dad’s book – The Spirit in the Ruins by C. Descry. Eventually the bus driver emerged from one of the local tapas bars and we began our winding trip back to Granada.
That evening I joined a number of friends from the hostel for a wonderful night out on the town which came to a close at 4 am as we sat perched in the Albayzin looking across at the beautifully lit Alhambra.
It was December 30th. The following day I caught a train early in the morning to Madrid, where I began preparing for New Years and my return to the U.S. – what an incredible adventure!