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Archive for the ‘Theme travel’

Unique voluntourism program in France

I saw this in Shape Magazine of all places and thought it sounded offbeat and cool. There’s a program where you travel to Provence and help restore medieval structures that are rapidly deteriorating. Since I work in international aid and development, I definitely support voluntourism programs focusing on poverty and the environment, but I thought this one was particularly cool for being different.

Rates start at $655 per week for accommodation and meals, which is actually a pretty good deal (voluntourism even in developing countries can be prohibitively expensive). Bonus: you get to live in one of the renovated buildings! Meals are prepared by a chef using local produce and served family-style for all the volunteers. Most afternoons are free for exploring the small town of Saint Victor la Coste, hiking, visiting vineyards, etc.

Volunteers work with craftsmen, helping to preserve not only the physical structures, but also the skills and culture.

For more information, check out:

Since I’m still not allowed to use power tools unsupervised (bad things tend to ensue), I’m not entirely sure that it would be a good idea for someone to let me near ancient ruins with a chisel, but it’s hard to deny my friends the inevitable story — “So, there was this one time that I was working on a rampart…”

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Looking out for the quetzal

resplendent quetzalI just ran across a blurb in an old mental floss magazine about the resplendent, or Guatemalan, quetzal. Quetzals are among the most beautiful birds on earth, boasting scarlet breasts and iridescent blue-green wings, and the tail feathers of males can grow up to three feet long! To the Mayans, who considered the quetzal sacred, its feathers were more valuable than gold.

Centuries on from the heyday of the Maya, the quetzal is still held in the highest regard among the people of the region; it is the national bird of Guatemala and lends its name to the country’s currency. (Incidentally, that kind of quetzal is not more valuable than gold; one quetzal equates to about US$0.13). Partly from over-hunting and partly due to decades of habitat destruction, the quetzal is now a threatened species.

By the way, the quetzal serves as a nice metaphor for the spirit of a flashpacker. The bird requires the freedom to fly about; a caged quetzal will surely die. OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the point. (Also, like this flashpacker, the quetzal’s favorite food is the avocado. The quetzal will fly up to the hanging fruit, pick it from the tree and fly back to its nest, devour it whole, and regurgitate the pit 20 to 30 minutes later. The similarities are uncanny.)

A few years removed from trips to Costa Rica and Guatemala, I had largely forgotten about the quetzal. We spent several days hiking through the rain forests of both countries and never spotted one. Apparently our experience was not unique; with their numbers in decline, it is becoming more and more difficult to find the quetzal in the wild. There are a handful of organized, guided tours throughout Central America that promise a glimpse of the cherished bird, but they tend to be very expensive and very regimented.

Mayan forest homeThe coolest one I found is called Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal in Guatemala. They arrange for you to stay with a Maya Q’eqchi’ family in the cloud forest of Chicacnab, where the remnant Mayan culture is preserved. By day you walk the trails of Chicacnab, which has the highest population density of quetzals in the country, and you return at night to share in the lives of a typical Mayan family. The family profits from tourism, and in return they promise to preserve the forest in which they dwell. The only information I couldn’t find on the website was the price…

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Safari for less?

This just in from one of our readers -

“I want to go on a safari trip in Tanzania, with it ending on the white beaches of Zanzibar. The ideal is to go during the water hole migration season in 2009. My ideal max budget per person, including airfare, is $2,000. Is that even realistic? Flashpacker, please help!”

Well, after doing some searching it seems that budget rates for safaris in Tanzania are around $60-$150 per person per day.

Mike at Vagabonding says that you can better deals if you book your tour from Arusha (as opposed to online), but you have to be ready to bargain and deal with the touts (plus schedule a few extra days to arrange the trip). On the other hand, I was able to find budget tours for the same price ($145 per day) that Mike found in Arusha.

The cheapest I’m finding airfare for April to Dar es Salaam is $1584 (including tax) on Airline Consolidator, one of my favorite sites for occasionally beating the fares Kayak finds (it’s not nearly as user friendly, however). April/May 2009 is pretty far out, so you probably won’t get too much cheaper than that unless you find a great airline sale.

So, unfortunately, it looks like $2000 is undershooting somewhat.

One possible idea is to keep an eye out on Sky Auctions, which auctions off vacations, including safaris, ebay-style. I’d also keep an eye out on package tours that go on clearance. Package isn’t usually the first choice for flashpackers that prefer not to be babysat, but those tour operators sure can get the deals sometimes (and you have to be on a package tour for the safari portions anyway).

And here’s one last option for researching safaris online: African Safari Journals, a low-key site where people write about their experiences with safari tour operators.

Sorry to disappoint dear reader, but never fear – the flashpackers will remain on the case!

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The Soft Cell: Spending the Night in a Prison Hotel

Inspired by WebUrbanist [by way of mental floss]:

The Fully Rehabilitated Inmate Experience (Luxury) There are a Lloyd Hotel 5-star suitesurprisingly large number of refurbished prisons now serving as luxury hotels around the world. Amsterdam’s Lloyd Hotel comprises 117 marvelously restyled rooms, each with free high-speed internet and a full menu of satellite TV channels, which the facility’s previous occupants must now resent immeasurably. And while you Jailhotel Löwengrabendon’t need to bribe anyone to get out of the Lloyd, you’ll have to pay a pretty hefty ransom to get into it; the most austere of their accommodations costs nearly US$150 per night, and the rate climbs to more than $700 for the ginormous suites (like the one in the photo above). Another luxurious incarceration option: the Malmaison Hotel in Oxford, England. And pictured here at left is the Falling Waters Suite at the Jailhotel Löwengraben in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Minimum-Security Inmate Experience (Backpackers) Deemed one of Hostel Celica cell 117the ‘Hippest Hostels in the World’ by Lonely Planet, the Hostel Celica in Ljubljana, Slovenia, features an art gallery and 20 prison-cell rooms renovated handsomely by local artists. And with cell beds starting at about US$28 per night, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to be hip.

At The Jail in Mt. Gambier, South Australia, backpackers The Jail Mt. Gambier cell/dormcan play volleyball in the stone courtyard where prisoners used to recreate, take part in evening musical jam sessions, or retire to the metal-framed beds in their cells. But that’s about it. That peculiar, bare jailhouse charm seems to have been preserved in full, although the owners did some minor reclamations of the interior. Dorm beds start at about US$18 per night.

Maximum-Security Inmate Experience (?) Tired of the cloying comforts ofKarosta cell/dorm luxury travel? For the traveler who sleeps more soundly after the harrowing infliction of mental and emotional trauma, try spending a night at the Karosta Prison Hotel in Liepaja, Latvia. This 100-year old detention facility was most recently operated by the KGB, who used the grounds to carry out psychological torture on their captives. Other than the fact that guests can now leave the facility of their own volition, there little to distinguish the current Karosta experience from the earlier one. Guests are welcomed by armed guards in KGB uniform, photographed and issued identification papers, subjected to physical examination, and deterred from attempting an escape by threat of actual gunfire. And that’s just in the 15-minute introduction!

Karosta Prison conciergePictured at left is the Karosta concierge/warden, who seems to be receiving a security briefing from Popeye (though it’s difficult to identify him with his forearms sleeved). A night’s stay at the Karosta Prison will set you back 8 Lati (about US$18), unless you are eligible for the 5 Lati special: “There is a special offer to schoolchildren — an opportunity to spend a night in prison cells on bunks and mattresses.” Please, not the schoolchildren! Check the hotel’s highly entertaining website or this Guardian feature for more information.

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Stick with the right kind of “adventure”

So our historic neighborhood was hit by a tornado last night and that got me thinking about how bad weather can really ruin your travel plans – whether it’s hurricane season in the Caribbean or just a 10 degrees colder than you were expecting… If you’re high on the adventure quotient and want to make find the perfect place for the perfect time of year, check out Lonely Planet’s book, A Year of Adventures, and companion website.

I love this concept! You pick your travel month and they tell what’s at its peak. There’s a wide variety of activities, from trekking to see gorillas, to traveling the trans-Siberia railway – the suggestions have something for everyone and cover all corners of the globe. I bought this book in the Bangkok airport with my last remaining baht and have been using it to day dream ever since! We did hit up Patagonia per their suggestions – hopefully we’ll keep being able to check some of these amazing trips off the list…

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Guerrilla tourism

There’s no denying it, what we’ve got here is a trend of sorts. Disaster tourism, poverty tourism, pretend-to-cross-the-border-illegally tourism…it all leads to some interesting takes on “leisure” time, but is it, you know, right?

In Aceh, Indonesia, home to both the worst damage of the 2004 tsunami and a guerrilla war waged on the government by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a small, budding tourism idea has taken root — guerrilla tourism. Former GAM members take tourists on what Reuters calls a mix of “extreme hiking” and in-depth experience of the guerrilla warfare, pointing out old hideouts and reminiscencing about their days of living in the jungle.

What to make of activities like this? Should you be a participant? Is it ethical?

While I don’t know all the details of this particular outfit, there are a few things that I think are positive:

1) The tours are led by locals and benefit the local economy (as opposed to a Sandals beach resort).

2) The local population gets to tell their own story in their own words.

I think the respect shown and the amount of control people have in how their situation is presented makes all the difference in the world as to whether or not these experiences are an opportunity for cross-culture learning or simply a gawk-and-stalk photo op.

What do you think?

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Adventures in Voluntourism

Why do you travel? Is it merely to escape the routine of your daily life? To bask in awe before the planet’s most humbling spectacles? To learn about foreign people and places? Or do you simply crave the challenge of carving leathery chicken into masticable bites with bendy airline cutlery?

If your goal in traveling is to experience and understand countries and cultures different from your own, your best bet is to immerse yourself in a native community for a time. Participating in a short-term volunteer project can be an excellent way to get to know the people and customs of a particular area. (If you read the preceding sentence and thought, “I go on vacation precisely so that I don’t have to patch a roof or dig a well,” then perhaps voluntourism isn’t for you. No worries. For all others, please read on…)

There are a couple tiers of organizations that coordinate volunteer work abroad. The first tier comprises companies that offer travel packages including both sightseeing and working on local projects — in education, medicine, disaster relief, and elsewhere. Packages tend to be a bit expensive, but most of the money you spend ends up in the country you visit, and the price covers your transportation, food, lodging, etc. One of the most widespread is Hands Up Holidays, where you can find projects of varying lengths in over 30 countries. Others include socialtreks and people and places, and if you fall into the better-than-50 age group, check out SAGA.

The second tier is cheaper; it consists of networks of information on volunteering in particular areas, but you find the volunteer opportunities and organize the trip yourself. Visit True Travellers for heaps of information and discussion forums on voluntourism around the globe. And here’s an excellent website specifically for opportunities to volunteer throughout South America.

If you have any experiences in voluntourism you’d like to share, we’d love to hear about them.

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Bookworms abroad

I pack my bags a heck of a lot. So much so that the pre-trip packing is not exciting in the least. For me, little induces dread like hauling my suitcase out of the attic. The one pre-trip ritual that I still absolutely love, though, is picking out the books I’m going to take. I usually try to take along literature from the country or region I’m visiting. Slightly geeky, yes. But, I always end up making a connection in art, culture, history, etc that I would have never found in-country if I hadn’t gone the immersion route.

So, I was excited to come across the site The Literary Traveler. This site is from a husband and wife team that bases loose tour itineraries around famous authors and their work. They also post articles about connections of great works of literature with sites.

While I love the theme, their focus is a little too Anglo-, Euro-centric for my travel tastes. (Who doesn’t make the connection between Dickens and London). Some of my recent travel reading has been Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina and tales about folk hero Xieng Mieng in Laos. Where can you go to get the good stuff?

Well, I found one site focusing on South Africa, which dug deeper than Mandela. I wish I had seen this site before I visited! The New Zealand Book Council provides nifty interactive map where you can click on a part of the country and see which authors are associated with the region.

The ultimate site is Biblio Travel. You simply put in the name of the city where you’re going and it spits out a list of books that take place in that city. I tried a few off the beaten path places and the site delivered — 3 books that take place in Timbuktu! Go check it out and start anticipating your next trip. It’s the best part of packing…

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The wacky factor…worth the price?

Today’s post is inspired by the website Unusual Hotels of the World I’ve actually stayed in some of the hotels listed on this website, including the ice hotel in Quebec (more about that later). I think the weirdest one may be the two-storey beagle that you can stay in for $92 a night. Where is this fantastic find you ask? The middle of Idaho where the list of local attractions includes a drive-in movie theater.Remember that weakening dollar I mentioned yesterday? Well, if you want a view of the Danube for less than $100, try sleeping in the sewer. Literally. At Das Park Hotel you get to sleep in a refurbished sewer pipe.

Not surprisingly (to me a least) a fair number of weird hotels are located in Sweden, including the Utter Inn, where you sleep 3m underwater in the middle of a lake. Bonus: sleek affordable design by Ikea.

While most of these options are pretty reasonable, you sometimes pay a pretty penny for the wacky factor. Is it worth it? The truth is, if you spend your life traveling, some of the places you go actually start to blend together. If the point is to look back on these memories fondly when you’re eighty, the crazier they were, the better.

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Fake border crossing = awesome vacation?

From kayak newsletter…

“At Parque Eco Alberto[sic], you can go on a pretend ‘Night Border Crossing Experience.’ The parque is owned by the Hnahnu Indians in Hidalgo, about three hours from Mexico City. The $18, four-hour night hike starts with the Mexico National Anthem. Your ‘coyote’ guide, Pancho, pulls off his black ski mask while actors gather around to scare you senseless along the way. Run from border control agents; dodge hidden actors shooting (blanks) at you, and make your way through barbed-wire fences. Survivors are blindfolded, led across a rickety bridge, and then set free to run across the border to freedom!”

I’m not sure if this would be insensitive or highly educational? You decide…

Parque EcoAlberto’s website

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