backpacking… upgraded

Archive for March, 2008

Time Magazine: Hospitality Exchange Is Low-Cost, High-Yield Travel

“‘What used to be a fringe hobby for a few travelers is becoming a mainstream phenomenon,’ says Daniel Hoffer, co-founder of Couch Surfing….

But hospitality exchange isn’t just about saving a couple of bucks. Users, who vary in age, say it also gives them a more authentic, outside-the-guidebook experience. ‘It distinguishes a tourist from a traveler,’ says Harold Goldstein of Hospitality Exchange. ‘Instead of just sightseeing, you participate in the daily life of locals.’” — Time Magazine


SERVAS – An NGO whose objective is to create an international network of open-minded people and “foster new insight, knowledge and tolerance of others,” SERVAS matches eligible travelers with volunteer hosts all over the world. Hosts provide accommodation for travelers for at least two nights and are encouraged to engage their guests in conversation and have meals with them. Prospective hosts and travelers are approved only after an interview (because it’s harder to hide crazy in a face-to-face meeting).

Help Exchange — If you’ve ever daydreamt about being an itinerant worker, migrating from farm to farm and earning a warm meal and a soft bed by the toil of your hands, then can help you achieve your daydreams. A wide range of hosts employ travelers, from organic farms and ranches to hostels and even sailboats. Travelers receive free accommodation and meals in exchange for an average of four hours a day of labor. The website suggests that travelers make arrangements with hosts prior to arrival; apparently hosts are not fond of strangers who show up on their doorstep with a hobo sack, a six-day beard, and a pitchfork, and demand three months’ accommodation. Now they tell me.

CouchSurfing – The most trafficked of all the hospitality networks (the promise of free lodging is pretty alluring, after all), CouchSurfing’s aims run along the same general lines as the others’: connecting people from around the world to promote cultural understanding and tolerance among and through them. It’s an idea that seems to have caught on — there are now more than 475,000 registered users crisscrossing the globe and finding the open doors of generous strangers wherever they go. You might be thinking, “that’s a charming idea and all, but how can it be safe?” Well, CouchSurfing has a couple of measures in place to assuage that uncertainty. First, there is a verification system to make sure that all potential users are who they say they are, and second, members can vouch for users (hosts and travelers) that are trustworthy. It’s not exactly an NSA background check, but it’s something…

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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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International Car Rental Deals at Auto Europe

As a corollary to the previous post on driving around South Africa, I wanted to mention an excellent international car rental site: Auto Europe. The name’s a bit misleading — you can book rentals there in more than 70 countries worldwide (Europe included, of course).

You should definitely compare rates from multiple sites before you book a vehicle, because some sites will have better selection and rates for certain car classes than the competition. For instance, we booked an SUV for the duration of our trip to South Africa; the other day I found an SUV offered at expedia for about US$72 per day. However, a recent Auto Europe search found no available SUVs from the same pick-up location.

Auto Europe‘s rates on smaller cars, on the other hand, were far superior to those from other sites we checked. Searching expedia and Hertz for 4-door, economy cars, the best rates I found were about US$30 and $32 per day (without insurance coverage), respectively. The equivalent rate at Auto Europe was $22 per day (and $32 fully insured): a more-than-25% savings.

Like I said, it’s best evaluate a few sites to find exactly what you need before you book, but a few additional minutes spent on research can save you a bundle over the course of a long trip.

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On the road in South Africa

Whit and I took a wonderful 17-day trip to South Africa with our friend Indira in September 2005. Future posts will tackle some of our experiences there, but for now let’s discuss how we got around…

During the trip-planning stage we decided that traversing the country by car would best suit our needs. We were trying to accomplish quite a lot in a relatively short time, and having our own vehicle would allow us the flexibility to improvise adjustments to our itinerary if needed.

In spite of its fuel inefficiency and higher daily rental rate, an SUV appealed to us for two reasons: one, we were going to be spending a lot of time in transit and we needed ample room for ourselves, our luggage, and our camping equipment, and two, we were planning to go on safari at Kruger National Park, and the sitting height of the SUV would give us a better vantage for spotting wildlife.

map of South AfricaLooking back on the trip, we made the right decision. South Africa is a marvelous country in which to drive, with well-maintained, open roads and stunning landscapes (not to mention glistening, antiseptic petrol-station restrooms — you cannot underestimate their value to the road-bound traveler!). In spite of my whiplash-inducing attempts to drive a manual from the opposite side, we successfully completed our circuit of eastern South Africa (with stops in Swaziland and Lesotho, and very nearly an unintended one in Mozambique due to questionable navigation) with our beings and our beloved Toyota Condor intact. I cannot say the same for many of the country’s birds. I don’t know if it’s hemispheric confusion or what, but they always seemed to take flight directly into my driving lane rather than away from it, as they wisely do at home.

As long as fuel does not become prohibitively expensive, I cannot recommend car hire strongly enough if you’re on a tight budget time-wise. Divided between the three of us, the total cost was manageable, if not cheap. A quick expedia car rental search (without discount codes) turns up an SUV from Hertz at about US$72 per day (pretty much what we paid when we went), taxes included. If you can get by in a smaller car, the price will be a fraction of that. Fuel currently runs about US$1 per liter (just under $4 per gallon), roughly equivalent to U.S. prices — definitely not a pittance, but worth it for the convenience.

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Frugal flashpackers, get to know ‘Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant.’

As any frequent air traveler knows, the price of a given plane ticket can vary dramatically depending on a number of factors: how far in advance you book, which day of the week and time of day a flight departs, whether it’s high- or low-travel season at the destination, and so on. Throw in the airlines’ ever-changing special offers and rewards programs, and finding the lowest possible fare becomes a quite an involved endeavor. That’s where Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant (yapta, for short) comes in.

yapta logoThere are a couple of ways to use effectively. The easier way is to download the site’s software; once it’s installed the program constantly scours airline websites for fare reductions. If you’ve already bought a plane ticket, you tag the flight with a click of your mouse, and yapta will notify you if the fare drops below the price you paid. (It will also keep an eye out for fare reductions on flights you’re interested in but haven’t yet booked.) Or if you’d prefer not to install the software, you can manually enter the flight numbers for each trip leg, but this is obviously a bit more time consuming.

Once the fare drops, yapta tells you whom to contact at the airline and how to secure your refund or voucher before the price changes again.

The site is less than two years old, but it has already earned inclusion on Time Magazine’s list of the Top 50 Websites of 2007, and it was one of Travel + Leisure’s Top 25 travel sites last year. Saving people money seems to catch their attention.

Being such a young site, yapta does have some weaknesses yet to sort out. First, the time-saving tagging feature worked best for me on Internet Explorer; I had to manually enter the flight numbers to get it to work on Mozilla Firefox. I’m not sure about yapta’s compatibility with other browsers. Also, right now it only tracks fares from U.S.-based carriers, although it does track international flights on said carriers. But it won’t work with British Airways, Lufthansa, LAN, KLM, etc. Also, it can’t track fares on multi-carrier tickets, so if you purchase a round-trip ticket that departs with one airline and returns with another, yapta won’t offer much help.

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The minimalist in Mexico

If you can’t afford a villa à la my previous post, consider shacking up at one of these places. [Go minimalist in this post or go rustic here…]

The minimalist: La Purificadora in Puebla – Between $150 – 190 per night.

The town of Puebla used to be called La Puebla de los Ángeles, or the Village of the Angels, and the historic center is a UNESCO site (if you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I love a good UNESCO site). The hotel is actually built off of a wall dating back to 1844.

If you happen to have a weird thing for hotel architecture you can check it out at Architectural Record.

Even more minimalist: Basico in Quintana Roo, starting at $125 during the low season. It’s just one block from the beach, but word is still out on whether or not there are any shades on those windows…

The nutty-for-the-details peeps at Architectural Record had this to say:

“In his approach to materials and furnishings, Galván explored the country’s complicated relationship with oil, which was a major part of the nation’s economy during the 20th century. Rubber, recalling both automobiles as well as the ancient Olmec culture, also populates the space often in unexpected ways. For instance, black and white curtains, made of latex, hang in the lobby, while tires hang on the walls of the guest rooms like decorative art pieces. On the rooftop patio, Galvan converted two large oil tanks into soaking tubs and, nearby, guests may lounge in cabanas fashioned from old truck cabs.

Other, more whimsical, Mexican cultural references infuse the space. Drawers underneath the guest beds contain objects such as autographed soccer balls, while the reception desk doubles as a juguería (juice bar) by day and a cocktail bar by night. The entrance and lobby area resembles a market, while the guestrooms feel more industrial in nature thanks to exposed plumbing and concrete walls. Guests ascend to their rooms, which are located on the hotel’s second and third floors, by way of the freight elevator or a scaffold-like wooden stair.”

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Rustic and luxe in Mexico

If you can’t afford a villa à la my last post, consider shacking up at one of these places.

The Rustic: Casa Santana in Merida – This place got rave reviews on trip advisor (and I quote… “I didn’t really want to write a review because I want to keep Casa Santana all to myself, but better angels have prevailed upon me to do the right thing. Casa Santana is a magical, wonderful place. Behind a plain facade is a unique, well decorated, relaxing oasis….” Really, everybody just kept gushing). Rooms are around $100 per night.

More luxe than rustic (but it’s still part of an old building so I’m going to count it): Hacienda Puerta Campeche. A little pricier (around $230), but it’s definitely worth a splurge in order to take this plunge…

The pool is actually flowing through a row of old colonial houses! (Which technically means it’s not a hacienda, but we’ll let them off the hook for having such a cool idea.) And then, just because they can, they throw a few hammocks around.

Travel + Leisure also highlighted the Hacienda in its list of 50 romantic places throughout the world.

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Flamenco lives!

A week into our family Barcelona trip, Whitney and I broke off to have Friday evening to ourselves. With the afternoon winding down, we stuffed a hip-pack full of books and took the metro to the Ramblas. We wandered around for a while before finding a suitable café with sidewalk seating. For more than two hours we chatted idly and read our books at the table, enjoying the lazing sun, polishing off a plate of assorted cheeses and bread and a bottle of red table wine. Ah, the life of a Spaniard.

Departing the café shortly after eight p.m., we had yet to choose the night’s next stop, so we meandered down the Ramblas in the direction of a metro station. We remembered a nearby club, Jazz Sí, and found our way there. Throughout the week Jazz Sí features live music performances by ensembles of university-student players. We had come to the club earlier in the week and listened to a competent four-piece jazz band, which started out quite well and sounded even better after a bottle of Estrella or two. The club was intimate, comprising maybe thirty sardine-tight seats downstairs, a small balcony (in reality little more than a walkway), and a stage not much larger than a billiards table.

Tonight’s music offering was flamenco, and the show would start at 8:45. We were just in time, and luckily so; the place was packed. I approached the bar to get a couple glasses of wine, throwing an elbow or two for prime positioning, and we set off to find seats, drinks in hand. The entire downstairs had already filled; Whit and I eventually improvised some seats on the floor of the balcony, our legs dangling freely above the crowd. Mildly besotted already from the afternoon’s vino, I wrapped an arm around a balcony rail and held my wine glass in the other, and I became suddenly aware of the possibility of dropping my glass on an surprised onlooker. I visualized myself being ripped from the balcony by my spindly legs, then dragged outside and assaulted with Spanish fists and salty language. I tightened my grip on my glass just as lights went down.

The emcee came to the stage to introduce the musicians to the audience. While my Spanish is generally sufficient to order entrees and find the nearest fire station, I had trouble understanding much of his introduction; the gist of it was that the musicians were students who came from longstanding flamenco families and who understood the music’s rich tradition. From the moment the trio (a singer, a guitarist, and a percussionist) took the stage, one thing was obvious: these were just kids. They couldn’t have been more than sixty-years old, combined. I braced for what might lie ahead.

Rather than grinding my teeth for the duration of the show, I listened intently, my mouth agape in amazement. These kids could really play! A guitar player myself, I couldn’t believe the sounds this young guitarist was coaxing out of his instrument. He colored the songs with left-handed flourishes up the fretboard and propelled them forward with rapid finger-picking and strumming with his right. The singer yowled with such passion and skill that he seemed to inhabit the words and melodies even as he shared them with a rapt crowd. They played for less than a half-hour, then left the stage to enthusiastic applause.

After the intermission they confidently took the stage again, now accompanied by a female dancer. Draped a bright, flowing, floor-length dress, she moved deftly across the stage for the entire second half, locked in with the rising and falling of the music. It was almost too much to take in one sitting. The music itself was overwhelming; the combination of music and dance brought tears to my eyes. To see these big-city university students performing cherished folk music, and performing it authentically and with humility and faith in the centuries-old tradition, was a moving testament to the flamenco’s enduring power.

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Can’t afford a luxury vacation? You can if you have 20 best friends…

Flashpackers, we like to have our cake and eat it too – adventure plus comfort. And if occasionally comfort ends up being more like luxury? Well, we’ll take if the price is right.

Villa Twilight in Puerto Vallarta, Sleeps 20 for $15k per week.

Villa Twilight in Puerto Vallarta, Sleeps 20 for $15,000 a week

One little-explored travel idea that puts luxury within the common man’s grasp is renting a villa. The catch is you need to find people to share it with.

Mexico is a fantastic destination for this type of trip. You can find stunning villas near the beach or in historical towns for around $100 per person per night – sometimes less! These villas often come with maid service, your own chef or other luxury amenities.


Some of my favorite villas are located in the historic town of San Miguel de Allende. The first one that caught my eye was Casa Chorro, which sleeps 14 for around $9,600 per week. Often times these villas would make an absolutely beautiful setting for a destination wedding.

Another option would be to look at Haciendas in central and Southern Mexico. There are some beautifully restored Haciendas that are almost like mini spa vacations with pools, horses, and tennis courts. Some of these options would also be fantastic for family reunions or family vacations.

If you’re willing to stay half an hour to an hour away from major tourist destinations and/or book your trip at off-peak times you can really catch a bargain. You can rent Hacienda Yunku, which is 45 minutes from Merida and the Uxmal ruins for a steal – 8 bedrooms for a mere $450 a night!

Of course, Mexico isn’t the only place to look. This villa is off the coast of Lisbon that sleeps 8 for around $8k a week!

The “Palace of Tile” was a wine-producing estate in years past, replete with period furniture and art, horses, gardens, etc., and quite ready to welcome Lord and Lady Flashpacker and their court…

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NY Times just cannot stop talking about Argentina

And maybe they’re right to keep the buzz going. Today’s article is specifically on Buenos Aires. I can say from experience that BA is fabulous, but do a lot of research before you get there – Sites are closed with no notice, hot spots migrate after about 30 secs of popularity, amazing hotels have zero signage, etc.

The NY Times article is a good resource (they also have a city guide) and they have some great web site recommendations for your research as well: – Amazing site for all things music, culture and art that are happening in the city

TangoSpam – Great blog from expats living in BA. Good info on milongas, which Ben recently wrote about as well…

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