Hidden National Parks of South America: Lencois Maranhenses

The Lencois Maranhenses National Park located in Maranhão state, in northeastern Brazil, is one of the most marvelous and unique places in the world! An area encompassing about 1000 square kilometers of white silky sands intercepted at regular intervals by endless cool oases of turquoise lakes will make an adventurer’s heart skip a beat!

Read on for 10 fun facts about this other-worldly National Park and how to combine it with other incredible destinations in Brazil!

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

1) Lencois Maranhenses National Park is a national park in northern Brazil’s state of Maranhão, in South America.

2) Lencois Maranhenses was formed over thousands of years, as the sand from riverbeds was deposited at the mouths of rivers and brought back to the continent by winds and sea currents.

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

3) Lencois Maranhenses National Park covers an area of 1550 square kilometers (600 square miles) and includes approximately 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) of coastline and stretches as far as 50 kilometers (31 miles) inland.

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

4) The best time to visit the park is roughly from May to September, when it’s sunny, yet the lagoons are still full.

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

5) Lencois Maranhenses National Park cannot be entered by any vehicle type except 4-wheel drives.

6) Visitors can explore the park via 4×4 vehicle or by doing a barefoot trek camping out under starry skies and swimming in the magic lagoons (we happily offer this trek- please contact us if interested).

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

7) The blue-green freshwater lagoons of Lencois Maranhenses National Park are formed by the 1194 to 1524 millimeters (47 to 60 inches) of rain that falls each year.

8) Lencois Maranhenses National Park sand dunes can reach heights of 40 meters (131 feet).

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

9) Lencois Maranhenses National Park became a national park in 1981.

10) Fisherman, during the wet season, fish in Lencois Maranhenses National Park, but work in agricultural sites during the dry season, when most of the lagoons have dried up.

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses can easily be combined with these other great destinations in Brazil:

Lencois Maranhenses

Lencois Maranhenses

Want to plan your next adventure to Lencois Maranhenses? Don’t see what you want? Contact us!

Your friendly Brazil expert,

Gretchen

Posted in Brazil, Family Travel, South America, Sustainable Tourism, Travel Advice, Trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South America’s Best Secret National Park

Welcome to Chapada Diamantina, the favorite national park you never knew you had! Chapada Diamantina is one of Brazil’s most glorious national parks, with plenty of options for hiking and trekking through gorgeous valleys, mountain plateaus, and enchanting caves. The landscapes of Chapada Diamantina are so varied, you can climb plateaus, hike through jungles, and swim in waterfalls all in one day! From snorkeling to kayaking, caving to diving, there are loads of activities to choose from.

Chapada Diamantina

Secret Waterfalls and Swimming Pools in Chapada Diamantina

We asked our South America Program Director, Gretchen, what her favorite destination was in Brazil and she responded without hesitation: Chapada Diamantina! Read on to learn 10 fun facts about Brazil’s “Lost World” and what you can plan to do there on your next adventure!

Brazil

Gretchen trekking in Chapada Diamantina

  • Chapada Diamantina National Park, created in 1985, is a 375.950 acre park located in Bahia, Brazil.
Chapada Diamantina

Chapada Diamantina

  • In Chapada Diamantina National Park there is a flooded cave called Poco Azul (or Blue Well). When explorers ventured into the cave they made a discovery of roughly 40 different animal species’ bones. Many of the bones were from species that are now extinct. One of the species of animals discovered in Poco Azul was a creature roughly the size of an elephant, called a Megatherium.
Chapada Diamantina

Poco Azul, Chapada Diamantina

  • The most popular swimming holes in Chapada Diamantina National Park include Sossego waterfall, Ribeirao do Meio rock slide, and Fumaca waterfall, once considered to be Brazil’s tallest waterfall until a later discovery in the Amazon took the record.
Chapada Diamantina

Quaint towns dot the limits of the park and offer excellent boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts

  • Chapada Diamantina is also referred to as Brazil’s ‘Lost World’, consisting of underground caves and water systems, red rock mesas, and canyons and caverns.
  • The highest point in Chapada Diamantina National Park is Pico do Barbado, at 6,680 feet. It is also the highest point in the state of Bahia.
Chapada Diamantina

Chapada Diamantina

  • Chapada’s best dive spots: Gruta da Pratinha – approximately 390 feet wide and from 4.5 to 7.5 feet deep. Descend by natural stairs into a crystal clear lake, Os Impossíveis – called the Impossibles for a difficult entrance but once in the crater shaped area at the bottom of a 100-foot pit with vertical walls, you’ll be rewarded with white stalagmites and access to various tunnels. The main Northwestern passage offers an unforgettable snorkeling experience, Poço de Milú – called the Enchanted Well, this pool is similar to the Poço Encantado but less restricted. Underwater passageways abound, Poço Encantado – this giant sunken pool is 120 feet deep but the water is so transparent the rocks and ancient tree trunks are visible on the bottom. When the sun is just right, light comes through a crevice and creates a blue reflection on the water. Access to this pond is highly controlled for environmental protection of its rare and delicate ecosystem.
Chapada Diamantina

Chapada Diamantina

  • The famous through-hike that traverses the National Park is called: The Pati Valley Trek.
  • Chapada Diamantina National Park does not have a great deal of infrastructure. It is difficult to reach interior portions by public transportation but it is a popular park for avid trekkers and adventurers. It is possible to camp in small caves for free.
Chapada Diamantina

Trek and swim to this incredible waterfall. Then enjoy a picnic lunch on the flat rocks in the sun

  • Protected mammal species that can be found in Chapada Diamantina National Park include the jaguar, giant armadillo, giant anteater, the cougar, and Barbara Brown’s titi.
  • Chapada Diamantina National Park has a great selection of accommodations and numerous restaurants and cantinas where you can sip Brazilian beer and trade stories with the locals and learn about the best climbing spots, swimming holes, and cave diving.
Chapada Diamantina

The historic town of Lencois is the jump off point for all adventures in Chapada Diamantina

Want to plan your next journey to Chapada Diamantina? Check out the following adventure:

6-Day Trekking the fantasy world of Chapada Diamantina

Have questions? Don’t see what you want? Contact us!

Your friendly Brazil expert,

Gretchen

Posted in Brazil, Family Travel, South America, Travel Advice, Trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

7 Ways to Get to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

When visiting Cusco and the Sacred Valley, there are multiple ways to travel to Machu Picchu. Below is list of our top 7 ways to arrive to the awe-inspiring citadel — from trains to less-traveled treks to the traditional Inca Trail Trek, we will get you there in your style!


#1) 5-Day Traditional Inca Trail

The legendary Inca Trail takes you through the diverse wilderness of the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, passing numerous Inca ruins on the magnificent stone highway before descending to the famed citadel of Machu Picchu. It starts in Cusco or Ollantaytambo and returns to Cusco with an overnight at a hotel in Aguas Calientes.

  • Set departures are on Sundays and Wednesdays.
  • Minimum two people.
  • Groups are limited to 12 people, but most groups are smaller than that.

Season: All year, except February, when the Inca Trail is closed; best season for trekking is April through October. Note that you may start your trek on any day of the week for a private trek. Check with us for availability! Now is the time to book your trek for 2018!

  • Starting at $1235 per person

Exploring the Machu Picchu Citadel


#2) 5-Day Salkantay Trek

From Cusco, we drive north across Antapampa into the Apurimac watershed. Mollepata is the starting point of our five day trek across the Cordillera Vilcabamba, past Mt. Humantay and Salkantay into the headwaters of the Santa Teresa valley. Hiking down this cloudforest area we ascend to the Pass of Paltallacta in whose vicinity we camp. Great views of Machu Picchu from a different perspective. Hike into the Aobamba Valley and arrive near the hydroelectric works, downriver from the citadel, board the train at the hydroelectric station, ride to Aguas Calientes where we will spend the night. Next morning we will visit Machu Picchu ruins before heading back to Cusco.

  • Group departures are on Sundays

This trek is a good alternative to the Inca Trail when permits are sold out!

  • Starting at $1135 USD per person
Machu Picchu

The mist lifted as we arrived in Machu Picchu!


#3) 2-Day Inca Trail Express

This is an outstanding mini-trip for those wanting “a taste” of the Inca Trail, but either lack the time or energy for the full 4- or 5-day Inca Trail. There is one day of hiking; second day is at Machu Picchu.

NEW FOR 2018! We are offering a set departure on Thursdays for the 2-day Inca Trail Express, with a special group price. Minimum for group is 2 people.

You will need Inca Trail permits for this trek. NOW is the time to book for 2018!

This private trek is available for any day of the week. Set departure groups start on Thursdays.

  • Starting at $625 per person
Sacred Valley

Wind your way through the glorious Sacred Valley on your train to Machu Picchu


#4) 2-Day Vistadome Train

This is the ideal and least rushed way to see Machu Picchu! You will enjoy the train ride to Aguas Calientes. Check in to your hotel and wander around the village and its outdoor market, hot springs baths and local museum. Stay overnight in Aguas Calientes. On the second day, be ready to meet your guide early in the morning, for the shuttle, entrance and guided tour of Machu Picchu (before the crowds arrive). Option to climb Huayna Picchu at 7 or 10 a.m. After lunch, you have the afternoon to explore the ruins further, or hike to Inti Punku. Return to Aguas Calientes and catch the late afternoon train back to Cusco/Poroy.

  • Starting at $450 per person
Salkantay

Views from the Salkantay Lodge to Lodge Trail


#5) 7-Day Luxury Lodge to Lodge Salkantay Trek

A physical challenge worth every ounce of effort! Like Inca royalty, experience the Salkantay Lodge to Lodge Trek to Machu Picchu in style. Each day’s impressive trek ends with a hot shower in a cozy lodge, complemented by a massage or a dip in an outdoor jacuzzi, followed by a gourmet Peruvian meal with select wines and all provided with highly personalized service by local staff.

Accompanied by expert Peruvian mountain guides and horse packing crew, this 7-day trekking adventure traverses 15 separate ecosystems along a spectacular ancient Inca Trail route in the heart of the Cordillera Vilcabamba. Pass towering snow-capped peaks dominated by Mt. Salkantay, explore villages where locals still maintain age-old traditions and re-discover the mystical beauty of Machu Picchu, the crown jewel of the Inca Empire.

This route is an even more spectacular high Andean trek than the popular Inca Trail Trek and the last day passes over a protected remnant of another Inca Trail and ancient Inca city hidden in the cloud forest near Machu Picchu. Small groups of no more than twelve trekkers ensure an intimate experience amidst stunning mountain scenery.

PLEASE NOTE: This trek is with a group of 12 people maximum. Private departures or a private guide may be available upon request.

  • Starting at $3885 per person
Lares

Incredible vistas from the lodge to lodge Lares Trek


#6) 5-Day Luxury Lodge to Lodge Lares Trek

Choose your own adventure on the Luxury Lodge to Lodge Lares Adventure! This 5 or 7 day hiking and cultural experience is excellent for groups of diverse interests and abilities. Your incredbile journey will lead you through the rich history, living culture and magnificent landscape of Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas and end at Machu Picchu, the crown jewel of the Inca Empire. At each day’s sunset, settle into deluxe mountain lodges run in partnership with local communities, to prepare for a new day of multi-activity adventure and exploration.

Majestic archaeological sites lead to remote and uncrowded trails taking travelers through mountains and valleys, abounding in natural beauty and dotted with Andean communities, where the locals are master weavers and their traditions are still firmly rooted in ancient Incan culture. Expert guides tailor the experience with an offer of a la carte daily activities (easy to challenging hiking or mountain biking) and cultural encounters. Decide on whim, what you feel like doing each day and make this trek your own!

PLEASE NOTE: This itinerary is with a group of 32 people maximum. Private departures or private guides may be available upon request. Closed in January and February.

  • Starting at: $2935 per person

Discover less-known Incan Ruins site along this trek to Machu Picchu


#7) 5-Day Sacred Valley Trek and Inca Trail Express to Machu Picchu

This trek in the mountains above the Sacred Valley provides beautiful mountain views and insights into the traditional way of life for the local Inca-ancestral people. Three days of trekking in the Sacred Valley are capped by the 2-day Inca Trail Express.

On the slopes of Antapampa, north of Cusco lies the intriguing terracing complexes of Zurite, located near the village of Huarocondo. From here the trail winds slowly onto the high plateau with fantastic views of Mt. Salkantay and Veronica, to Ancascocha and down the Silgue Valley, ending at Camicancha. The fourth day includes taking the train to km 104 and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, arriving through the sun gate. Shuttle to Aguas Calientes and overnight in a hotel. The fifth day includes shuttle, entrance and a guided tour of Machu Picchu. You will return to Cusco on the train at the end of the day.

We can offer this now as a set departure trek, starting on Mondays.

  • Starting at: $1135 per person

LEARN MORE:

Want to book your next adventure to Machu Picchu? Contact us!

Your friendly Peru experts,

Gretchen and Barb

Posted in Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, Trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hiking In Torres del Paine Was An Amazing Experience!

This family of 9 just returned from hiking the W-trek in Torres del Paine, Chile. Read on to hear their account:

Base Torres

Base Torres

“We would highly recommend Gretchen and AWR to friends and others for their travel needs.

Our trip was great and memorable in many ways. Hiking in Torres Del Paine was an amazing experience. Food in restaurants in Punta Arenas was surprisingly good, and Hotel Ilaia in Punta Arenas was lovely. Having dolphins swimming next to our boat on our way to Isla Magdalena to see the penguins was such a treat. AWRs’s emergency contact was very quick in response to our situation of missed flights and worked with us to arrange the best possible solution. At Ecocamp, the hot water supply was great and the refugios were clean. We learned the true definitions of “Patagonia flat-trail”, “Patogonia weather”. There were some rainy and cold mornings but we were lucky to have a sunny day to hike the hardest trail to the base of the tower. There was snow on the top, so the last stretch up (about one hour) was very challenging. Luckily we had two very good guides from the Eco-camp, Vincent and Nicholas who guided us through the various challenges. We also spotted a puma! casually strolling along the main road inside the park. Food and accommodation were good. Thanks again for all your help. Patagonia is beautiful.”

Mirador del Toro

Mirador del Toro

Want to plan your next Patagonia adventure? Contact us!

Your friendly Patagonia expert,
Gretchen

Posted in Chile, Family Travel, Patagonia, South America, Sustainable Tourism, Travel Advice, Trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

10 Fun Brazil Coffee Facts & 3 Must-Visit Coffee Shops in Sao Paulo

After having spent the past few weekends among the sprawling coffee farms in the verdant Brazilian mountains of Minas Gerais State, our Brazil expert, Gretchen Traut, is here to share 10 fun facts about coffee in Brazil as well as her top three favorite coffee shops in Sao Paulo!

Minas Gerais

Sunset in the mountains of Minas Gerais

10 FUN BRAZIL COFFEE FACTS

  1. Brazil produces about 30 percent of the world’s coffee supply.
  2. Situated in the southeastern part of the country, Minas Gerais is Brazil’s largest coffee-producing state; with nearly 2.5 million acres planted, Minas Gerais accounts for about half of Brazil’s coffee harvest.
  3. With a 28 percent share, Brazil is the top supplier of coffee to the U.S.
  4. Eighty percent of coffee from Brazil is a variety known as Arabica.
  5. Small-scale coffee farming in Brazil gained traction in 1888 after the abolition of slavery and the introduction of favorable immigration rules; currently, seventy-one percent of coffee farms in Brazil cover LESS than 25 acres.
  6. Following a trip to neighboring French Guiana, Lt. Col. Francisco de Mello Palheta planted the first tree in Brazil in 1727 and by 1820, coffee had become the most exported product in Brazil.
  7. Coffee-growing elevations in Brazil range from about 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet.
  8. Brazilian coffee is known for its clear, sweet, medium-bodied, low-acid qualities.
  9. Brazil is the world’s second largest consumer of coffee.
  10. Some experts predict Brazil soon will oust the U.S. as the world’s largest coffee-consuming market.
Minas Gerais

Gretchen grinding coffee at Refugio Andradas in Minas Gerais

Minas Gerais

A rainbow over the Refugio Andradas Coffee Farm in Minas Gerais

 

TOP 3 COFFEE SHOPS IN SAO PAULO

  1. Isso e Café
  2. Cupping Cafe
  3. Coffee Lab
Minas Gerais

Hiking in Minas Gerais

Want to plan your next adventure to the coffee lands of Brazil? Contact us!

Your friendly Brazil expert,

Gretchen

Posted in Brazil, Family Travel, South America, Sustainable Tourism, Trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Best South America Travel Destinations for March and April

Thinking of booking a last-minute adventure this March or April? Check out our list of the best South America trips for inspiration for the next two months!

Torres del Paine

Domes at EcoCamp

1) 5-Day Patagonia: Torres del Paine W Trek with EcoCamp

This 5-Day/4-Night tour allows you to experience the best of Torres del Paine National Park!

The trip is ideal for travelers who enjoy trekking into the wilderness and spending nights in cozy domes while looking up at the austral skies! The domes at EcoCamp have comfortable beds, measure 140 ft, are energy efficient, and have beautiful local decor.

Group Departures: This trek departs every Sunday and there are still spaces available to join in late March, April and early May.

Pricing starting at: $1495 USD per person.

Laguna Los Tres

Laguna Los Tres

2) 7-Day Los Glaciares National Park: Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre Trek

From north to south, trek to the basecamps of Mt. Fitz Roy & Cerro Torre, camping at each and trekking to Paso del Viento with views of the second largest icecap outside the polar regions! Experience classic Argentine Patagonia landscapes – steep granite spires towering over vast glaciers, cerulean lakes, rivers and forests.

–Season: October to March

–5 days backpacking trek, 7 days total

–Difficulty: Intermediate – Must be physically fit; 6-8 hours trekking/day

–Requires backpacking experience (carrying 40-45 lbs/18-20 kgs backpack; sections of steep trail and scree, river crossings by zip-line and/or wading)

–Group size: 4 to 8 guests

DEPARTURE DATES  STILL OPEN FOR 2018:

–Mar 25-31

Pricing starting at: $1395 USD per person.

Inca Trail

Machu Picchu

3) 5-Day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

From Cusco, we drive north across Antapampa into the Apurimac watershed. Mollepata is the starting point of our five day trek across the Cordillera Vilcabamba, past Mt. Humantay and Salkantay into the headwaters of the Santa Teresa valley. Hiking down this cloudforest area we ascend to the Pass of Paltallacta in whose vicinity we camp. Great views of Machu Picchu from a different perspective. Hike into the Aobamba Valley and arrive near the hydroelectric works, downriver from the citadel, board the train at the hydroelectric station, ride to Aguas Calientes where we will spend the night. Next morning we will visit Machu Picchu ruins before heading back to Cusco.

This trek is a good alternative to the Inca Trail when permits are sold out!

Set departures are on Sundays.

Pricing starting at: $1135 USD per person.

Salta

Salta Trekking to the Clouds

4) 4-Day Northwest Argentina: Trekking to the Clouds

This trek begins at the foot of Cerro El Golgota in Ingeniero Maury and ends four days later in Quebrada de San Lorenzo, right next to Salta city. Explore an old Inca trail amid landscapes of great contrasts. The first part of the tour takes place in a dry and arid climate. During the final segment we will enter the rainforests of Salta’s Yunga. Along the route, we will be in contact with nature and the culture of a special area of Salta.

Starting at the Quebrada del Toro, our first ascent will be surrounded by cardones (giant cacti) and will reveal the snowy peaks of Cerro San Miguel and Acay. The trail leads to the archaeological site of “Sillon del Inca” (Inca Seat), ruins that once belonged to the southern part of the Inca empire. We will continue the trip visiting the local inhabitants of the area, who work the fields and breed livestock over in villages over 3,000 meters high. Camp sites and dinners will be the time to share moments with the group and sometimes with locals when we camp near their homes at night.

GROUP DEPARTURE DATES 2018:

–April 28**

–May 26**

–June 23

–August 25**

–September 22**

–October 27

–November 24

*New Moon

**Full Moon

Pricing starting at: $590 USD per person.

Want to book one of these exciting adventures? Contact us!

Your friendly South America expert,

Gretchen

Posted in Argentina, Chile, Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Peru, South America, Trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Physical Preparation For The Inca Trail (and other treks in Peru)

Getting ready for the Inca Trail? Here are a few FAQs that we receive from travelers about ways to prepare your self at home, in the US and in Cusco before heading off on the trail:

Inca Trail to Machu PicchuInca Trail to Machu Picchu

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

1. What is the best general way to prepare for trekking the Inca Trail?

We recommend doing stairs to get ready. Try to find a place where you live, or the stair-stepper at the gym, where there are many flights of stairs in a row and practice going up and down those to get in the best shape for the Inca Trail. You do not have run the stairs, you just need the endurance. You can even practice with a weighted back pack (you can put water bottles in your pack for weight) and go up and down with that for extra endurance training.

2. Is there anywhere in the US where one can go to practice hiking at altitude?

The best places in the US to acclimate, or practice hiking in high altitude areas are in Colorado- there are numerous 14K ft peaks there that are non-technical to practice on. However, we believe that the most important thing with training is just making sure that you are in good overall physical shape. The hardest part of the Inca Trail for most people (our AWR team included) is the downhill portions. Your feet and knees get tired so it is good to train your self, once again, going up and down stairs, or doing hikes near by where you live that will stimulate this. For altitude, the most important thing is not trying to push yourself too fast (slow and steady always wins the race in altitude) and DRINK LOTS OF WATER- hydration is so important.

3. Do you have a recommended local hikes or excursions while staying in Cusco to see local sites and promote acclimatization?

In Cusco, one of the main tourist attractions is the ruin sites just outside the city. The Sacsayhuaman Ruins are the closest. All the ruins require a tourist ticket to enter and most require transport to get to. However, for Sacsayhuaman, you can take a hiking trail from Cusco to get to the entrance of these ruins and you can get to a vista point overlooking all of Cusco for free. This is an excellent walk/hike to get ready for the trail. Remember to take it slow and do not get discouraged if you run out of breath quickly; take your time, enjoy the hike and enjoy the view! 🙂

Want to book your Inca Trail adventure? Contact us!

Your friendly Peru expert,
Gretchen

Posted in Family Travel, Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, Trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The most anticipated restaurant in Peru is ready to open in Moray, Cusco

For those of you foodies out there, mark your calendars for the opening of the newest and most exciting haute cuisine restaurant in Peru yet!

Moray

Moray archeological site

Joined by Peru’s top chefs, Virgilio Martinez (owner and chef of Central) will be inaugurating this Februrary 27th one of the most anticipated restaurants in the Peruvian Andes – Mil. The new restaurant is located next to the archaeological site of Moray outside of the city of Cusco.

From its valley location amidst mountains, lakes, and ravines, Mil will bring the Andean landscapes and community traditions together on diners’ plates. Guests will discover and enjoy delicious food created together with the region’s local communities, Kacllaraccay and Mullakas Misminay. The objective of every dish on the menu is to highlight the region’s diversity and local products as well as to tell the story behind each of them and the hard work of the people involved in their existence.

The price per person is about US$ 145.00. For more information about reservations, please contact us. It’s important to note that in the beginning, Mil will only accept 20 diners at a time and by reservation only.

Your friendly South America expert,

Gretchen

Posted in Luxury, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Traveler Advice for Southeast Asia

Travel Advice Southeast Asia

We thought you might enjoy these 29 tips for traveling in Southeast Asia from one of our experienced travelers!

Having been to Southeast Asia four times now, I have a smidgen of experience on which to base the following travel tips and observations. However, I have to offer a major caveat: I’ve indulged myself rather a bit and have skewed toward the higher end of the luxury scale, and have not ever gone the backpack / hostel route. So I’ve undoubtedly missed many things, and some of my points below are in the mode of a pampered American who’s wondering why the local cable TV doesn’t carry English-language shows.

1) I’ve been to SE Asia in May, October, and December, and I haven’t had major problems with the weather. However, I live in Texas, and so I’m somewhat acclimated to heat and humidity. Caught a bit of rain in Laos in this most recent trip in early December, but nothing major. However, friends of mine who subsequently went onwards into Northern Vietnam later in the month encountered a LOT of rain.

2) It’s probably best to travel with some sun screen and bug repellent, but honestly, I’ve never had occasion to use either.

3) Don’t forget to bring an electrical adapter with multiple settings!

4) Never hurts to bring a couple of precautionary doses of Imodium AD or Pepto Bismol.

5) If you’re staying in a hotel, it may have a safe in your room. Don’t be afraid to use it. I generally do not wander around with my passport on my person. Some hotels will actually require that they hold it for you.

6) Usually, there is no need to take your room key with you.  You can leave it at the front desk when going out, although be advised that the staff seems surprisingly casual about handing it back over with no I.D. check.

Waterfalls in Southeast Asia7) Plan ahead on how to manage changes of outfit. If taking the hotel route, do NOT be shy in using their laundry services. The prices range from roughly a dollar an item to maybe three bucks for larger pieces. However, there’s usually a 50% surcharge for express service. At any rate, you should count on your clothing getting pretty sweaty. You can also end up caked with dust or mud, depending on how trekking-happy you might be, or soaked from rafting or wading through creeks. Hostel types can usually find a retail laundry service nearby. Bring a large plastic bag with you so you can cram your soiled clothing in it and stow that in your luggage if you have no chance to get anything laundered for a while.

8) I’ve gotten by for the most part with just bringing the one pair of shoes on my feet, but if you intend to be fording rivers or careening about on rafts, you might want to bring a pair of sandals.

9) If you intend to go inside certain temples or pagodas, be sure to have at least one outfit that will get you pretty covered up from head to toe. A collared shirt (short sleeves okay) and slacks for guys, and for women, something that keeps legs and cleavage and midriffs concealed. Apparel like this may also be required for some museums. Take your hat off when visiting places with this type of dress code.

10) Depending upon your budget and particular needs, you might not need to ever use local currency. I’ve mostly gotten by with U.S. dollars, credit cards, and charging things to my hotel room (to be covered by my card). This is very likely not optimal, though, so you should swap over to kip or dong or baht or whatever as necessary. Some hotels have a money changing desk, but you’ll probably want to use the foreign exchange kiosks in your arrival and departure airports if traveling by air. Money changing storefronts can also generally be found pretty easily in your tourist-heavy districts. Very important: if you intend to use tuk-tuks or taxis a lot, or the bus, HAVE LOCAL CURRENCY. Finding out in the middle of the night in Seoul when you’re being dropped off at some place way far from your hotel that you do NOT, in fact, have enough won with you is not a great outcome. This may have happened to me once.

11) Convenience-type stores (including 7-11 outlets) are pretty common, although you’ll need either local currency or have to make a credit card purchase for a certain minimum amount. These places will generally carry drinks, crackers and chips (for which very few of the latter are in typical Western flavors), noodles, and such. Some toiletries and drugstore-type articles. Very little in the way of dairy.

12) Finding English-speakers is fairly easy, but don’t count on it! They will abound in standard tourist districts (such as the Old Quarter in Hanoi), but it can be hit and miss otherwise. Don’t count on finding them! And at least learn how to say hello and thank you in the local language.

13) If you are going to wander afar from your home base, be sure you actually remember the name and address of your hotel or hostel, and that ideally you have a map with you so you can retrace your steps. Even so, you should probably get someone at the front desk to write down that stuff in the local language on a scrap of paper for you. This will make return trips easier. A lot of cab drivers don’t speak English, so slowly and loudly telling them “No, the Hotel UPPER CLASS TWITTINGTON. Upper Class! Twittington!” may not prove effective.

Markets in Southeast Asia14) Enjoy the markets, but be careful with your purchases of fish or meat or produce, of course, and you shouldn’t plan on bringing stuff like that back to the States with you. (I mean, if you’re planning on returning with some fresh Asian catfish filets with you, I’m not sure any of my advice is going to help you.) The U.S. Customs Service seems to take a dim view of this.

15) If you can get a visa in advance, DO IT. You’ll save yourself from having to stew in some bureaucratic line for an interminable time. The Landing Visa office in Saigon is the worst. You could end up trapped there for an hour or more. Also, keep in mind that you may have to pay your visa on arrival fee in American dollars, so have a few twenties handy. The fee will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 or $30.

16) Traveling by air? Use the luggage carts if you have a lot of stuff to wrangle as you try to hunt down a ticket counter or escape from baggage claim at the airport. They seem to be free in most places.

17) Lines. From time to time, you may need to board a bus or boat or plane. Sometimes, people will politely queue up in an orderly fashion and proceed in a calm and organized and fair manner. And by “sometimes”, I mean “none of the time”. Be prepared to fight your way through, or you’ll get run down.

18) Taking a lengthy trip by train or by bus? Or the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang? Be sure to bring some bottled water and snacks. And hope that you can be comfortable in your seat. A friend of mine noted that the seats on the bus from Luang Prabang to Hanoi were tilted at an exact angle so you couldn’t really sleep nor feel comfortable just sitting there. Note that you can get a small private compartment on the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with a reasonably comfy bed.

19) If in Chiang Mai, visit Elephant Nature Park, and plan to be there the whole day. Or maybe several! DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS, anywhere or in any fashion. They do not like it (they have to be savagely beaten as calves and trained into submission), and it is a practice that many are trying to abolish.

20) A lot of the chairs at the cafes and restaurants are made for smaller and less bloated builds. If you have to acknowledge that you are a hefty hunk of steaming junk and that like Missy Elliott you crush everything you land on, use them with extreme caution.

Eating in Southeast Asia21) I found that I liked both pumpkin and peanut-and-tamarind curries, and I hate everything.

22) If you want to buy art and/or handicrafts, you can find excellent stuff in Hanoi or in Hoi An, if you’re visiting Vietnam. Plenty of art galleries in the former (the good ones are not in the Old Quarter itself). Lots of lacquerware and paintings, plenty of wood or stone figurines and boxes and containers, many silk goods (wall hangings, place mats, table runners). Certainly there are many, many places to get general souvenirs (including gift shops in hotels or in airports), but be very careful and selective in your purchases of larger pieces, as you’ll see across a range of shops in any given city and even across several countries that a lot of items are extremely similar and I’m not sure that quite a few don’t just come from mass production factories in China or Korea. You can get some stuff shipped directly home, which I’ve done from Hanoi and Saigon, but be advised that a really large piece might have to go through some more formal import process, and you might have to pick it up from Customs at the international airport nearest to you. In Siem Reap in Cambodia, you can get some nice items at…uh…this place. I think it’s Artisans Angkor. There are also PLENTY of folks hawking souvenirs at Angkor Wat itself, and some of the rice paper prints are quite good. In Bangkok (and elsewhere in Thailand) you probably will want to pick up one or two talismans, which can be found in various locations, including sometimes being sold out the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot of a 7-11 along the road to Uthani Thai. For instance. Maybe read up in advance on the advisability of buying anything depicting Buddha? On my first trip, there were stern warnings in the Bangkok airport warning tourists that it’s disrespectful to buy Buddha-related tchotchkes, but on a subsequent trip my guide seemed to indicate that it’s not such a big deal.

23) Some places you stay at might have cable TV. Most often, none of the channels are in English. If they are, usually you’re getting CNN, HBO, and a range of Discovery-type outlets. Otherwise, lots of Thai soap operas and Korean dramas. I can recommend GUNMAN IN JOSEON (which actually *was* subtitled).

24) Your larger hotels will have a breakfast buffet, included in the cost of the stay. Generally, there will be various potato and rice and noodle dishes, perhaps an omelet station, maybe crepes or pancakes or French toast, lots of sliced bread and biscuits and rolls and mini-baguettes, cereals, yogurt (very popular in many places in SE Asia), perhaps a cheese platter, some sweet baked goods, and a whole lot of fruit, with pineapple and watermelon being staples. Not a lot of citrus or apples. Bananas come in pygmy form. Many other fruits, including pomelo and jackfruit, but you will be uniformly warned away from even trying to find the dreaded durian, the “stinky fruit” about which the locals will warn you that you’re not ready for it. Smaller hotels will have a fixed or limited breakfast menu. Always some fruit, rice, eggs, and bread, though. Fruit juices tend to be REAL fruit juices, and not laser-pumped with a super-saturation of concentrates and fructose and sugars.

25) If walking through the Old Quarter or around Angkor Wat, just become accustomed to automatically saying “No, thanks”, because there are many vendors eager to make sales and you will get hailed constantly.

Angkor Wat26) Yangon in Myanmar (was Rangoon in Burma) is a big city. For comparison, it has got a population of 5.2 million people, while both Saigon and Bangkok have 8.2 million. So it is VERY LARGE. It is quite modernized to Western standards with its own particular flair. Many of the old original colonial buildings downtown are being restored and re-purposed. Be sure to see the Shwedagon Pagoda!

27) You want pagodas, Bagan in Myanmar has them! So…many…pagodas. Literally dozens…hundreds? All sizes and shapes and ages and conditions. Very much worth a visit. Roam about! You may find the countryside much different from many other areas in SE Asia. Drier and scrubbier and thornier.

28) In Bangkok, take the canal tour. Look for large monitor lizards just relaxing on the banks or the porches of the houses that overhang the waters. Be advised that your pilot may find it imperative to ram the boat alongside every obstacle. Also, there’s a puppet show at the Baan Silapin Artist’s House that is quite entertaining. If you attend and are an individual of a portly build, you might find yourself gently mocked by the Monkey King. I’m not saying that happened to me. I’ve just heard about it, probably.

Canals in Southeast Asia

29) In certain parts of SE Asia, you might stand out as a curiosity to some of the residents of the places you’re visiting. If you are in the shape and size of a Happy Buddha or perhaps are hirsute, there are some (mainly the children) who will outright gawk at you. Some people will comment directly to you about your unusual appearance or come forward and poke and prod you. Women with blonde hair or very fair complexions may also draw some attention. Some people will want to take pictures with you.

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Cheers and Happy Carnaval!

Happy Carnaval! 2018 Carnaval in Brazil is happening now!

Carnaval

Feliz Carnaval! Happy Carnaval!

We thought we would share in the festivities by giving our readers a way to partake in the festivities right from home. This year for Carnaval, try your hand at making the national Brazilian drink: uma caipirinha!

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

According to historians, the caipirinha, as it is known nowadays, was invented by landowning farmers in the region of Piracicaba, interior of the State of São Paulo, during the 19th century, as a local drink for high standard events and parties, being a reflection of the strong sugar cane culture in the region.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

The caipirinha is the strongest national cocktail of Brazil and is imbibed in restaurants, bars, and many households throughout the country. Once almost unknown outside Brazil, the drink has become more popular and more widely available in recent years, in large part due to the rising availability of first-rate brands of cachaça outside Brazil.

How to make a Caipirinha:

Ingredients for a traditional caipirinha (there are many variations but you can never go wrong with the classic!):

  • 2-4 lime wedges (to taste)
  • 1-2 teaspoons sugar (to taste)
  • 1 cup of crushed or cubed ice
  • 5-2.5 oz. of cachaça (to taste)

1) Cut your limes into wedges and put them in the bottom of a stout whiskey glass.

2) Add the sugar on top of the limes in the glass and muddle together

3) Add the ice on top (crushed ice is best but cubes will work fine as well) and fill glass just below the brim with ice

4) Add the cachaca

5) Stir and enjoy

As they say in Brazil, Saude! Cheers!

Happy Carnaval everyone!

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Caipirinha

Cheers! Saude!

Your friendly Brazil expert,

Gretchen

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