Monthly Archives: April 2016

America on vacation guide

With its dramatic, rugged terrain such as the jagged spires of Torres del Paine or the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert, Chile is regularly crowned the adventure capital of South America. But it’s this country’s frequently overlooked cities that make the case for Chile as South America’s centre of cool.

Although these cities may not possess the historic, colonial charm of others around the continent, instead they promise dynamic nightlife, extreme sports and more bottles of award-winning wine and craft beer than you’ll know what to do with. Meet the cities that make Chile South America’s coolest country.

1. BOHEMIAN VIBES IN VALPARAÍSO

Few disagree that Valparaíso is the city that most oozes effortless, bohemian cool. A now infamous backpacker stop off, Valpo is a labyrinth of winding, graffitied streets, brightly painted buildings and rickety nineteenth-century ascensoresshuttling you into the city’s distinctive skyline of hills.

It’s in these cerros that Valpo’s real magic, and the chance to appreciate the creative, liberal leanings of its residents, are found. Cerro Bellavista’s sprawling walls of street art culminate in the Museo de Cielo Abierto (the Open Sky Museum): a poignant collection of murals defiantly proclaiming artistic freedom. Started in 1973, they were only completed in the early 1990s after the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Valpo’s excellent nightlife also secures this city as the trendiest spot on the Chilean backpacking trail. Dancing until dawn is guaranteed in the student-favourite super club El Huevo, while the seafront La Piedra Feliz bundles every type of live music into four rooms. For a more relaxed evening, Casa Cervecera Altamira offers refreshing craft cerveza and mellow jazz in a cosy setting.

2. DANCING IN DELICIOUS SANTIAGO

An oft-ignored Latin American capital, Santiago has a surprisingly varied live music scene and excellent restaurants. Santiaguinos certainly see themselves as more on trend than the rest of the country, and this modern city is quick to prove its cool credentials.

While foreign crowds are normally drawn to bars such as Latin-inspired Maestra Vida in central Barrio Bellavista, heading a little further from the city centre is where you’ll find a refreshing display of Chileans’ eclectic musical tastes.

Discover the latest local bands at popular rock club Batuta in Plaza Ñuñoa, or stumble upon the truly underrated of Santiago music: Club de Jazz. Once located in nearby Ñuñoa, where legends such as Louis Armstrong and Elvin Jones topped the bill, nowadays you’ll find the Club de Jazz set in the glorious old colonial building of La Fabbrica restaurant in La Reina.

Santiaguinos also know a thing or two about fine-dining. Follow the crowds to the up-and-coming restaurants in trendy Lastarria neighbourhood; pair pisco with dishes from Chipe Libre, or sample the country’s extensive wine tradition without even leaving your chair by putting yourself into the expert hands of Boca Nariz.

3. COASTAL COOL IN IQUIQUE

While the northern stretch of Chilean coastline is typically neglected by visitors, Iquique is an oasis of cool in the undulating sand dunes of the region. It’s an under-appreciated haven for sun worshippers, as well as those seeking to capitalize on the region’s wealth of extreme sports.

A recent addition to the global surfing circuit, Iquique is fast becoming a pro-surfer’s playground thanks to its epic, world-class waves. A short distance from the city, the 18ft swells of La Bestia and El Colegio bays keep wave junkies occupied.

For those with a less adventurous head, Playa Cavancha in downtown Iquique is a relaxed beach perfect for soaking up rays or sipping the nation’s favourite cocktail – the pisco sour.

Adventure fanatics can get their fill by heading to the top of the looming Cerro Dragon sand dune that overlooks the city. Sandboarding tours skim down steep, golden hills, while paragliding allows you to soar though the Iquique skies and out towards the Pacific.

4. PARTYING IN PUCÓN

Further south, Pucón blends lazy afternoons and high-adrenaline activities, making it a small but perfectly formed hangout. Each summer, thousands of backpackers and Chileans alike flock here for back-to-back parties in the bars along the main thoroughfare, Avenida O’Higgins, while the black lava beaches of the town’s lake, La Poza become an excellent spot for sweating out the previous night’s excesses.

But it is the instantly visible bulk of Volcán Villarica that has established Pucón as one of Chile’s most unmissable cities. Climb this active volcano during the summer months (spurting lava included if you’re lucky) or don your coolest ski gear and hit its slopes when fresh snowfall crowns its peak.

Tibet travel guide tips

The ‘roof of the world’ has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers and adventurers for centuries. This vast, high altitude desert has spawned myths and legends since the dawn of time. Its mountains are home to the Hindu Gods, the scenery is awe-inspiring, its Buddhist monasteries are filled with art and treasure and the religious devotion of its people is humbling.

Put simply, visiting Tibet is a travel experience you will remember forever. But it’s not one that comes without obstacles and moral dilemmas. Read on for our how to guide to explore Tibet.

WHAT ARE THE POLITICS?

Tibet has always had a complicated, and often down-right fraught relationship with its massive neighbour China, and over the centuries the level of Chinese involvement in Tibet has varied. At times it has been consumed by the Chinese empire, at others Tibet has been completely independent, and on occasion it has been the dominant power over China. Since the 1950s, though, Tibet has been controlled by Beijing.

For some this has felt like liberation from a feudal system where power and wealth rested in the hands of a few and everyone else was uneducated and poor until the Chinese came along and brought modernisation, education and a degree of wealth to the high plateau.

On the other hand, it can also be seen as a military occupation by a brutal dictatorship where criticism and freedom of speech are not tolerated, religious, cultural and linguistic identity is suppressed and the mineral and hydrological wealth of Tibet is pumped out of the region and into the hands of Han Chinese. In reality there are elements of truth to both sides of the coin.

SO SHOULD I GO?

This is something that only you can answer. Any visit to Tibet will put money into the coffers of Beijing, but there is no major tourism boycott as happened in Myanmar. In fact, the exiled Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, actually suggests foreign tourists should visit in order to see for themselves the suffering ordinary Tibetans are living under.

If you do go though then use only a Tibetan tour company employing local staff and try to frequent locally owned guesthouses and hotels.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Tibet has a reputation among travellers as being a logistically very complicated place to visit and in some ways it is. But in other ways it’s an absolute breeze.

Firstly, let’s get this straight: Tibet is an organised tour only kind of place. Without exception you cannot travel here independently. You cannot travel around Tibet by public transport and you are not totally free to choose where you go and when. All visitors must be in possession of a travel permit. You cannot board a plane or train to Tibet without this permit (and you cannot travel to Tibet any other way) and this permit is only issued if you have booked an organised tour.

In order to get a Tibet travel permit you must submit a list of places that you wish to visit, and you cannot change your mind and add new places after the permit has been issued. Norwegian passport holders are completely forbidden from travelling in Tibet.

If this all sounds like a hassle then that’s because it is – it’s also a very expensive hassle, but on the flip side once you get to Tibet travelling around couldn’t be easier. You merely climb into your compulsory tour company jeep each morning and get driven to your next destination and hotel while your compulsory guide soothes any hiccups.

IS IT SAFE?

Yes, Tibet is very safe so long as you avoid any political discussions or events and protests. Altitude sickness, though, is a very real issue and almost every visitor suffers mild altitude sickness on arrival in Lhasa.

CAN I GO TREKKING?

People do trek in Tibet but this is no Nepal. Most of the better known treks are fairly short (2–4 days) and there are no Nepali-style tea houses. In general you need to be prepared to camp and be self-sufficient.

The big issue with trekking in Tibet is cost. The standard rules governing travel here continue to apply even when you’re trekking and this means that you must have a guide, and a tour agency jeep and driver throughout the duration of your trek. Of course the jeep and driver won’t actually be with you while you trek. They’ll be having a nice rest back in Lhasa – but you’ll still be paying a couple of hundred dollars a day for this non-service.

THE FIRST EVER ROUGH GUIDE TO INDIA

The travelling was, in retrospect, pretty tough. I stayed in cheap places most of the time and got around on local buses. Few of the destinations I researched were on the tourist map so I rarely encountered other travellers, which made the whole thing more intense but a lot more rewarding.

I’d head off on all manner of weird and wonderful detours, following pilgrims up sacred mountains, catching auto-rickshaws to be obscure villages to attend festivals, and accepting invitations by archaeologists to see newly discovered sites. There were times when it all felt like genuine exploration.

HOW DID YOU KEEP NOTES ALONG THE WAY?

I used a portable electronic typewriter (this was the pre-laptop era) and spent hours each evening bashing out notes on horrible pink airmail paper. I kept the pages in a ring binder file that never left my person.

Imagine how valuable that had become after two or three months of travel? I used to photocopy the pages periodically and post them home, but even so, I held on to those notes as if my life depended on them.

WHAT ARE YOUR FONDEST MEMORIES FROM CREATING/RESEARCHING THIS BOOK?

I could probably write another thousand-page book in answer to that one. But off the top of my head: crossing the Himalayas on the Manali-Leh road, which had not long opened, was a real adventure as the bus broke down and we got caught by an early snow fall in the middle of nowhere for three freezing nights (I pack a down jacket in the boot of my car on long journeys to this day).

Seeing the Golden Temple in Amritsar for the first time – the Taj understandably gets more attention but this building is no less ethereal. Hanging out on remote, empty beaches in Goa that within a decade would be booming resorts and full of people – lost forever.

And of course, the people I met and travelled with along the way. It’s a cliché to say so, buy they linger in the memory a long time and are what made those journeys wonderful.

DID YOU HAVE ANY SCARY MOMENTS?

In the winter of 1998, I walked to Zanskar, in the Indian Himalayas, on a frozen river. It was a month of heaven and hell. Terror potentially lurked around every corner in the form of crawls along narrow crusts of ice, or climbs without ropes up slippery cliffs overhanging open water, which would kill you in two minutes if you fell in.

The reward was an experience in a Himalayan region entirely cut off from the outside world and it was spectacular. Though in truth, it was probably no more dangerous than crossing any road in Delhi or Jaipur today!

WHAT WERE THE STRANGEST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO YOU ON YOUR TRIP?

I got conned by a Burmese junky in Bombay once. He told me he’d lost all his money after a motorcycle accident in which he had had to pay off a woman he’d injured. He strung me along for days, squeezing little donations from me in well-rehearsed routines, before I rumbled him.

He then took me, by way of an apology, on an insider’s tour of the underbelly of south Bombay that I’ll never forget. I crossed paths with him a few times after that on subsequent trips. He looked more emaciated each time and eventually disappeared, seemingly without trace. He told me his life story over coffee once – it was an epic riches-to-rags tale.

Another surreal experience was going to a party at the glamorous seaside palace of Kingfisher beer tycoon, Vijay Malia, in Goa. I wore flip-flops because I had nothing else and people were genuinely appalled.

I ended up there because The Rough Guide to Goa was a big deal: people whose restaurants were featured in it would erect giant roadside hoardings proclaiming “as recommended by Mr David Abram in the Rough Guide!!”. It was the nearest I’ll ever get to literary stardom and it was great while it lasted!

Rajasthan was the worst place in that respect, though. A glowing guidebook review in those pre-TripAdvisor days was enough to transform the fortunes of a business, and on one occasion I was literally pursued across the desert by a peloton of hotel owners in Jeeps, desperate for me to return to Jaisalmer and visit their places.

HOW HAS INDIA CHANGED SINCE YOUR FIRST RESEARCH TRIP?

Well, researching guidebooks is a whole different game. Back in the early 1990s, there were no reliable maps. You were literally discovering places – amazing ones too – which had never featured in any books and were virtually unknown to foreign travellers. Communications with home were a lot harder. When I first travelled to India the only word from loved ones was via poste restante – oh, the joy of picking up an airmail letter with your name on it in a grimy Indian post office!

Travel is a lot easier now, but some of the romance has been lost, for sure. It all looked so different then – before the economic liberalization of the 90s, signboards were all hand-painted and tarmac was in short supply.

Polyester was a novelty so in rural areas everyone wore hand-spun, hand-dyed cloth and traditional clothes. There were hardly any cars, but millions of Hero brand bicycles. Stepping off the plane truly felt like entering another dimension.

All about thanks giving travel

The only thing more challenging than an interminable turkey meal with a squabbling family? Getting there in the first place.

Thanksgiving may kick off the most wonderful time of year, but it’s also the least wonderful time of year for travel. According to the AAA (American Automobile Association), around 47 million Americans travel for Thanksgiving, making it one of the busiest seasons of the year.

In fact, entire films and songs have been dedicated to the famous Thanksgiving trek, often with an attempt to inject some levity, like the old favourite Planes, Trains & Automobiles, with Steve Martin and John Candy. Their dash across the country to get home for Thanksgiving is excruciating and hilarious, but the outcome is a happy one. With some savvy planning and following these tips, yours can be too.

DO BOOK IN ADVANCE

The early bird gets the cheapest airfare. Yes, there’s the possibility that prices will dip closer to the Thanksgiving holiday, but those flights will be at inopportune times (nothing’s worse than a 4am alarm) and/or arduously non-direct (multiple stops, long layovers).

So, if you’ve found the right date and time, and the price is right (or nearly so), buy it.

DON’T WRAP GIFTS

Bringing presents home for Thanksgiving? Don’t wrap them up prettily – you may have to open them while going through airport security. Instead, toss them into a gift bag, or wrap on arrival.

DO CONSIDER ALTERNATE DAYS

The easiest way to avoid the crowds? Travel when they’re not. The vast majority embark on their journey on the day before Thanksgiving, and the Sunday after. Be flexible and travel on Thanksgiving morning, and then return on Monday or Tuesday.

DON’T OVERLOOK THE TRAIN

Amtrak may be far less romantic than its handsome European counterparts, but during the Thanksgiving rush, who’s quibbling? Trains don’t get stuck in holiday car traffic – and you don’t get stuck behind the wheel.

Plus, Amtrak services 500 destinations across 46 states, is more environmentally friendly than driving, and offers unique little perks, like Quiet Cars, where you can coast in glorious silence, as the outdoor scenery flashes by.

On the way back, explore the scenery (and work off that third slice of pie) with the Trails & Rails program, where you can learn about the National Parks on your train route.

DO USE APPS

At peak Thanksgiving travel times, many of the country’s busiest roadways resemble parking lots. Plan ahead with apps like Waze, which shows traffic alerts and reporting from other drivers.

Navigate the airport with GateGuru, highlighting the best shops and amenities in airports, and FlightBoard, which essentially turns your iPhone into the airport Arrivals and Departures board.

And then there’s the weather, which is very finicky around Thanksgiving – stay updated with Weather Underground.

Finally: sign up for frequent flier status, even if you’re not. When the boarding crew needs to decide who to bump from a flight, frequent fliers are more often spared.

DON’T LEAVE YOUR PLANE SEATING TO CHANCE

That giddy joy you feel when you realize you have a row to yourself? Well, that won’t happen during Thanksgiving – flights are always packed. But, there are ways to ensure you get one of the best seats on the plane.

For starters, when you book, always select your seat. If your preferred seat isn’t available, pick one anyway. You can always change it later, and this way you have a seat assignment.

As for where to sit: seats over the wing usually offer a smoother ride. If you need to deplane quickly, sit toward the front, to the left of the plane. For leg room, pick an exit row.