8 Ways to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality

Whether it’s written down or just lurking somewhere in your subconscious, many travelers have a travel bucket list of sorts — a wish list of dream trips they absolutely must take in their lifetime. But even the most serious world travelers often find themselves taking more conventional vacations than those found on their bucket list.

hiker in canadian rockies

Maybe they go to Paris, but don’t make a side trip to the French Alps to watch the Tour de France blow by. Or they drive to Hana on Maui, but don’t climb Mauna Kea in time to see the sunrise from a dormant crater. Or they watch timelapses of the northern lights online, but never go to Iceland and stay up all night to see the real thing. So close, but so far.

If you have a travel bucket list and want to start checking things off it, here are some tactics to help you not just plan your dream trip but also make it a reality.

The most common roadblock to tackling a dream trip is that the time doesn’t seem right: Work is really intense at the moment, or you just started a home renovation, or you don’t have the energy to make it happen. Maybe next year…

These are all valid concerns, but it is critical to realize these issues will never quite go away. The truth is that what a lot of folks are looking for is not really the right time, but instead the perfect time. And that time will likely never come. Settle instead for a time that you can actually do something, even if you have to sacrifice other things. So instead of waiting for the perfect time, or even the right time, look for a possible time. And then make it happen.

Bucket List Travel: Tips, Inspiration and Ideas

Writing down your bucket list, more or less in the order in which you rank each destination, is a good way to make it just real enough that you can actually start doing something about it. Once it is written down, it is something you can use in a few different ways:

– As a guide for when you are poking around the internet, reading or goofing off. During TV commercials you can call up articles on your dream destinations instead of hitting refresh on Twitter again and again.

– To help you see if everything on the list stands up to repeated scrutiny; some items on the list might not seem as interesting after you have looked at them several times, and could fall off the list in favor of other ideas.

While you’re at it, you might also write down the reasons you can’t get started on your bucket list — all the excuses may seem like just that once they are written down. When you read “Don’t have time to plan” after spending an entire weekend binge-watching a TV series, you may realize you have more time than you thought, and at the next opportunity will put your time to work for your goals.

Sharing your bucket list with friends, family or even a dedicated site like BucketList.org can give you several things:

– Motivation: As with a lot of things, telling someone else you are going to do something often provides a bit of inspiration actually to do it. Humans are funny that way.

– A dose of reality: A bucket list is often reflective of our idealization of a place or trip, and not necessarily what it is really like to go there. When you share your list with folks who may already have bagged a few of your choices, you can get a sense of what a place is really like.

– Good and hardscrabble ideas: Putting your network of friends and family on the task of making your trip a reality offers you an instant team of schemers and thinkers who can bring any number of ideas to the table.

What’s on Your Bucket List? Readers Choose

Once you get a sense of where you might go and when you might pull it off, you will want to narrow down your choices to the trips you most want to take. Unless one destination rates well above and beyond the others, I recommend starting to research two or three of your top choices; trying to plan for 10 very different potential bucket list options is unreasonable, and picking only one could set you up for disappointment if the logistics turn out to be forbidding.

Focus first on practical things like what time of year you can get off work versus the best time of year to go there, how much time it takes really to do the destination justice and how much money you will need to pull it off.

Here’s an example: If the Galapagos Islands top your list, you will quickly face a few logistical choices. The period between December and May has the calmest seas and weather, but June through August sees more active wildlife. If those times don’t work for you, you need to know that in September (and into November) many boats are in dry dock, so your choices may be a bit more limited.

sea lion and woman in galapagos

On top of that, there are strict limits on how many people can be there at the same time, and all visitors must be accompanied by a certified guide. Clearly heading for the Galapagos is not a last-minute impulse trip, and this is the kind of information you might not know until you do some serious research into logistics.

More prosaically, you might decide that August is the best time for you to tackle some bucket list travel, but if you are headed to a part of Europe that more or less shuts down that month when everyone goes on vacation, your ideal trip filled with locals and long nights might not synch up so well with the facts on the ground.

Because you might have to go a couple of trips down your list before the logistics start lining up, research two or three to start.

IndependentTraveler.com Staff Share What’s on Their Bucket Lists

If there is something without which a trip to a specific location would not be complete, you pretty much have to do that one thing, irrespective of cost or logistics. Need to pay a guide? Sure. It requires a ride on a seaplane? Do it. Have to rent four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to a waterfall? Go for it. No one’s idea of bucket list travel includes sticking to the tourist overlooks, skipping more remote spots or driving around in a Hyundai Accent. All of this is the point of bucket list travel.

To do your dream trip right, you probably don’t want to plan a “36 Hours in…” job, charging around taking snapshots in front of all the stuff you researched. Give yourself time to let a place sink in and take on some meaning for you beyond simply checking off your list. You want this to be a truly memorable experience, not just an elaborate mileage run.

This is probably the most personal of issues, as everyone’s financial means are different and complex. The fallback “skip the latte and put the money in the bank” has become a dreaded cliche for good reason — and for most coffee drinkers, this is not a negotiable purchase anyway. If it is 1:30 p.m., you need coffee, you are not near a decent coffee maker and there is a Starbucks nearby, you are not going to choose caffeine withdrawal over saving three bucks.

The idea of saving on overpriced and non-essential purchases is the right one, but you want to take actual money and make it pile up, not just skip a coffee and hope you put that money to better use later. Here are a few tangible tactics that really work for most folks:

– Get a big container and put every spare cent (and bill) you have in it. The last time I cashed one of these in, it came to more than $1,100.

– Set up an automatic transfer into a dedicated travel banking account of X dollars per week or month, and don’t turn it off until you have enough money for your bucket list trip.

– Instead of just thinking about saving when you need coffee, set up constant reminders in your environment that will help you save money all the time. Put a picture of your chosen destination next to your home computer to keep you from spending money online, or use it as your phone screensaver. Set up a system of daily calendar or email reminders to keep you focused and on track.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

To keep your inspiration up, you can hire companies and read publications that are dedicated to helping people complete bucket list adventures. Check out the following sites:

BucketListly.com

BucketList.net

TripBucket.com

Inertia, fear, habit, laziness, procrastination, parsimony, excuses — none of us want to be accused of these things, but often they are the very things keeping us from the trip of our dreams. We hope the outline above will help you make your dream a reality.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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3 Secrets for Traveling Like a Local

Traveling like a local sounds simple enough but can be difficult to execute; certainly most independent travelers have had trips on which, no matter how far afield they ventured, they ended up surrounded by other folks from their own country. Or perhaps they found themselves unable to discover where the “real” locals go, and ended up somewhat neither here nor there — an eternal outsider.

man in night market

How does one find the secret entrances to a truly local, indigenous experience? It turns out that there are great opportunities to travel like a local via both tour operators and self-booked avenues, and sometimes through a mix of the two.

In response to the growing demand for authentic “insider” tours that are not forced marches amidst swarms of folks from the same country, a number of tour guide services offering a more intimate and unique “guided experience” have cropped up. A couple of well-reviewed services worth checking out are ToursByLocals.com and Vayable.com. Both will take you on hikes up to volcanoes and down to waterfalls in Hawaii, on bike tours in London and much more.

Poring over the ToursByLocals site, I discovered that your guide is emphasized nearly as much as the excursion he or she will be leading. In bigger cities where numerous guides are available, you can pre-determine the spirit and emphasis of your tour by the guides’ own descriptions of their background and tour type. Prefer a taxi driver with an encyclopedic knowledge of London? Try Lee C. Prefer a “Blue Badge Tourist Guide” with an interest in history? Try Dawn B.

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals

Vayable approaches tour selection a bit differently, emphasizing the topic or sights of the tour a little more — although when you click down to a specific offering, there is a lot of information about the person who will be giving the tour and how they tend to conduct things, whether with seriousness, humor, energy, etc. Vayable’s more upscale presentation doesn’t mean they are no fun — for example, one London tour focuses on how art meets function in the form of notable loos.

Lodging site Airbnb also recently jumped into the tour space with its new Experiences product. The offerings are a bit limited so far, but they sound fascinating — think learning the art of ancient pottery in Tokyo or exploring Havana’s music scene with a local singer.

ShowAround.com is a portal where you can choose a local guide in a particular city for a certain hourly rate. Eliana, a 21-year-old hotel receptionist, will show you around Lisbon for $6/hour, while a local guy named Tom offers free tours of Sydney’s Bondi Beach area. Many of the guides on the site don’t have any reviews yet, so you might need to trust your gut a bit. We recommend sending a message to guides you’re interested in to establish whether they seem like a good fit.

VRBO, Airbnb, HomeAway and other vacation rental sites offer interesting opportunities to travel like a local, as by nature you end up staying in neighborhoods where other people actually live instead of cloistered away in hotels in commercial/tourist districts. Then again, many vacation rentals are clustered among other vacation rental houses, so you can end up in a bit of a “tourist ghetto” even when living in an ordinary rancher that no one would ever think was a tourist hangout.

The Ultimate Vacation Rental Guide

An admittedly riskier approach in terms of quality (and at times safety), joining the couchsurfing revolution is an extremely promising way to approach total immersion in a culture, as you not only hang out with locals, but you also sleep in their spare beds, on their couches, on their floors, all while they are still living there. Couchsurfing.com is the leading site for this practice, which, if the sheer abundance of options is any indication, is a huge and growing travel tactic.

A search on the site for a place to stay in Seattle, for example, brings back more than 23,000 hosts — wow.

The site also hosts local events, such as meetups in bars or restaurants. As you might expect just based on the site name, the users tend to skew young and a bit adventurous, though not weird or spooky in any way — that is, it doesn’t seem to have turned into a website for drifters. When you are talking about 23,000 options in a single town alone, stereotypes tend to falter pretty quickly.

To learn more, check out this interview with a couchsurfing host.

woman sleeping on couch

Another option is Airbnb, which we have written about in the past (see Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals and 7 Airbnb Problems and How to Solve Them). You could consider Airbnb a hybrid of a vacation rental and couchsurfing site, as the site lists both very upscale vacation homes and “sleep in someone’s spare bedroom” options.

Finally, Homestay.com lets you book a night or two in local spare bedrooms; check out our interview with the Homestay.com CEO.

10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad

Often the best way to gain access into the local culture is to invite people into your own personal cultural experience, based on your own interests and passions. This has been my go-to approach over time. Below are some examples of how I got this to work for me; all you have to do is plug in your own interests, figure out where and how to make a first contact, and you are on your way. A few have to do with my own long association with rowing, which has led me to many unique experiences.

– While trying to visit a (now defunct) rowing club in Hawaii, standing around the locked boathouse looking at outrigger canoes led to a day’s wave-riding session in outrigger canoes with a local semi-pro wave rider.

– While visiting a friend at a boathouse in Spain, I asked about local surfing, and he shouted out to some amigos that I liked to surf; within hours we were all enjoying the famous break at Mundaka.

– A small guitar stuffed into the back of a rental car in Punta Arenas, Venezuela, led to a local asking to play it, and subsequently to an invite to a massive locals-only gymnasium party.

– A fairly serious interest in photography can open heaps of doors; taking decent photos of local folks and kids and then showing them the photos has led to countless fruitful introductions for me.

– Even something as simple as taking your children to playgrounds instead of expensive theme parks can offer tremendous opportunities to meet local folks.

With all of these, the rule is that when you’re willing to show and share a little bit of yourself, of how you like to live your own life, many people become much more interested in sharing with you how they live their lives. You can’t walk around with your metaphorical arms folded and expect to be welcomed with open arms. Give a little, get a little — or sometimes a lot.

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Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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How Annual Travel Insurance Could Save You Money

For folks who travel frequently over a long period of time, no litany of travel mishaps and inconveniences can do justice to the vagaries of actual life on the road. If you aren’t getting yourself in a bit of a jam once in a while, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

Sound familiar? You might be a perfect candidate for a neglected travel product: annual travel insurance.

happy couple on beach

Not many people even know about it, but annual travel insurance is an economical, convenient and common-sense option for people who travel multiple times a year. Instead of purchasing separate policies for each trip, you purchase a single annual policy that covers any travel you do in a given year.

As you would guess, annual trip insurance is primarily useful to folks who travel a fair amount, but the threshold is lower than you might think. Most travel insurance companies say that you will start to see savings and benefits if you insure three or more trips per year.

It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling for pleasure or business; all trips are covered — although if your company is paying for the insurance, you might want to get approval to use the policy while on leisure trips.

Most travel insurance companies have tiered plans for annual insurance. In the simplest terms, here is what you will typically find:

– A basic plan that includes medical coverage and evacuation, reimbursement for expenses associated with unexpected travel delays (meals, lodging, etc.), rental car insurance and perhaps baggage coverage

– A mid-tier plan for frequent travelers that adds in a limited amount of trip cancellation and interruption coverage

– A top-end plan tailored mostly to business travelers, with the most comprehensive coverage, including high coverage limits

Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know

Even if you are a frequent traveler for whom multi-trip travel insurance seems to make sense, this outline of the pros and cons of annual travel insurance may help inform your decision.

Pros:

– Convenience: Buying travel insurance is just another hassle of the trip planning process, and having to do it only once per year may appeal to many travelers.

– Consistency of coverage: Knowing you have the same coverage for all trips can make the process of buying insurance and filing claims less confusing.

– Corollary to both of the above: You only have to read the fine print once.

– For folks who often book last-minute trips, having an annual plan already in place can be helpful.

– There is typically a cost savings when purchasing annual insurance versus individual trip plans.

– Travel emergency coverage is in place even for trips for which you might not normally purchase extensive insurance.

– This is also the case with medical and dental coverage; having a year-long policy that will cover unexpected problems on all trips offers convenience and peace of mind.

– For folks who travel with a lot of stuff (laptops, phones, cameras, etc.), travel insurance adds an important layer of protection.

– Some plans may include children under 17 for free (this is often the case with single-trip insurance as well).

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Cons:

– The consistency of coverage can be a negative if your travel is varied in type and destination; your insurance needs for a weekend trip to Disney are different from those on a two-week safari, for example.

– Because costs can vary so greatly by trip, trip cancellation coverage may be limited or not included in the most economical annual plans.

– If you run into problems on more than one trip, you might start to run up against policy pay-out limits.

– A common complaint with travel insurance is that it can be difficult to know what is covered, and this remains the case with annual insurance.

– There are limits to all elements of your coverage, so if you are traveling with expensive equipment, you will want to be aware of any caps.

man holding dslr camera while traveling

Single-trip insurance typically costs anywhere from 3 to 10 percent of the upfront trip cost. Pricing varies depending on your age and where you live. As a test I used my own information and found the following: To insure a single $2,500 trip with Allianz Global Assistance, plans range from $80 for the basic plan up to $130 for the company’s top product for a single domestic trip. The range for a similarly priced international trip was $96 to $176.

The corresponding annual packages cost from $125 annually for Allianz’s basic plan (which includes no trip cancellation or interruption coverage) to $459 annually for the executive plan; the mid-tier plan was $249 a year. These numbers show that you will break even after two to three trips, depending on the level of coverage you need.

Travel Guard offers the Travel Rite Annual Plan, which priced out at $267 for a 50-year-old from New Jersey, with a coverage bundle similar to the mid-tier plan from Allianz.

Seven Corners Wander Annual plan came in at $265 per year if coverage included trips within the U.S., and $195 if not (go figure); prices went up if any of your individual trips were over 30 days. Adding family members to your primary plan was economical, with a spouse and two children costing an additional $100 total for international trips.

Not all travel insurance companies offer annual insurance, and the cost and coverage components of annual plans vary by company. Here are several companies to consider:

AllianzTravelInsurance.com
HTHTravelInsurance.com
IMGlobal.com
SevenCorners.com
TravelexInsurance.com
TravelGuard.com
TravelInsure.com

To compare annual plans from a number of different companies, visit Squaremouth.com.

How to Be Safe and Culturally Sensitive When You Travel

Figuring out what is actually covered in any given plan can be a challenge. It’s important to read all the fine print before purchasing any policy.

Of the sites I visited, the Allianz site had the best way to figure out the best options, with a pretty slick webpage that switches back and forth to show you benefits by plan if you click the “Benefits” radio button, and detailed descriptions of what is covered if you click the “Covered Reasons” button.

The “Covered Reasons” are quite detailed. For example, all of Allianz’s packages cover the following: “Collision with Animal: A car you’re renting is damaged due to a collision with an animal while in an accident or while it’s left unattended.”

Figuring out what is not covered can be even trickier; when researching plans, check for exclusions, which can be considerable; this is from Allianz’s “General Exclusions” on annual insurance:

“In addition to any other exclusions that may apply to a particular benefit, no coverage is provided for any loss that results directly or indirectly from any of the following unless as specifically included: all extreme, high risk sports including but not limited to: bodily contact sports; skydiving; hang gliding, bungee jumping, parachuting; mountain climbing or any other high altitude activities, caving, heli-skiing, extreme skiing, or any skiing outside marked trails; existing medical conditions; intentional self-harm, suicide or attempted suicide; pregnancy (unless unforeseen complications or problems), fertility treatments, childbirth or elective abortion; mental or nervous health disorders, (like anxiety, depression, neurosis or psychosis); use or abuse of alcohol or drugs, or related physical complications; war (declared or undeclared), acts of war, military duty, civil disorder or unrest; participation in or training for any professional or amateur sporting competition; flying or learning to fly an aircraft as pilot or crew; nuclear reaction, radiation or radioactive contamination; natural disasters; epidemic or pandemic; air, water or other pollution or threat of pollutant release; unlawful acts; expected or reasonably foreseeable events or problems; financial default of a travel supplier; terrorist events; travel bulletins or alerts; and government prohibition or regulations.”

Yikes.

Trip cancellation in particular gets tricky; some insurance companies offer a “Cancel for any Reason” option if you are concerned about this, but for annual plans, that may have to be an add-on.

Many insurance companies sell cruise insurance as a separate product, but the offerings are pretty much the same. If you decide to purchase annual insurance, you might want to ask specifically about cruise coverage.

Many insurance companies permit you to purchase travel insurance until very close to your departure date, sometimes within days or hours. This can be helpful to the procrastinators and optimists among us.

Be careful, however, as an attempt to buy travel insurance to avoid problems due to a weather or other natural event that is already under way may not work; once something like this starts, only travelers who purchased their policies beforehand are typically covered. In addition, many insurers do not cover preexisting conditions, so if you have a medical problem before a trip and then buy insurance, you may not be covered for any travel issues related to that medical condition, depending on when it developed and the length of your policy’s lookback period.

This is the type of purchase where getting on the phone to discuss specific questions is well worth your time.

With five or six extended trips on my radar in the next 12 months, I may be considering annual insurance myself! What about you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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My Visit to Cuba As A Volunteer

My Visit to Cuba As A Volunteer

Author: Lynn Lotkowictz
Date of Trip: January 2017

In mid-January, I flew from Tampa to Havana on a trip that would introduce me to a country that has been off limits for me (and most Americans) for most of my life. I participated in a one-week service program in Cuba with Global Volunteers, a non-profit, NGO based in Minneapolis.

visiting a senior center in cuba

Along with 19 other volunteers ages 30-78, I spent a week on various work projects that included painting a fence at our base (The Cuban Council of Churches), spending time with seniors at a senior care center and working with students on English in an evening program. Another team did crocheting with a women’s group for part of the day.

Every afternoon we had a few hours of free time before working with students practicing English for about two hours. Later we all met for dinner, with our excellent team leader, Stephanie, at various locations. The trip was a combination of helping our host community and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom, had never been to Cuba.

Living with the Locals
We stayed in Miramar, a nice residential suburb of Havana near many of the city’s foreign embassies. All 20 volunteers stayed in guest houses within three or four blocks of each other. We were two blocks from the water and near our base at the Council where we met each morning around 9:00.

The joy of staying in a suburb is that you have the opportunity to observe people going to work and school and regularly interact with the locals. Put simply, it is a more authentic experience than staying in a hotel. You feel like a part of the community, particularly since you are there to help in some small way.

We walked throughout the area every day and night. I never felt nervous nor did we see anything that looked questionable. The only danger I encountered was the uneven sidewalks which like many of the buildings are in disrepair. Also in the evenings many streets did not have lights so we walked with caution and used flashlights when necessary.

Getting Connected
There is very little internet on the island. Missing connectivity, we asked our hosts about options. They told us there was an “Internet Park” about a twenty minute walk from my casa. There, they said, we could purchase a card from a mini mart or store, but we were told there are long lines and forms to fill out along with passport information. The alternative was to walk to a certain small park and connect with a young gentlemen and his pals who our hosts said would sell us a card for 5 cucs (approx $5.00 ) for one hour of internet. The card provides a password and username.

My three new Global Volunteer friends and I decided to visit the park. It was trashed with empty beer cans and bottles and many young people on their phones sitting on the ground. There was a group of men standing around that looked like possibly our connection.

We approached the young men, and they immediately offered each of us an internet card. With our $5. purchase complete we took a photo together with the “sellers” and then enjoyed the internet for about 30 minutes. (We kept the card for another day’s use.) Mission accomplished. As we walked back to our work site I wondered, would I even consider walking up to a stranger in, let’s say, Central Park or Chicago and purchasing an “off the grid” card with the hope it worked? And then take a photo with them? Probably not.

cuban classic car

Music, Art and Entertainment
If you choose to stay the weekend, you have the option of adding on the weekend package of people-to-people activities. Or you can make your own plans for the weekend. The Global Volunteers program includes a tour of the Ernest Hemingway House, art galleries, Old Havana and a morning lecture from two local professionals who discuss history, education and some politics. All and all it’s a great value that includes meals and accommodations.

My favorite weekend activity was the excellent quality live music everywhere day or night. Street entertainers, restaurants and bars and coffee shops all have talented solo or group performers. Artwork is plentiful and there is a wide variety of architecture including colonial, Spanish, Art Deco and contemporary.

Entrepreneurial Spirit
My students on two evenings were a young couple in their early 20s. Allen is an independent contractor at a tour company and is eager to learn English so he can better communicate with visitors. His wife Daniella takes care of the home. She knew some English and is eager to help him. We review his tour prices, look at what’s included and add some language to make the tours more appealing. We go over phrases such as, “Welcome to Havana, my name is Allen and I would love to show you my country. What is your name?

After some competitive analysis, we determine that he is competing with the fancy old American cars that all the tourists seem to love. Their hourly rate is $50 per hour. We work on an appropriate response. “Yes, those old American cars are beautiful, however, instead of $50 per hour you might want to consider my van at only $15 per hour.” Allen masters three or four sentences that we work on intensely for two nights. They are sure to enhance his business opportunities.

It’s a pleasure to see a 23-year-old happily married, entrepreneur with such enthusiasm and eagerness to succeed. When we finished the second night, he looked at me and said “God Bless you and thank you.” I was beginning to see how individuals can make a small but significant impact in a short time and, more importantly, understand these very warm and welcoming people.

In addition there are people who are operating and creating small businesses out of their homes or garages that are serving meals, coffee/beer and other small businesses like repair shops and such. Homes are renting out rooms to visitors for additional income. This is all new and Cubans seem very happy with new opportunities.

Yes, the streets, sidewalks and many buildings are in disrepair, run down and there is much need for improved infrastructure, painting, plumbing, electrical etc. Litter is an issue in some neighborhoods. For many, work is hard to find and salaries are low. Supplies of every kind are limited. Many of the local grocery store shelves are sparsely stocked.

selfie with kids

Looking Ahead
The refreshing thing is you sense the change that is coming. In a lively conversation with one of our casa owners, she described it like this. “It started like the snowball on top of the mountain, it’s rolling down and getting bigger and bigger and you cannot stop it.”

Tourists from all over world have been visiting Havana for years and now there are many American visitors. In Havana we saw a cruise ship, red double-decker tour buses and souvenir shops. Colorful flora and fauna are everywhere and a walk along the Malecon — a walkway along the sea wall — is the perfect place to people watch.

The city of three million is bursting with activity and a colorful history that people want to experience. It’s old, it’s new, it’s Spanish, European, modern, young and fun!

I only saw a small part of Cuba on this trip. But I’m sure I’ll return again to visit Varadero, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and other places on this fascinating island.

Lynn Lotkowictz
[email protected]

www.globalvolunteers.org

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12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel

Considering how precious vacation days are and how expensive travel can be, the urge to plan things out so you get the most from your travel time and dollar is almost irresistible. And it’s never been easier, considering the thousands of websites, apps and guidebooks full of travel information on just about every possible destination.

woman on bike

But something is lost when you can anticipate — nay, almost script — nearly every component of the travel experience. Not so long ago, the vagaries of travel were considered a normal and even welcome part of the experience; with daily life being so predictable, a good antidote was a wildly unpredictable trip to a faraway place.

To recover some of that wildness, many travelers are pulling back from “overplanning” and trying to craft a slightly more spontaneous trip — easier said than done for folks who are planners by nature. If you’re not sure where to start, I’d suggest thinking of spontaneous travel not so much as letting things happen to you, but more like “planning on the fly.” Have a general idea of what you want to do and see, plan out those things that you feel you just can’t leave to chance, and then improvise from there.

Below are 12 tips for having a more spontaneous trip.

If 80 percent of life is just showing up, then the most important things you need to plan are how to get where you want to be and a place to stay once you get there. If you choose a central location that has ready access to attractions and public transit, you are 80 percent of the way to a successful trip, even if you plan almost nothing else. With at least a few of the things you know you want to do nearby, once you tick those off you can wing it almost completely without feeling like you missed something important.

As I talked to folks about their most memorable spontaneous travel stories, a fair number involved scrapping a careful plan almost entirely, usually in favor of something impromptu. Of course, you’re less likely to change your plans if you’ve already dropped a couple hundred nonrefundable bucks on a hotel room. If possible, don’t keep yourself tethered to one spot for your whole trip. Unless it is peak season, most hotels can extend your reservation while you are still there — so book a shorter stay, and then if you decide not to move on, extend it. Booking a nonrefundable hotel for your first and last nights is less risky, since your flights are unlikely to change, but leave yourself a little more flexibility in between.

Turning your travels into a forced march from one attraction to the next can be grueling. It’s a vacation, not a whistlestop political campaign. If there are some things you absolutely must see, assign a time to get that done (early in the morning often works best), and let serendipity rule the rest of the day.

It’s hard to resist assigning at least one activity to every day, and then to start ticking them off once you arrive. We visited Berlin last week, and I admit that my thinking went a little bit like this: “Berlin … the Wall, Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the East Side Gallery, LEGOLAND for a kids’ outing, Potsdamer Platz … one or two per day, done.” As it went, we didn’t have the sightseeing stamina to go into the Reichstag, and instead ended up playing a game of tag on the giant lawn out front — which continued through the Tiergarten, past a very cool rock art exhibit.

Which part of the visit sticks with us the most now that a few days have passed? The Berlin Wall has few equals as a historical attraction with staying power — but the game of tag in the Tiergarten is up there.

Leave at least one entire day open, even if you have to crowd another day with a couple of activities. This way you can either fill the day or be content to wander around and find your own rock art adventure.

The 5 Worst Trip Planning Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

No matter how much planning you do, it is almost inevitable that the facts on the ground once you arrive will be different from what you expected. Distances are shorter or farther than you thought, you see stuff on the cab ride into town that seems interesting, or you overhear chatter about local attractions that aren’t in your guidebook. Leave yourself the option of figuring things out once you see how things really are.

For those things for which you do feel the need to have a solid plan, use all the tricks at your disposal to make them happen smoothly and as intended. Knowing the operating hours, taking the best route to and from, and having advance tickets to avoid lines will help you free up more time for spontaneous activities.

Thanks to capacious and information-packed review sites, travelers can make far better choices about almost every part of the travel experience. But if the review sites lead to fewer unpleasant surprises, they also present the risk of fewer pleasant surprises, which are of course an important part of exploring the world as a traveler.

8 Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene

The days of walking into a restaurant with no idea of what might show up at your table are mostly history, but you can reintroduce the element of surprise by not making every meal choice based on a Yelp review. This isn’t the best approach for everything — review sites can help you avoid hokey attractions or awful meals — but if the menu looks appealing and the place is bustling, why not skip the star rating and try your luck?

busy restaurant food hall singapore

A smartphone can be the ultimate way to plan on the fly. The simplest and often most useful function on your phone is the “near me” or “explore nearby” options on your mapping app; you can type almost anything into the search field — museum, restaurant, grocery store, coffee — and receive a decent suggestion.

Location-based apps like Foursquare can also offer superb results, with the added benefit of frequent use by locals. I checked results on Foursquare in a few cities that I know very well, and the suggestions were pretty good — all places I would recommend to a friend who was visiting the area, plus some others I didn’t know about and will have to check out myself.

While many daily newspapers are in trouble, locally owned (usually weekly) community newspapers are thriving. They’re packed with listings for activities, festivals, concerts, classes and more. Many big cities have alternative/entertainment weeklies, while smaller communities may have more news-based publications — but all of them are geared toward getting information out to the locals, and to travelers who are clever enough to have a look.

Few tactics rival learning about nearby attractions from a bona fide local. You can find them everywhere — the hotel front desk, restaurants, bars, grocery stores — anywhere you come into contact with folks who are working, shopping for mundane items and going about daily life.

Staying at a B&B may offer the ultimate in “ask a local” opportunities; the folks running the house usually live on the premises and understand that helping their lodgers get the most from their stay is part of the reason to choose a B&B over a hotel. To be sure, I have run into a few curmudgeonly B&B hosts over the years, but these places tend not to get the best reviews. You’ll definitely want to use the review sites when picking a B&B, paying particular attention to how helpful and available the proprietor tends to be.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

Getting off the tourist circuit can offer up plenty of opportunities for unexpected encounters and experiences. Going to a swimming pool or library or taking a yoga class, for example, can put you into contact with people who might get you off the rutted tourist roads and into the places and even homes of the locals, and then you never know what might happen.

Pursuing your own passions can often be the best way to open yourself up to these kinds of experiences. For example, when wearing a rowing shirt while traveling in Hawaii, I was approached by a local who owned a two-person ocean rowing scull who could rarely find another rower to go out with him. He asked me to join him, and we rowed out into the ocean and around a small island, where swells wrapped around the back of the island to meet in an explosion in the middle. We caught one of the waves, blitzed along at full speed and maneuvered at the last second to avoid the exploding waves as they met. Talk about an unplanned adventure.

Have any tips to help inveterate planners loosen up a little? Add them in the comments!

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Diving into Caribbean yesteryear The Corn Islands,

Diving into Caribbean yesteryear The Corn Islands,

Author: Bill Mashek (More Trip Reviews by Bill Mashek)
Date of Trip: November 2016

Corn Islands Nicaragua
Bill Mashek

The Corn Islands are located about 50 miles east of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Little Corn is an interesting place; it is only about 1.5 sq miles in size, no cars, motorcycles or golf carts, but full of amiable folks, great diving, diverse cuisine, and lots of charm. You can walk an Island loop in about 45 minutes. Little Corn was the only destination where I experienced gregarious encounters with “friendly” nurse sharks on every dive.

scuba diver with shark

I am a multi-sport type person and a “budget” excursionist, so when I travel someplace, I don’t go to high end “resorts” and I like other options besides diving. Nicaragua is a great location for adventure sports. There is spear fishing, and great surfing on the pacific, even an accessible whitewater run . Going inland you have the colonial cities of Leon and Granada which is bordered by the imposing, Lake Nicaragua with the Volcanic Islands of Omatepe and of course The Corn Islands on the Atlantic. The Corn Islands have always been on my “bucket list” as a dive destination. When I got invited to a wedding in Nicaragua I got my excuse to go. We spent 6 days on the pacific, 2 inland and 8 days on the Corn Islands.

Getting here: First of all, travel in Nicaragua is situated out of Managua. All domestic flights and buses are based at the international airport in Managua as well. You can use a travel agency to get to Managua, (I just made my reservations online) but you have to book your own domestic flight to get to Corn Islands. It is recommended to do this a couple days in advance online. The cost at the time of this writing was approximately $184/person round trip. Hard core photographers should go light on your gear as there is a 30 pound limit On stored luggage. I just took my Cannon g-12 in an Ikelite case, no strobe, it fit fine in my carry on and I got great shots.

Though I had no problems with flights, I have been informed that La Costena airlines can be subject to delays, and on occasions your bag may arrive the day after you do! In other words don’t have a tight schedule. Allow for chaos, as anything can happen, especially during busy season (December to May). You will hear stories about saving money by taking a 6-8 hour bus trip to Bluefields and departing by freighter across the channel to Big Corn—don’t do it.

Tip: I found about this online: Domestic online booking fees can be expensive and they are going up. The fees were, 18/person when we were there. To get around this and to get the cheapest prices you can call La Costena’s office in Managua airport on (505) 2298 5360 (option 2) to get the standard fares without online fees.

As with most of Nicaragua, you can use either the local Cordoba currency here, (cheapest) but US dollars are also accepted everywhere, provided they are in good condition with no rips, tears or defacing. There is one ATM machine on Big Corn Island. Many places including our hotel, some of the restaurants and the dive shops accept credit cards however you will have a 6% Nicaraguan fee plus what every your local bank charges for international use. I used both cordobas and US dollars. But mostly US dollars as I didn’t want to come home with useless cordobas. I also booked with the hotel directly instead of going through the 3rd party sites. It was actually cheaper.

Once we landed in Big Corn, we took Taxi ($1.00/person for anyplace on the island)to our “guest”house and next day to the harbor and Catch the ponga ($6.00/person) to Little Corn. Check out: https://youtu.be/3UUNUNKY7i8. Again, plan for delays; If the ocean is too rough, you may not get across that day. And it can be a “wet and wild” ride, I would recommend bringing a garbage bag to cover your personal gear.

I was told that they are soon going to have a bigger enclosed boat which will handle the larger swells but this is a poor country and who knows when.

Big Corn has 2 dive shops, I only talked to one. It is called Dos Tiburones, (http://divecornisland.com/) We spent the night on Big Corn at Comedor Maris Danet’s Phone: (+505) 2575-5135, A very good location, excellent food ($9.00 lobster dinner) and only a couple hundred yards from Dos Tiburones. There is also a quaint little bakery next door with savory treats and great coffee. There are several dive sites off Big Corn including the infamous Blowing rock. If for some reason you can’t get to Little Corn you have other options.

sign in corn islands

Little Corn: I was watching the weather with anxious anticipation (mistake) and it looked like hostile conditions, I even called Adam at Dolphin Divers to see if they were going out. His response: “of course, we have great conditions, a little wind and bump but all is fine”. Unless there is a hurricane or 35 plus knot winds, you will still dive.

I made advanced reservations with Sunshine Hotel. The website said “only 2 rooms available. I think there were only 4or 5 other folks staying in this 20 plus room hotel. During busy season it is probably a good idea to make advanced reservations. ( www.sunshinehotellittlecorn.com ) Our stay at the Sunshine hotel included a simple but classic Nicaraguan breakfast each morning and 5% discount with Dolphin Divers ( http://dolphindivelittlecorn.com ). Sunshine is also the only hotel I found that had air conditioned rooms. The folks who run the place were nice and at $55/night a bargain. They also had the only (mini) “farmica” on the island. I would recommend staying here. There are several “rustic” piquant eateries nearby and It was less than a five minute walk to Dolphin Divers from the hotel.

Every day, After my second dive I would go to Havanas , a Cuban cuisine, between our hotel and Dolphin divers and get a delicious ham and cheese sandwich or fish sandwich on coconut bread.

Dolphin divers offer up to 3 dives per day and night dives. Since there are only a couple of dive shops on the island, I would recommend making advanced reservations during the busy winter season.

Because of all the weight restrictions and the extensive traveling we were doing. The only dive gear I brought was my Sunto “zoot” wrist computer, underwater camera set up, a mask and snorkel. Dolphin Divers supplies all equipment including wetsuit, if needed at no extra cost. They did not supply computers; –I think you can rent one. Their regulators and BC vest were well maintained and in good condition. For photographers, the boats are too small to hold heavy gear but they do have a shower and dunk tank at the shop.

The Diving:. Because of the underwater topography in Corn Islands, we dived reefs and small canyons but not walls. Subsequently, most dives are between 50-80 ft, except for Blowing Rock which is a small volcanic seamount, about an hour boat ride away.. It is considered the best dive site on the Corn Islands primarily, because of its’ preponderance and variety of fish. There are no deep channels and spectacular walls like Cozumel . The water temperature was a consistent 84 degrees F, making wetsuits optional.

I never prepaid for my dives, just showed up every day at the shop. However, the more you dive the cheaper the price is. A two tank dive is 65. And a 10 dive package is 280. I had 12 dives and at the end of the trip paid 28/dive plus my 5% discount. The boats launch from the beach less than 50 ft from the shop. The divemasters loaded our tanks and BCs, we were only responsible for carrying them back after the dive. Dive times varied, though usually 45 minutes unless folks were low on air. When it was just our group, we stayed down longer, especially in the shallower dives.

There were many good sites but my favorite was Suenos, It was about a 15 minute boat ride to get there. It was our last dive, the ocean was calm and pellucid blue-green. Visibility was well over 150ft. Here we saw several reef sharks. They were not as friendly as the nurse sharks and didn’t want to be approached. They did however, provide for interesting encounters. I saw several eagle rays, and a goliath Grouper the size of a wine barrel. We saw Parrot fish for the first time and more trigger fish. Also saw a hawksbill turtle here. Surprisingly, I saw only 2 turtles. I guess they don’t nest here.

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Taxi Travel: 13 Ways to Save Money and Stay Safe

Arriving in a new place is disorienting enough without having to climb into an unfamiliar car to get to a place you have never been in the hands of a complete stranger. Most veteran travelers have felt that encroaching queasy feeling that something is off about a cab ride, but there are things you can do to put yourself more at ease and protect yourself if things start to go sideways. Below are 13 tips on making taxi travel safer, more affordable and more reliable.

taxi at night

Cab rides from airports have always been a tricky proposition, due in part to local regulations; some airport cabs are metered while others adhere to fixed, flat-rate prices. Then there are the unlicensed cars that circle the airport and the drivers standing in the terminals hawking rides.

Of all the things to research ahead of time before any cab ride, this might be the most important one. In most cases you can find this information online; try airport websites, tourist bureau sites or a simple Google search.

When you get into the car, it can help to mention the expected price; this way you and the driver are on the same page. If the driver does not agree at first, and you have done your homework to know that haggling is part of how business is done in your particular location, suggest a different price, or try another car (which in some cases may cause the first driver to come up with a fair price).

If you’ve taken enough cabs, you’ve probably ended up on what felt like a joy ride to rack up miles on the meter. Most cities have regulations that require drivers to take the route requested by the passenger; if you map a route and ask for it, he or she will take you that way.

That said, local drivers usually know a lot more about traffic, construction and shortcuts than you do — or even than a mapping app does — so if you feel comfortable letting the driver decide, go for it.

Many travelers use Lyft or Uber instead of taxis these days, but ridesharing services are prohibited at some airports. If your arrival plan includes one of these services, check ahead of time to see if it’s available. Here are two ways to do it:

– Well before your flight leaves, open the app and use the map to begin setting up a pickup at your destination airport. If you are able to do this and you can see cars in waiting in the airport, you generally will be okay.

– Go to the service’s Facebook, Twitter or other social media page, and ask directly. I’ve done this successfully with both Lyft and Uber.

The Best Uber Alternatives Around the World

Beyond the lack of visible pricing, unmarked and unlicensed cars are almost always involved when you hear horror stories about taxi scams. These range from kidnappings to purse- and phone-snatching (where a driver consorts with a thief who breaks into the cab to steal valuables when you’re stopped at a red light). Learn what licensed cabs look like in the place you’re visiting, and skip the shady alternatives.

Sometimes you know a place and situation well enough that you are willing to take an unlicensed car (for example, I lived in New York City for over a decade, and did use them on occasion, knowing fully what I was getting into). In this situation, be sure to tell the driver where you are going and agree on a price before driving off (or even before getting in and closing the door). There are no meters in these cars, so setting a price is critical.

For more advice on avoiding taxi scams, see How To Avoid Being Ripped Off By Taxi Drivers.

woman in taxi on phone

Other ways to protect yourself include checking for a working door handle before you close the door so you can get out quickly, riding with the windows closed so no one can reach in, and knowing the local emergency number (911 does not work in all countries).

Here are more useful tips on taxi safety.

Resist the temptation to start to unpack or root through your stuff during your ride, as this leaves you vulnerable to leaving things behind or having them stolen. Keep your stuff packed away to avoid these problems. If you are looking at your phone, keep it close; phones have become the most likely thing to lose or have snatched in transit.

Your taxi receipt will almost always have the cab’s license or medallion number on it; this will be useful if you leave something behind.

10 Travel Money Mistakes to Avoid

When paying by credit card, some taxi machines have a suggested tip at the top of the screen — these are often inflated. You might see these screens start at a 20 percent tip and suggest up to 30 percent. If you look carefully, you’ll typically find an “enter the tip” option that allows you to set the amount yourself.

Take your time getting out of the cab while also being mindful of basic safety: Don’t open the door into traffic, make sure you have all your things, keep an eye on them when you haul them out onto the sidewalk and make sure the area you are in looks safe.

It’s easy to skip this step, but keep in mind that traffic accidents are the leading cause of American deaths abroad, and we’ve all had cab rides where we feel like we’re careening through the streets in terrifying fashion. Taxi seatbelts are not always available and don’t always work, but if you have one, use it.

For each concern travelers have about taxi drivers, cabbies can likely cite many more they have about their passengers. See 9 Annoying Things You Do in Cabs, According to a Cab Driver. Don’t be that guy.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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Marvellous Melbourne

Marvellous Melbourne

Author: Fiona Ludbrook (More Trip Reviews by Fiona Ludbrook)
Date of Trip: August 2016

Sometimes you do not have to venture too far from home to go travelling!

Recently I have been exploring Melbourne, a city where I lived for almost thirty years, but rarely had time to get to many of its best offerings, as a traveller there myself. Here’s some suggestions for anyone exploring this vibrant, friendly city.

melbourne tram

Begin exploring Melbourne at the public transport hub of the historic Flinders St Railway Station in the heart of the city. This station not only gives you access to the entire suburban rail network, opposite on both sides run Melbourne’s iconic trams.

Opposite Flinders St station, you will find the City Square, including the Melbourne Information Centre, The Potter Gallery, exhibiting many wonderful works of Australian Art, whilst a short walk over the Prince’s Bridge will lead you to the Melbourne Arts Centre, including performing arts theatres and the National Gallery of Victoria, for blockbuster exhibitions and a fabulous collection of international art. Both the Potter and National Galleries have free admission.

Besides the City Square is the Burrong Mar walk along the Yarra river. Keep going and you will get to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, home of the 1956 Olympics, Australian Rules Football, Cricket and the Sports Museum. Cross the bridge over the railway line and you come to the Melbourne Tennis Centre, home to the Australian Open, every January, with courts for hire should you want to play where the tennis greats have played.

The nearby Melbourne Botanic Gardens are truly glorious and provide a relaxing afternoon or morning. The botanic gardens are ideal for a picnic too. Alongside fabulous collections of indigenous and exotic plants, they are home to an abundance of birdlife, including black swans. Beside the gardens is Melbourne’s wonderful observatory.

Head to the Victoria Market for a wonderful array of fresh produce, inexpensive street food and the cheapest souvenirs in town. The market mirrors the multicultural nature of Melbourne’s population and is always a great place to see Melbourne’s residents going about their lives.

For food, head to Lygon Street. Originally the Jewish Quarter of town, during the 1950s and 60s the Italian Community established itself here and restaurants opened in abundance. Lygon St remains amongst the best places in Melbourne to find fantastic Italian cuisine, but has since been joined by many other local ethnic groups. Here too, you will find Readings Bookshop, and opposite, the Nova Cinema, screening foreign and arthouse films, as well as a few blockbusters. I spend a lot of time in Lygon Street, when I return to Melbourne!

melbourne church

St Kilda, will get you to the beach, the very cool Village Bell shopping drag, Linden Art Gallery and Melbourne’s Red Light District. However St Kilda is also famous for wonderful Eastern European delis and cakes and the Luna Park amusement Park. St Kilda’s small botanic gardens are also worth a visit. On Sundays an Art and Craft Market runs along the beach front of the Esplanade. A small colony of little penguins can be seen at dusk near St Kilda Pier.

Close to St Kilda is Prahran, thesedays centre of Melbourne’s gay and lesbian community. Lots of fantastic shopping here, from designer labels, to antiques great delis and the quirky as well as the neighbouring suburbs of Armadale and Toorak, the most exclusive address in town!

Possoms can be viewed nocturnally climbing up and down trees at the Exhibition Gardens, adjacent to the World Heritage listed Exhibition Building and Melbourne Museum at the Northern end of the city. The Museum itself is well worth a visit. A key exhibit is the legendary Phar Lap, the taxidermied remains of a race horse that became a public favourite during the 1930s Depression, but was poisoned when he raced in the USA. As well as Phar Lap, there are galleries worth exploring, from indigenous species and habitats, to Australian social history, even indigenous mega fauna and dinosaur remains on display. Don’t miss the gallery relating to Victoria’s indigenous people, for both traditional lifestyles and contemporary achievements!

The Melbourne State Library, has ever-changing free exhibitions. Tours of the library itself, including the impressive reading room are held regularaly. The same is true of Parliament House. Both buildings showcase Melbourne’s arhitectural heritage and provide ample evidence that here, were the richest goldmines in the history of the world. Highly recommended if you have time, or visit during winter and want great places to visit indoors!

Catch a train out to Ferntree Gully and see the wonderful temperate rainforest and ride on the heritage train, Puffing Billy.Lovely hikes through the Dandenongs, specialist gardens such as Tulip and rhodedendrons in season.

melbourne at night

One of my favourite suburbs is Brunswick. Go here for the best Middle Eastern food at very reasonable prices, as well as more interesting shopping. Contrast Melbourne’s orthern suburbs, with those of the more affluent East!

Melbourne boasts one of the world’s truly great zoos, with not only a wonderful collection of animals, it showcases plants as well and has an incredible record for its breeding program of endangered species and prides itself on public education on endangered ecosystems and wildlife conservation. It has a very good collection of native animals. However if native animals are your top priority, head out to its annex, Healesville Sanctuary, or the Ballarat Wildlife and Reptile Park, who specialise in Australian animals.


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Day 5: Gilgit to Karimabad (Hunza Valley)

Day 5: Gilgit to Karimabad (Hunza Valley)

Author: Nawab Tanweer Ahmad (More Trip Reviews by Nawab Tanweer Ahmad)
Date of Trip: September 2015

Date: 19th September 2015

Agreeing to our itinerary, we only hold a night stay at Gilgit, but will be persisting for long on our return from Hunza. Today we have to reach Karimabad, a very beautiful town of Hunza. After having a hot bath, we went to the hotel restaurant for Breakfast. One thing to remember for the travelers is that in these budget hotels hot water is only available from 7 A.M. till 9 A.M. so wake up early to have a hot bath. The view of nearby mountains, especially from the roof of the hotel was awesome, you can also have this view from the balconies of the first floor.

mountain peaks karimabad

To travel to our destination of Hunza, we went to a Bus Stand in Gilgit. The Bus Stand in Gilgit is on the outskirt of the city to protect the city from pollution, noise and traffic. From this Bus Stand transport for many cities of Pakistan is available, including Hunza, Skardu, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and even to Karachi. We decided to travel to Karimabad City (Hunza Valley) via Van. These vans travel seat by seat and move after all seats are occupied, hence we have to wait for some time before our journey starts toward Karimabad, Hunza.

We were traveling on Karakoram Highway toward Karimabad, Hunza. Since we are 4 people we have been allotted a complete seat of the van so we all sit together. In the front seats, there are all ladies sitting and behind us there are all gents. They are all local people in the van only we are from outside this neighborhood and can be clearly identified because of our look and speech. People in the region are very nice and friendly and they are treating us very nicely.

We are in the Kingdom of Himalaya and Karakoram with K2 (Godwin Austen), Nanga Parbat and other world’s highest mountains nearby, along both sides of Karakoram Highway there are green plains and valley surrounded by mountains with their summit covered with snow, these mountains are part of the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges.

hunza valley

Considering the marvelous scenery and passing different cities like Sultan Abad, Rahim Abad, Chalt Valley, this valley is extremely beautiful and can be seen from the Karakoram Highway on the other side of the river, we were moving toward Karimabad. Crossing many cities, and also stopping at some cities to pick and drop passengers, we also crossed a point known as Rakaposhi View Point. This is the base of Rakaposhi Mountian and complete view of the mountain, along with its peak is clearly visible from this place. Since we were journeying on a public van we can’t reveal here, but we possess a plan for breaking off here on our return journey toward Gilgit.

Traveling on this beautiful route we reached Aliabad. Aliabad is a main & a business city in Hunza Valley with Banks, Hotels, Restaurant and Market. People belonging to Hunza have Business in this city and they also visit this city for monthly shopping. We stop there for 15 to 20 minutes as some of the passengers need to buy just about fruits from the store before proceeding to their home in Hunza Valley. Subsequently a couple of kilometers from Aliabad we left Karakoram Highway and struck a left turn on an ascending road, the road sign informs us that this road is leading to Karimabad City.

Hunza Valley is situated at an elevation of 2,438 meters and is one of the most exotic places in Pakistan. It is surrounded by several high peaks rise above 6,000m. Hunza Valley is divided into three regions, Upper Hunza, Centre Hunza and Lower Hunza. Karimabad is the capital of Hunza Valley and lay in Centre Hunza region. It is named after Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Aga Khan Community. The valley provides spectacular views of some of the most beautiful and magnificent mountains of the world which include: Rakaposhi 7,788 m (25,551 ft), Ultar Sar 7,388 m (24,239 ft), Bojahagur Duanasir II 7,329 m (24,045 ft), Ghenta Peak 7,090 m (15,631 ft), Hunza Peak 6,270 m (20,571 ft), Darmyani Peak 6,090 m (19,980 ft), and Bublimating (Ladyfinger Peak) 6,000 m (19,685 ft).

hunza valley mountain view

Dropping some passengers at different locations, our van driver told us that we are now in Karimabad and must mention a place where he can drop us. We need him to drop us at some nearby hotel. We didn’t have any advance reservation for a hotel so we have to look for the hotel. Thither are many hotels in Karimabad, infect there are all hotels along the main road of Karimabad since Karimabad is a tourist place. All around the year there is a number of tourists visiting this area, particularly in the summer season. In that respect are both luxury and budget hotels in Karimabad. After visiting different hotels, we decided to stay at Hotel Blue Moon situated near the main market in Karimabad city. On the ground level are the shops and climbing some steps is the reception and food court of the hotel. Rooms start from the foremost floor. The hotel is at an awesome location, in front there is the beautiful valley of Hunza, with the view of Rakaposhi Mountain and behind is the snow covered mountains of the Ultar Sar Peak and Ladyfinger Peak.

Ultar Sar is the southeastern most major peak of the Batura Muztagh, a subrange of the Karakoram range. It lies about 10km northeast of the Karimabad city and rises over 7,388m (24,239ft). The adjacent peaks are Shispare, Bojohagur Duanasir, Hunza Peak and Bablimotin.

Another popular peak at Karimabad is the Ladyfinger peak. It rests on the southwest ridge of the Ultar Sar massif, the most southeasterly of the major groups of the Batura Muztagh. The whole massif rises precipitously above the Hunza Valley to the southeast. The weather was cold and the sun was shining, the amazing thing is that if in this cold winter you stand in the sun you will start feeling hot.

apple karimabad

Settling ourselves at the hotel after this 4 hours of journey from Gilgit we decided to get some rest and extended into our room to have some nap. We wake up at evening, in front of our room, there is a large balcony with table and chairs positioned around for sitting. We sit in the balcony and placed an order for tea, in front of us is the most hypnotizing scenic view we ever witnessed in our life, The Hunza Valley. The valley in front of us is lush green with countless trees of Apple, Apricot, Walnut and many more, below in the valley we can abide the Hunza River flows in between these trees. Either you look in front, at the left, right or back there are trees all around surrounded by snow covered mountains.

While we were having tasty tea the staff boy at the hotel told us that we will experience a marvelous view of the valley if we climb to the rooftop. Concluding the tea we move upward to the rooftop from where we discovered the valley behind the hotel. The view was alluring, from here we can see the valley of the Altit and Duikar. The green plains, the woods, the sights and the waterfall on the Altit side is magnificent, the historic Altit Fort and the Eagle’s Nest in Duikar can also be observed at a distance. There are apple trees, Walnut trees and grapes branches on the roof top of the hotel too, we picked more or less apples to try them and found them mouthwatering. All of my family members are too much happy on visiting such a heavenly place. The spectacular view makes us feels like we are on the roof of the world, surrounded by snow covered mountains. No wonder this place is called as the “Heaven on Earth”.

grapes karimabad

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Day 6: Karimabad (Hunza)

Day 6: Karimabad (Hunza)

Author: Nawab Tanweer Ahmad (More Trip Reviews by Nawab Tanweer Ahmad)
Date of Trip: September 2015

Date: 20th September 2015

Yesterday we arrived at the most beautiful spot on the earth, Hunza Valley, “The Heaven on Earth”, and stay at its capital city ‘Karimabad’. Today we will be exploring this city. This city is built along the border of the mountain and is sloped upward to Ultar Sar starting from Karakoram Highway. The hotel at which we are staying is at the start of the market, after a hot bath and dressing up we moved downstairs to the main route and started proceed toward the marketplace. There are many shops along both positions of the main road, we went into the first shop that is on the left hand side of the road directly after our hotel. This shop sells gems and jewelry and is led by local women. From the time we arrive in this area we found its people courteous and soft spoken, they steer us at every spot and quick to offer any sort of assistance. After visiting this shop we move toward another shop on the road this shop sells handmade rugs and carpets. These carpets are extremely beautiful and nicely woven by the local workers, there are also handmade jackets and shawls, and since my wife loves shopping she immediately started bargain and pick from the items.

karimabad mountains

The Hunza valley is popular for Camping, Swimming, Hunting, Hiking and Trekking, Mountaineering, Mountain Biking, Horse riding, Eco tours, Skiing, Safari tours, Fishing, Gliding and many other activities, for that there are many shops in Karimabad that sell equipment required for these activities. The equipment can either be bought or can be rented from these stores. Paper maps of these areas are also available in nearly every shop and one can also hire a local tour guide for hiking and trekking.

Going forward, there is a link road leading upward toward Baltit Fort this is a 700 year old fort and belongs to Mir of Hunza (but it is vacated by them in 1945) and is now considered as World Heritage by UNESCO. We have a program to visit Baltit Fort in the evening but not now, at this time we remain in Karimabad. Near this junction we found a small tea shop, it’s named as “Hunza Snack Bar”. It is a small local tea shop that server’s tea, coffee, omelet and a local bread called “Arzooq”. Originated from the Baltit, Arzooq is made with flour, eggs, butter and milk and finally cooked in oil, it is one of the most famous bread of Hunza. As shortly as we sat in the shop we placed an order for tea, my daughter spotted this bread and ask the shopkeeper regarding this bread, and after his explanation about the bread, we add this to our order. The shop owner is a very well-spoken and friendly person and we have a long chit-chat with him while waiting for our breakfast. After the food was served and we taste the Arzooq, we found it very delicious and from that day till we stay in Karimabad, we daily have our breakfast at “Hunza Snack Bar” with Arzooq also a part of it.

karimabad child with cow

Finishing the breakfast we again proceed on the main route, travelled to different shops and take in the beauty of the area all around us, also surprise to catch the name of the shop as “Best Buy Family Shop”, the shop sells cosmetics, children products, ladies products, decoration and gift items, same as sell by the “BestBuy” in the United States.

Enjoying the beautiful and long walk we settled to revert back to our hotel where we are sticking around. At a lower place in the valley there is a large number of Apple, Apricot, Walnut, and Fig and different other types of fruit trees, last night while having a chat with a local guy we were informed that there are no limitations on visiting their gardens and can deplete the fruit from these trees as much as we like, merely not to harm them. So today we have decided to hold a picnic in these gardens, we went down the valley and spread a sheet to sit among the trees, and the kids were thus happy and began running just about. Later on having tea that we purchased from the “Hunza Snack Bar” we began picking some apples, apricot, and walnuts from the tree. In that location there were some local kids also playing and picking walnuts, my kids wants to talk to them but due to language difference they were unsuccessful, but those children were so courteous that they gave the bag full of almond, grapes and apricot to my kids. We also collected a small bag full of apple and walnut and after spending such a splendid time at that place we started climbing back toward our hotel. On the way back my wife meets a local woman she was the mother of those kids playing in the woods, when the woman learn that we are interested in eating walnut she assured my wife that she will arrange for the walnuts. The lady not only arranges for the walnuts but also send a bag full of walnuts for us to Gilgit city after we left Karimabad. We return back to our room and passed sometime in the room as it was afternoon and the sun was shining too bright.

karimabad apples

In the evening, our schedule includes a tour of “Baltit Fort”. Baltit is a 700 year old fort and belongs to Mir of Hunza and is counted as World Heritage by UNESCO. Fort is situated at the tip of a cliff and one need to climb up to the emplacement. The walkway to the fort was amazing itself, on the way we were greeted by the residents of ‘Baltit’ who were sitting alongside the street holding their daily tea and discussion. Many stores and houses exist on both sides of the route with people engaged in their everyday chores. Enjoying the walk we reached the Baltit Fort, we enter the Fort by paying a nominal fee, the well-trained and knowledgeable team of guides give us a well-planned tour of the facility. Built with bricks, mud and wood painted in red, the fort is also a museum that holds items belonging to the Mir of Hunza. The bird’s eye view of Hunza Valley and the spectacular view of Rakaposhi Peak can be observed in front of the Fort and the Lady Finger and Ultar Sar peak at the back. After having a circuit of the fort we started settling down toward the main Karimabad.

karimabad mountain peak

Hunza valley is rich in gems and precious stone there are many stores in Karimabad from where one can purchase these stones, suited according to their birth sign. Thither are many types of gems and stones available in Karimabad, some of them are stones like Ruby, Emerald, Aqua Marine, Sapphire, Tiger Eye, Quartz, Turquoise, Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian (Aqiq), Tourmaline and many others. On the route of Baltit, there is a store by the name “Mountain Art & Gems Gallery”, it is a store with the enormous collection of gems and stones, this shop’s proprietor is a respectful person with tons of knowledge related to gemstones. We purchased many different gemstones from that store, there were also wooden handicrafts in the store that we also bought on a succeeding day. Many statues of “Gautama Buddha” were also there in the store, but they are not for sale and are the collection of the shopkeeper, these are the statues set up during different expedition performed by the shopkeeper in search of the precious gemstones in the nearby mountains.

blue minerals rocks karimabad

There were number foreign visitors around this place, they are from China, Korea, Britain, Germany, USA and many other countries. Roaming and shopping around the city and meeting different foreigners we arrive back to our room. We placed an order for the dinner that is of “White Lentils (Daal Mash)” and bread (Chapati) and watched television while waiting at the food court for the dinner to serve. After dinner, we return back to our room and fell asleep after such a fabulous day, with a plan in hand for the coming day.

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