Costa Rica: Close encounters of the animal kind.

13 07 2009

Monkey leaf

Have you ever had the feeling that someone is watching you? You look around and lock eyes with the person, then quickly break eye contact so as to avoid embarrassment on either side. Well this tends to happen quite often in Costa Rica, except that the pair of beady eyes staring back at you belong to a monkey. Or a raccoon. Or a sloth. Well actually the list of animals is endless, and yes – they all stare!

Costa Rica is a nature lovers paradise. The lush, tropical country located in Central America contains an impressive 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Around 25% of the country’s land area is in protected national parks and protected areas, the largest percentage of protected areas in the world. All of this translates to an amazingly unbridled experience of nature at its finest. It is clear that these animals are not visitors to our environment, we are visitors to theirs.

On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I made my way to Manuel Antonio National Park. Located just south of Quepos and about 80 miles from San Jose, Manuel Antonio offers adventure immersed in nature. Whether you are on a budget or looking for luxury, Manuel Antonio has it all – nature, adventure, excitement and relaxation. Miles of white sand beaches merge into fertile green forests, teeming with hundreds of native flora and fauna species for your viewing pleasure. There are endless options to satisfy your adventure cravings on both land and sea. Options range from zip-lining, canopy tours, river rafting and horseback riding to diving, snorkeling, surfing and sailing to name but a few.

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We made our way through Manuel Antonio park, following the natural dirt paths en route to one of the beaches and stopping every so often to watch as monkeys jumped from tree to tree overhead. Tucan’s were perched stoically on branches while sloths moved about in ultra slow motion. Once we reached the beach we settled down under a shady tree looking out at the sparkling Pacific. Only a couple of minutes had passed when a girl called out to us in Spanish while pointing behind us, “Cuidado! Cuidado!” We spun around just in time to spot the bespectacled thief attempting to steal our bag.

Sneaky racoon

Sneaky racoon

Caught in the act, the raccoon sheepishly walked away empty handed. I presume he was plotting his next attack on some unwitting tourists further down the beach. We kept a watchful eye on our belongings as we swam in the ocean, when a small crowd of people began to gather around our things. As we approached the tree, we joined the crowd in looking up to spot about a dozen white-faced Capuchin monkeys casually chilling on the branches. There is little more thrilling than being so close to witness the behaviour of animals in their natural environment. Even better was the fact that they paid no attention to us at all! They went about their business and then were gone just as quickly as they came, jumping to the next tree on their way back into the forest.

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Photos and Post by: Merav Benedetti © 2009





The Airport – where your adventure begins.

9 07 2009

NW at DTW

These days we tend to groan at the thought of a trip to the airport. With long and winding check-in lines, less than jovial workers, the necessary strip down for security and too-often delayed flights, we’re more than a little flustered by the time we settle into our snug seats. The airport has over time become little more than a necessary evil to get us from point A to point B. While I definitely understand why, I find it terribly unfortunate.

I remember the sense of excitement I felt every time we’d make our way to the airport. There was something exhilarating about pulling up at the airport while majestic carriers were taking off and landing overhead. Inside the terminal there was always such a buzz of energy, people from all over the world joined together for the common purpose of travel. Announcements rang in multiple languages while people scurried about to their airline’s check-in desk. It was always fun to people watch, to see the carefree looks of those on vacation or the seriousness of those on business. Check-in was where you got the first taste of the carrier you’d chosen and your boarding pass was handed over with your final destination officially in print. It was the start of your adventure.

Airports are often architectural sights to behold. From the modern grass-topped sprawl of glass at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to the contemporary metallic styling of Seoul’s Incheon airport, architects are constantly pushing the boundaries. Airports often give us our first taste of a country’s culture, through art on display or the amenities offered. Voted the World’s Best Airport this year, Seoul’s Incheon airport operates a Traditional Korean Cultural Experience zone. Travellers can enjoy traditional performances including masque dances and twelve-stringed Korean harp recitals on stage. Some of the finest shopping and dining can be experienced while you wait to take off. Many airports also offer panoramic lounges that offer terrific views of planes taking off and landing. Most airports now have well designed websites that can help with your travel planning and research.

So next time you travel, hard as it may be, take some time to appreciate the airport. A lot of careful thought and planning went into its creation. You might even be surprised to find that you enjoy it!

Photo and Post by: Merav Benedetti © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: Y is for Yemen

3 07 2009

 

Although one of the Middle East’s most spectacular countries and home to four World Heritage sites, in recent years Yemen has become better known for the kidnapping of tourists than it has for tourism itself.

 

Located on the Arabian Peninsula and bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, Yemen is an ancient land of rugged desert, magnificent coastline and historic architectural treasures. With a limited infrastructure, only hardy tourists have ventured to its capital Sana’a and the country’s striking interior, but those who have explored it  consistently rate it amongst their favourite destinations.yemen

 

Yemen is a magic land that has barely changed in appearance since biblical times. A country of fortified mountain villages and remote desert communities, untouched beaches and mud brick skyscrapers all with their own distinct and rich culture and heritage. While some of the country’s best sights are neglected and in need of preservation, all capture the imagination in a way that sights in more developed countries simply can’t.

 

In Wadi Hadramaut there sits Shibam, one of the most striking cities in the world. Dubbed the ‘Manhattan of the desert’, its skyline is comprised of more than 500 mud-brick skyscrapers of up to 8-floors in height surrounded by an earth wall. Not far away is the spectacular cliff-side village of Al Hajjarain while the country’s most important seaport, Aden, is purportedly where Noah built his ark. Algebra is said to have been invented in the 9th century in the city of Zabid, once one of the most important centres of learning in the entire Islamic and Arabic world and the region’s capital from the 13th to 15th century.  Just off the coast, the Socotra Archipelago was mentioned by Marco Polo and is home to an area of such rich biodiversity that it is often likened to the Galapagos.

 

Yemen’s capital, Sana’a is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. Its architecture gives the city the impression of being frozen in time, and its old city is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A place of bustling markets, towering mosques and ornate houses, Sana’a is one of the world’s most unique capitals.

 

Although there have been problems in the capital, the majority of troubles faced by tourists have been experienced away from Sana’a. Anyone venturing away from the capital must register with the Yemen Tourist Police and it is highly recommended that travel be made with a recognised tour operator rather than independently. The first tourist kidnappings were made by tribesmen who used their hostages as bargaining chips in negotiations with authorities. The hostages were generally treated well and released peacefully. Many visitors later proclaimed the experience was the highlight of their visit, but several years ago a kidnapping ended in a shoot-out with police and a number of the hostages were killed or injured. More recently however, branches of al-Qaeda have become involved with much more brutal consequences.

 

Anyone contemplating Yemen should be aware that many western countries have issued travel advisories against all travel there. While there are many responsible national and international tour operators in Yemen who have perfect safety records and take no chances with their clients, such government warnings may render travel insurance invalid.

 

A photographer’s dream, an explorer’s delight, a visit to Yemen is well worth the lack of luxury, but no visit should be taken without proper consideration.

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: Yemen Tourism





Nepal Bans Pockets To Fight Bribes

2 07 2009

 

Staff at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan international airport are being issued trousers without pockets in an effort to eliminate bribe-taking. Nepal’s anti-corruption body said there had been a dramatic increase in public complaints against bribery and it was felt that trousers without pockets would help the authorities “curb the irregularities.”

 

Sadly, bribes are quite common in many parts of the world, although often – as in Kathmandu – they tend to be aimed at locals rather than tourists. However, that doesn’t mean that visitors cannot be subjected to this special treatment, and when they are it does present a bit of a challenge.

 

It’s all fine and well to tut-tut at home and say you would never give a bribe no matter what the occasion or location, but it’s completely different when face-to-face with someone of authority, wearing a uniform, in a strange land – or strange language – who has the power to make your life difficult. It takes a strong person to say ‘no’ and stand their ground. Or perhaps just a foolish or naïve one.

 

Not for one moment do I advocate giving bribes and certainly in my own surroundings, I would never contemplate it. We all know that bribery is wrong and that paying a bribe perpetuates the cycle, but no matter how distasteful it can be, declining to pay one can land you in serious trouble and a decision must be very carefully considered. Of course, offering a bribe when one hasn’t been solicited is considerably worse!

 

I have been in taxis in Cancun, Nairobi and Zanzibar and stopped by police. Upon command, the driver handed over his license with a small fold of notes sticking innocently from the corner. The officer checked the license, returned it – devoid of the cash – and waved us forward already looking for more victims. The exchange was made surreptitiously so as not to upset the tourist. But in remote Zambia, the tourists were the target.

 

It was late afternoon and we were approaching a very long, low bridge that spanned a languid river. A lone soldier waved us to a halt on the approach and walked menacingly up to the cab of our truck with a rifle slung over one shoulder.

 

“You can’t cross” he said severely. “Only one vehicle is allowed on the bridge at a time.”

 

Straining our eyes forward, we could see another vehicle broken down on the side of the approach road on the far bank.

 

“He’s not on the bridge” we attempted to explain, as friendly as possible.

 

“Yes he is” said our armed companion. “You can’t cross.”

 

We explained that we were trying to reach Lusaka before it was dark and asked if there was anything at all that he could do to assist us. He looked inside the truck, then back at us.

 

“I am a hungry man,” he said, matter-of-factly, stretching his arms in the air and arching his back leisurely.

 

Two tins of beans and a couple of cigarettes later, we were driving onto the bridge with our new friend cheerily waving good-bye and wishing us a good trip.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 

 

If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!

 

Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.

 

Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.

 

The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.

 

Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.

 

On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.

 

People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.

 

Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.

 

“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Cracking the Airport Codes

29 06 2009

 YYZ

 

 

You’re not a real traveller until you can talk in airport codes. It’s all fine and well to say you’re connecting in Chicago, but until you’ve texted your friends and said you’re grabbing a hot dog in ORD, you haven’t lived.

 

Every airport in the world has a three letter code. The system was based on one introduced by the U.S. National Weather Service who created two-letter codes to organise the data they gathered from their weather stations around the country. Airlines copied it, but as commercial aviation expanded in the 1930s and airports began to appear in places that didn’t have weather stations, it became clear that two-letter codes were insufficient…and so they expanded to the three-letter system that is today officially known as the “International Air Transport Association Location Identifier.”

 

Many codes are easily identifiable with their cities, like AMS for Amsterdam, CAI for Cairo or SIN for Singapore, or with their proper airport name like CDG for Charles de Gaulle, JFK for Kennedy or LHR for London Heathrow. But some aren’t so obvious, like YYZ for Toronto or EWR for Newark.

 

As the U.S. created the system, they had first crack at the codes. The U.S. Navy quickly claimed all the N codes for their bases, which is why somewhere like Newark is EWR while Canada claimed the Y codes, hence YVR for Vancouver etc. Although don’t be fooled, not every Y is in Canada and not all Canadian airports begin with Y.

 

That would be far too simple!

 

Unless you work for an airline or are in the travel industry, you will likely only learn airport codes through your own travel experiences. As your airport code vocabulary expands, you can start to read people’s luggage tags as you await your bag at the carrousel. “Oh look,” you can mindlessly think to yourself as that large tartan case with the pink ribbon tied to the handle trundles past for the fourth time “they’ve come from Istanbul and are continuing on to Omaha, Nebraska.”

 

Well, it beats throwing paperclips at the security guards!

 

If you have a very small brain like me, you can even amuse yourself by giggling at humourous codes or trying to think up interesting routings just to get a combination of codes onto a plane ticket. For example, did you know that if you flew from San Vito, Costa Rica to Fresno Yosemite your itinerary would read TOO FAT? Or that if your baggage claim tag reads SAY BIE it’s probably not that you’ll never seen it again but rather because you’re flying from Siena, Italy to Beatrice, Nebraska.

 

Apart from the fun you can have, there is a practical reason for familiarising yourself with airport codes and that’s that you can double-check that your bag has been properly tagged by the airline representative when you check-in for your flight. If it at least has the correct destination on it, there’s already a better chance you’ll see it again.

 

But just remember, the next time that airline rep hands you a tag that says BIG BUM on it, don’t get angry: it could just be that you’re on a domestic U.S. flight from Intermediate Airfield, Alaska to Butler, Missouri!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: X is for Xai-Xai

26 06 2009

 

Dhow 2 mw

 

Xai-Xai, Mozambique is a bustling town on the banks of the Limpopo River, just 12 kilometres from Praia do Xai-Xai and its massive coral reef. Although this long, sweeping beach and its safe waters have been popular with tourists since Mozambique re-emerged onto the international scene after years of brutal civil war, like much of the country it is blissfully free of mass tourism and commercialism.

 

After almost 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule, Mozambique gained its independence in 1975 but fell into civil war just two years later. It was only in 1992 that the fighting ended and the country began to rebuild itself from the devastating violence. With little infrastructure for its own citizens let alone international visitors, only the most intrepid of travellers ventured to Mozambique during its early years. The one exception to this being some of the country’s islands located in the Indian Ocean along its pristine coastline which quickly attracted visitors looking for world class fishing, snorkelling and diving.

 

Located in south-east Africa and bordered by South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi amongst other countries, Mozambique is not a country to visit in search of wildlife. Much of the game the country had was destroyed or migrated to neighbouring countries during the independence struggle and civil war that followed. However, the advent of peace and the recent opening of the Transfrontier Peace Park which spans Mozambique and its neighbours has seen a steady and healthy increase in game. Although still not on a par with other southern African countries, Mozambique’s advantage is the lack of tourists who visit the country and the unique experiences that this still-emerging country offers to visitors.

 

Mozambique’s greatest draw is undoubtedly its coastline, however.  The country offers some of the most beautiful, pristine and picturesque coastline in Africa or indeed the world. Unspoiled by mass tourism, the coast still offers many idyllic resorts, usually small and luxurious rather than enormous and overblown. Think thatched roofs, hammocks in the sea breeze and excellent food. For those on a tighter budget there is far simpler accommodation that is still clean, safe and inexpensive enough to suit anyone’s budget. Regardless of the style of travel, the crystal clear waters offer superb snorkelling and scuba diving on the reefs, swimming or sea kayaking. There are lazy cruises on traditional dhows, or simply beach-flopping on the wide uncrowded stretches of sand.

 

Perhaps not the best destination for a first visit to Africa, Mozambique is a great extension to a longer tour or the perfect place for a second visit. If you have a sense of adventure, want to be amongst the first to explore a rebounding nation…or crave unspoiled beaches and crystal clear water, have a cool drink on the soft sand of Praia do Xai-Xai.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009








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