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

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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





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





The Golden Arches

16 06 2009

 

My name is the Adventure Blogger and I have a problem: I’ve eaten in McDonald’s in more countries than I have fingers.

 

Now, before you denounce me as one of “those” who won’t try local foods and instead always heads to the nearest McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, I should hasten to add that I have never been to an overseas Pizza Hut. It’s not that I am afraid of local food – indeed I’ve eaten sheep’s eyeballs, mopane worms, bottom-dwelling jungle catfish and man-eating Malawi crocodile – but sometimes McDonald’s is just so convenient. Like in airport departure lounges.

 

Although there’s something quite captivating, almost hypnotic and suspiciously addictive about the aroma of McDonald’s fries, I really do prefer many local dishes. Like mouthwateringly fresh feta, delicious savoury samosas or a divine bowl of pad thai. But sometimes it’s easier and quicker to dash into the Golden Arches and order Uno Big Mac or Ein McNuggets than to grapple with a foreign language and end up with raw liver instead of a chocolate croissant.

 

I’m not proud, just honest.

 

There’s one academic justification to frequenting McDonald’s, I’ve always told myself, and that’s comparing the menus or the prices around the world. Austria breads their McNuggets and serves beer; Atlantic Canada offers McLobster in-season and Australia has a selection of deli-style sandwiches – a veritable goldmine of information for social anthropologists. As for prices, a Quarter Pounder in Iceland costs about the same as an entire meal (super-sized…no less!) in Canada.

 

I thought I was a genius to think of using McDonald’s as a gauge of the local cost of living…until I discovered that The Economist publishes the  “The Big Mac Index” every year as an informal way of measuring the purchasing power parity between two currencies. After all, you can’t really use the local price of bananas in a direct comparison between Greenland’s Danish krone and Costa Rica’s colon but a fry is a fry is a fry is a fry…

 

The Economist introduced the “Big Mac Index” in 1986 and although it’s obviously not as scientific as comparing genuine economic data, it’s easier to understand and tastes better. It’s also not necessarily an indication of how much lunch costs in the various countries as a bowl of ramen in Tokyo will likely always be less expensive than a McHappy Meal in the Ginza, but it is still interesting.

 

As of February 2009, the five most expensive Big Macs in the world (converted into US dollars) were to be had in the following countries:

 

  1. Norway (USD 5.79)
  2. Switzerland (USD 5.60)
  3. Denmark (USD 5.07)
  4. Sweden (USD 4.58)
  5. Eurozone (USD 4.38) 

 

And the five most affordable Big Macs were found in the following countries:

 

  1. Malaysia (USD 1.70)
  2. Hong Kong (USD 1.71)
  3. China (USD 1.83)
  4. Thailand (USD 1.86)
  5. Sri Lanka (USD 1.95)

 

Now, please excuse me while I sink my teeth into some more valuable economic research.

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: S is for Santiago

22 05 2009

Santiago is the capital of Chile and is surrounded by sweeping vistas of snowcapped mountains. An ancient colonial city and thriving modern cosmopolitan centre, Santiago is an excellent destination in its own right or the perfect place to spend a few days before or after some travelling.

Settled by Spanish conquistadors in 1541, a number of buildings from that period survive to this day, despite being located in a significantly seismic area. One in particular is the Church of San Francisco which was built between 1586 and 1628 and is the oldest building in the city. The neighbouring convent is home to the Museo de Arte Colonial and its unmatched collection of colonial art and artifacts. The courtyard with its lush garden and wonderful tranquility also provides a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.Santiago 2 mw

There are enough museums and galleries in Santiago to occupy a week without seeing anything else. Whether your taste lies in mystifying pre-Columbian treasures or modern art, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. Sadly, with only a handful of notable exceptions, Latin American art is generally overlooked and neglected by the rest of the world and Santiago’s museums provide an excellent crash course with some of the finest collections anywhere.

The Presidential Palace, or Palacio del Moneda, is not only an impressive building and worthy home to the country’s seat of power but has also featured prominently in the country’s history. In 1973, the forces of General Augusto Pinochet shelled and bombed the building in an effort to remove President Salvador Allende from power. The coup was successful although the palace suffered considerable damage in the process. Fully restored now and featuring works of art in the palace’s courtyards, the only evidence of its violent past lie in photographs and displays. Unlike many similar buildings throughout the world which keep its citizens well away behind barbed-wire topped walls and concrete tanks traps, Chile allows anyone to stroll past the ceremonial guard and through the palace’s gates to show the openness and democracy that replaced years of totalitarianism.

For an overview of the city, visit Cerro San Cristobal, the highest hill in Santiago and one that provides panoramic views. There is a funicular that operates almost to the top and the hill also offers beautiful botanical gardens and other sites of interest. At the foot sits the eclectic Bellavista neighbourhood with its studios and great bars and restaurants.

And of course, Chile is renowned for its wines and there are several vineyards within easy distance of Santiago that offer tours and tastings including Vina Concha y Toro, Vina Cousina Macul and Vina de Martino.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Geography Quiz

21 05 2009

A few years ago I had a meeting at the Hilton. When the meeting was scheduled, I politely declined directions because I am a male and we do not require geographic assistance to get anywhere. I jumped on the subway and confidently strolled down the sidewalk secure in the knowledge that my planning would have me enter the revolving door at the absolute minute of our appointment.  Just a few steps away my heart skipped a beat and I went cold. What had formerly been a Hilton was now a Westin.

I stammered and stuttered to the doorman.

“Hilton?” I pleaded almost silently.

“Two blocks south and 5 blocks east” he answered.

“Hilton?” I again murmured pathetically.

“Changed names about three months ago.” He added, before assisting someone else.

I sprinted off to my meeting, arriving breathless and late. I learned a very valuable lesson that day. No, not about accepting directions or consulting maps – don’t be silly! I learned that even hotels can change names…just as cities, countries and even rock stars formerly known as Prince, can.

Author Harry Campbell has just penned a book entitled “Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? The Place Names that History Left Behind” which investigates the phenomenon of countries changing their names and the fascinating stories behind place names like Affpiddle of the Islands of Samson and the Ducks. As an inveterate traveller it’s always good to keep up with current affairs and geography so that you don’t pass up a ticket to Mumbai because you’d rather see Bombay.

Here’s a little test just to see how map-literate you are. Below are 20 former place names. All you have to do is provide the name by which the following are currently known.

  1. Leningrad
  2. The Trucial States
  3. Ruanda-Urundi
  4. Ceylon
  5. Abyssinia
  6. British Honduras
  7. Dutch East Indies
  8. Gold Coast
  9. Constantinople
  10. Aden
  11. Portuguese Guinea
  12. Stalingrad
  13. Nyasaland
  14. New Amsterdam
  15. Dutch Guyana
  16. Mesopotamia
  17. Berlin, Ontario
  18. Upper Volta
  19. Formosa
  20. Bechuanaland

 

Answers: 1. St Petersburg   2. United Arab Emirates  3. Rwanda and Burundi    4. Sri Lanka   5. Ethiopia   6.  Belize   7. Indonesia   8. Ghana   9. Istanbul   10. Yemen   11. Guinea-Bissau   12. Volgograd   13. Malawi   14.  New York City   15. Suriname   16. Iraq   17. Kitchener   18. Burkina Faso   19. Taiwan   20. Botswana

How did you do?

16-20: If you’d lived in Atlantis, it would never have become the Lost City

11-15: Where were you when Shackleton needed you?

6-10: Not bad, but I bet you still confuse Moldova and Moldavia, don’t you?

0:    Are you a friend of Wrong-Way Corrigan, by chance?

 

Post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009





Possessions or Experiences?

18 05 2009

Serengeti sunset mw

                 “Do sunsets usually growl?”                           (Serengeti sunset)

If you were given the choice between a 60” high definition plasma flat panel television with Dolby Surround Sound or a luxury two-week South African safari with private guide, which would you choose? If you said ‘both’, you are a person after my own heart. But greed aside it does raise the interesting question of whether you cherish experiences or possessions more.

Of course, there are some people out there who do have both, but we don’t like them much. For the rest of us mere mortals, if we are very lucky we might be able to pick one or the other once every 5 or 10 years. So what provides the greatest satisfaction in the short-term…and in the long-term?

I am a homebody who has the unenviable burden of also enjoying travel. I say unenviable because while some of my acquaintances are quite happy to live in a shoebox over a subway grating with 43 roommates and live on day-old birdseed in order to pool all of their money into travelling the world, I really do like a few special home comforts and lots of travelling. Alas, not being married to Donald Trump’s daughter, I usually have to pick between the exotic trip or the slab of apple-smoked cheddar.

As I get older I find that experiences seem to be gaining more and more importance. Perhaps it’s a taste of my own mortality, but when I reflect on my life the things that give me the greatest satisfaction and fondest memories are not things at all, but experiences. I rarely sit back and think to myself “Wow, I loved that triple-speed pastel-green mixer with ice-crusher”, but I do remember the first time I smelled the heady scent of eucalyptus in Australia, standing in a jungle-clearing in Costa Rica watching lava cascade from a volcano late one night or hearing a leopard prowling around my tent in Kenya. I will never forget the first glimpse I had of a wild mountain gorilla after several hours of arduous trekking, of waking to a spectacular view of the pyramids from my Giza hotel room or of a wonderful evening in a small basement jazz club in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

When I’m 80 years old, I can probably still have a pair of 2,000 watt speakers with 12-inch aluminium woofers, titanium mid-range drivers and .75 inch tweeters… but I may not have the ability to trek the Himalayan foothills, photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise or camp on the farthest reaches of the Great Wall of China.

I think for now I’ll make do with my 18” TV and continue to indulge my passion for adventure.

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009