Friday, November 7, 2008

Costa Rica Travelogue (Day 4-8)

Day 4: We took a break from all the adventures and saved this day for a bit of site seeing. We walked up to the rim of Poas, an active volcano crater. Although there was no rain that morning, the fog was too heavy for us to see the crater at all. We are told that the sight is something to behold. After the crater we went to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This is a walk through the Vara Blanca Cloud Forest and goes through 5 waterfalls. The entire walk is paved but wet, so easy for both adults and kids though the length and the climb can be tiring for adults.

Day 5: We headed south towards Dominical area (Pacific ocean side) where the mountains meet the ocean. The drive to the beach was long and tiring. We passed over the mountains as high as 13,000ft high. We stayed at an Inn called Necochea, a private home tucked up in the mountain and surrounded by the jungle with a nice gurgling stream right outside the kitchen. A short drive down, the stream ended in a nice swim hole where my husband loved going for a dip. It felt like a private stream with its own waterfall and a swim hole. We used to wake up to the sounds of howler monkeys and toucans.

Day 6: This was a rappelling day, over the Nauyaca (Baru) falls, a beautiful double-decker falls. Basically you get to the bottom of the fall by rappelling down and then hike to a small but beautiful swim hole. The rappelling was initially scary, especially when it is time to go over the edge of the cliff. But when I got down and looked up, I wished I could do it all over again. Our 7 year old was too young for this, but our 10 year old was able to rappel. Of the three activities (zip lining, whitewater rafting and rappelling), our 10 year loved zip lining, rafting and rappelling in that order. Because of his light body weight, rappelling was a bit of hard work for him and he had to be assisted by the guide who was rappelling alongside. Our 7 year old hiked down to the swim hole with one of the guides and waited for us. After rappelling, we hung out by the falls, our really fun guides (a family of three) had prepared a nice lunch for us that we ate right there for a very relaxing afternoon.

Day 7, this day we had the option of going sea-kayaking, spending day at the beach or go whale watching. We chose to go whale watching. We saw two humpback whales, and few dolphins. Because of the rain the previous night, the water closer to the beach was very muddy so we chose not to snorkel, but in clear season, the water in the bay is supposedly very clear and supports a huge variety of fishes and beautiful snorkeling.

Day 8: This was our morning on the beach. The rocky coastline was lined with awesome beaches some of them with caves that people could paddle around in kayaks. We found a beach with two caves that connected the beach to the ocean creating a blow hole. These caves were perfect for body surfing or surf boarding. Such pristine beaches are what Costa Rica is all about, a place where the rainforests meet the ocean with nothing but a small slivers of sand in between...Costa Rica is Pura Vida.
Pura Vida: Pure Life

Monday, November 3, 2008

Costa Rica Travelogue (Day 1-3)

Our trip to Costa Rica was in the middle of August. Costa Rica promotes this time of the year as the “green” season, we all however call it the rainy season. As with most of our family trips, we used a small privately owned and locally operated company called Tico Tom Tours. Our main focus for this trip was to experience various adventure activities. We chose to skip visiting the northern pacific side of the country, where most of the major resorts are located. For lack of time, we could not go down south to Osa either, but hopefully our next trip to CR will include OSA. Our itinerary scheduled our activities in the mornings. Although it was the rainy season fortunately all our mornings were dry. Right around 2pm every day, it would start raining, at which point we used to stop for lunch and relax in our hotel. In the evenings we went out for dinner, rain or no rain. In fact, the rain created a very tropical ambiance. We had warm weather, pouring rain, nice dinner, all the while surrounded by the sounds of nature. If you are into nature & adventure tourism, Costa Rica is a good place to be during the rainy season.

On day 1, upon our arrival at Alajuela airport, we were met by our guide. We swallowed some dramamine and drove straight to the Arenal area. The drive from the airport is about 3 hours, so a morning or early afternoon arrival works best with our itin. We stayed at Arenal Resort, under the majestic presence of Arenal Volcano. The resort was about 3-4 star. The rooms were small but comfy; there was a swimming pool and a restaurant on the premises. Buffet breakfast was included. At night, from our bedroom we could see the smoke coming out the volcano. We had to take a short drive from the hotel to a lookout point, to see the lava pouring down its side. Since it was cloudy at the time we were there, we only got a brief glimpse of the lava. Nevertheless, Arenal area and the volcano are beautiful and a “must see”.

On Day 2, our big activity was zip lining through the rainforest. Zip lining constituted of 8 separate zips from one mountain to another to get to the bottom. Once we started, there was no turning back. Our 7 yr old was too young to zip (no harnesses for a small body. Hindsight, even if they did, I don’t think we would have felt comfortable with him ziping 8 times from one mountain to another). Our 10 yr old was able to zip with the guide. I fear we may have inadvertently created an extreme sports kid. He was scared but absolutely loved the thrill that came with it. After zip lining, we went for a short hike to La Fortuna falls and later that evening we dined and relaxed at Tabacon hotsprings. I confess, the day was a bit too hectic for the kids. Spending the eve relaxing in a hotspring was god sent and now I consider it a must do. It was drizzling while we were soaking, the outside air a bit cool but the water warmed by the lava was heavenly. We spent about an hour in the hot springs jumping from one pool to another. If we ever go back, I would without a doubt spend more than an hour there.

Day 3, we headed to the Sarapiqui river for whitewater rafting. It is a class II (mostly) & III river. This activity was perfect for both our kids. Because it was the “green” season, the river was full and the water level perfect for rafting. The flow was brisk but not too fast for the kids. We barely had to paddle and both the kids got a chance to sit up front in the raft for the thrill. It was great! We stopped half way through the river for a swim and to eat watermelons. After rafting we headed towards the Central Valley.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

9 Day Costa Rica Itinerary

Itinerary from our Costa Rica trip in Aug. We used a small privately owned and locally run tour company specializing in private family vacations called Tico Tom Tours( The folks were really nice and friendly. They gifted each of us a custom trip journal. When we left CR, it felt as if we were leaving family behind. I will write a more detailed travelogue in the next few days, but in brief, our trip was adventure filled, and wonderful. Our kids had an amazing time with various adventures. We definately recommend Tico Tom Tours for your trip to CR.

Day 1: Arrive in Alajuela. Travel north via private car to Arenal Volcano. Stay in Arenal
Day 2: Ziplining in Arenal. Other activities included hiking and Lunch at La Fortuna Falls. Dinner and soaking at Tabacon Hotsprings. Amazing experience.
Day 3: On route to central valley, we went whitewater rafting in Sarapaqui River. Mostly Class 2 rapids perfect for families with young children. Overnight at Xandari Resort.
Day 4: Visit to Poas Volcano and hiking in LaPaz waterfalls.
Day 5: Drive south towards the pacific beach, an area called Dominical. Stayed at a private inn called Necochea.
Day 6: Rappel down Baru Falls. Relax in the eve.
Day 7: Spent day whale watching, on the beach, and exploring the local town.
Day 8: Spent day at the beach and late afternoon drive back to San Jose. Walked around the tourist district in San Jose and a relaxing dinner in the city.
Day 9: Spent morning shopping for trinkets and Fly home.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thematic (theme based) Tourism

How often have you heard yourself say “I need a vacation from my vacation”. While planning trips, most people schedule a lot of activities to do, a lot of places to see, they want to get to all the "must see" places, to all the artifacts in all the museums. The trip begins to feels more like a marathon as opposed to a vacation. As a consequence both the trip planning and the trip itself become overwhelming.

As I posted in one of my earlier blogs, I am a big proponent of theme based vacations. If you travel with a theme, I really feel, that it increases the chances of you having a better time. The hard part is figuring out a theme, a focus or a special niche for your trip.

The first step is determining your travelling companions. Second step is determining what you all enjoy the most, or what you all want to see or do on that particular trip. Most of the time its this second step that is the hardest part. Different people inevitably want to do different things. Once your theme is determined, rest is easy. Schedule your activities around this central theme and whatever does not fit the theme is superfluous. If you find yourself with extra time on your trip...well… did you read my post on serendipity. As I say..the best memories are often the ones you cannot plan. So if you do find some extra time on your hands, go discover something, go off the beaten path, make a special memory.

Some suggested themes:

  • Aboriginal tourism (also Tribal tourism and Native American tourism)
  • Adventure tourism (usually outdoors)
  • All Boys trips (often fishing, motorbiking)
  • Ancient History Tourism (e.g. travel to Pharaoh Egypt, Mayan ruins, Andes etc.)
  • Architecture tourism
  • Backpack tourism (or Backpacking )
  • Battlefield tourism
  • Beach tourism
  • Business tourism (or Business travel)
  • Celebrity tourism
  • Community Based tourism (or Community Supported tourism)
  • Cruise tourism
  • Culinary tourism
  • Disaster tourism
  • Nature Ecotourism (or Eco-tourism)
  • Educational tourism
    Ethnic tourism
  • Event tourism (or Special Event tourism)
  • Extreme tourism (extreme sports)
  • Geopark Tourism or Geo tourism (geology-based includes volcanoes, hot springs)
  • Girlfriend Getaway (all female trip)
  • Group Travel
  • Golf tourism
  • Grief tourism (related to Thana-tourism)
  • Heritage tourism
  • Historical tourism
  • Honeymoon
  • Incentive travel (gift vacations for employees)
  • Island tourism
  • Medical tourism (Health or Wellness Tourism)
  • Museum tourism
  • Meetings, Conventions, Conferences and Exhibitions
  • Nightlife tourism (also Entertainment tourism)
  • Pre historic tourism (trip to pre historic sites, also ancient history tourism)
  • Photo Tourism (Photography tourism)
  • Religious tourism ( Pilgrimage)
  • Reunion tourism
  • Genealogy related tourism
  • Rural tourism
  • Second Home tourism (to a Vacation property)
  • Sex tourism
  • Shopping tourism
  • Space tourism
  • Sports tourism (pursue a specific sport including marathons, triathlons, etc.)
  • Sun, Sand and Surf tourism
  • Thanatourism (death related tourism)
  • Urban tourism
  • Visit Friends, Family and Relatives
  • Vinyard Tourism
  • Volunteer tourism (or Volunteer travel)
  • Walking vacations (or Walking trips)
  • War tourism
  • Water / SCUBA tourism
  • Winter (Sports) tourism

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Gangtok and Darjeeling (Part II)

The drive to Darjeeling was lush, and heavenly. The local farmers had set up roadside stalls every few hundred yards loaded with fresh produce. My father, who was travelling with us, was in absolute heaven. He would stop our car every few kilometers and stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables from these farmers. Instead of munching on chips and crackers we drove around in the car, munching on carrots and cucumbers and any other fresh vegetable my father could get his hands on laced with chaat masala (spice powder) and lemon juice.
The city of Darjeeling was much more of a tourist center and bigger than Gangtok. The area is surrounded by glorious tea estates, the neat rows of tea plants covering the entire hills giving a very majestic feel.

The tea gardens are a sight to cherish. Being in Darjeeling, you realize how aptly the area was coined as “Queen of the Hills” by the British. We used our car for a day’s worth of sightseeing which included Tensing Mountaineering Institute, Pagoda, Zoo, Tibetan Refugee Center and a few other focal points. Within the town itself, we walked just about everywhere. The walk to Chowrastha, and from there up the hill to the Mahakal Temple makes for a nice walk.

For people who want to experience an Indian monsoon, Darjeeling is a perfect place to be. I loved curling up with a book, sipping chai and munching on pakodas, quaint tea sandwiches and indian-chinese noodles. And when the rain let up, we would go out for nice walking tours within the city. All Indians who grew up in India will know exactly what I am talking about. I think you have to be an Indian at heart to cherish the monsoon. For all others, without a nice book or a large group of friends to keep the entertainment going, the constant rain can get very tiring as it did for my kids.

For anyone planning a future visit to Darjeeling and Gangtok, my advice, go to Darjeeling first and then to Gangtok. A visit to a tea plantation is a must especially if you like to drink tea. Only a few tea plantations are open to public. If you are planning to buy Darjeeling tea, go to any large retailer in town and smell the various tea leaves, ask the retailer to explain the various harvesting seasons and their influence on the flavor, sample the one you like the most and then buy.

Gangtok and Darjeeling (Part I)

Last year, during our summer visit to India, we decided to spend a week in Gangtok (Sikkim) and Darjeeling (West Bengal) in the cooler Northeastern states.

From Delhi we flew into Bagdogra via Deccan Air. For those who have not yet experienced India, watch out for that concept of lines. The concept of “waiting in line” along with the concept of personal space is almost nonexistent. It exists but only in the minds of visitors from abroad. Deccan Air had first come first seating. Never mind how many people had been patiently waiting in line, but when the gates opened, all those who had not been in the line, shoved and pushed and nudged and got inside the waiting craft. Naïve us who had the poor foresight to actually wait in line and were so busy being aghast at being shoved around, were the last few to board the aircraft. The flight itself turned out to be very comfortable, with freindly crew and actually landed on time.

At Bagdogra, we rented a 4X4 to Gangtok, medicated ourselves with Dramamine and started our trip. The drive from Bagdogra to Gangtok was approx 5 hour long, very winding and incredibly scenic. The drive was dotted by villages and little hamlets the entire way. Many times along the way we stopped for a breather, some hot Chai and Momos (dumplings). You can’t skip them momos.

At first glance, Gangtok was a really small and overcrowded town. The hills were covered by concrete buildings seemingly built haphazardly upon each other, the roads pretty steep and full of cars. The fumes from the cars constantly driving in low gear really got to us. There was not much to see within the town other than the local market but once we got beyond the town, the natural beauty was breathtaking. The Buddhist monasteries, the terraced rice fields, and the rivers overflowing with clear water were incredibly beautiful.

The people were warm, friendly, and always eager to strike up a conversation. Since we were in Gangtok for only two days, and that too in the middle of the monsoon season, we did not venture into the smaller (but highly recommended) towns of Pelling and Yuksom. And for the same reason, we did not even attempt to go for whitewater rafting or hiking. Our only regret is that, it was too cloudy the entire duration of our stay that we did not get to see the Kanchenjunga; the 3rd highest peak in the world.

Our most talked about incident involves our visit to the Rumtek Monastery. While at the monastery, we went to see the monks-in-training’s meditation and classroom area, and in the process we became friendly with a few young monks there. These monks invited us for chai and being tea lovers we readily accepted. The monastery kitchen was closed so I am not sure how they managed to make tea but their version of chai included boiling water with milk and ghee (clarified butter) in equal parts. No matter how much sugar we added, the tea was absolutely unpalatable. Our fear of being rude was so great that we kept on sipping (more like licking) it for almost an hour. We kept waiting for the monks to leave the room so we could discuss our predicament. That one hour was a lesson in the art of body language communication. After about an hour, when we could not take the taste or the smell of “monastery tea” anymore, we excused ourselves and insisted on washing the teacups (so they would not see all the tea we were throwing away) put some money in their donation box and left. I don’t think any of us enjoyed our food that day, even the hot and savory momos did nothing for our ruined palates.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bagdogra - Gangtok - Darjeeling Itinerary (6 Nights / 7 Days)

Day 01/ Bagdogra – Darjeeling: Arrive Bagdogra and drive to Gangtok (5hrs) by private 4x4. Stay in Cherry Hill Inn. Very clean and comfortable, clear view of the Kanchenjunga mountains and view of the valley.

Day 02/ Gangtok Sightseeing: After breakfast went sight seeing: Research Institute of Tibetology, Chorten (Stupa), and Rumtek Monastery. Night stay in Gangtok.

Day O3/ Gangtok Sightseeing: Visited waterfall, M.G. Marg shopping center.

Day 04/ Gangtok – Darjeeling: On arrival transfer to New Elgin hotel. Night stay in Darjeeling.

Day 05/ Darjeeling Sightseeing: After breakfast proceed for Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Ropeway, Tensing – Gumbo Rock, Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center, Peace Pagoda & Rock Garden. We went to the local market to shop for Darjeeling teas. Night stay in Darjeeling.

Day O6/ Darjeeling Sightseeing: We skipped the planned early morning excursion to Tiger hill, Ghoom Monastery & Batasia Loop as it was raining and very cloudy. We did visit the Tea Estates. Night stay in Darjeeling.

Day 07/ Darjeeling - Bagdogra – Departure to board flight for Delhi.

Recommendation: Bagdogra- Darjeeling-Gangtok will be a more scenic itin.

Travel in a recession

So you really enjoy travelling but the dollar is plummeting in value. Do you stop travelling? Some of us cannot. It is almost like an addiction. We can’t stop exploring this beautiful world a bit at a time. There are five things we do (and so can you) to plan your next trip without pinching pennies or worrying about emptying your kids education fund.

ONE: Identify destinations where the dollar is strong. While US dollar is weak against Euro and Pound, travelling in areas where Dollar is still strong such as within US, Central and Southern Americas is highly attractive. If you ever wanted to visit Hawaii, Alaska, Maine, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, just to name a few, now is a great time to consider these places. If you have the time, places further away in Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe are great destinations.

TWO: Use airline frequent flier miles. Almost all credit card companies these days give you rewards or points for a specific airline carrier. If you have miles or points that you can convert into mile awards, this is a great time to use those miles.

THREE: Prepay as much of your costs in U.S. dollars as you can. Instead of exchanging cash at the airport, and paying higher exchange rates and commissions, use your credit card or the ATM card to pay for your expenses. Use your ATM card to take out only the amount of cash you might need for a few days at a time.

FOUR: Use local or a small travel agent to plan your trip. Instead of using a large tour operator or luxury travel company, use a local or niche travel agent to create a personalized and perhaps a private itinerary at lower cost.

FIVE: Identify and create a themed experience for your trip. This will help focus your trip on the “must see” and help eliminate all the other extras. Many years ago, my husband and I went to Egypt. Both of us had just joined the professional workforce, so were short on cash. Instead of an all encompassing, luxury trip, we chose instead to focus only on the ancient Egypt and created a private itinerary with the help of a local travel agent. We saw all the ancient monuments, landmarks and artifacts, travelled exclusively in a private rail compartment and by car, and included a few highly unique but absolutely charming off the beaten path highlights to our trip such as a visit to the Valley of the Queens and High noon tea by the Nile river for an incredibly unique experience. As you can see we still rave about that trip. Since then we have travelled to Mexico, Italy, Costa Rica, India, Hawaii and many other places but there has always been a theme to our trips.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Serendipity and Travel

While I am a planner, I am a huge proponent of not planning down to the last meal to the last minute. I want people to be open to the wonders of the world and what they may find along the way. When ever I come across people who have returned from a recent trip, I always ask what was their most memorable part of the trip. Almost always, it turns out to be something they did not plan on their itinerary.

On our recent family trip to Costa Rica, an eco-adventure trip that included zip lining, whitewater rafting, rappelling, my favorite memory is spending an afternoon with my family on a small pristine beach in Dominical that we stumbled upon. This beach had two sea caves that connected the beach to the ocean creating a blow hole effect perfect for body surfing. We spent our afternoon on this cozy little place where the rainforest met the ocean water with nothing but a small sliver of sand in between, a stream meandering through the forest, hiking the muddy river and body surfing the caves. I can’t remember how we had planned to spend that time or if we had planned anything at all, but then that is .. Serendipity.

A wise man once said.. if you follow a path too closely you will miss the wonders that you may find along your way.

There was a village woman who walked 2 Kos (miles) each way to the river to bring water for her family’s daily needs. She used to carry two pots of water on her shoulders every day and even then the water was barely sufficient to meet the daily needs. One pot had a small hole in it. Every day by the time this woman reached home, the broken pot was almost half empty. One day her neighbor asked why do you always carry that broken pot ? The woman replied, most people look at the path along which they walk to the river, but I look at the beautiful flowers growing along that path, that my broken pot waters. Moral of the story, its not always the path that provides the most wonder but often the small things along that path.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why use a Travel Agent?

If you are an avid traveler, chances are you want to visit places that are far and away from where you live and completely different from your daily life. You are seeking to create an unforgettable experience because you are not sure you will go back there again. Planning such trips and creating that experience can be quite time consuming, intimidating, and even confusing. People are often not sure which place they can afford to skip, which places are must see. Travel agents are there to help. Your job is to think global, their job is to make your trip their focal.

You can book all your hotels and airlines online, and you still need to do your own research, talk to your friends and family who have been to those places. No one else can do that for you, but there are professionals who are qualified to help you plan, coordinate, schedule and guide your experience.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why write on travel?

I was recently asked why do I want to write on travelling?

Well, for me, Travelling is a very personal thing. I love watching people go about their daily lives, their beliefs, their behavior, their traditions, their food and language and on and on. I love the fact that people living in completely different parts of the world, have many more things they share in common than differences. For me that commonality defines humanity. The emotions of a parent in United States is no different than the emotions of a parent in Darfur when they look at their sick and hungry child. The rivalry of two siblings is the same everywhere, no matter what language is spoken at home. The events that trigger tears of pain, joy and pride are the same everywhere.

What varies from one place to another is the interpretation and depiction of these shared values, the concept of personal space, the concept of time and of course the gorgeous natural landscape. I love to travel and I wish everyone else would too. So, I want to share my thoughts, impressions and feelings about travelling. Its as simple as that!