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Zip Line through the Costa Rican Rainforest

April 28, 2011

I’ve zip-lined in a couple of cool places on different vacations (see China, Mauritius), but nothing was as fun as doing it in the Costa Rican rain forest.

I was in the country with my family celebrating New Years in 2008. We stayed in a beautiful resort in Jaco, Costa Rica and while we spent most days hanging out by the massive pool and bar, we managed to get out and explore every once in awhile. Zip-lining was our first stop.

We made reservations with a local company and drove there bright and early on New Years Eve day. Since the actual zip-lining course was nestled way up high in the hills of the rain forest, our group ( I was traveling with 16 family members) was put in the back of cart that was being pulled by a tractor. Since there was a massive rain storm the night before, the dirt roads leading to the course was washed away, and after about 30 minutes of being towed, the cart almost fell of the side of a cliff and we had to get out and walk the rest of the way.

When we finally got up to the first leg of the 14 leg course, we hooked up and zoomed off in to the treeline one by one. The first line ends in the middle of the forest and you find yourself standing on a homemade wooden platform built around a tree. Because my Aunt had an anxiety attack and decided that she did not want to zip line, she had to be hooked to a guide and brought through all the legs (once you get to the top, going through the course is the only way to get down). But they ended up stopping the rest of us, and making the remaining 15 in our group stand on the tiny platform, squeezed together.

We all made it through eventually, and ended up on solid ground. The experience was great and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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Saving Money– Travel Locally

April 23, 2011

If you decided after reading my last blog post that you need to visit Antarctica in your lifetime, then you better start saving now. But don’t let that discourage you from traveling altogether, there are plenty of local adventures waiting out there for you– for instance, spending the night at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Most programs that the zoo runs are aimed towards families and younger kids but that doesn’t mean that teens and adults wouldn’t have the time of their life there. I slept over with my girls scout troop when I was younger, but I would love to be able to do it again.

The Philly Zoo has an indoor room with tons of historical scenes set up. There are giant dinosaur eggs and a massive treehouse. When I slept there the zoo keepers let us have full reign of the area- I opted to sleep inbetween the tree roots of the tree house.

If this doesn’t sound too adventurous to you, you should know that the zoo is believed to be haunted. Recently Ghost Adventures shot an episode exploring the paranormal activity rumored to be happening at the zoo. Spending the night may seem a whole lot more exciting now.

Visiting ALL of the continents

April 21, 2011

If you are anything like me, one of your goals is to eventually visit and explore all seven continents of the world. North America and South America are easy, Europe is the place to go for American tourists so that’s do able. Most tour companies offer a two or three day trip to Northern Africa while you’re in Southern Europe, so you can kill two birds with one stone there. With Asia’s growing prominence in the world sphere more and more people are making trips to the see the city lights of Tokyo or walking the Great Wall of China. Australia is a little out of the way and costs a ton of money to fly there from the US, but it makes for a great vacation with its beautiful beaches and great snorkeling. That leaves only one elusive continent that is hard to reach– Antarctica.

Photo: Chregu

There are several advised ways to get there, although all of them are costly.

1. Take a cruise. Many big liners have itineraries in the Southern Atlantic that go by Antarctica. Although you never actually get to touch land so I’m not sure this really counts. On smaller cruise ships you can get to land for an hour or so by using zodiacs, which is a little better. This trips tend to start at around $8,000.

2. Take a private expedition. Places like Extreme Adventures will take you through the same trip that original explorers used when they first discovered Antarctica. You will spend up to 18-days exploring the continent and trekking across snow-covered mountains. Sounds great right?  Most trips cost about $57,000. Not so great any more

Photo: 23am.com

So those are the advised safe ways to get there. But if I was feeling extra adventurous, I would hop on a plane to Ushuaia, Argentina where most ships leave from to get to Antarctica and try to bum a ride or find a very discounted deals on one of those cruises.

Either way, it looks like its going to be awhile before I make it to all seven continents. I still have Australia left on my list, so I will work on tackling that fist.

Other travel blogs (besides mine) worth reading

April 18, 2011

I was going to write a blog about other great travel blogs but Chris Elliot did it better. He highlighted some of the best blogs to follow in 2011, ranging from one written by the TSA department to one about the relationship between technolog and travel. Check it out: http://www.elliott.org/blog/11-travel-blogs-you-should-bookmark-in-2011/

Backpacking 101

April 11, 2011

Traveling across foreign countries isn’t easy to do; it takes time to perfect and that usually only comes after a lot of experience.  Many of the problems that I faced during my first backpacking adventure (getting lost, seeing only tourist attractions) are a right of passage for all travelers.

When Ben Treanor, publisher of the travel blog “Euros at My Dollar”, set out on an eight month trip touring South East Asia and Europe he was a novice traveler, but soon learned some basic skills. He said the first one was to remember which way the traffic went; he almost got hit by a car when he looked left instead of right while in London during his first week abroad.

Packing also tends to be one of the biggest problems when traveling. Leaving the comfort of home for any length of time is intimidating, so most novice travelers try to bring everything they can with them. When people gain a little more skill traveling they usually lay out everything they need and then put half back. It is not until you have traveled a great deal that you learn how little you can really survive on.

“We learned that there are very few things you can’t scavenge, like tiny hotel shampoo bottles, for instance, or toilet paper from bathroom stalls and that many things can have multiple uses; shampoo is not just for cleaning hair – it can also serve as hand soap, body wash, and laundry detergent,” Treanor learned.

I learned that most hostels allow you to rent bath towels, so that is one less thing you have to lug around in your backpack.

Another huge challenge for travelers is getting the nerve to talk to locals.

“Being too timid is probably the biggest early problem we learned to overcome. Like many travelers, we felt self-conscious early on about trying to speak the local language, or hesitated to ask for directions because of language barriers. Thankfully, we learned to throw that to the wind,” Treanor said.

I have enough trouble asking for directions when I speak the same language as someone, so I thought I would never have the nerve to ask for directions to someone who couldn’t understand a word coming out of my mouth. But when it comes down to spending the night wandering around a strange city or overcoming your fear and finding your destination the choice is easy.

One of the biggest problems I had while traveling was feeling like I needed to see everything. In Spain I ran around the city trying to see all the famous landmarks that I saw nothing of the real country.

Treanor suggests not going to see things just to say you have. He thinks being flexible in what you do and where you go will enhance your trip.

“I learned that being a successful traveler means finding the right balance between planning and spontaneity,” Treanor said. “Keeping your schedule loose allows you to take fun and unexpected detours that often turn out to be highlights of the entire trip.”

As the co-founder of Lonely Planet, a leader in travel guide books, Tony Wheeler says on the Lonely Planet website, “’When you come to a fork in the road, take it’, goes that famous piece of travel advice, but it’s always nice to know what the choices are. Try to make the time to try both routes.”

Not being glued to one particular path can make all the difference.

Most importantly travelers must learn to trust strangers. Whether it’s getting directions or advice, locals can help connect a traveler to the heart of a country.

“Strangers were constantly helping us throughout our trip, whether it was something as simple as giving us directions or recommending a good local place to eat, or something as generous as letting us crash on their couch for a week so we wouldn’t have to spend money on hostels,” Treanor reflected, “I learned that the vast majority of people in the world are genuinely good.”

Surf the North Shore

April 7, 2011

Last time I was in Hawaii I was on the island of Oahu just a few minutes from Waikiki Beach. Waikiki is like the mecca of all tourist attractions for people in Hawaii- they have cute little t-shirt stands, luxury hotels and lots of sunbathing tourists. While I was there I decided to try my hand at surfing and signed up for an hour lesson. It was much harder than I thought it would be, but much more exciting than I thought as well. After my hour session, my friends and I were hooked.

Wanting to fulfill our surfing crave we hoped on the bus and took the couple hour drive up to the North Shore to watch a big wave surf competition. By chance, when we were there, the Eddie Aikau big wave surf competition was happening. This competition rarely happens, about once every 40 years. The waves are ridiculous, reaching about 45 feet. And the surfers are even more ridiculous.

Although its was obviously just by chance that we were there when this competition was happening, surfers are always out on the North Shore doing their thing. I would highly recommend anyone who visits Hawaii taking a day trip away from Waikiki and visiting the North Shore beaches. 

Sleeping on the Great Wall of China

April 1, 2011

The Great Wall of China weaved its way through the horizon in the slowly setting sun. The mood was lighthearted, magical, but the first gust of wind swooped in and chilled me to the bone. I looked up at the looming wall now standing out against the dark sky and realized with a shutter, that this would be my home for the night.

There was no time to waste, so our guides ushered the group of seventy students I was sharing this experience with forward until we were at the base of a mountain. I pointed the dim beam of my hand-generated flashlight up and saw only an endless path of steps.

Single-file, we began to climb. The trees surrounding us were covered with a fresh layer of snow. Icicles hung from their branches glistening in the light of the moon. The sky was littered with glowing stars, the kind of night sky you only see miles away from civilization. I got lost in it, this picture of nature’s pure beauty.  But I only risked looking up once. My eyes had to remain focused on the decaying steps I was climbing.

Forty-five minutes later I had made it top of the Great Wall. I looked down at the Wall which was composed of loose rocks and uneven steps. In most places the actual wall had given way, and I could stand on the edge and look down the side of the mountain. Patches of snow and ice layered the ground. I hadn’t been walking on it for more than two minutes when I fell. My foot hit a patch of ice and it was downhill from there, literally.  I slid 10 feet before I stopped. My second fall came only thirty seconds later. I used my hands to push myself up, but the rock gave way beneath me and I toppled back to the ground.

Five falls later I didn’t think this was so much fun.

walking down ice covered steps on the Wall

I kept my eyes down watching where I was stepping next and some how made it to the watch tower where we would be spending the night. I didn’t have a watch on so I wasn’t sure how long it had taken me. But by the time I reached my destination I had taken off my gloves, hat and jacket, and was covered in sweat. I had hiked so long and hard that I wasn’t cold any more- and that’s saying something.

I made my way to the pile of sleeping bags and grabbed two. I found a quiet corner in the watchtower and got in my first sleeping bag, boots, jacket and all. Still cold, I pulled my second sleeping back up over the first.

Me in my two sleeping bags

As I lay on the ground in my cocoon I could still feel the freezing ground under my back and hear the wind whistling above my head. I shook uncontrollably from head to toe. I was not alone in that. I could hear the sound of teeth clattering throughout the tower. I pulled my wool hat over my eyes and wrapped my scarf around my face. I closed my eyes and prayed that sleep would come soon, and it did eventually.

I awoke very early the next morning with a dry mouth, and reached for the bottle next to my bed. The water in it had turned to ice.

I stepped outside the tower as the sun peaked it’s head up from behind the mountains. I looked at the scene before me. The Wall stretched as far as the eye could see, winding back and forth like an ancient serpent. And as the sun made its way up to its place in the sky, it melted the “wow” moment out of me. My time on the Great Wall of China had been an experience, but I could say that about eating jellyfish in Vietnam and watching a bull fight in Spain too. Bottom line is some experiences aren’t worth repeating.

I was the first one to finish our hike that day and the first one to say I would never do that again.