TripScout: This App Should Be Your City Guide

travel writing

A recent business trip to South America left me with two unexpectedly open days in Buenos Aires. I welcomed the free time but was overwhelmed by the abundance of places to see and things to do in only 48 hours. Should I visit art museums? Waste away an afternoon in a cafe or wander the streets? Where could I eat steak among locals instead of tourists?

To help me narrow down my choices, I turned to the new travel app TripScout.

Think of TripScout as a worldly, trustworthy friend who has spent a lot of time in the city you’re visiting. The night before your trip, your friend cuts apart your guidebook and hands you only the pages about sights worth seeing.

TripScout provides highly curated lists of activities, sights, restaurants and hotels in 50 major cities around the world (with more cities being added regularly). The app is ideal for travelers who are overwhelmed by an infinite number of options and for those who don’t have time to fully research a destination.

I stayed at a TripScout-recommended hotel and was pleased with its accurate description and location. While walking through Buenos Aires’ main plaza, I turned to the city guide to learn a bit of history about the pink-hued executive mansion called Casa Rosada.

Thinking it was a government building, I definitely would have walked right past the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana had TripScout not informed me it was actually the church where Pope Francis was archbishop. I went in and saw some of the most gorgeous stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen.

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I never would have known this was a cathedral if not for TripScout. (c) Elissa Leibowitz Poma

At the app’s recommendation, I visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery, the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires and the final resting place of Eva Peron and other famous locals. I arrived at the cemetery 30 minutes before closing and was grateful to listen to the app’s two-minute audio overview. That let me maximize my time, photographing the oversized, ornate mausoleums instead of staring at my phone or flipping through a book to figure out what I was seeing.

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Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires. (c) Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Another great aspect of this app is its offline maps. I didn’t want to waste my limited international phone data searching for maps online, nor did I want to brand myself a tourist and make myself a target of petty crime by using a paper map in public.

Although TripScout is free to download, it includes only very basic information. The real value is in the individual city guides, which cost $0.99 to $2.99 to download.

Originally published on Independent Traveler

A Great Nighttime NYC Activity for Kids: Visiting the Empire State Building

travel writing

Without a doubt, the most eye-popping view of New York City is from the Empire State Building’s dizzying yet thrilling 86th and 102nd floor observatories. But ascending to the observatories can be a test of patience for school groups when the lines to buy tickets, go through security and ride one of the gilded elevators to the top are an hour or more long.

Except at night.

An evening outing is an ideal excursion on a New York City field trip if you want to avoid Empire State Building crowds. The majority of the building’s 3.5 million annual visitors go during the daytime, so wait times generally are shorter after the sun goes down.

A post-sunset visit also provides an appropriate evening activity—something to keep your students together and otherwise occupied in the City that Never Sleeps.

And the 360-degree views? Beyond breathtaking. Seeing the glittering buildings at night from that high vantage point provides a memorable perspective on the city that your students may not otherwise experience. Suddenly you understand how New York City can be seen from outer space.

Times Square is easy to spot—it’s the most illuminated and flashy place you’ll see. The Chrysler Building to the northeast stands alone like an Art Deco beacon. On a clear evening, you can see planes on their approach to the area airports and boats on the rivers.

There are a number of advantages to going to the observation level of the Empire State Building at night:

  • Just about all other student-friendly attractions are closed in the evening. This will give you something to do after dinner.
  • Depending on when you go, the wait time to get to the 86th floor observatory could be as short as 20 minutes. Daytime visitors should expect to wait more than an hour.
  • The crowds taking in the view along the outdoor observatories could be thinner, making it easier to nab a good spot to snap photos.
  • On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, a saxophonist often plays live music on the 86th floor, adding some additional ambiance.

Not that you’d necessarily want to take students there very late, but the Empire State Building is open until 2 a.m. The 86th floor observatory is included in the cost of general admission, and a visit to the 102nd floor observatory—which is small and doesn’t necessary provide much more of a better view—costs extra.

If a nighttime visit isn’t possible, try to go between 8 and 11 a.m. to beat the crowds.

Some additional tips:

  • If you can delay dinner, visit the Empire State Building at sunset. Your students would be able to see both the street layout and the glittering nighttime lights.
  • Dress warmly for a nighttime outing if you visit during a season other than summer. Even in the spring or fall, it can be chilly and windy 86 floors up.
  • If you’re visiting during a holiday, expect long lines, regardless of what time of day you go.
  • Schedule a restroom stop on the second floor, before you get in line for the elevators to the observatories.
  • There’s no food and drink for purchase at the top; bring water if you think you’ll get thirsty.
  • If you allow it, suggest that students chew gum during the elevator ride, to keep their ears from popping.
  • Don’t forget to look up! So many visitors spend their time looking out across the city that they forget about one of the most interesting views—upwards, at the very tip of the skyscraper.
 Originally published on the blog of Julian Tours, a specialist in tours for school groups.

The Mythology of the Amazon

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The extreme silence, the brightness of the midday sun, humidity, and lack of breeze along this great river can hypnotize you, and beguile you, with its magical powers. In this feature for AAA’s EnCompass magazine, I take you into the mythical world of the Peruvian Amazon.

Pink river dolphins undulated through the still waters of the Amazon River like half-submerged rose petals in a glass of chocolate milk—and they looked just as out of place.

I was sitting in the open-air lounge on a riverboat in the Peruvian Amazon, watching the dolphins cut through the flat surface with barely a splash. My fellow travelers were on an excursion in the nearby Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, and I decided to stay back to enjoy the quiet of an afternoon alone.

It was mid-day and quite warm. The riverboat crew had retreated to their cabins to rest; the howler monkeys and birds that filled the air with chatter all morning were equally quiet. The extreme silence, brightness of the midday sun, humidity, and lack of breeze had a hypnotic effect on me. I felt like I was in a hazy dream. So when a trio of pink river dolphins appeared right next to the anchored riverboat, I thought I was hallucinating, as if I were suffering from a 105-degree fever, or seeing flower petals floating in my beverage.

That’s precisely the effect that botos, as they’re known locally, have on the indigenous people who live along the river. A crew member named Jorge told me later about the stories he heard as a child growing up in a village upriver from the city of Iquitos. Pink river dolphins hypnotize you, beguiling you with their magical powers, he said. And as a woman of child-bearing age, I needed to be especially careful.

During the daytime, pink dolphins go about their usual dolphin business. But once the sun dips, Jorge explained, they morph into handsome men and go ashore strictly for the purpose of seducing the women of local villages and impregnating them. Before the sun comes up, these shape-shifting encantados turn back into dolphins. That’s just one of a number of special powers the dolphins possess.

Embracing tradition

Whether you believe in the magic, you have to respect the role that such mythology plays in the lives of the local people, called ribereños. Cautionary tales involving animals and nature have been around for millennia and are as woven into the lives of the Amazon people as the vines wrapped around the rainforest’s skyscraper-like trees. For the purpose of immersing completely into this far-away place, I decided to embrace the mythology of the rainforest.

I was thankful I didn’t go ashore with the other passengers that day: One of the activities was a swim in the river. And while that sounded so refreshing and thrilling, I could have fallen victim to another of the sneaky dolphins’ tricks: If one found me swimming alone, he would whisk me away to a secret underwater city, and I’d have to live the rest of my life there.

My guess is that this myth started as a way to get people, particularly children, to use the buddy system when bathing in the river. Dolphins bite. So do the piranhas that congregate in pools shaded by overhanging branches along the river banks.

I remembered this the morning we rose early to go piranha fishing. With egg sandwiches, muffins, and coffee packed in wicker picnic baskets, we motored in skiffs to an offshoot of the Ucayali River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River.

We arrived in a tranquil spot where lime-green plants covered the water’s surface, and the crew handed out simple fishing poles made from a bamboo-like reeds. Bait consisted of bloody chunks of rotting beef—not a very appetizing smell first thing in the morning! I made sure I didn’t lean too far out of the skiff as I slapped the water surface with the reed to attract the steely eyed little monsters. Almost as soon as the pole went into the water, I felt greedy, omnivorous nibbles on the end of my line.

The fish proved easy to catch: I hooked seven red-bellied piranhas. The guides collected them in a plastic bin and took them back to the riverboat, where I asked the chef if I could help him prepare them for dinner. In the small galley, with towels wrapped around our hands to protect us from their razor-sharp scales, we cleaned the fish, dredged them in flour and spices, and fried them.

Like the river dolphins, piranhas are at the center of their own set of myths. Some Amazonians consider it taboo to dine on predatory fish like piranha; others say it’s an aphrodisiac. Either way, it’s not very tasty, even drenched in freshly squeezed lime juice.

Piranhas are also the most hyped creature in the Amazon. They rarely, if ever, go into ferocious feeding frenzies, and rarely attack humans. Still, it’s hard to convince yourself they’re angels when you take an up-close look at their serrated teeth, which indigenous people use to make tools and weapons. I showed the piranha my utmost respect.

The foundation of life

Respecting nature is the foundation of life for the people of the Amazon. For ribereños, nature provides shelter, drinking water, food, religion, and medicine. One myth says that protective spirits reside in the lapuna tree, and even illegal loggers know that if you cut down the wrong lapuna, really bad things will happen to you.

The No. 1 person in the Amazon to respect the power of nature, myths and all, is the local shaman. My Amazon riverboat expedition afforded me an opportunity to meet a local shaman for a ceremony and educational lesson in medicinal plants of the Amazon.

A shaman is a spiritual medicine man who has spent his lifetime committed to understanding the healing power of the rainforest, both spiritually and medicinally. The rainforest is his university, and his professors are other shamans who have orally passed their knowledge down to him.

Sadly, Amazonian shamanism is a dying practice—not many young people want to commit themselves to the intensive self-study, which new generations may see as antiquated. Yet so many inhabitants of the rainforest rely on the shaman, often visiting him for healing before venturing by boat—sometimes for days on end—to see a doctor schooled in Western medicine.

Once again, I decided to believe what I didn’t completely understand. One afternoon, we gathered on the hand-hewn benches in a small village and sat rapt for an hour before the shaman known as Maestro Juan. While I’d like to say he was wearing some sort of inspiring, of-the-rainforest getup involving scarlet macaw feathers and the vine of ancient plants, Maestro Juan was dressed like a regular guy in a polo shirt and ripped jeans.

He lit a hand-rolled cigarette of sacred mapacho tobacco and blew the smoke from his mouth onto the crowns of our heads. Following the instructions provided through an interpreter, I used my hands to “wash” my body with the smoke. I listened as the shaman described the purpose of a half-dozen murky liquids in old plastic soda bottles. They all healed different ailments.

I took a whiff of ayahuasca, the legendary hallucinogenic potion that induces spiritual journeys. This particular expedition doesn’t include an ayahuasca ceremony, but we were grateful for the opportunity to learn about the plant-based potion that’s said to relieve people of emotional burdens.

And, really, you don’t need to go through a painful, drug-induced journey to be changed by the rainforest. You still can experience its magic on a comfortable riverboat with a fully stocked bar and air conditioned cabins. As long as you immerse in the experience—and its myths, whether believable or not—you will go home changed, as I did.

Just do me a favor and don’t look a pink river dolphin in the eye while you’re there—unless, of course, you want to have the most dreadful nightmares for the rest of your life.

Elissa Leibowitz Poma is a travel writer based in Washington, D.C.

Reprinted from the January/February 2017 edition of AAA EnCompass.

Lead image (c) JJ Huckin/WWF-US

 

12 New Years Travel Resolutions

travel writing

Writer and film producer Patricia Steffy rose early one morning last week in Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica, to walk among the trees and look for monkeys. But instead of searching the trees or watching the sun rise or listening to the surf crash on the beach, she thought about her flight home.

What time should she leave for the airport? What would the weather be like in Minneapolis for her connecting flight? Would the customs app on her phone be accurate?

You would have thought her flight was that afternoon. But it was five days away.

Steffy, who writes the blog Traveling Without a Net, has set a New Year’s resolution to live more in the present and stop worrying about tomorrow. “I let what might happen in five days overshadow what is happening right now,” Steffy says. “It’s probably one of my worst travel tendencies, and I’m hoping to banish it — or at least lessen it — in 2017.”

She’s not the only frequent traveler who has made a travel resolution for 2017.

Adam Groffman, the writer of Travels of Adam, just spent six weeks traveling throughout the United States, so we’re not surprised by his response. “My resolution is to travel a little closer to home,” said Groffman, who is based in Berlin. “More staycations, weekend getaways with friends and family visits.”

Ian Cumming, founder of the international community Travel Massive, is feeling the same way. He said he plans to explore cities close to home — which happens to be the fabulous Sydney, Australia — and not feel like he needs to escape to far-flung places. “There’s most likely something just around the corner in your neighborhood that you never knew about,” he says.

Andrea Gerak, a singer and writer from Kazincbarcika, Hungary, has a goal of taking her 75-year-old mother on her first trip outside the country. “Although this has been a dream for her, she could never do it, sacrificing herself for the family and others. And now it’s her time!” Gerak explains. They likely will go to a seaside destination in Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia or Bulgaria, Gerak says.

As a perpetual traveler, Dariece Swift of Goats on the Road is never home. Yet her 2016 schedule wasn’t everything she wanted it to be because she was overbooked with house-sitting gigs and other commitments. She’s now resolved to keep her schedule freer in 2017. “Next year is going to be a year of continent- and country-hopping, with no responsibilities,” she writes via email from Buenos Aires.

James Feess, half of the duo who writes The Savvy Backpacker, is resolved to spend less money during the year so that he can splurge on more experiences while traveling. “For example, a few months ago we took a Vespa day tour through the Tuscan countryside. It was the highlight of our time in Italy,” Feess writes in an email. “Of course, we can’t afford to do something that extravagant every day, but that extra $200 was money well spent.”

Dan Miller, the writer of the blog Points with a Crew, plans to “stop worrying about finding the absolutely, positively best deal and just start booking trips and going places.”

Marek Bron, the blogger behind Indie Traveller, wants to inject his travels with more spontaneity — the way he did when he first started traveling. “Recently I’ve found myself terribly bogged down in trying to decide my next trip, and falling into the old trap of always trying to find the ‘perfect destination’ and the ‘perfect time to go’,” Bron explains. “For 2017, I’m promising myself to be a bit more spontaneous again.”

A nice complement to that is Kristin Addis’ resolution to “introduce more serendipity” into her travels. How so? Starting in February, the Be My Travel Muse writer is planning to explore East Africa for 45 days without a plan. “I’m going to road trip across a few of the neighboring countries without any plans or agendas to see where it takes me,” says the Southern California-based blogger.

Max Hartshorne, editor of GoNOMAD Travel, plans to take fewer but more meaningful trips in 2017. “I have been taking 12 trips a year for the past 15 years, and while I love it, I need to focus on business matters,” he says. “Now watch: I will get a chance to visit somewhere new and bang, out with this resolution!”

Wendy Redal’s resolution that has more to do with what she does once she return from a trip than during it. The Boulder, Colorado, writer and editor is pledging to organize her travel photos within a week of returning from a trip. “Or else they will continue to languish on my hard drive with the other 20,000 trip pictures I’ve taken in the last God-knows-how-many years,” Redal says.

And after visiting 23 countries in 2016, Collette and Scott Stohler plan to spend more time in the United States in 2017. The Southern California-based couple behind the the luxury and adventure travel blog Roamaroo have national parks on their radar.

“Sometimes,” Collette Stohler says, “it’s not until you leave your home that you truly treasure what was there all along.”

Reprinted from Independent Traveler

Trust Me: Don’t Sleep Here

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I arrived in Granada, Spain, during the height of tourist season and without a room reservation. After lugging my bag from hostel to hostel for four hours, I finally found a place with availability.

The only room left was a converted closet with a micro-bed. A single lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. To provide air, the proprietor had cut a “window” in the wall, which was covered in a shredded, rusty mesh screen. The window was opposite the shared bathroom, and it seemed like everyone who walked by poked their strange faces through my window, like Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene in “The Shining.” I was up all night staring at that nightmarish hole.

If you travel independently, you have to expect a few worst-night sleeps like that. Frequent travelers shared with us some of the scariest, filthiest, coldest, loudest and weirdest nights they’ve ever had on the road.

A Fungus Among Us

During his first around-the-world trip, travel blogger Marek Bron of Indie Traveller found himself in Chiang Rai, Thailand, without a place to stay. “Everywhere was booked out. So I ended up in this obscure hostel that, to this day, remains the worst place I ever stayed,” he said. “It had the ambience of a World War II bunker. Concrete walls, metal lockers, no windows.”

The grimy shower hadn’t been cleaned in months (at least). Not only were there dozens of empty shampoo bottles in it in it, but an apple-sized mushroom was also growing in the corner.

“If you can’t be bothered to at least get rid of the giant mushroom in the shower, you truly don’t care,” Bron said.

Not a Lot of Sleep Happening Here

Writer Ethan Gelber of The Travel Word and his wife arrived by bus in town along the Zambia-Malawi border well after dark. Having little electricity, the unfamiliar town was pitch black. “We didn’t know how far we were from anywhere, so we went to the only place with lights and begged for a room,” Gelber said.

Turns out, it was a brothel.

A Tumble-Dry Night

Emily Harley-Reid of International Expeditions was on a primitive camping trip in the Australian Outback. One night it was so cold that she and her fellow campers relocated in the middle of the night to the campsite’s laundry room. They cuddled up together on the floor around dryers with the doors open.

“We pooled our change, feeding the dryers every hour to stay warm,” she said.

The story had a happy ending. “One guy actually married his sleeping bag buddy from that night. They have two kids now and live in Iowa.”

Creature Comforts

Adventurist Johnny Ward of One Step 4Ward was exhausted after traveling two straight days from Ethiopia to Khartoum, Sudan. He took a room in the first guesthouse he could find. Bad idea.

“It was FILTHY,” Ward wrote in an email. “We flipped the mattresses to see maggots crawling under the bed. Disgusting, but at 1 a.m. in Sudan, you’re happy to have a roof.”

The squirmy insects weren’t the only roommates Ward and his friend had that night. An hour later, they discovered a full-occupancy rats’ nest under the bed. “We managed to switch rooms, [had] the worst night’s sleep imaginable and checked out at 6 a.m,” Ward said.

Strange Noises in the Jungle

Travel blogger Caz Makepeace of Y Travel trekked all day through the Sumatran jungle to see orangutans. Nighttime was memorable, too, but for the wrong reasons: freezing temperatures despite being on the Equator and a tarp that dropped rain on her all night.

“To top it off, our guide told us stories of tiger encounters before we went to sleep,” Makepeace recalled. “During the night, we heard a gigantic crashing [sound] in the jungle, and our guide stayed up for the remainder of the night holding a big knife.”

Don’t Rock the Boat

Dutch blogger Maaike van Kuijk of Travellous World thought it would be an exceptional experience to sleep aboard a riverboat-based hotel in Maastricht, Netherlands. It was anything but, with partiers boarding at 3 a.m. and whooping it up until sunrise, not to mention the tiny bedrooms with dirty sheets, an unclean bathroom and a lousy breakfast.

“I learned my lesson back then: Always read the reviews before you decide on staying somewhere,” van Kuijk said.

Surprise Shower 

Writer Dan Miller of Points with a Crew relayed this ominous tale from a trip to Mobile, Alabama: “The front desk agent behind a barred window told us he had no rooms left, despite our reservation. He told us that he could sell us, and I quote, ‘a room with something wrong with it.’”

Miller bravely took the room and found out that the tub “was completely covered in purple goo.” Needless to say, he skipped his morning shower.

The Worst Can Also Be the Best

Sustainable tourism expert Warren Green’s worst night of sleep was also one of his favorite travel experiences. While trying to cross a river in a remote region on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, his vehicle got lodged in mud up to the axles. A storm was coming, “and the roar of a lion reminded us that a walk … would be foolish,” Green said. He and his guide had no choice but to spend the night.

They gathered wood, siphoned a splash of fuel from the gas tank to start a fire and slept on the floor mats from the van. Lightning flashed in the sky.

“I lay awake drinking in this most uncomfortable night,” Green reminisced. “It was beautiful.”

Originally written for Independent Traveler

EU Postpones Decision about Visas for Americans

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The European Commission has delayed making a decision about whether to halt the program that allows American and Canadian tourists to go to Europe without visas.

The commission originally said it would decide in mid-July about whether to suspend the Schengen visa waiver program for citizens of the United States, Canada and Brunei. But the commission’s leaders decided last week to delay a decision until the fall because talks with the U.S. and Canada are still in progress.

As we reported in April, the Schengen visa program allows Americans, Canadians and the citizens of more than two dozen European countries to travel to and between countries in Europe without obtaining a visa in advance.

A key principle of the program is visa waiver reciprocity, but the United States, Canada and Brunei were not abiding by that. The U.S. government requires the citizens of five European countries (Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Cyprus and Croatia) to obtain an advance visa, while Canada mandates such visas for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. Brunei formerly required Croatians to get them.

A recent statement from the European Commission notes that Brunei has lifted the visa requirement for Croatian citizens. However, there’s been no meaningful progress on full reciprocity with Canada or the U.S. Talks with Canada will continue at a summit in late October, while U.S. government officials indicated to the E.U. that there would be “little chance of evolution” on the subject before the presidential and Congressional elections in November.

The E.U. still could decide not to suspend the program at all, according to the Wall Street Journal. If the E.U. decides there would be significant negative impacts on the European countries and its citizens, then it can keep the Schengen program alive without full reciprocity. The European Commission did acknowledge that the number of U.S. and Canadian visitors to Europe would decrease if visas were required, leading to “a considerable economic loss.”

Stay tuned for further updates.

Originally written for Independent Traveler

Take ‘Strol’ for a Stroll

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During his first visit to Rome, Serguei Sofinski and his wife explored the city on foot after conducting extensive guidebook and app research and charting what he thought was the most interesting route. But inevitably, an attractive side street or tucked-away fountain not listed in any guidebook would draw their attention.

“When you travel, you want to use every moment to absorb and enjoy the destination you are exploring,” Sofinski says. “There were plenty of apps showing directions to major sights or suggesting predefined street tours, but none provided a scenic route that could begin from anywhere.”

So Sofinski, a Harvard Business School grad and San Francisco-based software expert, created one.

His travel app and website, Strol, provides travelers with a scenic walking route in just about any city or town on the planet, even the ones guidebooks gloss over. Punch in your desired destination, and the program gives you a clearly marked and interesting route on a simple-to-read map. Points of interest — including lesser-known monuments, buildings and other sites — are marked with a star; touch or click on it to see photos and basic factual information about the attraction.

You can also chart out a route based on the amount of time you want to walk. Let’s say you’re staying at the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and you have 30 minutes to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. Type in your location and select a half-hour, and Strol will recommend the most scenic route.

The app uses crowdsourced information, so it’s constantly evolving and adding new attractions, large and small. Routes are also scored, based on what ordinary users (not guidebook writers) find interesting, so you get an idea how engaging the route will be. My sample half-hour stroll through Buenos Aires scored 3.20, whereas an hour-long jaunt starting in Times Square, New York, scored a 6.02, with more than 50 points of interest noted. (According to the Strol website, the most interesting destinations are scored at 7 or higher.)

Though the algorithms behind it are very complicated, Strol is a simple-to-use app that makes wandering more interesting. And it will only get better in the future as more attractions are added and more users score routes.

Would you give Strol a try?

Originally written for Independent Traveler