Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit

November 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

I start to have excruciating back pains in recent years. But I love long distance hiking. The idea of having to carry a 30 to 40 pounds backpack with all my supplies discouraged me until I stumpled upon porter-assisted hiking on the Inca Trail. Since then I’ve been looking around for similar trails and found them in many parts of the world. Porter-assisted hiking is more popular in developing countries. In England, Switzerland and Italy, I found van-assisted hikes.

I’ll start with Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit. I’ve never been there yet but according to many articles, this seems one of the top treks in the world. Some describe it as a 12-course meal (since the writer did it in 12 days) and each day is different. The trek, meandering through rice fields, deep valleys and 5-mile high snow peaks, can be done in 17 days. For those of us in the U.S. with just two weeks of vacations every year, some outfitters could organize culture tours and hikes in about 9 days. If you take the long route, be prepared to acclimatize and go through over 18,000ft La Thorong Pass.

Unlike some of the top treks such as Inca Trail or Kilimanjaro, this trek is also a trade route in the old times and is used for trades. Along the route, villagers start tea houses that allow weary trekkers to relax, shower and have a good meal. It is also quite crowded with almost 60,000 trekkers every year. You’ll start the trek with strangers but end it with amazing friends from all over the world. It’s a like getting into an exclusive club. Some trekkers go back several times because of that.

Trekking Annapurna Circuit can be done independently but to save time and be safe, you can arrange them with outfitters in Kathmandu. Here are two outfitters that offer reasonably priced options (at approx $1,000 to $1,500).

Himalayan Glacier Trekking: http://www.himalayanglacier.com/

Earthbound Expeditions: http://www.enepaltrekking.com/

Winter Escape: Puerto Rico

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Puerto Rico is small but packed with adventure activities. If you plan ahead enough, round trip airline tickets from the U.S. cost under $300. I picked a few adventure activities enough to fill up an adventure week. Hopefully they are all unique enough.

Bioluminiscent Bay Kayaking in a Clear Canoe/Kayak

Are you aware that Peurto Rico’s Mosquito Bay is the world’s largest and brightest bioluminescent bay?  The luminescence is caused by micro-organisms which glow whenever the water is disturbed, leaving a trail of neon blue. Kayaking here in a glass bottom canoe or kayak will be an experience not to be missed. The tour usually lasts about two hours. Best time is when there is no moon or when it is overcast. Call outfitters ahead of time to find out best night for the tour.

Vieques Adventures: http://viequesadventures.com/vieques-tours-rentals/clear-canoe-bio-bay-experience/

Kayaking Puerto Rico: http://www.kayakingpuertorico.com/

Toro Negro Waterfall & Zipline Adventures

Most tours operate on lands shared by multiple companies. The tour run by Acampa is on land that they own privately in the middle of the national forest. They are able to accomplish this by buying the grandfathered land from a family of natives. Here you hike, zip line, swim and rappel in your own private rainforest.

Acampa: http://www.acampapr.com/page.cgi?pag=tour&id=71416708568

Miniboat Snorkeling

This isn’t your “typical snorkeling trip”. You are able to have the thrill of driving your own boat and stop at three different islands and reefs for snorkeling. The tour is very small and the guides are more than willing to customize it to your liking. The boat is packed with your own snack bar!

Minboat Adventures: http://www.miniboatadventures.com/

Rio Camuy Caving

Featured in National Geographic Travelers’ magazine. On this tour you zipline several times and rappel down a sheer drop to get to the entrance of the cavern. It lasts up to 2.5 hours underground, and the sights are breathtaking. Stalactites, stalagmites, waterfalls, enormous underground rooms, animal life, underground rivers and bodies of water make it easy to see the beauty of nature. All this with encouraging, motivating and supportive guides whose confidence and familiarity with the surroundings make any worries disappear.

Aventuras Tierra Adentro: http://www.aventuraspr.com/. They also run a canyoning trip that also got great reviews.

Airline: Try www.spiritairlines.com for special offers.

Lodging: Puerto Rico Small Inns (http://puertoricosmallhotels.com/)

Unique Hikes – the Donnington Way

October 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

How about ending a long day’s walk at a pub? The Donnington Way is a pub crawl on “styroids”, in a good way. This is a 62-mile walk linking 15 beautiful Costworld pubs in the charming south-central England. All pubs are owned and operated by the Donnington Brewery. The circular path starts and ends on Stow-on-the-Wold but you can join the path at any point of your choice. Most Donnington houses offer bed-and-breakfast. Well suited for random walkers who thrive on hidden villages, well-kept gardens and good beer. For detailed information about the route and each pub, visit http://www.donnington-brewery.com/pubs.php.

Winter Escape – Cascading in Dominican Republic

October 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ever since I came back from Costa Rica, my travel style kind of changed a little bit. In the past, I would’ve gone to strenuous, challenging hikes like I did in Peru and near Smoky Mountains in the U.S. Now I look for a variety, a combination of hiking, canyoning, zip lining, kayaking, snorkeling… Sounds like a boot camp. I also developed an appetite for height and speed. Woohoo!

So, I took out the map and chose a few countries where round trip airline tickets cost around 500 bucks from Chicago. Then settled on Dominican Republic. I have not been there before so feel free to correct me. How does cascading 27 waterfalls sound to you? Pretty radical, right? Cascading is a sport similar to canyoning. The difference between cascading and canyoning is that cascading involves climbing up to the top and sliding down waterfalls, while canyoning is the sport of navigating the length of a river canyon. Don’t attempt to do this on your own. For best views and enjoyment, hire a professional guide.

In Dominican Republic, two of the independent companies offering this type of adventure are Iguana Mama (http://www.iguanamama.com/index.php) based in Cabarete on the north coast; and Rancho Baiguate (http://www.ranchobaiguate.com/) in Jarabacoa. Both companies have packaged and a-la-carte adventure options. Activities also include white water rafting, mountain biking, canyoning, snorkling. All are, well, very reasonably priced. If you fly into Puerto Plata and use it as a base, you could spend a winter week with plenty of fun, thrill, water and sun! All for under $1,500 airline included!!!

Check out this cascading video:

DIY in Costa Rica

September 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Before I went to Costa Rica last December, a friend who went there before decided to join us. Since I have limited time and resources to travel every year, I try not to go back to the same country. So, I was curious why. The other day I walked in the light rain, feeling refreshed from the scents around. “This reminds me of the rainforests in Costa Rica.” I thought to myself and all of a sudden wanted to go back again.

Our 9-day trip costs approx $1,200 including airline, lodging, trasportation, food and activities. At that time, some of us got round trip tickets from Chicago for approx. $300. They cost about $500 these days.

We coordinated our trip with hotels picked from TripAdvisor.com and used either private shuttle or minivan transport in between the three locations we visited. These shuttle services cost between $25 to $40 per person and drop you off at your hotel. We read reviews of local outfitters for adventure activities. But every hotel we went to help with coordinating day trips. And the outfitters will come to pick us up. If you are not up to driving and wasting your time lost in unfamiliar streets, this couldn’t have not been better to get the most out of your vacation.

Highlights of our activities

Volcano Arenal/La Fortuna area: Some guide books say this area is a tourist trap. But to me it couldn’t have been more authentic. Monteverde is more touristy and is the place I recommend to skip. You can stay in Volcano Arenal for a few days with plenty of activities to keep you interested. We have a TV in our room but no one bothered to turn it on.

Tabacon Hot Springs (http://www.tabacon.com): This place is simply magical! Especially after 6 hour sweaty hike on the Cerro Chato trail. You don’t have to stay at the resort to enjoy the hot springs. They offer day passes.

Lost Canyon Rappelling: You must go with Desafio Adventures (http://www.desafiocostarica.com/). The guides are professional, fun and the equipment brand new. We hiked, rappelled and got soaked wet for four hours down the canyon land owned by Desafio. There were no other tourists around! We talked to a woman who happened to share a shuttle with us. She went with a different outfitter and didn’t even get wet.

Lodging: We stayed at a family-owned lodge Arenal Green (http://www.arenalgreen.com/). They are the most friendly and welcoming family we’ve known. They treated us like relatives coming home for a visit.

If I go back there, I would stay longer and try these other activities: Rio Celeste hike, rafting Rio Toro, Venado Cave splunking, zip line, horseback riding and mountain biking.

Monteverde: I am not too impressed here. The shuttle ride was nearly 5 hours. We did zip line, which was the highlight of our trip. But this can be done in Volcano Arenal as well. Unless you are a biologist, it is difficult to tell the difference between a cloud forest and a rain forest. It is a little over hyped. And the city is quite touristy.

Manuel Antonio: I love the cliffside resort Costa Verde (http://www.costaverde.com/), particularly the ocean-view studio. Outrageously beautiful sunsets, nice, long jogs along misty, roaring Espandilla Beach Norte and frequent encounters with white face monkies. That’s how I remember this place. Couldn’t have been better to unwind here after days of hair raising adventures!

Check out this Lost Canyon Rappelling video I found on YouTube. I found our guides in it! Happy times!!!

Stately Stays On A Budget?

September 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Consider Prince Charles’ Transylvanian properties Count Kalnoky’s Guest Houses. Yup. His Royal Highness purchased several cottages in the villages of central Romania.  He had them beautifully restored in the traditional Szekler and Saxon style and offers them at 39 Euros for a B&B night or 795 Euros for 7-day all inclusive stays. Revenues earned from the cottages are reinvested to conservation projects in the region. These charming cottages provide easy access to wild flower hiking trails, medival castles and village lives forgotten by time. Come alone or with a family. The guest houses have received glowing reviews including one of the Six Best Stately Stays by Sunday Times. Check out package details and pictures here: http://www.transylvaniancastle.com/.  Good all year round. Not recommended for those “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” type of travelers.

Albergo Diffuso – “Dispersed Hotel”

September 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Ever tired trying to book a matchbox like uncharacteristic hotel from Expedia? Why not try an Albergo Diffuso in Italy? “Albergo Diffuso” translated to English literally means “Dispersed Hotel”. After reading details about them, I equate them to Bed and Breakfasts in the U.S. :)

Albergo Diffuso is a movement started in rural and remote villages of Italy in the 1980s to revitalize local economy. When younger generations left for city living, some of the abandoned homes were restored and decorated in authetic local style and converted in guest houses, inns or even luxury spa/resorts. They scatter throughout different buildings within the town but are overseen by one management. They allow tourists to immerse themselves in local lives while at the same time enjoy comforts of a hotel.

There are over 50 alberghi diffusi in Italy and about 100 to be built. Most cost 50 to 75 euros a night or 400 to 1,200 euros weekly (for 2 or more). You can find complete property listing from the National Association of Albergho Diffuso’s web site: http://www.alberghidiffusi.it/en. All properties are shown with phone, fax and web address. Several of them are located in the heart of Tuscany as well.

The picture shows a trulli, a Puglian albergho diffuso made up of traditional white limestone dwellings with conical roofs. From far away, they look like stoned tents scattered in the countryside. Trulli have become part of UNESCO World Heritage. Try it out at Trulli Holiday (www.trulliholiday.it) and Trullidea Albergo Diffuso (www.trullidea.it)!

Follow these links to read more about Albergo Diffuso:

National Geographic: The Towns Italy Forgot (http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/italy-hotels-traveler/)

New York Times: Saving Towns by Filling Rooms in Italy (http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/travel/23journeys.html?pagewanted=1)

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