Thoughts on guided tours, high seasons, and rental cars

 

We learn from observation, but mostly we learn from our mistakes.  That is where our trip to Alaska comes in.  We’d been working hard and desparatly wanted to take a trip but didn’t have time to plan one.  We also had airline miles to use or lose. Where could we fly that we’d always wanted to go with those miles?  Alaska!

Hey, it’s very big state and we didn’t have a lot of ideas for exactly what to do – so why not find a guided trip and go where they took us?  We saw a little ad in the back of a great magazine for an affordable 10-day camping trip.  Perfect, we thought – until it wasn’t.

The group didn’t really jell, the guide and food were mediocre, the weather horrible.  For 10 days’ vacation we had a lot of time to think about where we’d gone wrong and vowed not to repeat our mistakes.

Guided tours

We decided that for us, we would only take a guided trip for very specialized travel in the future, like a hiking trip in the Himalayas, a voyage to Antarctica, or a walking safari in Africa.

A safari in Tanzania called for excellent guides so we booked our trip with Mark Thornton Safaris.

We get a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction planning our own trips.  Every detail is to our own specifications and every dollar is well spent.   The longest trip we planned when our children were young was a 3-month trip spanning their entire school vacation.  We exchanged houses in Denmark, Italy and France and our only travel costs were transportation.

A photo from that long-ago trip to the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen.

Could we organize a serious birdwatching trip in Ecuador without booking a guided tour?  After months of research online, we discovered Jane Lyons’ name on a list of recommended Ecuador birding guides which led us to a glorious stay at her Reserva Las Gralarias.  

Over the week’s stay, we saw 181 bird species taking day trips out into the countryside with our friends, and dining and sleeping every night at the Reserva.  How we appreciated having a base for those daily outings!

High season

We enjoy spending our vacation hours outside and if we could order the perfect weather, we’d ask for sunny and warm with no rain.  Why not choose the perfect conditions for your visits by looking at monthly average weather charts for your next destination?  If we discover we’re traveling in  is high season, so be it. We highly prioritize good weather for our trips.

Years ago we planned a walking trip to Tuscany with a group of family and friends.  One couple had to bow out and instead took the trip on their own in the very early Spring.  They saved a lot of money since it was the low season but knew it was a potentially cool and rainy time of year.  They spent miserable days walking in pouring rain.  The rest of us went in May based on projected perfect weather.  Lovely!  We felt the extra money we paid was well worth it.

Of course, if you plan to be inside museums and shops during your visit, who cares if it’s cool and rainy outside?  Why not go in off-season for the savings?

Rental cars

For our travel outside the U.S., we have only rented a car six times.  Our philosophy is to walk everywhere we can, and when we want to go further, take public transport.  Oh, we can’t begin to describe the beauty of slowing down (way down) and taking in all the sights by means of walking.

We booked tickets in a 4-person sleeper on the overnight train from Shanghai to Guilan, China.  A well-behaved little boy and his mother shared one of the berths.

A much nicer overnight train took us south from Hanoi, Vietnam.  Our destination the next day was Hoi An.

While planning a trip for 6 friends to Turkey, we struggled with how to get from Selcuk, where we planned to visit Ephesus, to Bodrum on the southwest coast.  As we looked into bus routes, we discovered many important archaeological sites between the two, so we asked our reliable innkeeper to arrange a van with driver to turn the 2.5 hour drive into a full day trip with stops at those important sites.

We made stops at Priene (photo), Miletus, Didyma, and Euromus.

A rental car is an expensive drain on a travel budget, and we prefer to keep our travel “slow” when in-country.

Other travelers will have different opinions on guided tours, high season and rental cars.  The important point is to learn what works well for you and to apply that to your future trip arrangements.  What is your own “lesson learned” rule now applied to your travel planning?

 

April 2020

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What better time to plan the next memorable adventure?

Do you find yourself dreaming about taking a trip to a far-away destination? Especially now…  Life will never be the “normal” we once had but will be different.

Where are we now? We’re self-isolated in our little cottage due to the pandemic.  Our social calendar is nonexistent. We do have time and travel research tools at hand (computers and cell phones).  The situation now for us – like everyone else – calls for some happy distractions and affirmation that the future holds better days ahead.

If you never seemed to have enough time in the past to plan that lovely future trip you’ve always wanted to take, may we suggest that this would be a wonderful time?

One of our favorite destinations – we highly recommend! – is Porto, Portugal.

How about centering a trip around visits to museums, cultural institutions and parks?  The Monterey Aquarium exceeded our expectations.

We always start our planning by talking about the 3 essentials: When? How much? What do we want to do?

When?

We begin with “when” to vacation if there are any restrictions on the timing of taking an extended break from work. (We’re assuming that someday the kids WILL be back in school, and their breaks and your past difficult-to-leave work times continue to be the same as they once were.)

It might be helpful to consider the very best months to vacation in terms of your commitments and then have a few months as backups that are still possibilities.  This gets you to the halfway point.

Look up the temperatures, rainfall, and water temperature (if applicable) for the specific months you plan to travel for all destinations under consideration.

For us, the better the weather, the more we enjoy our holiday.

Our most challenging trip to plan weather-wise was the month of March somewhere in Europe.  We crossed our fingers for luck and chose the island of Corfu, which turned out to have better weather than expected and a wonderful place for exploring the Hellenistic ruins and seeing wildflowers.

How much?

Not overspending for a vacation may be the most difficult of all.  We always set a budget from the beginning and then challenge ourselves to plan the best trip we can while still staying within budget.

We’ve camped at a nearby state park and as far away as Alaska.  Here’s our campsite at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in western Texas, one of the least well-known and visited parks in the US.

We exchanged houses with families in Europe where no money changed hands.  Careful planning in advance allows budget travelers like us the ability to reserve places to stay, transportation, and calculate all the other expenses ahead of time.

At every level in the planning, opportunities will arise to overspend that budget – but don’t panic.  There are tradeoffs that become clear as potential expenses are considered.  On our trip with our grandchildren to the Netherlands, we set a budget that was generous, but not generous enough to cover the high prices we were finding for accommodations.  Only one place fit our criteria, but alas, it was over our budget.  Around that time, the airfares we’d been monitoring took a sharp turn downward.   We booked our air tickets for a price we hadn’t even hoped to get, freeing up funds to cover the hotel and still stay within our budget.

Planning ahead is the best way for us to stay within our budget.

What do we want to do? 

See National Parks, visit Venice, swim in the ocean?  Clarity is helpful and here’s why.  If you want to see National Parks and plan a driving trip of 14 days and spend 10 days on the road and 4 days at National Parks – is that really what you want?

Canyonlands National Park doesn’t have a café.  We’ve since discovered that not all U.S. National Parks have the full services we had come to expect like internet reception in the visitor center or even camping areas – and if they do, no site availability.  Be forewarned to check before your visit for services that are important to you.

If you desire taking in magical Venice, Italy but decide to see it as a port of call from a cruise ship for less than a day, will you be satisfied that you really fully experienced Venice?

Swimming in the ocean brings to mind sunny, warm days, and ocean water comfortable enough to plunge in.

The same trip too early in the year might surprise you with very cool water and many rainy days.

Plan your trip to accomplish your purpose, stay within your budget and at a time that makes sense for you.

To be continued …  “Thoughts on guided tours, high seasons, and rental cars”

 

April 18, 2020

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Good for you

A habit we developed years ago stuck with us.  In the beginning we took short walks pushing a baby carriage.  Every day we found time for a good walk and soon it became a habit. A decade later we had expanded to a family of five and still we took our walks. Roll the calendar forward by many decades and every day in every year, we continue with our routine.  Oh, the places we have walked!…  the weather we have walked in!… the things we have seen!

Now we have settled into our little cottage at Kendal at Longwood and our walks are more repetitive.   Just when we think things don’t change, they (magically!) do.

A gloomy weather day inspired a camera adjustment to the “watercolor” setting as we set off from the cottage.

We pass this bench every day.  Someday we’ll have to rest and enjoy the view – but not yet.

It’s spring and Kendal is an arboretum, so there are lots of flowering trees and shrubs.  This one is the flower of a pink dawn viburnum (viburnam bodnantan).

Even the most common of plants – pachysandra – looks unusually good in bloom when using the “watercolor” setting on the camera.

We come to a hilly place near a water treatment pond, and we spot an animal.  What is it?  We’re mystified.

We take photos before we realize the “watercolor” setting is still on the camera.  Beth turns it off.

We snap a few more photos before we recognize what is slowly making its way toward the pond.

It’s a common snapping turtle which we’ve rarely seen before.  The turtle navigated right under the fence and a few seconds later dropped into the pond and out of sight.

We read that snapping turtle might live in the wild over 100 years, so we assume we just might see this one again on a future walk.

We at Kendal have been isolating in our cottages to stop the spread of the Corona virus, but we’re encouraged to continue with our walking routine.  During this time, little painted rocks with messages started appearing on the main loop trail.  Who was behind these wonderfully painted little messages?  Everyone wanted to know.  We passed the rocks most every day but still no word who had painted or placed them on the path.

On a sunny and warm day, we started our usual walk but decided to veer off on a grassy path through a large cornfield to continue on a different path.  There were just a few blocks of homes on the other side of the cornfield, a rather quiet and isolated neighborhood.

We chatted while we strolled when a sight we hadn’t expected to see stopped us short.

A painted rock!  Just like the painted rocks at Kendal!

As luck would have it, an older woman with a little dog in her bike basket pedaled towards us.  We waved her to stop.  Did she know who had painted the rocks?  Sure, was her reply.   The rocks were made by two teenagers who live around the corner.

The great Kendal painted rock mystery had been solved!

Everybody knows that walking in fresh air surrounded by greenery is one of the best habits for good mental and physical health.  No one ever told you that on your walks you just might be seeing strange creatures and solving mysteries.

 

March 2020

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Hiding in plain sight

The coolest activity to do – and not for the faint of heart – is a night tour with the Bug Lady in Drake Bay, Costa Rica with the sole purpose of seeing and learning about things that go creeping around in the dark. As soon as the Bug Lady mentioned she wanted to show us spiders, our grandson backed away.  Clearly, he wasn’t thrilled with that idea.  Could curiosity overcome fear?

We started the walk by putting on headlamps with a red-light mode, perfect for viewing nightlife.

The Bug Lady, Tracie Stites, and her husband, Gianfranco Gómez, gathered us around and introduced the tailless whip-scorpion.  Everyone wanted a photo.

Despite its name, this is not a scorpion and it’s not a spider, though it is an arachnid.  It’s a relative of the two called an Amblypigid.

This creature may be harmless to us but their size and the little pincer-like pedipalps on their front legs help them capture and hold on to their prey.

We spent a lot of time looking down.  A Gaudy leaf frog was memorable for its small size and bright red eyes.  We also saw a large Huntsman spider.  Their name is apt as they are fast hunters that don’t need to rely on spider webs to catch their prey.

A white-lined bat flew over-head and when we looked up to see it, we spotted a…

…brown-throated three-toed sloth.  It was resting, of course.  Sloths are only active a short period every day.

They’re pretty strange animals.  They can swivel their heads like an owl; take a month to digest a meal; slowly come down from their forest habitat only once a week, dangerously exposing themselves to their predators, for the purpose of defecating on the ground.

Of course, there’s always more to see in the rain forest.  On another day, we sat down outside our cottage at La Paloma for quite a while to observe leafcutter ants at work. They marched every day across our path.

Next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.”

Our favorite discovery was observing ants riding shotgun on top of a leaf as another ant hauled the load.  It’s speculated that the ant on top is providing protection from a parasitic fly trying to land to lay its eggs.

We love to observe birds but have been surprised how many people don’t “see” birds and in general, pay little attention to birds and the natural world around them.

Scarlet macaws would be hard to miss due to both their size and amazing colors.   Our grandson was delighted every time they came into view.

From the same place we viewed the macaw, we looked at the plants in front of us to spot the dragon (or was it a damsel?) fly.

Whether we were walking on a dirt path in the rainforest or a city street In San Jose, Costa Rica, we looked for the natural treasures hiding in plain sight.

While visiting the garden at the National Museum of Costa Rica in San Jose, we looked up at one of the most interesting flowers we’d ever seen.  Is it the flower of a banana tree?

We’re guessing curiosity and the amazing facts we learned about what we saw on our trip encouraged us to keep looking, observing, asking questions, and learning.  We’re happy to report that our grandson’s curiosity overcame his fear of looking at spiders and other creepy crawlies in the rain forest. We’re guessing he’ll not soon forget all the wonders in the darkness just awaiting his discovery.

 

March 2020

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The unexpected joy of young travel companions

We usually travel alone.  Sometimes a friend or two will join us, but we rarely have child companions.  That may be due to a lack of confidence on our parts.  Would we be their best travel companions?  Anticipating a trip with our grandsons, ages 10 and 11, made us a little nervous.  For them – and us – to have a really great trip, we figured we needed a solid plan and reinforcements.

Our decision to go to Costa Rica and stay at La Paloma Lodge, which has wonderful and talented guides, gave us a lot of confidence.  Only in recent years have we learned the value of experienced guides and what a difference they make in what we see and learn. We hoped the boys would feel the same.   The true test came with an early morning guided bird walk.  Observing birds at dawn isn’t usually a child’s first choice of activities.

The boys both caught sight of birds right away and learned to use the spotting scope.

They paid close attention to our guide and enjoyed tracking some of the rare birds they’d never seen before like the black-cheeked ant-tanager and a white-whiskered puffbird.

All of us seemed to enjoy the excursion.

In addition to the guides, we asked the boys’ uncle and aunt, Josh and Tanya, (our son and his partner) to join us.  Their presence allowed greater flexibility in scheduling and a chance for all the adults to have a little quiet time.  The boys were happy to have them along.

This was exactly the trip we had planned and hoped would happen – moments with the boys, Josh, and Tanya when we could all learn about the natural world of Costa Rica in Corcovado National Park.

After mornings of planned activities, the boys were ready for some quality time at the Lodge’s pool or the short walk down to the Pacific Ocean to play in the water.

It occurred to us that left on our own, we tended to spend our days walking until mid-afternoon.  We rarely thought of taking time to play in the water.  With the children as companions we changed our pace….

…and so did they.  In the late afternoons, we rested and read, while the boys spent quiet time drawing …

…or looking out the window of their room, watching for toucans.

They surprised us with their ability to be flexible.  We got up very early, and we were surprised when the boys put themselves into bed, exhausted, by 8:30 most nights. They adapted to a new meal schedule and to whatever was served.  We marveled at their transition from an American-style breakfast to a traditional Costa Rican breakfast after a few days.  It occurred to us that most of our adult travel companions have not been this adaptable.

Travel days were easier than expected.  Time waiting for a flight passed by as each wrote, read, or created art.

Our grandsons turned out to be much better travel companions than we’d expected.  The big question is: would they say we measured up as suitable travel companions for them?

 

 

February 2020

 

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We don’t know what we don’t know

No matter how we tried to juggle our travel schedule there was a gap.  A 5-day stay at La Paloma Lodge in Drake Bay, Costa Rica included 2 excursions.  One was a snorkeling trip in the open ocean that we thought would be beyond the capabilities of our two grandsons, ages 10 and 11.  So what excursion could we go on in its place?  The person we spoke with at La Paloma was upbeat.  “The mangrove tour is very good, and people see a lot of wildlife on that tour.”  Really?  We had our doubts.  We didn’t see another good option for us, so off we went on the mangrove tour, leaving at 6:30AM.

The boat sped north across Drake Bay with our grandsons, ages 10 and 11, sitting right in front.  All of a sudden, the guide and boat pilot called out to us when bottlenose dolphins came in sight.

There were at least 6 dolphins coming so close to the boat we could have reached out and touched them.

The boat sped by small rocky islands dotted with brown boobies and pelicans, also the magnificent frigatebirds, a very nice sighting for us bird lovers.  Were the boys impressed?  We couldn’t tell.  Soon we were back out over the open water.

When finally we neared land, the guide spotted a black iguana, then a three-toed sloth up in a tree.

Another sloth was seen nearby.  Did we miss the sloths mating?  The boys were now paying close attention to everything Randall, our guide, said.

Randall sliced open the brown fruit of what we believe was a red mangrove fruit.  Inside was the green embryo (baby) of the plant. There was a sort of “umbilical cord” that continued to nourish the baby plant.

The boat slowed down in the narrow channel lined with mangroves.

The boys were at full alert for whatever Randall, our guide, spotted next.

Moments later, we weren’t disappointed.  Draped over a broken tree stump he spied a potoo, an unusual bird so well camouflaged, it’s hard to spot.  This bird had a chick in its breast feathers, barely visible.  How would we ever have seen this without Randall’s help?

Our favorite sighting was a group of capuchin monkeys.  They are named for the friars with long brown robes.

Capuchin monkeys are only found in Central and South American forests.  We watched as they scampered through the trees in search of the next meal.

Before the tour was over, we spotted not one, but two, boa constrictors in the branches of a tree just over the water.  We’d seen crocodiles; a Jesus Christ lizard that “walks” on water; squirrel monkeys and howler monkeys, too.  We spotted many birds – including caracara, macaws, purple gallinule, jacanas, and orange-chinned parakeets.

Our grandchildren settled in for the long boat ride back to the lodge.

We looked back to see the mangrove trees, but they were now too far away.  We hadn’t known what to expect from this visit.  Our expectations had been modest at best.   Now we knew that we’d been lucky to choose the mangrove tour, to have Randall as our guide, and to have experienced what we’d been told: “people see a lot of wildlife on that tour.”   Yes, we did.

 

January 2020

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Where we saw 3 monkey species, a garlic tree, and swam in a waterfall

We traveled to many of the U.S. National Parks for their magnificent scenery.  If we think all national parks are alike, consider Corcovado National Park, located on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, and compare it to Everglades National Park in Florida.  Even though the Everglades is 15 times larger than Corcovado, Corcovado has many more species. The Everglades has 68 species of amphibians and reptiles versus 117 in Corcovado;

40 animal species are found in the Everglades versus 140 species in Corcovado (like the agouti in the photo image)

120 species of trees are found in the Everglades  – versus 500 species of trees  in Corcovado (like the garlic tree in the photo, named after its garlic-scented flowers and bark).

According to Wikipedia, “Corcovado houses 3% of the world’s biodiversity. Two decades ago the National Geographic Society defined it as the most biologically intense place in the world.”

What more did we need to know?  Visiting Corcovado was first on our list of things to do in the Osa Peninsula with our grandsons, cousins 10 and 11 years old, in tow.

One of the reasons Corcovado is so rich in biodiversity is that it’s quite remote.  The only way to get there is by air or boat.  Since the park is a protected area, visitors must be accompanied by a guide.

We traveled to Corcovado National Park in a small motorboat from La Paloma Lodge with our guide.  There is no dock at the San Pedrillo ranger station.   The boat came in as close as it could to the beach. We took off our shoes, rolled up our pant legs, and climbed into the surf to walk up to the beach.

The hike started as we waded across the mouth of a small river and into the forests.

Our guide pointed to overarching leaves we would pass under.  He carefully took the leaves and held them up to see something clinging to the underside.  Fruit bats!  We would have walked right into them!

The boys were fascinated by more coconut shells than they’d ever seen, especially the ones sprouting.

In the forest, there was so much to hear (many different species of birds and monkeys calling), so much to be aware of (don’t touch poisonous plants), watch your step (having heard about one guide’s near-death experience being bitten by a snake) ….

…and so many new things to see, like these brilliantly colored lichens.

Howler monkeys moved across trees far up in the canopy, an owl butterfly graced a nearby tree, a green kingfisher flew as we came down the path.  We observed scat on the path from a puma.  A blue morpho butterfly fluttered nearby.

After coming out of the forest, our grandsons took a few moments on the beach to just rest.

In the afternoon, we hiked uphill on a muddy path overlooking crocodiles resting at the river’s edge. (Better not slip, we told ourselves!)  We forded a river and not long after came to a waterfall.

The grandsons were very excited when we hiked back to a small cascade where they would be able to swim.

By the end of the day, we had seen 3 of the 4 monkey species in Costa Rica: the white faced capuchin, howling, and spider monkeys.  We had seen the very large garlic tree (Caryocar costaricense) – one of the “rare, endemic and threatened trees of the Osa Peninsula”.   And the grandchildren had played in the waterfall.

We were all excited by how much we had seen, but we know that what we experienced is such a small part of what is possible in amazing Corcavado. When can we go back?

 

December 2019

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