Short List – Refined Travel Experiences

From capturing the sounds of Alaskan wildlife using specialized microphones to being cosseted by your personal butler on an expedition cruise in Bali, luxury travel has reached a whole new level of sophistication. Cruise lines are taking their all-inclusive mantras on shore and suite living to another dimension, while small-group journeys lead you beyond the beaten path to go behind the scenes and inside the local culture. Here are four ways to raise your travel experiences in 2015.

Abercrombie

Abercrombie & Kent

Today’s sophisticated travelers want more than just to see a destination — they want to fully engage with its people and culture. Which is why Abercrombie & Kent created Connections, an exclusive portfolio of worldwide, small-group journeys that offer authentic experiences in more than 30 countries. Personal relationships garnered over 50 years provide unrivalled insider access so you can, say, tour Colombo’s vibrant Pettah Bazaar with a local resident or sample the catch of an oyster fisherman in Croatia. A new series of family journeys finds you backstage at the Moscow Circus, painting carnival masks in Venice and searching for clues on a scavenger hunt in a Madrid museum. 

From $3,495. Book any Connections journey by January 31, 2015 and save $150 per person.

Regent

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

While “all inclusive” is all the rage these days, Regent Seven Seas Cruises truly delivers — and in the most luxurious way possible. Spacious, smartly appointed suites with personalized bar set-up and welcome bottle of champagne. Always-open bars and specialty dining. Even round-trip airfare and pre-paid gratuities are included. Perhaps most impressive: guests enjoy unlimited shore excursions in every single port of call. So you can go deep-sea fishing off Grand Turk, taste fine wines at a family-run estate in Tuscany and take a tango masters class in Buenos Aires. Book a Concierge Suite or higher and receive a complimentary pre-cruise hotel package, as well. 

From $3,499 Per Person. Enjoy an Experienced Host, Cocktail Party, Private Shore Event or Shipboard Credit of $100 per suite; ask for details when you call.

Silversea

Silversea Cruises

Imagine meeting villagers on a remote Micronesian island, sharing fresh coconut milk while visiting their homes and watching master woodcarvers at work. Later, you return to your stylish suite, where your butler has drawn a scented bath so you can freshen up before a Relais & Châteaux-inspired repast. Welcome to life aboard Silver Discoverer, Silversea’s newest expedition ship. Designed for adventure seekers with discerning tastes, the 120-guest Silver Discoverer spends her time navigating isolated ecosystems across the Asia-Pacific realm. Join a team of expert naturalists for informal talks and small-group explorations ashore using a fleet of Zodiacs. Back onboard, every creature comfort awaits, including a pool deck, fitness and massage centres, and free-flowing wines and spirits at open bars and elegant lounges. 

tauck

Tauck

It’s time to get a little wild in Alaska, to meet Iditarod-winning sled dogs and hike around shimmering mountain lakes. Catch your breath while flightseeing around the snowcapped peaks of Denali National Park, and get up close to puffins and porpoises on a day cruise along Kenai Fjord. Tauck has teamed up with BBC Earth to create a number of small-group journeys that introduce you to remote, less-visited places while providing you unprecedented access to gadgets used by professional wildlife photographers and filmmakers — which means you can utilize equipment like thermal imaging, camera traps and shotgun microphones as you watch for whales and brown bears. Exclusive on-tour films produced by BBC Earth further deepen your experience.

The Silver Discoverer lead-in fare is $9,250 per guest.

Up and Coming Central and South America Destinations

Up and Coming Destinations in Central and South America
As more and more Americans have passport in hand and are exploring destinations further away from home, Travel Leaders recently surveyed its expert agents throughout North America to learn which Central and South American destinations they deemed the top up-and-coming. Those topping this list included Peru, Brazil, Panama, Ecuador and Argentina.

Peru. The allure of Machu Picchu, a mountaintop community built by the Incas around 1450, is irresistible. The fact that it is somewhat difficult to reach only adds to its mystique and allure for the hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who go up the mountain to marvel at the polished stone structures and stunning views. Many of these visitors also discover the beauty of Peru’s colonial cities, including Lima and Cusco; the pristine rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon; and the lovely beaches along the country’s 1,500-mile Pacific coast.

Brazil. At nearly 3.3 million square miles, Brazil is nearly as large as the United States. Each region of this vast country has a unique character, from the sparsely populated Amazon Basin to the cities influenced by waves of European immigrants. There’s a lot of new development in the cities that will host World Cup matches this summer, which will also serve Brazil well when Rio de Janeiro hosts the Summer Olympic Games in 2016.

Panama. Some visitors come just to see the iconic canal, an engineering marvel that created a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Beyond the canal, this slender isthmus link between Central and South America is surprisingly diverse. Dense jungles provide habitat for an amazing variety of wildlife; the warm and humid climate turns cooler in mountain towns like Boquete; and Panama City is a modern capital with a beautifully preserved historic district.

Ecuador. Ecuador is another small country of incredible diversity. The Pacific coast has wonderful beaches; the central highlands offer the cities of Quito (the entire city is a UNESCO World heritage site) and Banos (a center of adventure tourism); and, just east of the mountains lie the rainforests of the Amazon. The Galapagos Islands, a remote archipelago known for unique and fearless wildlife, are about 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast.

Argentina. Many visitors focus on the city of Buenos Aires and its historic core, including the neighborhoods of La Recoleta and San Telmo. There are wonderful places to explore far beyond the city, too, including the central plains of the Pampas, the high plateau of Patagonia and the Andes along the western border. Then there’s the stunning Iguazu Falls that straddles the border with Brazil, just miles away from Paraguay. Vegetarians won’t go hungry, but Argentina is a fantastic destination for lovers of beef, the mainstay of the country’s diet.

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Machu Picchu and Peru

Peru was always a dream trip for me.  So when I got the opportunity to go, I jumped at it!  It was every thing I expected, but also so much more.  I traveled for 8 days this December with my brother and have wonderful memories that will hold me until I can go back.

Departed from Minneapolis at 10 o’clock this morning and arrived in Lima just after midnight. Once we arrived in Lima and went through both customs and immigration we took a taxi to the JW Marriott in Lima which is located in Miraflores area of Lima.  I was surprised there were so many people still out on the streets at one in the morning. We’re too tired to go out but it does appear to be a very lively area of town. Our room 2212 overlooks the ocean and all of the activity of the Malecon across the street.

The next morning started with a tour of Lima.   We visited the colonial, pre-Incan and also contemporary parts of Lima.   Our tour began with a visit to historic downtown Lima, also known as “the City of the Kings”. Stops included the Main Square of Lima, upon which sits the Government Palace, the Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the City Hall; next on the itinerary was a visit to the Santo Domingo Convent.

Once finished there, it’s off to the modern district of San Isidro where on the itinerary is a tour of Huaca  Huallamarca, a Pre-Incan adobe pyramid; afterwards, we went to Miraflores, a district filled with tourist attractions, and stop off at the “Parque del Amor” (a sort of lover’s lane) and its incredible view of the Pacific Ocean.

After the tour and a short rest, we explored the shopping center directly across from the hotel.   This oceanfront shopping plaza has many US –based stores and restaurants like Banana Republic, TGI Friday’s and Starbucks.  We found an oceanfront restaurant called Tantas for dinner but took the advice of locals and had a very light dinner so we would acclimate better to the altitude tomorrow.  Here we tried Octopus Wontons and a Chicken spring roll.

Heading to Sacred Valley –

It was a very early morning. We left the JW Marriott at 5 AM.  We took a taxi to the airport and checked in for our flight to Cusco.  A few hours later we landed in Cusco and our guide Juan was waiting for us along with our driver.

Our tour started with the drive out of Cusco way up through a mountain pass.  I have to admit the drive made me a bit carsick and on top of that we reached altitude of nearly 13,000 feet.

As we drove into the Sacred Valley, we visited Pisac first.  These ruins and terraces of the Incas are fascinating in their ingenuity and their hard work.

Since it was Sunday we drove to the Pisac market where they have both the touristic market and the local farmers market going on.  Normally it is only a tourist market, but on Sundays the farmers bring their goods into barter.  You should’ve seen the wide variety of fruits and vegetables and corn kernels as big as a quarter.  The local population was there dressed in their traditional costumes living their lives as they have for centuries.

After this stop we drove along the Urumbamba River which is the main river in the Sacred Valley.  Again I felt a little carsick the road is not very good. Our guide took us for lunch at a beautiful spot where they offered a traditional Peruvian dishes. My favorite was fried rice which is similar to a Chinese but crossed with Peruvian flavors and was very good.

After lunch we drove to the town of Ollantaytambo. This ancient city was very lively on a Sunday with locals, a tourist market, and the ruins and terraces here are extraordinary.  I wish we had more time to spend in this town, but we were pretty tired at this point and ready to go to our hotel.  The town had few cars, very hilly, and most buildings were adobe with cobbled streets.  It was a very beautiful place to visit and also the location of the train station for our trip to Machu Picchu a few days later.

It rained a bit while we were visiting these ruins and then we drove to our hotel located about 20 mins away in Yucay.  We checked in at Sonesta Pasada del Inca and got a quick tour of the hotel before we collapsed in our room for a quick nap.  Combination of the early morning start, lots of touring, long car rides and altitude and we were worn out.

This evening we had a drink in the bar then ate dinner at the hotel.  We shared a Caesar salad and Neil ordered beef tenderloin in a Peruvian style and I ordered pasta with prawns in a chili cream sauce.  Both were delicious. But neither of us even got close to finishing our meals.   They say you need to eat lightly when at this altitude and it seems that your appetite goes away a bit too.

Tomorrow is a free day and we plan to relax and enjoy the hotel and the beautiful surroundings. I am noticing that I’m a little short of breath. But haven’t had any major issues with altitude sickness except for a little headache.  Best of all we still had Wi-Fi at the hotel and were able to communicate with our loved ones back home.

We enjoyed a relaxing day at our hotel; in fact we never even left the compound. The breakfast was included which was a lovely buffet and I was impressed to see that after the guests finished eating they invited their staff to come and eat the food that was already prepared.  What a great way to treat their employees and avoid throwing away food!

The grounds of this hotel are beautiful and many local craftspeople set up shop up to sell their wares. There is a restaurant, coffee stand, and a lobby bar.  The hotel also has plenty of seating areas and lounge areas for guests.  We felt like we were the only ones there during the day as most guests were touring.

They offered a buffet lunch and for dinner we just ate at the bar and shared a couple of sandwiches. We had a Royal burger with a fried egg bacon and cheese and a club sandwich that also had fried egg and bacon. These were delicious sandwiches that really hit the spot.

Although this hotel has zero curb appeal, inside it is beautiful and I will highly recommend it.

Going to Machu Picchu

Another early morning as we departed to our hotel.  We got up at six had a little breakfast at the buffet which was included, then met our transfer at 7:50. I guide was right on time and he, along with the driver, transferred us to the rail station in Ollantaytambo.

Michael was the guide from Lima Tours and he expressed great concern about the amount of luggage I had. He said the train won’t take my luggage to Machu Picchu and asked me who was going to transfer it to Cusco. I had not planned to forward my luggage so had not packed a small day pack to bring with me to Machu Picchu. I asked if there is anyway if I could bring my luggage.  He worked with the rail station and another guide from Lima Tours, and they were able to get the luggage with me on our train for no charge. At one point he said it might cost me $2USD per Kilo ($40 approx.), but again, I wasn’t asked to pay this.

This is good information for future guests that most trains don’t take a lot of luggage. I asked about my return train to Cusco and he joked that the Hiram Bingham doesn’t have limitations you could bring a freezer on board if you wanted to. 🙂

Once we arrived at the train station there were many shops and people selling stuff.  We were escorted to a waiting platform and our train arrived about 10 minutes later.   We boarded our Vistadome train at about 8:53 AM and had seats right in the middle on the left side of the car looking forward.    I do believe these are the best seats to have on the train from a Ollantaytambo to Aguascalientes.  We shared the train car with a group traveling from Israel with a guide from Condor Travel.

I took lots of pictures on the train and the scenery was beautiful.  The train went along the Urubamba River which had rapids at some points.  As we traveled along the floor of the Sacred Valley, gorgeous mountains covered by mist and clouds surrounded us.

The train was a little over one hour and very we were served a drink and the small sandwich complimentary.

Once we arrived in Aguascalientes we departed the train and my luggage was waiting for me. We walked through security and both our hotel rep and our tour guide were there to meet us. The hotel then transferred all of our luggage to the hotel and we went directly with the guide into town to board the bus for Machu Picchu.

Our guide took us to the bus stop and made sure that we had the tickets we needed for both the bus and entrance into Machu Picchu. It is very important to know that you need to purchase your tickets for Machu Picchu in town because once you arrive at the entrance you would not be allowed in and there is no way to purchase tickets at that point. We had arranged for our tickets to be purchased ahead of time and they are specific to your name and also to the date you were entering.

There are buses to transfer people back-and-forth from town about every 10 minutes.  You need bus tickets for both the trip up to Machu Picchu and back down. The bus ride takes about 20 minutes and around some pretty rough roads with lots and lots of switch backs going up the mountain.

The scenery was gorgeous on the trip up there and either side of the bus will give you great views as you traverse the switchbacks. Along the road we see where the hiking path crosses and people take steps to walk up the nearly 1000 feet to Machu Picchu.  I was surprised to see how many people hiking this trail instead of taking the bus.

As we arrived at the top, and we disembarked the bus and our guide took us to the entrance to Machu Picchu. Here is the last stop for bathrooms or purchasing water. I think Neil paid one Peruvian Sole to use the bathroom there.

The security at Machu Picchu requires you to show both your passport and your ticket for today’s date.  They do look closely at your passport and the ticket to match the names and the date.  After going through security you can stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp.

We walked into the city and up a few steps to get our first glimpse of the ruins of Machu Picchu, which are stunning.  Our guide took us on the route to the left, which is up the mountain towards the Sun gate and Sun Temple and give you the best view of the city. This was a long uphill hike for me. And I had to stop and rest many times along the way. I was exhausted when I got to the top but it was totally worth it.

Our guide Adrial gave us wonderful information along the way and was very supportive even offering to carry my water and letting me use his walking stick.

We took many pictures and the rest of the hike was much easier as it was a few steps down and then flat and then a few steps down and then flat and so on.

We learned a lot about the ruins and the people who lived there as well as its rediscovery several times over the last few centuries.   We learned about its orientation to the sun and moon and also the compass.

It was a beautiful sunny day and I feel so lucky to have been able to experience at all.

Our total time that first day in Machu Picchu was about 2 1/2 hours.   When we returned to the entrance, we had lunch included at the Sanctuary Hotel, which is the only hotel at the entrance to Machu Picchu. This was a very nice buffet but I have to admit the cold beer that we ordered as we sat down with the best beer I’ve ever had after that hike and experience.  We enjoyed a leisurely lunch and boarded a bus back to town and stopped at our hotel Sumaq on the edge of Aguascalientes.

The hotel was waiting for us and had our luggage that we had left with them at the train station. It is a gorgeous five star hotel. The staff was very attentive to us, and welcomed us with cool towels, a welcome drink and lots of information about our stay.

We were shown to our room and took a few hours to relax and look through our pictures and talk about our day at Machu Picchu.

We had dinner at Sumaq as it was also included and was delicious.  I had a veal stew and Neil had I had rainbow trout.  Both meals were fantastic.   This hotel has a spa but there just wasn’t time for us to use it. They also offered us a cooking class. It is too bad we can’t stay here another day.

After a great night sleep we had an easy start toward day. I got up at seven worked on repacking and around 830 enjoy breakfast buffet at our hotel.  We left our hotel around ten and they held our luggage and transported it all to the train station for us at 5PM that evening to meet our train. We walked into town buy another bottle of water and boarded the buses to Machu Picchu for our second day.

Around 11 AM we departed Aguascalientes for Machu Picchu. We didn’t have a guide for the second day, but we had pre-purchased our tickets and bus tickets to and from the site.   Once we arrived, we used the lower path and went to many sites we had not visited the day before.

This was a more leisurely stroll and it was very quiet and overcast and we found ourselves having many peaceful moments to reconnect with Pacha Mama or Mother Earth.  It was not as crowded and I really enjoyed a second day to go back and take the time to soak it all in.

In total we spent about three more hours including our bus rides to and from the site.  When we returned to Aguascalientes we enjoyed lunch at an outdoor patio. Neil tried the Cuy, guinea pig, and I played it safe with some chicken.  He did give me a taste of the cuy which was much like rabbit or dark meat chicken.

The guinea pig is a delicacy in Peru it is roasted on the spit whole and they used a little bit of cheese to cover the face of the guinea pig but the teeth and little claws were still evident. This is not something I feel very comfortable with.

We took a very leisurely afternoon in the town I did a little shopping. We had to kill some time so enjoyed a couple of beers and walked around this town that has no cars only the rail running through it.  All of the workers carried wheelbarrows up and down the steep terrain.

Our train back to Cusco departed at 5:50 PM but we were asked to arrive by 5:20. Our luggage was transported from our hotel to the train station where we picked it up and enjoyed a luxurious waiting area for the Hiram Bingham train.  This train is part of the Orient Express line and the service was impeccable. The train was luxurious it was all inclusive of a seven course meal and beverages including many wines, Pisco sours and more. They had entertainment in the bar car and also in our dining car.

When we arrived in to Poroy station, our van was waiting to take us to our hotel in Cusco. It is about a 20 minute drive and we checked right in to our hotel at the JW Marriott Cusco.

Cusco

JW Marriott Cusco is a gorgeous hotel but it is not cheap. We paid about $30 US per person for breakfast buffet. After breakfast our guide Juan from Condor Travel met us in the hotel lobby.

He was the same guide we had on our full day tour in the Sacred Valley a few days ago. He took us for a tour of the incredible colonial city, whose buildings the Spanish constructed on top of the foundations of Incan palaces. We began at the Korikancha, the Temple of the Sun, to witness the exquisite stonework achieved by the Incas. Next stop was the Main Square for a tour of the Cathedral to see its fabulous wood carvings and impressive altars and the lovely Church of La Compañia de Jesus.  Following that, we went upwards to Sacsayhuaman, a fortress located in a strategic spot high above the city with a view that is absolutely stunning. We also visit some other archaeological complexes such as Kenko and Tambomachay, and you will have a panoramic view of Puca Pucara.

After our tour we came back to the hotel and enjoyed a fantastic lunch in the bar. We ordered wonton and bacon wrapped shrimp, Peruvian chicken wings and potatoes with chorizo. The meal was very good.

We were told there was a 6 PM hotel tour to talk about its history so we went down at 5:45 and sat outside in the courtyard.  At 6 o’clock I asked the front desk about the tour and was told that there was no tour today. So we took a tour on our own and went into the basement exhibit archive room where they showed some of the pre-Incan walls found during excavation along with artifacts recovered.

We did a little shopping on the streets nearby and then back to the hotel to enjoyed another Pisco drink at the bar before dinner.  I ordered a organic black quinoa appetizer.  For entrées Neil had a sweet potato ravioli with shrimp and I had a Caesar salad with bacon and egg and cheese.

For our last day in Peru, we had a flight to Lima, a tour of the Larco Museum and the beginning of a long travel day.

The Larco Museum in Lima was an impressive history of Incan, Colonial and the pre-Incan civilizations in Peru.  Amazing and informative exhibits and I would highly recommend a stop here.

Our return flight to the USA, departs at 1:45 AM.  We were dropped off at the airport after 9PM, but check in did not start until 10:45 so we had a lot of time to sit around.  After checking in, we went to the VIP lounge, which was so busy, and full of people we barely got a seat.  Our flight boarded after 1AM and I went right to sleep and woke up refreshed in Atlanta.  A few more hours to wait then back home with lots of pictures and amazing memories..

Client Review: Guatemala with Avanti Destinations

We spent 11 days in Guatemala, traveling to a different location each day. We were with a small “guided tour” group. The people in the group changed a couple times during the week. We never had more than 6 in the group and on our final day, it ended up just being the two of us.

Guatemala City is often described in the travel books as crowded, noisy, dirty, not very safe and with no redeeming qualities. While we found this to be largely true, there we some areas near the Barcelo Hotel where we stayed with numerous sculptures and memorials that might have been interesting to explore if we had had more time. Many that travel to Guatemala skip Guatemala City all together and go straight to Antigua. There is little to be missed in Guatemala City.

 

Our next stop was Chichicastenango (or Chichi for short.) Chichi has the largest market in Guatemala and one of the largest in Central America. In many ways Chichi was the most “foreign” to us. We tend not to go to the markets when we travel and Chichi on a Thursday (market day) IS all about the market. The town is largely Mayan and their religion, and hence culture is an interesting and complicated blending of Catholicism and Mayan religious beliefs and traditions. Chichi also had one of the most interesting cemeteries we have ever seen. They do all burials above ground. As we were in Guatemala during Lent, we were fortunate to see the beginning of the Lent processional in Chichi.

 

Next up was Solola, Lake Atitlan and Santiago Atitlan. Solola provided another large and very traditional market. In Chichi it was only the women we saw in traditional Mayan dress. In Solola both men and women were in traditional Mayan dress. The design of their clothing identifies their tribe (or nation) and region. While in Solola we got to visit a Shaman and watch as local residents went to “discuss their business” with him and seek his wisdom. We were able to observe one of the residents praying with the Shaman and making offerings after they had discussed his business.

 

Lake Atitlan, bordered by 3 volcanoes was as beautiful as we had read and envisioned. The Hotel Atitlan was a wonderful hotel with amazing gardens and felt a bit like paradise after the “2-star rustic” Mayan Inn in Chichi. We would have liked another day here.

 

The following morning we took a boat across Lake Atitlan to the very interesting town of Santiago Atitlan. We wondered through the market and neighborhoods but the highlight was the weaving shop. We were able to go right into the shop and watch the weavers at work. Much to the surprise of our small tour group, it was men doing the weaving. As it is primarily the women that sell the completed textiles at the market, we all had expected the women would also be the weavers.

 

We left Santiago Atitlan by boat and after a short ride, we connected again with ground transport for the drive to Antigua. The Santa Domingo hotel in Antigua was fascinating as it was built around an old monastery that was very heavily damaged in a 1773 earthquake. We happened to be there on a Saturday night and the facility was set up to host a large, upscale wedding. On Sunday we were able to experience another Lent Processional. In Antigua for this once-a-year event they close down some of the roads and create “natural carpets” on the roads made from died wood chips, flowers, produce and other plants. The Natural Carpets are an amazing site and soon as the processional goes over them, they are destroyed.

 

After the amazing Lent processional in Antigua it was back on the tour bus for the drive to Copan, Honduras for our first tour of Mayan ruins. The primary structures seen here are the Grand Plaza and a neighborhood for the wealthy Mayan. Of particular note is the well-known Altar Q that shows the passing of power between all 16 Mayan kings of Copan. The final 2 kings are shown on the front of the Altar Q holding hands. The altar was constructed during the reign of final king and some believe he knew it would be end of his civilization in Copan, and hence the final passing of the power.

 

Following Copan it was back to Guatemala to the ruins at Quirgua. Here you see a number of altars, large Stella and Zoomorphas sculptures. Here we learned in some detail of human sacrifice that was part of the Mayan religion, the altar used and how it was used (we will spare the gruesome details here). There is much obsidian stone in the area and it was used for example to construct knifes that were used in the sacrifice rituals.

 

From Quirgua it was a rather long 5 hours drive for a night at the Amatique Bay Hotel in Puerto Barrios. Puerto Barrios is a crowded, busy port town and thankfully our hotel was outside of the town itself. Our tour bus simply drove through Puerto Barrios and the guides spent no time telling us anything about it. It did not look like there was much to tell!!

 

From Puerto Barrios we travelled by boat to a small town called Livingston on the Rio Dulce (Sweet River). Livingston is a small, but interesting town with many fisherman and of course a market. There where a fair number of Discos on the beach there, but alas were there early in the day so none were open! From Livingston we continued by boat up the Rio Dulce. The Rio Dulce is a calm, beautiful river that is abundant with wildlife including many birds. It is bordered on both sides by thick jungle. We spent the night at another fairly rustic hotel called the Catamaran.

 

The following day did not involve any touring; it was simply a long commute from the Catamaran Hotel to the Peten Department (e.g., state, province). In Peten we spent the night at the Camino Real Tikal Hotel. It was a fairly large facility and we saw only 2 other guests during our stay.

 

The following day was off to Tikal National Park for our last day of touring. Here, we saw many of the Mayan structures that are commonly seen in photographs, including the well-known Temple I. It is an amazing complex and makes you wonder how they did it. How did they build all of this at the time they did with they tools they had and no wheel!!!  This was a very nice way to conclude our visit.

 

On our way to the airport in Flores (to fly back to Guatemala city for our final night) we had a little extra time so we got an unplanned and quick tour of the island (and town) of Flores.

 

Guatemala is a very interesting country with a lot of rustic beauty. It is certainly not paradise and is probably best described as a developed 3rd world country. Guatemala is a very poor country with reportedly 75% of the population living below the poverty line and with the 90%+ of the wealth controlled by less than 10 families. The average citizen earns around $350/month. That all said it is a country that is rich in history and language with 22 Mayan tribes all having their own language and culture. This creates great challenges for public education and 25% of the population is illiterate. Our visit to Guatemala was probably the most interesting trip we have been on and we learned a lot.

Thank you Mark and Libby for your great review and sharing your photos!  ~ Rachel.

Client Review: Costa Rica

Travel April 2013

Traveler’s: 2 adults and 3 kids (18, 15, 12 at time of travel)

Hotels: Hotel Royal Corin (3 nights) and Riu Guanacaste (4 nights)

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Hi Amber,

We are in the Miami airport on our way home.  The trip was fantastic!

Swiss Travel was great.  The drive from San Jose to Arenal was beautiful and our guide made it so interesting that it flew by.

The entire family agrees that the Royal Corin may be our favorite hotel ever.  I would recommend booking people there.  It is on a busy road across from a public hot spring ( a little surprise as web pics make it look isolated) but great thermal pools, grounds, rooms and the free breakfast was fantastic.

The volcano hike was great!  Informative,  beautiful and some neat wild life.  I would pass on visiting the Tabacon springs given we had springs at our hotel and it was a very busy place.

The white water rafting was the trip highlight!  It was very fun and exciting.  The guides were fantastic and we saw sloths,  tons of birds and had a brief toucan sighting.

The Riu Guanacaste was your pretty typical all inclusive.  I would say it was better than Barcelo  Riviera Maya.  Once we adjusted to the change in scenery and pace from Arenal we enjoyed it.  We did end up adding a snorkel sunset cruise as we felt we should see more than just the bay that the Riu Was in.  The highlight at Riu was all the monkeys it was awesome.  When booking people there tell them to ask about the Monkey Bar.

We did go look at the Riu Palace and were glad to not be there.  The pools are just big rectangles and the decor very modern and cold.

Thank you for all your help.  Costa Rica has now taken Hawaii’s place as my favorite place to visit!  We hope to go back soon to see some other areas.

Tonya

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Onto the Next One…

Saying good-bye to Costa Rica was definitely difficult. It was a great fun and extremely informative to visit this up-and-coming destination first-hand and be able to revel in the eco-tourism ideals. While the trip back was smooth with no hitches (oh, wait… the Atlanta airport did eat my cell phone!), it was a long day that did not get us back to Minneapolis until 10:30PM. Most of my travel companions went their seperate ways in Atlanta, heading to wherever they called home, but a few were with me for the duration. Almost all were excited to see family and loved ones, enjoy a relaxing weekend and head back to work on Monday, but not me. I have always loved airports, but not enough to be enthusiastically thrilled about having to return in approximately 12 hours; 4 flights down 3 more to go before my June adventures summed up! Bring it on Colorado and Moab, we’re onto the next one!

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The Best Day EVER!

Don’t get me wrong, I have been very blessed to experience a plethora of great days, and a lot while vacationing! I am also getting married in September, so I may have to amend this title, but for now the Buena Vista Tour has stolen my #1 best day ever spot. As agents, we provide value by having first-hand experience so that we can accurately portray things to our clients. When visiting Costa Rica, it seemed just plain wrong to not experience zip-lining, and boy did I find a way to not only zip-line, but also to have many adventures in one day! Let’s start with waking up at 6:30AM, leaving the resort after a lovely room service breakfast and having an easy 1.5 hour scenic drive inland to Buena Vista Adventure Park. We started by getting harnassed in and were guided by experts on how to zip-line; the equipment, safety and best practices. As an adrenaline junky, I was the first to go! What a thrill and a great ride! Want more?

How about zip-lining upside-down… NO HANDS! Based on the your comfort level the guides will go out of their way to ensure a good time. From tandem zip-lining with you until you get the hang of it, to offering up new ways to ride the line; they were amazing to have! They even have people stationed throughout the 11 lines and 13 platforms to take pictures of you as you go – proof of your adventure. After zip-lining, make your way up the jungle paths again, but this time you stop at a jungle waterslide. Different than those you may be used to, this slide is made of concrete and leather diapers for women, tubes and helmets are required. Pick a speed and feel the huge rush of ice-cold (refreshingly cold!!) water on your back that gushes you down the 1/4 mile long slide, looking up at the canopy above you and ending in a small pool with a HUGE sploosh! Go again, and again, and however many times you want before heading to the lodge for lunch.

A delightful buffet awaits you featuring Costa Rican dishes, pasta, rice, a variety of sauces, fresh fruit, salad, fish and chicken. Purchase a beer for a minimal charge or take a water or lemonade on the house. After lunch it’s time to head out from the main area on horseback. For those who prefer not to ride, there is a enormous John Deere trailor to take you instead. The horses do just fine though and you ride through a serene patch of jungle with waterfalls and streams. While the horses are well-behaved and are used to the trails and tourists, I was definitely more afraid on this part than the zip-lining and waterslide.

But, it’s more than worth it when you end in the middle of the jungle with 5 different pools of natural hot-springs, a mud bath, sauna, massages and a bar for cool drinks. Soak in the sauna to open your pores before covering yourself in mud. Then, after you are dry, rinse off with a cold shower and jump into the warm hot springs all labeled clearly with different temperatures.  Rest a while, enjoy yourself. For the not-so-athletic like me, soothe your muscles and joints from the equipment and jungle hikes. After this, it’s back to the John Deere and civilization. The guides will entrance you with local tales and history on the venture back and even stop at a giftshop if desired. Return to your resort by dinner time and relax, you made it through the BEST DAY EVER!

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Time Warp to a Hacienda

In college, my girlfriends and I had a strange obsession with the song, ‘The Time Warp’ from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It sure reminded me of a time warp when it came time to visit the JW Marriott Guanacaste, a gorgeous remake of a traditional hacienda. The layout and the materials used to build it are spectacular and authentic. There is a crazy chic blend of modern and plush mixed with tradition, and you truly felt like you could be back in time… while standing in a gorgeous room with A/C and sipping a pina colada (of course!). The JW was one of the only properties we saw that isn’t an all-inclusive resort. There are several restaurants on-site to choose from, but beware the typical Marriott prices if you are hoping to catch a deal. The beach here is amazing, and the views of the water and beach are even more spectacular – especially when you glimpse them during a Costa Rican sunset! The nice thing is that while all beaches in Costa Rica are public, this property sits 4,800 hectares from the nearest public road – that means while you can be on the beach, good luck getting there if you are not a guest! Not only does it have a ‘private’ beach, but it also boasts the 2nd largest pool in Central America after one located in Panama. This property is beautiful and gives you an authentic feel without skimping. I think that it would be perfect for those with beaucoup bucks to spend and who seek a vacation that can really take them away from it all

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The Occidental Papagayo

Picture the Hearst Mansion. An expansive pool area with grand staircases leading up to the house above. This is what the first glance of the Occidental reminded me of. The building you walk into first is perched above the rest of the resort and houses the majority of bars and restaurants, as well as the lobby. There is a poolside snack bar and the rooms are scattered out from the pool area. The rooms are currently being softly refurbished, meaning new linens, curtains, etc… The beach area, though gorgeous when you get there, can be a tricky path that is narrow and with many steps. Luckily, there are small buses that can help get you from point to point.  This resort to me seemed much more for true romantics, there wasn’t as much activity as the others we saw, but all the love birds we spotted seemed more than content with what they found here. The restaurants all had impressive decor and the views would make wonderful candelit dinners. Either way, any resort that greets you with a refreshing glass of freshly-squeezed tropical juice upon arrival on a hot day is a good one in my book!

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Another Riu in 2012, and it’s true what they say….

A Riu is a Riu is a Riu. For frequent patrons of this resort chain, it is comforting knowing what you are going to get! This Riu is no exception. Built near the town of Coco Beach, this Riu is built in a horseshoe shape with a large garden spanning its interior. It is set on a very lovely beach and is currently waiting the arrival of its sister property next door; the Riu Palace set to open this November. The restaurants are open and spacious with good buffet food, many specialty restaurants, a game room and a large area for nightly entertainment and shows. The pool area, like always, is central with a swim-up bar, poolside snacks and many chairs and lounges for its guests. At one glance, you see guests playing watersports and enjoying the activities, at another you see laid back and relaxed loungers completely oblivious to the hustle and bustle on the other side.  For those who love Rius, or similar all-inclusive properties, you will surely not be dissapointed.

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Hilton Papagayo – A tree-house Sanctuary

…Well not really, but it sure reminded me of one! All the roofs are thatched palms over the public areas such as the lobby, restaurants and common areas.  Built into the hillside with the bottom on the beach, the resort from almost any angle feels like you are amidst the trees and in your own private sanctuary. It is a spectacular property with several dining venues, 2 pool areas – one for activity and one for adults-only nestled in the spa area. The rooms are built 2×2 in small bungalows scattered with breathtaking views of the jungle walkways, beach and resort. Since it is so hilly and quite spread out, the property also has convenient shuttles to carry guests from one section to the other. Our visit ended with a raccoon sighting and some sushi made by hand by us… all in all this was a fabulous stop and definitely one that stood out for a return voyage.

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Costa Rica June 2012

Monday June 4th, 2012 – My first trip to Costa Rica, I cannot wait to start this adventure. Our flight to Costa Rica went smooth, a quick 1 hour connection in Atlanta and we landed by Noon at the Liberia airport.  We filled out two forms before entry to Costa Rica that we turned in when we landed (one set per family with the same address). The first form was turned in with the passport check and the second one was turned in after customs.  It took about ten minutes to get through the new terminal, very easy.

This trip is part of a “familiarization” trip – where travel agents go and explore an area and visit hotels. Our 4 nights in Costa Rica will be spent at the Westin Playa Conchal Resort and Spa, about 1 hour from the airport. Our rooms are in the Royal Club area, complete with butler service, free wifi, any brand liquor we want, and an adults only (18+) pool area. For dinner tonight I had Mahi Mahi which was excellent.  All the food at the hotel is very good.  Following dinner our group went to the evening show and then back to the room, we have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 5 – After a buffet breakfast, we went to the Flamingo Beach Resort & Spa.  The property was small but nice and had a good beach.  We spoke to some people staying there and they said that they had stayed there the last five years and really enjoyed it; they enjoyed being able to twalk to town but they also rented a car during their stay. The property has a nice pool and access to the beach is across a dirt road which only seemed to have walkers on it.  The property offers a 24 hour gym, a movie theater, casino, family center with ping pong and pool tables, a mini market and Free wifi. This would be a great family property with the studio family rooms holding up to 4 adults and 2 kids (no balcony).The next property we saw today was the Barcelo Playa Langosta Beach Resort. This property is a 20 minute walk down the beach to the town of Tamarindo or a 5 minute taxi ride for $5.  The beach here is great for surfing not swimming; however, if you go to your left there is a narrow area to walk out to the swimmable beach area.  Currently there are no ocean view rooms at this hotel, the hotel is fronted by the national park and the trees block the view to the ocean. There is an a la carte restaurant that is included one time complimentary if you stay a week, otherwise you pay for the restaurant. Note, reservations for this restaurant are required and it is also open to the public. They property has six handicapped rooms and the public areas are all non-smoking. The property does have internet/wifi available for a charge. This property also offers a spa, ideas of prices…a one hour facial is $60 and a manicure and pedicure is $40.  I would recommend this property for families.Next we toured the Tamarindo Diria in the town of Tamarindo.  The hotel is almost “divided” into two parts, the original part being on the beach and the new section across the street with a pool (no wifi).  They property offers sunset ocean view rooms and sunset ocean view premium rooms which are larger and have free wifi.  They have a beautiful beach area with a long stretch of beach to walk.  All the beaches in Costa Rica are public and vendors can be on the beach.  If you tell them no, they say thank you and leave you alone.   You can take surfing lessons here and you can also swim.  We ate lunch outside by the beach – it was beautiful.  Because this property is in town we were able to go shopping and  you would have many options for dining as there were many restaurants available in town.  I really liked this property, the location is great, I would recommend this property for anyone who wants to be able to experience the local life.

Our final hotel inspection today was at the Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa. This property is built on a hill so the views were spectacular, a very quiet and peaceful location. The rooms are bungalow style and two rooms and can be connecting to make a “suite” type of room with one room having a king bed and the other room having two doubles.  It is a very large property built on a hill with lots of steps, but they do run shuttles around the property so you could ride instead of walk to different areas.  Wifi is available for a charge in the rooms though it is free in the lobby.  This is an all-inclusive property that does not require wristbands, a nice touch. The Hilton also offers four junior suites with outside plunge pools, very nice. The property offers a spa and an adults-only pool. Though this property is on a hillside the beach is very nice. Good to note…if you have trouble walking, this may not be the property for you because it’s built into such a steep cliff area.

We had a great dinner tonight at the Hilton, it was wonderful. The chef showed us how to make sushi and then we had hors d’oeuvres.  For the main course we had Octopus and Mango Ceviche, Cream of Shrimps with ginger, Mahi Mahi with vanilla sauce accompanied with pumpkin and mini vegetables, and “Cas” fruit ice cream with mini chocolate tart.

Wednesday, June 6 – Today we headed to the RIU Guanacaste for breakfast and a site inspection.  This is a huge property with the Riu Palace being built next door, scheduled to be open November 2, 2012.  The Riu offers a wide variety of accomodations and activies for everyone. From weddings on the beach or in the garden to multiple dining options. Please note…smoking is allowed in rooms but not  in the public areas. Family Rooms can accommodate 4 adults or 2 adults and 3 kids. They also offer 8 larger Two Bedroom Family Suites. They also offer Jacuzzi suites, Jacuzzi is outside on the deck area with a staircase leading to the Jacuzzi area of the deck. The property offers a spa with a Jacuzzi, steam room and gym in a the “village” area between the Guanacaste and the Palace. The spa area is free but services are additonal. Riu also offers a doctor on site. The new RIU Palace next door will be a more expensive property with upgraded amenities includeing free internet, junior suites with double beds and a sofa bed or just a sofa.  They will have suites with a jacuzzi on the balcony, more restaurants and they can use the services at the RIU Guanacaste.

Next we were off to the Occidental Grand Papagayo – This property is also built on a hill with a lot of steps and pathways, but like the Hilton they also offer shuttles around the property. This would be a great relaxing property, they do not offer a lot of activities, and the average guest age is 30+. Weddings are available on site and they have a beautiful pool area. Note that the buildings are more than 150 yards from the beach due to natural building restrictions.

Our final stop today was at the JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort & Spa. This is a hacienda style property, that is more secluded. They have six junior suites with plunge pools, which you can request but they are not guaranteed.  They have the second largest pool in Central America after Panama. Internet is available throughout the property. Due to the location of this property it’s great for those who just want to “sit” and hang out. Otherwise a car/taxi is required to get around.

Thursday, June 7 – Up at 5:30am…breakfast and then we left our hotel at 7:45am for the Arenal Volcano and Hot Springs Rainforest Adventure.  Along the way, Gustavo, our tour director from TAM tours, was a wealth of information about Costa Rica and the things we were seeing. We had the opportunity to stop and see three toed sloths and howler monkeys. We ate lunch in Fortuna at Restaurant Rancho La Cascada, a great place with very good, reasonably priced food (our tour included the meal). When we left the restaurant, we drove about ten minutes to the rainforest walk where we saw a male, female and baby three toed sloth. Interesting fact…if the babies fall, the mothers just leave them, apparently because they know they can have more babies…yikes!  We also saw leaf frogs with red eyes and blue jean frogs (poisonous), several varieties of butterflies and plants/flowers.

We then drove to The Springs Resort and Spa.  You could see the volcano on the drive and from the resort, but we did not actually go to the volcano.  Because the Resort was totally sold out, we saw the lodge with the restaurants and bars, the pool and hot springs areas only.  Each of the pool and hot springs had a sign with the depth and the temperature of that particular one.  Then we had time to go into the pool/hot springs.  They also offer horseback riding, kayaking and inner tubing on the river and there are a lot of places to go hiking.  This is not an all-inclusive property but you would need to have all your meals her unless you were going to rent a car and  drive somewhere, nothing close by to walk to. The resort is about 3 hours 10 minutes from San Jose and 3 hours 45 minutes from Liberia, it’s a wonderful property that would be best for a more luxury experience in Costa Rica.

It was a wonderfully long last day day in Costa Rica, we arrived back at the Westin at 11:00pm exhausted and ready for bed.

Friday, June 8 – Today we are heading home so after breakfast, I stopped at the artisan shop on the Westin Property.  They have very nice items to purchase and well worth a stop.  We checked out, which you do need to do (no online check out) and during check-out we were given our transfer voucher to give to the bus driver to get back to the airport. Note, Costa Rica has a departure tax, currently $28, that we were able to pay to our TAM representative…they gave us a receipt we were able to use for the airport. The Westin is approximately a one hour drive from the airport so we had plenty of time to relax on the bus before we arrived at the airport.

General Thoughts….

We used TAM Tours for our transfers and optional excursions, they were wonderful, and I would highly recommended that you take your transfers and/or tours with TAM.  They offer you a lot of information and you know what you will get on the tours and that they will be reliable. When you take the transfer, they do offer an orientation meeting to give you more information.

I would suggest that you do not book excursions with the vendors on the beach, you never know what you’re getting.

I found the people in Costa Rica to be are very friendly and happy and I felt very comfortable in all of the resorts no matter the star rating.  The Costa Rican peopel are highly educated with the population at 60% middle class, 10% upper middle class, 10% rich, 10% lower middle class and 10% poor.  The roads in Costa Rica have been improved in the last 2-3 years and are very good to drive on. Being pretty well traveled I would not feel at all uncomfortable driving, but would get a GPS in the vehicle.

I really enjoyed my trip to Costa Rica. It’s a longer plane ride than other areas of Caribbean but well worth it…go for at least a week and if you have the time longer…so you can really explore this amazing destination..

Tamarindo, a Hidden Gem

 

The Diria is an excellent property located in the town of Tamarindo. Most of the resorts that Costa Rica boasts are more secluded with a minimum of 10-15 minutes to get into town. The Diria, while not an all-inclusive, is located in the middle of the town on the beautiful beach that bears the same name. Even though it’s not an all-inclusive, the property does have a few restaurants and bars, a pool area and even 2 sections. The older section faces the beach, and if you get an ocean view room here, expect to go off your patio and voila, you’ve arrived on the sand. The newer section is across the street and has its own pool area. The pool is lagoon-themed and is shared by neighboring condominiums. The Diria has good sized rooms that are clean and comfortable. Because of its stellar location, its guests have easy access to the restaurants, bars and shops of Tamarindo. We ate lunch at its beachfront restaurant and the food was excellent. The view of the beach was definitely worth-while in its own right, and it was perfect mealtime entertainment to watch the novice surfers give it a go. I even found caprese 🙂

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Barcelo Playa Langosta Beach – Truly One with Nature

The Barcelo is a world reknowned name, and while this one is a little different than others I have been to, it still upholds the reputation. The Barcelo is a pleasant 3* property on Langosta Beach. It is one of the closest (few and far between!) resorts to a beachside town. It has one restaurant available with buffet service for breakfast, lunch and dinner that offers different themes nightly. There is also an a la carte restaurant nestled in the tree-tops that overlooks a large amphitheater/entertainment area for those who seek a different venue! Since Costa Ricans adhere very closely with the laws regarding natural parks and sanctuarties, this property is limited to having no ocean view rooms and shares their beach with the public. While all beaches in Costa Rica are public, those on parks cater to more locals than others. All in all it is a gorgeous property with natural jungle paths, gracious hosts and a great beach!

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The Flamingo (except there aren’t any….)

But, that’s ok – no one expects to see flamingos in Costa Rica! The Flamingo is named aptly so because it is located on Flamingo Beach. It is not an all-inclusive resort, but there are plenty of charming restaurants and shops around the property! There is one restaurant on-site with an open second floor area for a cool cocktail in the evening breeze. You can also get breakfast everyday and sit by the pool, view the ocean or stay inside and appreciate modern technology and air conditioning. The rooms were all very classy and had updated decor. While this is a 3* star resort, there is a large pool area, swim-up bar and plenty of smiling staff and guests! Located right on the beach, you could walk forever in either direction and if you’re looking for a pleasant and more simple family stay; this one is for you!

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