“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Pre-Vacation Checklist

In a few days I'm headed to Mexico, and I'm going through my usual pre-trip ritual.  Dragging the suitcases out, throwing random items into them as I think of them (then I'll arrange and properly pack later), and making my to-do list.  I write down what I need to do and what to pack, then I'll email it to myself.  Everytime I complete an item, or think of something new, I'll resend the message to myself with the old items taken off and the new items added.  It'll continue to evolve as I check things off and think of new things.  Someone asked me the other day if I'm ready for vacation (of course!) and some noted how I always seem to be so prepared - for the trip, and for the unknown.  So I thought I'd write down some of the things I do the last couple weeks before departure as a help for any of you that might wait until the last minute, aren't frequent travelers, or would like a more comprehensive list of how to plan ahead.

  • Double-check transit logistics: If you're flying, check on any road construction that might delay you if you're driving to the airport.  If you're like me and taking public transit, check the transit times to find out what time you have to leave.  Transit schedules tend to run less frequently in non-rush hours so you may need to allow more time in your schedule.
  • Print all travel documents: Make a copy of your passport and put 1 copy in each suitcase and carry-on.  Print out your itinerary, plane confirmations, hotel confirmations, and travel insurance policy.  Travel apps on your smartphone may be nice, but sometimes batteries run down, wifi or cell service isn't available, or you'll just need a paper copy to toss around and mark up.
  • Print local destination info: Rail system, mass transit, bus routes, directions, general map
  • Confirm everything: Call travel agent, check plane reservations, flight status, call hotel personally if you used a travel agent.  Never assume everything is in order until you have confirmed it at least twice with each travel partner.  This is one of the tips I learned from a few travel magazines.  Sometimes readers book a vacation, arrive at their destination, and the hotel doesn't have the reservation, has the incorrect info, or charges a higher rate.  Usually the expert advice is to not only call the travel agent to confirm, but to also call the hotel or resort directly to make sure the agent made your reservation, forwarded your details, or that the hotel hasn't deleted your reservation.
  • Check cell phone: Do you need an international calling plan activated?  Don't be surprised by coming home to a $200,000 phone bill because you didn't have proper international coverage and used your phone.  Unless you are expecting a call, switch your cell service off and just use the wifi feature.
  • Re-check country visa status and State Department travel advisories.  The latest warnings and advisories can be found on this blog.
  • Don't forget to register in the STEP program if you're going abroad
  • Send copy of your travel itinerary and contact info to an emergency contact at home
  • Update your luggage tags: Put a luggage tag on every bag before you leave the house to save you time at the check-in counter at the airport.  I put my destination info when I'm going and write in my home info when I'm returning.
  • Check airline baggage allowances (checked and carry-on).  Most airlines don't charge to check your first bag if you're flying internationally.  Some airlines allow 1 carry-on, and some allow 1 carry-on plus 1 personal item.  They differ by airline so check ahead of time before you start packing so you know how to allocate your clothes.
  • Weigh your luggage.  A luggage scale is inexpensive, and packs away easily into a carry-on.  I use this especially when I'm done packing to find out how much more room I have available for souvenirs.   Be sure to check your airline's baggage weight allowance or you'll be charged extra at check-in (this isn't pleasant when you are already paying to check a bag).  Don't assume all airlines have similar weight allowances.  On the Southeast Asia trip, one of my airlines had a lower allowance and I had to pay extra.  This was a low-cost carrier and was more strict about allowances.  Luckily I only had to pay once, and my other air carriers allowed more weight.
  • Currency: Note currency conversion and jot down some common numbers (ie, What is $20 equal to?).  Practice some quick conversions at home before you leave so you get a feel for doing the math on the fly and what you're spending.  Find out the average cost of taxis to/from the airport at your destination, and some taxi guidelines.  For instance, know if you should be haggling for the cost of a fare or if it's a flat rate.  Some airports have a designated taxi stand where you should go, especially if you're in a foreign country where you don't speak the language.  The taxi stand managers can help translate to the drivers for you.  As a general rule of thumb, don't accept an unsolicited taxi ride.  Go with the taxi stand.
  • Notify your call credit card companies if you'll be using those cards outside your home country, else your cards may be useless once you're away.  You can call them or sometimes send an email from your account online.
  • Prepare to be stranded: You never know when you might have to spend the night in an airport.  I travel with an inflatable travel pillow, a small blanket or throw, disposable toothbrush, and a change of undergarments in my carry-on.  Sometimes I even carry some granola bars in case convenience stores or restaurants are closed in the middle of the night.
  • Food: When you return home, you might be exhausted, jet-lagged, and hungry.  Buy a frozen pizza or quick-prep food for my freezer so when you return there's something quick and easy to heat up.  Cooking can wait another day.
Happy traveling!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Italy: It's About Time

I'm finally going to continental Europe.  What took me so damn long?  I was in England in 2007-2008.  I don't count that.  It's an island.  They don't use the euro.  They speak English.  C'mon...

But this coming February Carrie and I are finally headed to Europe.  For Pete's sake, I've never been to Rome, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, or Madrid. Friends have tales and tales about their trips around Europe, and I got nuttin'.  If you know me well, you know I'm an archaeology nut.  Pyramids, Tut's Tomb, Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Easter Island, but  how could I have never yet set foot in Italy, let alone the Coliseum?  That problem is about to be solved.

As for Rome, the research is basic.  The hotel is being arranged for us so at least this time we won't spend weeks pouring through resources to investigate neighborhoods, hotels vs B&Bs, who has free breakfast and wifi and who doesn't, etc.  When we finally know where we're staying, that's when we can begin to find out more about where we'll be centrally located and work from there.  This time it's nice to have that decision made for us.  The rest of the Rome research is mostly going to evolve around two things: 1) a map, and 2) local details.  First, we have a few must-sees: the Coliseum, the Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, and the Vatican (one of the reasons for going off-season and before the Lent/Easter holidays).  Secondly, local details.  These will include how to figure out our dinner check.  Navigating the subway system.  Ordering a meal.  Cultural do's and don'ts.  Studying city maps, getting oriented, mentally situating sites.  Researching museum and site hours and admission (we're going in February during off-season so these details might be handy). Finding the train station to get to Naples.

In Naples, our basic plan is to eat plenty of pizza, tour Pompeii, and climb Vesuvius (although I'm researching if it's best to approach through Pompeii or Herculeneum).  From there we may take in an opera if it's in season, and I hear the museum houses most of the magnificent artifacts from Pompeii.  Our trip planning will be much more extensive for Naples since this is more of a side-trip from the Rome arrangements.  We have to investigate neighborhoods, select lodging, as well as the typical navigational logistics.

As far as food in Rome and Naples is concerned, we'll probably wing it.  There aren't many must-eat places on my list in either city.  I figure it's Italy, the land of pizza, pasta, wine, cheese, and great meats.  As far as I'm concerned, we can't go wrong.  If the weather cooperates some days we may picnic.  Or take something back to our hotel.  Gelato will probably be consumed.  And then there's the issue of wine.  Drinking, yes, but also purchasing and getting it back to the US.  Will it survive in checked baggage?  Maybe I'll need hard-sided luggage?  It won't be allowed in the carry-on, so otherwise do I have to ship it back separately?  Logistics.  I can't go to Italy and not return with a few bottles.

We definitely want to climb Vesuvius.  Ever since we climbed Huayna Picchu, we relished in the physical challenge and the joy of overcoming a monumental obstacle.  We bitched and moaned in the process, but knew that we'd remember those kinds of moments for life, and they really did enrich our trips (see also: Inauguration).  As we like to say, "We may be miserable now, but one day we'll look back on this and really appreciate it."  Why do we do this to ourselves?  To challenge us mentally and physically?  Do we not know what we're getting into?  It usually amounts to, "That'd be a great idea, I don't know anyone else who's done it!"  Then get into it, realize why we don't know anyone else as slightly insane in the membrane, then laugh it off later in shared physical misery.  But all these experiences really do enrich our travels.  It was great to see Machu Picchu, but even better to have another side adventure that accompanied it.  It'll be fantastic to wander Pompeii, then to climb the volcano that subsequently destroyed it.  I've had this little itch in the back of my mind for years to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.  And maybe one day Mt. Fuji.  You won't get me up Everest (the risk of death thing kind of impedes my sense of adventure), but these more medium-sized excursions off the well-worn tourist paths have paid off in dividends.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ooohhh... Mexico...

I'll be honest, I've been to Mexico twice, but I'm not sure how much it really counts.  That's about to change.

1) Nogales, 1993.  18 years ago I walked through a turnstile across the border and went shopping in little markets without a care in the world.  I had rudimentary Spanish skills, and got my first taste of haggling.  I still cuddle up with my "Mexico blanket" that I bought, and just last year the bag I purchased there and brought along on so many subsequent trips went belly-up in Bangkok.  RIP Mexico bag (although I could fix it by sewing on new straps).  These days I wouldn't be caught dead in Nogales.  Correction: I would be caught dead in Nogales.  The US-Mexico border isn't a place you can leisurely peruse for a day trip.  The narco wars have killed about 34,000 people (!) in the past 5 years, notably along the border.  US State Department travel warnings are in effect for nearly the entire border, including Nogales.  At the time it was a lovely day trip from Tucson with a little detour past San Xavier del Bac mission.  How times have changed, but I do hope times will change again for the better along our border.  Fortunately, Puerto Vallarta and most other resort towns are not included in this warning (but still exercise caution).

2) Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum 2005. This was also a one-day pit stop on a cruise.  Honestly, I only picked this particular cruise itinerary so I could visit the Mayan ruins at Tulum - which would be the very first ancient ruins I would visit until I went to Egypt.  Archaeology, pyramids... hey, Mexico was good enough.  From Cozumel we took a ferry to Playa, then another hour-long bus ride to Tulum (with a touristy pit-stop halfway in).  If you know me well, you know I love the heat and next to never complain about it, but wow, this is the hottest place I've ever been to.  Ever.  I was pouring bottles of water over me, and after a few minutes I wasn't sure if I was still wet from the water, or sweat.  I was pooling sweat in places I didn't know I had pores.  And where I learned that even eyeballs and forearms could sweat.  But Tulum was beautiful, picturesquely perched on a cliff over the Caribbean Sea.

3) Puerto Vallarta 2011.  Nette and I just booked it!  I can consider this the first official Mexican vacation.  Granted, we set out to take a beach vacation anywhere, really.  Our only requirements were peace, quiet, sand, water, all-inclusive, and CHEAP (aka, inexpensive, not backpacker).  At first we ruled out Mexico because it seemed too easy, too close to the US, and heck, I'd already been there.  But a friend pointed out that if all we wanted was sun, sand, and water, then it's really all the same, it didn't matter where we went if we weren't out for a sightseeing vacation.  Point made.  As much as I have been bitten by the travel bug, Cancun was ruled out.  Zero desire.  Nada.  Okay, so maybe I've never been but I have illusions about it and none of them appeal to me.  As we were researching inexpensive all-inclusive hotel/air packages, Puerto Vallarta kept popping up in the search results.  We happened upon a steal at a 5-star resort, and since we're vacationing in early November, it's the end of hurricane season (does that affect the Pacific coast?) and certainly an off-season for tourism.  I'm all about traveling during shoulder times, it saves money and we tourists aren't tripping over each other.  Plus we hit the jackpot with an upgraded ocean view suite.  Just a couple of gals making like beached whales for 4 days.  I'm all over it.

Nette and I have been discussing taking a vacation together ever since we returned from Thailand.  And honestly, Puerto Vallarta turned out to be far cheaper for hotel, air, and an all-inclusive package than the cost of just the airfare for a Florida vacation destination that was a possibility, but had to be ruled out for budget reasons (who knew parts of Florida could be so expensive??).

Now I'm not sure what our plans will be once we get there besides just laying on the beach, but what I did notice is that we'll be in PV during one of Mexico's largest festivals, Dia de los Muertos.  Ever since I started taking Spanish classes in high school - where I first learned about the holiday and we'd "celebrate" in class - I've wanted to visit a Latin country during this festival.  Coinciding with All Soul's and All Saint's Day, don't be put off by the images of skeletons, skulls, and celebrations in cemeteries.  This isn't about Halloween, but a celebration of a family's ancestors and keeping their memories alive.  I love this idea.  How many times do Americans spend time picnicking by a relative's grave?  Many people want to keep the legacies alive and this is a wonderful way to do it.  Cultures around the world have similar traditions.  I'm not sure if we'll venture off the resort or not, or if the hotel will have it's own little party, or really what we'll encounter, but I wouldn't mind one evening venturing into town and picking up a skull sugar cookie and exploring.  Just for a couple hours.  Then it's back to the beach.  I know, Mexico has so much to offer, but this trip is really about some R&R.  It's just the little adventurer in me that keeps the curiosity alive.

For now, I leave you with James Taylor...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eating Abroad: It's a Crapshoot

I traveled, I ate, I got home, I got sick.

Let's back up... There are more than a few "been there" dots on my travel map.  My first big trip abroad was to Egypt.  I thought I knew The Rules of eating abroad, but I wasn't experienced enough to really think them through.  The rules are: Cook, Boil, Peel, Seal.  Don't eat any meat that isn't COOKED, don't drink water unless it's BOILED, don't eat any fruits or veggies that you can't PEEL, and don't drink any beverages that aren't in a SEALED bottle.  Easy enough, but when you live in the US and you're used to eating almost anything in sight, you take that ease for granted.  I was staying at the Four Seasons so I figured I was going to be fine.  One evening I ordered up some hummus.  In hindsight: mistake.  Hummus isn't cooked, it's made with rinsed chickpeas.  I'm sure I may have eaten something else in the meantime, but a couple days later I was cursed with Mummy Tummy.  I felt so sick that day that I didn't want to eat anything heavy, so I ordered a salad.  D'oh!  Salad is raw, and the contents are rinsed in water.  And I had soda with ice.  Made with local water.  Let's say I learned my lesson after that trip.  I was well enough to work through my itinerary, but I was so bloated for 2 weeks I looked like I could birth a baboon.

A year later I was in England.  I drank bottled water, and I think I followed the 4 rules, but I didn't worry too much more about the food because we were staying in someone's home, and eating across the street at the pub.  Yummy, delicious, savory British pub food.  Nom nom nom... I digress.  Unfortunately my visit was timed with the worst outbreak of Norovirus that country had ever seen, and the entire village was sick before I even got there.  Needless today, I got it, too.  Not from food, but just from the air and a houseful of people.  It happens.  You see it every day in the winter, riding mass transit, sending the kids to school, or being in public.  Unless you're quarantined, you're likely going to get sick, too.  It was bad.  Not send-me-to-the-hospital bad, but bad.  Quick, though, just 36 hours turnaround and I was back to steak and ale pie in no time.

Insert Southeast Asia 2010.  How can you go to Thailand and NOT eat street food?  I went nuts.  Pad thai, street meat, grilled this, stir fry that... I ate nearly 3 meals a day on a sidewalk.  Literally popping a squat on a curb with a bent fork and a beat-up plastic plate that was washed in a bucket of suds.  Two weeks of street food in Thailand and Cambodia and I was in heaven.  Still, I followed the rules.  I could see the meat being grilled, the noodles were cooked, the water I purchased in bottles and checked the caps, the mangoes were peeled, the tea was piping hot.  And you know what?  Not a hint of any problems.  The rules worked.  I'm not sure I could have gotten away with much more, but I wasn't about to test it.  Success!

Next up: South American Adventure 2011, Peru and Easter Island.  The plan was the same: follow the rules, wash hands, but have fun.  And so we did.  We had alpaca, guinea pig, mystery street meat in Easter Island cooked out of a makeshift grill, ate at small family establishments, and the #42 best restaurant in the world.  Eating "different" food doesn't mean you'll get sick, it just means it's different.  As long as it's cooked, boiled, peeled, or sealed, I don't much care what it is.

When I returned to home, the very next day my stomach was a hot mess.  It went on for a couple weeks until I visited my doctor, she wrote out a Rx, and I thought I was all cured a couple weeks later.  Until last Monday when all hell broke loose and the illness made a mean resurgence.  I'll spare the gory details, but I was in the ER for 8 hours on an IV, pain meds, and anti-nausea meds until they deemed it safe to release me into the wild.  Turns out that the Peruvian stowaway in my stomach could have been from water (but see explanation below), or some jerk in a restaurant didn't wash their hands before handling my food (sez my doc).  Turns out that's the most likely explanation.

Carrie and I recounted where we ate and when.  That mystery street meat in Easter Island?  We both ate it, and she's fine.  Heck, she's BEEN fine this whole time.  We both brushed our teeth with the same tap water.  We shared entrees.  Ordered a lot of the same food.  The only occasions I can think of is a couple times when I ordered some pasta from a couple different restaurants.  After all, who handles spaghetti bolognese with their bare hands?  It was cooked, Rule #1.  I should be covered. 

The point is, you can follow all the rules, but sometimes there are other factors involved.  Hell, I'd be MORE prone to eat street meat next time because at least I can see it being prepared, cooked, handled, and straight into my mouth.  Get in my belly!  It turns out that what I had/have is pretty common and can be picked up easily in the US as well, although I was one of the special ones to be rewarded with doting at the hands of some handsome doctors. We know not what lurks on the hands of humanity and if it was smeared all over your delicious sandwich.  Or spaghetti. 

Was it worth it?  Hell yes.  I'd do it all again.  Pass the salt.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gastronomy in Lima: The Real Man vs Food

So many plane rides.  So many hours on buses.  By the time we returned to Lima, we were beat.  South America wins.  UNCLE!  We had two full days in Lima before returning to Chicago, so we decided not to make many plans.  Monday we walked up to the Miraflores district to look around and shop.  We had dinner reservations for the next day, so we scouted out the place first so we'd remember where it was and not be late.  From Barranco we walked up Avenida Larco to the ovalo, back east to Parque de Amor, then south along the coast to shop at Larco Mar.  This was a great oceanfront outdoor shopping mall.  I found some cute things here that I brought home, including a fabulous blouse.  Earlier we had stopped for lunch at a sandwich place, where I had a baguette of freshly-made chorizo, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.  From South America, it's possible I may miss the fresh juices most often.  OJ and guava from Easter Island.  *sigh*  I don't eat fruit often, but I do appreciate a good juice so perhaps I may look for these most often in Chicago, and start getting some of my vitamins properly.

That evening we were checking our email in the lobby of our hotel, and met a two friends from Seattle who quit their jobs and were traveling until their money ran out.  We decided to take the conversation on the road and went around the corner to La 73, a place we visited 2 weeks ago that was very comfortable with some unique food on the menu, great wines, and most importantly: not playing and folk music.  It was nice to spend a dinner learning about other people's adventures and swapping our best crazy stories of our travels.  I realized this point in Dubai when I dined with a few other travelers.  I appreciate that we may all be on our own journeys, but when our paths cross for just a few hours and you share something almost familiar and intimate with perfect strangers ("Where are you from?  Why are you traveling?  You paid how much for airfare??") it was as though - for that moment - we were all on the same journey. 

We were staying in the Barranco neighborhood, known for its cafes, night clubs, and artists.  Around the corner from our hotel was a building that my friend Nancy recommended, then later recommended by the hotel.  It was called Delado, a artisan marketplace that was housed in an old mansion where each room hosted the works and wares of a single artist.  We should have brought more suitcases and  fatter wallets.  Not that anything was very expensive, but that we wanted everything we saw.  There were housewares, plates, tea sets, sculpture, paintings, jewelry, books, furniture, clothing, and all number of accessories.  It was an artistic candy store and were the little kids.  We practiced some restraint: Carrie bought 1 shirt and I bought a necklace and ring.  She did have to talk me out of a number of other things I had already mentally purchased.

On Tuesday we had 1 more thing we decided we HAD to do: eat chicken.  There is a church and a KFC on every block in this town.  If it's not KFC, it's Roky's, Norkey's, or some other fried chicken chain.  Why all the chicken? we wondered.  In every town, on every street there was a polleria.  We had to find out what all the hype was, so Tuesday would be our final day to run errands, have a light lunch, and dinner at Astrid y Gaston.  At any rate, we stopped at Roky's thinking it was like a McDonald's or KFC.  Walk in, order, pay, wait, sit or leave.  Here, when we looked at the menu up front, a gentleman led us to an inner large dining room.  He put down a paper placemat, some utensils, and took our order.  So in a way, it was more like a Denny's or other chain diner.  We ordered a meal for 1 since we'd just share it, as we discovered that dishes in Peru are alarmingly large.  Oh boy was that good chicken.  Some of the best rotisserie chicken I've ever had.  Salty and juicy.  Now I know what all the fuss was about.

Sadly I never had an opportunity to go salsa dancing.  But our scheduling was also off, as were never in Lima on a weekend, and in Cusco we were too beat and too far out of the center of town to wander about.  Perhaps one of these days I can salsa in a Latin country.  We still had our opportunity to dress up for dinner, so I donned some nice jeans, heels, and the new cute blouse I bought the day before, and headed to Miraflores.  It felt good to dress up again, wear jeans, and feel close to normal and not like a frumpy traveler.  I felt as though I were back in Chicago.

We stepped in and immediately let it be known to our waiter that we wanted the tasting menu - regardless of what's on it - with wine pairing.  He picked a good red and a white that we alternated throughout the meal, which paired well with the degustation.  I won't detail all the food we ate since Carrie covered it thoroughly in her blog, but I will comment with some brief thoughts.  I was crazy about the ceviche, as I was an immediate fan since we ate at El Muelle two weeks prior (two weeks!).  The ceviche and other dishes incorporated citrus and other fruits from the jungle, and we appreciated how special it was that we may never eat these ingredients again, since we're dining at a place between the ocean and the jungle.  Fruits from deep within the Amazon were enchanting us.  I had sea urchin once before but this one came in a shot glass and was accompanied by black noodles and a soft-boiled quail egg.  This was the dish in which I had to exercise mind over matter.  At this point, we were also getting very, very full and we were only just past the halfway point.  What was 12 courses on the menu was 17 in reality.  I really don't think you need desert 4-5 times at the end of a meal, but maybe that's because I'm not a dessert person.  But that's a bit excessive.  If I liked desert, this may have been great (Carrie caught her second wind at desert, however), but I'm not complaining about the restaurant's quality of food at all.  It was simply fantastic.  I loved their use of local ingredients that were twists on traditional cultural dishes.  I especially enjoyed that we got to relive cuy again but in a different form: this was a bit on a crepe with sauce.

This gastronomic journey was an delicious but tough ride.  THIS was the real Man vs Food, not just a show about Americans over-stuffing their gullets on greasy food.  This was the meal that challenged what we'd eat (octopus, guinea pig, sea urchin, squid, and indigenous animals).  Paired with sweet potatoes and quinoa in all forms, we were delighted, and although 17 courses was a difficult push for our stomachs, we relished in the idea that we may never eat these types of foods again.  We had to push through, finish every bite (or close), and rejoice at the end that we just completed the 3.5 hour tasting menu at the 42nd-best restaurant in the world, Astrid y Gaston.  We may have gone on a lot of physical-grueling and geographic adventures, this night was just as challenging an adventure as any we've had.

Our trip back to Chicago was on Spirit Airlines, and, well, you get what you pay for.  $400 round trip to Peru should have been the tip-off, but we went with it anyway.  Heck, it got us there.  But I've never been on a set of more cramped or dirty planes before.  The worst was the 5.5 hour, broken middle seat from Lima to Ft Lauderdale.  Lord help me, not even medication kept me out long enough.  I'm exploring fares for a trip later this year, and I'm leaning to pay for the decent airlines and not the ones subcontracted through Panama.  Note to self.

Dennis and Allison picked me up from the airport, which is exactly what I needed: two smiling, familiar faces I hadn't seen in a while, and the comfort that I'll be transported home in quite luxury of their backseat and not battling public transit and wait times at midnight, let alone finding a cab.  It's the simple things to come home to that mean the world.  I opened my front door to find Jude, pleased as anything to see me, and has been joined to my hip for the past 4 days.  I saw some more great friends, went to a street festival, and had every intention of writing this entry poolside today, but it's too chilly.

I've learned a lot of things on this trip, but I am taking away one gem in particular: that South America is closer than I had thought, easier to get to, and is an entire continent full of the same language (Portuguese is close enough).  If I had relative ease moving around Peru, I want to try Brazil, Argentina, Columbia, Equador, and while we're at it, let's check out Central America, all Spanish-speaking as well!  I feel as though we're so close to this untapped gem.  While it seems so many Americans are headed west to Europe, this extraordinary continent is just south of us and full of precious experiences.  South America is calling me back.  Me encanta.  Stay tuned. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Easter Island: Once in a Lifetime

Inside the Gran Hotel Bolivar
We checked into the Gran Hotel Bolivar in Lima Centro. It's like a cross between the Palmer House Hilton and the lodge in The Shining.  It was so old I was giddy with picture-taking.  Although old, it was silent, and exactly what I needed for a full night's sleep.  Yesterday we explored the catacombs of San Francisco church.  It was gorgeous, but it made me uncomfortable to see all the silver and gold go to waste in altars and crosses for the illusion of wealth and power.  But the catacombs were neat. We caught the tour in Spanish - no idea when the English tour was - so I was able to translate some, but Carrie was great in catching the gist of things and reading some English translations.  She's done an awesome job of picking up some Spanish here, if even understanding.

Iglesia San Francisco
Our next flight was to Easter Island with an overnight layover in Santiago. I managed to catch a few Z's here, but hell, it's a cold airport.  And it's winter. Luckily Easter Island is more tropical so we stepped off the plane to sunshine and warm weather. It's a small airport, with no gates, just the tarmac and a small terminal with a grass parking area.  After checking in to our hotel and some lunch, we a rented a little Jeep. There is on town on the island, and it has a frontier feel, very sleepy. It also has a Polynesian feel, with some locals  sporting island features, native clothes, and we overheard some rapa nui language.

Driving. Best idea ever.  And I love to drive, so this would be fun.  On Saturday, our full day of sightseeing, we were able to stay ahead of the tour groups and be independent.  We got up and out early and started at the nearest volcano to own.  Volano! It was dormant, but at the top was the ancient ceremonial village of Orongo, and the rocky outcrop offshore where men would lie in wait each year to claim the first bird's egg. This was the birdman ceremony.

Next we skirted the southern coast, stopping at select Moai, and definitely pictures of the ocean crashing against the rocky black shoreline. We only had the jeep until 4pm so we had to be selective in what we saw, but we knew what the "must see" places were, so we had a plan. At Ranu Raraku we stopped to see Moai in varying state of quarry, and it's the image you see most often of the heads nestled into a grassy hillside.

As we rounded a turn, we saw the 15 Moai lined up at the site known as Ahu Tongariki. When we drove up and stepped out, we realized we were the only ones there! They were toppled in the 17th century, then in 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile pushed them further inland. When a Japanese businessman saw the administrator of the island say they'd restore the monuments if they had a crane, the businessman organized a team to lead the restoration.  Now they stand majestic, 15 in a row with the ocean to their backs.

 Further up the road was Anakena beach.  Tall palm trees, green grass, bring blue ocean, black volcanic rocks, and fine white sand.  Postcard picture perfect with a row of Moai and some wild horses.  This had to be the most remote beach on the most remote island on Earth.  I wish we had another day to lie on the beach and relax.

Lastly we began our final drive into town. The windows were down, sun shining, and we were slowly dodging cattle and wild horses that were lingering on the roads. In some cases, those roads were just dirt paths.  Cruising along in 4th gear, approach a gulley, downshift quickly, and attempt to navigate around craters and trenches. I was really a lot of fun despite the jolting. It felt more like an adventure, even when we were the only ones in sight on those roads... Er, cow paths. We saw beautiful vistas of the expansive sea, and hillsides covered in purple and yellow flowers, and eucalyptus trees with that minty aroma.  It was perfect.

Sadly we had to return our trusty jeep. Afterward we explored an area of the village we hadn't visited yet, and we heard was the hub of local activity.  Near the harbor was a soccer game with the obligatory hecklers on the sidelines.  At the harbor, children were climbing on fishing boats and the mooring ropes. We bought some street food from two ladies that were grilling up some meat and veggies on a skewer our of a makeshift 55 gallon drum turned into a grill.  And old man nearby commented that it was delicious, especially with a beer.  We held off on the beer, but when the meat was done, we sat on a curb facing the harbor and the lady handed us a large skewer, a plate, tore off some chunks of bread, and gave us a bowl of sauce/salsa for dipping. We tore into it with our fingers, watching the kids play, an team prepare their outrigger canoes, and the soccer game across the street.  It was marvelous in its simplicity, as one of the ladies shoo'd away dogs waiting for our scraps. We completed our snack by stopping for some ice cream (Carrie) and fresh squeezed guava juice (me).

We walked to a nearby playground where we sat on a bench by the water and watched the sun set and the surfers offshore.  A perfect end to a perfect day. Our flights back to Lima would be the next day.  As I complete this entry, we're between Santiago and Lima, leaving Easter Island behind. I can't wait to sleep in, send out some laundry, find some more ceviche for lunch, and perhaps more street food for dinner. Two more days in Lima to relax, recover, shop, explore, and eat before heading home.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Parabolic Journey to Nazca & The Nazca Lines

We knew our arrangements in Nazca may present and issue, so we had a backup plan.  Today was all about rolling with the punches. We called our hotel in Nazca three times but always got voicemail. Carrie tried the manager's cell phone but also no answer. She also never responded to emails. We were beginning to get worried that we'd even have a room. If we couldn't reach our hotel, how was our guide supposed to reach us later to tell us want time he was picking us up for the Nazca Lines flyover? So we ducked into a nearby hotel in Cusco that we knew had a branch in Nazca and made a new reservation.  Then I called back our old hotel and left another message that we cancelled.  I also called the tour operator and let them know we changed hotels.

We arrived at a the us station to get our tickets, and here was where my Spanish finally broke down.  I was getting a mental block and couldn't exactly discern that we were stopping in Nazca first. I started to panic a bit,but Carrie got the gist of some hand gestures and calmed me so I could finally ask another attendant that I could understand and we confirmed the route. Somewhere, somehow I had written down that it would take 8 hours to Nazca. When a European woman nearby overheard us, she said it was 16 hours.

Stunned silence.

You could have slapped us on both cheeks and we wouldn't have budged. 16 hours?? That gets us in at 6am. Overnight on a bus. This information we learned 10 minutes before departure time. We acted quickly, phoned the hotel to notify them of our next day arrival, changed the reservation, then laughed. We tried to find the bright side. 1) We had already purchased first class seats on the double-decker bus, which were more spacious than any American first class airline cabin. 2) We'd save ourselves from paying for another hotel night.

Good thing we were comfortable because I got motion sick. I won't go into detail but luckily I didn't need a barf bag. The bus steward took care of me, I begged the driver at a stop to let me get into my luggage to get the Dramamine, and we continued the trip. Andean roads were like riding a parabolic curve, back and forth, up and down, nausea. The roads are more like figure-eights than S curves, in the dark. I'm dizzy just thinking about it.

We arrived in Nazca 2 hours early, dumped at a bus station in the middle of the night.  Two men with a car were there for us, but were from the old/cancelled hotel. Really?? 15 hours ago we left a message that few cancelled with them and they didn't get the message? We weren't digging how they were doing business and found our way to the new hotel. They were gracious to let us have a room at 4am so we could catch some Z's. Hours later at dawn the guy from the old hotel stalked us in the lobby of the new hotel and showed us an email from Carrie. We explained our concern about their shoddy communication and our change of plans.  Luckily our guide still found us.

So off we went to the Nazca Lines! I forgot my passport but I had a copy on me, so after much begging the airstrip authorities and tour operator let me on the plane with my copy. *phew* Again, backups were handy. I was so psyched for this excursion! We were 6 in a plane so everyone had a window seat. The lines were amazing, vast and huge, perfectly straight, stretching out over the Nazca desert. We saw the whale, monkey, condor, parrot, alcatraz, dog, hands, tree, astronaut, hummingbird, and spider.  So very cool!

There aren't many tourists in Nazca and it's far less congested than Cusco. I'm glad we made this stop to see something so mysterious, and to get away from the crowds. Tonight we're going to a lecture at the planetarium about the lines and southern constellations.  We'll attempt some stargazing tonight, but we'll be doing that for sure in Easter Island in a few days.  A few days!!

We confirmed that our bus ride back to Lima tomorrow is just 7 hours, because we didn't want any more surprises.  Luckily this route is along the Panamerican Highway so there are no twisty mountain roads. I'm taking the Dramamine just the same.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu: Communion with the Gods

Only a deity could have created something so beautiful as the majestic peaks surrounding Machu Picchu. I would like to return to Peru with a geologist to find out exactly what marvelous an powerful forces formed this earth that we are so humble blessed to inhabit.  The bus ride up go Machu Picchu choked me up a bit and that was before we saw the ancient citadel.  As I write this we're on a train alongside the Urumbaba River, watching the power rapids slowly destroy the boulders in its path.  I am reminded today that despite our industrial feats, nature is more powerful than man.

I had no idea that Machu Picchu was a semi-tropical zone,  so the sheer cliffs and mountainsides were covered with a lush green jungle.  The Inca were on to something.  No wonder the Conquistadores never found this city.  How it was even built I beyond my comprehension.  Or first look as we approached the site was with a gasp.  I should back up here a tell the story from the beginning...

We arrived in Aguas Clientes late, grabbed a quick bite hit the hay in time to get up at 4am to line up to catch a 5:30am bus to MP. Why? To be two of the first and only 200 people to climb Huayna Picchu at sunrise.  They only let 400 people per day in 2 shifts to climb the mountain that overlooks the site.  You know the one.  Take any picture of MP and that steep looming mountain behind it? Yeah, that's the one.

When we reached MP and saw the line at the entrance, no way were we in the firs 200. More like 500. But we realized that not everyone wanted to make the climb, so we ducked over to the registration desk and asked to be put in the first line. We were numbers 95 and 96. Score! We then walked up a winding path, and at the top was our reward: Machu Picchu laid out before us, postcard perfect.

The sun was rising behind the peaks and as we crossed the site, the sun began to illuminate the mountain peaks. We spotted the llamas grazing on the terraces. At the far end of the site we lined up at the Warden's hut to sign in for the Huayna Picchu hike.  As we stood in line, a sign warned that the hike was only for those in good physical health, among other scary notations. I started to get that pit in my stomach I feel on the rare occasion when someone talks me into riding a rollercoaster.  We signed our name and time in to the log book and began our walk.  Hike.

Death march.

Up we went.  Most steps were placed stones, some were naturally placed, and some footholds were met with a reach and a prayer. We were pleased that where at the most treacherous, there were iron spikes with stabilizing cable to assist with the ascent. It was slow going and we were passed a few times, but this wasn't a race.  The sign by the hut indicated it may take at least an hour so we had a vague idea what we were facing, knowing it may take us longer.  This is where I am so glad that last year I started running to get my lungs into shape.  I fared far better than I expected of myself, and didn't use my rescue inhaler once.  However, I was so concerned about my breathing going up, that I never considered the descent.  More on that in a moment.

In 1 hour and 45 minutes we reached the top, but that was with some rests, snack attacks, gratuitous picture-taking, and admiring the views.  And perhaps on more than one occasion pondering the meaning of life (and if we were out of our minds). At the peak was a 360 degree view of the entire valley, with a view over MP the likes of which I had never seen.  Below we could hear the distant rushing of the river water, glaciers in the high distance, and nearly every other inch covered in dense forest. We stopped to pop a squat and dig out our lunches that the hotel had prepared for us, and rested our exhausted feet while looking down at clouds that had rolled into the area.  Yes, DOWN at clouds, for we were lunching at 7,500 feet. The rest of the journey would be back down, so no sweat, right? Gravity was on our side.  O so we thought.

How we were so very, very wrong.

Those crazy Incans also built a village atop this peak, for the love of sweet Mary and Joseph I'll never know why, but we had to use their steps to descend the initial few hundred feet.  Uneven stones paired not more than 18 inches wide with no rails, and dangling alongside a cliff.  We often chatted with fellow hikers and learned that some had a fear of heights, but it was nice to see opportunity conquer fear.

About a quarter of the way down a couple had caught up with us - James and Laura from New York - and we traveled as a foursome the rest of the way, cracking jokes to keep spirits high.  By this time, the 10am group was making their way up and we exchanged pleasantries and warnings with them.  Why did we look so painful to be descending?

James described it best: it was like holding a squat for 40 minutes. Every step was a controlled step down, torturing our thighs to keep control and prevent our legs from giving out and sending us tumbling down a precipice. Flinging ourselves to the bottom would have been merciful.  Our legs trembled with every step.  The last 1000 feet we were practically hunched over and limping, dripping with sweat and dreaming of a swimming pool. I still don't know which was more difficult: up or down. But in the end, it was worth every step for the view alone and the pride that we could look back at our pictures and point to that famous mountain and know that although it kicked our asses, to quote Carrie, "we climbed that bitch". We checked out of the hike in the log book at 11am: 3 hours and 9 minutes later.

After a brief rest (and considering pouring the remainder of our water bottles over us) we explored MP in more detail. You can't take bad picture here.  Everything s beautiful. Breathtaking. We met a woman from Tasmania.  Took pictures of llamas. Marveled at the perfect and almost intact construction.  Investigated the ancient (and still functioning) irrigation system.  Explored crevices. Retraced our steps yet again to get more pictures in the noon light. The grass was bright green, the sky a perfect blue, the clouds snowy white.  We covered the grounds from top to bottom, from front to back.  We got our money's worth.  Because our thinking was that we never knew when we'd be back, so we pushed ourselves to get every shot.

We took the bus back down into town, reclaimed our luggage at the hotel (which was literally a stone's throw from the bus station), and freshened up. A couple from California chatted with us, then a gentleman from Houston joined us and turned out to be catching the same train back with us.  These times I love about traveling, when people are on their own journeys, but cross paths, share a moment, and move along, but we'll all remember that due from somewhere, or that guy from so-and-so.

As I finish writing this we're on a 3.5 hour train ride back to Cusco.  Nice big leather seats, table runners, a lovely small meal, and a view to beat all.  This beat the backpacker express we rode last night, and it was part of our plan.  Run hard then rest well.  and we'll likely hit a wall at about 8pm.  Tomorrow afternoon we'll catch our bus for Nazca.  Eight hours. Good thing we bought upgraded seats in the double-decker bus. By the looks of my elevation map we'll be passing through roads as high as 12,000 feet.  But in the meantime, we're welcoming the ride because we're certain we won't be able to walk tomorrow, let alone stand.  Not from lack of will or trying, but that the gods of Machu and Huayna Picchu said so.  Please pass the Advil.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

WOW: Vistas, Glaciers, and Valleys

This morning we set out with our driver to take us to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley where we're about to catch our train toward Machu Picchu.  I'm so glad that we hired a private car so we had some peace and our own space for the drive of nearly 2 hours, although it felt like far less.  It may have seemed to go quickly because we were in awe of the scenery.

The term "scenery" doesn't do it justice. The mountains and glaciers were spectacular, especially the peak of Salcantay (18,000 feet!)  which was split at the peak like two donkey ears. We pulled over a couple times for pictures of the local mountain range, and left just as some tour buses pulled in and the Americanos tumbled out with their wide-brimmed hats and fanny packs. This was good, since any roadside vendor could attack the group with their wares, therefore distracting them from us before we quietly slipped away.

We saw vistas of awe-inspiring peaks, and deathly steep cliffs descending into valleys cut in half by tumbling rivers. "Wow" was the only word that seemed to leave our lips, as we were rendered speechless by the surroundings.  As beautiful as the Rockies are, the Peruvian Andes win the beauty contest. Again I thought of the phrase that I uttered 2 days earlier from the plane: a beautiful disaster.

Arriving in Ollantaytambo, we were dropped off in the main plaza, which was a petite town center compared to lively Cusco. The town is nestled in a valley, and as we sat at a sidewalk cafe facing the most treacherous peaks,  every few minutes we'd spy yet another Incan ruin that seemed no materialize from the mountainside.  A first look we could pick out two of the largest ruins that appeared to stick to the cliffs by some celestial glue.  But after about an hour of staring, we'd spy another ruin, and another, and hey! Look over there! It's another one! I was like staring at one of those "find the image" prints that are set up in mall kiosks that you have to go cross-eyed to see. I was also giddy to spot a cat on a hot tin roof (heehee) across the plaza. This was meaningful because this country is littered with dogs, about as much as Chicago has pigeons.  So a cat was a rarity indeed.

After lunch we wandered a back street of the town that had a open stream running alongside the adobes in order to channel the mountain runoff into the river below. Since we couldn't bring our luggage on the train, we were just carrying our totes and duffel bags.  At one adobe entrance, a child was standing in the doorway.  I looked past her into the courtyard to see two white cats inside. I talked to her a bit, asking if the cat had a name, which it didn't. With her permission, I knelt down to take a picture as I sometimes do, not realizing I still had 10 pounds on my back and 20 dangling off my left side.  Losing my balance, I promptly and awkwardly stumbled backward and fell on my butt, eliciting giggles from the young girl.  We had a nice chuckle.

Since we've been on the run every day since we arrived, today was our day to relax.  We roamed the town, and in the process noticed most homes had 2 ceramic bulls on the roof.  Talking to a vendor, he described that they brought good luck to the home, which I then recalled reading somewhere earlier.  The bulls always come in pairs, and we were able to negotiate a sale of a pair for each of us for just $3 total. Luck indeed!

Our train for Aguas Calientes (essentially Machu Picchu base camp) leaves at 7pm tonight, so we're just passing time in a cafe near the train station along side a river.  Notably across from a local Quechua woman serving up rice and chicken from her pots that are set up on a table with a little bench on the sidewalk.  Me want. However, as much as I enjoy guerilla street dining (and my successes of gastronomically handling street food very well)  I really don't want to chance it the day before Machu Picchu.  I don't think they have industrial flush toilets inside the ruins.

Side note: foreign travel is the perfect opportunity to practice your multiplication tables, complete with division in order to convert currency and calculate prices.  Carry a calculator.  A couple times we had to pull it out when we were dealing with higher-priced items, o when we'd negotiate in local currency, then agree to pay in dollars, which warranted further calculation. Plus there are kilometer and meters, which is it's own set of math. So far so good, but we're dealing with an easy base of 3 in Peru.  Next week in Chile its a base of 500. That'll be a hoot.

Friday, May 27, 2011

We Fed the Alpacas, and the Alpacas Fed Us

More on that later. We started off the day by hiring our own driver to take us off the tour bus path. Germand was fantastic and a nice guy. W didn't expect it, but we stopped for photo ops along the way. Since we were going places that most tours didn't stop, there were absolutely no people when we pulled over. We saw vistas of Cusco, village valleys, techtonic fault lines, snow-capped peaks, Cristo Blanco (Cusco's version of Rio's Christ the Redemptor), and we were so high up, we could clearly see where the tree line ended. I kept taking deep breaths not because I was breathless, but because at 13,000 feet, the air is cool, fresh, and clean. Last time I experienced air like that was as the Continental Divide, and that was lower. I kept taking off my sunglasses to look at the sky because it was so blue I didn't think it was real.

Our first major stop was at Awana Kancha. Llamas and alpacas are raised here, free to roam about, and we were able to feed them  On another side, they were sheared, their hair dyed from fresh herbs boiled in a pot, then hand-spun. Local Andean women wove blankets and other crafts from hand and by memory in perfect symmetry. It was stunning. Plus the proceeds from the center are Returned to the community to support education and keeping the ancient craft alive. I had to leave with a table runner to match the 3 large vases I picked up yesterday (if you've seen my home, you know how I decorate).

Next we traveled on to Sacsayhuaman, aka "sexy woman" because it sounds similar. It was a large Incan fortress and a spiritual center until the conquistadores pillaged it for stones to build their churches. I overlooked Cusco and we spent some time taking in the city view.

Upon returning to Cusco and freshening up, we chose dinner at the Inka Grill rumored to be the best cuy (guinea pig) in the area. Not only did it not disappoint but it far exceeded our expectations. The only bad part was that we may not have an opportunity to eat this dish again after this trip. We also sampled the alpaca which was also delish, with a fruit-based sauce. W fed the alpacas, and they fed us.

Tomorrow we start our journey toward Machu Picchu. We'll spend the night at the village nearest the site, then climb up to watch the sun rise.  Since our train there and back doesn't have a luggage car, we can only take a small duffel with us.  Reconfiguring our packing  has been maddening since it feels like every few days we're repacking and moving on, and this is only day 4! W have 12 more to go! We continue to be stunned at how much we've done, and how much more is still left to see.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Andes and Cusco

No one told me mountains could look like this. These aren't your grandfather's mountains. These are the Andes. We took the first Taca flight out of Lima at the butt crack of dawn. As we ascended, we could see the mountains in the distance. However, nothing prepared me for what we were about to see. A we approached, we looked down to see jagged white snow-capped peaks, blue lakes, and red soil. Every peak was a new surprise. This is what results from two techtonic plates smashing together - a beautiful disaster.

The landing into Cusco was a tight steep turn as this town is nestled in a valley full of red clay-topped roofs. Canines roam the streets. It's cold. I'm hoping for s warmup or the gloves will have to make an appearance.

While the flight is fresh in my mind, Taca served us a lovely croissant and muffin breakfast on the brief 60 minute flight. I was a cheesy hammy sodium dream. There was more than enough legroom and comfortable. I Lima we stopped a Starbucks first to get our fix, forgetting that we hadn't yet gone through security. But it was a domestic flight and they let people walk through with our cups. The Lima airport is stellar and appears new.

We've arrived at the hotel, sipping on some coca tea, and waiting for lieu room to be ready then we'll catch a siesta. This afternoon we'd like to spend shopping in San Blas so I'm sure the hotel can arrange a car for us. Speaking of the hotel, the driver picked us up at the airport with another couple. The male counterpart's hometown is in Muncie,Indiana, where I wen to Ball State. And in the breakfast dining room, a table across the way was full of businessmen from Chicago. 310 million people in the US, and we keep running into neighbors.
...
Fast-forward 8 hours. We did some damage in Cusco. So much has happened since we arrived that I'll try to recall it all. First off, we were concerned about altitude sickness. We're a full day in and there is no sign yet (knock on wood). We're feeling just fine as though we were at sea level, although we tried whenever possible to have our driver drop us at the top of the San Blas barrio so we could walk downhill into central Cusco. At one point we did walk back up, but we took our time, then ducked into a tiny 5 table eatery run by the nicest woman. Carrie had the loom saltado and I the papa a la huancaina. Nom nom. Side note: Inka Cola, notsomuch.

San Blas is an artists and backpacker neighborhood with some great shopping so we thought the best way to take it easy today would be to get all our souvenir shopping done here. Almost all. We obviously do not blend in with our pale skin and red/blonde hair so we were bombarded on the street by roaming vendors at every turn. Some of them ran better deals than the stalls so we also picked up a few gems from them.  Some Quechua locals in traditional Andean attire walked by and asked to take a picture of them with their baby llamas and lambs, so we did in exchange for some coin.

I'm so glad we did our research via Samantha Brown and Bourdain because it pointed us to some gems off the tourist path that we werent aware of. We found the ancient Incan city walls, walked the narrow cobbled streets, and ran some hard bargains. We are also blessed to be staying at a treasure of a b&b called Torre Dorada. Although it's located in a residential part of town, they offer free pickup and drop off at the city center, and even took us up to San Blas. This morning one of the kitchen staff made homemade queso tomales. The front desk is beyond helpful and they're going to purchase our Machu Picchu entrance tickets for us tomorrow. It'll be nice to have them when we return from tomorrow's excursion.  We asked them to arrange a private driver for us for a half day when we go to visit the llama and alpaca sanctuary, Awana Kancha (again, thank you Samantha Brown), then he'll take us down the road to Sacsayhuaman, a massive Incan fortress. Then we'll hop that free ride again back to central Cusco and San Blas. If I'm not exhausted and Carrie will put up with me, the bus boy at the restaurant says he goes salsa dancing near the Plaza de Armas. Baila!

Central Cusco is lovely.  The main square is surrounded by Catholic churches built upon Incan foundations, with a gardens and a fountain in the square. The Plaza is also surrounded by restaurants, pubs, souvenir shops for every budget, and tour companies. It's great for people watching but can get tiresome trying to ward off the roaming vendors.

I'm very much looking forward to our first full night's sleep in days. When the lady as the restaurant asked when's arrived in Cusco, I had no idea. That's because we got up at 2:30am in Lima today. We're running on coca tea and pure curiosity. The Sandman beckons.

PS - It gets colder than a witch's *** when the sun ducks behind the mountains. By about 30 degrees. Layers and gloves are a must.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Barranco, Lima

After sleeping like the dead, and the best scrambled eggs ever had from the hostel cook, we spent the day exploring Barranco. Many a stop was made to sit by the water or on the cliffs jus watching the waves roll in and soaking up the sun. For lunch we visited El Mueller on a recommendation from a girl at the tourist office. Carrie had a sharp eye to realize that the Biblioteca also had a tourism office.  They were really helpful with maps and the reco for lunch. Ceviche, arroz con camarones, yuca, papas, and corn.  I tasted as though it was straight from Neptune's garden. Glorious bliss.

Barranco is clean, neat, and has some of the most gorgeous modern residential architecture I have ever seen. I feel very comfortable here, and although foreign it's not like being a stranger in a strange land. We've mastered crossing streets and maybe at one point may brave mass transit.

We walked a bit longer and found some hidden eateries in some back alleys where the locals were lunching, so we may go back next week for more good eats. These are the very Bourdain-esque pull-up-a-stool and sit down to a bowl of soup with the neighbors. We've had some success navigating the menus, and what we couldn't translate, we pretty much got it in the ballpark and haven't been disappointed.

We couldn't resist one last time visiting the waterfront and watching the surfers and others along the promenade. The haze had cleared and the breeze was comfortable, and we were reminded that we were well above the waterline to avoid any impending tsunamis.  I only say this because we did ake note of signage for tsunami and earthquake evacuation routes.  We are, of course, sitting at the edge of a tectonic plate after all.

My Spanish is holding up far better than I had expected and am surprised myself. At the very least, I can be understood. I'll give Chicago credit for helping keep some skills sharp. We'll just see how long this lasts before I errantly redirect us to Bolivia. Hey, who doesn't want to see Lake Titicaca anyway?

En Route to Lima

Most air travel is uneventful.  Security checks, a snack, boarding passes, passports. What wasn't nearly as fun was the cattle class setup on Spirit. I've never had my knees touch the back of a seat at my slight 5'4" frame. I'm only thanking jeebus that it was a 2.5 hour flight and I prayed we wouldn't encounter the same on the next leg. We were disappointed to face a 3 hour delay (for lord knows what reason), but satisfied that the international flight had normal seating and enough room to breath. After Carrie was crammed between a rock and a hard place on the way to Florida, I'm sure she appreciated the extra room this time.

I fell asleep watching Hot Tub Time Machine on the iPad, but we'll blame that not on the fine storytelling, but on the two Xanax and wine we a had at the airport bar. A I write this, we should be landing in about an hour. Since we were so long delayed, Carrie emailed the hotel to notify them that we'd be late when they pick us up. Then we sat on the plane for another hour so I hope they're still waiting for us when we land.  Luckily we carried all the phone numbers and email addresses with us so we could coordinate a new pickup time.

I'll be happy to be out of an airplane but we're hopping night back on one pin Thursday for Cusco so tomorrow we'll just take it easy in Lima and get to know the neighborhood.

Ps - I'm starting to get used to typing on this iPad.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

South America: The Agenda Ahead

When I'm on the road, I'll blog as often as possible about our adventures so I can keep the details fresh and down on record before details of the memories begin to fade.  When I'm home, I blog only every few weeks, but I love writing on the road.  I often look back at my own entries from years later and I'm flooded with memories and smiles, and sometimes the slightest scent riding on a breeze of where I visited.  So if you're interested in following along with my travels, subscribe with your email address at the bottom of the page, and/or look for updates on Facebook.  Our itinerary is outlined below in case you're interested in some of the sites we'll be visiting and know when to look for updates.

May 24-26: Lima
We'll hang out here for a couple days, just to settle in.  We won't explore too much since we'll be kicking off the trip pretty quickly the next day, but it'll be good to rest up before we head inland.  Per my friend Nancy's recommendation, we'll be staying in the Barranco neighborhood, just south of Miraflores.

May 26-28: Cusco
Cusco, the capital of the ancient Inca empire, is where we'll be camped for a few days in order to acclimate to the altitude, approximately 11,000 feet.  As an asthmatic, I've been training my lungs for months to get into shape and be able to breathe better.   I hope it pays off, because at just 9,000 feet in Breckenridge a few years back, I experienced some struggles with the altitude.  A few days at the B&B with free oxygen tanks, some coca tea, and we should be good to go.  We're also pretty excited about visiting Awana Kancha, a llama and alpaca sanctuary outside Cusco.  Samantha Brown visited during one show and with Carrie's enthusiasm for llamas, and as much fun as I had at the elephant sanctuary last year, it'll be nice to get out of town and into nature, up close and personal with the animals.  Here the animals are sheared, and local women dye and weave it into blankets, ponchos, hats, and whatnot, then the proceeds are returned to the surrounding villages to support schools and welfare.  I'm a fan of conscious tourism (or as much as I can be conscious of what I do and visit), so this place appeals to us on a few levels.

May 28-29: Machu Picchu
Well, there it is, folks.  My only fear here is encountering fog.  Rain I can handle.  Fog that obstructs the view... well... Let's cross our fingers and pray to some Incan god for sunshine.  It's supposed to be the dry season, but the 10 day forecast shows rain in Cusco.  We shall see.  As Samantha Brown did, she should have just waited it out and she'd see the ruins just fine.  (And no, we did not plan this trip around Samantha Brown.  She just happened to visit a lot of places that were great reference material for our trip)  We'll be taking a taxi up to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, from where we'll catch a train to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo, then find our B&B for the night.  The next day we'll be up at 4am to catch a bus up to the ruins, and climb Huancaya Picchu to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu.  They only allow a limited number of people to climb the neighboring mountain and ancient trail per day, so we want to be among the first.  If I've learned anything in my travels, it's this: If someone tells you that getting up at the crack of ass to see the sun rise is worth it, you do it (see also: Cambodia/Angkor Wat).  After our visit, we'll hop a 3hr train ride back to Cusco.  It'll be nice to settle into some big cozy seats for a train journey through the Andes.

May 30-June 1: Nazca
This is where it gets interesting.  Riding a bus through Peru.  Disaster stories abound.  At least we picked a reputable bus company so I hope I don't have to envision us plunging to our deaths over a Andean cliff, pushed aside by an overtaking chicken bus (or is that in Guatemala?).  It's a 6 hour journey to Nazca, and I may be more excited about this place than Machu Picchu (but only slightly).  On the 31st we'll go to the local airstrip where we'll board a 12-seater (one of the larger planes) to view the Nazca Lines.  My wristbands and Dramamine are packed.  The lines can be seen best from the air, as they're lines carved in the hard desert ground thousands of years ago, in the shapes of men, monkeys, spiders, birds, and other figures.  It's still a mystery why and how they were created, but fascinating nonetheless.  I was obviously leery of boarding a tiny plane in rural Peru, but after some FAA research and advice from very reputable travel agents, we settled on a tour company that contracted through the best airline for this treat.  And thanks to Allison's pilot dad, he helped me overcome my fear of flying so one day I'd be able to do this!

June 1-2: Lima
Upon leaving Nazca we'll board another bus for the 8 hour ride back to Lima along the Panamerican Highway (which runs from Alaska to Ushuaia).  Back in Lima we're staying at a hotel that has been reviewed as "tacky", "horribly gaudy," and "old" that we couldn't resist that kind of charm and character.  Plus it's in an old palace in the heart of the city so at least for a day we'll be exploring a new neighborhood.  Carrie located Iglesia de San Francisco where we'll be visiting the catacombs below.  Bones!  Also in this area is where we'll find the national soccer - er, football - stadium so it'd be fun to try to catch a game.  Someone just has to warn us what colors NOT to wear.

June 2-5: Easter Island
Reality still hasn't set in that we'll be visiting Easter Island.  We even took horseback riding lessons a few weeks ago to prep for this leg of the trip, since it was my bright idea (to Carrie's protests) to rent horses for an afternoon to explore the moai around the town.  However, for the next full day, we'll likely be renting a Jeep so we can get around faster and keep the horsies to a minimum.  There are no hotel chains or "brands" on this island of only 105 square miles, so our "hotel" is actually an private cabin outside town, by the water.  I don't know what else to write about Easter Island, since information is scarce even on the internet.  However, that doesn't make me any less excited!!

June 5-8: Lima
This is where we relax and wind down for a few days.  Maybe some salsa dancing.  Some ceviche by the Fisherman's Wharf.  Some shopping.  And after San Pellegrino released their annual list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, we secured a reservation at #42: Astrid y Gaston on our final night.  We'll take these 3 days for some R&R before we head back stateside.

Friday, May 13, 2011

How Do I Travel Affordably?

I get this question a lot.  Many people think traveling is really expensive, but it's not if you know how to milk the system, look for deals, and make a hobby out of research.  However, there are a few travel staples that I resort to on a constant basis that help keep costs minimal.

Orbitz
To my lovely friends at Orbitz, you're actually by BFFs.  And I don't just mean Orbitz in general, but I tell my friends that actually DO work at Orbitz how much I love their flexible fare finder.  It was through this tool that Carrie and I found and scored our bargain-basement plane tickets to Peru for $400 r/t.  You can search month-by-month for the best fares, then it displays in a matrix for comparison.  Brilliant.  This is perfect for visiting a place, but when you go doesn't matter, as long as it's cheap.

Airfare Watch Dog
Sign up at Airfare Watch Dog for daily emails and alerts on special fares from your city.  I love this site because it also includes unpublished fares, and last-minute domestic and international airfares.  Believe you me, I am keeping my eyes open for a convenient time to run off to Mexico City for a chance to dine at Pujol or Biko.  And for fares hovering under $300 from Chicago, it's cheaper than getting to LA.

Travelzoo
I'm addicted.  This site might bankrupt me.  But the deals are fantastic, and include not only airfare, but entire vacation packages.  I had this wild idea that instead of taking 1 giant 2 week trip every year, I could take about 5 or 6 last-minute long weekend trips around the world, just by taking advantage of all the last-minute deals.  This year is spoken for, but maybe later next year?  Or the year after?

Frequent Flyer Programs
Become a local expert in your favorite frequent flyer program.  I'm a sucker for frequent flyer miles giveaways, but if it's getting me a free ticket to Dubai or Easter Island, I'm a happy sucker that's not paying a lot to have a fabulous vacation.  First, focus on your favorite airline.  If you don't have one, sign up for an program on an airline that has frequent flights from your nearest airport or watch for fare trends.  If you're in Chicago, American Airlines or United are great choices because both airlines have frequent flights, which will make it easier to rack up miles on a single airline for convenience.  Some frequent flyer experts may advise signing up for a program on an airline that does not have a hub in your home city (a hub means you'll have to compete against more passengers for award seats), so you'll have more of a selection of award seats when you want to cash in those miles.  I"m more of a miles accumulator than a spender, and if you redeem your miles well in advance of traveling (6-8 months) then finding an award seat may not be a problem in a hub city.  The alliance you select is also important, because you want to ensure that the partner airlines fly to some places you may want to visit.  Star Alliance has an excellent and far-reaching network (United has a huge network).  I'm a oneworld member and am pretty happy, although the fares are higher on some destinations I visit (love flying British Airways, and American domestically, but isn't great for South America unless you can cash in on LAN).  Skyteam is great for Asia some European destinations, but their alliance network is small.  On the other hand, Korean Air is one of the most comfortable long-haul airlines in Skyteam.  As you can see, it's up to you to select your alliance on which to accumulate miles.

Next, you don't have to step on a plane to collect miles.  I wrote an entry a few months back about holiday shopping and earning miles.  If you're going to shop online, shop with airline partners that earn you miles at the same time!  If you're an AAdvantage member, install the AAdvantage toolbar on your internet browser to earn miles, often without shopping!  Years ago I got a telemarketing phone call: "Switch your long distance telephone service now and we'll give you 10,000 frequent flyer miles."  Okay!  And last month I received a letter in the mail: "Change your electricity service provider and earn 5,000 miles."  Done.  If you can, sign up for a credit card that gives you miles.  There are promotions going on now where you can earn up to 100,000 miles after your first purchase in some cases.  When you travel on an airline and have over 100k miles, you can often get a free upgrade.  Party bonus.  With AAdvantage, I signed up all my credit cards with the Dining Program, so even if I spend $10 on take-out, it might net me 30 miles.  I feel like I'm earning without paying attention.  Always check your frequent flyer program's web page for promotions, offers, and alerts for opportunities to earn miles.  AMEX has a great program in which you can transfer AMEX Membership Awards points to select airline programs.  A recent AMEX promotion allowed me to transfer 25,000 miles to my BA account with a 40% free bonus.  I went from 2,000 BA miles to 37,000 in 1 minute.  That also keeps me a couple thousand miles away from a part/cash, part/miles reward ticket, or a few thousand away from a free r/t European ticket.

What does this all get you?  You can be one of two different earners: One who earns and spends immediately.  As soon as you see you've earned enough for a free r/t ticket to Moscow, you'll cash those miles in for tickets.  Some programs also allow you to pay part cash and part miles.  This is good when you don't have enough miles to fly totally free, or you don't want to use up your miles.  The other strategy is to be a collector.  Sure, you cash in miles for a free ticket, but if you continue to accumulate miles, you start to become an elite member and/or qualify for free upgrades.  I have to say, paying for a coach ticket was great when I was surprisingly upgraded to a fully-flat bed pod in business class back from London.  That would have been a $3000 ticket, at least.  It was worth it to save the miles and get the perks.

Lastly, before you spend your miles, look at your travel habits or wish list.  If you're going to be an international travel, your miles will often get you further than if you paid cash.  However, cashing in 25,000 miles for a free domestic ticket from Chicago to New York isn't worth the miles if the ticket is only $200.  Those same 25,000 miles is getting me a free ticket from Lima, Peru, to Easter Island.  That ticket was at least $533 if I bought it.  First do some research on lowest fares, then do the math on what the cost per mile would be. 

Couch Surfing
Find a friend or relative that lives anywhere, give them a call, and go visit.  Free lodging, and maybe bring some goodies from home for them.  Or literally, go Couch Surfing.  This site brings together a network of charitable travelers willing to give up their sofa, futon, or guest room for the avid wanderer.  You may have to cook your own food and clean up after yourself, but for a free place to rest your head, it's a great idea if you're really on a budget, or would love the advice and guidance of a local.

Lodging
Think outside the box of hotels.  Try for a B&B, or even a hostel that may have private en suite rooms, wifi, and hot water (I find these to be a step above a hostel, nearly a B&B).  Get a group together and rent a villa or small apartment.  You could fit 3-4 people in a hotel room, but watch out for additional guest fees if there will be more than 2 people.  I love TripAdvisor for finding alternative lodging options.

Lastly, there are times when you really don't want to pinch pennies and cut corners.  Set some money aside for any airport arrival/departure taxes.  Pony up for travel insurance.  Get your vaccinations, malaria pills, and antibiotics.  Make sure your passport doesn't expire for at least 6 months at the time of your trip, and has at least 2 blank visa pages, if you're traveling outside the US.  I also welcome anyone else's tips on traveling affordably!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why We Love Chicago Summers (aka Festival Schedule)

MAY
  • Chicago Craft Beer Week 5/19-27 www.chibeerweek.com
  • Wine Riot 5/20-21 210 S. Canal St.
  • Lakeview Mayfest 5/20-21 Ashland & Barry
  • Belmont Sheffield Music Fest 5/27-29 Sheffield- Belmont to School

JUNE
  • Maifest 6/2-5 Lincoln Square
  • Hyde Park Art Fair 6/4-5 57th & Dorchester
  • June Jam 6/4-5 3500 N. Hoyne
  • Do-Division Fest 6/4-5 Division & Damen
  • Sausage Fest (formerly Lakeview Music Fest) 6/4-5 Sheffield & Addison
  • Bluesfest 6/10-12 Grant Park
  • North Center Rib Fest 6/10-12 Lincoln & Irving Park
  • St. Mike’s Celebration 6/10-12 St. Michaels
  • Old Town/Wells St. Art Fair 6/11-12 Old Town & Wells St
  • Andersonville Midsommarfest 6/11-12 Clark & Foster
  • Taste of Randolph 6/17-19 Randolph & Halsted
  • 6 Corners BBQ Fest 6/18-19 Milwaukee & Irving
  • Chicago Summerfest 6/25-26 Lincoln Park West & Clark
  • Green Music Fest 6/25-26 Damen & North Ave.
  • Gay Pride Parade 6/26 Halsted & Belmont
  • Jeff Fest TBD Higgins & Milwaukee

JUNE/JULY
  • Summerfest 6/29-7/3 & 7/5 Milwaukee’s Lakefront Festival Grounds
  • Taste of Chicago 6/24-7/3 Grant Park

JULY
  • Rock Around the Block 7/9-10 Lincoln & Belmont
  • Roscoe Village Burger Fest 7/9-10 Belmont & Damen
  • Old St. Pat’s Block Party 7/8-9 Madison & Des Plaines
  • West Fest 7/9-10 Chicago & Damen
  • Chicago Folk & Roots Festival 7/9-10 Welles Park (Lincoln & Montrose)
  • Bastille Day Run, Walk & Block Party 7/14 Cannon Dr & Fullerton Pkwy
  • Pitchfork Music Festival 7/15-17 Union Park
  • Windy City Rib Fest Uptown 7/15-17 Broadway & Lawrence
  • Lincoln Park Arts & Music Festival 7/16-17 Racine & Webster
  • Wicker Park Fest 7/23-24 Damen & North
  • Sheffield Garden Walk 7/23-24 Sheffield & Webster
  • Taste of Lincoln Ave 7/30-31 Lincoln -Fullerton to Wrightwood
  • Summer on Southport 7/30-31 Southport-Waveland to Byron

AUGUST
  • Lollapalooza 8/5-7 Grant Park
  • Taylor Street Festa Italiana 8/5-7 Taylor & Loomis St.
  • Retro on Roscoe 8/6-7 Roscoe & Damen
  • North Halsted Market Days 8/13-14 Halsted -Belmont & Addison
  • Wrigleyville Summerfest 8/13-14 3300 N. Seminary
  • Air & Water Show 8/20-21 Lakefront
  • Ukranian Festival 8/20-21 Smith Park
  • Northside Summerfest 8/20-21 Lincoln Ave & Belle Plaine
  • Edison Park Fest 8/19-21 Olsted Ave. – Oliphant to Overhill
  • Boulevard Bash 8/26-28 Logan Square Blvd & Milwaukee Ave
  • Bucktown Arts Fest 8/27-28 Oakley Ave. & Lyndale

SEPTEMBER
  • North Coast Music Festival 9/2-4 Union Park
  • Ravenswood Remix 9/3-4 4000 N. Ravenswood
  • German-American Fest 9/9-11 Lincoln Square
  • Ukranian Village Festival 9/10-11 Superior & Leavitt
  • Wells Street Fall Festival 9/10-11 Wells & North
  • Oyster Fest 9/16-17 Damen & Roscoe
  • Musky Fest 9/17 Will’s – 3030 N. Racine
  • Oktoberfest Chicago 9/23-25 Southport & Lincoln
  • Hideout Block Party TBD Elston & Wabansia

Monday, March 14, 2011

What is Trip Insurance and Do I Need It?

Got approved time off work and your boss decides they need you in the office instead?  Airline cancel your flight or bump you?  Stranded overnight on an airport floor due to a snowstorm?  Earthquake?  Tsunami warning?  Civil unrest?  Mexico is "closed" due to the swine flu and it's during your family's spring break?  Chances are if you've had to pay out-of-pocket to address any of these game-changers, then it's likely travel insurance would reimburse you, or at least help you navigate a way out of the mess.

If you have to ask if you need it, you probably do.  If you have never asked, it's worth reading on to decide.

Actually, a few of the above have actually happened to me in recent months, and some have happened to other people.  If you're throwing down a few thousand dollars for a trip and something goes awry before or during it, you would probably want the piece of mind to know that you could at least get a refund on your money, or some cash back on some of the extra expenses you may have to incur due to a delay.  But travel insurance goes above and beyond these events.  If your luggage is lost, stolen, or delayed, think about how much money you'll spend to try to replace these items.  Or for instance, you're not even sure what could go wrong, but all you know is that the $9000 you're spending to fly your family to the Europe for a week and rent a house in the countryside better all be worth it because Murphy and his Laws are perpetually following.

A good starting point is before you book anything, visit the State Department's travel page and if you're leaving the country, check to see if there are any travel advisories, alerts, or warnings.  Sometimes your insurance won't cover an "existing" event.  However, if an advisory is issued after you purchased your insurance, then you may be covered, but the reimbursement may not take affect until there's an official government-imposed warning.  Sometimes your own judgment or discomfort won't be legitimate enough for you to cancel your trip and get reimbursed.  Think of this as a sort of "pre-existing condition."  This blog displays some of the current alerts and warnings for quick reference. 

COMPONENTS
Let's back up and talk about the components of trip insurance.  First, there's Trip Medical coverage.  Last year I ended up in an ER in Bangkok.  Luckily the bill with Rx was only $40 so it was hardly worth filing a claim (it likely fell below my deductible).  But what if I had a more serious issue and incurred $1000 worth of fees?  What if while I was kayaking, a huge wave toppled us over and I broke an arm when crashing into a rock?  Sh!t happens.  Meanwhile, some friends of mine ended up in a Hanoi ER for 3 days.  Poor honeymooners.  I'm not sure what their bill was, but from what I hear, I would have paid to be evacuated back to the swank ex-pat hospital in Bangkok.  Sometimes the care you need isn't available where you're injured, and there may be expenses to get you to the treatment you need.  It all adds up.  Trip insurance to cover medical needs will take care of these costs, and in most cases, will help handle the logistics while you're face-up on a gurney.  Sh!t happens everywhere and NOT when you expect it to.  Be ready.  For a minimal cost of a policy, it could save you from a large credit card bill, or worse, bankruptcy.  On top of that, just how much coverage do you want or need?  Ask yourself, are you - or any member of your family - in poor health?  Have a pre-existing condition that might flare up or environmental factors affect it?  (My travel medicine doctor always provides me with a list of the best hospitals in the region where I'm traveling.  Sometimes those hospitals are in other countries = another plane ticket!)

Then there's Trip Coverage, period.  This encompasses all the other logistics: lost luggage, stolen cameras, lost passports, evacuation due to natural disaster, missing a flight/connection, extra hotel for flight delays, vacation canceled because your kid got sick, etc.  However, for coverage, there are different levels and different amounts of coverage.  If I purchase basic insurance that will reimburse me if my trip is canceled because Godzilla just ate Tokyo before I even got on the plane, then fine.  Or if I have to rush home early because a family member passes away.  But if I decide to cancel my trip because my workload at the office is too large or my boss says so, that won't be covered unless I buy an add-on for "100% Trip Cancellation - Covered for any reason" or something to that effect.  Or if I want my luggage insured for $1000 instead of $250, or for a lower deductible, then I have to add on or increase coverage.  This goes on for all sorts of scenarios, delays, deductibles, etc.

If this all sounds very confusing, there is help!  One of my favorite travel resources is squaremouth.com. It's much like buying car insurance or plane tickets - Enter the total cost of your trip, your age, the dates, and destination, and the results show an array of polices and it allows you to compare side-by-side each element of every policy, and at what cost.  It's a fantastic way to break down what each level of coverage includes, doesn't , and compares the bottom lines.  You also can purchase travel insurance on a per-trip basis, or look into annual subscriptions, as well, if you're a frequent traveler (even if it's for domestic weekend jaunts).

TIMING
Let's say you're planning a trip to Mexico for spring break.  You've already put down your deposit for the all-inclusive resort, and you may have paid in full by now.  You haven't yet bought trip insurance.  News hits the airwaves that swine flu is rampant in the country and most business are closing until it passes.  The State Department then issues a travel warning to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico.  You decide to buy trip insurance.  Sorry pal, you're out of luck.  You won't be covered because of this "pre-existing condition" that the country now has, and you didn't buy insurance at the same time (or in a lot of policys' cases, within 30 days of making your first payment) as booking.  You would have been covered to cancel this trip if you already had insurance before the warning was issued.  Travel insurance most often covers you for unexpected events, not expected events, as in this case.  So take note, when you book your trip, or even just pay for the plane tickets, get on that travel insurance quickly so you're covered now until the end of your trip.  Just note that if you want total coverage of your trip, that you should book within 30 days of when you make your first payment for anything on the vacation, as some companies may not cover you if you booked more than 30 days ago.


COST
So what does trip insurance cost?  Not much, really.  That is, not in the grand scheme of your trip.  What is the cost of piece of mind?  Cost will vary by your age, where you live, where you're going, how much your entire trip costs, and how much (or little) coverage you want.  I tend to buy in the middle of the road: not the basics, a few more features, but not the high-end policies.  For example, a $1500 trip to Peru with average coverage is costing me $67.  The $2000 trip to Southeast Asia cost $90.  A first-class 2 week luxury trip to Egypt was about $120.  But this depends if you want to add "cancel for any reason" coverage, lower deductibles, higher reimbursement rates, and so on.  Again, squaremouth.com is a great site for comparing different plans across different companies.

CREDIT CARDS
Book your trip with a credit card.  Most credit card companies offer some sort of travel protection on plane tickets, delays, lost luggage, or other resolution for other difficulties if you've paid for that amenity on their card.  I don't leave home without an American Express Platinum card because of their worldwide travel protection, 247 assistance, and concierge service in case of emergency.  Check your credit card terms before booking.  You may want to only purchase a basic travel insurance plan if your credit card already covers a large portion of trip delay.  Credit cards and trip insurance can be used in concert with a purchased policy to provide the best coverage.  Just remember which credit card you're using for which purchase so you know who to call.

Lastly, research the web for reviews of some companies.  Although prices and policies may be attractive, it's possible that some companies may be non-responsive, may not reimburse quickly, and some might have excellent customer service.

If you have any further questions, information, or if anything posted here is incorrect, please email me!