Archive for the Category »Organized Tours «

Mar
05th
  Bikinis in Burma

Burma/Myanmar,  has probably not been at the top of your travel list. Until recently, this South East Asia country was boycotted by travelers because of a hard line military government, that disallowed opposition to its rule. Economic sanctions have been in place for decades.

But now, the Burmese democratic opposition is supporting responsible travel to Burma… (avoid tourist establishments with ties to the govt.) & the boycott: lifted.

On the way to Burma

So it’s time to go!

Somewhere in the Andaman Sea..far far from home.

I just went with four girlfriends… although we saw this undeveloped country from a unique perspective: from a boat in bikinis almost 24/7.

Yes, I visited the mainland town of Kawthoung…

Mergui Archipelago, Burma

but I spent most of my 8 days cruising the some of the hundreds of islands in the Mergui Archipelago  in the Andaman Sea, just off the coast of Burma.

How you travel there is up to you. Staying on land: it is very rough. Gotta be careful about what you eat… it is very primitive and raw – not many places like this left in the world. Very little internet service – it is reported on www.travel.state.gov that one tourist at a hotel tried sending a photo via email and was charged $2000. The govt reportedly views all emails as well. But – the things to see on land are incredible.

By sea: Gorgeous. Peaceful. And I admit – totally decadent. Not many people can afford to charter a yacht and do this.

Having said that, going by sea is a subject about worth learning…. There are responsible tours that don’t  have ties to the govt & help locals. These tour groups can assist you plan and even charter your own yacht.

We had a fantastic guide with us the entire time and felt completely safe. The locals we encountered were kind and happy to see us -

some invited us into their homes…

and the fishermen invited us on their boats.

It is an utterly different world, and snatched a piece of my soul.

To travel by boat, you get to visit places where there are no other tourists… we didn’t see any at all, except a Russian dive boat, and probably saw total about 40 other people/locals the entire time we were there.

We were anchoring at uninhabited islands… stand up paddling every morning to a beautiful sunrise…

walking every day on virgin sand littered with whole, unbroken shells.

Our favorite we named ‘Sand Dollar Beach” because curiously enough, only sand dollars littered the shore.

And did I mention oh so blue turquoise waters?

We sailed near dolphins…

and witnessed sunsets that would make even non-believers faithful.

Another advantage of the boat: We also felt safe eating the food because our crew stocked it form safe sources.

In my upcoming posts I will highlight specific islands or attractions from my trip. This is just a brief overview.. I know I can’t do this trip justice, but I will try. :)

If you are at all interested in exploring this region of the beautiful world, here are some sources – I can’t recommend them personally because I’ve never used them, but it is a place to start. Like I always say, “Dream Big.”

Some of the yachting companies I’ve researched charge around $1800 per person for 7 nights… that includes food and water activities – no entry visas, etc. The fuel is really expensive, so with the price of gas going up, so may your chartered yacht experience.

www.interyachtcharter.com

http://www.seasia.biz/CHARTER/default_charter.htm

www.goodnewstravels.com

Also a good current resource is www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma.

I didn’t find our own government’s website to be as current.

 
Feb
07th
  Taking the Kids To Peru: Day 5 Shopping the Markets and Lovin’ the Llamas!

Day 5 of my family adventure: This could very well be my kids’ favorite day in Peru

We left our home at Sol Y Luna to venture to our next hotel in Cuzco. The way our tour group, Adventures by Disney, broke up the all of the drive time worked really well.

Our first stop along the way: Pisca Market. To make shopping seem fun to kids, the Disney tour guides gave everyone 10 soles to spend… but you had to buy a gift for a white elephant exchange at our group’s last dinner together. Creative and fun idea!

The kids really took pride in picking a gift among the traditional chotchkies you’d find in Peru – hats and scarves made from alpaca, dolls, beaded jewelry, etc. The prices are so cheap  – the dollar goes far. It is not hard to bargain here, by the way.

The kids all made friends .. the young Peruvian girls dressed in traditional garb charge you to take a photo with them and their animals.  Even though you know it is a more tourist trap than National Geographic moment, you can’t resist, and want to give them something because frankly, there are many poor people in that country.

My youngest was particularly drawn to the dogs in Peru… I’ve never seen anything like it, but all the dogs roam freely on the streets. They are not kept in a yard at home…. they are not on leashes. Sometimes they seem so busy running through the cities, it is as if they are late to a very important meeting. My son found every dog and had to pet it. :) The language of dog lovers is the same everywhere.

Awana Kancha Llama Farm

From the market, we headed to Awana Kancha – another place I can’t imagine learning about without the sage guidance of a good tour group. At this point, we were all impressed with how easy it was to be part of a tour – you are able to experience the present better because as parents we weren’ t worrying about where our next meal would be, how we would get to our next location, or where we could buy a bottle of water.

Awana Kancha is an exotic animal farm of sorts -

With Suuth American “camels” to with which to interact!

My kids loved feeding the llamas and alpacas -

Some were aggressive and chased my six year old. They all had a great time.

Part of this living museum is that visitors also learn about how the animals’ soft wool is used to make beautiful woven textiles.  Then the next thing you know you are whisked from a dusty, dirty grass patch with alpaca roaming, into a marble-floored, air conditioned indoor mall selling all sorts of very nice Peruvian sweaters and souvenirs. It felt totally out of place, but was some of the best shopping we’d had – at a llama farm! It is so exclusive, we weren’t even allowed to photograph it…

After fraternizing with our furry friends, we finally reached our destination: Cuzco, a city of about 350,000 that disarms one with it’s unexpected charm.

Cuzco, Peru

Cobblestone streets… Beyond gorgeous churches…And all very clean.

There are 300 Catholic churches in this small town – these churches weren’t like the ones you see in Europe by the way – in general they were more intimate, but equally ornate, with alters of carved gold detail.

Cuzco is an Incan city, and was once headquarters to the Incan Empire.. and our hotel was once the home of one of the Spanish Conquistadors.

The Libertador is a regal hotel, and you can see the Spanish influence in the architecture. It is walking distance to the main square which is great with kids.


Even though it is an ultra elegant hotel, the staff was uber-friendly to children. Some of the nicest staff I have encountered in all my travels. The only bummer was no internet service in the rooms, only the public areas. At this point I had been offline for about a week, and needed to check on some things back at the ranch.

That night we ate a super gourmet meal at a restaurant – Limo. Because Cuzco is of high altitude, many people were feeling the effects – even after being in Machu Picchu. It can hit pretty suddenly so be prepared.

It didn’t stop us from walking back to our hotel from dinner – with the lights on the nearby hillside sparkling as our guide.

Lima, Peru

Tomorrow: The bustling cities of Peru.

 
Feb
06th
  Taking the Kids To Peru Day 4: Machu Picchu – One of the Great Wonders Of The World

My family’s 8 day trip to Peru last week finds us on day 4 in my blog….

We had a SUPER early wake up call that morning because Adventure by Disney’s goal is to beat the crowds. Have to admit – I was not loving being told what time to wake up – which is part of a being with a tour group- but it ended up being worth it.

Arriving at the Ollantaytambo train station to being our journey to Machu Pichhu, I already felt transported somewhere lost in time.

Although the station is pretty modern, Peru is still a third world country. It felt old fashioned.   But once inside the passenger car, which services thousands of tourists, the ride was surprisingly plush: leather seats, meal service, and even a fashion show!

In my seat I took it all in. The additional windows on the ceiling allowed more extensive viewing of the lush and rugged Andes dotted with Inca ruins.

The thick fog rolling in and out between the hills – revealing a new scenery each time it dissipated… and the mysterious music playing through the train’s speaker set the scene for a spiritual and mystic journey to the lost city of the Incas.

It was an hour and a half train ride, and when we arrived at the main gate, you must show your passport.  Tickets are pricey about 50 US dollars. Our tickets were already part of our Disney package, so we didn’t need to wait in any lines. The Peru govt is now limiting the number of people, so order tickets in advance. There are lockers to check personal belongings too. (The other way to enter is to hike the Inca Trail.)

Meandering up a hill, the ruins suddenly become visible as you walk through a tunnel-like rock formation.

The first glimpse is an awesome moment – it makes you think about life and those who came so long before you.

Machu Picchu - Put This On Your Bucket List

We spent a few hours following a guide up close through the ruins….I had always wanted to come to Machu Picchu. It is easy to savor the moments here.

Bringing my kids was a thrill.  Having guides from the region is a huge bonus. Disney trains all the local guides, so they are jovial and a fabulous source of information.

I could tell you all the amazing stories about the Incas that you come to appreciate by exploring Machu Picchu… but you are better off getting the history lesson from another website. www.peru-machu-picchu.com/

In a nutshell. the Incas built this city to purposely be out of reach.. and up high to be closer to the gods.

The reason they say these remains are so special is that they weren’t destroyed by the Spanish when they conquered Peru…. and were actually kept secret to most of the world, overgrown with fast growing lush vegetation. That, until American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911.

Because they’re unspoiled, we can marvel at the Incan construction – how did they get this many tons of boulders up to 8000 feet  above sea level?

How did they get each stone to fit together flawlessly, without mortar and modern tools?

So how did the kids like it?

As parents, we bring our children on trips like this with the hopes of teaching about other cultures and explaining history. At the same time, I realize true appreciation of this magnificent site won’t take root immediately, and that’s OK. The guides on our tour did a good job of trying to keep the kids engaged, and my six year old actually asked if we could Google the Incas…. mostly because he learned they had small feet, but hey – it was a start…. My older kids had fun imagining playing laser tag at Machu Picchu. Had to be honest. :)

We ate lunch at the restaurant right at the entrance – which is much more expensive than going back down the mountain for a cafe, but it gives you more valuable Machu Picchu touring time. My tip would be to splurge at the expensive restaurant near Machu Picchu, or pack a lunch if possible.

After lunch, the guides gave us two choices: to hike part of the Inca trail from the ruins up to the Sun Gate.. or to spend more time wandering the ruins on our own.

Our family chose to hike about 1000 feet higher  along  the stone path that the Incas built some 500 years ago. All my kids made it – even my six year old. The Inca trail here is wide enough that parents don’t have to worry. You should however, judge the maturity, and physical shape of your child before you take him or her up there.

It is a good hike – most in our group didn’t find it too strenuous – about two hours round trip depending on how long you rest at the top, and how big a ham you are…..

Kids having fun at Machu Picchu. Disclaimer: There IS solid ground below their feet.

We took many photos – you can’t resist…. but we found the views at Sun Gate aren’t more spectacular than below, just different.

The Incas were highly spiritual people.. so I couldn’t help but feel the power here. It was nice actually.

Needless to say… we all slept like babies that night…. with strangely lucid dreams. Machu Picchu had infiltrated our souls.

Tomorrow: Lovin’ the llama.

 
Feb
03rd
  Taking The Kids To Peru: Day 3 Balancing History and Fun

This week I am blogging about the trip I just took to Peru with Adventures by Disney.  Epic and educational are two words that come to mind as I chronicle the journey day by day.

Moray, Peru

On day 3, we started out at Moray, an archaeological site in Peru… just a bit away from our hotel in the Sacred Valley. The ruins of Moray are visually amazing… Unique circular stone terraces that are enormous, and look vaguely artistic.

The deepest one of these stadium like patterns goes is 98 feet, which can create a temprature difference from top to bottom of 15 degrees. The purpose once again, was for the Incas to experiment with the effect of climatic conditions on crop growth.

The agricultural terraces are characteristic of the Incas. Terracing crops achieved different micro-climates for various growing conditions . I marveled at how much the Incas were so in tune with nature and astronomy,  and smart about farming for abundance.

As you can see in the photo, it was a horribly cold day…. Thank goodness our Disney guides had rain ponchos, but here in Peru, it was easy to find rain ponchos for a mere $5, as street vendors flocked any tourist site.

***TIP: At a location this close to the equator, and this high altitude, you need to wear sunscreen even with complete cloud coverage!

Salt Mines, Peru

From here, we visited the salt pans, where local families have been mining salt for more than 500 years, beginning in Inca times.  The enormity of the project is mind boggling – there are about 5000 baths from which salt is mined after the water evaporates.

This area is especially salty  – just put your finger in and taste. Nearby you can buy the salt produced here, which they say is super saturated…the pink salt is high quality  -  I bought some and can’t wait to try in my cooking!

The kids found some fun things at the gift store here, and liked the salt mines more than Moray’s agriculture terraces.  You can’t hit a home run at every attraction, but if the kids walk away with one nugget of inspiration or new information, I am happy.

The good news about Disney though is that they realize this, and so they balance the fun with the educational. After lunch, the guides took us to the studio one of Peru’s most famous  ceramicists, Seminario.

We got a first hand glimpse at his studio, and met him in person. His work is in the Chicago Field Museum.

This is the type of experience you would not get to  plan on your own, and where having a connected tour operator can enhance your trip tremendously. When you are spending this much money, you want to maximize your bang for your buck.

While we adults learned about the artist, one of his apprentices took the kids and made some clay figurines and plaques with them. Their energy was so relaxed, and they really enjoyed the art project. This is the balance of the day  – fun mixed with culture – to which I was referring that Disney did so well.

At the studio, parrots roamed freely… and monkeys in cages loved flirting with visitors – the kids were enchanted. There was something for everyone here.

More fun to come: Pizza night at the hotel. The kids donned chef’s hats and aprons, and made their own pizzas! They welcomed the “comfort food, ” after trying so many Peruvian dishes.. which is just another great perk of travel.

Tomorrow: The thrill of a lifetime: Visiting Machu Picchu.

www.adventuresbydisney.com

 
Jan
31st
  A Family Adventure of Epic Proportions: Peru

My spiel is to encourage families with children to travel to all sorts of destinations…and still remain sane! At the same time, I realize there are certain locations that would require so much work, planning, schlepping, and research because of the exotic or geographic nature, that we all need a little help.

Enter, stage right : Disney. They own the family brand, and rule the theme parks, but did you know they have a whole family travel division? The Disney cruises are probably the most well-known.

For the next week or so of posts, I am going to blog about the bucket list trip I took to Peru with a lesser known Disney travel area: Adventures by Disney guided vacations. Yes! We took the kids to Peru ….

Machu Picchu, Peru

…climbed the Inca Trail… and got spiritual at Machu Picchu…

Awana Kancha Llama Farm, Peru

….and went loco for llamas at a llama farm.

Was it easy? Surprisingly, yes. If you don’ t believe me, just ask my husband who is a little more the reserved roamer than the passionate pilgrim that I am.

Adventures by Disney organizes tours around the world: See the Great Wall in China…. cruise down the Nile in Egypt… or search for the Big Five in South Africa.

Let me just say that I have never been attracted to organized tours because I have traveled a lot, and like doing things on my own time.  But I was impressed with how much easier an organized tour makes family travel. Do you get to pick your own hotels? No. The restaurants? Not all of the time. Make your own schedule? Nope.

However… Travel stress melts away as everything is organized for you – your hotels booked: Check. Luggage picked up at airport and you don’t have to even TOUCH it : Check. Transportation from airport to hotels, to attractions: Check . Check. Check. Key in a third world country like Peru.

Pisac Market, Peru

You also save countless hours in planning and researching every activity and hotel…and with a little Disney magic, you can avoid crowds at some of the most packed tourist attractions, and have access to true treasures otherwise off the tourist trail.

If your idea of vacation is to move around a lot, learn a bout other cultures,  be chauffeured around the world without a worry, and mingle with other families – then this is something you might want to consider.

If you like slower pace with lounging at a pool – that is a different trip, and frankly,  you don’ t need to pay to have guides show you that. There was little down time on the tour I took -  This is a special immersive experience for which you have to have the energy.

Disney Guide and Jr Adventurer

If you don’t think you have the energy, you almost certainly will once you arrive because if Disneyland is the happiest place on earth…then the Disney adventure guides are definitely the happiest people on earth. They have the personalities and patience to have fun with the kids from all different time zones, and at the same time work hard to make sure the adults have ever single thing they need, without ever breaking a sweat.

In our group, an American Disney guide was paired with a couple local Peruvian, Disney-trained guides. The American guide  is the heart and soul if you will…. and the local guides are well versed in their country’s history, know the language and customs, and can answer all questions. We tried really hard to stump ours – it became a game – “Stump Ernesto.”

If you do consider a guided tour for any trip, here are some things to think about:

1) Make sure the destination is age appropriate for your children. Only you know your child best. For example, I would recommend waiting until your child is 7 or 8 to go to Peru. Not only will they get more out of it, but if they are bored or fidgety, you will not have a great time.

2) If you think the price sounds expensive, try itemizing what it would cost to go it alone at comparable quality hotels and attractions.  Often these tours sound expensive, but are better-priced because they have the power to negotiate good rates since they bring in more business… and some mistakes you may make with transportation, etc could cost you more in the long run. Plus, you have little extras that you may not even think about when calculating the cost of your trip- Disney had water bottles for us whenever we needed.

3) Find  a tour group that fits your personality. Adventure? Scholarly? Volunteer-oriented? Family? Disney for example, makes family the focus.

4) If it is an international trip, I would highly recommend flying in a day before the tour begins to adjust to any time difference. Trust me, it is worth any extra money. If you are a zombie at the beginning of the trip, it is hard to recover.

Now that you have a general idea of a family vacation option, the next few days will take you on a more personal look at my vacation of epic proportions…a day by day journal of our adventure through Peru. From river rafting, to hiking the Inca Trail overlooking Machu Picchu, it was a trip we will always carry with us.

www.adventuresbydisney.com