Mapping Stereotypes, an internet sensation from graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov

Part of the fun of traveling is discovering how well (or not) national stereotypes hold up. I can’t help but laugh when I meet a German traveler who insists on always being on time, or an Australian who loves to party, or a Brit with a dry sense of a humor. For some people, the farther they venture from home, the more their native country becomes apparent.

Some stereotypes, of course, are malicious and lead to lazy thinking and prejudice. But others, the relatively benign stereotypes, can be the source of laughs. In a recent project called Mapping Stereotypes, the Bulgarian graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov demonstrates that people of all countries are guilty of stereotypical thinking about one another. But different countries have different stereotypes for each other. In the U.S., as shown by Tsvetkov’s map Europe According to the United States of America (above), France is known for its “smelly people” and Italy is just like The Godfather. But Russians think of France as full of “fashion victims” and Italy as one large shopping center.

Tsvetkov’s project, according to this recent article in the Telegraph, has blossomed into an internet sensation, garnering over a half-a-billion hits on his personal website in the last year.

For more, check out Europe According to Britain, Europe According to France, and Europe According to Poland.

[image above from Yanko Tsvetkov]

10 reasons to choose Colombia as your next vacation destination

It’s safe, it’s affordable, and it’s attracting travelers like never before. Colombia, the closest South American getaway to the United States, has seemingly appeared on just about every “hip new travel destination” list over the last few years, including the New York Times list of 31 Places to Go in 2010. So why is everyone raving about it? Here are ten reasons:

10. Medellin Named the world’s most dangerous city only two decades ago thanks largely to the exploits of Pablo Escobar, Medellin has cleaned up its act in a big way since the drug lord’s death in 1993. Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin’s near-perfect climate, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and vibrant nightlife make it a must-visit Colombia destination.

If you can, schedule your trip so that you can witness Medellin’s one-of-a-kind Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) in early August. My fellow travelers who attended could not shut up about it. Check out Anthony Bourdain‘s thoughts on the city here.

9. Cartagena The word is out about Cartagena: it might just be the prettiest and best-preserved colonial city in South America.

Strolling the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, with its massive balconies covered in bougainvillea and church spires looming overhead, feels like something out of a fairy tale. If your significant other is overtaken by the city’s romance, take him or her to the Palace of the Inquisition to check out its vast collection of medieval torture instruments. That’ll stop all the marriage talk!

8. The food and drink
Colombia does not have much of a culinary reputation, and in many small towns it’s not hard to figure out why. Much of the cuisine, as my trusty Lonely Planet notes, is “unseasond, unspiced food, prepared simply and ungarnished.” Exciting it is not. Fortunately, despite the blandness of some Colombian food, you’ll still find many things to tempt the ol’ tastebuds, like the ubiquitous arepas (buttery corn tortillas), patacones (plantains that are pressed flat and fried), exotic fruits like the lulo, and fresh fish on the coast. As the home of Juan Valdez, Colombia also serves up an above-average cup of coffee, unlike much of South America which relies almost exclusively on the execrable instant coffee Nescafe. Fresh, exotic fruit juice, or jugo, is widely available and incredibly tasty. Colombia’s national spirit is aguardiente, an anise-flavored white liquor that almost makes up for its godawful taste with its 29% alcohol content. Almost.

7. It’s safer thank you think! If you caught Ingrid Betancourt on Oprah the other day (hey, my remote was broken!), you might get the impression that Colombia’s still-dodgy reputation is well-deserved. Betancourt, you’ll remember, was the Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped by the guerrilla group FARC back in 2002 and held until 2008 when she was dramatically rescued by the Colombian military.

Yes, Colombia has long been associated with drug trafficking, kidnapping, guerilla groups, and violence, but those days are mostly behind it. Medellin, once the most dangerous city in the world with about 380 murders per 100,000 people, is now one of the safest cities in South America. The vast majority of Colombia’s dangerous areas lie in the country’s sparsely-populated eastern half, a region well off the tourist trail. (We didn’t go there and neither should you, with the exception of the Amazonian town Leticia.) Colombia’s big cities and small towns, as well as every attraction on this list, are as safe as anywhere in Latin America.

6. San Gil Far and away the adventure sports capital of Colombia, San Gil attracts travelers seeking cheap (and we mean cheap) thrills, whether it’s white-water rafting, paragliding, horseback riding, caving, or rappelling down a waterfall. The town itself, though admittedly short on culinary delights, is home to a pleasant tree-lined square which lies an easy walk from Parque El Gallineral, a beautiful ten-acre park perfect for an afternoon stroll.

5. Barichara For those travelers who are more Betty White than Bear Grylls, avoid the white-knuckle adventure (“these kids and their paragliding!”) and take a 45-minute bus ride from San Gil to the picturesque town of Barichara. This beautiful pueblo, with its cobblestone streets, colonial churches, and quaint cafés, makes a wonderful day-trip destination.

Its culinary scene is also surprisingly developed for a town of 10,000, with several restaurants offering regional dishes like cabro con pepitoria (goat with blood and organs) and the (in)famous hormigas culonas, giant ants that have been fried or roasted. Surprisingly tolerable!

4. Taganga Looking for a bargain-basement PADI course so you can finally learn what all the scuba diving fuss is about? Make your way to the fishing village of Taganga, where several operators offer four-day open water courses for about US$250. Taganga also makes a great base for trips to Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida (see below), and as such, the town attracts gringo backpackers like moths to a flame. This means, among other things, that there are plenty of inexpensive and occasionally rowdy hostels in town, as well as some pretty good restaurants and coffee shops. Embrace your gringo-ness at the Swedish-owned Café Bonsai just a half-block from the waterfront. Cool music, tasty food, hot drinks, cocktail specials… Is there more to life?

3. Tayrona National Park
Located on a small stretch of Caribbean coastline, this 93-square-mile national park offers an abundance of attractions for hikers, nature lovers and beach bums alike. Easily accessible from the towns of Santa Marta by bus or Taganga by boat, the park’s dense jungle leads to pristine white-sand beaches, some of the best in Colombia.

Spend lazy days bronzing on the beach and swimming in the warm Caribbean waters, or take advantage of extensive trails to see some of the park’s 300 species of birds and 770 species of plants. Swing yourself to sleep in a hammock at one of the many campgrounds in the park– just don’t forget the bug spray!

2. Bogotá More than just another noisy, crowded Latin American capital, Bogotá might just be the most pleasant surprise of your trip. Progressive and cosmopolitan, Bogotá was recently named the world’s third-most bike-friendly city after Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The original home of the now much-copied ciclovía concept, Bogotá closes 122 kilometers of roads to cars every Sunday for hundreds of thousands of cyclists to enjoy. Its walkable colonial neighborhood La Candelaria, home to the Plaza de Bolivar (pictured), boasts the world-class Gold Museum and the worthwhile Donación Botero, a museum with works by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, as well as unknown dabblers like Picasso, Renoir, and Monet. La Candelaria is also a food-lover’s paradise, with top-notch international cuisine, tasty and inexpensive local fare, and scores of street vendors selling aromatica, a wonderfully addictive spiced hot tea.

1. Ciudad Perdida Accessible by a challenging five-day trek through the jungle, Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is, for me, Colombia’s top attraction. Dating from the 9th Century, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins were hidden for centuries beneath thick vegetation until grave-robbers discovered the site in 1973. But Ciudad Perdida is special not because of the ruins themselves, but because of the spectacular five-day hike required to get there. For more on this great hike, check out my recent should-have-been-award-winning Gadling piece on Ciudad Perdida.

For more wanderlust-inspiring articles about Colombia, check out a couple favorites from the Gadling vault: The rebirth of Medellin? and Coming attractions: Colombia. The New York Times has also been all over Colombia recently; check out their coverage here.

[All photos belong to the Colombia Board of Tourism or your humble correspondent]

Hotel kicks out British couple after they allegedly write negative review on TripAdvisor

A lesson to all the amateur hotel reviewers out there: wait until you get home to slam the place where you’ve just stayed.

A vacationing British couple learned this the hard way when the manager of their hotel called the police to ask the couple to leave after the couple allegedly wrote a negative review of the hotel on TripAdvisor. Adrian Healey and his girlfriend had been staying at the Golden Beach Hotel in the English town of Blackpool for two days when the hotel’s manager allegedly barged into their room, accused them of slamming the hotel on TripAdvisor, and told them to leave. The police showed up shortly after.

“We asked for a refund but the hotel refused,” said Healey. “I think it is shocking and people need to know about this.”

“No offence had been committed by the couple, but the manager had requested them to leave the property,” according to the police. “We advised the couple how to go about getting a refund. This is a civil matter.”

Unsurprisingly, the hotel’s reviews on TripAdvisor are, shall we say, “mixed.” Don’t expect them to get any better after this episode.

More here.

[Image Credit:]

The Best Inspirational Travel Quotes

As an inveterate quotation-hoarder, I am always on the lookout for concise yet powerful expressions of wit and wisdom related to travel. Here are ten of my favorites, followed by a couple comments on why I find them so memorable and meaningful…

10. “We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn… that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy nor condemn us to misery.” – Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel. Travel is many things– mind-altering, exciting, challenging– but it is not a panacea. Those who travel abroad because they’re unhappy at home will find that travel does not cure all of life’s ills.

9. “When one is traveling, one must expect to spend a certain amount of money foolishly.” – Robertson Davies, as quoted by Chuck Thompson in Smile When You’re Lying. It happens. Whether it’s indulging at the hotel mini-bar or being ripped off by an unscrupulous taxi driver, people often see their money evaporate at alarming rates when they’re traveling. Expect it, and most importantly, budget for it.

8. “Very many people spend money in ways quite different from those that their natural tastes would enjoin, merely because the respect of their neighbors depends upon their possession of a good car and their ability to give good dinners. As a matter of fact, any man who can obviously afford a car but genuinely prefers travels or a good library will in the end be much more respected than if he behaved exactly like everyone else.” – Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, as quoted in Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding. A reminder that it’s your money and your life: do with it what you want. Every dollar spent at home is a dollar that can’t be spent abroad.

7. “There are two things to do in Juneau, drink and get drunk.” – Chuck Thompson, quoting a friend, in Smile When You’re Lying. It isn’t just Juneau; there are only two things to do in a lot of places. Not every travel destination is a winner, and sometimes you’re left in the middle of nowhere splitting a bottle of booze with a friend. Still, there are worse ways to spend an evening, or a week.

6. “Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically teaches viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.” – Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel. In our normal, workaday lives, the experience of being “humbled” is often an embarrassing or upsetting one. But standing in the midst of Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu, we are happy, ecstatic even, to be humbled. It’s a great, great feeling.

5. “You must kill ten hours to make two hours live. What you must be careful of is not to kill ALL the hours, ALL the years.” – Charles Bukowski, The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship.
The most powerful force in most people’s working lives is inertia: we do what we do because it’s what we’ve always done. But surrendering one’s life to inertia is a tragic mistake.

4. “As for the idea of a native country, that is to say, of a certain bit of ground traced out on a map and separated from others by a red or blue line: no. My native country is for me the country that I love, that is, the one that makes me dream, that makes me feel well. I am as much Chinese as French, and I don’t rejoice about our victories over the Arabs because I’m saddened by their defeats.” – Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to Louise Colet, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857. As true today as it was when Flaubert wrote it in 1846, travel provides a window into the lives of the oft-derided Others: illegal immigrants, people from the Middle East, Asian factory workers who “steal” American jobs. Travel reminds us of what shouldn’t need reminding: these are people too.

3. “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also: he is always getting ready to live.” – Epicurus. Couldn’t have said it better myself. If not now, when?

2. “We have a new joke on the reservation: ‘What is cultural deprivation?’ Answer: ‘Being an upper-middle class white kid living in a split-level suburban home with a color TV.'” – John Fire Lame Deer, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions. Ouch. Okay, this one hits a little too close to home. Still, it’s a reminder that there’s a hell of a lot more to life than watching TV and clicking aimlessly on the internet. A whole world awaits.

1. “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am… Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.” – Michael Crichton, Travels, as quoted in Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding.
I can’t tell you how often that final sentence pops into my mind whenever I’m hanging on for dear life during some insane taxi ride, or arriving in a new town after midnight. No, travel isn’t always comfortable, but it’s always, always invigorating.

Got a favorite travel quotation of your own? Share it in the Comments.

Ciudad Perdida: The spectacular five-day trek to Colombia’s Lost City

Backpackers in Colombia are divided into two groups: those who have made the exhausting five-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, and those who haven’t.

Dating from the 800s, Ciudad Perdida (literally “Lost City”) was once home to as many as four thousand Tayrona Indians, but its ruins were hidden by dense forest until grave robbers re-discovered the city in 1973 (and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down). Located on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range near Colombia’s northern coast, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins are as impressive as they are remote, containing about 170 stone terraces that were once the foundations for Tayrona houses, markets, and ritual sites.

If the thought of hiking into the remote Colombian forest brings to mind images of armed guerrillas and paramilitaries, fear not. The trek to Ciudad Perdida is incredibly safe, as dozens of armed (and friendly — see photo) military personnel patrol the trail leading up to the ruins. In fact, Ciudad Perdida is probably one of the safest places in Colombia.

That’s not to say it’s always been that way. As recently as 2003, a guerrilla group known as the ELN kidnapped eight foreigners hiking to Ciudad Perdida and held them for three months. It wasn’t until 2005 that the military was sent in, allowing treks to the Lost City to resume safely.

The Lost City is accessible via a challenging but picturesque five-day trek that can be organized in the nearby tourist towns of Santa Marta and Taganga. Several companies operate tours to the ruins, including the highly-recommended Magic Tour and Turcol. (Incidentally, Edwin Rey, a guide for Turcol, was one of the people kidnapped by the ELN in 2003. He’s the one holding up the sign in the photo below. He’ll be happy to show you newspaper clippings about his improbable escape through the thick forest after only one day in captivity.) Your group could contain anywhere from six to twenty-two people; friends are easily made by all but the most awkward.
Though the ruins themselves are impressive, the tiring but gorgeous five-day trek is what sticks in most travelers minds. The trail is often muddy, frequently uphill, and occasionally slick, but it’s also entirely do-able, and often loads of fun. There are several river crossings and numerous places to go for a refreshing swim. Lonely Planet describes the hike as “challenging, but not mercilessly so,” and though that phrase may seem wildly off-base at times during the trek, upon further reflection most hikers will probably agree with it. Most days include about four to five hours of actual hiking, but breaks are frequent and there’s never any rush.

The tours themselves run a very reasonable US$220, a price that includes four nights accomodation in mosquito-netted hammocks or beds, plentiful and tasty meals, fresh fruit, cold showers, and potable water. Hikers should bring their own bug spray, sunscreen, flashlight, water bottles, and playing cards. Your shoes (please don’t bring sandals) will be wet for the duration of the hike. Quick-drying shirts, pants, and socks are worth their weight in gold.

A final note on fitness: If you’re in reasonably good shape, you can do this trek with little problem. Even if you’re not in that great of shape, you can still probably do it and have a good time. BUT, if you’re horribly out of shape (you know who you are), you could very well end up miserable for five days. If you’re debating whether to go, go! But if you’re reading this while eating your fifth donut of the morning, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For more on Ciudad Perdida, check this out. For other Colombian adventures, go here.