The Inca Rally: A Road Race Through South America

The Inca Rally begins in AugustLooking to add a little excitement to your summer? Then look no further than the Inca Rally, a new road race that is set to get underway in August and promises to offer plenty of adventure to those crazy enough to enter.

The three-week long event begins in Lima, Peru where racers will first barter for a car that is utterly ill suited for the roads they’ll be driving on. Once they’ve acquired their sacrificial vehicle, they’ll hit the road on August 1, driving across Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana. What route they take along the way is completely up to the drivers, they simply have to reach the finish line in time for the blowout party at the end of the three weeks.

This is pure adventure at its finest. There will be no support crews, few directives and plenty of freedom on the open road. Teams can choose to make their way through the Andes, visit the Amazon Rainforest, follow the scenic coasts or get completely off the beaten path. They can visit large, bustling cities or remote villages; they just have to get to the finish line in Georgetown, Guyana.

While the Inca Rally is meant to be a spirited adventure it will also help shine the spotlight on local charities and help raise funds for those organizations. You can find out more about the event and those charities on the Rally’s official website, where you can sign up for the race as well.

We definitely need a Team Gadling in this event!


The Lost World: New York City’s Little Guyana

The Lost World: New York City's Little GuyanaIn April 2011, in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, two rival Sikh factions, long at odds with each other, decided it was time to come to blows. As one faction prayed in a temple, the other entered. What happened next is straight out of a B-list movie you might see while traveling on a bus in Asia: members of each group reacted to the forthcoming fight by reaching for their swords — I’m not making this up — and a bloody sword fight ensued. A sword fight, in 2011 New York City.

And so, I decided I had to go. Last week a group of friends and I boarded the A train for the 40-minute subway ride to Richmond Hill. Our destination: Little Guyana. Indo-Caribbeans (Caribbeans of Indian descent), many from Guyana (and a few from Trinidad), have been settling here in droves since the 1980s. So many that while the country of Guyana has a population of 750,000, the Guyanese population in New York is said to be close to 200,000.


Guyana, a diminutive country in northeastern South America, is a mystery to many people. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even used the country as the setting for “The Lost World.”
It wasn’t exactly a “lost world” when we got off the subway and began strolling down Liberty Ave., the main thoroughfare of Little Guyana. There were no sword-carrying men ambling down the sidewalk. Just cars cruising by and blasting soca music, which is something like calypso on crack. Roti and doubles shops competed for attention with real estate offices. Realty is a big deal in Richmond Hill. So are doubles (pictured).

We poured into a doubles shop — Sandy’s Roti Shop — where a corner kiosk sold everything from belts and flowers to cosmetics and neckties, and another guy offered soca CDs. Meanwhile, the scent of subcontinental spices pervaded the air. Described to me as something like a chickpea-filled taco, doubles consist of a soft, thin, spongy bread with channa (chickpeas and Indian spices) inside. It’s a mushy eating affair but so good I had to get seconds.

This isn’t the first time my friends and I have gone deep into Queens to have an outer-borough eating extravaganza. Two months ago we took the Long Island Rail Road out to Murray Hill, Queens, also known as Korean Town. We spent the evening at restaurants where we were the only non-Koreans. Locals were asking us — and not in a condescending way — what we were doing there and how we found the place. I found spending the evening absorbed in a totally different culture — accessed so easily by a short train ride away — to be the best antidote when travel is not a possibility.

About an hour after munching on some doubles and strolling the main drag again — more real estate offices, doubles shops and clothes stores selling saris — we entered The Nest, a narrow restaurant serving up traditional Guyanese fare. A procession of dishes soon began landing on our table, many of which were fusion dishing reflecting the diversity of Guyanese society: corn meal-encrusted shrimp, chicken and potato curry and even a version of chow mein. Finally, a basket of fried fish nuggets was passed around. When we asked the waitress what it was, she replied, “shark.”

Later in the night we filed into Maracas, a popular Little Guyana club where we danced to soca music and drank bottles of Red Stripe and Carib beer and tried our hardest not to get into a sword fight. Our group, mostly journalists and editors, all agreed that we hadn’t been to a dance club of this proportion in a long time. Well, at least not since many of us had gone to similar clubs when traveling. The experience was all the more reason to appreciate the ability to “travel” around the world in New York City.

National Geographic Traveler announces 2011 Tours of a Lifetime

National Geograpic Travelers Tours of a LifetimeNational Geographic Traveler magazine has announced its annual list of their picks for Tours of a Lifetime, selecting 50 fantastic journeys to the far flung corners of the globe. For each of the past six years, Traveler has examined thousands of tours in a variety of categories, including volunteer vacations, family friendly trips, small-ship voyages, and adventure travel. From all of those itineraries, they’ve narrow down their choices to this select group, which represent the absolute best in travel, offering amazing cultural experiences, unique activities, and a commitment to sustainability.

On their website, Traveler has broken down the selected tours into six regions of the world, including Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, North America, and Oceania. By clicking on one of those options, readers are presented with the magazine’s recommendations for the very best tours operating in that area, complete with a brief description, links to the tour operator’s website, and price, which can vary wildly depending on the destination and options.

Amongst the selections for this year’s Tours of a Lifetime are Serengeti bush treks, whitewater paddling in Siberia, and a journey deep into the interior of Guyana. There is a journey along the Inca Trail on horseback and cycling tours of Italy and France, as well an expedition to the South Pole on skis. In short, there is a little something for everyone, depending on their interests and budget.

Since all of these trips are researched and vetted by National Geographic, you can rest assured that all of the tour operators are not only legitimate, but also top tier. These trips were specifically selected because they offer something that is a little out of the norm. Something unique that you can’t generally get anywhere else. I’m pretty sure, even if you think you’ve been everywhere and done everything, you’ll still find something to appeal to you on this list.

[Photo credit: Christian Heeb, laif/Redux]

Black Tomato launches Epic Tomato, an ambitious new adventure offshoot


For years Black Tomato has delighted old travel hands with its inventive, bespoke itineraries to various corners of the globe. The company is especially good at showcasing beautiful destinations not yet well-known to most travelers beyond the surrounding region. Among others, Belgrade, the Carpathian foothills, the Kuronian Spit, and Bhutan have all been embraced by the company.

This morning, Black Tomato launched Epic Tomato, which showcases a selection of hardcore adventure experiences to very hard-to-reach places. These adventures are scheduled for lengths of between four to 21 days, and are grouped into five categories: Polar, Desert, Jungle, Mountain, and River. They are all led by serious expert guides, some with SAS (British special service) military backgrounds.

Bolivia’s Apolobamba mountain range, Mali’s Dogon region, the Star Mountains of Papua New Guinea (see above), the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, and East Greenland are just a few of the destinations reached by Epic Tomato tours.

Epic Tomato’s frankly epic experiences don’t come cheap. At the bottom end of the scale, three adventures come in at £5995 ($9660): 14 days in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain and Duke of York Islands; a 21-day trek in Tibet and Nepal; and eight days in Chilean Patagonia. At the very high end: 12 days on Canada’s Ellesmere Island for £67,495 ($108,720).

Cruise line scams: Shore Excursions

Cruise line shore excursions

Going ashore can be one of the best parts of a cruise and one of the reasons many travelers choose a cruise vacation in the first place. From the comfort of your floating hotel, you can see multiple destinations but only have to unpack once. Cruise lines offer a wide variety of excursions at each port of call and encourage passengers to join. Some are over-priced but carry an implied level of safety that might not be entirely accurate.

The potential scam-like claim here is “Oh, you don’t want to go out on your own on a shore excursion. If they’re late getting you back, the ship will leave without you”

Yes, they could do that. Will they? Probably not. How likely is that to happen? Not likely at all.

Often, the same companies and people that do shore excursions for the cruise lines also do them independently. Still, the cruise lines say they do investigate and follow up on excursion providers to see how they are doing, holding them to high standards.

Alternatives to ship-sponsored excursions. Shoretrips.com, is a third-party service that provides excursions world-wide. Owners Julie and Barry from Milwaukee, Wisconsin travel to each of the destinations and insure that their tours are safe and interesting. Often, Shoretrips.com excursions are less expensive and less crowded too. Booking more than 200,000 people a year, they have yet to leave someone behind.

Let’s talk price. A pretty easy-to-compare excursion in Cozumel, Mexico, Swimming with the Dolphins is $129 for adults or children on Carnival Cruise Lines. Shoretrips.com has that dolphin swim for $79 for adults and $77 for children. That’s about 40% less than the cruise line. Prices vary among lines too. Royal Caribbean has that dolphin swim for $99. Their price is better than Carnival but not as good as Shoretrips.com.

Another option is to go with someone recommended by a trusted friend or a travel blogger you’ve come to know. Reliable independent operators know what they are competing with on the cruise line excursion offerings and almost always offer a better value. That might come in the form of a lower price or a similar price with a better experience.

Get good information. A good source for reliable travel information about specific ports of call is AOL travel guides. Good discussion and very current, personal information can be found at CruiseCritic.com. Your good travel agent/expert should have recommendations also.

I’m really not trying to talk you out of the ship-sponsored shore excursions. They’re good. Nothing wrong with them. But there are alternatives that are just as safe (or not) as third-party vendors.

Cruise lines have their share of problems with excursions.Going with the cruise line does not guarantee your safety. In 2009 18 cruise passengers were robbed at gunpoint in the Bahamas on ship-sponsored shore excursions. The passengers, sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas and Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder, were held up by masked men who demanded money, passports, cell phones, credit cards and personal items.

Just last November, masked gunmen held up guests on St Kitts on a Celebrity Cruises excursion.

Cruise lines were quick to suspend tours and worked hard to increase security and scrutiny of tour operators in those cases. But that was a couple of incidents in thousands of tours, hardly something to keep guests on the ship for safety concerns.

Cruise lines will commonly skip ports of call where there are known problems with crime like in Mexico with drug cartels. In that case, the cruise line does not charge you for the excursion you obviously can’t take. Ships any where close to Tunisia right now would have taken a close look at unrest in the area before even docking. If booking separately from the cruise line, make sure you understand the tour operator’s policy if the ship does not call at a port.

Let’s break it down. Look at it this way; cruise lines contract with local operators who run the excursions. The cruise lines have to add on something to make money. Duh. So basically, its the same people, running the same excursions, but you pay more if you get it through the ship. If that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy then buy through the ship. Most people do. If you want to save 20% to 50%, do some research first. There might be a better value out there.

Like the cruise line Booze and Beverage Packages, whether shore excursions are an evil scam plotted by the cruise lines or a reasonable value depends primarily on how you look at them.

Flickr photo by Ha-Wee