It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you want to get off the beaten path when you travel, at some point you’re going to have to take a long-distance bus ride. Even if you’re not a backpacker, some destinations are accessible only by the most inconvenient of methods. I’ve traveled by bus, Land Rover, bush plane, horseback and canoe, and while not always comfortable, I take great delight in using alternative forms of transit.
If the idea of taking the bus gives you the heebie-jeebies, be aware that it’s primarily bus travel in the U.S. that sucks. I’ve yet to have an experience on Greyhound (it’s called the “Dirty Dog” for a reason) that wasn’t totally jacked up. There’s always a toilet overflowing, an addict nodding out and drooling on your shoulder (true story) and a guy who can’t stop screaming into his cellphone or having a conversation with himself. But I love long-haul trips in developing nations, no matter how janky the ride. It’s the best way I know of to see and experience a country. It’s cultural immersion at both its most infuriating and its best, but I’ve yet to have a bad experience with regard to fellow passengers.
There are, however, some key items you’ll want to bring with you. I speak from painful/mortifying experience. Read on for what you’ll need for any bus journey lasting more than a couple of hours (bear in mind that in many parts of the world, you can’t rely upon bus timetables; I recently took a four-hour trip in Paraguay that turned into 11 due to monsoonal flooding. And there was no bathroom on board). Bringing snacks and extra water is crucial; usually vendors will come on board during stops, but you should never rely on this.
1. A blanket or ultra/microlight sleeping bag
You’d be surprised how many clapped-out buses crank the AC. If you get cold easily, 14 hours of that might render you nearly hypothermic. Conversely, if you’re sensitive to heat and in a tropical country, bring along a packet of Emergen-C or electrolyte chews (I love Honey Stingers and coconut water) and something to protect you from the sun.
Trust me, if you’ve ever suffered from gastrointestinal issues while on a long bus trip, you’ll do anything, anything, to ensure it never happens again. That said, don’t let fear deter you from trying all those great street foods. I’ve learned, however, to dial down the gluttony before a lengthy journey. Ladies, I’ve also had to deal with a UTI on a bumpy 14-hour ride through rural Mexico. Pack your first-aid kit accordingly.
3. Toilet paper
See above; if you’re lucky enough to even be on a bus with a toilet, don’t count on it being well equipped. Also be prepared for pit stops on the road, whether by your necessity or someone else’s. TP is also great to use as a tissue, as an impromptu washcloth, or to wipe that weird goo off of your shoe from the aforementioned pit stop. Hey, I’m just reporting the facts.
4. Sleep aid
Even if you don’t suffer from insomnia, you may want to bring along something to help your slumber on overnight trips. Rutted-out roads, blaring DVD players, blasting radio, crying children – sometimes all at once will make you glad you have an ace in the hole. If nothing else, bring ear plugs.
5. Baby wipes and/or antibacterial gel
You’ll be grateful for these on sweltering rides, especially when the windows are jammed open and you’re dealing with noxious clouds of carbon monoxide or dust. Also useful after aforementioned bathroom runs, and before snacking.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had heightened expectations or an ill-informed idea of a destination prior to a trip.
Me too. Many things influence our preconceived ideas about a place: daydreams, prejudice (I’m using this word in its traditional sense), and prior experience, as well as literature, the media, television and film. Example: Most of us entertain certain romantic notions when planning a trip to Hawaii or Paris.
Stereotypes exist for a reason, of course. But with every trip, I’m reminded of why preconceived notions are best left at home (unlike your passport). Besides avoiding the inevitable disappointment if your holiday is more “The Hangover” than “The Notebook,” there are other good reasons to approach an upcoming trip – be it business or pleasure – with an open mind. Read on for ways to recalibrate your expectations, and ensure a richer, more rewarding travel experience.
Lower the bar
When you set unrealistic standards – whether for a hotel room, honeymoon, tourist attraction or country – you may be robbing yourself of fully enjoying the experience. If you’re convinced you’re going to meet your soul mate by parking it at the bar of a tropical resort, you may be bummed out with the outcome. Likewise, don’t assume your business trip to Delhi is going to leave you despairing at all the suffering in the world. Often, the best moments in travel come when we’re not trying too hard.
On a recent trip to Bolivia, I did a four-day tour of the Southwestern Circuit, from the craggy spires of Tupiza to the blinding expanse of the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat). Our small group really clicked, and for three days, it was non-stop laughs. On our final day, when we arrived at the salt flats at sunrise, a young woman in our group was devastated that the weather was dry. She’d spent years dreaming about visiting during the wet season, when mirror-like pools stretch seemingly into infinity.
Never mind that rainy weather means key sections of Uyuni are inaccessible (including the stunning Isla del Pescado, a cacti-covered “island” in the midst of the flats), and that we’d lucked out by missing the last of the season’s storms. This poor girl was inconsolable, and later confided that her trip was ruined. I felt for her, but her dashed dream served as a strong reminder to dial down the expectations. She was so distracted by what wasn’t there that she missed how absolutely captivating the salt flats are when dry.
Push past your comfort zone.
While you should always keep your wits about you and listen to your intuition whether you’re traveling or at home, there’s a difference between trying something new, and being foolhardy. On that same trip to Bolivia, I was presented with an on-the-fly opportunity to try rap-jumping - from a 17-story building.
I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of climbing out the window of La Paz’s tallest hotel and rappelling face-down to the busy streets below had me shaking. But I trusted the company and equipment (full disclosure: I’d already done prior research, and spent time with their guides). Accidents can still happen but I felt I was in good hands. I had a blast.
Be receptive to changes
As a control freak, it can be hard for me to admit defeat in the face of time constraints or other issues that affect my travel itinerary. For the most part, I’ve learned to roll with it. If not for the monsoonal deluge on the day I planned to take a cargo boat on a three-day trip up the Rio Paraguay, I wouldn’t have ended up at a dreamy agriturismo in the nearby countryside.
On a recent business trip to El Paso (which required me to visit several factories near the border), I was pleasantly surprised by everything. Although my hotel was just 10 blocks from the aforementioned border and adjacent to the rail yards, the neighborhood was perfectly safe and I enjoyed several evening strolls around the nearby arts district. I also learned that El Paso is ranked the nation’s safest city of its size. I could have saved myself considerable angst if I hadn’t let media hype about Ciudad Juarez seep into my imagination.
I had a similar experience years ago in Naples. I’d always longed to visit the city but was put off by fearmongering fellow travelers and (ahem) guidebook writers. I was positive I was going to get shanked while in pursuit of the perfect pizza, but my desire to see Naples trumped my fear. As it turns out, I felt very safe as a tourist, even at night in the notorious Forcella (not as dodgy as it used to be, and the home of some of the city’s best pizza, which I’d take a shiv for, any day).
Obviously, my fleeting impressions of these two cities could easily be debunked, but the point is that I let a lot of rampant paranoia do my pre-trip research for me. If you go looking for trouble, you’re sure to find it. But I also believe in the travel adage that you’re just as likely to get hit by a truck while crossing the street at home. In other words, be smart and be safe, but don’t let fear stop you in your tracks. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you.
Traveling to Spain or Latin America this summer and want to say more than “Donde esta el bano?” (though, that’s an important one to know)? Lonely Planet has just launched a new online foreign language program, Fluent Road, partnering with Spanish language program Fluenz. The focus is on Spanish for now, but you can choose from dialects from Argentina, “neutral” Latin America, Mexico, or Spain.
Fluent Road is designed for travelers to get the basics before a trip: Spanish for transportation, finding accommodation, ordering food, etc. It’s also a good stepping-stone to a more intensive learning program, and travelers could easily work up to a Fluenz course after completing Fluent Road. What differentiates this from other language learning like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur is a dissection of the language, showing you how Spanish works and providing explanations, not just rote immersion. Fluenz founder and avid traveler Sonia Gil guides you through obstacles, pronunciation, and practice speaking, writing and reading as a native speaker and “language geek.”
As with all online learning, you can go at your own pace; there are 30 video lessons that can be completed in one to six months. Other useful features include the ability to record yourself to compare pronunciation a native Speaker, and customizable digital flash cards to help practice. You can also contact the teacher and program designer via Twitter.
Take a free 12-hour trial now, subscriptions start from $9 for a month to $30 for six months of access, at www.fluentroad.com.
Since April, I’ve been writing about my adventures in Paraguay. Gadling sent me there for the exact reason most of you are reading this post: because few people, especially Norte Americanos, know anything about this mysterious country. The lack of guidebooks doesn’t do much to dispel the myth that Paraguay is a place not worth visiting or knowing about.
As it turned out, that line of thinking couldn’t be more flawed. Paraguay is one of the loveliest countries I’ve ever visited, both for it’s scenic beauty (think virgin rainforest; tropical farmland; dusty red roads; colonial (and colonial- and Baroque-style) architecture; Jesuit missions; a vibrant ranching culture; sleepy villages; the cosmopolitan capitol of Asunción), and the generosity of its people.
My companion in Paraguay – discovered online just days before I left – was the very excellent guidebook, “Other Places Travel Guide, Paraguay,” by Romy Natalia Goldberg, which came out in late 2012. This book saved my butt innumerable times, because Paraguay is a challenging country for visitors due to its lack of tourism infrastructure and remoteness.
In reading her book, which has plenty of historical and cultural background, I learned that Goldberg is the daughter of a Paraguayan mother and a North American father. She lives in Paraguay with her husband and two daughters, and maintains a travel blog, Discovering Paraguay.
Because it was Goldberg’s book that in part helped me to understand and fall in love with Paraguay, I wanted to share her insights with Gadling readers. Read on for her take on the country’s fledgling tourism industry, intriguing cuisine, and why you should visit … stat.
You currently live in Paraguay. Did you live there as a child?
My father worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, so I lived in several Latin American countries growing up, but never in Paraguay. I visited my family here frequently, however. I’ve been here for the past five years. At first I lived in Asunción, the capital city. About three years ago I moved to Piribebuy, my mother’s hometown. It’s the closest thing I ever had to a hometown growing up. Writing the guidebook was a great opportunity to get to know Paraguay on a deeper level.
Have you always been a writer or was your book inspired by your love of the country?
The idea to write a guidebook arose while I was planning a trip to Paraguay with my husband. There was so little information available at the time. No Lonely Planet [LP now has a bare bones section on Paraguay in its South America On A Shoestring, and a forthcoming dedicated guidebook] no travel blogs, nothing. I felt the need to create something that accurately depicted the country I knew and loved. Before this I had never even considered writing.
Well, you did a great job – your book was indispensable to me while I was there. I fell in love with the country for myriad reasons, which I’ve been chronicling on Gadling. What makes Paraguay so special to you?
To me the most fascinating thing about Paraguay is the strong presence of indigenous Guaraní culture in everyday life. The most visible example of this is the Guaraní language, which is widely spoken throughout all levels of Paraguayan society. You don’t have to go to a museum to learn about Guaraní culture, you can literally experience it just by interacting with regular Paraguayans.
Why do you feel the country isn’t a more popular tourist destination?
Traveling in Paraguay requires advanced planning as well as some legwork once you get here. Understandably, most tourists don’t want to work that hard while on vacation. But I think the biggest problem is that people simply aren’t aware of Paraguay and what it has to offer.
Do you see this changing in the near future? It seems as though the government is really working to promote it.
I do see a change. In fact, it’s not just the government. Now that Internet access is widely available here, it’s easier for the Paraguayan tourism industry to market itself to the outside world. Hopefully, they’ll figure out how to reach the type of tourists that will enjoy traveling in Paraguay.
I would characterize that genre of tourist as those who love adventure and getting off the tourist trail. Would you consider Paraguay a challenging country for tourists?
Being a tourist in Paraguay requires time and flexibility. This isn’t Disneyland. There are few English speakers, it’s hard to schedule an itinerary ahead of time, and travel within Paraguay is often delayed due to bad weather and road conditions. Of course, there are tourists who like a challenge. My goal in writing the guidebook was to help people overcome the challenges and make the most of traveling in Paraguay.
Would you like to see Paraguay become a major tourist destination? Or do you feel it would eventually change the character and culture of the country?
That’s a tough question. I would definitely like to see Paraguay become a better developed tourist destination, but not necessarily a major one. The reality is we’re surrounded by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, all of which are much more developed and established travel destinations. I think we’ll always appeal to a smaller subset of tourists.
Since few people are familiar with Paraguay, what would you tell readers who haven’t spent much time in South America/are leery of the political turmoil and crime often portrayed by the media (not to say things are or are not blown out of proportion)? I found Paraguay to be very safe; do you feel that it’s safer than other countries in South America?
In my experience, Paraguay is one of the safest countries in South America to be a tourist. The usual warnings about using common sense in crowded or touristy areas apply. But there’s no need to be on guard all the time, especially when you’re traveling in the countryside. If someone approaches you, it’s more likely out of curiosity and friendliness than a desire to do harm. As for what’s portrayed in the media, political turmoil and corruption do exist, but, to be honest, are unlikely to affect you as a tourist.
What’s your favorite thing about Paraguay?
The open, friendly attitude most Paraguayans have, even towards total strangers. Paraguayans are always up for a conversation, and they love talking about their country and culture with foreigners. There’s something about it that’s very refreshing, and I often hear from tourists who say these social interactions were the highlight if their visit to Paraguay.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I met so many wonderful people, and I’ve never experienced such cultural pride. It wasn’t boastful; it was sweet and genuine. But I have to ask: what’s your least favorite thing about the country?
It’s very hard to see so much unfulfilled potential. This is a country with a rich culture, friendly, outgoing people and beautiful landscapes. As my aunt likes to say, Paraguay still has a lot on its “to-do” list.
What’s your favorite destination in Paraguay?
I love Yataity del Guairá. It’s a small, peaceful town where people dedicate themselves to making and embroidering fine cotton cloth known as ao po’i. Some women even hand-spin raw cotton into thread and then weave it on a loom. It’s like stepping into a time machine. The New York Times‘ “Frugal Traveler” columnist Seth Kugel recently wrote a really great piece about traveling in that region of Paraguay.
I became obsessed with Paraguayan food, which I learned is a big part of the culture. What can you tell us about that?
Here it’s all about comfort food. Hearty stews with noodles or rice, deep-fried treats like empanadas and fritters, and a ton of dishes made with corn flour, mandioca (cassava/yucca) and cheese. Chipa is the most ubiquitous; it’s a cheesy, bagel-shaped cornbread that was considered sacred by the Guaraní.
Why should readers consider a trip to Paraguay now (as opposed to, say, in five years)?
Even compared to a year ago, the tourism industry has gained momentum. There are more hostels, restaurants, and more information available in guidebooks and on travel websites. And American Airlines began a direct flight from Miami in November.
But Paraguay remains firmly off the beaten path, as you said. So people who enjoy under-the-radar destinations should come now. As for the future, a massive number of tourists will travel to Latin America for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. By then, there will hopefully be enough buzz around Paraguay that a significant portion of those tourists will come here as well.
Before beginning his doctorate in biomedical sciences, “Alex the Adventure Biker” took a break to realize his lifelong dream: to ride a motorcycle through the Americas. Over the course of nearly a year and a half, he rode his bike through 22 countries as he made his way from El Paso, Texas, to Argentina and then back up through Brazil and all the way to Alaska – a journey of more than 82,000 miles.
“In short I drove solo half way around the world, through interstates, highways, dirt roads, no roads, mud, rivers, through hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, rain, hail, sun shine, snow, ice roads you name it and I made it back,” the adventurous biker wrote on his website. Ride along and check out the varied landscape as he saw it (and some disco dancing, too) in the video above, which was created from more than 600 hours of footage.