Why Ditching Preconceived Notions Can Make For Better Travel

Bora Bora beach
Michael Stout, Flickr

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.

salar de uyuni rainy season
Juan Gatica, Flickr

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.

bungee jump
Peter Bekesi, Flickr

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.

plane tickets and passport
mroach, Flickr

Reduce anxiety
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.

El Paso’s Best Mexican Food: Of Car Washes And Cemeteries

h & h coffee shop, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Confession: With the exception of far too many layovers at DFW, I’d never been to Texas prior to two weeks ago. Despite having traveled all over the rest of the Southwest, as well as being possessed of a near-clinical addition to Mexican food, I just haven’t had a reason to make it to the Lone Star State.

That all changed when I was sent to El Paso by American Cowboy magazine to write about the city’s tradition of boot-making. And while my days were spent touring boot factories and learning the difference between a welt and a vamp, a girl’s gotta eat. Secondary only to my assignment at hand was unearthing the best local spots for Mexican or Tex-Mex food.

Fortunately, a friend of mine is from El Paso, and the kindly folks at the boot factories were also more than happy to aid in my research. It’s no secret that H & H Cafe and Car Wash and L & J Cafe serve some of the city’s best eats. After a disappointing experience at one of the nicer, much publicized Mexican restaurants downtown, I decided to focus on dives, exclusively.

Why? Because I’d much rather eat at a hole-in-the-wall imbued with local color, any day. They’re less expensive, and generally free of tourists. At least, the kind of tourists who frequent the type of restaurants I go to lengths to avoid (see aforementioned downtown eatery). There are no “2-for-1″ margarita specials, gringoized menu items, or attempts to temper the innate fire of the chiles used in the recipes. You’re getting the real deal, and eating amongst the folks who make these businesses the longtime landmarks that they are.

h & h coffee shop, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Take H & H. For over 50 years, this Formica and aqua-and-orange-hued dive near downtown has been dishing up El Paso’s best chile rellenos. It’s a car wash, yes. But the “coffee shop” has a single counter, and just three small tables. There’s a token flat-top grill that’s clearly seen a lot of use. The waitresses are of a certain age, and sweet as pie. The food is heavenly. Three times in four days, I showed up to stuff myself on everything from earthy, potato-studded Chile Colorado to the aforementioned rellenos (a dish I normally dislike, since it too often resembles and tastes like oil-soaked socks) Even the salsa verde, a chunky, firey rendition, is amazing.

On my final visit, it was the cook’s birthday; so a regular pinned a sheaf of dollar bills to the shoulder of her smock for luck, and wished her “Feliz Cumpleanos.” To be a fly on the way at joints like this is to get a true taste of local color, no pun intended. Eavesdropping on the two guys next to me (a biker and a businessman in a peach button-down), I learned they both collect and restore vintage muscle cars.

Then there’s L & J, known as “the old place by the graveyard,” which, indeed, it is. Located off of Hwy 10 West, this historic spot with the random, quirky decor was founded in 1927 by Antonio D. Flores as “Tony’s Place (as popular for bootlegging as it was for its food, the story goes).” When Tony’s daughter, Lilia, and her husband, John, took over in 1968, they renamed it L & J.

l & j cafe, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

The restaurant has continued to draw crowds for its righteous combo platters, soft and fried tacos (here, “fried” means lightly crisped, not “giant tortilla chip tasting like sawdust”), queso (all creamy, stringy cheese and green chiles), and enchiladas with red or green sauce. Despite the caloric content, this is food that tastes fresh, and the love with which its prepared is evident. The place is almost always hopping, so get there early if you want to avoid the local lunch or happy hour crowds.

I tried a few other highly-touted places in and around El Paso, but found them wanting. So I kept returning to my favorite initialized eateries for a fix. Now, back in Colorado, I’m jonesing again, and wishing that my local car wash would consider installing a flat-top and some Formica. A girl can dream, can’t she?

Mesilla, New Mexico: Discovering A Different Side Of The Southwest

mesilla
Alex Briseño, Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso on short notice for a magazine assignment. I found it enjoyable, but on my final day, I was itching to get out of the city limits and explore before my evening flight. Every local I talked to gave me the same response: go for a scenic drive out to Mesilla.

Located just 44 miles northwest of El Paso on the fringes of Las Cruces, Mesilla is a historic village established in 1848. Perhaps best known as the location for Billy the Kid’s trial, Mesilla has also played an integral role in the development of the Southwest, in part because it was along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. I’m obsessed with all things New Mexico, but despite numerous visits to the northern part of the state, I’d never been south of Albuquerque. I was an easy sell.

The drive to Mesilla presents a dramatic contrast in topography. About 30 miles past the arid plains and stark Franklin Mountain range of El Paso, the Rio Grande grows from a trickle to substantial enough to support lush vegetation. I’d never seen a pecan tree before, and suddenly I was passing thousands of acres of them, in all their towering, leafy glory (after Texas, this region – Dona Ana County – is the nation’s largest producer). There were fields of onions and chiles (Mesilla is just 42 miles away from Hatch), and vast dairy farms. As a former ranch kid, I instantly felt at home.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Cisco Photography

As you enter Mesilla off of Highway 10 West, there are indications you’re approaching someplace special. Walk a couple of blocks down to the historic Plaza, and it’s impossible not to be charmed. Despite the inevitable souvenir shops, of which there are only a few, a number of buildings are on the historic register. The vibe isn’t one of touristy kitsch, but rather, small-town Southwest. There are coffee houses, cafes, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, wine tasting rooms and museums. A chocolate shop sells small bags of dipped pecans, while Solamente!, a specialty food boutique, offers tastes of the region in the form of green chile-spiked pecan brittle and salsas.

I whiled away a few hours by strolling the Plaza and talking to the handful of vendors who sell their wares from tables around its perimeter. This is the place to buy a bag of pecans and homemade bizcochos (buttery little cookies), or a pair of earrings. The Basilica of San Albino dominates the north end of the Plaza, and is open to visitors from 1 to 3 p.m. daily, except on Sundays. Afterward, I sipped an icy horchata and read on the shady patio of a coffee house. It’s unthinkable (to me, at least) to be in New Mexico and not eat. The region’s most famous restaurant, La Posta, is around the corner from the Plaza. This stunning 19th-century compound was once part of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, but today it’s better known for its green chile enchiladas and signature Tostada Compuesta.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Ken Stinnet

Before heading to the airport, I drove the few miles down a back road to Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Unfortunately, it was still closed for the season, but the drive meanders past pecan orchards, crumbling adobe homesteads and tranquil farmhouses. Horses graze in verdant pasture, and fields of onion with their flowering lavender heads intersperse the orchards. It’s lovely, and a side of New Mexico I’ve never seen, used as I am to the dramatic ochre landscape, canyons and severe mesas of the north.

At the end of a business trip, I’m often content to just get to the airport early, and spend the time people watching and reading. My jaunt to Mesilla was a reminder that sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to hit the road instead.

Randy Quaid (allegedly) stiffs hotel for $10K

Actor Randy Quaid and his wife, former model Evi, got out of jail Thursday night. They landed in the Texas pokey because of a $10,000 hotel bill they didn’t pay in California. Each is out on $20,000 bail. They were arrested in Marfa, 160 miles southeast of El Paso.

Authorities in Santa Barbara, California issued a felony warrant – burglary, defrauding an innkeeper and conspiracy – for the Quaids. The couple disputed a charge of more than at a local hotel, prompting the hotel, San Ysidro Ranch to file a complaint. The police, hotel and Quaid family aren’t talking, according to a USA Today report.

Adventures Along The U.S.-Mexican Border

The Sierra Madre mountains and the Chihuahua Desert, which fall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, not only offer up stunning scenery, but plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure as well. Backpackers and hikers will find plenty to enjoy, as they walk the same path as Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican outlaw who once roamed this region as well.

British newspaper The Guardian recently sent writer Hugh Thompson to the border to explore these badlands and report back on this hidden gem for trekkers. Starting off in El Paso, Texas, and heading south, Thompason found an outdoor paradise that included a hike through Copper Canyon, a place that rivals the Grand Canyon in beauty, without the crowds.

Thompson and the rest of his group spent more than a week exploring the region, which they found to be surprisingly lush. He came to the area expecting an arrid, empty desert, but found that it was green with flora, including a variety of trees and other small plants. While descending into some of the deeper canyons, the team would pass through a different climate zone every 1000 feet, once again bringing a very unique experience from the Grand Canyon, which is mostly devoid of any type of green plants altogether.

Over the course of that week, the trekkers followed the footsteps of Pancho Villa and his band of rebels. They traveled up and down the Sierra Madre and across the desert, chasing the legend, and in the process had a unique adventure of their own. The best part is, this is one adventure that is easy to go on yourself. The region is still off the radar for most backpacker, which tanslates into open trails and miles of solitude.