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.
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.
I’m the kind of person who can conjure up an excuse to visit just about any place. I grew up in Buffalo, America’s most unfairly maligned city, and so I identify with underdog destinations – places with bad weather, crime, ugly people, rude people, you name it and I probably still want to go there.
But there are some places on this planet that even I do not want to visit. Places where you might be taken hostage and have your head chopped off; places where extremists shoot teenage girls in the head because they want to be educated; places where you could be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock; places where terrorists plant bombs in churches, places so polluted the local fish have three eyes.
One can make an anecdotal case against visiting just about any place in the world. As we saw in Newtown, Connecticut, evil can happen anywhere. And today’s hellholes could be tomorrow’s next hot destinations. But you won’t find me in any of these places in 2013.Anywhere Near Somalia
In March, my colleague Sean McLachlan reported that the security situation in Somalia was improving, but I wouldn’t rush right out to your travel agent to book a holiday in what most people consider to be the world’s most dangerous country just yet. Mogadishu made our list last year, but after talking to Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple who were taken hostage at sea by Somali pirates a good 900 miles off Somalia’s coast in 2009, I would avoid a much wider radius than simply “Mog.”
There may have been some improvements in the security situation since the Chandlers were released after a year in captivity, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay away. In January, gunmen kidnapped an American man in the northern town of Galkayo, the same town where an American woman and a Dane were taken hostage last October. In February, the militant group Al-Shabaab, which has been pushed out of Somalia’s cities by the country’s U.N.-backed government but still maintains control of some rural areas, merged with Al-Qaeda.
The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office details at least nine other violent incidents since then in its most recent travel warning on Somalia. If you do brave the risks and visit Somalia, think twice before checking into the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab killed eight people there in a failed plot to assassinate the Somali president in September.
At least five million people were killed in the DRC in what’s been called Africa’s First World War from 1994-2003, and a proxy war, waged between rebel groups backed by Rwanda and the Kinshasa government, continued through 2008. Sadly the situation in the eastern part of the country has deteriorated this year as several armed groups like M23 continue to vie for control of this resource-rich part of the country.
In the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on the DRC, travelers are cautioned against the continued presence of Lord’s Resistance Army thugs and armed groups who are “known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted.” The DRC is rated dead last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index for good reason: it’s a basket case in danger of becoming a full-on failed state. Other than aid workers, diplomats, mercenaries and shady businesspeople, no one in their right mind is traveling to the eastern DRC, and the rest of the country isn’t exactly the South of France either.
Syria, with its ancient capital, said to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, historic souks, castles and impressive archaeological sites, was once a popular destination for backpackers. Now, nearly two years into a bloody civil war, the tourists are long gone with seemingly little hope of them returning anytime soon. More than 30,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has created nearly 500,000 refugees and about 2.5 million internally displaced people. But when peace returns to Syria, the tourists will certainly return to this interesting and hospitable country.
Last year, we recognized Kandahar Province as a distinctly violent, nasty place we had no intention of visiting in the near future but given the fact that nearly twice as many ISAF Coalition troops have perished in neighboring Helmand Province, extremists there could make a strong argument that they were snubbed.
And Helmand isn’t just a dangerous place for Coalition troops. A recent AP story asserted that despite a vigorous effort by the U.S.-led Coalition to rid the province of insurgents, residents are still afraid to go out after dark when bands of marauding criminals roam the streets. The province is a hotbed of poppy production, which finances the insurgents’ campaigns, and many residents support the Taliban.
And if you find yourself in Helmand, perish the thought; don’t expect the police to help you either. In 2012, at least 62 Coalition troops and 86 Afghans have been shot dead by Afghan police or soldiers, including fatal incidents in Helmand in August, September and October. Only a complete lunatic would plan a trip to Helmand Province, but Trip Advisor, God bless them, does indeed have a page entitled “Helmand Province Vacations” under the tab “Helmand Province Tourism” as though such a thing existed. Not surprisingly, there are no hotels, restaurants or things to do listed.
Mali, home to the legendary city of Timbuktu and one of the richest cultural and music scenes in West Africa, took several turns for the worse in 2012 and is now off limits to any traveler hoping to go home in one piece. Mali has had not one but two coups in 2012, and in April, Tuareg rebels declared an independent state called Azawad in the north of the country.
Before you rush out to apply for a tourist visa to Azawad, be warned that the territory’s economy revolves around kidnapping, most of them carried out by the thugs who run the place. There are ten European and three Algerian hostages currently being held in Northern Mali and there have been several other hostage-taking incidents involving tourists and diplomats in recent years, including an incident involving a Frenchman in Southwest Mali in November.
Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, was taken hostage and then beheaded in 2009, and Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French aid worker was taken hostage in neighboring Niger and was then reportedly killed in Mali in 2010. In the north, Islamists are known to administer rough justice. In one case, a police chief sawed off his own brother’s hand, and in July, in the northern town of Aguelhok, a couple was stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.
Mexico gets all the bad press for its drug and gang violence, but on a per-capita basis, Honduras may be even more violent. Tourists flock to Roatán and other safe, idyllic beach getaways in Honduras, but San Pedro Sula ranks first in the world in per capita murders (1,143 murders in a city of just 719,447 in 2011) and Tegucigalpa ranks fifth. The Honduran districts of Yoro – with 110 murders per 100,000 – and Morazán – with 86 per 100,000 – both in the interior of the country, are also plagued by violence.
According to a 2011 UN Report, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. I have a friend who used to teach English in San Pedro Sula in the ’90s and he said that the city used to be reasonably safe prior to Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc on the country in 1998.
Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law, is one of the nastiest terrorist groups in the world. Their late leader, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009 that he believed the earth was flat and said that education “spoils the belief in one God.”
Their targets have included the Nigerian military, the police, opponents of Sharia law and foreigners. Their tactics have included planting bombs in churches, attacking a UN compound in Abuja, taking hostages and engaging in extrajudicial assassinations. Boko Haram militants killed at least 186 people with a series of gun and bomb attacks near their base in Kano in January 2012 alone. On Christmas Eve this year, gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to their church in the northern province of Yobe.
And Boko Haram aren’t the only troublemakers in the region. Another Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group killed two hostages, one from Britain, and one from Italy, in the town of Sokoto in March, and a German engineer that was being held hostage in Kano was killed in a rescue attempt along with five others in May. According to the State Department, criminals have abducted at least 140 foreigner nationals in Nigeria, including seven U.S. citizens, since January 2009.
Intrepid, some would say ill-advised, travelers can now visit Chernobyl, and some hard heads have even returned to live in the off-limits Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan, but the area around the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, called “The Polygon,” remains closed, more than 20 years after Kazakhstan became the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in 1991. The Soviets used the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan to test more than 400 nuclear bombs during the Cold War and to this day, residents of the city of Semipalatinsk (renamed Semey) suffer disproportionately from cancer and birth deformities blamed on continuing radiation.
Although the Polygon itself is technically off limits, it’s an area the size of Belgium with poorly marked boundaries and farmers allow their animals to graze there, according to The Telegraph. Stay away and avoid ordering horsemeat from eastern Kazakhstan if at all possible.
“It’s not that I love grossness itself, but I did come to love many of the polluted places I visited,” he told the New York Times. “And I object to the outright disgust these kinds of places get saddled with, because once that disgust becomes entrenched, we’re more likely to give up on them.”
In his book, Blackwell even defends Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, China, which was named the most polluted city in the world in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, and was subsequently put at or near the top of every top ten most polluted places list all over the net. (Last year, a city called Ahvaz in Iran topped a World Health Organization air pollution list.)
But it turns out that the Blacksmith list wasn’t rank ordered, but rather alphabetized by country, so Linfen was merely one of the ten nastiest places in the world and not necessarily the nastiest. Still, even Blackwell had to admit that the dust and pollution gave him a nasty cough.
“Chronic respiratory disease and even lung cancer must stalk the city’s boulevards and alleyways,” he wrote.
Pound-for-pound the Swat Valley and the seven semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border with Afghanistan might have more ignorant, violent extremists than any other place on the planet. One could fill a large volume with horror stories about bad things that have happened in this part of northwest Pakistan, but exhibit A of the brutality and extremism that pervades this area is the October 9 assassination attempt on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai that wounded her and two others perpetrated by vermin who personify the word evil.
Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on a school bus and is now recovering in Britain, became a target for advocating on behalf of locals girls who want to be educated. In recent years, thousands of Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the northwest and despite the U.S. drone strike campaign, which has pushed U.S. favorability ratings in Pakistan down to 12%, the region is still a hotbed for extremists.
Pockets of ignorance and extremism exist in other parts of the country as well. On December 18 and 19, gunmen shot dead seven people working on a U.N.-backed polio vaccination drive, four were killed in Karachi, and the others perished in the northwest, most from gunshots to the head, fired at close range.
Notes: Special thanks to Jay Dunne and Bernard Londoni, security analysts at iJet, a risk-management firm based in Annapolis, for providing me with intel on some of the locales listed above. A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Mali. He was taken hostage in neighboring Niger.
The scene is of the 316-square kilometer volcanic island of Isla del Tigre, not far from the Honduran mainland in the Gulf of Fonseca. Amapala is its only town, known for great seafood and getting lost in time.
Gadling Flickr pool member Adalberto.H.Vega makes Honduras his home and has an extensive library of images captured using an Olympus D-500 that clearly validate that ‘lost in time’ reputation. Vega is Director of Marketing and Product Development at MC Tours, a major Central America tour operator that operates in Honduras.
Tim Leffel’s mission is to help skinflints like me find travel destinations they can afford. He traveled around the world on a shoestring with his wife three times and decided to write a book about the world’s cheapest countries after realizing that there was no single resource out there for travelers looking for bargain destinations. The fourth edition of his book, “The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune,” is due to be released in January and Leffel maintains a blog devoted to the cheapest travel destinations on the planet.
I had a chance to check out the forthcoming edition of Tim’s book and it’s packed with data on how much you’ll spend in the 21 destinations he profiles, along with insightful and sometimes hilarious advice on where to go and how to travel. (“I have a daughter and I have taken her abroad to eight countries now, but I am not yet ready to take her on crappy third-world buses, pumping her full of malaria pills, exposing her to aggressive deformed beggars, or trying to ward off touts while simultaneously keeping her occupied.”)
%Gallery-173113%For example, he informs readers that a beer in Nepal costs the same as an ounce or two of marijuana or a finger of hash; double rooms or suites in private homes in Bulgaria go for $5-20 per person; and a full three-course meal in Bolivia can be had for as little as $2. I caught up with Leffel at his home in Tampa this week to talk about the world’s cheapest travel destinations.
You just returned from Bolivia. A lot of people consider that to be one of the cheapest countries in the world. Do you agree?
I agree. It’s probably the best deal in South America. In the Americas, Nicaragua might be a bit cheaper, but they’re neck and neck. But it’s hard to compare, it depends on what you’re doing, where you’re staying. And for Americans, Bolivians have reciprocal visa fees, so you have to cough up $130 at the airport just for the pleasure of walking out of the airport.
Do the costs in Bolivia vary from region to region? A lot of people don’t like to stay in La Paz because of the altitude.
Not really, but the altitude in La Paz hit me hard because I was coming from Florida – sea level. I felt like crap when I landed at the airport in La Paz, but then I got on a connecting flight to Sucre, which is lower and felt better. But then I went to Potosi, which is more than 13,000 feet, and had a pretty rough headache for a day or two.
Coming from the U.S. can you avoid La Paz?
No, but you can get out of there cheaply. My flight to Sucre was only $67.
What makes Bolivia so cheap?
Meals are cheap. Accommodations are reasonable and transportation costs are very low because Venezuela subsidizes their fuel. Buses cost $1.50-$2 per hour depending on the class of the bus. A set meal of a few courses, a soup and a main dish and a drink or dessert is a couple dollars. Two to three dollars in a basic place, or more if you are in a nice restaurant, but even in those places the prices aren’t bad at all. Alcohol is cheap. It’s a cheap place to party.
Give me an idea for what mid-range accommodation goes for in Bolivia?
I had a pretty nice room with private bath and hot water for $8.50 that was quite comfortable. Then I paid $32 for a full-blown hotel. For $20-35 you can usually get a decent mid-range hotel room pretty much anywhere. Bolivia is a poor country and there isn’t much domestic tourism so there isn’t much competition. In Potosi, the most expensive hotel in town was about $70 but most were in the $20-40 range.
Sucre is especially nice. It’s a beautiful old colonial city like you see in a lot of Latin American countries but much cheaper than a lot of other places.
Do you consider Nicaragua to be the cheapest country in Central America?
Yes, but Guatemala isn’t very expensive either. Honduras is quite cheap on the mainland but most people are there to visit the islands, which are more expensive.
But Nicaragua’s become quite a trendy destination. Aren’t the prices going up there?
Really only in Granada. That’s where people with money go. But even there, you can go out and get a really great meal for $4 and you don’t have to look hard for deals like that – they’re right there in the center. It’s also one of the cheapest places to drink I’ve ever seen. As long as you drink rum or beer they make domestically.
Ometepe is a really good deal; almost any of the small towns are very cheap. It’s a wide-open blank slate. There isn’t much tourism besides Granada and San Juan Del Sur. But that’s still mostly a surfer/backpacker hangout too. There are a few nice hotels, but the bulk are hostels and cheap guesthouses. It’s a cheap place to eat, surf and party. The drawback is that it isn’t real comfortable to get around – you’re mostly on chicken buses.
You mention cheap drinking. Bulgaria has very cheap beer and wine. It’s on your list of cheap destinations as well, right?
Yes, I was just there for the first time in April. I loved it. It was gorgeous and there were very few tourists. It’s incredibly cheap to eat and drink there and the food there is very fresh and good.
I love Bulgaria but I haven’t been there in a while. How are the prices now?
I think it’s the cheapest country in Europe. Accommodation may be a little cheaper in Romania and maybe even Hungary because there isn’t as much competition in Bulgaria. A lot more people have opened budget-oriented places to stay in Romania in recent years. But I think overall Bulgaria is still cheaper.
Other than Romania and Bulgaria any other cheap countries you like to visit in Europe?
The other two I have in the book are Hungary and Slovakia. I used to have Turkey in the book but it’s gotten too expensive.
I lived in Hungary five years ago when the forint was much stronger and it didn’t seem cheap then, but now it’s reasonable?
Yes, I was there four years ago and it seemed much cheaper on my recent visit. Part of that is more competition among hotels but the forint is also much weaker.
Any other countries like Hungary where the currency has gone down, giving travelers a bargain opportunity?
The euro has gone down and a lot of the non-euro countries in Europe have currencies that have gone down as well. The dollar is also doing well against the currencies in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. But countries like Brazil and Chile have become much more expensive for Americans, because of the strong economies in those countries.
No, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that prices have gone down there but maybe not as much as they expected, given what’s happened to the economy there. But it’s still a better deal than most of Western Europe and that goes for Portugal too, which also has good prices.
Let’s move on to Asia. Lots of cheap countries there but are there any that stand out?
Most of the countries I surveyed stayed about the same since the last edition of the book came out in 2009 except Thailand, which got a little bit more expensive. Their currency has gotten a bit stronger and stayed there. But I still think that Thailand is a terrific value.
Of those three countries, which is the cheapest?
Cambodia is the cheapest and Laos is pretty close. Cambodia is a little easier to get around but I couldn’t believe how crowded Angkor Wat was.
When you travel with your wife and 12-year-old daughter in Southeast Asia, do you stay in very cheap places?
We are more mid-range travelers when I travel with my family. Our budget was $150 per day for the three of us, including everything. It was just a three-week trip and we stayed in hotels, most of them very nice ones, for $40-50 per night. You can get a fantastic room that is like the equivalent of a Hilton or Marriott here for that price. A lot of times that was also for a family suite or a place with three beds. In Cambodia, we paid $44 per night for two connecting rooms. And that was for a very nice hotel with breakfast included, hot showers, and maid service every day.
Any other countries in the region that you like?
Malaysia is a great value too. You get a lot for your money and the food is great. It’s more expensive than those countries but the infrastructure is better too. Indonesia is a great value as well, depending on where you are.
Even in Bali?
Even in Bali. It isn’t as cheap as it used to be but you can still get very reasonably priced hotels. But it’s getting polluted and crowded there.
How about the Middle East?
I just have Jordan and Egypt in the book. The region is such a powder keg. Jordan is a great deal. Egypt – who knows what’s going to happen there, but it’s certainly cheap. And it’s probably going to get cheaper too because they are so desperate for tourists to return. You can find a four-star hotel in Luxor or Aswan for $50-60 per night. There are deals galore if you want to go to Egypt.
How about Africa?
I just have Morocco and Egypt in the book. There’s a backpacker route along the east coast of Africa that is fairly reasonable if you stick to that path but the real trouble is that it’s hard to get around both comfortably and cheaply.
What about Morocco?
Prices have gone up there but it’s still a good country to visit on a budget. The prices are comparable to Eastern Europe. You can get a good deal on a hotel, and good food too.
What would you spend if you went to Morocco with your family?
Probably about $150 per day to be pretty comfortable. If you want a beautiful, atmospheric hotel though, you’d pay about $60-80 per night – you don’t find the same screaming bargains there that you would in Southeast Asia. Backpackers can find places to stay for $10-15 per night, but they might find cold showers and squat toilets too.
So for Americans, it’s pretty expensive to get to a lot of the cheapest countries. Of those that we can fly to cheaply, what are the best options?
Latin America. I have Mexico in the book as an honorable mention because the coastal resort areas aren’t that cheap but the interior is. Central America is pretty reasonable and you can find pretty good deals to Ecuador as well. My last flight there cost about $600 round trip.
How did you decide to write this book?
I went around the world with my wife three times. We were teaching English and I was writing stories as well. There was no good guide to figure out what countries were the cheapest; we just figured it out by trial and error. There was nothing out there, so I started working on it when we had our daughter because we were staying home and not traveling. I put it out and it did well, and then we put out a second edition and that did even better, so we’ve kept it going and we started a blog too. I also run a few other websites like Perceptive Travel, and Practical Travel Gear.
What other very cheap countries do you write about in the book?
Nepal and India. Nepal is probably the cheapest place in the world. And India is pretty close. Indians are seen as wealthy by the Nepalis, so that shows you that it’s all relative.
Do you think these countries want to appear in your guidebook or are they not that keen to attract budget travelers?
I don’t think most of them are that thrilled to be in the book. No one wants to be perceived as a cheap destination. But some of these countries are smarter about it than others. Thailand did a study a few years back and found that backpackers spend more in aggregate than other travelers but just over a longer time period, so once they crunched those numbers they realized they did need to attract those people.
And it’s not just young backpackers looking for cheap places to stay. I’m married with two kids and I’m still looking for cheap places to visit!
I know! I’m in my 40s and I meet all kinds of people who want to get the most out of their vacation time so they go where they can afford.