Top ten cities to visit in 2011, according to Lonely Planet

Another decade is about to bite the dust, but the savvy travelers at Lonely Planet have given us a jump start on the hot list for 2011. They’ve just announced their picks for the world’s best cities to visit next year, and while you’ll find some of the usual suspects (New York, which will debut the National September 11 Memorial on the 10th anniversary of the attacks), there are also some surprises. The great news? About half of these places are easy on the budget once you get there. Some list-makers, below:

Tangier, Morocco
Once derided as dirty and dangerous, this port city at the crossroads of Europe and Africa has undergone a major renovation and clean-up. A thriving arts, food, and shopping scene are drawing visitors.

, Peru
A major Amazonian trading port formerly known for its raucous nightlife, general mayhem, riverside shanties, and rubber-boom barons, Iquitos has gotten a major upgrade. Accessible only by air or boat, the city still has a rocking after-hours scene, but it’s also a “cultural hub” providing a “sultry slice of Amazon life.”

Delhi, India
The 2010 Commonwealth Games got the city into shape, there’s a “futuristic” Metro (who knew?) and 2011 marks the city’s 100th anniversary. Be prepared for lots of celebrations.

Not as wallet-friendly, but absolutely stunning:

Wellington, New Zealand
Nicknamed the “coolest little capital in the world,” this laidback, far southern North Island city has it all: a hopping food and wine scene, boutiques and galleries featuring NZ’s hottest designers and artists, a serious arts and culture scene that includes the world-famous Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and accommodations ranging from high-end hotel and styley boutique sleeps, to funky hostels and guesthouses. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy miles of hiking trails, city parks, hilly streets, and golden beaches.

What cities are on your personal 2011 must-visit list?

[Photo credits:Tangier, Flickr user Lumumo; Wellington, Flickr user 111 Emergency]

British man is walking the length of the Amazon

Ed Stafford is either really brave or really crazy. Likely it’s a little of both. The 33-year old British man is now 436 days into his attempt to walk the entire length of the Amazon River, starting at its source, and eventually finishing up at its mouth along the coast of Brazil, where it enters into the Atlantic Ocean.

Stafford, a former captain in the British Army, began his epic journey in April of 2008, and is now more than 2000 miles in, or roughly halfway to his goal. He wanders the high ground as much as possible, and sometimes has to go well out of his way to stay on dry land, especially during the rainy season, when the Amazon can swell to massive proportions, and spill over its banks for miles in all directions. Stafford does carry an inflatable raft for navigating across the larger tributaries however, and on the Amazon, there are many.

As if hiking for 4000 miles wasn’t challenging enough, the jungle that surround the river provides plenty more obstacles as well. Stafford has to deal with wild animals, including some of the world’s most dangerous insects and snakes, and when he enters the waters of the Amazon, he has to deal with electric eels, piranha, and caiman as well. On top of that, there is the constant threat of malaria or yellow fever, which runs rampant in the Amazon basin, and there are still plenty of tribes that live in the jungle that are not exactly accommodating to outsiders.
According to Ed’s website, he expects to finish up his journey sometime in 2010. In the meantime, you can follow his adventure by reading his daily blog and following his Twitter feed.

On a personal note, having recently visited a section of the Amazon that Ed has just passed through, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is one of the most ambitious and demanding expeditions that I have ever heard of. I had the opportunity to trek through portions of the jungle, and it was demanding work, made all the more difficult by the constant heat and humidity. To read my thoughts on the Amazon and more about my travels there, be sure to check out my Adventures on the Amazon series.

Adventures in the Amazon: The Future of Travel in the Amazon

The Amazon River and the jungle that surrounds it, has always been one of those places that holds a certain sway over the imaginations of people the world over. It is a vast and unexplored wilderness that has yet to reveal all of its secrets and mysteries.We’re fascinated with tales of lost jungle tribes that have yet to be contacted by the outside world. We’re entranced by stories of giant anacondas, killer piranhas, and a ecosystem so large and powerful that it effects weather patterns across the globe.

Because of this global fascination with the region, adventure travelers have long made the Amazon one of their “must see” places, but it still remains under the radar for most travelers, even those going to South America. Tourism to the Amazon does not have a major impact on the economy there, with the exception of Manaus, Brazil, and to a lesser extent, Iquitos, Peru.

The Amazon Jungle touches parts of nine countries, most of which still have emerging economies that look to tourism to help spur their growth. As such, these countries are looking at ways to exploit the Amazon to lure in more visitors and enhance their appeal as a travel destination. That starts with building a better travel infrastructure and getting information out about what the Amazon has to offer. One of the biggest reasons there are so few visitors to the rainforest is because of the lack of reliable information and challenges toward planning a trip there.

%Gallery-63881%As we’ve become more aware of global climate change and the impact that man has had on the environment, we’ve come to recognize the importance of the Amazon basin to the Earth’s atmosphere. The jungle continues to be threatened by deforestation, losing an average of more than 14,000 square miles per year, mainly to loggers and farmers.

Fortunately, in the age of ecotourism and sustainable travel, the future of tourism in the Amazon looks bright. The various Amazon countries, eco-lodges, and tour operators now have a better understanding of what it takes to ensure that they not only protect the environments there, but also work more in harmony with them. They offer unique experiences to travelers, giving them the opportunity to immerse themselves in an incredibly diverse biosphere like none other on Earth, and they do it while leaving as small of a footprint on the environment as possible.

This commitment to the environment was evident in my own journey through the Amazon, as we were continually reminded to gather our refuse and to make sure we left no trace of our passing. But on our last day of trekking in through the rainforest, my companions and I each planted a tree in the jungle, and took a vow to defend the rainforest. That vow may sound like a grand display for the tourists, but it was very clear that our guides took it seriously and had a deep concern for health of the Amazon as a whole.

One of the key elements of sustainable travel is that some of the money that we spend to visit these remote places goes directly to preserving those places as well. This concept has been highly successful in a number of countries and regions the world over, and it is becoming part of the process in the Amazon as well. As tourism ramps up, our dollars go to employ local guides and their support staff, as well as provide countries with incentive to designate large sections of the Amazon as protected areas, preserving it from deforestation and protecting the flora and fauna there as well.

With an established track record for being eco-conscious, and an existing plan for utilizing travel as a means for sustaining the environment, it seems that the future of travel to the Amazon is not only bright, but assured to be around for future generations to enjoy as well. The region has a lot of growth potential and while it will continue to be an adventure destination for the foreseeable future, it is becoming more accessible for travelers looking for a more relaxed travel experience as well.

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

Adventures in the Amazon: Ecotourism in the Rainforest

One of the biggest buzzwords in travel in recent years has been “ecotourism”. The term is generally used to describe a type of travel that is designed to minimize the impact on the environments we are visiting and is often used in reference to fragile or seldom visited destinations. It was my experience during my journey through the Amazon that ecotourism wasn’t a buzzword at all, but actually an approach to sharing the environment that has been in practice there for years.

When I arrived in Iquitos at the start of my journey, I was told that tourism was a large part of the economy there, although as I walked the streets and visited the markets in that city, I rarely saw anyone that even remotely resembled a tourist. Leaving the city aboard La Turmalina meant leaving nearly all semblances of tourism behind, something I was a bit surprised to discover.

When I elected to take a river cruise on the Amazon, I suspected it would be much like the cruise I took on the Nile a few years back. On that river, there are literally dozens of ships at every turn, and when you pulled into port, they would line up three abreast. You had to cross through other boats just to go ashore. But in over a week on the Amazon, I saw only one other boat that was carrying tourists, and the river was decidedly uncrowded.

We did see several ecolodges as we moved about. Some were located right on the main channel, within easy reach of the Amazon River itself, while others were tucked away, deeper in the jungle. No matter the location though, they all shared a common theme, respect for the jungle and a sustainable approach to protecting it.

Built in the same style as the huts we saw lining the river, the lodges felt like they fit into the jungle both on an ecological and cultural level. Most of the bungalows were built on stilts and constructed in such a manner as to not endanger the plant life in the region. For instance, trees were not cleared to build these jungle retreats. Instead, they were built around the trees themselves, sometimes literally, with the trunks growing through the floor and continuing up, and out, the roof. It was clear at a glance that these resorts had been built with integration into the jungle environment in mind from the beginning.

Several lodges in the area offer canopy tours as part of their eco-friendly approach. These tours give travelers an opportunity to see the jungle from a whole new perspective, while at the same time protecting the environment. On a canopy tour, visitors to the lodge walk on rope bridges suspended high above the jungle floor and strung between two tall trees, sometimes hundreds of feet apart. The bridges can be forty or more feet in the air, keeping you well above the jungle floor, almost eliminating all impact on the environment.

I had the opportunity to walk one of these canopy tours on the morning after I had camped in the jungle. The bridges I crossed were not unlike something you would see in a B-action movie, swinging back and fourth precariously. Being agile on your feet helped to make things a bit easier, but not all of my traveling companions were comfortable with our little stroll amongst the leaves. Suspended 60 feet above the jungle floor, the bridges did indeed give us a new perspective however, while leaving zero impact on the environment around us. This was the very definition of ecotourism. In all, we crossed eight bridges, each connecting to a wooden platform built around one of the gigantic trees that grew out of the jungle. The last bridge gently angled back down to the surface, returning us to the muddy trail.

The eco-lodges of the Amazon do offer an alternate way to visit the jungle, with a completely different experience from the one that I had. While I spent the better part of a week and half aboard a river boat, cruising up and down the river and exploring its backwaters, a visit to an eco-lodge allows you to relax a bit more, while staying in one place, and still get an authentic rainforest experience. The best part is that at the end of the day you return to a comfortable bed and plenty of amenities.

From my personal experience there was a clear commitment at every turn to protect the environment and ensure that the Amazon stays healthy and strong for future generations to visit and marvel at as well. My traveling companions and I contributed to that effort be each of us planting small trees and giving a little something back to the rainforest, and although it felt like a small gesture at the time, it is also rewarding to think that that little sapling could one day be an integral part of the greatest biosphere on the planet.

Next: The Future of Tourism in the Amazon

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

Adventures in the Amazon: A Night in the Jungle

It was one of the darkest nights I had ever encountered. Well, at least it was when the lightning wasn’t flashing across the sky, giving me an ever so brief glimpses of the forest that surrounded my tent. Despite the heavy rain, which had been falling for several hours, the night sounds of the jungle continued unabated. It was nearly as noisy as it was during the day, and when you added the thunderstorm to the mix, I couldn’t help but think that people payed a lot of money to the Sharper Image for a machine that replicated these very sounds.

It was my second to last night in the Amazon, and we were camping in the jungle. Earlier in the day we left our river boat, La Turmalina, behind once again and went ashore for another jungle trek that took us even deeper into the forest. Along the way, we passed trees stretching more than 65 feet into the air, with vines running their length and all manner of critters scurrying up their trunks.

We hiked for several miles, while overhead the rolling thunder could be heard drawing nearer. By the time we reached the campsite, the rain had begun to fall, and the night was closing in, but fortunately the dense jungle canopy kept much of the rain from actually hitting the ground. While it sounded like a torrential down pour was going on over head, it felt like a light rainstorm at the forest floor.

%Gallery-63881%The camp itself was nicer than I had expected. The tents were erected on a permanent wooden platform, which kept them off the damp ground, and provided a more comfortable experience. Inside, there were two cots, a small table, and a lantern, with room to stand and easily move about. The side panels were rolled up, allowing for a steady breeze to flow through, and I was surprised to find that it was quite comfortable, even a bit cool inside, despite the humidity that pervaded the entire area.

After getting settled, we all assembled in a screened in mess hall for a traditional dinner from the region consisting of chicken stuffed with rice and wrapped in the leaf of one of the jungle trees, then cooked over an open fire. Following the meal, we were joined by a guest who appeared from the darkness, joining us inside the mess hall. She was a tiny young woman, in her early twentys, and from one of the Quechan Indian villages in the area. Our guide introduced her, and told us that she was a shaman who had been studying her craft for more than five years.

Over the next hour or so, she showed us some of the various medicines that she had created using plants that grew in the jungle. She had begun learning at a young age which herbs, leaves, roots and so on, were useful and where they could be located. She had also learned how to properly harvest them, then mix them together to create her various potions and elixirs. She had several glass jars filled with her creations with her, and passed them around for us to examine. Most shared some common traits in that they were thick, came in various shades of green , that smelled incredibly awful. I’m reasonably certain that her patients got better out of fear of having to continue to take this “medicine”.

The last bottle that she passed around was unlike the others however. It was orange in color and more of a fluid than the others. Our guide informed us that this particular concoction was mainly made from a specific vine found deep in the Amazon, and that was one of the most powerful hallucinogens in the world. At various times in their lives, the shaman, as well as others, would drink the liquid when they were in need of guidance or enlightenment in their lives. It is believed that while under the influence of the hallucinogens, they would have visions that would show them the path they needed to take to get past what ever obstacle was troubling them. The process described to us was not unlike Native Americans going on a vision quest in North America.

Before the night ended, the shaman gave us a traditional blessing, calling on the spirits of the rainforest to protect us and keep us safe, no matter where our travels took us. While we sat, she danced around us, blowing smoke from a handrolled cigarette, and chanting a prayer. One by one, she approached each of us as she moved about the room, extending the blessing to all who were there., When she was finished she collected her things, and disappeared into the darkness, the storm raging around her as she went.

After the shaman departed, we all said our “good nights” and retired to our individual tents. Most of my companions were soon sound asleep, their lights blinking out one by one. But I sat alone staring out into the darkness, listening to the storm and sounds of the jungle itself. It was one of those singular experiences you have when you travel in which you experience something that is both surreal and tangible at the same time. I was in a tent, in the middle of the Amazon, with thunder crashing all around me. The night creatures of the forest continued to make their calls, sheltered from the storm in the branches over head, and as I finaly lay down to sleep, I couldn’t help but think that everything was right with the world.

Next: Ecotourism in the Amazon

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.