International Adventure Guide 2013: Quito, Ecuador


Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, has long been hailed as a great jumping off point for adventure travelers. The city is surrounded by eleven volcanoes and dozens of flowing rivers, making it an ideal locale for those looking to hike, bike, climb, kayak and more. As if that weren’t enough, four regions are crammed into this tiny, megadiverse country – the Amazon jungle, the Andean highlands, the coastal region and the Galapagos Islands – offering boundless opportunities for adventure travelers.
No matter where you set off to in Ecuador, the main base of all activity for adventure tour operators is in Quito. And thanks to a new $700 million airport that opened earlier this year, it’s never been easier to get there – not to mention less scary. To land at the old airport, pilots needed to negotiate the Andean mountain slopes before touching down on a runway in the middle of the city.

Once you land in Quito, food, accommodations, transportation and even adventure activities are relatively cheap; this is one place where the dollar really does go a long way. And since the country uses U.S. currency, many people reading this won’t even have to worry about doing any of those pesky conversions.

Of course, it’s not all sun and roses in Ecuador. This beautiful country also comes with some safety concerns, among them the threat of natural disasters such as volcano eruptions and earthquakes, as well as crime aimed at easy-to-target travelers. Before you go, read through the U.S. Department of State’s travel warnings, and once you land keep aware of your surroundings at all times.

Adventure Activities

Climbing
The mountains are one of the main draws for adventure travelers to Quito, and there are options to suit both newbies and experienced climbers. Because they are capped with glaciers, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe and Tungurahua are often the most desirable mountain destinations. Before setting off, remember to allow time to acclimatize to the altitude, which can be done pain free by drinking plenty of water and allowing some time to adjust to the nearly two-mile-high capital. Several tour operators, all based in Quito, can arrange tours lasting from a few hours to several days. Book before you go, or wait until you land to shop around for last minute deals in Quito’s Mariscal neighborhood, the tourist center of the city that is packed with bars, coffee shops, Internet cafes, restaurants and dance clubs.

  • High Summits: Pinto E5-29 and Juan León Mera, Quito; (+593-2) 290-5503.
  • Gulliver: Juan Leon Mera N24-156 y Jose Calama, Quito. From $195.
  • Positiv Turismo: Jorge Juan N33 -38 y Atahualpa, Quito; (+593-2) 252-7305. From $195.

Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking
The Ecuadorian landscape is packed with the highest densities of rivers per square mile in the world. Quito itself is located just a little over an hour from the Amazon basin, meaning rivers that flow from the Andes run strong and fast from these highlands down to the rainforest. This creates ideal conditions for rafting, so much so that just a few years ago the World Rafting Championship was held on the Quijos River, just northeast of Quito. Possible operators include:

Hiking
Quito wraps around the Eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano that has two easily hikable peaks. The smaller peak, Ruku, makes for a great day hike if you get an early start (before the fog rolls in); begin by taking in the city on Quito’s skytram, the TelefériQo ($4), from which there are markers for the three-hour round trip excursion.

Other than the Ruku hike, there are hundreds of trails that take adventurers through Ecuador’s various landscapes. Unique to Ecuador is the Páramo ecosystem, a rocky, mossy region that exists in limbo between the tree line and snow line at about 15,000 feet, or nearly three miles high. One great place to experience this terrain is by hiking in Papallacta, where you can take a six-hour hike that ends at a collection of hot springs, where you can soak your bones and stay overnight in a comfy resort. Tours can be self-guided, or organized with these operators:

  • Tierra de Fuego: Amazonas N23-23 y Veintimilla, Quito; (+593 2) 250-1418. From $45.
  • Gulliver: Juan Leon Mera N24-156 y Jose Calama, Quito. From $75.
  • Andes Adventures: Baquedano E5-27, Quito; (+593 2) 255-7176.

Hotspots


Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, is located about 17 miles south of Quito. On clear days, Cotopaxi can be spotted rising strong and mighty in the distance from many points in the city. And it’s quite the sight to see: the volcano’s perfectly symmetrical cone features one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. Guide companies offer regular guided climbs of the mountain, as well as downhill mountain biking tours from a 4,600-meter altitude. Private tours can be arranged from the capital, or adventure seekers can make the trip on their own via bus.

Where to Stay: At the first refuge, a modest building on the skirts of the volcano at an elevation of 15,744 feet, $10 gets foreigners a night’s stay. However, if you’re willing to spend a little more, The Secret Garden Hostel is also a great jumping-off point. Starting at $25 per night, accommodations are a bit pricey by Ecuadorian budget travel standards, but extra-comfortable beds, a hot tub under the stars and three-square vegetarian meals a day make it well worth the price. The hostel can arrange private summit treks by foot or bike, as well as horseback rides up another nearby volcano, Rumiñahui, which blew its top long ago.

Baños de Agua Santa
Known simply as “Baños” by Ecuadorians and visitors, this tiny town sits at the base of Tungurahua (literally meaning “Throat of Fire”), an active volcano that last erupted in March. Besides the chance to glimpse a real active volcano, visitors can explore more than 60 waterfalls or go rafting, kayaking, canyoning, hiking, bridge jumping and more. Expect many national and international visitors – especially on weekends – as buses frequently shuttle people to and from Quito on a three-hour trek for $3.50.

Where to Stay: After spending all day outdoors, treat yourself at the Samari Spa Resort, a former Jesuit monastery that has all the comfort and amenities any traveler desires. Take a soak in the indoor heated pool, or massage those sore muscles at the spa. Whether you are a family looking for a two-level cabin or a couple in need of a romantic retreat, there’s a room type for everyone. Rooms start at $187, and if that’s too pricey there’s plenty of budget accommodation in this town, too.

Mindo
Not far from Quito – about 60 miles or a $2 bus fare to be exact – is this jungle town in the Andean foothills known to attract adventure-seeking travelers. Take an aerial tram across the cloud forest for a hike to several different waterfalls. There’s also the opportunity to take a canopy tour across the jungle on 13 zip lines of varying heights, some of which are up to 3,500 meters high.

Where to Stay: Anyone with a budding interest in birdwatching will love Mindo Dragonfly Inn, a wooden retreat in Mindo with balconies that overlook the Canchupi River. Feeders draw many species of hummingbirds to these balconies, and birdwatching tours can be arranged from the inn. In addition to comfortable rooms, there’s also an on-site bar and restaurant. Starting at $27.

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Logistics

Get Around Unless you have already arranged tours or prefer to hire private cars, the main mode of transport in Ecuador is by bus. The ability to get around the city and the surrounding countryside by this mode of transport is pretty amazing, and should be easy so long as you know basic Spanish. Bus rides through the city cost 25 cents and on average the rate for traveling anywhere outside the city is a dollar per hour.

Taxis ($25), express airport buses ($8) and public buses ($2) all service the airport frequently, but allow for at least an hour to reach the city. Since Quito is smushed between two mountain ranges, the city is long and narrow, with the main tourist attractions located more or less in the center. There are three, easy-to-navigate, mass transit lines, or trolleys ($0.25/ride), that run in a north-south direction: Trolebus (green line), Ecovia (red line) and Metrobus (blue line). Regional buses can be picked up from two stations at either end of these trolleys. The transportation system is fairly intuitive: use the northern station for destinations north of the city, such as Cotopaxi, and vice versa for destinations south of the city, including Baños and Mindo.

Some bus companies also have terminals near the tourist center, La Mariscal, but similar to Chinatown buses in the United States, these are often more dangerous. No matter which company you go with, be sure to always keep your belongings within eyesight, as theft is common on buses.

Seasonality There is no bad time to travel to Quito. Because the city is located on the equator, the weather remains relatively consistent year-round, with an average spring-like temperature of 57 degrees. There are only two seasons in the city: the dry, “summer” season (October to May) and the wet, “winter” season (June to September), when you should always have an umbrella on hand. Outside of the city, temperatures can vary greatly depending on altitude and proximity to the equator. It’s not unknown for a hiker or climber to experience a cold, mountainous climate and the Amazon heat in a short time, so visitors would be wise to dress in layers.

Safety Besides the obvious safety issues associated with adventure activities, it’s wise to be aware of your surroundings while in Ecuador, especially in Quito. It’s not uncommon to hear of people getting their belongings stolen, and there are several well-planned scams that target tourists (including a common one involving fecal matter that a Gadling blogger was the victim of). However, it’s rare for anyone to be physically threatened during these types of robberies. Pockets get picked, purses get snatched, cameras get grabbed. It happens in Ecuador, so be aware of your surroundings at all times and be careful about showcasing any jewelry or gadgets during your time in the country.

Additional Resources Here are a few additional resources that might be helpful when planning a trip to Quito:

[Photo credit: blogger Libby Zay]

10 best national parks in South America

In South America, there are myriad diverse landscapes, unique flora, and endemic fauna to experience. With so many destination options on the continent, however, it can sometimes be hard to decide exactly where to go. National parks can provide beautiful and educational experiences in nature and, depending on where you visit, you can experience enormous glaciers, white sandy beaches, tropical rainforests, gushing waterfalls, jagged limestone cliffs, and hot thermal springs, sometimes all in one place. If you love birdwatching and wildlife viewing, South America is also home to many rare species that cannot be found anywhere else, like the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands or the spectacled bear in Peru. To help you plan your next trip to South America, or just to give you some inspiration from nature, check out the gallery below.

[Photo by Samuel Rochas, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0]

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How to choose a reputable adventure travel company or guide

adventure travel companiesAdventure travel” is a nebulous term these days. But whether your idea of a thrill is a Class-III rapid or climbing Everest, there’s one thing that’s ubiquitous when choosing an outfitter: safety. There are hundreds of adventure travel companies worldwide; not all are created equal. There are key things you should look for when choosing a company or independent guide, whether you’re booking a three-week luxury trip, or a one-day backpacker’s special.

I’m not implying adventure travel in general is risky, or that most operators and guides don’t know what they’re doing. There are numerous certifications in place (they vary according to country) to ensure companies adhere to national and industry safety standards.

The following are tips on what to look for or avoid when choosing a company or guide, based on personal experience and what I’ve gleaned from the owners of several highly regarded adventure companies. I’ve done trips with each company, but I have no personal gain in endorsing them: I’ve just found them to be, among the dozens of outfitters I’ve used, the best of the best.

My sources include Mark Gunlogson, president/guide of Seattle’s Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school; Marc Goddard, co-owner/guide of Bio Bio Expeditions, a whitewater/adventure travel company in Truckee, California, and Britt Lewis, co-owner/guide of Austral Adventures, a custom travel company on the island of Chiloe, in Chile.

I’m also including a few horror stories based on guide negligence. That’s why, the first thing you should do when planning any kind of adventure activity or trip is…

Do your research
Even a brief online search will bring to light any serious breaches in safety or conduct. Safety doesn’t just apply to those who plan to scale the Andes or kayak the Zambezi. Even the tamest “adventures” require guides who are knowledgeable about the area and activity, and are currently certified in emergency first aid and rescue procedures.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Luis Fabres]

adventure travel companiesLest you think I exaggerate the importance of guide knowledge and research, the idea for this article germinated in 2003, when I was visiting Australia’s Kakadu National Park during the “Wet,” or monsoon, season. That time of year brings potential problems such as floods, but it was a widely publicized trial that made an indelible impression.

A negligent guide was charged in the accidental death of a 24-year-old German tourist who’d been killed by a croc, after the guide assured her group a swimming hole was safe. My own guide informed me that just weeks earlier, another company had tried to gun their small tour bus over a flooded waterway, only to have it overtaken and swept downstream. The passengers were eventually airlifted to safety (don’t let these things scare you off of Kakadu in the Wet; it’s absolutely spectacular, and free of crowds).

Australia of course, isn’t the problem. It’s just that crocs and corpses make compelling headlines. Sometimes accidents aren’t publicized, lest they impact tourism (In New Zealand, an operator confessed to me a rival company’s fatal bungee-jumping miscalculation a month prior, which put them out of business), and of course there have been dozens of mountaineering and whitewater-related tragedies on commercial trips on various continents over the years. Again, participating in these activities doesn’t make you likely to suffer a mishap. Are they inherently dangerous? Yes, but so is crossing the street, driving a car, or hiking solo.
adventure travel companies
What certifications to look for
This depends upon type of activity and country. Says Lewis, “If there aren’t national qualifications or certs, a combination of information is required for form an opinion about an outfitter. How clear and accurate is their literature or website, their answers to your questions, etc.?” I would also add, how long does it take them to respond to your emails or phone calls? A few days is standard, but if you find yourself having to follow-up repeatedly, move on.

Marc Goddard: Ask about the qualifications of each guide. If you’re doing a river trip, find out how many years the guides have been guiding rafts, and on which rivers. Don’t be shy about asking some serious questions: you will, after all, be entrusting them with your life!

Mark Gunlogson: The adventure travel industry has matured, and most activities now have some sort of industry standard. In the case of mountain guiding, there’s the American Mountain Guides Association certification for guide services. Level of first-aid training for guides is also essential to look for, and industry standards apply here, as well.

Signs you’re dealing with a good company or guide
Whether you’re planning a high-end holiday or making a walk-in query in a backpacker ghetto, there are questions to ask and things to look for that signify a solid company. Be aware that hostels and other backpacker-oriented locales are magnets for sketchy outfits. If it sounds too cheap or good to be true, it probably is. If the activity involves something potentially dangerous, don’t bite.

Gunlogson suggests asking the company what’s included and what’s not, so all services are clearly spelled out, including guide qualifications. But, he says, “In the end, sometimes it just comes down to how comfortable a person feels with the company and their interactions with them.”
adventure travel companies
Adds Lewis, “Ask a few simple questions about first-aid and emergency procedures. Do they appear to have a plan for unforeseen events? If you’re a walk-in, does their office have a fire extinguisher? Are their vehicles legal for tourist transport? Are the guides certified for the activities for which they’re assigned?”

I learned just how deadly budget guides can be while climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador with a Mountain Madness guide. We were forced to turn back at 17,000 feet due to extreme avalanche danger. My guide was fully accredited, and his experience includes some of the toughest technical climbs in the world (For my part, I’d been conditioning for this trip for months, at high altitude, upon the advice of Mountain Madness).

We had returned to the refugio, an overnight acclimatization hut located at 15,000 feet. We saw a young, rowdy group of backpackers being shepherded out the door by their equally youthful guides; it was obvious from their attire they were attempting a summit. My guide, concerned, went and had a word with the other guides: They totally blew him off. I didn’t hear about a group of backpackers getting creamed in an avalanche that day, but that experience really clarified for me the potential for disaster posed by cheapie trips targeted at inexperienced backpackers. It’s not worth it.

On a related note:
adventure travel companies
Look for red flags
“If they’re farming you out to a local outfitter, it could be a red flag,” says Goddard. “But the big warning is if they don’t know who their guides are, or what their qualifications are.” Some companies do “outsource” to local guides or outfitters, It’s not always a bad thing, and in fact can be positive, because you get someone with insider knowledge and you support the local economy. It comes down to their qualifications and relationship with the parent company.

Gunlogson adds, “Ask about guide qualifications, number of years in business, and hidden costs regarding services.” A reputable company willingly discloses information.

Ask for referrals
Lewis suggests asking for past client’s emails, and contacting them about their experience. You can also look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com, or search travel blogs.

Listen to your gut
If you have a bad feeling about a guide, it’s best to pay heed. On my same Australia trip, a certain American guide led us on an overnight bushwalk in Litchfield National Park. Amongst his many other transgressions, he endangered our lives by having us pitch camp on a narrow sandbar at the base of a waterfall-fed swimming hole (I actually voiced my concern, only to receive a withering look from him). Sure enough, a monsoonal downpour made the water level swiftly rise, leaving us backed into a rock wall. Fortunately, we were able to rescue our tents and gear, and the water receded before we had to swim for it. That’s when I learned to listen to my instincts regarding guides. My sensor went off immediately after meeting this guy due to his arrogance, but I felt obligated to do the trip.

Whether it’s a negative reaction to a guide, concern over the poor/worn quality of the gear, or the activity itself, always listen to your gut.

What to do if you have a bad experience
You have several courses of action. You can go to sites like TripAdvisor.com and travel blogs and write the company up (letting them know about it before taking any action). Says Lewis, “It depends on the country in terms of informing authorities. However, the power of the Internet is a huge reward to a good company and an effective way to punish an unsafe one.”

Adds Gunlogson, “Unless there’s injury and an obvious case of negligence, there’s not too much you can do unless you really want to spend the time and money to pursue it. In the end, word-of-mouth has a cathartic effect for clients if their complaints are ignored. Those companies that understand the power of a former client taking to the Internet do their best to mitigate any potential bad-mouthing, whether justified or not. It lets the client know that their dissatisfaction was acknowledged.”

I say: Playing devil’s advocate, I’ve found there’s usually one client on every trip who seems determined to have a bad time and find fault, even where none exists. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. No one likes a whiner or a complainer, and guides work long hours, under considerable stress. Don’t just sit on your butt: ask what you can do to help, be it chopping vegetables, loading gear, or finding firewood. If you have a legitimate complaint, by all means follow the advice provided above, but don’t go trolling for a refund or discount just to be an a-hole.

adventure travel companies
What are the refund policies?
Because shit happens.

Consider climate and seasonal factors
If you want to avoid a monsoon, snow, or inhumanly hot, humid weather, be sure to voice those concerns and do some research on your destination. It also pays to ask about or check on things like growing, spawning, or breeding season of pesky or harmful flora or fauna. Someone I know (her name is Laurel) paid through the nose for a snorkeling trip off a remote island in Southern Thailand. Imagine her surprise when she hit the water and discovered it was peak jellyfish spawn. She spent the remainder of the trip covered in painful, head-to-toe welts that made her the object of much mockery. Far more painful was the knowledge that the scam artists/snorkeling guides knew full well swimming was inadvisable.

Are they a green company?
It matters, and this philosophy also includes hiring locals whenever possible. Don’t let yourself get “greenwashed.”

Honestly assess your own capabilities
You don’t just put yourself at risk (of a bad trip, potential injury, illness, or worse); you jepordize the safety and well-being of other clients. If nothing else, you make your guide’s life hell. Please don’t if you can help it.

Do you trust your guide’s capabilities and judgement?
When you literally trust a guide with your life (and I can only say this about three of them), it’s a sign that that company is doing something right. Never have I been more impressed with guides than the two trips I’ve taken with Bio Bio; Mountain Madness follows a close second.


Consider travel insuranceadventure travel companies
If you’re doing some really hard-core stuff, will be in very remote areas, or have some existing health or physical conditions, it may be worth the extra expense.

Don’t forget to tip
Says Goddard, “I don’t feel tipping is mandatory; it’s done if you feel the guides did a good job. An average tip is 10% of the trip price, a great tip is 20%.” Adds Lewis, “The amount may also depend upon what country you’re in, but it’s always appreciated. Few, if any, guides do their job solely for the money [FYI, it’s not a high-paying job]–there’s a love of people, nature, or the activity that comes with it. But tips are welcome, as they’re a tangible “thank you,” and acknowledge a job well done.”

If you made it this far, consider yourself schooled. Here’s to safe adventures!

[Photo credits: crocodile, Flickr user jean-louis zimmerman; first aid kit, Flickr user 8lettersuk; warning, Flickr user psd; cash, Flickr user Todd Kravos; caving, Laurel Miller]

Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011

gadling favorite destinations 2011

We travel a lot, to destinations both well-known and unfamiliar. In our defense, it is our job to travel like mad, to explore the world and then write about our discoveries.

Though most travel writers find something or other of interest in most places we visit, there are always those personal favorites that rise above the rest. This year, we decided to scribble our favorites down for you. Some of these spots we’re tipping for greater coverage in 2011, while others are simply tried-and-true favorites that we can’t stop raving about to our friends and the various publications that allow us to write for them. Over the course of this week, we’ll weigh in on our favorite hotels, airlines, gadgets, apps, and websites.

So, without further ado: Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011.

Mike Barish. St. Kitts. I genuinely enjoy how locals and visitors frequent the same beach bars and restaurants. During evenings on the strip, I’d recognize staff members from my hotel doing the same thing I was doing: enjoying the ocean breeze with a cocktail and some jerk chicken.

Kraig Becker. Everest Base Camp, Nepal. For adventure travelers, a visit to Everest Base Camp is one of the best treks in the world. The 12-day hike isn’t just about the destination, however, as you walk in the shadow of the Himalaya each day, passing through sleepy mountain villages steeped in Sherpa culture along the way. The scenery, and altitude, is a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Catherine Bodry: Ko Chang, Thailand and Sayulita, Mexico.

Joel Bullock: My favorite new roller coaster of 2010 is Carowinds’ Intimidator. Carowinds is located on the border of North and South Carolina in Charlotte in the heart of NASCAR country. It was only fitting that the park design a racing-themed roller coaster that bears the nickname of racing legend Dale Earnhadt. Intimidator is an exciting ride. It’s the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the South East.

David Downie: As a general trend, I revisit places that have fallen off the tourist maps, or that have been taken for granted, and delve deeper into favorite destinations such as Paris and Rome, which are infinitely rich and fascinating and satisfying. Cities: Paris (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Rome (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Genoa (food, wine, scenic beauty, history, magically restored architecture), Bologna (food, food, food and atmosphere and architecture), Helsinki (scenic beauty, atmosphere, seafood). Countryside destinations: Burgundy (wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Massif Central (hikes, scenery), Drome-Provencal (ditto, plus truffles and wine), Tuscany (art, culture, museums, wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Italian Riviera (ditto).

Don George. (1) Peru‘s Sacred Valley. I finally made it there this year and was enchanted by scenery, history, culture, people, cuisine. Machu Picchu is of course life-transformingly amazing but the other untouted ruins all around the valley are equally amazing. (2) Kyoto, Japan. The cobbled back quarters of this ancient city are as enchanting now as they were when I first visited 30 years ago. Tiny temples, impromptu shakuhachi concerts, apprentice geisha in full splendor. (3) Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Incredible island scenery, hospitable people, stunning lagoon, peaceful and laid-back lifestyle, thriving dance, carving, and textile arts scene.

Tom Johansmeyer. If you’re a cigar smoker, nothing beats Esteli, Nicaragua. On just about any budget, you can spend a few days down there. Make a few calls in advance, and you’ll have the opportunity to tour tobacco fields and cigar factories. Even if you aren’t a smoker, it’s amazing to see such craftsmanship in action.

Jeremy Kressmann. Hanoi, Vietnam for its great history and architecture, awesome cuisine, and intriguing Cold War sights. Secondly, Laos. The rugged north of the country has great hikes and the buzzing cultural capital of Luang Prabang is totally worthwhile.

Grant Martin. Bogotá. Forget what you’ve heard about kidnappings, drugs and danger, Bogotá is the new cosmopolitan capital of South America. With quaint, brick streets, a buzzing commercial district and a hip, young population, there’s not much to dislike about this place. Get there before the rest of North America figures it out.

Melanie Nayer. Shanghai. The city of old and new hit a turning point when it hosted the World Expo, and set the stage for Shanghai to become one of the most talked about–and visited–cities in the world.

Sean McLachlan. Ethiopia. Friendly people, rugged scenery, historic sites, and great coffee. What more could you want? Beautiful women, good food, adventure travel? Ethiopia has all that too.

Laurel Miller. Ecuador, especially Cotopaxi National Park (see above), because it’s stunningly beautiful, uncrowded, and there are loads of outdoor recreational opportunities. Ecuador is an amazingly diverse country, kind of like a mini-Peru but with very low-key tourism. There’s also great whitewater rafting/kayaking and mountaineering, fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful colonial cities, delicious regional foods, and the people are wonderful. There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the (admittedly spectacular) Galapagos.

Meg Nesterov. Bulgaria is cheap, creative, and easy to explore. Several of my most well-traveled friends already rave about it. Go now before tourism overexposes the country.

Heather Poole. Positano, Italy. It’s just so beautiful and the food is amazing. I’m a flight attendant and I have a four year-old son, as well as a husband who travels over 100,000 miles a year for business. Our life is like a game of tag. So when it comes to vacations all we want to do is relax. I love to be able to sit on a balcony and let the vacation come to me.

McLean Robbins. Telluride. It’s not new, but as ski towns go it feels non-commercial and relatively untouched. You’ll find truly friendly people (and your fair share of under-the-radar celebrities), but also the country’s best extreme skiing. And it looks like heaven when it snows!

Annie Scott. I’m big on Vienna. It’s a magical city that embodies everything I think of when I think of Europe: culture, history, cathedrals and class. I think the Swiss Riviera may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Lake Geneva looks so pristine you could drink it, and the French influence gives everything from the dining to the shopping that elusive je ne sais quoi. Lastly, I had a marvelous trip this year in Zambia where the wildlife was rampant and the scenery was enchanting and unexpectedly dynamic: sweeping plains, dreamlike riverscapes and incredible trees. The thrill of being immersed in the bush is hard to match.

Alex Robertson Textor. Lima, Peru continues to pop. While the Inca Trail is old hat, Lima is emerging as a major destination on its own. Perhaps most notable is the Peruvian capital’s excellent restaurant scene, which is as disarmingly inexpensive as it is top-notch. I also have to mention green, rustic, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dominica as the Caribbean’s top adventure destination. Dominica has a number of fantastic eco-lodges that showcase the island’s natural beauty wonderfully and are priced reasonably.

Karen Walrond. As a diver, I love Cayman. Love it. Very touristy, but the diving is beyond anything I’ve seen, and i’ve been diving all over the world. And I’m partial to Grand Riviere in my homeland of Trinidad, which isn’t touristy at all. Between April and June, you can see Giant Leatherback turtles nesting in Grand Riviere.

[Image: Flickr | alepheli]

Gadling gear review- Western Mountaineering Caribou MF sleeping bag

In case you haven’t heard, it’s National Sleep Awareness Week. Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it, either. But since we’re being made aware of slumber, you should know about Western Mountaineering’s Caribou MF microfiber sleeping bag.

Because I backpack when traveling for work, it was time to upgrade to something lighter and more compressible than my old-school down bag. I had several key criterion in my search for a new one: price (as in, as low as possible without sacrificing quality), size (I’m practically a midget, and why pay more for a bag that’s designed for someone tall?), weight (I have a bad back, so shaving off even a few ounces is helpful), and three-season capability.

%Gallery-87787%A lot of my travel assignments require for me to go from one climatic extreme to another, and that calls for a pretty specific sleeping bag. I’m always cold, so temperature rating is important to me, but so is water-resistance/water-repellency (Anyone who’s ever backpacked in the tropics can appreciate the special kind of stench that can only come from filthy gear and clothing moldering away in the depths of your back). Down isn’t waterproof, but it’s very lightweight, so I had a dilemma on my hands.

A trusted sales rep acquaintance told me about the Caribou MF, a full-zip mummy bag made from microfiber-a synthetic fabric known for its softness, water repellent / wicking abilities, and durability. He thought it would be the ideal bag for my upcoming, month-long assignment in Ecuador, which would include mountaineering at up to 19,000-plus feet, as well as camping in the Amazon Basin. I decided to give it a try, and purchased an Outdoor Research stuff sack as added protection against moisture (All of Western’s bags do come with their own stuff sacks).

If you’re not familiar with Western Mountaineering, they’re a small, independently-owned company out of San Jose, known for exceedingly high-quality, made-in-the-U.S. of A. products such as sleeping bags and down jackets.

The basics

Caribou’s Microfiber bags are constructed from their patented, 20-denier Microlite XP™ microfiber, which possesses over 400 threads per square inch. Their ExtremeLite bags weigh a little less, are made from a different outer fabric, and are thus slightly less water-resistant and -breathable than the Microlite series. I decided to go with the Microfiber. The other deciding factor for me was the Caribou’s “sewn-thru box” stitching, which is designed to keep the down from shifting (some 3-season bags are designed to shift, so you can regulate the temperature). Look at the spacing of the baffles before you purchase a bag.

Specs

The Caribou comes in three lengths: 5’6,” 6’0,” and 6’6.” Obviously, I chose the shortest bag, which had the following specs: 35-degree F. rating, 3.5″ goose down loft, and a fill weight of just nine ounces. The inside girth (shoulder/hip/foot) is 63″/56″/39.” Western is known for making bags that run broad in the shoulders, for maximum comfort.

The total bag weight is one pound, three ounces, which compresses to 6″ x 10.” Pretty impressive, especially for $275.00.

Road testing: The Pros

Because I knew I had a midnight arrival at Lima airport for a hellish, 12-hour layover, I clipped my Caribou’s stuff sack to my day pack carry-on. After deplaning, I unfurled my bag onto a bank of seats, and had a really great sleep (FYI, the Lima airport totally rocks- the seats don’t have armrests so you can lie down on them, it’s spotlessly clean and safe, the duty-free is open 24-hours, and the suspiro at Manacaru Restaurant is delicious.).

The Caribou kept me toasty at a snowy mountain refuge situated at 15,750-feet on the flanks of Cotopaxi, but what blew me away was my night camping on the Hollin River in the Amazon Basin. Our take-out was a gorgeous little beach the size of a postage stamp. There was no natural shelter, so we rigged a couple of tarps off of a huge boulder for rain shelter, and lay down a ground tarp for our bags. I was awakened at 3am by the sound of rain pounding the tarp. The water was also falling between the gap in the tarps, and the top right side of my bag was soaked. I was sure it was ruined.

The next morning, I shook out my bag, and beads of water flew off. After about ten minutes in the sun, it was completely dry. I couldn’t believe it. The Caribou went on to survive being crammed back into its sack (which I then sealed in the stuff sack) in tropical humidity, where it stayed the remaining three days of my trip. Upon arriving home, I unpacked it, steeling myself for an onslaught of jungle funk and new and exciting strains of mildew. Nada. The bag was as good as new. Didn’t even have to wash it.

I also used it in a badly leaking tent during a horrendous summer thunder storm in Aspen, and what little dampness it had acquired dried quickly once i spread it out the next morning.

The Cons

After a year of ownership, I can’t find anything to complain about with regard to the bag itself. My only nitpicking- and because Western doesn’t do mail order, this isn’t a huge consumer issue- is that every single employee I’ve dealt with at Western appears to be terminally cranky (perhaps they’re sleep-deprived?). They also forgot my stuff sack when they sent my bag, but since it was a special order for a gear review, I’ll forgive them. The main thing is that I ended up buying it, and I’m a Western convert for life. I just hope they’re allowed to catch up on their zzz’s this week.

The Caribou MF is $275; for additional product prices and to find a dealer in your area, click here.