LAN Airlines surprises restaurant-goers with free tickets to South America

Courtesy LAN Airlines

Last night, LAN Airlines surprised nearly 200 unsuspecting patrons at Nuela restaurant in New York with free round trip tickets to South America. The Oprah-style giveaway kicks off the company’s Only in South America campaign, a multi-year effort to promote travel to the region.

In the midst of busy dinner hours, guests at the South American restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron district were directed to look under their tables for a major surprise. Moments later, everyone in the restaurant was holding a voucher for a ticket to any LAN destination in South America, including destinations in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.

“It was a genuine pleasure to see the restaurant full of dinner guests enjoying South American dishes all of a sudden receive the unexpected news that they were getting the chance to travel to where our cuisine originates, just because they were at the right place at the right time,” said Chef Adam Schop. Schop was recently awarded Star Chef’s 2011 Rising Star award, and New York Times touted his arroz con pato (duck paella) “best tasting dish of the year.”

Those who weren’t lucky enough to be gifted with tickets can still enter an online sweepstakes to win tickets to Quito, Guayaquil, Lima, Santiago or Buenos Aires by following @LANAirlinesUSA. The contest ends October 13th.

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]

Man arrested in Mexico smuggling 18 monkeys in his pants

Are those monkeys in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

A Mexican man was arrested upon arrival in Mexico City after flying from Lima, Peru with 18 titi monkeys strapped around his waist. While the monkeys traveled in his luggage, Roberto Sol Cabrera placed the endangered monkeys into socks that fit into a waist girdle “to protect them from X-rays,” though two of the monkeys did not survive the journey, sadly.

Police said Mr. Sol Cabrera behaved “nervously” when questioned at customs, not surprising given the amount of squirming primates near his privates. He reportedly paid around $30 per monkey in Peru that could fetch up to $1,550 each as exotic pets on the Mexican market. He is being investigated on charges of trafficking an endangered species. After similar arrests of smuggling via hat and shirt, I look forward to a monkey-smuggling episode of Locked Up Abroad.

[Via BBC News.]

[Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke]

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.

One-day sale from Intrepid Travel starts now!

Intrepid Travel puts together some amazing trips, and today’s deal will make them even more accessible than usual. For the next nine hours, trips will be discounted deeply … all Intrepid trips … more than 400 of them. Price cuts range from 15 percent to 60 percent in this rare opportunity.

Trips departing soonest, of course, come with the greatest price breaks. Book an excursion that leaves in July, and you can generally knock 60 percent off the price. Those taking off in August can net you a savings of 30 percent, with the rest of the year’s trips 15 percent off.

The sale starts now and runs until 7:30 PM this evening. Each includes all accommodations and land transportation, some meals and a guide.

After the jump, you’ll get a sense of how much you can save.

Inca Encounter: this nine-day jaunt from Lima to Cuzco in Peru is only $664, down from $1,660

Road to Budapest: spend 15 days going from Vienna to Budapest for $692 – instead of $1,730

Kenya Adventure: eight days in Kenya will cost only $604, rather than $1,510