Tomorrow is Passport Day in the USA

Tomorrow is Passport Day in the USA!Tomorrow the U.S. Department of State will hold its third annual Passport Day, giving Americans an opportunity to apply for their first passport, or renew their current one. To commemorate the event, all regional passport agencies, along with most application acceptance facilities, including post offices, will be open and no appointments will be necessary.

These agencies are rarely open on a Saturday, which makes this a perfect time to apply for that passport you’ve been meaning to get or renew your old one, particularly if you have an international trip on the horizon. Remember, it takes approximately 4-6 weeks to process a passport application, although for an extra $60 you can expedite the process, getting your documents in about half the time.

If you are planning on participating in Passport Day, you may want to get to your facility early. Due to the fact that many travelers often can’t visit their nearest facility during regular hours, and since no appointment is needed, there is the possibility of long lines. Before you go, you’ll also want to make sure you have all the necessary forms, and a proper photo, with you as well. First time applicants will find everything they need by clicking here and information on renewals can be found here.

The number of Americans who hold a passport has increased steadily over the past few years, but if you still haven’t gotten around to getting yours yet, now is the time. Haven’t you always wanted to visit Paris or Rome or some other wonderful destination? The first step in making that trip a reality is getting your passport.

For more information on Passport Day in the USA and to find the nearest passport agency to you, click here.

State Department issues Libya travel warning – read more about this forbidden destination

Libya travel warning
As the unrest in the Middle East continues, the US Department of State has issued a Libya travel warning, advising Americans to steer clear of the country, and especially of “gatherings” there. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“‘U.S. citizens in Libya should minimize overall travel in-country, exercise extreme caution when traveling, and limit all travel after dark,’ the US said in a travel advisory. It said demonstrations, violence and looting were all possible over the next several days, and urged US citizens to stay away from any gatherings.

‘Even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly and a foreigner could become a target of harassment, or worse,’ according to the State Department advisory.”

I know I’m not the only one who will have no trouble staying out of Libya in the near future. Confession time: I had never considered going there. So, why do people travel to Libya? Gadling’s Tom Johansmeyer posted about a package deal there back in August 2010 (An easy way to get to Libya), with quotes about its “archaeological riches” and “a sense of discovery in a land virtually unknown to the modern world.” Libya also reportedly has 1250 miles of coastline “teeming with underwater wrecks, ruins and Nazi gold,” making it a highly-prized scuba diving destination (see: Diving in Libya). Furthermore, it’s a popular cruise ship port for the British and Italians (see: Will Libya Again Open to US Cruise Passengers?).

In case you or any of your friends were already in-the-know about the secret wonders of Libya, Americans in Libya are being urged to contact the embassy in Tripoli with the following contact details:

  • +218 (0)21-337-3250
  • After business hours: 091-220-5207
  • LibyaEmergencyUSC@state.gov

[Source: WSJ]

[Photo by anniemullinsuk via Flickr.]

State Department website lists where American travelers have died abroad

The LA Times recently linked to a tool on the US State Department website that allows you to search by date range and country to find out where around the world Americans have died of “non-natural” causes.

The information goes back to 2002. No names or details of the deaths are disclosed, they are only reported as suicide, drowning, drug-related, homicide, disaster, or vehicle, air or maritime accident, and listed according to date. The disclaimer on the site states that the stats may not be entirely accurate however, as they only represent those deaths disclosed to the State Department.

So can this tool tell you where you should or shouldn’t go based on your likelihood of drowning, getting into an accident, or being killed as a tourist there? Not really. Circumstances of the deaths are, of course, not disclosed and there is no distinction between expats or people who have lived in the country for many years and those who are tourists visiting on vacation.

Even countries with high numbers of deaths shouldn’t automatically be crossed off your list. Mexico, for example, lists 126 American deaths in 2009. 36 of those were homicides. Sounds like a big number, but not as big compared to the 2.6 million Americans who fly to Mexico every year. As the LA Times points out, “the odds overwhelmingly suggest that your vacation will be nonfatal.”

In the Heart of Central America: Why now is the time to go to Honduras

After a week in Honduras, ziplining through the canopy, drinking $1.50 beers on a deserted white sand beach, slaughtering my Spanish pronunciation as I bought a grilled pork skewer from a street vendor, horseback riding through coffee fields, and eating a few too many corn tortillas, I couldn’t help feeling like I could just as easily be in Belize, Guatemala, or Costa Rica…..but with fewer crowds and lower prices. Suddenly, the country’s new slogan “The Central America you know, the country you’ll love” made perfect sense.

Just last year Honduras was on the fast track to becoming the next Costa Rica, the next hot destination for eco-tourism in Central America. While it was still mostly undiscovered by mass tourism (in a poll done by the Institute of Tourism, only 4% of Americans said they consider Central America for a vacation and only 1% said they even knew of Honduras), adventurous travelers, backpackers, dive-enthusiasts and lovers of Central America were coming in numbers close to half a million people per year.

From 2006 to 2007 arrivals from North America increased by 25%. The next year they grew by 19%. The tourism industry became the largest employer in the nation and brought in $630 million of revenue in 2008.

Then President Zelaya was ousted. There were protests in the capital and curfews were instated. When Zelaya tried to return, the Tegucigalpa airport was closed for a few days. Eventually the situation calmed and life returned to normal. Normal, except that the tourists who supported a large section of the country’s economy were gone. Some hotels saw nearly their entire year’s worth of bookings cancel within a week of June 28th. 35 Habitat for Humanity groups scheduled to come to Honduras decided to go elsewhere. Tour companies looking forward to a full schedule began to wonder how many employees they’d have to let go.

While all of this is bad news for Honduras, it’s one reason why now is the perfect time to visit. With fewer crowds the country truly feels undiscovered, and with all the discounts being offered to lure in tourists, the already low cost of visiting is even lower. Flights from Chicago on Spirit Airlines are just $250 through April. Taca, Delta, American and Continental also operate regular flights to the country and the trip from Miami or Fort Lauderdale to San Pedro Sula is just over two hours.

Where to go and what to see
I’ll be covering a few of these destinations more in depth in coming posts, but the three main areas that most tourists will explore (as Grant mentioned in a previous post about his own trip to the country) are the Northern Coast around La Ceiba, the Bay Islands including Roatan, and Copan Ruinas, near the border with Guatemala.

The most popular spot for tourists on the Northern Coast is La Ceiba, home to dozens of luxurious eco-lodges. For a little more action you’ll want to stay in the city though. There’s a saying in Honduras that “Tegucigalpa thinks, San Pedro works, La Ceiba parties” so if you’re looking for some nightlife, this is the place to be. If you want to get further off the beaten path or explore the culture of the Garifuna people (descendants of black slaves who shipwrecked in the area), head up the coast to Tela or take a short boat ride to the archipelago of Cayos Cochinos

From La Ceiba, the Bay Islands are just a 20 minute flight or a cheap ferry ride away. On the islands of Guanaja, Utila, and Roatan, you’ll hardly feel like you’re in Central America at all. With miles of sandy white beaches, crystal clear water, and some of the cheapest scuba diving around, these islands rival any in the Caribbean, but at a much lower price. While the large Infinity Bay Beach Resort wasn’t quite my style (I prefer small B&Bs and hostels), it was beautiful and I could find no fault with it except for spotty wi-fi service. Situated on the deserted end of a long white beach, it featured a gorgeous infinity pool, beachfront bar and restaurant, and spacious rooms with full kitchens, with rates starting at $200 per night. In West End, more moderate beachfront accommodations can easily be found for $40-$80 per night.

Other than lounging on the beach, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, jet skiing, or just relaxing with a few beers at a beachfront bar in West End, you can also go horseback riding or spend a day at Gumbalimba Park, an adventure park with Roatan’s best zipline – ten lines that crisscross through the canopy, offering views all the way to the sea, and depositing you along the water’s edge on the beach. After the ziplining you can meet free-roaming monkeys who will descend from the trees to perch on your shoulder.

To get to Copan Ruinas, a small village of cobble-stone streets, you’ll need to take a 3-hour bus (about $10) from San Pedro. Take Dramamine as the road is quite twisty. The town is less than a mile away from the area’s main attraction, the beautifully-restored Mayan ruins at Copan. You can join an organized tour, make the 20-minute walk down a paved path from town, or pay 20 lempiras ($1) to catch a ride to the ruins on a mototaxi, a tiny motorized rickshaw.

The area around the town is known for its coffee production and several plantations welcome visitors for tours and tastings. There is also a nearby hot spring called Luna Jaguar where for $10, you can soak in the healing waters or splurge on a $30 massage in a hut perched above the mouth of the steaming spring.

In town, you can score a hostel dorm bed for $5 or a private room for $8. Rooms at one of the nicest and oldest hotels, the Hotel Marina Copan (where Richard Gere once stayed), start at $90 per night and feature plush beds, free wi-fi, room service, bottled water, mini-fridges and microwaves. The hotel has an on-site restaurant, a large pool in the courtyard, colonial architecture, tile floors and marble bathrooms, and some of the friendliest staff I encountered in the country.

To be honest, before this trip I’d never considered a visit to Honduras and didn’t think I cared much for Central America. All that changed when I saw Copan Ruinas. As I wandered the narrow, cobbled streets, shopped for handmade crafts, ordered up a steaming plate of grilled pork served with beans and corn tortillas (for just $1) from a street vendor, browsed the eclectic farmer’s market, and sat in the town’s central square, watching children play and the occaisional horse clip-clop through town, I fell in love with Copan Ruins and with the people of Honduras.

Everywhere I went in Honduras, I was struck by how beautiful it was, and how empty of other tourists. While the main square in Copan was full of activity, I saw only two other tourists during my time in the town. At a beach bar in Roatan, it seemed we were the only people who didn’t know everyone else there. And at the ruins in Copan, it felt like we had a centuries-old playground all to ourselves.

Costs and cuisine
The cuisine in Honduras is typically Central American. Beans and corn tortillas (which you can buy at 10 for $1 at most markets) figure prominently, especially in the signature baleada – a meal of beans and fresh cheese (and sometimes egg or other ingredients) in a corn tortilla, which sells for about $1. Fried plantains, fresh juice and fruit, avocado, and, along the coast and on the islands, incredibly fresh seafood ,are also inexpensive staples of the cuisine.

The most expensive meal I had, a huge pile of creamy, tender Lobster thermidor, cost about $30. Lobster pasta and fresh shrimp dishes were $10 each, and chicken fajitas or a heaping plate of beans, cheese, avocado and chorizo were $5 and large enough to feed two. Mixed drinks and fruity frozen concoctions ranged from $2.50 to $5, and cold bottles of the local, light Salva Vida beer were $1.50.

While those looking for luxury in Honduras can certainly find it, budget travelers could do very well here on $20-$30 per person per day for food, drinks and accommodations. More middle-of-the-road travelers, those who like to save money but enjoy a certain level of comfort, could easily spend less than $150 for hotel, food and drinks for two people.

Safety and the current situation
While in Honduras, I visited La Ceiba, Roatan and Copan. During that time, I took every opportunity to talk with tourism operators and with people on the street. When asked they all replied the same way. Not only was there currently no danger from the political situation, but in that area, there never had been. In Roatan, one man corrected me: “This isn’t Honduras,” he said, “this is the Bay Islands.” There were no curfews here, no protests, just the same beautiful beaches and pristine diving conditions as always. In Copan I walked around for an afternoon alone and felt as safe or safer than I have in any other country.

When the political situation became unstable nearly all of the unrest happened near the capital of Tegucigalpa, hours inland from the more touristy areas. Even though the US State Department Travel Alert acknowledged that the protests were mainly peaceful and that they were concentrated in the capital, it still warned Americans to steer clear of the entire country, which is kind of like telling someone not to visit Chicago because of the high crime rate in certain areas of the city’s South Side. During my visit in early November, I saw no signs of trouble, save for some political graffiti around San Pedro, but again if graffiti made a place unsafe I’d never venture outside my apartment. Walking around the city and shopping at the large market, I saw no other evidence of unrest and never felt as though I were in danger.

Just a few days ago the Supreme Court of Honduras voted overwhelmingly against allowing Zelaya to return to finish out the final two months of his term (which was cut short when he was escorted out of the country after attempting to interfere with a vote that would allow him to change the constitution and remain President indefinitely). I’m betting the people I met couldn’t be happier with the outcome. In fact every single person I spoke with supported the removal of Zelaya, who they said was “Chavez’s puppet” and had acted illegally. Not only were they disappointed that the US State Department had issued a blanket warning against travel to Honduras, they were also eager were to dispel the myths they felt the media had been spreading about the country’s situation.

A source I spoke with in the country now said since the vote there have been no issues and that, as with any election, while Zelaya’s supporters are no doubt disappointed, the elections were peaceful and protests and disruptions are not expected. That’s good news for the people of Honduras, especially those in the tourist industry who are waiting with bated breath to see how long it will take for the tourists to come back.

In the mean time, they’re doing their best to encourage visitors. Many resorts are posting 2010 rates that are lower than 2009’s. Others are offering two-for-one deals or extending their low season rates throughout high season. The country is safe, beautiful and diverse, the people are warm and welcoming, the prices are low and the tourists are few. So if you are thinking about a trip to Central America, I suggest you consider Honduras – now is the perfect time to go.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views expressed are entirely my own.

US gov’t: Americans should avoid Mexican hookers

The travel advisory is back. An increase in violence has led the U.S.-Mexico border has led the U.S. State Department to renew its warning to Americans heading south of the border. But, this doesn’t mean you should scratch Mexico from your list (I’m even heading down in a few weeks). You should just be careful.

The announcement suggests that American tourists stick only to legitimate business and tourist areas. Areas with lots of prostitution and drug dealing are best left off your itinerary, according to the State Department. This is pretty good advice anywhere, but it makes even more sense along a border where the bad guys have used weapons and grenades.

So, go to Mexico. Have fun. Just don’t pay for sex.

[Via MSNBC]