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Imagine the Amazon, and you probably picture dense jungles, colorful birds, chattering monkeys and remote villages. Sound enticing? There are two main ways to explore this region of the world: staying in an ecolodge or taking a river cruise.

exploring the amazon river


I recently opted for a four-night Amazon cruise aboard the 32-passenger Aria Amazon, part of the Aqua Expeditions fleet. This small luxury ship explores the waters of the Pacaya Samiria Reserve near Iquitos, Peru. Itineraries range from three to seven nights, with many travelers opting for one of the shorter options in order to combine their Amazon excursion with a few days in Cuzco and Machu Picchu.

Below are several things I loved about my Peru Amazon experience, as well as a few aspects of the trip that weren’t as satisfying.

What We Loved
Wildlife: An Amazon cruise is all about birds and animals, and I saw plenty of them during my four days on the river. Memorable moments included fishing for (and catching!) piranha, seeing monkeys dart from branch to branch and watching hundreds of egrets and cormorants take flight at once during an excursion at dawn. Tip: For the best wildlife viewing, consider traveling in the rainy season (December through May), when the higher level of the river brings you closer to the treetops where many animals spend their time.

sloth in amazon peru


Cabins: Aria Amazon’s spacious, air-conditioned suites were always a pleasure to return to after excursions in the humid jungle. Creature comforts included king-size beds, rainfall showers and carafes of water refilled by the housekeeping staff, but my favorite part of the cabin was the floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, offering a mesmerizing 24/7 view of the rainforest slipping by.

Service and Staff: The Aria Amazon staff were uniformly friendly and eager to please, from the knowledgeable naturalist guides (with their uncanny ability to spot sloths and monkeys high in the trees) to the servers in the dining room, who quickly learned passengers’ names and dietary restrictions.

Food: A top Lima chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, developed Aria Amazon’s creative menus, which draw on locally sourced ingredients from the Amazon region such as passionfruit, yucca, hearts of palm and paiche, a freshwater fish that can grow up to seven or eight feet long.

Iquitos: I arrived a day early to explore Iquitos, a city that can only be reached by plane or boat. There aren’t any blockbuster sights to see, but the city is refreshingly low on tourists, and the Belen district — with its colorful market and houses that are submerged during the rainy season — is a fascinating place to explore.

What We Didn’t Like
Not Much Hiking: Because it was the rainy season, the river had submerged most of the jungle trails, leaving us few real opportunities to get off the skiffs. During four days we only set foot onshore twice — once for a village visit and once for a short jungle hike. Those hoping to stay active by hiking should cruise during the low-water season (June through November) instead.

hiking in the jungle peru


Bugs: You can douse yourself in DEET and treat your clothes with permethrin, but during late afternoon and evening excursions you’ll almost certainly get bitten by a mosquito or three. And these are hardly the only insects you’ll encounter in the Amazon. On one evening outing several passengers had black bees burrow into their hair. An Amazon cruise isn’t for the squeamish, even on a luxury line like Aqua Expeditions.

Enrichment: On most expedition cruises it’s common to have daily talks on the local culture, flora and fauna. On Aqua Expeditions the guides offer plenty of information during excursions, but onboard there’s less of a focus on education and more of a focus on relaxing. (We only had a single lecture during our four days onboard.) This suited some passengers very well, but if you’re seeking an in-depth learning experience, you might want to try a different line.

Staying in Touch: Given the remoteness of the region, you shouldn’t expect to keep up with your email or to text family and friends during your cruise. There’s no onboard Wi-Fi, and cell phone reception is only available when the ship passes near a local community.

10 Best Peru Experiences
9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Aqua Expeditions, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

traveler at diamond head


In this month’s winning review, a traveler climbs Oahu’s most famous peak: “The end result is worth all the exercise,” writes Jill Weinlein, “with sweeping coastal views of the seven beaches along Waikiki and the Diamond Head lighthouse, built in 1917 as a visual aid for navigation. The views of beautiful reefs along the southeastern shore towards Koko Head are awe inspiring.”

Read the rest of Jill’s review here: Hiking Diamond Head. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Once confined to just a handful of places, street art is commonplace in pretty much every city around the world now. Some cities have become more tolerant of artful graffiti adorning their buildings; others have turned over passageways to artists or even constructed walls primed for adornment.

Here are some of the best streets to see street art.

street art rivington street london


1. Rivington Street, London: The most famous street artist in the world, Banksy, has satirical art on the walls of this street in the Shoreditch neighborhood. Other noted street artists here include Thierry Noir and David Walker. In total, there are nearly two dozen different pieces to see within a five-minute walk.

street art haji lane singapore


2. Haji Lane, Singapore: The buildings along this pedestrian-only alley in the chi-chi Kampong Glam district are painted hues straight out of a Crayola box, and some sections are adorned with murals. Haji Lane is filled with gourmet burger shops, bakeries and clothing boutiques.

street art u street washington dc


3. U Street, Washington D.C.: The large murals along a street that was once the epicenter of D.C. culture make political statements, pay homage to the city’s famous musicians and celebrate the history of Washington the city (not Washington the nation’s capital).

street art graffiti alley toronto


4. Graffiti Alley, Toronto: Also called Rush Lane, this kilometer-long alley between Spaldina Avenue and Portland Street is filled from street to sky with graffiti. The pieces are regularly painted over to allow for fresh art.

street art hangik university seoul


5. The streets surrounding Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea: Students from the arts school at Hongik University first started painting the walls, shutters and buildings around the campus. The art has become so popular that a festival happens every year to celebrate it, with freestanding blank concrete walls erected so artists can decorate them. One of the most art-filled spots is an unnamed alley just to the right of the main university building.

The 12 Best Cities for Art Lovers
The Best Cities to See Cool Public Art

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Photo of Rivington Street used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic. Original photo copyright Flickr user Roman Hobler. Photo of U Street used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. Original photo copyright Flickr user Ted Eytan.

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

senior center in cuba


In this month’s winning review, a traveler joins 19 other volunteers to make a difference in Cuba: “Every afternoon we had a few hours of free time before working with students practicing English for about two hours,” Lynn writes. “Later we all met for dinner with our excellent team leader, Stephanie, at various locations. The trip was a combination of helping our host community and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom had never been to Cuba.”

Read the rest of Lynn’s review here: My Visit to Cuba as a Volunteer. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

In 2008, Sean P. Finelli left behind his Wall Street career to move to Rome, where he soon became a popular tour guide with the nickname “the Roman guy.” Finelli decided to direct his passion for Rome into a new tour company that would emphasize unique and immersive experiences across Italy. And thus The Roman Guy was born.

brandon shaw and sean finelli


The company is run by Finelli and co-owner Brandon Shaw, who work with their team to offer a variety of city tours and trip planning services. We reached out to Finelli and Shaw to discover what advice they’d give first-time Italy travelers, which regions of the country don’t get enough love and which Italian foods visitors must try on their next trip.

IndependentTraveler.com: What are some of the most unique tours The Roman Guy offers in Italy?
Sean:
The most unique tour must be our Colosseum Underground tour, which we’ve titled Colosseum Dungeons Tour. You get access to areas that nobody else has access to. Think about the 30,000 visitors that enter the building in the summer. Only about 300 get to visit the dungeons. That’s pretty unique, and people love it.

Brandon: Our E-bike Rome Tour is a strong second. Imagine beating the heat and covering three times as much of the city as a walking tour and not even breaking a sweat. We are super-passionate about green travel and have now created a way to not only see the whole city in three hours but also add zero carbon emission in doing it.

IT: Which region in Italy deserves a little more love? Why?
Sean:
Most people would pick areas like Puglia or Sicily, but I’ll go with Lazio. Yes, Lazio. Everyone goes to Rome, the capital of the region, but after that people are gone. There are amazing nearby towns like Frascati, Marino, Castel Gandolfo and Tivoli, plus beaches like Sperlonga. You can enjoy sunset beach parties in Fregene or a relaxing and luxurious holiday in Ponza. Outside of Rome, Lazio is a locals’ paradise that outside visitors could really give a little bit more love.

Brandon: My pick would be Umbria, a region in central Italy. People rarely visit Umbria on their first trip to Italy. Umbria is usually discovered when people come back on their second or third trip and are looking for something new. I say come to Umbria during your first trip to Italy — you will not regret it. Within Umbria, you have some beautiful historic cities to explore like Orvieto, “dying cities” like Civita di Bagnoregio (which only has 17 official residents) and an amazing waterfall that makes you feel like you are in a South American rain forest. And all of this is within a two-hour drive of Rome!

5 Less Visited Churches in Rome

IT: What advice would you give someone planning his or her first trip to Italy?
Sean:
Be clear about what you want to get out of the trip. Remember that the more you “see” the less you’ll actually “see.” What I mean is that you need to stop and smell the Italian sunflowers. Don’t cram so much in just to cross it off the bucket list. Make time for sitting down, relaxing and chatting with the locals. Make time for three-hour lunches. I went to Puglia for 10 days with no itinerary and it was amazing. We stopped to jump off cliffs into the water, had amazing lunches and stopped in cool-looking towns. Italy has so much that you will alway find something else to do.

Brandon: Doing a good amount of research before your trip will go a long way in making your trip more memorable. Nobody wants to waste precious time waiting in lines, so purchase your tickets ahead of time and skip the lines. Buy your train tickets in advance so you don’t have the stress of trying to find a spot on a train last minute. Look into some restaurants that you might want to visit, so you don’t end up in the typical tourist traps. Or just use The Roman Guy and we’ll do all the heavy lifting for you!

dolomites italy


IT: Are there places in Italy that you haven’t visited yet but would like to explore?
Sean:
The Dolomites. Like most travelers, I am always intrigued by photography and the Dolomites appear to offer some great adventure tourism: this massive jagged mountain range popping up from the rolling hills. What’s not to love?

Brandon: Val d’Aosta. It’s the area on the border with France. I haven’t been there but have heard that the views are amazing, as you are so close to the French Alps. I am also an avid wine enthusiast, and Val d’Aosta is renowned for their excellent, crisp white wines that suit the northern climate perfectly.

IT: Beyond pizza, pasta and gelato, which dish should every Italy traveler try?
Sean:
Isn’t that all Italy produces? I personally recommend fish. Italy is a peninsula with plenty of seafood. It’s hard to recommend a particular dish, but if you are within a short drive of the sea, eat seafood. People going to Rome often want carbonara and Amatriciana, but Rome is a seafood city. We’re 20 mins from saltwater accessible via the Tiber River. Rome’s speciality is salt-crusted sea bass. They say it dates back to Roman times.

Brandon: This is a tough question since the array of food in Italy is so diverse depending on the region. We’ve actually just recently created an interactive Italy food map to inspire foodies coming to Italy. Instead of eating something other than pasta, travelers should do some research, and they will discover that there are many kinds of pasta dishes that they have never heard of. A great example is my favorite Roman pasta dish: fettuccine in a tomato sauce used to make a delicacy with oxtail. It is so good it will bring tears to your eyes!

IT: Besides Italy, what are your favorite travel destinations?
Sean:
It’s hard to say this out loud since I sell Italy, but Greece is my vacation spot. The problem with Italy for me is my mind is always at work. Italy is my office. Greece offers decent food and great views. I love the shabby roads and how Greece has maintained some authentic charm. I also love how much elevation you’ll find on the small islands. There is so much to do in Greece and so much to see. The Greeks are also extremely proud and eager to share their history.

Brandon: When not discovering new hidden gems in Italy, you will usually find me in the French Alps. The mountain air is invigorating and allows you to reset. We stay in little mountain villages where you get fresh milk from the cows that morning that is still warm, and fresh cheese that was just made as well. Staying in places like these allow you to change the tempo and just savor life more. I also love snowboarding so it’s perfect in the wintertime, because you can access the slopes directly from your log cabin.

Check out more travel interviews!

11 Best Italy Experiences
25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Imagine Costa Rica, and you probably picture lush rain forests, smoking volcanos and exotic birds flitting through the trees. But while this image isn’t inaccurate, a local expert named Maricruz Pereira knows that there’s much more to this friendly Central American country.

maricruz pereira


Pereira is the general manager and co-owner of Unique Adventures, which specializes in customized experiences and tailor-made itineraries for visitors to Costa Rica. The company can arrange activities such as bird watching, kayaking, visiting a coffee plantation or learning to make tortillas.

We asked Pereira to reveal her favorite less-discovered spots in Costa Rica, offer advice for first-time visitors and more.

IndependentTraveler.com: Most people considering a trip to Costa Rica probably picture wildlife and natural beauty, but what interesting cultural experiences can travelers have there?
Maricruz Pereira:
Even though Costa Rica is mostly known for its beautiful nature, I think our best asset is our people. Tourists will find that Costa Ricans are very proud of our country and love to share it with our visitors. The best cultural experience would be to hang out with the locals whenever possible. You can do this by going on a pub/beer crawl in San Jose, going to the local fiestas in any village, stopping in a farmers’ market and even joining a mejenga (impromptu soccer game) in the local plaza! Talk to the locals; ask questions; don’t be afraid to approach them. You will go back home with a nice tan and a bunch of new friends!

IT: What are your favorite places in Costa Rica, and why?
MP:
There are so many places to love in Costa Rica! I enjoy the majesty of our several active volcanoes. Some of them, like the Poas and the Irazu, are safe and relatively easy to explore; you can walk right up to the rim of the crater and gaze inside. The beaches in the south Caribbean are wild and beautiful, with the lush forest coming all the way down to the beach, and the laid-back, colorful Caribbean culture that makes you slow down and enjoy the moment. They are perfect for relaxing and getting away from the crowds.

Of course, Corcovado National Park, which is my favorite rain forest, is so remote and secluded; it is a real adventure just getting there. And then you find yourself immersed in the rain forest, with the ocean at your feet, and the howler monkeys and scarlet macaws “singing” just a few meters away.

IT: What advice would you give first-time visitors before they come to Costa Rica?
MP:
Different latitude, different attitude. Don’t plan on being locked up in an all-inclusive for several days in a row. As much as I like our beaches, Costa Rica has a different vibe to it. It’s not all about sun and sea (although that’s a nice part too), but about traveling around, going on our roads, seeing the sights, exploring. And if you are renting a car, ask for a GPS!

rio celeste tenorio volcano national park waterfall


IT: Which part of Costa Rica is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
MP:
The area of Rio Celeste in the northern area is a jewel that is yet to be discovered. Inside Tenorio Volcano National Park there is this magnificent river and waterfall that are bright blue (hence the name Rio Celeste). It’s a moderately difficult hike within the forest with quite a few steep steps to get there, but the view and the energy of the area are worth it!

IT: What’s one food every traveler should try in Costa Rica?
MP:
Chifrijo! It’s a delicious concoction of rice, beans, avocado, pico de gallo and small pieces of fried pork, served with toasted tortillas in a medium-sized bowl. Don’t be fooled by the small size. It’s a full meal!

IT: Outside of Costa Rica, what are your favorite travel destinations?
MP:
I enjoy England very much. I have always loved everything related to its history and tradition. I especially like visiting the old, magical places like Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury… I find all the tales and stories around these sites fascinating, and the scenery is just breathtaking!

Check out more travel interviews!

12 Best Costa Rica Experiences
Where to Stay in Costa Rica

–interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Every year, the European Union selects two cities to be designated European Capitals of Culture. Activities all year long show off the cities’ charms. Destinations large and small are selected; some are well known, while others may be new to travelers.

The latter is likely the case with the 2017 selections: Aarhus, Denmark, and Pafos, Cyprus. Here’s a primer on both cities.

aarhus denmark


Aarhus, Denmark
Where: In the geographic center of Denmark, northwest of Copenhagen.

Why It’s Noteworthy: The second largest city in Denmark (after Copenhagen), Aarhus was founded as a fortified Viking settlement. Today it’s best known as music epicenter, especially for jazz and rock aficionados. Cruise ships stop there, and its port is one of the most important in Northern Europe.

Top Sights: Many of the city’s 1.4 million annual visitors tour its art and historical museums, the Old Town Open Air Museum and nearby Botanical Gardens, and the Tivoli Friheden amusement park. Wandering the city, you’ll see architecture representing a number of eras, from Romanesque and Gothic to Nordic classicism and Functionalism.

Don’t Miss: Nibbling on a typical Danish smorrebrod (buttered bread) at one of the city’s oldest taverns, Peter Gift, which dates back to 1906.

Special Events: Festivals, exhibits, author talks, concerts and other activities are planned. The city will be decked out with special garden installations between April and September. The Royal Danish Theatre will perform a Viking saga called “Rode Orm” from May 24 through July 1.

More Info: Aarhus2017.dk

agios georgios pafos cyprus


Pafos, Cyprus
Where: On the southwest coast of the Mediterranean island.

Why It’s Noteworthy: Pafos (also spelled Paphos) is home to Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach outcrop that’s considered to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love and beauty.

Top Sights: The whole city is on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List, and picturesque scenes are at every turn. The Temple of Aphrodite attracts many pilgrims. Pafos also has a Byzantine castle, catacombs and a museum displaying archaeological artifacts.


Don’t Miss: An afternoon exploring the cliffs and beach near Aphrodite’s Rock. If you take a swim around the rock, it’s said that you will be blessed with eternal beauty.

Special Events: Because Pafos boasts spectacular weather year-round, organizers are planning many activities outdoors. Expect monthly exhibits, walking tours, performances, food events and nature outings.

More Info: Pafos2017.eu

Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

It’s hard to believe there are at least 55,000 museums in the world, according to the International Council of Museums, with more than a dozen more opening in 2017. Here are the six we’re most excited about.

louvre abu dhabi


(Note that all scheduled opening dates are subject to change.)

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa: Perhaps the most anticipated opening in the world is this first-ever museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary art. It’s being touted as Africa’s most significant museum in more than a century. It opens September 23.

Museum of the Bible, Washington D.C., United States: A space dedicated to the history and narrative of the Bible will open near the National Mall this fall. Noteworthy displays at the museum include one of the world’s largest private collections of rare biblical texts, a walk-through replica of first-century Nazareth and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Ten years ago, officials from France and Abu Dhabi signed an agreement to open an offshoot of the famed Parisian art museum. After many delays, it appears the museum will open this year, though officials aren’t confirming exactly when. In a stunning building by the sea, the museum will feature permanent collections and masterpieces on loan from the Louvre in Paris.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, Jakarta, Indonesia: Another museum first: Indonesia’s first-ever museum of modern art. Opening in November, the private museum known as the MACAN will include 800 pieces from the 19th century through today.

Yves Saint Laurent Museums, Paris, France, and Marrakech, Morocco: Two museums dedicated to the legendary fashion designer will open in two cities of importance to him. Saint Laurent’s Parisian 30-year office and atelier will house one, and the other will be in the designer’s adopted city, not far from where his ashes were scattered after he died. Vogue reports that the museums will open in September.

Museum Barberini, Potsdam, Germany: Europe’s newest museum is a fine collection of Old Masters, Impressionism and modern art housed in a restored palace dating back to 1771. The museum is based around the private collection of businessman Hasso Plattner, its founder and patron. The museum opens January 23.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of
The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

A January tradition among travel experts and publications is to present their lists of the best destinations for the new year.

moraine lake canada


We love knowing what’s hot and what’s not, but there’s often no rhyme or reason to the selections in many of these lists. And some are so long that they don’t help you decide where to go. AFAR Magazine, for example, picked an overwhelming 100 places.

To help you decide which lists are the most useful, we read every “best of 2017” travel article we could find and selected the following as the best among them.

Lonely Planet – Best in Travel 2017: Canada tops the travel guide’s Top 10 Countries list, thanks to a favorable exchange rate for Americans and planned celebrations for the nation’s 150th anniversary (including free admission to all national parks). Its “best of” site also includes a list of the best value destinations (Nepal comes out on top) and best U.S. destinations (Asheville, North Carolina).

Forbes – 10 Coolest Places to Go in 2017: Forbes’ offering stands out because it’s different than every other “best of” list out there. Destinations were selected for their coolness quotient and include spots you may never have heard of before. For instance, there’s a spot within the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in Washington state that’s considered the quietest place in all of North America.

Travel + Leisure – 50 Best Places to Travel in 2017: Fifty places is a lot, but we like the research that went into the list from the monthly travel magazine. Editors spend several months surveying writers and travel specialists around the world. The alphabetical list includes Cape Town, South Africa, which debuts a new museum of contemporary African art this year; Helsinki, Finland, which is celebrating 100 years of independence in December; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as the spot to view a total solar eclipse in August.

National Geographic Travel – Best Trips: While it’s not evident why certain spots were selected, we nonetheless like this feature because the page is so beautifully designed and interactive. Places are bundled into categories such as nature, cities and culture.

New York Times – 52 Places to Go in 2017: We always savor this annual list, which is long enough (and includes enough multimedia extras) to linger over throughout the month.

And don’t miss our own 9 Best Places to Travel in 2017, which recommends countries, cities and regions around the globe.

The Best Travel Destinations for Every Month
9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Where are you planning to travel in 2017?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

temple bar dublin


In this month’s winning review, a traveler drives across Ireland and discovers the meaning of craic. “Sean’s Bar, in Athlone (just about halfway between Dublin and Galway) is the oldest pub in Europe. Dating back to 900 A.D., the pub is still thriving and we had to check it out,” writes Alyssa Johnson. “It was worth the stop. The old bar was practically breathing antiquity. … The bartender was friendly and the sunny beer garden was the perfect place for our first pint of Guinness.”

Read the rest of Alyssa’s review here: An Epic Road Trip Across Ireland. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter