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wendy perrinWendy Perrin is one of the world’s leading travel experts, known to many readers as a longtime columnist and consumer news director for Conde Nast Traveler. These days she serves as the Travel Advocate for our parent company, TripAdvisor, and maintains her own travel site at WendyPerrin.com. We sat down with Wendy to ask her about some of the key lessons she’s learned over her decades of working in travel — and to find out which destinations are still on her bucket list.

IndependentTraveler.com: What’s the most common mistake you see travelers make when planning a trip?
Wendy Perrin:
Failing to take into account the lay of the land, distances between places and other local logistics. They end up wasting a lot of time at their destination, and missing important experiences and hidden gems, because of inefficiency, timing mistakes, waits and lines they could have bypassed, hassles they could have avoided. I don’t see any booking engine or app solving this problem. And it’s the reason why I created my WOW List. Travelers can experience twice as much in half the time if they book their trip through one of my WOW List travel fixers. They know the ins and outs of their destination and get you the access and perks you didn’t realize you’d need. Once you’ve planned a trip with one — and have experienced how they get you to the right place at the right time on the right day of the week, introduce you to people you could never meet on your own and make the lines disappear — you never want to take another trip without one.

IT: Can you share one or two of the most memorable experiences such experts have arranged for your own trips?
I could share a hundred. But one such experience was when I got inside the secret Renaissance passageway in Florence, Italy, that runs from the Uffizi Gallery across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. It’s called the Vasari Corridor, and it was built by the Medicis so they could walk between their workplace and residence invisibly, spying on their subjects from on high. The passageway houses the world’s largest collection of self-portraits by artists, and also provides some of Florence’s best views, but that’s not even what makes it so cool. The thrill is how it makes Florence’s history and secrecy come to life in such a visceral way. As the passageway winds this way and that, growing narrower and darker and more rough-hewn, it feels like you’re walking back in time. Alone in the tunnel with your guide, peering down into the shops on the bridge, into hotel rooms on the river, even into the church balcony that the Medicis used, you feel the power that the Medicis must have felt. Seeing without being seen, you get to be a spy like them.

Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

Another memorable experience happened in southeastern Turkey, where one of my Trusted Travel Experts arranged access to Rumkale (Turkish for “Roman castle”), an ancient fortress that sits on an outcrop some 500 feet above the Euphrates. The fortress has not been restored: There are no paths or railings or tickets, much less guards or postcard vendors. There’s simply nobody there. You have a Roman ruin all to yourself (including the 230-foot-deep well where, local legend has it, Narcissus saw his reflection in the water, fell in love with it, reached in to grab it and fell down the well to his death). The view from Rumkale is spectacular in every direction: The fortress is surrounded almost entirely by water, and across the river, carved into the cliffs, are hundreds of caves. Someday some hotel entrepreneur is going to turn those caves into glass-walled river-view suites. And that was the thrill: Seeing an ancient site before it gets developed. I’ve clambered around my share of Roman ruins — including gems like Baalbek in Lebanon and Palmyra in Syria — but Rumkale is the ultimate.

IT: What’s one travel lesson that’s taken you a long time to learn?
Take off your watch.

IT: Can you share your funniest travel moment?
Well, it wasn’t funny at the time, but it was the transcontinental flight when both children threw up on my husband, one after the other. That lovely episode yielded one of my carry-on-luggage tips for parents: Don’t just pack a change of clothing for your kid — pack one for yourself too.

shah i zinda samarkand uzbekistanIT: After decades of traveling, which destinations or experiences are still on your bucket list?
Well, my bucket list starts with any place I haven’t been. That includes Oman, Uzbekistan, French Polynesia, Nova Scotia, Mount Rushmore and a slew of islands worldwide, from Gozo to Vanuatu to Zanzibar. And then my bucket list continues with every place I’ve already been to but not with my kids … yet. They would love New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands, Jordan, Newfoundland, Zion National Park…. Funny thing about my bucket list: The more of it I do, the longer it gets. The more places I go, the more I realize there is to experience there, and the more I want to go back and do what I missed the first time, or do it with certain people who weren’t there the first time.

Bucket List Travel

IT: If you could only use one app on your next trip, which would you choose?
I use TripAdvisor a lot on business trips, but when my goal is to immerse myself in a foreign culture, my preference is to use no apps at all and instead get the info by asking the locals.

IT: What advice would you give travelers who may not have a luxury budget but want to upgrade their trip in meaningful ways?
Choose a destination where the exchange rate works in your favor. Go in shoulder season (that window of time between high and low seasons, when rates have dropped yet conditions are good for the activities you have in mind). Get a credit card that makes flying more tolerable by giving you lounge access, free luggage, express security lanes, priority boarding, extra legroom, whatever you can get. Grab breakfast outside the hotel at a bakery or coffee shop where the locals hang (unless breakfast is included in the room rate). Have picnics in pretty locales with provisions you buy at colorful local markets. And climb steps: Often there are two ways to get to the top of a site (whether it’s an ancient fortress, a church cupola with a view or the Eiffel Tower), and often you have a choice between an elevator and the stairs. Usually the elevator costs more, has a line and is not as atmospheric as the steps. Plus you get exercise — which means you needn’t splurge on a hotel with a gym.

Check out more Interviews with Travel Experts!

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.

With the Greek economy in flux, travelers with upcoming trips to Greece have been wondering: How should we prepare for travel to Athens and the islands during the Greek financial crisis?

greek flag euros

I’m going ahead with my own planned cruise on Azamara Journey later this month that centers on Turkey and Greece, including port stops in Volos, Hydra, Skiathos, Mykonos, Santorini and Athens. Unless we hear otherwise from Azamara, my travel partner and I will hedge our bets against the currency upheaval by adhering to the following tips — which can also help travelers planning a land-based journey.

Bring euros: Usually we rely on ATMs overseas when we travel, as our bank doesn’t charge us foreign transaction fees. But with news reports noting some ATMs are out of money, we’ll be prudent and come prepared.

Contact bank in advance: Since we’re not stopping in the Eurozone before our flight, this means we’ll have to get some money in advance from our U.S. bank; we might end up taking a bit of a hit on currency conversion fees. That said, the Euro is $1.10 against the dollar right now — almost a record low. In the end, the fees are a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Haggle with cab drivers: Our itinerary has a few Greek islands where we’re fine with last-minute plans. If cash is king and we have enough of it, we suspect that Greek taxi drivers might be willing to drop prices for short day trips.

Slideshow: Greek Isles Revealed

Watch out for pickpockets: It’s a sad fact that crime goes up in times of financial instability. We’ll be doubly sure that our purses and wallets are secure when we’re out and about. We’ll also limit the amount of cash we bring with us on shore and leave important documents back on the ship. (We recommend the same if you’re staying in a hotel.)

meteora greece

Prebook (and prepay) some excursions: Financial instability means that some vendors do one of two things: Jack up their prices to compensate for a low euro or ask for cash payments. For those must-see tours — we’ve got our eye on the gorgeous monasteries of Meteora — we’ll make sure we’re working with a reputable company that takes credit cards and pay in advance. To be really safe, cruisers should book through their ship, in case the line changes port stops.

Keep up with the news: A financial crisis often brings accompanying strikes and demonstrations. We’ve signed up for the State Department’s STEP program, which sends you email alerts when situations change, and we’ll check newspapers daily. This is not the time to unplug.

Wait to book hotels: Many tourists have already canceled their trips to Athens because of the Greek financial crisis, which means the hotels will be hurting for business. We predict that hotel rates will go down significantly in the next few weeks, which means we might be able to snap up a room in a hotel that’s otherwise out of our price range (hello, Parthenon view). We also want to make sure that the area we’ll be staying in is safe and free of demonstrations.

Don’t panic: This is not the first time we’ve been to countries where things were less than stable. From demonstrations in Egypt, Thailand and Easter Island to erupting volcanoes in Iceland, incidents have cropped up frequently on work trips and vacations — and it’s always turned out fine in the end. We predict that the Greeks we meet on this trip will be happy to see tourists and do their best to make sure they have satisfying vacations, despite the Greek financial crisis.

Money Safety Tips for Travelers

— written by Chris Gray Faust

stamp that says visa“Um. Do Romanians need a visa to go to Canada?” I asked my husband on a Friday afternoon, a sudden pit forming in my stomach. We were scheduled to go to Montreal for the Women’s World Cup the following Thursday, and somehow I’d forgotten to check on what paperwork might be required.

I immediately turned to my phone to Google the answer. Uh-oh. Yes, Romanians (like my husband) do need a visa to enter or even pass through Canada. We had less than a week! Could we get one in time? I clicked on the visa application button and quickly scrolled through to see how hard it would be. And then I spotted an almost-side note at the very bottom of the page: Permanent residents of the United States of America with green cards do not need a visa to visit Canada. Relief washed over me.

The crazy thing was, this wasn’t the first time I’d forgotten about such a small, insignificant little detail like without a visa they won’t let you in!

On our two-week British Isles and Norwegian fjords honeymoon cruise (!) I’d forgotten to check to see if my husband would need a visa to get off in ports along the way. At the time, I’d also been blissfully ignorant of the very existence of transit visas.

In a Rush? This Passport Mistake Could Cost You

Luckily, the immigration officer at London’s Heathrow Airport didn’t give it a second thought, simply stamped in a 24-hour visa for my husband to get from the airport to the cruise ship.

It wasn’t until we were on our ship that we discovered the consequences of not having a tourist visa for Ireland and the United Kingdom. For the Irish ports of Dublin and Cork, my husband was prohibited from leaving the ship.

That was a disappointment, but even worse was the U.K., which threatened to repatriate my husband off the ship before it even left the dock in Southampton. They continued to threaten repatriation through the first few ports (non-U.K. ports, I might add.) By the time we got to Belfast, they had changed tacks, threatening a hefty fine and forcing him off at the last non-U.K. port of the cruise. In the end their threats were empty; they let us stay on the ship through the end and gave him 24 hours to get back to Heathrow. But the stress lasted for most of the cruise.

I swore I’d never make the same mistake again. Ha! Nine years later only a short blurb at the end of the Canadian visa application saved me.

So, travelers, let my story be a lesson. Always, always, always check what kind of paperwork is needed at the same time you check on flight and hotel prices. That way you’re in the know and have plenty of time to get started on whatever you may need.

Five Ways to Beat Pre-Trip Panic

— written by Dori Saltzman

paris apartment buildingAirbnb is the latest darling of the lodging industry, renting attractive and affordable flats, houses and spare rooms in destinations all over the world. (You can count us among its fans!) But over the past few years it’s also faced some legal challenges. Recently officials in Paris raided nearly 2,000 rentals suspected to be illegal rentals, according to Road Warrior Voices; they discovered 101 violations.

Paris is one of several cities — including New York and San Francisco — that place restrictions on short-term rentals in an attempt to preserve the housing supply for their own residents. As a general rule, it’s legal in most cities to offer up a spare room as long as you’re present during your guest’s stay; what draws the ire of city governments is when hosts rent out unoccupied apartments or homes on a short-term basis when those could be used instead to provide housing for locals.

That hasn’t stopped droves of eager hosts from listing their properties and risking possible fines; there are currently more than 1,000 listings on Airbnb in each of the three cities mentioned above. (Worth noting: While Airbnb has gotten most of the notoriety for its recent legal battles, countless other vacation rental sites such as HomeAway and VRBO also have similar, potentially problematic listings.)

As a potential guest, are crackdowns such as the recent ones in Paris something you need to worry about? In Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals, Ed Hewitt notes, “In most cases, the law does not consider the traveler the offender — rather it considers the host the offender — so you are mostly in the clear. That won’t help if you experience a raid in the middle of your stay, however, or if you are subject to a more prosaic ejection, such as by the landlord — or even if you get the stink eye and a dressing down from unhappy neighbors.”

Hewitt goes on to offer numerous tips for how to protect yourself, including questioning your host about legal issues before your stay and researching a few nearby hotels to which you could retreat if the worst happens.

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

Personally, such crackdowns wouldn’t stop me from booking with Airbnb — though I might elect not to do it in Paris. What about you?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

daydream of travelUnless your job involves frequent travel, you probably don’t take more than a small handful of trips a year. Those of us blessed (cursed?) with wanderlust all know the inevitable restlessness that sets in when you’ve been in one place for too long — because let’s face it: the afterglow doesn’t last too long post-trip. Depending on the severity, here’s what I do when I get the itch.

1. Reminisce
When it’s rainy outside, I’m feeling sluggish or I’m stuck at my desk for hours and wishing I was somewhere else, I sometimes pore through photos from past trips or drool over online pictures of exotic places, wishing I were there. It’s usually a decent quick fix, but it can also leave me wanting to travel even more. If the latter happens, I …

2. Plan a Trip
Like most travelers, I have a mile-long bucket list of places I’m dying to visit. When photos alone won’t do the trick, I sit down and actually plan out what I’d like to do when I finally make my way to one of my dream destinations. It helps me to be realistic about how much it’ll cost, how many days I’ll need to see and do everything, and when I’ll be able to go.

How to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality

3. Book a Trip
In more extreme cases, the only way to allay my withdrawal is to book a trip so I’ve got something to look forward to. Booking is the biggest hurdle to actually traveling, and once I’ve cleared it, it only gets better from there.

4. Pick Up and Go
This tactic is obviously easier to take if it involves a quick weekend trip to the beach or the mountains, but even a short getaway is a great way to reset my travel timer when I’m hit with a particularly strong bout of wanderlust. It’s also a nice excuse to explore new places close to home.

4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

What’s your favorite way to cope between trips?

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

havana cuba classic carI returned last week from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where I discovered a country on the verge of potentially drastic changes. Since December, when President Obama announced his intention to begin normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, it’s become easier for Americans to visit Cuba legally — and interest in travel to the Caribbean’s largest island has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, there are numerous tour operators offering opportunities to American travelers. I was part of a small group on a people-to-people itinerary arranged by New York-based smarTours. A spokesman for the company tells us that “online inquiries and phone calls have more than doubled since the historic announcement in December 2014, and we are almost sold out of spots for Cuba for 2015.”

With further political and economic maneuverings on the way, including the removal of Cuba from the U.S. state terrorism list, it’s clear that the country is on the brink of tremendous change (much of it welcomed by the Cuban people). If you’re one of the thousands of Americans planning a trip in the coming months to see the country as it is today, here are five things you need to know.

Bring plenty of cash.
MasterCard has said it will allow its credit cards to be used in Cuba, but that’s not a reality yet because the banking system simply isn’t in place. This means you can’t withdraw money from ATMs either — so you’ll want to bring more cash than you expect to spend during your trip to allow for emergencies. (As a guideline, Cuba isn’t a bargain for travelers the way Southeast Asia is, but it’s generally more affordable than traveling in the U.S. or Europe.)

If you can get a good exchange rate — or you have some left over from a previous trip — consider bringing euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds instead of U.S. dollars. When changing money from the greenback to the Cuban Convertible Peso (known locally as the CUC, which rhymes with “fluke”), you’ll have to pay an additional 10 percent fee that doesn’t apply to other currencies. The good news is that you don’t have to pay the fee when converting CUCs back to dollars at the end of your trip; if you turn in 40 CUCs, you’ll receive $40 in return.

And speaking of CUCs…

Keep an eye on your change.
The CUC is one of two currencies used in Cuba. The other one, the peso, is worth significantly less than the CUC, and the bills look similar. Someone in our group was given a three-peso note as change instead of a three-CUC note, which meant that she got only about 11 cents back instead of three dollars.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

Prepare to be out of touch.
You won’t be able to call or text from an American phone in Cuba — though you can use Wi-Fi when it’s available. Internet is offered at some hotels, but it tends to be both slow and pricey. (I paid about $7 an hour at my hotel, Havana’s Melia Cohiba.)

Eat at paladares.
Cuba’s privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, tend to offer better food than those run by the government. Expect to see a lot of rice and beans, as well as fish, Caribbean lobster and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak). Vegetables and fruits vary based on what’s in season; due to the U.S. embargo, Cubans have trouble importing certain foods, so the menus won’t be as varied as those you might see back home.

Keep small change on hand.
If you want a photo with one of the colorfully costumed locals brandishing flowers or cigars in the major squares around Old Havana, prepare to hand over a CUC or two for the privilege. More importantly, you’ll also want to have anywhere from 25 cents to a CUC to give to the attendants at many bathrooms around the country. Yes, paying to pee can be annoying — and you won’t be barred from the restroom if you don’t offer a coin or two — but in a country that’s struggling economically, what seems like chump change to us can make a big difference to the locals.

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

— written by Sarah Schlichter

woman taking selfie in front of volcanoWe’re a little old-fashioned here at IndependentTraveler.com, but even we acknowledge that the selfie phenomenon isn’t going anywhere. We’ve even indulged once or twice while on our travels. But sometimes we’re struck dumb by the sheer audacity and, yes, stupidity of people who stop to take a selfie in the most downright rude, inconvenient and dangerous places.

Here are just a few places and situations we really don’t think mix well with selfies.

In (or even near!) an erupting volcano: Canadian adventurer George Kourounis was well equipped for the surrounding environment when he stopped to take a selfie as he descended into a boiling lava lake on Vanuatu. Dressed in an extreme heat-resistant hazmat suit, Kourounis survived his exploit, but that doesn’t mean others should follow suit.

On the edge of a cliff: Not all who take such selfie risks survive them. An Italian teenager died after falling while trying to take a selfie on a cliff high above jagged rocks in the seaside town of Taranto, Italy in June 2014. And in August 2014, a Polish couple visiting Portugal in August 2014 fell to their deaths when they ventured too near the edge of a beachside cliff.

With wild animals: Unless you’re a professional animal trainer working with a critter you’ve raised from infancy, we highly recommend skipping the selfie if you’re anywhere near a wild animal. Not only do you risk your life — as these two boys did when they decided to take selfies with a wild elephant, only to be trampled to death — but even if you survive, you may pay a high price for the stunt. A British man who snapped selfies of himself running away from bulls in Pamplona, Spain was fined $4,100 for his stupidity.

Near an object moving at high-speed: Yes, in the right light and with the right shutter speed a moving vehicle can make for a beautiful photograph, but that doesn’t mean you need to be in the pic. Getting too close to a moving train or car is never a good idea. Take this man from Oregon who was killed by an Amtrak train when he walked onto the tracks to pose for a selfie with the train in the background.

Stepping Past the Rope: Stepping over the rope inside a museum to get closer to a piece of art for a selfie isn’t going to kill you, but it certainly could get you into trouble. And it’s definitely going to anger other tourists for whom you’re ruining their view. Some museums, like Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, are putting the kibosh on selfies so that visitors can view art in peace. Most museums continue to allow visitors to snap selfies but have banned the selfie stick, saying it poses a threat to others and the art.

What do you think of the selfie phenomenon, and have you ever seen anyone taking a stupid or dangerous selfie?

–By Dori Saltzman

using tax refund on travelWhether Uncle Sam reciprocated with a hefty refund this year, or you’re still scrambling to postmark the paperwork, tax season produces stress and savings funds alike. While most sites will advise what to spend your hard-earned refund on, we have a few travel-related fees you shouldn’t use your bonus bit of cash toward. A room with a balcony instead of just a window? Yes. Your airline’s $25 checked bag fee? Not so much. Budgeting for a dream vacation can be worth all of the withholdings, just don’t bother wasting your precious refund on the following travel fees.

Foreign Taxes
If you plan on shopping abroad, don’t let laziness rob you of repayment. Many countries — mainly in the European Union — offer their own refunds of the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is levied on clothing, art and other souvenirs. This tax can range from 10 to 25 percent, so if you’re making purchases beyond a few postcards, it’s likely worth the additional effort to provide your passport, obtain the appropriate receipt while at the store and file it once at the airport. A few things to know before you go: Try not to use the items before claiming them — this may nullify the refund — and also be aware of the spending minimums in each country to qualify for compensation. Ireland requires no minimum purchase, so load up on as much — or as little — memorabilia from the Emerald Isle as you like and submit it for recompense.

This may seem like an obvious and overwrought fee to avoid, but don’t let the airlines break you down. Unless you’re headed on a safari and need pounds worth of gear, baggage fees can still be avoided because, well, they suck. Consider packing a lighter carry-on for the way over and bringing two bags home; for a domestic flight, ship your suitcase or additional items in advance (this may sound pricey, but consider your airline’s fees for overweight or additional baggage); or best of all, find an airline that still allows a free checked bag or two. Baggage fees are ever-changing and often vary by destination, so even if you fly with the same carrier routinely, it’s always smart to check current size restrictions and costs before you go.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Prepaid Gasoline
Prepaying might seem like the mark of an organized, well-adjusted traveler — prepaid gratuities, prepaid hotel fare at a discount — but know when you’re saving time and when you’re losing money. Prepaying for gas when picking up a rental car is an expense that is only worth the cost if you’re short on time the morning of drop-off, or you’re confident that you’ll pull up to the rental agency in perfect unison with the gaslight. In this case, paying as you go and refueling on your own ensure that you’re only paying for what you’ve used — and no more.

10 Things Not to Do When Renting a Car

Single Supplement
Traveling independently is a fearless form of travel, so shouldn’t you be rewarded, not penalized, for doing so? Some tour operators and cruise lines don’t see it that way. Based on double occupancy prices, single travelers are often required to pay a premium for occupying a space set aside for two. This doesn’t have to be the case. Increasingly, cruise lines and travel companies are waiving these solo supplements and even going so far as to customize vacations and purpose-build cruise cabins for the solo traveler. Another cost-effective way to travel on your own and even get to know a travel companion is to share a room with another independent traveler — but this option depends on comfort level and availability.

Single Travel Tips for Going Solo

Internet is reaching the dawn of a new Information Age — one where access is more of a right and less of a privilege. Because of its widespread availability in most of the developed world, Internet access is easier than ever to find for free. Find a hotel, a local cafe, a college campus or even a library where you can plug in or channel some free Wi-Fi. Along with obvious benefits such as checking museum opening hours or finding a great local restaurant, you can also use VoIP apps such as FaceTime to keep in touch with loved ones at home (depending on bandwidth, of course). Internet is still hard to come by in many parts of the world and vital enough to pay for if necessary, so know before you go.

11 Things Not to Do When Booking a Hotel

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

hot stone massageAre you the type of traveler that roughs it on every trip, camping or sleeping in budget hotels and making all your own meals instead of shelling out for a fancy restaurant dinner? Or are you inclined to pamper yourself a little with a spa treatment or an airline upgrade?

That’s the question we asked our readers recently on Facebook — and as it turns out, most of our readers do occasionally feel the urge to splurge.

YN Leung is willing to pay extra for more comfort on longer international flights, although it’s not just about indulgence: “It’s health, not pampering, but I do upgrade on planes.” (We can’t argue with that, especially if you find it impossible to sleep in those ultra-narrow economy seats.)

Lavida Rei agrees: “A seat that I like on the plane is important.”

Get the Best Airplane Seat

For Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic, a hotel is the preferred place to treat oneself: “I’m very careful about choosing my hotel. Pampering to me is feeling safe, cozy, comfortable.”

The Digital Vagabond is also up for a little luxury, at least once in a while: “Sure, pampering is good to do periodically while on the road. Spending a little more for a high-end hotel or getting a massage — especially in countries where it’s only $15/hour. It’s all good!”

Meanwhile, Michael Cagle has upgraded his entire trip: “I have an Airstream. My days of roughing it are over.”

Johanna Kula brings up one common place to indulge: the dinner table. “Yummy food, wine, desserts … and if chocolate is involved … [of course], yes, chocolate!!!!!” she enthuses.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

There was one dissenting voice in the mix. Wynne Gavin says no to pampering herself while traveling because “the travel itself is pampering!”

My own top source of indulgence? Dessert — and lots of it!

How do you pamper yourself when you travel?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

desa familyMike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and dclandromomania.blogspot.com.

Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador.

IndependentTraveler.com: What were the most essential things you packed for this trip?
Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.

IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.

It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.

IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far?
MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.

child cacao beans ecuadorOur favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.

Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.

Photos: 11 Best Ecuador Experiences

IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel?
MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.

Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.

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IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip?
MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.

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To read more about the DeSa family’s trip, check out our sister site, Family Vacation Critic.

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— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter