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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.

While renting an Airbnb property in 2015, Stefan Grant and a group of friends received a visit from a pair of police officers. The officers told him that neighbors had reported the house was being robbed, Grant said.

stefan grant noirbnb


An innocent mistake or a case of discrimination? Grant and his friends, who are black, said they were certain it was the latter. Following the attention he received after a Twitter post about the incident went viral, Grant had an in-person meeting with Airbnb executives to talk about discrimination and how the company could better serve his community.

In response to a multitude of reports of discrimination based on race, age, gender and other factors, Airbnb implemented new policies and procedures in September 2016.

But Grant was not satisfied. He and a partner thus have decided to start their own short-term rental company, Noirbnb, which aims to provide welcoming and safe spaces for black travelers and for anyone who may have faced discrimination in the past.

Grant chatted with us about the company he’s soon to launch.

Independent Traveler: Where are you in terms of the company development?
Stefan Grant:
We’re very close to our full launch. We have a few thousand properties so far, and more are signing up every day.

IT: Why is a service like this important for travelers?
SG:
I think a service like Noirbnb is important because it understands and caters to the unique experiences of black travelers and other travelers of color. It also provides a space for accepting people of all walks of life to connect with each other and build awesome new relationships.

IT: Do you think the changes Airbnb implemented last year to make its service more “colorblind” have been effective?
SG:
I don’t think they have been effective because we still see instances of rampant discrimination taking place on Airbnb all the time. I also don’t think that people should be “colorblind.” People should see people for who they are because our uniqueness is what makes the world a more beautiful place, and to blind ourselves to that is dismissive and counterproductive.

IT: Tell us a little about some of the property owners who have signed up so far.
SG:
We have a variety of different properties, from large homes and villas to apartments, condos and even a boat. Many people who’ve signed up with us tell us they love our mission and what we’re setting out to do. Our hosts come in all facets, and it means the world to us that they want to be part of what we’re building at Noirbnb.

woman on sofa


IT: What else will be different from your competitors?
SG:
We have a few differentiators that we plan on rolling out that will separate us from our competitors. But we don’t want to give away too much of our “secret sauce” before we launch.

IT: Is your aim to attract black-owned properties or black-friendly properties? Or both?
SG:
Our goal is to attract black-owned properties as well as black-friendly properties.

IT: Do you anticipate that other groups of people who face discrimination, such as gay travelers or travelers of other ethnic backgrounds, will be drawn to use your service too?
SG:
We do anticipate that people of other ethnic backgrounds or members of the LGBT community will gravitate toward us because in many ways our experiences overlap and intersect. We also created Noirbnb for them because we want our platform to really be a diverse and welcoming community where people can feel free to be themselves.

IT: Once the site is up and running, where’s the first place that you want to book?
SG:
Once the site is up and running, I think I’d like to visit Cuba, South Africa or London. Those places are so beautiful and culturally diverse. They’ve been calling me for a while.

See more travel interviews!

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Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This week’s puzzle is a word scramble. Below are the jumbled names of four major cities from around the world, followed by the country where they’re located. Your job is to unscramble them. For example, “IALM, EURP” would be “Lima, Peru.” Multi-word cities or countries are scrambled into one word, so “San Juan” might appear as SJAANUN. (Hint: This week there is one two-word city.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.

PESLAN, YLTAI

TLIZCIYBEE, LEBIEZ

RATHEN, RANI

AKADR, EAENGSL


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 10, 2017, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Brenda Chambers, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

NAPLES, ITALY

BELIZE CITY, BELIZE

TEHRAN, IRAN

DAKAR, SENEGAL


— created by Sarah Schlichter

When I travel, my smartphone acts as my camera, wallet, GPS, e-reader, MP3 player, communication center, and means of streaming movies and TV on long flights. Without it, my trips are far more cumbersome, but the more I use it, the more quickly the “low battery” notifications roll in.

mycharge hubxtra portable charger


Over the years, I’ve tried several portable chargers — tiny energy packs that are plugged into the wall ahead of time and brought along as a means of backup power. No matter how long I charged them, none ever seemed to be able to properly refuel my phone in a reasonable amount of time.

Enter the MyCharge HubXtra. This lightweight portable charger took my phone’s battery life from 6 to 60 percent in 45 minutes, with a full charge after about two hours. The best part is that, afterward, the HubXtra itself was still at 75 percent power.

What We Liked
It worked. There’s not much worse than investing in a product only to find out it doesn’t live up to the hype — especially in a pinch. Not only did the HubXtra do its job, but it did so quickly.

It has a long life. In addition to holding enough juice for more than one charge when it’s at capacity, the HubXtra comes fully powered up, so you can use it right out of the package. (The device charges via a standard two-pronged plug that folds out from the back.)

It’s versatile. In addition to cell phones, the HubXtra can charge other electronics like tablets, e-readers, MP3 players, wearables and Bluetooth speakers.

It can power up more than one device at a time, even while plugged in. The charger comes with two built-in lightning micro-USB cable connections — one that fits most recent iPhones and one for most recent Android devices — and they can both be used at the same time, even when the HubXtra itself is charging.

It’s easy to pack. Measuring 4.1 x 2.5 x 0.9 inches and weighing a mere half-pound, the HubXtra will fit in nearly any bag, and it looks as sleek as it sounds.

What We Didn’t Like
It’s expensive. The HubXtra retails for $69.99 on the MyCharge website and $54.95 on Amazon. Considering how many chargers are available at a price point of $30 or less, it’s a little pricey.

It could soon be obsolete. A tech savvy-friend with one of the most recently released Android devices was unable to use the HubXtra without an adapter because it doesn’t offer the most updated cables. For the price, it should.

It only comes in one color. This is a minor quibble, but give us some color! Although the power pack’s metallic silver finish gives it a sleek, industrial look, a choice of one hue simply isn’t enough.

12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip
7 Things Not to Do When Packing a Carry-On Bag

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

Editorial Disclosure: Some products are sent to us free of charge to be considered for review. We choose products to review based on their relevance and usefulness to our readers. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not promise any editorial coverage, particularly positive reviews.

My latest obsession is booking hotels, rental cars and other travel arrangements through rebate apps on my iPad. These apps give you cash-back bonuses if you visit booking websites through the apps instead of going directly to the websites to make your reservations.

wanderlust travel savings jar


They also give you bonuses for buying everything from groceries to new sneakers, so you can build up your vacation fund a little faster if you use them.

Privacy experts and conspiracy theorists are probably cringing right about now, worried about all the data these apps are collecting about me and my spending habits. Am I concerned? Not in the least. Retail companies are already collecting loads of data about us. Do you think your supermarket loyalty card is only about discounts? Do you think your credit card usage isn’t being analyzed?

My feeling is that they spend a lot of money to collect data about me, so I might as well cash in on that. Plus, the cash I receive each month in my PayPal account feels like a little present.

There are two rebate apps I use for travel purchases.

Ebates is probably the most widely used rebate app and website. It also works with the greatest number of travel industry partners, including Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Booking.com, Hotels.com, Marriott, Park ‘N Fly and Virgin America. Travel product retailers also offer rebates on the site — Patagonia and Samsonite are among them — as do package tour companies, including Cheap Caribbean and OneTravel.


The site offers straightforward “percentage back” rebates of up to 12 percent back, but also has a number of other coupons and special deals. A handful of companies even periodically offer double cash back.

Using a Chrome-based web browser, I installed Ebates’ special extension in order to receive a pop-up alert anytime I navigate to a partner company site. I didn’t know, for instance, that eBags was a participant until I was price-checking new luggage and the Ebates pop-up alerted me.

Ibotta is the other app I like. An app strictly for mobile devices, Ibotta was useful last month in nabbing $11.04 back from a New York City hotel booking. I have the last-minute hotel app Hotel Tonight downloaded onto my iPad, so by clicking through to that app via the Ibotta app, I was able to receive 4 percent cash back for the amazingly priced and very clean $109-a-night hotel I secured two blocks from the Empire State Building. Bundled with my $10 bonus for downloading the free app, the rebate will cover my Netflix bill for a couple of months.

Unfortunately, Ibotta only currently works with four travel partners. But it’s useful for grocery purchases, and those rebates will steadily help cushion your travel fund. Other useful retail rebate apps to try include Checkout 51, SavingStar and Receipt Hog.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation
2 New Ways to Earn Money for Booking Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

world destination


Hint: The square above is in the heart of this city known for its cafe culture.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 3, 2017, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com prize. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Rukesh, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia. Rukesh has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

This week’s puzzle is a country shapes quiz! Take a look at the silhouette and below and tell us which country you think it is.

mystery country


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, March 27, 2017, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is JoeJoejoez, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was Peru. JoeJoeJoez has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Looking to pack lighter? You can save some space in your suitcase by storing your stuff in the clothes you wear. SCOTTeVEST offers a line of vests, jackets, pants and other clothing specifically designed with tons of pockets to help you stow gadgets and other essential items on your person instead of in a purse or backpack.

scottevest quest vest


I tested out the SCOTTeVEST Q.U.E.S.T., a vest that boasts a whopping 42 pockets, to see what it offers for travelers. Here’s what I discovered.

What We Liked
It’s cleverly designed. The designers clearly put a lot of thought into the layout of the Q.U.E.S.T., with pockets specifically meant for items such as cell phones, passports, tablets, glasses and pens. (Most of these compartments are labeled with little graphics so you can tell what’s supposed to go where.) Then there are dozens of catch-all pockets for everything else. Some are more useful than others — I’m not sure exactly what you’d want to put in the large back compartment, given that most items wouldn’t be all that comfortable to lean back on when you sit down — but there are plenty of pockets to customize in any way you see fit.

It’s attractive and well made. The vest feels well crafted and has a sleek, attractive look.

It’s water-resistant. When I poured water on both the hood and the body of the vest, it beaded up and ran right off.

There are tons of little surprises. Open the RFID-blocking pocket, and you’ll find a little document pouch that you can remove and then Velcro back in. The glasses pocket offers a soft cloth for wiping your lenses. There are holes and loops throughout to thread cords for earbuds or chargers.

It’s not just good for travel. Sure, the vest can save you space on vacation, but it’s also useful at home for day hikers who don’t want to carry a backpack or women who want to go shopping without lugging a heavy purse.

scottevest quest vest


What We Didn’t Like
It gets bulky. Realistically most travelers won’t use all 42 pockets; once you start putting in things like a full-size water bottle or multiple gadgets, the vest starts looking bulky and less flattering. If you do plan to use most of the pockets, you might want to order a size larger than you normally would to give yourself a little more space.

You may lose track of some of your things. There are so many pockets so close to each other — some divided only by a thin layer of fabric — that I sometimes forgot where I’d put certain items. In one case I could feel that there was a bottle of antibacterial hand gel in a certain quadrant of the vest, but I had to try about three different zippers before I could access the pocket I needed.

There’s only one color option. Other vests from SCOTTeVEST come in hues like blue, white and red, but the Q.U.E.S.T. is currently only available in black for women. (Men can buy the Q.U.E.S.T. in black or beige.)

It’s not cheap. The Q.U.E.S.T. is currently on sale for $175 at the SCOTTeVEST website and at Amazon. (To buy the men’s version, see the SCOTTeVEST website or Amazon.)

How to Pack Efficiently: 8 Products That Can Help
12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editorial Disclosure: Some products are sent to us free of charge to be considered for review. We choose products to review based on their relevance and usefulness to our readers. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not promise any editorial coverage, particularly positive reviews.