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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

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 multi-word country.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.

DONNOL, NUOITGNMIEDKD

OEIVMEODNT, AUUYGRU

ANASSU, BHSMAAA

GRONABALE, DAIIN


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, February 6, 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 Joan Bradford, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY

NASSAU, BAHAMAS

BANGALORE, INDIA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Ever wanted to read in bed at a hotel without waking your spouse, or needed a little extra light while working on a crossword puzzle during a long flight? If so, you might like the Beam n Read.

beam n read reading light


I tested two versions of this personal reading light — the LED 6 Hands-Free Task Light and the LED 3 Hands-Free Travel & Reading Light. Both run on four AA batteries (not included) and are worn around your neck on an elastic cord that can be adjusted for length. The LED 3 is a less expensive travel version with only three small LED bulbs, while the LED 6 has six bulbs and casts a wider glow.

You can turn on each device by flipping the light into position for reading. The LED 6 has a switch that toggles between turning on all six bulbs and turning on just three, which is useful if you don’t always want quite as much light.

Both reading lights come with two filters — one red, one orange. These are designed to block out blue light, which can cause eyestrain. Using one of these filters makes for a dimmer light that some users find relaxing, especially before bed.

After testing each light in a dark room, I found them both adequate for reading or other handheld tasks (such as knitting or writing), but, unsurprisingly, the wider LED 6 was better for illuminating a whole open book or magazine. Because both lights use the same number of batteries, there’s very little difference in size or weight between them — so if you can spare the extra $10, I’d recommend getting the larger version. It won’t take up much extra space in your suitcase, and you’ll get more light.

The one advantage of the LED 3 model is that the batteries will last longer. That said, you can purchase a USB/AC power kit (sold separately) that enables you to plug the light into a wall socket when available, saving the batteries for when they’re necessary.

You can learn more about Beam n Read at ReadingLight.com. You can also purchase on Amazon: see the LED 6 ($29.95), the LED 3 ($19.95) and the USB/AC Power Kit ($14.95).

Would you try the Beam n Read?

The 12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip
Which Travel Clothes Are Worth the Money?

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.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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: This national park is known for its unique rock formations.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 9, 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 Vanessa, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Bryce National Park in Utah. Vanessa 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

Check out the stories you may have missed from around the travel world.

australian passport


The End of Passports? How Australia Plans to Make Travel Documents Obsolete by 2020
The Telegraph reports that Australia is pioneering a new “contactless passenger identification system” involving facial recognition technology and fingerprint scanners. These will theoretically take the place of passports and paper landing cards by the year 2020.

How to Save Money on Your Next Flight With an Airfare Predictor
U.S. News & World Report offers an in-depth examination of airfare prediction tools such as Kayak, Google Flights and the Hopper app. Using such tools could help you decide when to pull the trigger on booking your airfare.

16 Mesmerizing Pictures of Patagonia
Feast your eyes on these Rough Guides photos of Patagonia, complete with craggy mountains, glittering lakes and cool-blue glaciers.

First Low-Cost Asian Airline Cleared for Flights to the U.S.
Cheaper fares to Asia could be in store for Americans. CNN reports that AirAsia, a budget airline based in Malaysia, has just been approved to fly to the United States. Though the fares might be cheap, passengers would have to pay extra for meals and bags.

This Artist’s Amazing Sketchbooks Could Be the Inspiration You Need to Start a Travel Journal
Lonely Planet profiles a traveler named Dina Brodsky, who has shared the stunning sketches from her travel journal on Instagram. (If you don’t have much artistic talent, it’ll make you wish you did!)

How Airline Passenger Rights May Change in 2017
As the U.S. makes the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, Conde Nast Traveler investigates which air traveler protections will likely stay in place and which might be on the chopping block.

Meet Mr. & Mrs. Smith: The Couple Curating the World’s Best Hotel Collection You’ve Never Heard Of
Forbes profiles the founders of MrandMrsSmith.com, a website that curates and reviews the best boutique and luxury hotels around the world.

This week’s viral video, featuring northern lights footage captured by a passenger on a flight between New York and Iceland, has been viewed more than 340,000 times on YouTube.


10 Things You Don’t Know About Passports
9 Best Places to Travel in 2017

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Are you an expert in packing light? You could use a new app called Airmule to sell the extra space in your suitcase. You’ll be serving as a “mule” — or personal courier — for shipments arranged through the app.

airmule


Here’s how it works: You download the Airmule app (which is currently only available on iOS), list your trip — including the flight details and how much suitcase space you wish to sell — and wait for a shipment inquiry to come in. Once you accept the inquiry, Airmule will make sure you get the delivery item before your flight, either by mailing it to you or bringing it to you in person. In most cases another Airmule representative will meet you at your destination airport to pick up the item and forward it to its final destination. (In other cases you may need to arrange a transfer once you arrive.)

Airmule works with TSA-certified shipping companies and inspects all items before they’re given to you. Packages are insured up to $200.

Travelers serving as mules earn $150 per luggage space, minus a $1 processing fee. Sell space in two suitcases on a roundtrip flight, and you could make nearly $600 on your trip — perhaps enough to pay for the whole flight!

While it sounds like an easy way to make money while traveling, there’s one drawback: The service is currently only available for shipping between the United States and China.

When we tested the app, we were able to see available mules for other trips, such as New York to London. We reached out to Airmule about the issue, and a spokesperson responded: “Though we do allow people to list travel anywhere, we currently actively support only U.S. and China. We will support additional countries very soon. This is because we want to ensure a high volume of shipments for travelers when we open a new channel.”

So if a trip to the Great Wall is on your bucket list, keep the app in mind as a way to earn money toward your vacation. Otherwise, you may have to wait for the service to expand in the future. Learn more at Airmule.com.

Would you try Airmule?

11 Things Not to Do on a Plane
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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, January 23, 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 Kate Shaw, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was Germany. Kate has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out the stories you may have missed this week.

hotel sign


Mermaid Instructor? Canine Masseuse? The Oddest Hotel Jobs on Earth
Bloomberg takes a deep dive into the weirder side of hotels, highlighting the industry’s oddest jobs. This includes a sunset bagpiper at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, and the massage therapist for dogs at the Belmond Hotel Splendido in Portofino, Italy.

Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Finally Called Off with Mystery Unsolved
After nearly three years, the governments of Malaysia, Australia and China have given up the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, reports the Washington Post. The aircraft vanished mysteriously in March 2014, but despite a $150 million search, we have no more answers now than we did then about its final hours.

60 Years Since Publication of Famous Travel Guidebook
The Associated Press interviews Arthur Frommer, who revolutionized modern travel with the 1957 publication of “Europe on $5 a Day.” Discover why his book was so unique and which city Frommer can visit again and again.

15 of the Most Beautiful Places in Alaska
Don’t miss this droolworthy gallery of Alaska photos from Rough Guides — we guarantee it’ll get your wanderlust going.

The Mystery of American Airlines’ Ailing Flight Attendants
The Chicago Tribune investigates the controversy over the new uniforms at American Airlines, which numerous flight attendants have claimed are making them sick. So far there’s no scientific explanation for the rashes, sore throats, blisters and other ill effects that the flight attendants are suffering.

How to Plan Your Next Vacation with a Chatbot
The New York Times takes three mobile messaging apps — aka chatbots — for a test drive to see how useful they are in helping travelers find a flight or hotel using artificial intelligence. Spoiler alert: The results were mixed.

7 Stunning Natural Wonders in Asia
Is your bucket list just not long enough? Give this National Geographic piece a read. After viewing these stunning photos, you’ll be considering a trip to places like Mount Kelimutu in Indonesia or Jigoku Valley in Japan.

Air India Says Women-Only Seats for Comfort After Reported In-Flight Sex Attacks
Reuters reports that Air India will now reserve six seats on every flight for female passengers traveling alone. Although the move comes after multiple reports of women being sexually assaulted on Air India flights, the airline says it’s trying to offer solo female travelers more choice and comfort.

This week’s video is an offering from USA Today that went viral: a too-big-to-be-believed alligator in Florida.


The Most Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests
12 Hotel Hacks That Will Save You Money

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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 are two multi-word countries.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.

TTESELA, ESTIUDTSNAET

OTIILPR, YLIBA

OESUL, OUOTHAKESR

DTSAUEBP, ANGRUHY


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 16, 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 Edwin Hendrix, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

SEATTLE, UNITED STATES

TRIPOLI, LIBYA

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Check out what you may have missed from around the travelsphere.

traveler in myanmar


9 Things Everyone Who Has Traveled Abroad Has Thought at Least Once
Travel + Leisure has compiled a list of lessons international travelers have learned through their journeys — including “Mistakes are not the end of the world” and “Language doesn’t have to be a barrier.”

At the Grand Canyon, a Cancer Survivor Rises to the Challenge of a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Hike
We loved this inspiring Washington Post essay about a woman’s journey from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the North Rim and back after a bout with cancer.

Security Shortcut ‘Clear’ Coming to Four of the Busiest U.S. Airports
Conde Nast Traveler reports that there will soon be another way to speed through four busy American airports: Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York LaGuardia and New York JFK. Clear (unlike the government-run TSA PreCheck) is a private program that lets you pay an annual fee to skip the line for document check at security.

9 Reasons You Need to Visit Mongolia in 2017
Vogue highlights the charms of a destination most travelers have never considered: Mongolia. After reading about its wide-open spaces and unique spiritual culture, we’re moving it up our must-visit list.

Europe’s First Underwater Museum Opens Off Lanzarote
The Guardian offers otherworldly photos from the newly opened Museo Atlantico in the Canary Islands. The underwater sculptures offer a profound political statement.

The City with a Chip on Its Shoulder
What unites so-called “second cities,” wonders BBC? It’s not just the fact of being a country’s second-most-populous city, but also traits such as fewer expectations and a bit of a chip on their shoulder.

Ancient History Along the Nile
This essay from the New York Times captures what it’s like to cruise Egypt’s Nile River, with all its enchantments and quirks.

This week’s video is a unique job opportunity. A family of five is seeking a nanny to travel with them and homeschool their young children — with all travel expenses paid.


9 Best Places to Travel in 2017
The Healing Power of Travel

— written by Sarah Schlichter