travel tips

21 Egypt Travel Tips

How to get a visa for Egypt, navigate a police state, exchange money, and be able to take photos in the temples and tombs. Oh, and why you need small bills to go to the bathroom.

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt isn’t an easy country to navigate — Cairo in particular. It just doesn’t have the sophisticated tourist infrastructure so common in other parts of the world. Plus, it’s essentially a military dictatorship. In many ways, it reminded us of traveling through India, just on a smaller scale.

That being said, Egypt has a mind-boggling amount of temples and tombs to explore. They’re some of the oldest structures on the planet and are remarkably well preserved, having been buried in the sand for thousands of years.

We watched temple guards grab the phones of people who hadn’t bought a photography pass and force them to delete their photos!

Here are 21 tips to help you prepare for a trip to Egypt.

1. If you learn one word, it should be “shokran,” thank you.

When you say this, some people will burst into a huge smile. “You speak Arabic?!” one man exclaimed, joking. It’s great that something so simple can bring so much pleasure. And it goes to show how few travelers — or should I say tourists? — take the time to even bother learning one simple word.

Here’s another easy word: Salaam. It means “peace,” and works as both a greeting and a farewell.

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

2. Follow the dress code.

It’s not mandatory (there aren’t any morality police like in Iran), but do you really want to be the tourist that disrespects the culture of the country you’re visiting?

For men, T-shirts are OK, and I suppose you can get away with wearing shorts, but why? You won’t see a single Egyptian wearing them. Just bring along a couple of pairs of lightweight pants. Maybe it’s time to invest in a pair of linen pants, which travel extremely well.

For women, you don’t have to wear a headscarf — in fact, plenty of local women forgo this. Just cover your shoulders and wear pants or long skirts and dresses, preferably to the ankle. Again, you can get away with less coverage — heavens knows Egyptians see all sorts of lack of modesty at tourist attractions — but why be that person?

3. Pack sunblock.

Cuz it’ll be sunny, dusty and hot. Very hot. It reached 100 while we were there in late April.

4. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t drink the water.

Always have bottles of water to stay hydrated and to brush your teeth. You may not think that you’re getting dehydrated, but trust us, this can happen swiftly, and heat exhaustion is no joke. Duke suffered a mild case of this which caused him to have prickly heat, lightheadedness and diarrhea, which is no fun when most of Egypt’s sites are in the blazing sun.

5. Upper Egypt is the south part of the country, and Lower Egypt is the north.

Yes, this is counterintuitive to the modern brain. But the River Nile flows northward, so the Ancient Egyptians’ perception of the world was the reverse of ours.

6. You have to stake your ground in lines.

If there are any gaps, people will weasel their way in and have no qualms about cutting in front of you. While waiting in line for customs, a woman behind us kept tapping my backpack to get me to move up, as if pressing into each other would make the line go faster. Eventually, Duke and I formed a line with an annoyed fellow American to block the path of anyone trying to barge past us.

This happens on planes, too. I’m not saying Americans are the models of decorum, but when it comes to disembarking from a plane, no one would ever consider rushing up the aisle. We very patiently wait our turn and let everyone sitting in front of us get off before us. Not so in other parts of the world, including the Middle East. You have to rush into the aisle to prevent fellow passengers behind you from rushing ahead.

7. Getting a visa upon arrival is ridiculously easy.

No paperwork. Just US$25 and you get a sticker.

For other countries we’ve traveled to, like Vietnam and Cambodia, we had to send out our passports to the embassies in Washington, D.C., putting our faith in the U.S. Postal Service. India’s was an even more-elaborate affair, requiring a picture to be taken.

But the visa for Egypt can be purchased at a bank kiosk to the right of the line for customs.

8. It’s a good idea to get a data plan for your cell phone.

Not that we had great luck with Uber in Cairo (we thought we’d never escape from the Khan el-Khalili souk, after waiting for a couple of hours for various Uber drivers who never arrived). But we communicated with our guide service via email, and Wi-Fi was spotty at one of our hotels.

9. Prearrange pickup from the airport.

A mass of guys in navy blue jackets will call out, trying to get you to take their taxi. We like to have our hotels pick us up.

If you do need to get a cab, negotiate the price before you get in. When we returned to Cairo from Luxor, a charming man who played Western pop music took us to the Mena House for 400 Egyptian pounds, while the hotel was going to charge about 1,300 LE.

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

10. There are machine guns and metal detectors everywhere you go.

You’ll see them at the numerous military checkpoints on the road and outside tourist locations. It’s unnerving to see the tip of a machine gun peeking out a window in a small square tower as you drive down the street or enter the grounds of a temple.

It certainly was the first time we had to go through metal detectors as we entered our hotels. You’ll probably set them off, but they’ll wave you through.

When you’re visiting a site, there’s usually a bin or flat surface to place your cell phone before you pass through. If you’re bringing a bag, expect to have it screened.

The machine guns it seems every police officer and military personnel carry are made of tarnished silver, like something from generations past. And despite their toy-like appearance, resembling what you would play at a shooting gallery on a beachside boardwalk or a traveling carnival, I don’t doubt their lethal power.

11. Don’t expect to get a lot of money out of ATMs.

They’re certainly not as common as in the States, which is to be expected. But the maximum amount you can withdraw is 3,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $175 at the time we visited.

Sometimes the ATM would reject this selection — maybe there wasn’t enough money left — so we’d try 2,000, which usually worked.

The Egyptian pound is abbreviated as LE, from the French livre égyptienne.

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

12. As tempting as it may be, don’t touch the temple walls.

You can see the dark, shiny stains where people have touched certain spots too often. Our guide in Cairo, Ahmed, saw a guy touch the walls of a tomb, and he told him not to. “You’re breaking my heart,” he said, then grumbled to us, “They wouldn’t go to the Louvre and touch the paintings!” He did have a point. These structures have survived thousands of years and still sport their original paintings. Let’s help preserve them for another thousand years.

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

13. Get small denominations (especially 5 LE bills) cuz you’ll need ’em to go to the bathroom.

Almost every WC (as they’re usually marked, from the Britishism water closet), has someone out front collecting payment of 5 LE.

Fives are also handy to tip small amounts to someone who helps you in a small way, like a bellboy.

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

14. Hire guides everywhere.

There are security checkpoints all over the country, where they record the license plate, telephone number and other information in a ledger. (We always heard the term “Amrikiya,” which I assume meant we were Americans.) These checkpoints are facilitated with a guide and driver. I’m not even sure you could get into sites without a guide.

Plus, you know, it’s nice to know what you’re actually looking at. By the time we had spent a week with Mamduh from Sunset Tours, Duke and I felt like minor Egyptologists.

Added bonus: The vendors might be a tad less pushy. If you don’t have a guide, I imagine you’d be picked apart like a vulture with carrion. As it is, you’ll still have to ignore endless entreaties from shopkeepers inviting you to their stand, hoping to make a sale.

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

15. Egypt is definitely one of those countries where driving is insane.

Horns honk nonstop and pedestrians walk in the street, crossing traffic without a care in the world. I watched a woman with two small children talking on her phone cross a busy street without even a glance at oncoming traffic.

In Cairo in particular, drivers act like they’re playing a real-life video game, narrowly dodging other cars, horse-drawn carts, auto rickshaws, trucks loaded with produce, donkeys and motorbikes, often with a woman on the back sitting sideways, a child in her arms.

Cars come from all directions, and there aren’t any lines on the road. Vehicles speed along, weaving between traffic, straddling two lanes, zooming along at an alarming clip. At night many don’t even use their headlights.

16. Most sites have an extra photography pass you can buy — though a lot of tour guides fail to mention this.

If you want photos, just ante up the 50 to 300 LE or so and get the pass. If you don’t, be warned that the guards can be ruthless. At Abu Simbel, for instance, we watched them take the phones of people who didn’t buy a pass and force them to delete their photos! Fortunately for us, our guide Mamduh always asked us prior to purchasing our tickets.

17. Just because you pay for a car for the day, doesn’t mean you get to go wherever you’d like.

The concierge at our hotel in Cairo said we had a driver and guide for the full day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. But we learned that unlike other places you travel to, you’re limited to their itinerary and can’t go off script.

Our guide, Ahmed, made our experience extremely unpleasant, rushing us through the sites of Giza and Saqqara, until we said we had come all this way and wanted to see everything we could. He refused to take us to the Mena House for lunch, telling us that it was ridiculously spendy (and even though we had discussed this with the concierge at the Kempinski the night before) or any other sites, even though we still had hours left.

What’s strange (I’m being sarcastic) is that he would have made the time to stop at the papyrus and perfume shops at Giza, or the carpet schools at Saqqara, if we had accepted his offer. Having suffered through these tourist traps, where guides get commission if you buy anything, we knew to avoid them like the 10 plagues.

18. They don’t believe in seatbelts in Cairo.

Very few drivers bother to wear them, and not many of the backseats have working seatbelts, especially in Cairo. There’s nothing you can do but pray to Osiris or Allah that you’ll safely reach your destination amidst the chaos of the roads.

Thankfully, the other parts of the country we visited, Aswan and Luxor, tended to have working seatbelts — though our driver only slipped his on when we reached military checkpoints.

19. You’ll see a lot of Egyptian men with dark circular marks on their foreheads.

At first we thought these gray smudges might be ash — we visited over Easter and figured it might be some Coptic Christian tradition — but after a while I realized it was the type of mark you’d get from repeatedly rubbing your forehead against something. I suspect it’s a mark from prostrating themselves and bowing their heads to the ground five times a day during their prayers. I imagine some wear it proudly as a public display of piety.

Duke learned this mark actually has a name: zebibah, or raisin. (Given its size, it’s actually more like a prune.)

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

20. Get used to flies.

They’re everywhere, especially in Luxor. We noticed a slew of small red bites on our lower legs the morning after our first night on the West Bank, and although we didn’t see any mosquitos, they were obviously there. So you might want to pack some bug spray, too. We used Repel 100, which kept those pests at bay.

21. Not to be rude, but you should expect to smell BO quite often.

It’s obviously most noticeable in confined spaces like an airplane or a car. This isn’t a dig at Arabs — I suffered through many a stinky bus or metro ride in Europe, believe me. –Wally

Floating Village Siem Reap Scam

Avoid Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap — it’s not a floating village. All you’ll see are crocodiles, monkeys, snakes and bats being treated cruelly, and you’ll overpay for your ticket and for rice to supposedly feed the local children.

All of the animals at Chong Kneas are treated cruelly, including this monkey on a chain

All of the animals at Chong Kneas are treated cruelly, including this monkey on a chain

One of the best parts of living in Asia is that so many great locations are a relatively short flight away (not literally halfway around the world, as the U.S. is). Our friend Brian and his husband, Jeff, recently moved to Suzhou, China and decided to take a trip to Cambodia. They flew into Bangkok, Thailand and took the bus to Siem Reap. Once there, they explored the Angkor Wat temple complex — as well as getting lured into a “floating village” scam.

Here Brian writes about their cautionary tale:

Children are brought in to help scam tourists

Children are brought in to help scam tourists

Chong Kneas “Floating Village” Rip-Off

There are ads all around for visits to floating villages. The one we went to we were directed to by our tuk-tuk driver, who was our first driver from the airport when we arrived, and we made arrangements for two more days after. Up until that point, he had been a good driver and had shown up when he said he would.

When I took a picture of the snake, a guy rushed over trying to get us to hold it.

When we said no, the guy taped the snake’s mouth shut with electrical tape.

We drove for about a half-hour outside Siem Reap and enjoyed the drive, seeing a different part of Cambodia. When we got to the little building near the canal, we were ushered to a ticket counter. The price for the tour was quite expensive at $30 each, but it looked kind of official and we thought that the money would go toward the local community. Plus, we were already there and kind of in the middle of nowhere.

Our tour guide was quite friendly and spoke English pretty well. He claimed to have only learned English from tourists and in the last two years. He also claimed to have grown up in the fishing village.

There’s no floating village — just a row of houseboats in the distance

There’s no floating village — just a row of houseboats in the distance

We traveled along a canal and did not get very close to any of the houseboats that were scattered along the way. Our guide told us about a floating school full of orphans from a big storm that killed about 100 local fishermen. He mentioned a tsunami also. It was kind of confusing. He showed us a video on his phone of children eating rice crowded on a boat.

Our first stop was in the middle of the lake — not really near anything, with not much to look at. Even with the zoom lens on my Nikon, I couldn’t find a decent picture to take. He said we were going to stop for 10 minutes so the boat driver could eat lunch.

The crocodile farm is one of the main attractions at Chong Kneas

The crocodile farm is one of the main attractions at Chong Kneas

Next we went to a little floating shop that also had the crocodile farm (which was just depressing), bats, a monkey and snakes. He tried to get us to buy some dried crocodile that looked like a rawhide dog chew toy for $10. To give a sense of pricing, I had a skirt steak the previous night for $9, and beef here is considered a luxury. We declined. It’s interesting because it’s only $10 and then you can say tried it, so you’re tempted to do it even though you know you’re being ripped off.

Snakes in cages and other atrocities are all you’ll see at Chong Kneas

Snakes in cages and other atrocities are all you’ll see at Chong Kneas

When I took a picture of the snake, a guy rushed over trying to get us to hold it. But Jeff was like, no way, so the guy started taping the snake’s mouth shut with electrical tape, which just seemed cruel, so we walked away.

A girl bobbing along in a plastic wash basin with a snake around her neck, begging for money for having her photo taken

A girl bobbing along in a plastic wash basin with a snake around her neck, begging for money for having her photo taken

As soon as we had arrived, a girl less than 10 years old had started rowing toward us in what looked like a plastic wash basin from a nearby houseboat. I thought it looked cute, so I took a picture. I then realized she also had a 3-foot python around her neck. As soon as I took the picture, she began asking for a dollar. I figured she’d earned it, so I pulled out my wallet — but our guide rushed over and said it wasn’t good to give money to her and that her parents make her do it and if we wanted to give money it should be to the school. All of which made the girl whine quite loudly until we left.

Bats in cages round out this scam, which costs $30 per ticket

Bats in cages round out this scam, which costs $30 per ticket

So then we were brought to another little store, and a guy spoke to Jeff as though from a script about the nutritional value of rice and that a 50-kilo bag for $50 will feed the school for a day. We declined and felt bad in the moment. Our guide, who had been so friendly was standoffish after that for the rest of the boat trip back. Except to ask for a tip and a tip for the driver as we docked.

The entire time, we never got close to anything resembling a village. There were a number of houseboats along the canal, but we didn’t get near them.

We looked them up after the fact and, according to reviews on TripAdvisor, it could have been worse. But thanks to my husband’s experience and intuition, we made it out better than many. As we went past the school, there were maybe 15 kids on it. They were just running around playing. Most likely it was no more than daycare for local kids.

Afterwards, we were meant to go to the national museum, but the events of the boat ride left a bad taste in our mouth, so we had our driver take us back to our hotel. He didn’t try to arrange another day of driving. He must have known we had a bad experience. –Brian


You don’t want to miss the true floating village: Read about Kompong Kleang and see the amazing photos here.

Top Tips for U.S. Travel to Cuba

For Americans traveling to Cuba, here’s advice on what to do in Havana, from the jinetera prostitutes to staying at a casa particular.

Magestic yet crumbling buildings and classic American cars are the magical formula for Havana, Cuba’s appeal

Magestic yet crumbling buildings and classic American cars are the magical formula for Havana, Cuba’s appeal

“I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Cuba,” our friend Joe says. “Any place someone tells you you can’t go, you of course want to go to.”

That kind of comment is par for the course with Joe. He’s the kind of fun-loving guy who views life as an adventure — and his enthusiasm is contagious.

There are prostitutes everywhere in Havana. They’re known as jineteras, and they’re particularly aggressive, always on the lookout for foreigners.

With such a tantalizing (and forbidden) destination so close to the United States, Joe and his boyfriend Scott had planned an illegal excursion to Cuba by flying through Canada.

Then, suddenly President Obama reversed the United States’ long-standing travel ban, and Joe and Scott booked a trip within a week. (Of course, President Trump has made it more difficult to travel to Cuba, part of his attempt to undo everything Obama accomplished.)

Life’s a beach for Scott and Joe

Life’s a beach for Scott and Joe

Joe and Scott flew down to Miami, Florida and booked a $500 charter flight on an Aruban air carrier.

“It was a surreal experience,” Joe says. “We were some of the first people we know that got to go.”

“Go to Havana while you can,” Joe says. “Witness this city before it changes forever.” For Americans, it sadly might be too late

“Go to Havana while you can,” Joe says. “Witness this city before it changes forever.” For Americans, it sadly might be too late

Here are some of Joe’s tips about what to expect and how best to enjoy a vacation in Cuba. (Just keep in mind that Joe himself admits that he’s a tad prone to exaggeration.) He says that four days in Havana should suffice.

It’s hard to take a bad photo in Havana, our friend Joe says

It’s hard to take a bad photo in Havana, our friend Joe says

Keep in mind it’s a Communist country.

There are hardly any ads anywhere, and you won’t see large supermarkets. Instead, there are shed-like structures where people line up every morning to get their rations. Sounds like something out of Animal Farm.

In one of the buildings Joe and Scott went in, they passed a server taking a catnap

In one of the buildings Joe and Scott went in, they passed a server taking a catnap

If you see an open door, go in.

This is very Joe — he’s the type to sneak into a building and worry about getting in trouble later. He insists, though, that this was some of the best advice he got during his research, perusing blogs and travel guides about Cuba.

Once you go through the door, climb up to the rooftop and you’ll be able to take a gorgeous picture of the Havana skyline — and really get a feel for the shabby beauty of this city.

Just be careful, Joe warns. There could be loose wires hanging down, and the stairwell might be so dilapidated your foot could fall through a step.

In the squares of Havana — and, heck, pretty much everywhere in the city — you’ll hear music and see people dancing

In the squares of Havana — and, heck, pretty much everywhere in the city — you’ll hear music and see people dancing

You have to be prepared for the money situation.

Because there are no ties to American banks, you can’t use credit cards or U.S. currency, and there aren’t any ATMs available. That means you’ve got to plan for how much money you think you’ll spend on your entire trip and bring that with you.

“It’s very nerve-racking,” Joe tells us. He wishes they had brought an extra $500 so they had a nice cushion and weren’t constantly worried they’d run out of money.

The two of them converted their money into Canadian dollars and then into CUC, the Cuban convertible peso. $1 US = 1 CUC, but most everything in Cuba is “dirt cheap,” according to Joe. (The one exception: Cuban cigars are still expensive.)

To make things more confusing, locals use one currency, and tourists another.

Havana is a crumbling, withering, exotic and alive city. It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and — despite years of neglect — too damned beautiful.
— Joe

Don’t fall for money scams.

Joe and Scott obviously weren’t the only Americans frustrated with the money situation. A swindler on the street insisted he could take them to state banks that would let them convert money, but it ended up being a wild goose chase. The man of course still wanted to be paid for his time and effort.

Everything in Cuba is a ghost of its former glory

Everything in Cuba is a ghost of its former glory

Understand exactly what you’re getting with a casa particular.

When Joe was looking into accommodations, he wanted to find something akin to Airbnb. He found what’s called a casa particular, and the place looked wonderful in the pictures. Best of all, it was only $30 a night.

“Lower your expectations, though,” Joe warns.

He and Scott arrived at the building, “which looked like a prison — I like to embellish a bit,” Joe adds in an aside. They climbed up to the 7th floor and were greeted by an extended family lined up in the living room, from niños to abuelos. One of the family members gave Joe and Scott a key and pointed to a door in the corner of the room. The two of them went in and kept whispering to each other, “They’re gonna leave, right? Right?!

No such luck. Turns out they were just renting a room, and the family remained during their stay.

It ended up being all right; the mother cooked them and the children breakfast every morning, and they made their best attempts to communicate or just kept to themselves.

“You’re gonna rough it a bit,” Joe says. “But really: AC, a toilet and a bed — that’s all you need.”

They ended up staying at the casa particular, but looked into hotels. The rates were affordable. “If you pay much more than $60, you’re paying too much,” according to Joe.

The Malecón, Havana’s waterfront district, is popular with the gays

The Malecón, Havana’s waterfront district, is popular with the gays

Cubans tend to be OK with gays.

On the plus side, Joe says they don’t aggressively punish people for being gay in Cuba. They’re starting to get more open-minded, he adds, and there’s a small gay scene along the Malecón, the waterfront strip downtown.

The Malecón is the best spot to watch the sunset — and to pick up a prostitute!

The Malecón is the best spot to watch the sunset — and to pick up a prostitute!

Watch out for the whores.

There are prostitutes everywhere in Havana, Joe says. They’re known as jineteras, and they’re particularly aggressive, always on the lookout for foreigners.

One day Joe and Scott were sitting at a café, when a Cuban woman who had teeth missing started chatting with them. They thought it was great to meet such a colorful, friendly local. Then she disappeared, soon returning with two young jineteras in tow. Turns out she was a madam and wanted to pimp out a couple of her girls!

Joe took Scott’s hand and indicated that the two of them were together. “You should have seen the look on their faces. They acted like they had never heard of such a thing,” Joe says, laughing.

Go right into a hotel, climb up to the rooftop, which usually has a pool and bar — and enjoy the ideal spot for an afternoon siesta

Go right into a hotel, climb up to the rooftop, which usually has a pool and bar — and enjoy the ideal spot for an afternoon siesta

Learn the secret to a perfect siesta.

Remember how you’re supposed to go into every doorway you come across? Joe especially recommends this with hotels. In the afternoon, after a morning walking in the blazing sun, he and Scott would head to a hotel and go straight up the stairs.

“Every hotel has a rooftop pool and bar, so that was our afternoon delight,” he says. “We took naps there instead of our room.”

The streets of Havana are filled with classic American cars from the 1950s. You might say time stands still, after Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo

The streets of Havana are filled with classic American cars from the 1950s. You might say time stands still, after Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo

The shopping isn’t great.

There’s not a huge tourist economy in Cuba, though it’s somewhat popular with Canadians and Europeans. Joe found that many locals hadn’t met too many Americans.

He was surprised and disappointed to discover that there weren’t any local handicraft markets like you’ll find in other parts of the world.

And because Joe and Scott were worried about running out of money too soon, the two of them did most of their shopping at the airport before they flew home, loading up on Caribbean rum.

They did hear about a big shopping warehouse by the harbor. “There was booth after booth,” Joe says, “but it was all the same T-shirts and crap. And it all said, ‘Made in Canada.’”

Many cafés are found in interior courtyards of buildings

Many cafés are found in interior courtyards of buildings

Search out (or stumble upon) the secret cafés.

As Joe has suggested, “You really do have to walk into every building you can.” Some of them will suddenly open into what can only be described as gorgeous interior courtyards that house cafés.

“Walking through Havana really is a voyage of discovery,” our intrepid traveler tells us.

 

Take a “cab.”

The taxis in Havana aren’t anything like those in the United States, Joe says. They could be a flatbed truck you’re sitting in the back of, holding on for dear life. “Whatever has wheels could be your cab,” he explains.

Needless to say, there aren’t any meters in the cabs, so tell your driver how much you’ll pay and agree on a price before you even get in.

Spend some time exploring the Colón Cemetery, where Christopher Columbus’ remains were once enterred

Spend some time exploring the Colón Cemetery, where Christopher Columbus’ remains were once enterred

Visit the Colón Cemetery.

One of the cab trips Joe and Scott took (in the previously described flatbed truck) was out to the Colón Cemetery. Like us, Joe loves graveyards and added this one to their itinerary. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the Americas, and once housed the remains of Christopher Columbus — before his body was relocated elsewhere.

You can spend a pleasant couple of hours wandering the elaborately carved stark white monuments near a lemon yellow chapel.

The Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

See a show at a historic hotel.

Wanting to go to one of the famous Tropicana shows, Joe and Scott got tickets for the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a large hotel on the Malecón, where mobsters and celebrities hung out in the gilded past.

The show was everything they expected: “a definite Caribbean feel, with Carmen Miranda types in frilly shirts and bongo drums,” Joe says.  

“I kept waiting for Ricky Ricardo to come out,” he adds.

“Did you see Charo?” Duke asks, to which Joe exclaims, “Everyone is Charo there!”

 

Bring goodies for the kids.

As Joe mentioned, the Cuban people get only the essentials. As such, the kids don’t have many toys.

Joe hit up Target and brought toys and school supplies and books and Barbies and balls.

“We spent one day just handing out toys,” Joe says, “like a gringo Santa Claus.”

Don’t just think about the kids, either: “The women will bow at your feet if you bring them a hair scrunchie!” Joe adds. “It’s better diplomacy, PR for Americans than Trump’s policies.”

Joe and Scott hopped on a bus and spent some time at a resort on Varadero Beach

Joe and Scott hopped on a bus and spent some time at a resort on Varadero Beach

Get out of the city and hit the beach.

Joe and Scott decided to take a day trip to Varadero, a beach destination three hours away. They stayed at an all-inclusive resort, where everyone was very friendly and the beach was beautiful.

To get there, they could have taken a cab for about $70, but with their cash limited, they decided to hop on a rickety old bus, which took them to Varadero for about 10 bucks.

 

Be a bit daring when you visit Havana, Cuba — and adopt the party lifestyle. You’ll see people listening to music and dancing everywhere you go. You might as well join them. Who knows when you’ll next be able to visit what Joe calls the Forbidden Land? –Wally

The Flower Cart. #Cuba #havana #carribean  #streetphotography #urbandecay

A post shared by JK_Urban / Joe Koecher (@jk_urban) on

See more of Joe’s amazing photography on his Instagram page.

9 Tuk Tuk Tips

What is a tuk-tuk taxi? And what do you need to know about this mode of Thai transportation so you don’t get taken for a ride?

The only good part of getting scammed is that we got some funny pics of Wally driving a tuk-tuk — much to Duke’s dismay

The only good part of getting scammed is that we got some funny pics of Wally driving a tuk-tuk — much to Duke’s dismay

Most of the time during your stay in Chiang Mai, you’ll be traveling around in the cute contraptions with the adorable name: tuk-tuks. These three-wheeled vehicles are like teeny-tiny open-air motorbike chariots. The ones in Chiang Mai really only fit two passengers comfortably, though three could probably squeeze in.

If you’re in the Old City, or anywhere nearby, you should be able to flag one down and go anywhere you want for an affordable price. Here are nine tips to follow when hiring a tuk-tuk:

He stopped outside the gate and kicked us to the curb. So much for good karma.

1. Negotiate your price before getting in the tuk-tuk.

You’re exhausted from walking all day. It can be tempting to hop into the tuk-tuk and then talk prices. Resist.

In Chiang Mai, you should be able to go short distances for 100 baht. Let the driver quote a price first. If it's less than 100, score! If it's not, and you’re traveling within or just outside the Old City, try insisting upon 100‎฿.

Walk away if they won't come down in price. They'll cave — most of the time. (We didn’t have much luck playing hardball during a crowded event, like the Saturday Walking Market, for instance.) But if they don't accept your price, you should be able to find another tuk-tuk right away.

 

2. Know exactly where you’re going.

You don’t have to know the route — just the address of your destination. Most addresses in Chiang Mai will be four or five lines long and seem to include streets, districts, subdistricts and even the nearest gate in the ancient walled city.

Have your destination address ready to go on your phone to show the driver.

 

3. BYOM: Bring your own map.

Some drivers have their own maps, but play it safe and bring your own. It's easier to point on a map than to show English addresses. So just whip out your copy of Nancy Chandler’s map of Chiang Mai (it seems as if everyone’s got one). Before you head somewhere, try to find where you are currently and where you’d like to go.

A couple of fellow travelers told us about a great resource: the app Maps.me, where you can download a comprehensive map of the city that you can access offline.

Drivers like to orient themselves by gates. Look at the closest one to your destination and point to it on the map.

 

4. They treat two lanes like three.

This can be a bit nerve-racking if you focus on it too much. Granted, tuk-tuks are pretty small and two of them can almost fit abreast in a lane of traffic. But they weave in and out of traffic — some of it oncoming — so the best thing to do is just put your trust in your driver and try to enjoy the ride. And hang on tight.

 

5. They lay off the horn.

It's the polar opposite of India, where drivers never stop honking. Perhaps it's their quiet Buddhist nature. But I sure ain’t complaining.

 

6. Watch for the fake-out tuk-tuks.

When you really just want to find some nice open-air transport back to your hotel, standing on the side of the road in the blazing heat, you’ll inevitably get your hopes dashed by vehicles that look a lot like tuk-tuks but aren’t. They have a motorbike with a sidecar sort of thing, usually used to carry food.

 

7. When desperate, flag down a red taxi (song thaew).

If you go to a more remote locale (like the mostly abandoned JJ home décor market Duke wanted to try out), you might not find a tuk-tuk. In these instances, you’ll have to flag down a song thaew (literally “two rows), so named for the seating in the back of these modified trucks. They’re covered and can get quite hot inside.

You'll have to share these with other riders most of the time, and they make various stops as they go along. It’s best to know what your destination looks like, since it’s not as easy to converse with the driver as it is in a tuk-tuk.

The good thing is that these are quite cheap. It says all rides are 30฿ on the side of the vehicle — but we always paid a bit more and didn’t argue.  

 

8. If you want to go farther afield, hire a driver for the day or half-day.

We had a fantastic experience with Tommy (you can email him at t.tommy2556@gmail.com). His price was competitive — in fact, I think the drivers must all decide on a price, and everyone sticks to it. Tommy speaks fluent English and has a penchant for love songs from the ’70s. We enjoyed his company so much, we hired him three of the days we spent in Chiang Mai.

 

9. Avoid this tuk-tuk scam.

Yes, Duke and I still manage to get swindled now and then.

On our first day in Chiang Mai, we saw a tuk-tuk driver at the first temple we visited, then again later in the day. He offered to take us on a tour of the Old City as well as a handicraft market for 150‎฿. He told us his name is Chi, the first three letters of our hometown Chicago, so I felt it must be kismet. You pronounce his name “Shy,” though he's anything but.

Our “tour” turned out to be a total crock. Chi took us to tourist trap shops outside the Old City, where everything is overpriced and the desperate salespeople cling to you. We cruised through them, though, in solidarity to Chi, after he explained that he gets a stamp from each place (and one imagines some sort of commission).

After five of those shops, Chi said he'll take us to the Old City. Instead, he stopped outside Tha Phae Gate and essentially kicked us to the curb, waving across the street and dismissing us. So much for good karma.

If you see Chi (heck, he might even have a picture of me and Duke to help lure you in), don’t fall for his scam. –Wally

Travel Advice: 4 Essential Tips for Planning a Trip

Our vacation planning process involves a lot of research, blog surfing — and negotiation.

Travel guides, maps, blogs and photo books are all part of our travel planning process

Travel guides, maps, blogs and photo books are all part of our travel planning process

As Wally and I count down the days to embark on our next adventure, I wanted to share a glimpse of our planning process that occurs during the months prior. The anticipation is part of the fun of travel.

Southeast Asia had me at hello after our first trip abroad eight years ago. I’m super-excited for our trip to the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

 

1. Do research. A whole lot of it.

How do we plan our trips? It typically involves reading through numerous travel blogs, an assortment of travel guides, books on traditional architecture, religion and history, and digging into Pinterest and Instagram. This process consumes countless hours, transforming our itinerary as we add and adjust based on our discoveries. Our interests include history, culture, heritage, arts and shopping.

Typically, I create broad brushstrokes first, which we then whittle down together. I use Google docs so we can both share and contribute. It’s important for each of us to express our desires and agree upon what kind of vacation we want to experience.

 

2. Be flexible.

While it's important to have a game plan, be sure you leave yourself free to make unexpected discoveries.

For our recent trip planning, the hotel we originally agreed upon was not available for a few of the days we would be there, so we found another place. We made the reservation about four months ago.

 

3. Make a list. Or two.

When it comes to plotting our itineraries, Wally has a system which he refers to as A-list and B-list. A-list activities are top priority, and B-list less so. For example, on Instagram I saw that someone we follow, @alexblock, visited a restaurant in Chiang Mai called As Café. It has a 3D printer that will make a pancake in the likeness of your face. When I told Wally about it, he said, “Definite B-list,” but I'd argue that it's a strong B+ for sure. Who wouldn't want to exclaim, “I’m gonna eat my face?”

What type of things made it onto our A-list, you ask? Ziplining through the jungle. An elephant sanctuary. And temples. Lots and lots of temples.

There really are a seemingly endless amount of things to see and experience in and around the second largest city in Thailand. Pretty soon we had a short list(s) and were able to come to an agreement on prioritization.

 

4. Don't try to pack too much in.

Originally we debated tacking on a few days in Bagan, Myanmar. I'll admit I'm slightly obsessed since having read that it’s one of interior designer Vicente Wolf's favorite travel destinations. But after some thoughtful consideration and gentle affirmation from Alana Morgan of the indispensable blog Paper Planes, we knew we had made the right decision to stay the entire time in Chiang Mai.

Why rush things? It’ll be fun to really get to know a place, without rushing off to another country. –Duke

9 Tips for Navigating the Fes Medina — and Making It Out Alive

OK, that’s a bit dramatic. But Fez, Morocco is an intense city to explore. Read these tips before you go.

A donkey overpacked with boxes is about as much of a traffic jam you’ll encounter in the Fès medina

Fès is a city of discoveries. You never know what lies around the next corner. You cannot imagine the beauty that hides behind a plain wall once that wooden door opens.

As such, though, it can be intimidating as well. I’m not gonna lie: That first day we had booked to explore the medina on our own, we were hesitant to leave the riad. We really had to work up our courage. Because once you step foot outside the door, you have to be prepared to not only get lost, but also to deal with local men making snide comments, hoping to get you to pay them to act as guides.

For the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Landmarks like mosque towers don’t really help you find your way around the medina — there are lots of them, and once you turn a corner, they’re gone

1. Get a guide on your first day.

It’s nice to put yourself in someone else’s hands on your first day in Fès. Our guide, Abdul, was fantastic, and we just followed him around as he led us to the major sites. It’s nice to get them out of the way, know you’ve ticked the “important” stuff off your list, and that you have nothing left but to shop and eat (and hit a hammam for a spa day).

 

2. Pay close attention to how to get to the Blue Gate.

It all comes back to the Blue Gate, it seems. We took a daytrip to the Roman ruins and mosaics of Volubilis, and had a guide from the riad lead us to the Blue Gate just outside of the medina to meet our driver (there aren’t any cars allowed in the medina — and anyway they wouldn’t fit on the narrows twists and turns).

I literally just kept track of the major turns we made: left, left, right, right, right. And that was all we needed to retrace our steps the following day. Sure, we took a turn too soon a couple of times, but just backtracked once we hit a dead end. We got back to the Blue Gate eventually. And from there you can hit one of the major thoroughfares of the medina.

You never know what lies around the next corner in Fès. It might be a bunch of roosters tied to a cage in front of a gorgeous doorway

3. Ignore the hustlers.

As mentioned, you’ll pass young men every so often who want to con you into paying them to act as guides. “There’s nothing that way,” they’ll tell you. “The Blue Gate isn’t down there,” they’ll say. Don’t pay them any mind. Unless, of course, you truly are hopelessly lost. And then agree to a reasonable fee before you have them lead you back to your hotel or guesthouse.

We didn’t end up having to do this in Fès but did so twice in Marrakech.

 

4. Chat with your fellow travelers over breakfast.

Because we talked with a lovely British couple, Susan and Colin, our first morning at Dar Bensouda, we learned about the gardens (which happened to be closed for the Sacred Music Festival, but still) and the tapas bar across the street, Mezzanine (a welcome change from couscous and tagines).

They also told us about the Ruined Garden, which was close to our riad, and ended up being our favorite restaurant in Fès.

 

5. Follow the signs.

One of the best ideas Fassi business owners ever had was to put up small rectangular signs throughout the medina. Coming back from the souks or the Blue Gate, we started noticing signs for nearby dars and riads (guesthouses). After a day or so, we knew which ones would lead us close enough to our own lodgings that we could find our way.

We also knew that there were signs that led from Riad Dar Bensouda to the Ruined Garden. So once we passed that, we followed the signs back to our temporary home. This gets a bit tricky — you have to turn a corner and then glance back to make sure there’s a sign pointing back to the restaurant. But for the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Abdul took us to the narrowest street in the medina:

6. Walk with confidence.

This was advice given to us by Susan and Colin. It really did help put some of the would-be guides in their place. They’d look at us, walking with a purpose, and then go back to their conversations.

To help get you into the mindset, imagine yourself a local. Or at least someone who’s been in the city for some time.

This was harder to do when we made a wrong turn, hit a dead end and had to walk back past a group of men. But fake it till you make it. If they say something, just tell them, “We’re good.”

 

7. Try your smartphone.

We didn’t have a data plan abroad, so we didn’t use use our phones. But fellow travelers said that there were Google Maps or another app that was surprisingly helpful for navigating the medina. I’m a bit skeptical, given the labyrinthian nature of this ancient city — but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

A butcher in one of the more-populated areas of the medina

8. Let yourself get lost.

Everyone doles out this advice. And it’s all well and good, as long as you’re not trying to find something specific. For our third day in Fès, we had nothing planned but wandering the medina and shopping. And that was the day we didn’t worry if we didn’t know where we were going — just so long as we were back in the safety of our riad by dark.

 

9. Friday is a great day to have as an early day in Fès.

This is the day of worship for Muslims. So wandering on Friday is actually a lot more chill. You’ll get hassled less, as mosques keep many of the people away. As an added bonus, shops that are open are often willing to give a good deal since business will be slow.


As I mentioned, the Fès medina can be intimidating. But by following this advice, you should be able to navigate the seemingly endless twists and turns on your own…somewhat successfully. –Wally

Travel Karma

Some trips are blessed, some cursed.

We are all connected, as this detail from a Jain temple in Rajasthan, India shows

My son’s friend went off a cliff on a defective scooter on the Greek island of Poros. He had to be flown to Athens on the orders of the local doctor whose limited English had him explain, “I can see his mind.” In other words, a big gash in the head.

My rented jeep was confiscated when the owner saw a wrecked scooter in the back. My son’s scooter was confiscated when he rode through town during siesta looking for help. Bad travel karma.

We all put one foot slowly behind the other, except for a newlywed groom who turned and ran, knocking his bride to the ground without ever breaking stride. They did not speak for the rest of the trip.


My two friends and I met Ahmed on the train in Morocco from Rabat to Fès. Ahmed was middle-aged, skinny, snaggle-toothed — too much sugar in the mint tea — and extremely talkative. He was a nice man and we had three hours to kill. We heard about his nine siblings and his extended family of 45, who prevent him from selling his father’s riad since he can’t get everyone to sign the papers. Ahmed worked for the leather cooperative.

He wasn’t pushy but he gave us his number. When we called, he sent Abdul, who guided us to the tannery and gave us a tour of the medina, two hours, more than five miles, much of it uphill. He led us through the rat’s maze of streets and the crush of people and didn’t seem to mind that, although we bought leather, we didn’t buy anything else. A nice guy showing people his hometown. Good travel karma.


Bad travel karma can haunt you for years.

We were told by the guide in Zimbabwe that if charged by a lion, we must not run and we must not panic. We set off on foot through Matusadona on Lake Kariba. A female lion crossed the dry riverbed we were walking down. We stopped. She disappeared into the bush. We went on. She charged when we came even with her and her two cubs.

A charging lion makes a noise that shakes the earth, a growl that starts in the soles of your feet and travels to the back of your neck like a lightning striking. We all froze. The guide raised his gun but did not cock it. We stared at her. She stared at us. The guide whispered, “Back up.” We all put one foot slowly behind the other, except for a newlywed groom who turned and ran, knocking his bride to the ground without ever breaking stride. The guide scooped her up with one hand while still aiming at the lioness. The bride and groom did not speak for the rest of the trip. Bad travel karma is a bad start to a marriage.



Good travel karma can be accrued.

In Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, taxis are often shared. You give the driver your destination, but if there’s room, he may stop and pick up somebody else. Sometimes even if there’s not room. Cabs never use their meters and never have change. Pay it forward. How much for the lady in the front seat with the two gallons of olive oil?

A little global goodwill goes a long way, and you may earn so much good travel karma that your Airbnb host serves a lunch of tagine with fresh sardines and warm bread.

 

How to Accrue Good Travel Karma

  • Don’t give money to beggar children; give pencils.
  • Always give away leftovers.
  • Pack used clothes to trade at street markets in sub-Saharan Africa. They can be worn or sold. Used jeans, and you’re royalty for a day.
  • Pose for pictures with people. I am in the family albums of more Indian families than I can count, often with their children in my lap.

Karma goes around and it comes around, the original global energy. –Rebecca

The Unpleasant Experience of Hiring a Driver in India

Darkness turned to daylight as we awaited our driver. At least we had stray dogs to keep us company

Darkness turned to daylight as we awaited our driver. At least we had stray dogs to keep us company

Our road trip from Baroda to Dungarpur taught us not to expect your driver to speak English, show up on time or care about your sanity.

We weren't having any luck finding a driver who spoke English. (Prakash informed us that people who spoke English got the good jobs, and apparently “chauffeur” doesn’t fit into that category.)

An online search revealed a company called TaxiForSure. It seemed professional. It was also pretty much our only option. So we arranged transport to Dungapur. We requested a pick-up of 5 a.m. According to Google Maps, it’s a pretty straightforward four-hour drive from Baroda.

A sullen, if handsome, 20-something driver showed up, playing what seemed to be techno versions of Bollywood music blared at full volume.

At 5 the next morning, our friend and host George got a confirmation text from TaxiForSure, which provided the driver’s name, license plate number and estimated arrival time.

A few minutes later, he received a call from someone at TaxiForSure, who regretted to inform us that our original driver would not be coming — his car broke down.

I’d like to point out that no matter how much you try to plan, things can change unexpectedly (and inevitably, it seems), for India moves in its own unpredictable way.

We were waiting outside in front of George’s apartment building (he calls it his “tenement”). George saves his kitchen scraps to leave outside for the cows. As he was tossing a bag onto the heap, a neighbor who was up early yelled at him, telling him not to just throw it there — that there’s an actual place to leave food scraps down the street near the ashram. The neighbor was just doing his part to attempt to reduce the ridiculous amount of garbage strewn about. Indeed, everywhere you go, you see cans, paper and plastic bags picked at and chewed on by rats, jackdaw birds, stray dogs and cows.

 

How “OK, OK” Can Mean Anything But

We waited. George called back after a half-hour had passed, and then again every 15 minutes. The conversations went something like this:

“The driver is in the area.”

“The driver is very close.”

“The driver is 3 to 5 minutes away.”

“The driver is 2 to 3 minutes away.”

George hung up in a huff. “Indians will always tell you, ‘OK, OK,’” he said. “But that doesn’t mean anything. It can mean he’s hours away, or he could be here in 5 minutes. I’ve learned they tell you what you want to hear — even if it’s not the truth.”

Two hours in total had passed before George received another text from TaxiForSure.

Your taxi has arrived.

It was now 7 a.m.

Beep! Beep! A sullen, if handsome, 20-something driver named Pankach, who only spoke Gujarati showed up, playing what seemed to be techno versions of Bollywood music blared at full volume, which we endured the entire trip.

Before we left Baroda, he pulled the car over, and a man approached and gave him a bag full of clothes. Then our road trip was in full swing.

 

Road Trippin'

Once we were outside the city limits, the scenery changed, and we began to pass rural homes, which were transformed into hand-painted advertisements for the sturdy but humble materials cement and brick.

Many of the signs touted Ambuja Cement. The company's logo is a comically proportioned man with a tiny head and a ginormous right bicep embracing a pair of buildings.

Elaborate conical Hindu temples dotted the landscape, confections in bubblegum pink, white, mint and lemon yellow. Cloth flags atop spires fluttered in the breeze.

We weren't sure we were ever going to make it. But we were finally en route to Dungapur, otherwise known as the City of Hills, located at the southernmost Aravalli mountains of Rajasthan.

We almost got used to the Bollywood Molly dance party in the car. Almost. –Duke

RELATED: 3 Tips for Hiring a Driver in India

No matter how much you try to plan, things can change unexpectedly (and inevitably, it seems), for India moves in its own unpredictable way.

Oh India! Why We Decided to Finally Give India a Try

George, Duke and Wally enjoying pre-dinner drinks at the Mews at Udai Bilas Palace, our hotel in Dungarpur, India

George, Duke and Wally enjoying pre-dinner drinks at the Mews at Udai Bilas Palace, our hotel in Dungarpur, India

Purchasing guidebooks to India and suffering the side effects of malaria pills.

 

When Wally received an email in early September 2014 from our friend George, inviting us to visit him in India, we agreed to make it our next adventure.

India had been on both of our shortlists of places to go and having a friend there made the decision a no-brainer. Plus we decided to plan the trip for the dead of winter, which would give us a much-needed reprieve from the cold, gray days of February in Chicago.

India is an expansive country comparable in size to the United States.

Wally purchased travel guides (DK and Lonely Planet) while I began researching online. We also got the informative and detailed Blue Guide India by Sam Miller from the Chicago Public Library. Together, over the following three months, we mercilessly altered and tweaked our itinerary in hopes of reducing the amount of time spent traveling. After all, we only had 12 days, two of which would be lost getting there and back. India is an expansive country comparable in size to the United States.

 

Bitter Pills to Swallow

Two days prior to leaving for our trip, we began taking our daily dose of Malarone, an oral malaria preventative. After swallowing the first tablet, I felt my stomach cramp and was convinced they were giving me the shits.

Wally’s experience was different. He thought it caused him to produce an excessive flow of saliva, and by the second dose I felt it, too.

In addition to the above, we both experienced some of the more common side effects:

• Mouth sores

• Shortness of breath

• Strange dreams

I had a curious dream where my niece morphed into a combination of an Ewok and our calico cat. As she is black, Wally remarked that my subconscious is racist.

I countered that Ewoks are soft, fuzzy and cute. But he wasn't buying it. –Duke