We are Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott, a husband-and-wife storytelling team. Fourteen years ago we began with a one-way ticket and an insatiable curiosity about the world and its people. More than 90 countries later, we are still going...and still married.
Should I travel to India on an organized tour? Or should I travel India independently or solo? We’ve experienced India both ways – the first couple trips on our own and our most recent trip on a small group tour. Recent conversations with our audience, especially solo female travelers, told us a look at the benefits and downsides of small group travel and tours in India was in order.
India is one of our favorite countries. At turns it is complicated yet simple, beautiful and tragic. It overwhelms the senses and is chock full of history, culture and humanity. This is one of the reasons why Dan chose it as his first trip abroad outside North America. It's why we’ve visited four times and why we have plans to return. However, the same features can make India a challenging and overwhelming independent travel destination.
During our most recent visit to India, we traveled to northern India on a tour book-ended by two train trips. Considering our previous travels there – independent, to offbeat locations, plenty of train journeys – a reader asked why we chose a tour and didn't organize train tickets and all else ourselves.
A good question.
Our group, aboard the toy train from Shimla to Kalka.
We wanted to experience traveling on a small group tour in India and compare it to our independent travels there. What would we like, what we wouldn’t like, and what we would recommend to others.
Here’s what we found. To us, the pros and cons of traveling in India with a small group tour.
Pros: The benefits of taking a tour in India
India can feel overwhelming and challenging navigate no matter what, but especially if it’s your first visit to the country, and even more so if you are new to international travel. In these circumstances, an organized tour handles the general structure and logistics of the trip and supplies a tour leader to give continual local context and help make sense of the often disorienting commotion so can focus yourself on a deeper understanding and appreciation of the place you’re visiting.
Our group is invited to join in and help make chapatis at the Golden Temple, Amritsar.
An organized tour in India isn’t only for newbie travelers. For example, my aunt who went to school in India and lived there for many years mentioned taking a similar tour as ours so as to enjoy a “hassle-free trip.”
This got us to thinking. What are some of the other benefits of an organized tour in India?
Expertise of local tour leaders and guides: When I travel, I’m the — sometimes annoying — one asking the guide endless questions. It’s my job, but I’m also just curious. Access to local expert guides enhances my learning and understanding of a place, of its history and culture. The best local guides also provide their own personal stories which provide color and texture to a travel experience. The most curious traveler wants to know: What is life really like here? My return often features reflection upon anecdotes and personal stories conveyed by tour leaders and guides. These stories add shape to my travel memories. (Note: If you’re new to organized tours, or you already take them and want to make the most of them, read our article on how to make the most of an organized tour.
Hassle-free logistics and organization: On average people visit a minimum of four websites – and spend endless hours researching — before booking a trip and its various components. Furthermore, making travel arrangements in country can absorb precious hours as you visit multiple offices — especially in India. When your logistics (train tickets, accommodation) are organized by someone else, it frees you to focus on the experience.
Do more with limited time: Travel only by public transport and you’ll experience lag time between buses, trains and other transfers. With a private bus or transfer waiting for you, you can see more in a limited amount of time. This mode of travel also features the built-in opportunity to experience smaller destinations along the way.
Itineraries: We enjoy the sort of itinerary where marquee sites form the anchors of an itinerary, while community-based experiences and interactions are skillfully interspersed, again to provide context, depth and texture to an experience or destination. Some of our G Adventures itineraries have featured access to activities and destinations in select local communities, something that would have been difficult and time-consuming for us to have sourced and arranged ourselves.
Free time and optional activities: Even though we enjoy traveling with a group, we also like to explore on our own and have free time in our schedule. For example, in Dharamshala while the majority of our group visited a Tibetan Institute, we opted to day-hike Triund Hill. Take advantage of flexibility when it presents itself.
Cost: Traveling in a small group tour typically costs less per person than an equivalent private tour as costs are distributed across the group.
Medical support: Fortunately, this wasn’t an issue during our tour of northern India. But it’s a wildcard to note. We’ve witnessed passengers falling sick, and we’ve taken note of their comfort in having a trusted, local guide on the visit to the pharmacy or doctor for language interpretation, support and guidance. This is particularly important to note for destinations one might consider gastro-intestinally challenging.
Benefits of an India tour for young female travelers
Traveling in India can be a challenge for young women, especially those who stand out with light hair and fair skin. Although encounters with men are not on the whole physically dangerous, the intensity of attention afforded to young women in India can be unpleasant or even feel invasive. To prepare, here are some travel safety tips for women traveling in India.
Traveling in a group tour helps offers a bit of a shield from some of that attention. It offers the guide and other passengers an opportunity to step in during uncomfortable situations. Having a local tour leader and guide also provides an additional level of protection.
For example, we traveled with four young blonde women on our northern India itinerary. Their appearance literally stopped traffic. Cars pulled over, disgorging local passengers eager to take selfies with them. In circumstances where crowds of people gathered around them, the intensity bumped up a notch. If each woman had been traveling independently — without the buffer of our group and the watchful eye of our local tour leader — the feeling could become more overwhelming, turning to something frightening or even violating.
One woman in our group, Ellie, summed it up well: “It [the attention] is definitely something that young women especially need to take into consideration before visiting [India] for the first time. It can be quite a shock if you're not prepared!”
We've traveled enough in India and spoken to countless young solo female travelers about their experiences in the country. On this account, our case is not overstated. Here's
Benefits for solo travelers
Regardless of whether you are male or female, traveling solo to India for the first time can feel daunting and disorienting. There are also endless stories of scams to which travelers have fallen prey in India. Having a local guide to ask about things and the support of a group of fellow passengers can help mitigate some of those risks and smooth the travel experience.
Our group settles in for a day of train travel, from Shimla to Kalka to Delhi.
For example, one of the people in our group had always traveled with his wife. She didn't have any interest in traveling to India, but he really did. However, didn’t want to do it entirely on his own. Our tour offered him the itinerary he wanted (he was a train buff), the structure and support of the tour to handle logistics and itinerary, and a group of fellow travelers to hang out with if he wanted to.
Upshot of the story: he — and we — all really had a great time, not only with the experience, but spending time with one another. After this trip, he’s begun to consider taking small group tours to other destinations, especially to those places that don’t interest his wife or include activities she wouldn't enjoy.
Cons: The down side of taking a tour in India
An organized tour may not be the best option for every traveler, or for every situation. Here are some of the potential downsides of taking a group trip in India:
Too fast paced: A fixed itinerary can feel as though you’re moving quickly with early mornings and long days packed with lots to see and do. This is true anywhere, but especially in India where sensory overload combined with limited rest can take its toll.
Not as much time to explore independently: We find that some experiences, particularly interactions with locals, happen more naturally when we’re on our own, rather than in a group. For example, chatting with market vendors, being invited for tea, random conversations with people on the street, or just getting lost and discovering something unexpected. Solo or independent travelers can appear more approachable to locals than a large group might.
Cost: Organized tours can be more expensive than choosing to arrange everything yourself, taking public transport everywhere and traveling without a guide. Those are also the same reasons that many prefer to pay a little extra for a tour.
Less street food exploration: Although all the meals on our tour were optional, we opted often to join the group as they were a fun group of people and we enjoyed their company. Because of this, we found that we ate street food or cafeteria food less often than we might have if we were traveling independently. For good reason and hygiene concerns, our tour guide tended to be more conservative with restaurant choices. The upside was that everyone in our group usually ordered different dishes and was open to sharing so we could sample different flavors and curries. And, no one in our group got sick during the trip.
Not getting along with other people in group: There’s always a risk that you’ll have “that traveler” in your group and he or she won't click with others. Fortunately, in the 14 G Adventures trips we've taken, we’ve encountered this only once – a traveler whose emotional problems were made worse by alcohol abuse. We steered clear and it was fine. Usually, the tour leader will address these issues early on so it doesn’t impact other passengers and the rest of the trip.
Connecting with vendors and sampling things on the street is sometimes easier to do without a group.
What to look for in an India tour
Sometimes when I mention taking a group tour I get a confused look: “You guys don’t look like tour people.”
We understand. We began as independent travelers. But our work, as well as our partnership with G Adventures, has exposed us to group travel, which we’ve enjoyed for the experiences we've had and the people we've met along the way. For us, this has also built a bit of travel empathy, whereby we appreciate an array of travel styles, preferences and personalities beyond our own.
I should also note that there's a stereotype of organized tours, based on a very particular type of organized tour: dozens of passengers, all the same age and nationality, traveling in an oversized bus, following a guide waving a flag or umbrella, looking disconnected as they’re shepherded from A to B, squeezing in as many tourist sites as possible into one day, punctuated by all-inclusive forgettable meals and unpunctuated by free moments to explore on one’s own.
We acknowledge this style may be preferable for some people. We wouldn’t recommend it though. And this style is vastly different from the one that we have written about above and elsewhere as we've reflected on our own personal experience.
Point is: regarding organized tours, there are many options these days. Know what they are and choose wisely to align with your preferences.
Even when traveling in a group, it's still a personal journey.
Here’s what we recommend for an organized tour of India:
We offer some general recommendations as you consider your own trip to India, especially one based in part or whole on a tour:
Small group: For us, the ideal group size is 16 persons or less.
Varied Itineraries: Keep a look out for routes and itineraries that not only include the usual suspects (major sites and destinations), but also smaller and lesser-known destinations not offered by all tour operators. The lesser-known destinations provide texture and often feature the stories you’ll remember most.
Inclusion of a community project or social enterprise experience: these community visits often provide travelers with a deeper, more connected experience, while the money from the tour benefits a local organization or community. If you’re going on a G Adventures tour, search for tours that integrate a Planeterra Foundation project experience in the itinerary (hint: it's one of the filters now on their search page).
Some free time: Make sure your itinerary offers some free time so you can explore on your own, engage in an optional activity with the group or just unwind and rest. No matter where and how you travel, it's unlikely that you'll want to be on the go all the time.
Combination of train and private transport: If you’re traveling in India, choose itineraries which..
Having fielded numerous questions about trekking in Ladakh — which trek to choose, how to find a trekking agency, when to go, how to get there, what to pack, and more — we’ve created this Ladakh Trekking Beginner’s Guide. We hope it encourages you to make the long journey to Ladakh and explore its stunning mountain landscapes and fascinating Ladahki and Tibetan Buddhist culture and people. You won't be sorry.
Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it's not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — technology, social media, blogging — and reconnect with nature and ourselves.
Our trek of the Markha Valley in Ladakh in India’s high Himalayas was one of our favorite treks of all time. We had dangerously high expectations, having dreamed of this region for over a decade. Fortunately, what we found in Ladakh and on our trek far exceeded what we had imagined, not only in terms of the stunning landscape but also the Ladakhi people.
Short attention span warning: This is a long post. The reason: it contains all we wished we'd found when we researched our own trip to Ladakh. Here is my attempt to put together all you need to know to choose, organize and then enjoy a trek in Ladakh. If questions remain, let us know!
Update: This article was originally published in January 2014 and updated in July 2019 with current 2019 prices, a Ladakh trekking packing list and other information.
Update: You can now buy the Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide with all the information from this site plus lots of extra details and other goodies (like packing and other preparation) in an easy ebook that you can download and take with you.
Choosing a trek in Ladakh
There are loads of trekking choices in Ladakh. Your choice will depend on the amount of time you have, how remote you'd like to go, and the difficultly level you seek. Some of the more remote treks require special permits as they may go into sensitive border areas, but trekking agencies can easily take care of this for you within a day or two. Room with a view from Hankar village along the Markha Valley Trek.
There are endless variations of treks you can take in Ladakh, with many taking you to remote areas and can go up to three weeks. You can find a full list of Ladakh trekking options here.
Some of the more popular treks in Ladakh include:
Markha Valley Trek (6-7 days): This is the one that we chose because it combined hiking and landscapes with people and culture by incorporating homestays with families in villages along the way. For us, this combination is ideal and resulted in a trekking experience that exceeded our expectations. The Markha Valley Trek is also the most popular Ladakh trek and we’re told it can get crowded in the high season (July and August). If you travel to Ladakh during high season, take this into consideration and perhaps choose a less popular trek to avoid crowded trails and home accommodations.
Hidden Valleys of Ladakh, Zanskar Range (9-10 days): This trek takes you into the Zanskar range and through small villages throughout the valley area. Camping gear is required as it’s not possible to do homestays for the entire trek.
Nubra Valley (5-6 days): This can either be done without much trekking for 2-3 days, or it can be a fuller trekking experience with camping, camel rides and more. We’ve heard the area is quite beautiful.
Kharnak trek (15 days): Begins like the Markha Valley trek but continues further south for another week. A Ladakhi trekking guide told us this is one of his favorite treks.
Rumtse to Tsomoriri (8-9 days): This was another favorite trek from a guide we spoke to because of the beauty of the lakes and the joy of interaction with shepherds along the way. This trek is on the short list for when we return.
Environmental Note: No matter which trek you choose, please remember that Ladakh is a high desert with a fragile environment. As visitors, we need to respect this reality and try to reduce our impact. Here is some good advice on traveling responsibly in Ladakh.
Water is scare in Ladakh, so please be mindful of this and take short showers and reduce your use of this precious resource. In addition, we ask you not to buy bottled water and instead use a refillable water bottle in both Leh and on your trek. This will reduce the plastic bottle waste already piling up in Ladakh, as well as the energy and resources used to transport the water bottles there.
To trek independently or with a guide?
Some treks require a guide due to the difficulty of the trail or local regulations. Other routes like the Markha Valley Trek can be done independently (e.g., without a guide) because the trail is pretty well marked and there are villages to stay in throughout the way. You then have the decision of whether to go on your own or hire a guide. Factors include: budget, your trekking experience, skill at reading trekking maps, and weather. Let's examine these.
Although our Markha Valley trek could have been done without a guide, we were thankful to have one. Having a local guide provided us with the peace of mind that we were always on the right path (as some of you may remember, we have a history of getting lost in mountains).
As luck would have it, we crossed our first Markha Valley trek mountain pass in the middle of a snow storm. Without our guide, we never would have found the correct approach. Two guys trekking independently with us said they would have turned back that day if it weren’t for our guide to help them find the path. Word to the wise: It pays to hitch a ride with Dan and Audrey…if they have a guide!
Our local guide also provided local context and culture (e.g., Ladakhi Buddhist) to the experience. We asked him many questions about his life growing up in a remote village in Ladakh and the changes he’d seen in his short lifetime. He served as an interpreter, providing us the flexibility to have conversations with families we stayed with or ask questions of people we'd met along the way. Friendly mother and daughter running a tea house where we ate lunch.
So while trekking Ladakh independently may save you some money and perhaps allow you a little more flexibility, our experience proved to us beyond a doubt that the benefits of having a guide in this region far outweighs the costs.
Ladakh Accommodation and Sleeping Options: Camping or Homestay?
Some treks will give you the option of either camping or homestays (staying with Ladakhi families in villages). Here are the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Camping: The primary advantage of camping (if you are going with an agency) is that it includes a horse to carry your bags so you don’t have to haul your stuff on your back up to 5,000+ meters and back down again. Another bonus: you can sometimes camp closer to passes, making for easier ascents. A perhaps obvious disadvantage of camping: sleeping in a tent when it’s rainy and cold or blowing snow can be unpleasant. In addition, this option is usually more expensive as you'll need your own cook and horse guide in addition to your trekking guide.
Homestays: If the trek you choose offers the option of homestays, we suggest taking it. Staying with Ladakhi families in villages throughout our Markha Valley trek was absolutely one of the highlights and delights of the experience. The people, culture and tradition ground you. Food (see below) is also a fun facet. Not to mention, homestays are typically less expensive than camping. Proud grandfather in our homestay in Skyu.
Note: We recently met the founder of Mountain Homestays, a social enterprise working to empower rural communities through the development of homestays together with local people and families. You can search for unique Ladakh homestays here, including those focused on astronomy where you have access to a powerful telescope to explore the sky in almost perfect high altitude and remote conditions.
What to expect in a Ladakhi homestay:
Home-cooked meals: All food is vegetarian, which is better and safer for the digestive system, particularly at altitude. Alert the trekking agency, your guide and host families in advance if you have any food allergies. Dinner is often quite hearty and is either a traditional Tibetan/Ladakhi meal like momos (Tibetan dumplings) or temo (twisted bread dumplings) with daal (lentils) or greens from the garden. All our dinners were made freshly for us and were very tasty. Breakfast, a little less remarkable, usually consists of Indian flat bread (chapatis) with butter and jelly, while lunch is some sort of bread with packaged sliced cheese, hard boiled egg and some snacks.
Sleeping area: Sleeping in homestays usually consists of mattresses on the ground with lots of blankets piled on top. If you’re trekking in the high season you might need to share your room with other trekkers. For us, we had our own room most nights. Take a sleep sack with you. Sheets looked pretty clean, but it was unclear when the last time blankets were cleaned.
Toilets: Expect bleak. Outhouses or compost toilets are usually attached to the house or just outside. They do the trick, but don’t expect any luxury here. Bring a headlamp so you don't, um, accidentally slip and fall.
Common room: Some of the best memories at the homestays come from hanging around drinking tea around the traditional stove in the big common room. The bedroom is for sleeping, but this common room is where you should spend most of your time during a homestay.
Traditional Ladakhi house with a big common room and stove.
What to look for in a Ladakhi trekking agency and guide.
Book a tour in advance or on the ground?
We did not make any bookings or inquiries for treks before arriving in Leh. We figured that we would use the two to three days acclimatizing in Leh (absolutely required if you plan to enjoy your trek) to research all our options and book our trek. Since we traveled in shoulder season, this provided plenty of time to make our arrangements.
If you decide to travel during high season (July-August), you may not have the same flexibility. Consider sending a few email inquiries in advance to be certain that agencies are not already at capacity with their guides and tours.
Update: If you are looking for a trek in Ladakh with social impact and purpose we recommend you check out Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE). We recently met the founder, Paras Loomba, and were impressed by him and the work of this social enterprise. Its mission is to electrify villages through solar energy, and one of the ways it does so is through trekking and travel experiences in Ladakh.
This means that its trekking expeditions not only provide travelers with an incredible trekking experience in Ladakh, but they also provide the opportunity to help bring electricity and solar energy to a remote mountain village. GHE also trains local families in hospitality and helps them set up homestays so that they have additional sources of income and employment that help keep people in these remote, rural areas. This not only preserves these villages, but also the unique culture in them that would otherwise die out with migration to bigger towns and cities.
Choosing a trekking agency in Leh
You will see trekking agents everywhere in Leh. Many of them will have signs outside advertising their treks, as well as notices if they are looking for more people to fill treks with specific departure dates. The idea here is that the more people who trek together and share a guide, the lower the per-person cost should be. We originally hoped to join one of these treks, but the timing didn’t work out with our schedule. Lunch break with a view of Kang Yaze Peak. Markha Valley Trek, Day 5.
We walked around Leh for an afternoon visiting various agencies asking questions about trek options, costs, departure dates and flexibility to add on stops. Most of the trekking agencies gave us a similar price range so our decision was made based on the feeling we got from the agency (e.g., did the agency feel like a middleman or were they actually responsible for their own guides and tours), their patience, and their flexibility to accommodate special requests.
We chose Ecological Footprint in the end because we liked how the owner, Stanzin, explained all our options and was flexible to work with us to create a trek that met our needs, not just one that fit into a prepackaged box. In addition, Stanzin is Ladakhi and know the community well. All the tours he operates use local people and aim to invest back into the communities. So while the tour was slightly more expensive than what some of the other tour agencies were offering, we felt that the price was worth it for the quality of the experience. We believed that our money was well spent.
We can also highly recommend our guide from Ecological Footprint, Dorjee Tondup. He is young but wise beyond his years and dispenses bits of perspective and peace everywhere he goes. His respectful approach to local people opened doors for us everywhere. His approach to everyone he met served as a lesson for life. He guides on all the major Ladakh trekking routes. Our guide, Dorjee, enjoying a moment along the Markha Valley Trek.
Choosing a guide
Although you may or may not have the option to choose a specific Ladakh trekking guide, we offer a few questions and suggestions to help you find a good match.
Ask to meet the guide before you leave on your trek.
This is something we usually do before any trek to give us peace of mind that we’ll get along well with our guide. We’ve never had to change guides, but if you do think that the guide assigned to you will be problematic then ask for a change. Remember, it’s a long journey. It will be particularly long if you must spend it with someone who rubs you the wrong way. Not to mention, you'll want someone you feel comfortable with and trust in the case that weather or health turn south. We know this firsthand because a guide from another agency who trekked alongside us in Ladakh annoyed absolutely everyone, including his own client. We spent energy trying to avoid him.
Ask for a Ladakhi guide.
During high season in Ladakh, demand for guides is high and so people come from all over India to guide for the summer. We don’t want to discriminate, but we feel that you'll have a better experience with someone who is a Ladakhi guide because of the knowledge of local culture and language. Our trekking companions had an Indian guide, and while he knew the mountain trails, he didn't know the families running the homestays or the Ladakhi language and culture.
Explain any special needs to the guide.
This goes for medical needs, as well as any other idiosyncrasies you might have. For example, we take a lot of photos so we stop a lot on the trail and slow things down. Alerting the guide in advance of this behavior lets the guide know not to worry when it takes us a while to go from point A to B. He can adjust his pace accordingly. One of the women trekking at the same time as us had back issues, so her guide would often carry one of her bags for her when her back ached. The idea: help your guide help you.
Estimated Costs for Markha Valley Trek
The updated price for our Markha Valley Trek (6 nights/7 days) including a guide, accommodation (homestay), food and transport to/from the trek is around 20,000 rupees per person. This also included a stop at Hemis Monastery on the way back to Leh. (Not all trekking agencies offer this, so ask about it. We really enjoyed the additional stop on the return and recommend it.) Why it's worth stopping at Hemis Monastery on the return to Leh.
This was slightly cheaper than some of the other trekking agencies while others offered bare bone prices at 1,600-2,000 rupees per person per day. Understand that you typically get what you pay for.
Homestay costs on Markha Valley Trek (Updated 2019)
If you do decide to do the Markha Valley Trek independently, find out in Leh what the official rate is for homestays that year. The official rate is a standard amount set every year by the homestay association so that the families all charge the same amount and don’t try to underbid each other (thereby causing tensions in the community).
Updated homestay prices, July 2019: The the standard Markha Valley homestay rate is 1,200 Rs ($17.50) per night per person. This includes dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. A tent at Nimiling is 1,400 Rs ($20.50).
When to Trek in Ladakh?
The trekking season in Ladakh really begins to take off early-to-mid June and runs until September. The high season is July and August with August being the busiest month. Rains usually start late August to September. If you can time it, we recommend going early in the shoulder season in June. Note that weather is always the wild card, however.
When travelers consider northern India, thoughts run to the Golden Triangle, the popular India tourist circuit of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. While we appreciate the appeal of sights like the Taj Mahal, there is much more to experience in northern India — without the crowds, scams and hustle of being on the tourist path.
Golden Temple at dawn, Amritsar.
That’s where some of the lesser known places in northern India like Amritsar, Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj, and Shimla come in. These destinations fall outside the popular and traditional India tourist itineraries and feature smaller towns with fewer foreign visitors (we were often the only ones), cooler temperatures, beautiful temples, a diversity of religions, a toy train that features one of the most picturesque train journeys in the country, and opening vistas to the edge of the snow-covered Himalayas.
This Experiential Guide offers 20 ideas and inspiration on what to do and places to visit in northern India outside the Golden Triangle, focusing instead on Amritsar, Dharamshala/McLeod Ganj, and Shimla. There is good reason why these areas of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have been our travel wish list for over a decade
The following experiences are highlights from our Northern India by Rail tour with G Adventures, and are presented in chronological order. If you are considering this tour and want to know what to expect, here’s a taste of the itinerary, activities and destinations you'll experience. If you decide to travel northern India independently, use this guide as inspiration to piece together your own one to two-week itinerary. Disclosure: This tour was sponsored and provided to us in conjunction with our partnership with G Adventures as Wanderers.
Northern India (Beyond the Golden Triangle): 20 Things to Do, Places to Visit, and Dishes to Eat
For those of you who love maps — as we do — here is a visual of our 7-9 day route through northern India on our G Adventures tour.
Our itinerary for 7-9 days in northern India.
1. Catch a ride from Delhi airport with a women only taxi company
Here’s something you don’t see every day: an all-women driver taxi service. Unusual in any destination, but especially so in India. As we exited Delhi airport all the drivers waiting to collect passengers were men, except for our driver, Reena.
Reena carves our way through Delhi during the morning rush hour.
Women on Wheels is a Planeterra Foundation project which partners with the Azad Foundation and the Sakha organization as they provide training and employment to disadvantaged women in Delhi. All G Adventures travelers arriving at Delhi airport have a Women on Wheels pickup included in their tour. This not only provides travelers a safe and comfortable ride to their accommodation in town, but it also means a steady source of income for the women drivers.
Reena, our driver, possessed the requisite nerves of steel and calm required to drive in Delhi, especially during its morning rush hour traffic.
Note: In addition to Delhi, Sakha also operates similar women-only taxi services in Kolkata and Jaipur. You can book your taxi online here.
2. Sit back and enjoy tea on the Delhi to Amritsar Shatabdi Express train
One of the reasons we chose this particular G Adventures tour in northern India: trains. We are train junkies. It’s our favorite way to travel, especially in India where the experience is more than just getting from A to B. It’s about the movement of the train, the flow of landscapes from urban to rural, the people you meet, and the melodic rhythm of life on an Indian train.
All aboard the Shatabdi Express train from Delhi to Amritsar.
Even tea time on the train is special.
A proper tea on the train from Delhi to Amritsar.
3. Admire the high kicks, posturing and mustache competition at the Wagah India-Pakistan border ceremony
Although we’ve experienced our share of bizarre land borders as we’ve crossed from one country to the next, we’ve never encountered anything like the Wagah border ceremony between India and Pakistan. The ceremony takes place daily in the late afternoon as the gates between the two countries prepare to close for the evening.
Imagine a stadium that seats 30,000 fans (on the Indian side), a military officer emcee who riles up the audience to cheer as loudly as possible to drown out the Pakistani crowds on the other side, an Indian flag waving parade of young women and girls, and a mosh pit where riled hordes dance to their favorite Bollywood songs.
Mosh pit, Bollywood style, at the Wagah border ceremony.
And this all goes down before the actual ceremony even begins. Bollywood couldn’t script it any better. Here’s a video taste of what you get:
Don’t worry though. At the end of all this machismo and power posturing, the sides shake hands, indicating peace holds for yet another day.
Visiting the Wagah border ceremony: Foreigners are separated from Indians as they enter the stadium, then seated in a separate section. It can get very hot waiting for the festivities to begin. Consider choosing a seat in the shade up top before making your way down later. Security is tight. Leave all belongings in your vehicle, except the basics: passport, wallet, phone, and camera. Although small purses are usually allowed, camera bags are not.
4. Enjoy the Golden Temple at night
The Golden Temple in Amritsar by night: stunning. Not only does the physical beauty of this place make it so. The atmosphere — welcoming, peaceful and inclusive — does, too.
Beauty and peace of the Golden Temple at night.
As the preeminent pilgrimage site of Sikhism, the temple complex courses around the clock with visitors. Despite the constant flow of people, a calm, quiet and meditative feeling prevails. All are welcome, respected and even cared for, no matter their circumstances. ⠀
Even though we’d had the Golden Temple in Amritsar on our minds for years, the nuanced sort of wonder that defined our experience exceeded expectations.
Our suggestion: after taking a walk around the temple complex, find a quiet place to sit and simply be present.
5. Admire how a team of volunteers feeds 60-100k people each day at the Golden Temple langar (kitchen)
One of the most remarkable features of the Golden Temple at Amritsar is its langar, a sprawling kitchen serving free hot meals to 60,000-100,000 people each day. Just try to get your head around that. The scale of food service here boggles the mind.⠀
One of the many volunteers preparing breakfast for tens of thousands of people at the Golden Temple.
Also remarkable is that food preparation and service is accomplished mainly by volunteers, with ingredients and money donated by members of the community. Seva, or “selfless service,” is a key precept of the Sikh religion. The Golden Temple attracts volunteers from all over India, and the world.
A couple of the morning shift volunteers take a break.
During our morning tour, our local guide took us through the kitchen area to witness volunteers preparing for the breakfast shift. Everyone worked side by side — from fire-stoking to chapati-making to dish washing — focused solely on serving others. The atmosphere, humbling. The rhythm, meditative.
6. Enjoy winding views of the Himalayan foothills in Himachal Pradesh
As you depart the lowland plains of Amritsar and head into the hills of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the journey begins to switchback wind its way up into mid-mountain territory. Temperatures dip a bit, air freshens.
Snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas begin to appear as we enter Himachal Pradesh.
And the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas and Ladakh begin to reveal themselves in the distance, just as they accompany us on our drive to the towns of Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj.⠀
When you look at a map and consider distances in northern India it’s easy to think, “Oh, those distances aren’t so great. It won’t take long.”
What you’re not taking into consideration: the small 2-lane winding mountain roads. Yes, it can take 5-7 hours to go 140-150 km.
The upside? All the views. Lush terraced fields, little villages, endless hills, and snow-covered mountains peaking in the distance. As a bonus, if you have a driver like ours you also get some Punjabi hits to accompany the Himachal Pradesh landscapes and 10 different horn melodies he uses to blast warnings to others on the road.
7. Turn the prayer wheels – and keep your eye out for the Dalai Lama — at Tsuglagkhang Buddhist Temple at McLeod Ganj
McLeod Ganj, a once-sleepy town just up the hill from Dharamshala, is now the home of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. Since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, it has become home to tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees, lending the town a strong Tibetan cultural feel.
Although the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex is where the Dalai Lama resides today, don’t expect to just run into him in passing. He’s busy about the world. But you can enjoy a peaceful walk around the temple – and enjoy its impressive collection of murals, statues and prayer wheels.
When you travel, is there any way you can “follow the money” to ensure that whatever you spend on your trip stays local and benefits the communities you visit? This article offers a few ideas on how to do that and highlights some movements and methodologies afoot in the travel industry that might help.
“For every US$100 spent on a tour holiday by a tourist, only around US$5 actually stays in a developing-country destination's economy.” – United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)
This statistic gets me every time I see it.
You spend your money on travel — shouldn't it benefit the places you visit? You spend money locally — that money stays local, doesn't it?
That all depends. And according to the data, not always. The technical term for the phenomenon of money spent on travel to or in a destination ending up in foreign hands: leakage.
Having worked in the travel industry for over a dozen years, we understand how leakage occurs — especially where foreign owners, foreign employees, and imported food and supplies dominate. While visiting Nepal recently, I read that although the number of visitors to the country is back on the rise after the earthquake in 2015, dollars spent per visitor is declining, in part due to leakage. Among the leakage factors at work: tour packages by Indian and Chinese tour operators and payment systems that bypass Nepal's financial system almost entirely. The most predatory and extractive form of leakage by design is something referred to as “zero dollar tourism.”
Outside of the worst examples, the majority of the tourism industry exists in shades of gray. Ascertaining the extent to which your travel dollars — spent on tours, experiences, accommodation, transportation, and food — remains within a local economy can be difficult.
However, some companies and organizations are raising awareness of the issue and providing travelers some basic tools to help follow their travel money. This includes measurement frameworks which consider whether suppliers are locally owned. A concept known as the Ripple Score developed by G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation is one such measurement.
Other multi-stakeholder efforts involving NGOs, community organizations and local tour operators are also underway. We recently completed an assignment with the MEET Network, a consortium of Mediterranean protected areas developing conservation-focused ecotourism products. Among the elements of their rigorous methodology is a supplier assessment survey which ensures the selection of majority locally-owned suppliers to deliver products featured in the consortium's catalog.
Impact of Keeping Tourism Money Local: Employment and the Multiplier Effect
Why are we interested in keeping tourism money local in the first place?
To answer that, let’s briefly re-examine how tourism expenditure can positively impact local communities.
No matter what your relationship to the travel industry, this is remarkable to consider. But how does this work?
The typical travel experience features a number of different touchpoints, each with the opportunity to work with local businesses, social enterprises and organizations. Travelers need to sleep (accommodation), eat (restaurants and markets), get from one place to another (transport), and to shop (souvenirs, crafts, gifts). Not to mention to experience (tours, guides, sights), which is what likely motivated the trip in the first place.
In ideal circumstances, money spent on travel that “lands” locally provides employment, increases income generating opportunities for small and family businesses, and spurs the creation of new services and businesses. It can even motivate government investment in community infrastructure, help preserve cultural heritage and aid in the conservation of environmental resources.
Most importantly, these economic inter-relationships help local families support themselves.
Village homestays in Ladakh provide opportunities for families to earn a living locally.
When a travel-related good or service is sourced locally – e.g., food for restaurants, supplies for hotels, etc. — the initial local business is not only supported, but its suppliers are also. This stitches together a widening fabric of socioeconomic impact as tourism money spent threads its way into other adjacent areas of the local economy. This phenomenon of spreading impact is known as a multiplier or ripple effect.
Take, for example, when our tour group stayed at a community homestay in Madagascar on our G Adventures tour. The money paid for our visit to the coordinating community organization not only helps employ several part-time local staff (e.g., guide, cook, etc.), but it's also used to purchase vegetables, meat and other items from sources nearby.
Our village homestay in Madagascar benefits neighboring farmers by buying local.
This provides local farmers a fair and reliable market price for their food. As tour frequency increases, it can also save farmers from a time-consuming trip to a regional market several hours away where they might have earned even less for their products. The economic ripple moves outward through the community as farmers' additional earnings are likely spent locally on home improvements, food, and other services.
Spending Local for Independent Travelers
If you travel independently, here are a few ways you can maximize the impact of your tourism money. We understand these suggestions may be obvious. However, we've learned over the years that they're more challenging than they sound:
stay at locally owned hotels, guesthouses or other accommodation
eat at local restaurants
take local transportation (e.g., public or private)
buy locally made souvenirs, ideally where you can buy directly from the artisan
book experiences with local guides and experts
Eating local is often more fun, too. Taco stand in Guatemala.
Try also to spread money around to different local businesses. The idea isn't to switch hotels daily, but instead to use this as an organic travel tactic to experience a wide variety of food, shopping and other services that a destination has to offer.
Spending Local with Organized Tours
When selecting an organized tour, you can also apply an equivalent “go local” logic, choosing a tour company which hires local businesses to deliver the various components of its tours, including accommodation, food, transport, and guides.
It all sounds simple enough, doesn't it? In practice, it's not no easy. Consider your own choices of accommodation, restaurants, or other travel-related services: How do you really know if each of the businesses you engage with is locally owned? How do you know if the money you spend remains local?
Follow the Money: The Why and How of the Ripple Score
“A tour company is only as good as the component parts that make up its tours,” Jamie Sweeting, CEO of Planeterra Foundation, said as he explained the rationale of a measurement framework it and G Adventures refer to as Ripple Score.
The measurement — an effort to “follow the money” — intends to examine the extent to which G Adventures works with locally owned providers of accommodation, transport, restaurants, and other services. It also aims to approximate, by percentage, how much tour money spent on local services actually remains in the local economy.
Our Lost City Trek in Colombia engaged a local Wiwa-owned company and hired indigenous guides.
Although an existing survey known as G Local collected data about local impact and sustainability activities of suppliers, a greater and more specific measure was needed. G Adventures, together with its partners Planeterra Foundation and Sustainable Travel International, landed on the following question it would ask all its suppliers around the world: “Is 50% or more of your business owned by a national citizen or permanent resident of the country it operates in?”
If a business met this threshold, it would be considered locally owned and its portion of the cost of tour services would be considered as having remained in the local economy.
A similar approach is applied by the MEET Network, a client who engaged us earlier this year to consolidate and assess their ecotourism development methodology, one which blends conservation-focused product development with a rigorous measurement framework. In line with the network's brand values, suppliers of product components must be locally owned. The rationale for such a requirement is akin to a rule-of-thumb we suggested a mindful independent traveler might apply. The aim: to ensure that money spent on its ecotourism products remains in its partner communities and protected areas.
Planeterra's Sweeting, who helped lead the rollout of the Ripple Score and has a background in sustainability certification and measurement methodologies, admits that one supplier ownership question does not constitute a precise local impact measurement. It's possible, of course, for locally-owned businesses to source everything from abroad and to hire foreign workers. Similarly, it’s possible for foreign-owned businesses to invest heavily in local communities. But research shows that locally owned businesses tend to keep and spend the money locally rather than sending it elsewhere.
The Ripple Score, acknowledged as neither a replacement for measuring leakage nor for multiplier analysis, instead offers a first-step method for G Adventures to both validate the assertion that it “works with local companies” and to consider how that assertion might be quantified and understood by the company and its customers.
While it's easy to criticize this measurement approach as an oversimplification, it's important to note that G Adventures does business with over 23,000 suppliers throughout 800+ tours in more than 100 countries across its product portfolio. While the Ripple Score could be seen as imprecise, it's a start.
Beyond offering consumers a shared language around the local impact of their travel dollars spent with the company, the Ripple Score also helps identify gaps and areas of improvement for G Adventures. Tours with low Ripple Scores highlight opportunities where the company might better discover and engage local suppliers.
Furthermore, it provides competitive motivation for other tourism companies to begin asking themselves similar questions. Imagine if all tour operators around the world did the same and shared this information — and how it was compiled — with consumers.
How Travelers Can Use the Ripple Score
Here's how the Ripple Score is calculated.
First, it's determined whether each business is majority locally owned or not (1 or 0). Then, this is multiplied by the amount attributable to the service provided by the business. For example, if a supplier answered “yes” and provided $250 of services in a tour where $2,500 was spent locally, their component score would be 10%. If the supplier answered “no”, then it would be 0%. All component scores are then added to calculate the total Ripple Score for the tour.
If you see a Ripple Score of 100 – the maximum possible — on a G Adventures tour, that's an indication that 100% of the suppliers used on that tour are majority locally owned. A score below 100 indicates that one or more suppliers is not locally owned.
A tour's Ripple Score is indicated for almost all G Adventures tours.
For example, our recent Wonders of Brazil tour featured a Ripple Score of 100. Same with the Highlights of Madagascar tour we took last year. What does this mean in practice? It implies that all accommodation we stayed in during the tour was locally owned. Same goes for the local guides and tour companies engaged for all included and optional activities, as well as for the transportation and meals included in the tour fee.
An early morning walk with a local guide, organized by a locally-owned hacienda in the Pantanal, Brazil.
If I see a Ripple Score of 100 does that mean that the entirety of the tour price ends up in the local economy? Not likely. The tour price include other costs of doing business such as commission for resellers and travel agents, marketing expenses, staff costs, administrative overhead and other costs.
Although the original concept for the Ripple Score was to comprehend the total tour price, G Adventures opted first to focus on the money spent inside the destination for each tour to avoid the trap of inconsistency posed by the variability of certain cost components like sales commissions.
Following Your Travel Money: It's a Journey
A growing number of travelers demand that travel purchases deliver economic benefit to local communities. As awareness of our individual and collective impact grows, so too will the sophistication of frameworks to understand and measure that impact. Tools like the Ripple Score and sustainable tourism supplier assessments will continue to evolve and aid in economic transparency.
A few years from now, perhaps we will be able to take for granted that all travel products and tours will incorporate a common local economic benefit measurement methodology and score. When we spend $100 on a vacation we'll know how much of that remains in the community. Attention to that figure might help raise it dramatically from today's $5.
Until then, travel consumers must continue to ask questions and demand clarity and transparency from travel companies.
It will be good for travelers. It will be for the good of the industry.
And most importantly, it will be in respectful service to the communities we visit.
Disclosure: This article is conjunction with our partnership with G Adventures as Wanderers. We were compensated for this article, including our expertise and time to research this topic. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
We were out of breath, having just climbed 1,200 stone steps when Celso, our indigenous guide, called for us to join him around a group of stones arranged in a circle in a clearing. In the middle of the circle stood another square stone on top of which lay a pile of coca leaves placed as an offering. Celso explained with trademark calm in a slow, deliberate voice, “This is a place where we should let go of our impurities, our negative thoughts and emotions.”
We stood in silence, not only to “cleanse” ourselves so that we might better experience this sacred site, but also to enjoy its peace and quiet. To Celso, we were then prepared to further visit Teyuna, otherwise known as the Lost City (La Ciudad Perdida), the ultimate destination to which we’d been trekking in the rainforest for the previous two days.
The Lost City Trek, as it’s called, takes you 46km (28 miles) round trip through the jungles, hills and river valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern Colombia. We’d had our sights set on this trek for years, so expectations had built up. Fortunately, the challenge, landscape, and experience exceeded so many of them.
Here’s why. Here’s also why you might want to consider putting the Lost City Trek in Colombia on your travel wish list, in case it isn’t there already. We’ve also included all you need to know to plan, prepare for and enjoy this trek.
Update: This article was originally published in June 2015 and updated in June 2019 with information about the new Lost City Trek itinerary and Wiwa community visit.
A taste of landscape along the Lost City Trek.
The following experiences are from our Lost City Trek with G Adventures. If you are considering this tour and want to know what to expect, here’s a taste of the itinerary and route, interaction with local indigenous guides, campsites and Wiwa community project. Disclosure: This tour was sponsored and provided to us in conjunction with our partnership with G Adventures as Wanderers.
Update: After many requests for a PDF copy of this guide, you can now buy The Lost City Trek: A Beginner's Guide with all the information you see in this article, plus some additional details from questions that have been asked of us over the years. We hope you find it useful for planning and preparing for your upcoming Lost City Trek!
What to Expect on the Lost City Trek: Day by Day
When I researched the Lost City Trek, I found a fair bit of conventional history about the site, often paired with a photo or two of the final destination, including what I refer to as the “golf course” shot.
Us in front of the “golf course” shot.
What I didn’t find much of was the nature of the actual journey there. The trail and landscape is more beautiful and varied than we had expected and the Lost City site itself is far more extensive than most photos indicate. We especially appreciated having an indigenous guide.
Celso, a member of the local Wiwa indigenous community, shared his culture with us and linked it to the other indigenous communities, their relationship to nature and their shared connection to the ancient Tayrona civilization.
Our Wiwa guide, Celso, with his poporo, a gourd used for carrying crushed seashells (lime).
Our days usually began early, around 5:00 A.M., so we could get on the trail while it was still cool and so that we could complete our day’s journey before the rains of the mid-late afternoon. We appreciated getting up early, and we enjoyed all the benefits of the early morning – light, coolness and silence among them.
Note: The route below is the Lost City four-day route that we took. If you opt for a five-day trek then your second and third days will be shorter, as you'll have two days to complete the entire route. Your day 4 and 5 will look the same day 3 and 4 below. The current G Adventures Lost City Trek is five days and includes a Planeterra Foundation project walk and visit to a Wiwa community for a home-cooked lunch and to learn more about the culture and people. This article has been updated to reflect this.
Lost City trailhead sign with route, campsites and distances.
All Lost City treks seem to set off from Santa Marta. From there, a jeep or van transfer takes 45 minutes along the highway, during which you’ll still have some cell coverage.
You’ll likely stop at a convenience store for last minute snacks and water and the final bit of mobile phone connectivity. From there, you’ll head up a dirt track into the mountains.
After you arrive in Machete, you’ll have lunch, then begin the hike. (Note: this is when you should ask the people coming off the trek if they have a walking stick they can give you. It is really helpful for balance and ease on the trail.)
The beginning of the walk eases you into things, with a swimming hole a close 25 minutes from the trailhead. After cooling off in the water, you’ll have a steep uphill for around 45 minutes, then a bit of a break, then a long descent into the valley where Adán, the first campsite, is located.
The first of several swimming holes along the trail.
Everything on the trail comes up on the backs of mules or horses.
Enjoying the view during a fruit and water break, Day 1.
Steep terrain into the valley of the first campsite.
Start/Finish: Adán Camp (Campsite #1) to El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3) Distance: 14.7km
This is a long trekking day. The first segment of the day takes you uphill and across some beautiful terrain, including some local farms. After a jump in a swimming hole and lunch at Campsite #2 (Wiwa Camp), you continue all the way to Campsite #3 (El Paraiso), located only 1km downhill from the site of the Lost City.
This day takes you through a great deal of varied landscape — deeper into the tropical jungle, across rivers and by a couple of Kogi village communities along the way.
The trail crosses Rio Buritaca several times during the journey.
When the river is too high, you cross in a mid-air cage-like contraption. Don't worry, it's more secure than it looks.
Passing by a small Kogi village.
A little rain never hurt anyone…
After the rains, enjoying the open landscape.
Start/Finish: El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3) to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2), via the Lost City Distance: 13.6km
You rise very early on this day (around 4:30A.M.) so that you can set off at dawn and enjoy the Lost City in the softest light and coolest air possible. After a short walk from the campsite, you reach the starting point of the 1,200 stone stairs you’ll need to walk and scramble to reach the terraces of the city above.
It’s not an easy climb, and can be a bit treacherous if wet or damp, but if you take care and get into a meditative rhythm, you’ll find it goes very quickly.
Slow and steady up 1,200 carved stairs.
After the steps, you’ll have reached the lower chambers of Teyuna, also known as The Lost City. It is believed that this was a capital city built by the Tayrona civilization in 800 A.D., approximately 600 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu in Peru.
When Spanish colonialists came close to finding or approaching the in the 16th century, the Tayrona people opted to abandon the city instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands.
Two Kogi men return from the upper chambers of Teyuna.
Teyuna was then overtaken by jungle for the next several hundred years, as only the shaman (holy men) of the four indigenous groups who live in the area were aware of its existence and would visit it regularly for ceremonies.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the site was “discovered” by the outside world. Tomb thieves cleared out much of the gold, valuable artifacts and other remains. Due to this misfortune and the fact that no written record of the Tayrona exists, much about the city and civilization remains the subject of speculation.
Celso explains the competing theories of the Lost City version of the Rosetta Stone.
The Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo indigenous groups that remain in the area are believed to be the descendants of the Tayrona and have carried on their stories and traditions.
We noticed when we arrived at the Lost City, Celso let down his hair, the surprising length of which is said to represent the wisdom that flows from the sacred mountains through the rivers to the coast. He was dressed in white, as was his custom, to represent the purity and integrity of the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, out of sight in the distance.
Celso leads us to the upper terraces of Teyuna, the Lost City.
Throughout our journey, he shared stories that had been passed on to him, through generations, from shaman to shaman, from elders to children, about the Lost City. The stories told of its creation, the symbolism of the different terraces, and the Tayrona relationship with nature.
The indigenous that inhabit the area believe they are the symbolic “elder brothers,” there to protect both the sacred Sierra Nevada Mountains and their “younger brothers” – meaning the rest of us. The sense of responsibility to the equilibrium and the good and health of others was evident.
Approaching the upper chambers of the Lost City.
After your visit to the Lost City, you return to El Paraiso (Campsite #3) for a quick lunch and begin your return all the way to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2). For us, we were met with an afternoon downpour that made it feel as though we were skiing through mud crevasses in the rainforest. We were glad for the experience; it was actually more delightful than it sounds.
After the rains, watching the clouds rise up through the hills.
Start/Finish: Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2) to Ricardito Camp Distance: 12.7km
This is another early rise since much of the trail is uncovered, and therefore becomes quite hot. You try to make it as far as you’re able before the sun becomes too strong.
As you’ll remember from your first day, much of the trail is up or down, without much in between. It used to be that you'd go all the way to the first campsite or exit at Machete (4-day trek), but now the treks stop nearby at Ricardito Camp After a stop for fruit at the first campsite and a jump in the swimming hole, you find yourself back where you began, with a celebratory lunch in Machete.
We think of sustainable travel as a movement of respectful travelers who live at the intersection of deeper travel experiences and caring for our planet and its people. This is a journey of awareness and travel decisions that aim to respect and protect the local environment, culture and economy. These 20 sustainable travel tips are ones you can use every day…whether on your next trip or at home.
In awe of mother nature along the Huayhuash Trek in Peru.
Travel holds tremendous potential. For the traveler, it offers a path to experience, education and personal transformation. For local host communities, it provides a means to economic benefit and cultural exchange. It’s this magic “travel equation” that among other things first inspired us to quit our jobs for the road over ten years ago, and to this day encourages us to continue traveling, exploring, learning, and sharing.
However, developments across the tourism industry are not always rosy. Over the years, we’ve seen our share of rapacious tourism development and the cumulative effects of thoughtless individual actions conspiring to harm local cultures, economies and the environment.
Sadly, overtourism dominates the headlines as more and more destinations and environments feel the negative impacts and pressure from high visitor numbers. Awareness of the “invisible burden” of tourism is rising.
So what can a traveler do? The cynic says nothing, the hopeful say plenty. And that's where sustainable travel comes in as part of the journey.
First, there’s a process. We’d like to think of it as a chain beginning with one’s core values. Couple those with an evolving awareness and informed decision-making, and you have a platform to take action. Recognize your right to choose, vote with your feet, exercise the power of the purse, and appreciate that your actions — even at their smallest — have consequences. Micro changes to macro differences; over time this makes change.
“But what does all this gibberish mean on a personal level?” you ask.
What does it mean in terms of some simple actions we all can take on our next trip? In other words, what does it mean to be a good global traveler? To align your values of caring for this world and its people with your travel decisions and spending?
Here are a few sustainable travel tips that address cultural, economic and environmental considerations that we've picked up and applied along our travels.
Human fallibility caveat: Think of the following as suggestions — not hard and fast rules but guidelines to supplement your own better judgment.
Note: This post was originally published in April 2012 and was updated on June 5, 2019 with more sustainable travel tips, examples and resources.
Cultural Responsible Travel Tips
1. Remember first that you are a guest.
Come bearing respect for your host country and its people, and demonstrate this by your actions and engagement. In return, you’ll maximize the likelihood that you will be treated in kind.
2. Dress respectfully.
If in doubt, err on the side of more clothes, less skin. Not only does dressing appropriately help you fit in, but it also reduces the possibility of offending. Remember that this is their country and their home, not yours. Buying and wearing a local piece of clothing (e.g., a headscarf or an outfit in the local style) can help you fit in. It may even jumpstart a few conversations.
Audrey bonds while headscarf shopping in Turkmenistan.
3. Release your inner child.
Don’t be afraid to show your curiosity when you travel. Not only does asking questions satiate your curiosity and enable you to learn more about the place you are visiting, but it offers a gateway of exchange and engagement with local people. Consider starting with simple, non-threatening topics like food, markets, and children (ages, names, etc.) and you just might find a conversation that leads to family, life, politics, and more.
Smile, be polite, be gracious. These simple acts and their spirit can take you a long way. On the smile front, we don’t advocate fake, goofy grins, but a genuine smile does make a positive first impression; it can help build goodwill, especially when you don’t share a spoken language. Remember that over 50% of communication is non-verbal.
Uzbek smiles and laughs at the market.
5. Learn a couple words of the local language, at least.
Even if you consider yourself a foreign language lost cause, try to retain at least 4-5 key words in the local language that you can use for greeting people, niceties, and politely ordering food. The big three (hello, please and thank you) offer a good starting point. We also try to learn an oddball word that will throw people off, break a smile, and start a discussion.
6. Become aware of child welfare issues and engage responsibly with local children.
Several years ago when we traveled through East Africa we were confronted repeatedly about what the responsible or best thing to do is when it came to issues like begging children, school visits, volunteering at orphanages, or photographing local children. What we quickly realized is that some actions we travelers (as well as companies) think are “helping” may actually have unintended negative consequences for those same children. That's why awareness and education about child welfare in travel is so important.
7. Ask permission before taking photographs of local people.
This may sound self-evident or obvious, but we've seen so many instances where a traveler stick his camera in a person's face to take a photo without ever engaging or asking permission. Don't be that person.
It dehumanizes the whole photography process and creates even more barriers between travelers and local people. Instead, interact and ask permission first. If there is no common spoken language then use charades to communicate. Your portrait and people photography will much better for this as there will be a human connection and memory.
Patronize local businesses. When you travel, maximize the likelihood that local people are benefiting economically from your visit.
Sometimes eating local turns into cooking local, too!
This isn’t to say that you should avoid businesses that are foreign-owned, but try to determine whether these establishments hire local people and are invested in the local community. It’s important to point out that some foreign-owned establishments (especially smaller ones) are there because a foreigner fell in love with the place and hoped to stay and contribute.
9. Don’t spend all your money in one place.
Consider patronizing a variety of restaurants and shops in order to spread the economic benefit of your visit around the community. An added bonus of this approach is that it affords you variety, such as the opportunity to try different foods and to engage with different people.
10. When it comes to souvenirs and handicrafts, try to buy direct.
Buying souvenirs directly from the craftsperson or from a cooperative puts more money in the hands of the artisan rather than in the hands of middlemen. Seek out artisan markets where you can buy directly from the artisan. Look for cooperative shops that are transparent regarding the percentage of sales that go to the artist. Particularly when it comes to fair trade cooperatives, the quality of the artwork is often higher, as is your feel-good quotient.
Cusco's main square first Sunday of the month. Buy indigenous crafts directly from the artisan.
11. Frequent social enterprises.
Social enterprises are businesses that focus on training people (e.g., hospitality training for street kids) for better futures. Sometimes they support a separate charity with the profits of the business. Our experience is that the quality of the food, crafts, and services is often above average.
The Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Cooperative in the Sacred Valley of Peru is a handicrafts social enterprise preserving culture.
Provided you ask a few questions (or read the organization's literature), you'll know what percentage of the proceeds is going where. Next time you travel, consider doing a bit of research to see if social enterprises are at work where you are headed. (Southeast Asia destinations in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are loaded with them.)
12. Choose tour and homestay providers that are invested in the community.
Homestays, community-based tourism and community visits offer some of the best opportunities to engage with local and indigenous people and to better understand how they live. Ask questions of the agency or of your guide regarding their relationship with the community you hope to visit. Consider choosing programs where operators are transparent regarding what percentage of the fee goes directly to the family or community.
Becoming one of the family at a homestay in Bangladesh.
The more we travel, the more we see how plastic waste — water bottles, straws, take out food containers, plastic utensils, etc. – is contaminating water sources and destroying the environment in places big and small.
While I've always been concerned about plastic bottle waste, it wasn't until a recent trip to Koh Rong Island in Cambodia that I realized the full extent of plastic waste and pollution. Every morning as the tide would go out, piles of trash – much of it plastic connected to drinking and eating items – covered the beach. It was a visual reminder of how all that use and consume can eventually end up in our oceans and fields, even if we technically throw them away in trash bins.
With more and more travelers each year the negative impact of traveler-related waste is increasing, especially in the more remote and fragile environments. With a few small changes we collectively can reduce our plastic waste footprint considerably — not only on the road, but also at home.
Here are a few recommendations to reduce plastic waste when we travel:
Bring your own refillable water bottle with you and refill it with ultraviolet (UV) purified and/or filtered water. More and more hotels and restaurants have big filtered water jugs with free or a low-cost refill. We carry with us a Camelbak BPA Bottle as our standard water bottle. If you're going to more remote areas, consider using something like the Steripen to kill all the bacteria yourself (note: this doesn’t get rid of bad taste, so you may need to buy some rehydration salts or lemonade powder to make it taste better).
Bring your own chopsticks and utensils. Yes, you may feel a little strange bringing out your own utensils at a street food stall. But, when one adds up the amount of plastic forks, spoons, knives and chopsticks that we use when eating out it's a convincing argument. This is something that we are trying to get better about remembering and actively applying during our travels (and at home). Here are a few travel utensil options in to get you started.
Say no to plastic straws or bring your own. This takes a bit of foresight, but letting a waiter know that you don't need a straw with your cocktail, beer (in many Asian countries they think women prefer to drink beer with a straw), juice or shake will greatly reduce the amount of straws being used and discarded. We recently purchased bamboo straws as an alternative and are looking forward to trying these out during our next trip.
Bring your own reusable coffee cup or tea cup. I have to admit that takeaway coffee is a weakness of mine, but I'm not more aware of the waste that comes from this habit. Pack a reusable coffee cup with a lid so that you can have your caffeine fix and take it with you on your walk, bus, or whatever activity you're doing. Some coffee shops are even offering a discount if you have your own cup with you. Here's a starter on some of the best reusable coffee cups out there.
Keep a fabric tote bag in your pocket or purse. This greatly reduces the need for plastic shopping bags at grocery stores or other shops, and it allows you to carry a lot of stuff as fabric is stronger than plastic. Not to mention, you look more stylish and local walking down a city street with a fun tote bag vs. a plastic bag. For the foodies out there, check out the food-themed tote bags on offer by our friend, Jodi, from Legal Nomads.
Re-use Ziploc and other plastic bags for packing, if you need to use them. Let's face it, sometimes having a plastic bag is useful for packing as it serves as a sort of waterproof container for clothes and other items in the case of rain. This is especially true when you're doing a lot of outdoor activities or trekking. Try to replace Ziploc or other plastic bags with dry sacks of different sizes as they last longer and are stronger. But, at the least save and re-use your packing plastic bags over and over again.
14. Respect the boundaries of animals.
If you are asked to keep your distance from animals, or not to touch them, heed the request. Unwanted attention can cause stress and anxiety on animals, sometimes resulting in altered behavior or even worse, abandonment of their nests and young.
Keep your distance so you don't disturb the waved albatross mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.
When we were in the Galapagos Islands we saw travelers deliberately stray well off the path because of the “I can do what I want because I paid for this!” mentality. Kudos to our guide who would have none of this and continually herded them back on the trail and educated them on the potential damage caused by their actions.
In addition, avoid activities like elephant riding, photo..
While we lived in Prague for over five years, we were simultaneously awed by its beauty and frustrated by the rapacious tourism development that had swamped its old town. Recently, I've heard from travelers disappointed by their visits to Prague because of the city's tourist schlock and crowds.
Yes, there's a fair heap of that. But, there are also ways to avoid it and much more to see and experience in Prague without crowds. That's what this insider's guide is all about with tourist traps to avoid, best things to do, favorite Czech beers and pubs and where to eat in Prague.
Many moons ago, during our first month living in Prague, I remember exiting Charles University after a Czech language class and looking up at a night-lit Prague Castle and thinking, “My God, do I actually live here?”
It didn't seem real.
Even after five years of living in Prague, I could still turn a corner, catch the right light and get that feeling. Prague is a Bucket List and “Top 10 Romantic Cities” favorite — for good reason. But frankly, there's also a lot of touristy crap that can leave a casual visitor tourist-worn.
During my last visit to Prague, I played tourist for a day and forced myself to walk through through its main tourist artery — from the Prague Castle, over the Charles Bridge, down Karlova Street, through Old Town, up to the top of Wenceslas Square. Maybe it had improved since we lived there?
But all is not lost. Here are some ideas on how to minimize the tourist schlock, what to do to replace it with, local neighborhoods to explore and where to eat in Prague at the end of the day.
Note: This post was originally published in May 2011 and was updated on June 4, 2019.
What to Avoid in Prague: Tourist Schlock
1. Karlova Street
In tourist hell, right next door to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and Bangkok's Khao San Road is Prague's souvenir-engorged Karlova Street. If you only retain one piece of information from this post, it should be this: avoid this street like the plague.
Don't ask why, don't be tempted. Just avoid it. Your visit will be all the better for it.
Karlova Street in Prague
Alternative: “But how am I going to get from Charles Bridge to Old Town Square?” you might ask. Easy.
When you come off the Charles Bridge (on the opposite side of the river from Prague Castle), cut through the Klementinum (look for the doorway across the street to the left of Karlova street) and enjoy a peaceful stroll through a 14th century courtyard.
2. Concerts — or anything for that matter – sold by people in period costumes
If classical music's greatest hits served up in machine-gun style is your thing, by all means head right for the guys in period outfits. If, however, you have a taste for a full symphony and the real, high-quality, accessible classical music Prague is known for, go elsewhere.
Not all music concerts are created equal.
Alternative: See #2 below for where to find high quality shows and buy concert tickets.
3. Wenceslas Square at Night
Where protesters once stood up to Soviet tanks during Prague Spring in 1968, hawkers now stand up for your opportunity to patronize their strip clubs. After dark, Wenceslas Square becomes a central place for strip club touts, prostitutes, their pimps and all manner of the shady and unpleasant. Although it's not unsafe per se, it's best avoided.
Strip Clubs Near Wenceslas Square in Prague
Alternative: After dark, walk any of the streets parallel to Wenceslas Square or take the metro to avoid the area altogether.
4. Astronomical Clock Show on the Hour
I know I'm going to get crap for this one. Don't get me wrong, the medieval astronomical clock on the side of Old Town City Hall is beautiful and worth a look.
But really, don’t worry about fighting with the tourist hordes that gather on the hour to see the “show.” The hourly spectacle features some figures moving around, a rooster call (my personal favorite) and a dancing skeleton (Dan's personal favorite). However, it’s really not worth the elbowing and unpleasant crowds you have to deal with to watch it.
Beautiful to admire, also during the hour.
Alternative: Have the clock to yourself to admire at any time outside the top-of-the-hour. If you find yourself tiring of the crowds on Old Town Square, pop up to the rooftop terrace at U Prince hotel, order a cocktail, and enjoy the view from above. It's particularly nice at sunset.
5. Prague's Scams and Overcharging at Tourist Restaurants
Unfortunately, some touristy restaurants and taxis still hold a narrowly opportunistic view of tourism and tourists (i.e., they scam anyone who looks like fresh meat).
What to do: Don't let these places get away with it: be vigilant, mind your bill, count your change, and question or complain if you are being cheated. If you don't, you'll be doing yourself — and all other tourists who follow in your footsteps — a disservice.
If your restaurant bill arrives with extra service charges or “taxes” that are not specifically called out on the menu, refuse to pay them.
If you need a taxi, have the hotel or restaurant call a trusted taxi company in advance. I would never pick up a taxi outside the front door of the train station or hotel (these are usually reserved for suckers). If you pick up a taxi on the street, use a company like AAA or ProfiTaxi. Finally, if you've been grossly overcharged, pay what you believe is fair and walk away. We've done it.
Non-Touristy Things to Do in Prague: The Good Stuff
With the unpleasant stuff out of the way, let's focus on what to do and visit besides what we call the “Prague tourist triad:” Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square). The aim: to give you a feel for a living city whose history goes long beyond just a few pretty buildings. And, to help you avoid some of the tourist crowds in Prague.
You might be thinking as you read, “But that's outside the city center.” In some cases, our recommendations are outside of the Old Town City center, but they are not so far. Within a few minutes, you are only a tram, metro or a few footsteps away.
1) Vyšehrad: An Alternative Castle
Just down the Vlatava River from Prague Castle is the lesser-known 10th century castle of Vyšehrad. In addition to offering great views of the Vltava River and the city, Vyšehrad features grassy grounds stocked full of locals having picnics with family and friends.
View of Vyšehrad Castle from the Vltava River
The cemetery at Vyšehrad is also home to many of Czech greats of art and music, including Alphonse Mucha and Antonín Dvořák. The Peter and Paul church is also worth a look – neo-gothic on the outside, but Mucha-inspired art nouveau murals on the inside.
2. Classical Music Concerts and Operas
Prague's music scene is one of the things that kept us there so long. Even if you're not a huge classical music aficionado, it's still worth trying to see a concert just to experience the venue.
Go directly to ticket offices or a venue's box office for real performances. Basically, if the concert is associated with a national ensemble, you’re more likely to see a high quality concert at a lower price.
If your visit coincides with Prague Spring, try to book tickets in advance or, for last minute tickets, visit the Rudolfinum box office. Prague Spring often features top performers, conductors and orchestras from around the world.
I cannot begin to count the $1000s of dollars we would have spent on all the performances we took in had we seen the performers on their home turf. Prices continue to go up, but are still reasonable compared with Western Europe and the United States.
In addition, Prague's art and museum scene is constantly changing and evolving. Many of the galleries and events are located in interesting neighborhoods and buildings. You can check out the list of upcoming events, festivals and exhibitions here. To provide you with more flexibility and discounts if you want to visit several museums at once, consider getting the Prague City Card (2-4 days). It also includes a free river boat cruise, which is a nice way to get an overview of the city on both sides of the Vlatava River.
3. Exploring Prague's Neighborhoods
Although Prague’s Old Town (Staré Město) and Lesser Town (Malá Strana) often steal the Prague tourist show (and for good reason) with their medieval architecture, it's worth it to spend time poking around some of the surrounding neighborhoods. The Art Nouveau architectural stock in Prague's residential neighborhoods is impressive.
Walk, look up and soak it up. Architectural period melange, details, mosaics, statues, paintings, are all standard fare. Not to mention, this is the way you'll really begin to understand what modern-day living in Prague is all about.
Getting out into Prague's neighborhoods.
Suggested neighborhoods to explore and to stay in: Vinohrady, Vršovice (our old neighborhood), Žižkov, and Holesovice. (Note: If you choose to rent an apartment in one of these neighborhoods in Prague, you can use this Airbnb discount link to save $25 on your first booking)
4. Prague Beer gardens
When the weather is warm (or at least un-cold and bearable), Prague’s beer gardens are the place to while away an afternoon, evening, or possibly even both. Beer gardens are casual affairs with long, simple picnic tables, a food stand or two serving greasy sausages, and — most importantly — an endless supply of freshly pulled Czech beer.
Relax with locals of all ages, from the stodgy business guy in a suit to grandpa with his dog to the young punk kids.
Riegrovy Sady Beer Garden in Vinohrady
Recommended Prague beer gardens:
There's actually a small vineyard within Prague’s city limits. And, there just happens to be a little café (called Altan) with a great gazebo sitting right above it.
These are the makings of a perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate. For quality, we actually suggest trying the Austrian wine over the local Grebovka wine.
Glass of Wine at Grebovka Vineyard in Prague
Address: Grebovka park is in Prague 10. Closest tram stop is Krymska on 22, 16, or 4 tram lines. Finding your way here through the windy residential streets is part of the fun; this is not a touristy area at all. Go past the Grobovka Pavillion to get to Altan Cafe.
Where to Eat in Prague: Recommended Restaurants and Cafés
1. Grosseto Marina
This is the place you come for a view of the Prague castle, Vltava river and Malá strana – it would be hard to find a better one in the city. The food here is basic Italian pizzas and pasta, but the view from and the atmosphere in this boat-restaurant make it all a perfectly good value.
Update: We have received a couple of emails and comments that the service at Grosseto Marina has gone down hill since our last visit and our readers have had bad experiences at the restaurant. Therefore, we can no longer recommend this place.
View from Grosseto Marina at night. Not bad, huh?
Address: Alšovo nábřeží in Old Town. Our suggestion is to call ahead to reserve a table on the deck or by a window so you can enjoy the view (+420 605 454 020).
This little Italian restaurant combines high quality Italian food (the chef once lived in Tuscany) with a friendly ambience in the great local neighborhood of Vršovice. We know because we used to live around the corner. The menu changes regularly and features daily and weekly specials. Prices are reasonable. Address: Mexicka 7, Vrsovice (Prague 10), tel: +420 271726548
It might sound odd to come to Prague and eat at an Indian restaurant, but the food here is exceptional. The lunch menus are authentic and flavorful. The menu also features some unusual dishes like idly, vada and chaats.
Lunch Thali at Masala Restaurant in Prague.
Address: Keramická 3, 170 00 Praha 7 or J. Masaryka 326/36, 120 00 Prague 2-Vinohrady
Update July 2016: This was one of our favorite restaurants for continental and fusion dishes. However, it has changed focus and is now a burger and BBQ restaurant. We still hear the quality of the food is good so we've left it on the list for now.
Address: Nitranska 13, Prague 3 (right near Jiriho z Podebrad Metro and square)
Cozy, homey, good vibe restaurant for when your belly and spirit feel like a hug. Although it isn’t vegetarian, their small kitchen probably serves more vegetables on any given day than traditional Czech restaurants serve all week. You can count on great soups, salads and entrees at reasonable prices. The downside: because it is small, service is friendly and the food is delicious, reservations are
a must, particularly at lunch. (Note: Home Kitchen now has several locations around town so check these out as well.)
A beautiful Art Nouveau cafe that dates back to 1893 not far from the river and Kampa Park. This beautifully renovated restaurant will make you feel like you've gone back. Café Savoy was a favorite of ours for long breakfasts with friends, but their lunches are also quite good with hearty soups and central European fare (e.g., roasts, schnitzels, etc.). Not to mention that their cakes and sweets are also rather tempting. Just a beautiful place to spend a few hours.
You're probably asking by now: “That's all great, but what about Czech food?”
There is definitely no shortage of hospodas (pubs) serving Czech fare throughout the city with varying levels of quality and grease content.
If you want a Czech restaurant or pub with a little better meat quality and less grease, give one of the following places a try. In addition to good Czech food, they usually serve tank beer (often, unpasteurized), making the Czech beer drinking experience all the more enjoyable.
Hearty Czech food. Perfect with a freshly poured pilsner beer.
Recently, Sri Lanka suffered a series of tragic bomb attacks. As news stories rolled in throughout the day, so did a flood of memories from our travels there — meeting people on trains, sharing sunrise with pilgrims and travelers alike at the top of Adam’s Peak, wandering through the tea gardens, learning to pop spices and cook Sri Lankan food in clay pots, admiring sleeping Buddha sculptures in caves, and much more. So while it may seem like strange timing to write about travel in Sri Lanka now, we felt it was time to finish a draft article and remind people of the beauty and joy of the country. And, to encourage you to keep Sri Lanka on your travel wish list to help support the country as it recovers.
Sunrise at the top of Adam's Peak, a sacred place for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
Sri Lanka. Ceylon. The little tear-shaped island just south of India. Our visit there wasn't my first.
I lived there for 18 months when my father worked at the U.S. Embassy. My memories of Sri Lanka from my six to seven year-old self consisted of brightly colored saffron robes worn by Buddhist monks, baby orphan elephants bathing in the river, giant sleeping gilded Buddhas, and a vibrant green as far as I could see across the rolling hills of tea plantations in the north.
Something I appreciate now as an adult, yet didn’t fully understand as a child except to note differences in people’s clothing, was the diversity of ethnicities, cultures and religions in Sri Lanka. This includes a majority Sinhalese population who are predominately Buddhist, a Tamil community composed of both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils who are mostly Hindu, and also Christians and Muslims.
Add to this a long and complicated history dating back 8,000+ years — including power struggles between kingdoms, colonialism, and forced migration — and you have the blend that makes Sri Lanka the fascinating and complex place that it is, the same blend which helped divide it and drive it into a devastating 26-year civil war (1983-2009).
My family left before the civil war began. As the war unfolded, we watched as Sri Lankan friends emigrated to avoid the conflict. And just as peace and stability returned over the last decade, we watched as many of them returned home. Dan and I came close to visiting Sri Lanka in 2008 when we were in southern India. It was a time just before the end of the civil war. At the counsel of Sri Lankan friends, we decided to wait. When the war finally ended in May 2009, we looked for an opportunity to visit.
One finally presented itself years later. Spurred by an opening in a Vipassana meditation course at a center in Sri Lanka, we booked a last-minute flight to Colombo. As I sat my meditation course, Dan made his way south to a beach for his own self-made retreat. After the meditation course finished, we embarked on a two week journey around the island together.
To assemble an itinerary we collected recommendations from friends who had lived or visited there recently, piecing together a rough route focused on train journeys, tea gardens and treks. We left things flexible, often booking accommodation the day before or the day of, to allow shifts and adjustments as we wished.
In the end, it turned out to be an even better two-week trip than we'd imagined, flush with a diversity of experiences and destinations which belied the relatively short amount of time we had. Despite the ground we'd covered and all that we'd experienced, we never felt rushed.
Trains, tea gardens and treks. Here are the best experiences from our Sri Lanka two-week itinerary.
How to use this experiential travel guide to Sri Lanka: Are you considering a Sri Lanka vacation, but not sure which places to visit or where to begin in planning your trip? What are some of the most enjoyable and representative experiences, the ones that make you feel as though you’ve connected with this island country? And when is the best time to visit Sri Lanka? And how can you best avoid the crowds? We’ll answer all those questions and more in this Sri Lanka Experiential Travel Guide. The aim: you have all the inspiration and practical travel information to create your own Sri Lanka itinerary and trip.
The following experiences are in chronological order from our trip. If you have around two weeks, you can conservatively accomplish something similar and fit in trains, treks, tea plantations and more. With three to four weeks you can add in more beach time, a meditation course, a visit to the eastern side of the island, or a few more hill towns along the way. We include suggestions of train journeys, enjoyable treks and notable hotels in Sri Lanka to help round out your itinerary.
19 Things to Do and Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
1. Take the train in Sri Lanka – again and again and again
Traveling by train in Sri Lanka, no matter which class carriage, is the best way to get around the country for views, hanging with locals, and budget minding. It’s more than just a transportation option to get you from point A to B; it's an experience. We traveled in every class, from third class to 1st class A/C (air-conditioned), and highly recommend trying it all if you can.
Train travel in Sri Lanka: the best way around the island.
Sri Lankan trains don’t go everywhere, but they reach close to most places in Sri Lanka that you’d want to visit. Additionally, many train routes take you through gorgeous scenery and landscapes — tea gardens, forests, villages, coasts — often where there are no roads.
The fresh air and meditative slow movement and sound of the train is so much more enjoyable than diesel-filled roads and the jerky movements of bus transport. We traveled by train from: Colombo – Kandy – Hatton – Haputale – Ella – Colombo.
Views from the train in Sri Lanka's hill country.
No matter which train journey you choose, you won’t be disappointed. Although the train route to Ella gets most of the press and hype, we actually felt that the segment from Hatton to Haputale was the most spectacular.
Given the popularity of train travel with locals and travelers it can be challenging to secure tickets for reserved seats. Read below for advice on buying tickets and traveling by train in Sri Lanka without a reservation.
2. Admire the murals and gilded Buddha statues at Dambulla Cave Temple
We can develop “temple fatigue” quickly. As such, and based on our research, we arrived at Dambulla Cave Temple with managed expectations. But as it was only a couple hours north (72km) of Kandy and en route to Sigiriya Rock Fortress, we opted to stop off and check it out.
We’re so glad we did.
Buddha statues at the Dambulla Cave Temple.
These Buddhist cave temples, also a UNESCO site, date back to around 1st century BC. The complex includes five caves open to the public, each a bit different from the next in terms of its size, and its style and range of paintings and Buddha statues. Of course, the paintings and statues have been renovated and brushed up over time. However, it’s still impressive to take in Buddhist religious art spanning 22 centuries and to witness the living history of how local people still use these caves today for religious purposes.
Sleeping Buddha, Dambulla Cave Temple.
This is a popular site for both Sri Lankans and travelers, so if you find that one cave is crowded, just move to the next one until the crowds dissipate and move on. It’s worth the additional effort to be able to enjoy each of the caves with some quiet and stillness.
How to visit the Dambulla Cave Temple: Buses leave Kandy bus station (just next to the train station) for Dambulla throughout the day. The journey is about 90 minutes each way. Ask the bus attendant or driver to drop you off at the Cave Temple entrance so that you don’t have to double-back from Dambulla town a few kilometers away. We opted to spend an extra dollar or two to catch an air-conditioned bus from Kandy bus station. It’s not the easiest to find so just ask one of the men at the information desk. They'll point you in the right direction.
If you have a backpack or luggage with you, ask to leave your bags at the Police/Security checkpoint on the way up to the temple. There aren't many food options around the entrance to temple, so consider bringing some snacks or taking a tuk-tuk into Dambulla town for lunch.
When we visited there was no entrance fee. We'd read previously to expect an entrance fee, so we’re not sure if we just got lucky the day we visited.
3. Climb to the top of Sigiriya (Lion Rock) Citadel before the crowds arrive
The story goes that in the 5th century King Kasyapa needed to build a new, secure capital after usurping the throne. He brutally murdered his father and scared off his brother, the rightful heir to the throne.
After this Game of Thrones-style move, he headed just north of Dambulla and built his palace atop a massive 180-meter high rock – Sigiriya, or Lion Rock – giving him a vantage point from which to see any armies coming from miles away. His palace served him well and protected him during his reign. After he died, it was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Sigiriya Palace, views from the top.
Most travelers visit Sigiriya, another UNESCO site and one of the most visited places in Sri Lanka, as a day trip from Kandy. Our advice is to spend the night in one of the family-run guest houses close to the site and take a tuk-tuk early in the morning so you arrive at 7AM when the ticket office and gates open.
This will allow you to walk through the gardens, enjoy the frescoes — including the famous Sigiriya Maidens — in the caves along the rock face (cool, but you can’t touch!), climb to the top of the rock, walk around the palace ruins, enjoy the views from up high, and head back down. And to do all this before the hordes of tourists on bus tours from Kandy arrive. On our way down from the top of the rock, we saw hundreds of visitors lining up.
Walking up to Sigiriya in the early morning mist.
Another benefit to this approach is that you’ll be able to explore Sigiriya in the early morning coolness before the day warms up and views become hazy.
A note on entrance fees and an alternative to Sigiriya: The entrance fee for foreigners to visit Sigiriya is a rather hefty $30/person. We made the decision to visit anyway, but if you are on a strict travel budget consider skipping Sigiriya and climbing nearby Pidurangala Rock for a view of Sigiriya and the surrounding landscapes.
Where to stay to visit Sigirya early in the day: We stayed at Gagadiya Rest just a few kilometers from the entrance to Sigiriya. This is a small family-run guesthouse with just two rooms – very clean and new. They were in the process of building a second floor and additional rooms when we stayed, so they probably have more rooms now.
We received a free tuk-tuk ride from the guesthouse in the early morning out to Sigiriya and then ate breakfast there when we returned, before heading back to Kandy that day. It’s also possible to get a great home-cooked dinner there, but ask about the price as it tends to be a bit higher than in other accommodation, perhaps because there’s not much around and you are a captive audience. You can also search for other hotels and guesthouses in Sigiriya.
4. Eat your weight in Sri Lankan rice and curry.
The basic Sri Lankan meal, whether at a hole-in-the-wall or high-end restaurant, is rice and curry. Often, you’ll get a big plate or bowl of rice and then a selection of several different curries to go with it. In many simple cafeteria-style places the curries will be laid out buffet-style and you’ll point the server to which ones you want. It’s best to eat during local meal hours so that the food is freshly cooked and not sitting out for hours in the heat.
Rice and curries, a typical Sri Lankan lunch at a local restaurant.
Vegetarians should rejoice at Sri Lankan food. There are usually several types of daal (lentils), sabjis (mixed vegetables), beet root, eggplant and other vegetarian curry options on offer. For meat eaters, you’ll find different types of chicken, meat or fish curry options with various levels of heat and spice. In more formal restaurants you’ll have the option to choose how many curries — and which ones — you want served with your pile of rice.
Delicious meal at Matey Hut in Ella with a choice of four curries.
Don’t forget to seek out or ask for the different types of sambols (salads), chutneys or hot sauces available. Some of our favorites included pennywort salad (gotukola sambol), spicy coconut chutney (pol sambola), and spicy onion sambol (lunu miris). When you do, you’ll often get a nod of approval and smile from your waiter as well. For more information on Sri Lankan food, check out this article from our friend Mark.
5. Pay a visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy.
Inside the former royal palace complex in Kandy, Sri Dalada Maligawa (aka, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) is what is believed to be the relic of the tooth of Gautama Buddha, rescued from his funeral pyre in 543 BC. Almost 800 years later, the story continues with the tooth having been smuggled to Sri Lanka from India in the early 4th century.
In addition to its religious value, the relic of the tooth introduces another Game of Thrones-like twist: it is believed that whoever holds the relic also rules the country. So it became a prized possession and political tool of monarchs over the centuries. Its final resting place is now in Kandy where it is said to be secure inside the palace's main shrine.
One of the many elaborately decorated hallways in the Temple of the Relic of the Tooth.
Although it's not possible for visitors today to see the actual tooth relic, it is still worth visiting the palace and temple if you are in Kandy. The procession of pilgrims, devotees and rituals surrounding this sacred relic offer a bit of active devotion, of living history. You'll notice lotus blossoms and frangipani offerings heaped throughout the different temples, tucked into sacred nooks. The palace and temples grounds — with their elaborate wood carvings, gilded statues and paintings, and manicured gardens — serve up a bit of visual overload.
Flower offerings at the Temple of the Relic of the Tooth. Kandy, Sri Lanka.
How should I pack for a hike? What should I pack for a multi-day trek? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which hiking gear and essentials should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground? That's where this Ultimate Hiking Packing List comes in to answer all of those questions — and much more — to prepare you for your next adventure.
After receiving numerous emails, queries and comments asking about hiking gear and how to pack for hikes and multi-day treks, we decided to assemble our hiking gear and packing advice for treks and hikes, short and long.
By way of background, during the first six years of our journey we carried all that we needed in our backpacks so as to be prepared for just about any kind of climate or activity, from beach to glacier. In retrospect, we made some silly decisions in those early days. As a result, we schlepped a few bits we never used.
But through experience and experimentation and after about a dozen multi-day treks across all continents, we got smart not only as to what gear to carry with us, but also what made sense to buy locally or even just rent for the duration of the trek.
And we figured out how to do all this while on a budget.
What is the difference between trekking and hiking?
Good question. While this article does a good job breaking it down, for our purposes here we're using the two words somewhat interchangeably to represent going out and walking in nature for a period of time. This is different from mountaineering, which usually involves specialized climbing gear and technical skills.
Note: The following advice applies mainly to multi-day treks where your sleeping and eating arrangements are taken care of already (think guest houses, lodges, huts, tea houses, home stays or even with a trekking agency takes care of tents and food). If you are camping on your own, then you'll need to add food, camping, and cooking gear to everything below.
Update: This article was originally published on 27 June, 2014 and updated on 15 April 2019 with additional gear and tips that we've learned from additional hiking and multi-day treks we've done during that time (e.g., Alay Mountains in Kyrgyzstan, 10-day Huayhuash Trek in Peru, etc.).
Trekking and Hiking Packing Myths
During the first six years of our journey we carried all that we needed in our backpacks so as to be prepared for just about any kind of climate or activity, from beach to glacier. In retrospect, we made some silly decisions in those early days.
As a result, we schlepped a few bits we never used. But through experience and experimentation and after about a dozen multi-day treks across all continents, we got smart not only as to what gear to carry with us, but also what to buy locally or rent.
And we figured out how to do all this while on a budget. Here are some of the trekking packing myths that we've discovered along the way.
1. You must purchase the latest and greatest trekking gear.
It's true that some trekking clothing technology is especially useful for lightness, wind-resistance, waterproofing and wicking (GoreTex, fleece, Polartec, etc., come to mind). However, we suggest focusing on the trekking basics: clothing that is comfortable, breathable, light, easily layered.
You're not climbing to the peak of Mount Everest here. (If you are, that's for a future article.) For a little perspective, watching locals breeze by you in flip-flops might make all your pre-purchased fancy gear seem a little unnecessary.
So there's no need to overspend. Go for good quality, but resist the shiny bleeding-edge trekking toys. I know it's hard. Outdoor stores are dangerous shopping vortexes for us, too.
2. You need to bring EVERYTHING with you.
For every trek we've undertaken, there's been ample opportunity to rent or buy gear to supplement our trekking kit. For example, it's just not practical for us to carry around bulky waterproof pants in our backpacks when we only need them a tiny fraction of the time. Same goes for walking sticks and sleeping bags.
Do your research and find out what is available on the ground and at what cost. Ask the tour company you're going with or reach out to other independent travelers who've experienced the same trek. When you land on the ground, shop around for the best price.
Decked out in layers of rented trekking gear on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Are you interested in traveling to Brazil, but only have a limited amount of time? Maybe you have a couple of weeks and you feel overwhelmed by Brazil's size and variety of destinations. Don't worry, we've been there. That’s why we created this Brazil Experiential Travel Guide to get you started in organizing and planning your own trip.
Admiring Rio de Janeiro: jungle, coast and city all in one.
Early in our around-the-world journey, we spent fifteen months traveling through Latin America, but we never made it to Brazil. How did we miss the largest country on the continent, the fifth largest in the world?
Short answer: we ran out of time. Real answer: we psyched ourselves out thinking we must experience Brazil all at once. Given Brazil’s size and diversity, we understood it could take months or even years to travel and fully explore. So we put off a visit, waiting for that perfect timing, our minds darting back often to how we might approach it.
Recently, we decided: Brazil, now’s the time. We embraced the “you don’t need to do it all at once, but choose wisely” approach.
Take a ride on Brazil's southern coastal highways and you'll find roads and towns engulfed in lush, flourishing green, and jungle that opens to dazzling seas and beaches. Marvel at vast swathes of savannah, forest and rivers throughout its inland tropical wetlands. No matter the level of development and modernization across the country — and there’s plenty across its cities, towns and infrastructure — nature appears poised to reclaim.
Against the backdrop of that nature exists a cultural diversity and expression shaped from Portuguese colonial rule, the African slave trade, and waves of immigration and internal migration. This forms the foundation on which we began to understand the country – not entirely, yet deeply — in a short period of time.
If, similar to us, you've wondered how to approach this vast and diverse country with a limited amount of time, this guide is for you. The goal: to inspire ideas of things to do in Brazil, places to visit, and how to engage so as to make the most of your own travels in Brazil.
The following experiences are the highlights from our Wonders of Brazil tour with G Adventures. If you are considering this tour and want to know what to expect, here’s a taste of the itinerary, activities and destinations you'll experience. If you decide to travel Brazil independently, use this guide as inspiration to piece together experiences and places to visit for your own two- or three-week itinerary. Disclosure: This tour was sponsored and provided to us in conjunction with our partnership with G Adventures as Wanderers.
Brazil in two weeks, from Rio de Janeiro to the Pantanal: An Experiential Guide
For those of you who love maps — as we do — here is a visual of the first two weeks of our route through Brazil on the Wonders of Brazil tour with G Adventures.
Map of our first two weeks traveling Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro, 1-4 days
1. Take the Corcovado Railway and enjoy Rio from above, at Christ the Redeemer
What really struck me most about Rio de Janeiro when we first arrived were its natural features – dramatic mountains, urban rainforests, and long stretches of white sand beaches. Human life, including downtown skyscrapers and densely populated neighborhoods are tucked between Mother Nature’s crevices and cliffs.
View over Rio from Christ the Redeemer at the top of Corcovado Mountain.
We took the Corcovado Railway through the thick rainforest of Tijuca National Park, a place remarkable for both its lushness and size. Tijuca, an urban rainforest, was the result of a massive reforestation project from the mid-19th century when the city realized that the deforestation due to coffee plantations and coal mining had dried up some of the city's main water sources. A reminder not to mess with Mother Nature and her delicate balance.
Christ the Redeemer, the 30-meter high Art Deco statue atop Corcovado mountain, overlooks it all, embracing the city.
Christ the Redeemer above, Rio de Janeiro below.
The view from the top is remarkable. I found myself wondering how all this may have appeared to colonialists upon their first arrival in the 16th century. Something must have struck them, too. Rio de Janeiro was the country’s capital for almost 200 years; its cultural significance and atmosphere still hold sway.
2. Visit the Planeterra Favela Experience in Vidigal and challenge your perception
You may wonder: “Can a ‘favela tour’ ever be ethical and respectful?” It's important to ask that and other difficult questions when it comes to tours in favelas or other marginalized communities. To find our own thoughts on the matter, we interacted with a Favela tour in Rio and met community members and leaders.
When tourism and tours are developed from and by members of the community, respectful engagement is possible. A community-focused approach enables immersive experiences shaped by local culture, stories, people, and life — just as it did with the one we experienced with Planeterra Foundation and its local partners Favela Experience and Favela Inc.
The Planeterra Vidigal favela experience, driven and delivered by local community leaders.
Local community leaders and organizations create and deliver the favela tour. The experience zeroes in on respect, sharing and cultural exchange. Positive impact is amplified economically and socially since the money stays local and benefit is accrued throughout the community.
Learning about herbal remedies from Paulinho, caretaker of the Vidigal Ecological Park.
Though no one experience will by itself dissolve the otherness of a favela, this one helps. It does so by swapping the story of poverty and danger with the story of human beings making their way — creating, working, living — for themselves and their families.
Street art and urban art installation fanatics will find no shortage of inspiration in Rio de Janeiro (and elsewhere in Brazil). Across Rio's neighborhoods — from back alleys in the favelas to formal street art public galleries — you'll spot colorful street murals carrying socio-economic, cultural and political messages.
Inspiring street art, Vidigal favela.
Street art and an historic tram mark the experience in Rio's Santa Teresa neighborhood.
Perhaps no installation better illustrates how public art can impact neighborhoods and urban development than the colorful Selarón Steps at the edge of Rio's Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods. A 20+ year private art project of now deceased Chilean artist Jorge Selarón has transformed a once marginal neighborhood of Rio into one of the city’s most visited sights.
Requisite cheesy photo on the Selarón Steps in Rio.
Featuring tiles from over sixty countries, the Selarón Steps are living art history, a community project maintained by local artists in honor of the original project’s inclusive vision.
Ilha Grande, 2 Days
4. Hike Pico do Papagaio (Parrot Peak), the highest point of Ilha Grande
Ilha Grande, just a few hours’ drive and ferry ride from Rio de Janeiro, was a former leper colony and then high security prison (until 1994). Nowadays, the island is open to the public. It's also a car-free natural reserve whose development is restricted, meaning that you won't find any big resorts or development. And that's a good thing.
One of the best ways to appreciate the span of the island’s beauty and also that of Brazil’s southern coast is to climb Pico de Papagaio (Parrot Peak), Ilha Grande’s highest peak. Many people choose to do this as a summit-at-sunrise hike, setting off at 2:30 AM to reach the peak in time for sunrise over the ocean. (Note: Several people in our group did the sunrise hike with Sunrise Pioneers and had a great experience.)
Enjoying the views from Pico de Papagaio at the top of Ilha Grande.
Some of us, however, enjoy an occasional good night's sleep on the road (yes, guilty!!) and question the trade-off between that sleep and a nighttime jungle hike with headlamps. We opted to set off for our hike just after 8AM from Abraão (Ilha Grande’s town center) and reached the peak some 2.5-3 hours later after four miles uphill through thick, steamy jungle. We poked around, took in gorgeous views and watched vultures and frigate birds circle somewhat ominously overhead.