Friday Sound-Off: Is Slum Tourism a Good or Bad Thing?

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Slum tourism draws over 1 million tourists ever year.

It is a major tourism draw that brings in over a million tourists a year.  Mumbai, New Delhi, LA, Detroit, Copenhagen, and Berlin are all seeing tourists flock to their city to participate.  They aren’t visiting to see world class museums, or theme parks, or historical sites.  These tourists are flocking to these cities to visit the slums.

Ever since the movie Slumdog Millionaire became a major box office success, people have been flocking to Mumbai’s Dharavi slum to see for themselves.  The movie didn’t spur the creation of the Dharavi slum tours, but it did amplify the demand for the tours.  And that amplification has been massive.

Slum tourism, as it is often called, isn’t anything new.  All the way back in the 19th Century, wealthy aristocrats in London and New York would visit the disadvantaged areas of the city to view the slums.  It just so happens that this increased curiosity in the slums of the cities coincided with the invention of photography.

As images of these impoverished areas began to circulate, people started to become curious and wanted to see for themselves.  This curiosity has never abated, as this curiosity has only grown exponentially as photography, video, and the media has grown.

Today, these slum tours consist of visits to schools, education centers, and other sites where non-profit organizations are working with these communities.  The goal is to show tourists what is being done to better these communities, and show tourists what they can do to assist.

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Slum tour companies often show tourists what is being done to assist these poorer communities and tell them how they can assist.

 

So this leads us to the question of whether this slum tourism is a good or bad thing?  I am sure some slum tour operators would argue that these tours bring attention to neighborhoods that are desperately in need to assistance.  However, others would argue that none of the money from these tours usually makes it back into these neighborhoods.

Personally, we don’t like these tours.  To us it feels as though these people are being used.  Sure, it does bring some much needed attention to these impoverished neighborhoods, but we aren’t sure it is actually affecting any real change in these communities.  A vast majority of the money being generated by slum tour operators never actually makes it back to the people who live there.

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Some people question how much of the money made from slum tourism actually makes it back into these poorer communities.

What are your thoughts?  Do you think slum tourism is a good or bad thing?  Do you think it is helping or exploiting these communities?  What better ways can we assist those in these communities who are less fortunate?  We want to hear from you.

Posted in Friday Sound-Offs, Opinions | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Cape Buffalo and the Ox Pecker

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A Cape Buffalo with an Oxpecker on its back in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Those of you who have followed our blog closely know how much we love animals.  We plan a lot of our travel around seeing animals and we enjoy learning about animals.  It is fascinating to see wild animals in their natural habitat.

One of the more fascinating things we learned while we were in Africa is the relationship between the cape buffalo and the ox pecker.  These two animals couldn’t be more different, but yet they have a close relationship in the wild. Cape Buffalo are very protective and most animals choose to avoid approaching these massive creatures and their horns.  For good reason, as there are many predators roaming around the African bush, and buffalo get very aggressive when made uncomfortable.

The oxpecker, on the other hand, has no problem with landing on the backs of these huge buffalo.  The ox peckers are drawn to the buffalo because of the parasites and flies that infest these giants.  The buffalo allow the presence of the oxpecker because it benefits them as well.  The ox pecker gets a meal and the buffalo get some grooming service and relief from the pesky flies.

Now, there is some debate as to whether the relationship between the cape buffalo and the oxpecker is symbiotic (or mutually beneficial), or whether the oxpecker itself is semi-parasitic.  Either way, the cape buffalos don’t seem to mind their presence.

The relationship that ox peckers, both the red-billed and yellow-billed species found in sub-Saharan Africa, have with other animals in Africa isn’t limited to just cape buffalo.  On the contrary, ox peckers can often be found near and on other animals such as giraffes, antelope, zebra, and rhinoceroses.  However, their relationship with cape buffalo is more well known because of the frequency in which you see ox peckers on the backs of these giant buffalos.

 

Posted in Africa, Safari, Serengeti, Tanzania, Wildlife | Tagged | 2 Comments

Friday Sound-Off: Are Walking Safaris Safe?

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With poaching becoming an increasing problem and animals being forced into smaller-and-smaller areas, the animals in Africa are becoming more stressed.

He did everything right.  When Quinn Swales, a professional guide at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, lead a group of tourists on a walking safari within the park, he knew exactly what he was doing.  Yet, even doing everything right did not save him.

When Quinn Swales and his group ran into a pride of lions within Hwange National Park, Quinn relied on his experience to protect his clients.  When a large male lion got up and started to approach his group, he told them not to run, but to stand behind him.  Running would only trigger the lion’s predatory instincts, and you can’t out run a lion.

He then set off a “bear banger”, which is a noise maker that makes a sound as loud as a gun shot.  It appeared to work at first, as the lion seemed to back off.  However, fate would not be that kind to Quinn, as the lion quickly doubled back and attacked him.  Sadly, Quinn Swales later died from his injuries.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just an isolated incident.  There have been a number of fatalities in recent years.  We have included a list below of some other stories of tragedy on walking safari in Africa.

There has been a lot of talk in the past decade about how safe walking safaris really are.  In most countries in Africa, guides are not allowed to carry guns on walking safaris.  Poaching is still a big issue in Africa, and keeping guns outside of the parks should be a top priority.  This means that clients are reliant upon the skill and experience of their guides to keep them safe while walking in the African bush.

However, for some tourists, they are looking for the ultimate adventure.  Seeing the magnificent animals of Africa from a vehicle is great, but being able to get out and venture into the wilderness on foot, to put yourself into the environment with the animals as an observer, is the ultimate wildlife viewing experience.

But are these walking tours really what is best for the viewers and the animals?  With poaching becoming an increasing problem and animals being forced into smaller-and-smaller areas, the animals in Africa are becoming more stressed.  Should we really be adding to that stress?

We would like to hear your thoughts.  Should walking safaris be allowed?  Is it worth the risk to take a walking safari?

 

Posted in Africa, Friday Sound-Offs, Hiking, Opinions, Safari, Wildlife | Tagged | 5 Comments

Travelor’s Guide to Edinburgh

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A view of Edinburgh from Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh is one of our favorite cities in the United Kingdom.  There is so much history to see and things to do.  If you are planning a trip to Edinburgh in the near future, we hope this guide will make your trip planning process a little bit easier.

But before we get into all of the amazing places and activities for you to enjoy on your trip, here are some fun facts you might not know about Edinburgh.

  • The Royal Mile is actually just over one mile long (1 mile and 107 yards to be exact).
  • Edinburgh Castle was built on an extinct volcano.
  • Edinburgh was the first city in the world to have an official fire department.
  • J.K. Rowling wrote some parts of Harry Potter in an Edinburgh cafe named, The Elephant.  In fact, Edinburgh inspired some of her characters and locations in the books.
  • Edinburgh has more street addresses than any other city in the world.

A Day in Edinburgh

Want to know what it is like to tour the Edinburgh area?  Well, you are in luck.  Come along with us as we tour three of the Edinburgh area’s biggest attractions. We take a look at the Rosslyn Chapel, the Royal Mile, and of course Edinburgh Castle.

Top 10 Must See Sites

There is so much to see and do in Edinburgh that it was tough to narrow it down to just a list of ten.  These ten things are some of the must see attractions in Edinburgh that we definitely recommend working into your itinerary.

10.  Holyrood Palace

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Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland.

The Palace of Holyrood, which is more commonly known as Holyrood Palace, is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland.  Edinburgh’s oldest street, which is commonly referred to as “The Royal Mile”, connects Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood Palace.

If you are interested in visiting the Holyrood Palace, there are tours available.  We would suggest planning for at least an hour to take the tour.  When planning your time in Edinburgh, it makes sense to plan to see Holyrood Palace on the same day that you plan to see the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle.  You can start at one end, either the castle or the palace, and work your way to the other end.

Recommended Length of Visit:  1-2 Hours

9.  Nelson Monument

Nelson Monument by Eje Gustafsson

The Nelson Monument is a tower that was built between 1807 and 1816 to commemorate the life of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was killed in the battle of Trafalgar.

The Nelson Monument is a tower that was built between 1807 and 1816 to commemorate the life of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was killed in the battle of Trafalgar.  Situated on top of Calton Hill, it really is a sight to behold.

If you plan to visit the monument, we recommend climbing to the top of the monument as it offers some extraordinary panorama views of Edinburgh below.   Entry to the bottom floor of the tower is free, but there is a £5 entry fee to climb the tower.  Information hours on of service and directions can be found on the Edinburgh Museums website.

Recommended Length of Visit:  1 Hour

8.  Royal Botanic Garden

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The Royal Botanic Garden has roughly 70 acres of beautiful gardens and landscapes.

Located just a mile from the city center, the Royal Botanic Garden has roughly 70 acres of beautiful gardens and landscapes. It is a popular attraction for both tourists and locals, and an excellent place to go for a long, scenic walk.

With a collection that includes over 13,000 plant species, the garden’s collection of plants is world class. The gardens also offer some picturesque views of the Edinburgh skyline and Edinburgh castle. During the course of the year the gardens also host a variety of live performances, guided tours, and exhibitions, so make sure you check their schedule before planning your visit.

Recommended Length of Visit:  1-2 Hours

7.  Scotch Whiskey Experience

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You can go on a tour, taste test a variety of whiskies, enjoy lunch at the restaurant, and even take a one day class about whiskey.

If you are a whiskey connoisseur, then you will love the Scotch Whiskey Experience in Edinburgh.  You can go on a tour, taste test a variety of whiskies, enjoy lunch at the restaurant, and even take a one day class about whiskey.  It is located on Castle hill in the Old Town, near the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle.

Recommended Length of Visit:  For a Tour, 2-4 Hours.

6.  National Museum of Scotland

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In addition to its fabulous collections of Scottish antiquities, culture and history, the National Museum of Scotland also holds countless collections covering science and technology, natural history, and world cultures.

In addition to its fabulous collections of Scottish antiquities, culture and history, the National Museum of Scotland also holds countless collections covering science and technology, natural history, and world cultures.  If you like museums, then you will love the National Museum of Scotland.

If you are looking for a good break-down of some of the top exhibits to see in the National Museum of Scotland, The Culture Trip has a very good write-up.  Our favorite was undoubtedly the Mammal Collection, pictured above.

Recommended Length of Visit:  Half Day

5.  Calton Hill

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Located in central Edinburgh, Calton Hill is a large hill that is home to several of Edinburgh’s most prestigious monuments and buildings.

If you want to get a bird’s eye view of the city of Edinburgh, you should make sure you check out Calton Hill.  Located in central Edinburgh, Calton Hill is a large hill that is home to several of Edinburgh’s most prestigious monuments and buildings.  These include the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, and the Dugald Stewart Monument.  It’s definitely a must visit if you are into photography or history.

Pro Tip:  If you want to get some really great shots of Edinburgh, make sure you get up early and head to Calton Hill.  You can get some pretty amazing sunrise shots over Edinburgh from the hill.

Recommended Length of Visit:  1-2 Hours

4.  Arthur’s Seat

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If you are into hiking, you are able to hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat to get some great panoramic views of Edinburgh.

Situated just east of the Edinburgh city center, Arthur’s Seat is the main peak in the group of peaks that forms what is known as Holyrood Park.  It is speculated that its name, Arthur’s Seat, derives from the legends of King Arthur.

If you are into hiking, you are able to hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat to get some great panoramic views of Edinburgh.  If you aren’t up for climbing to the top of the hill, there are plenty of other things to do in Holyrood Park as well.  St. Anthony’s Chapel, which is a medieval chapel that dates back to the 15th century is definitely worth exploring.  As are the 150 foot high cliff faces, known as the Salisbury Crags, that dominate Edinburgh’s skyline from within the park.

Recommended Length of Visit:  1-2 Hours

3.  The Royal Mile

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We loved touring the Royal Mile when we were in Edinburgh.  It is such a bustling, happening place with so much to do and see.  The Royal Mile is a collection of streets that form the primary thoroughfare thru old town in Edinburgh.  The streets are lined with a fun mix of shops, restaurants, pubs and visitor attractions.

Being that it is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Edinburgh, the history surrounding the Royal Mile is astounding.  At one end you have the Holyrood Palace, which is the home to the British Monarch in Scotland, and at the other end you have the imposing Edinburgh Castle.

Pro Tip:  If you plan your visit around the Edinburgh Festival, the Royal Mile is an absolute blast, but it does get very crowded.  So depending on what type of experience you want, booking your trip to Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival should be an important consideration.

Recommended Length of Visit:  2-4 Hours

2.  Rosslyn Chapel

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Rossyln Chapel is an absolutely stunning 15th century church that was made famous in the movie “The Divinci Code”.   It is located about a half-hour south of the city of Edinburgh in the village of Roslin, Scotland.   So while it is not technically inside the city of Edinburgh, it is close enough and pretty enough that we had to include it on this list.

In fact, Tom Hanks was so impressed with the beauty of the church after filming that he later said, “Few locations in film are so delightful and few destinations live up to their billing, but Rosslyn Chapel was all one could imagine or hope for“.  

Pro Tip:  Make sure you take the time to properly tour the church as the detail of the stone work is amazing.  There is also significance to much of the detailed stone work that has led to many of the theories surrounding the church’s role in the search for the Holy Grail.  It’s a fascinating place to tour.

The church should be high on the list of anyone who is visiting the Edinburgh area.  Enjoy some of the shots we took of the church in our gallery below.

Recommended Length of Visit:  1-2 Hours

1.  Edinburgh Castle

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Edinburgh Castle almost needs no introduction, as it is arguably one of the most famous castles in the world.  For those unfamiliar with Edinburgh Castle, it is a 12th century fortress that dominates Edinburgh’s skyline from its perch upon Castle Rock.  It’s also Scotland’s biggest paid tourist attraction.

If you would like to tour Edinburgh Castle, make sure you leave yourself enough time.  If you are really into history, you could probably spend a full day touring the castle.  Even if you aren’t a history buff, viewing the crown jewels and just doing some general sight-seeing at Edinburgh Castle can take you a few hours.  Edinburgh Castle is undoubtedly our top recommended sight to see if you are in the Edinburgh area.  Just some of the many pictures we took on our tour are included in the gallery below.

Recommended Length of Visit:  4-8 Hours

Top Restaurant Recommendation

What could be better than great food served in a 17th century watchtower with views of the harbor?  Not much.  If you are going to make plans to eat at one place in Edinburgh, we would definitely recommend making that place Fishers in Leith.

Fishers in Leith

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Trip Adviser Reviews

Top Excursion Recommendations

One excursion outside of Edinburgh that we would strongly recommend is a trip to Sterling.  For those of you who have seen the movie “Braveheart”, Sterling is the site of William Wallace’s underdog defeat of the British at Sterling Bridge.

Sterling is about a 1 hour drive or train ride from Edinburgh, so it is easy to schedule as a day trip.  And there is more than enough to see in Sterling to justify the visit.

Though the Sterling Bridge has obviously been rebuilt, it is still fun to check out and visualize what happened there so long ago.  We would also recommend checking out Sterling Castle, which like Edinburgh Castle is beautifully perched on top of a hill, and the William Wallace Monument.  The William Wallace Monument was very cool and worth the trip to Sterling by itself.

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Royal Mile Guided Walking Tour

Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands Small Group Day Trip

Stirling Castle and Loch Lomond Small Group Day Trip

Recommended Length of Visit in Edinburgh:  2-3 Days

Posted in Europe, Scotland, Travel Advice, Trip Planning, United Kingdom | Tagged | 5 Comments

Friday Sound-Off: Will Sustainable Travel Gain Momentum in 2018?

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Workers collecting salt in the Hon Khoi salt fields in Vietnam.

With the increasing understanding we have of the impact humans are having on our environment, more-and-more attention has been given to sustainable practices.  From sustainable building, to sustainable farming, it seems like sustainability has become a very big trend in recent years.  And now it seems, the travel industry has begun to follow suit.

Over the past several years, we have seen more-and-more travelers start to take a sustainable approach to traveling.  Some steps travelers are taking are quick and easy, like renting a hybrid vehicle, taking a bus or train, or looking for direct flights when possible.  Some steps require a bit more effort, such as researching airlines that are International Air Transport Association (IATA) certified and hotels that are LEED certified by the US Green Building Council.

We have also seen organizations such as EarthCheck, Green Globe,  and the Rainforest Alliance gaining more influence within the tourism industry.  These organizations are working hard to help make travel more sustainable.

And the steps that travelers are taking aren’t just limited to transportation and accommodations.  Some other steps travelers are taking to be more environmentally conscious in their travels include, but are not limited to, some simple, common-sense things like the following:

  • Taking a water bottle on trips instead of buying bottled water
  • Never using hotel laundry
  • Hanging towels and re-using them
  • Returning maps, brochures, and other tourist info
  • Supporting Animal conservation movements
  • Never feeding wildlife, for any reason
  • Buying locally made products
  • Never buying anything made from endangered animal parts
  • Not using tours that exploit wildlife
  • Traveling with small group tour operators
  • Never snorkeling or diving with operators that chum the water
  • Using tour operators that give back to the local community
  • Honoring local customs
  • Donating the clothing they bring when their trip has ended

These are all fantastic ways in which travelers can help make a difference in ensuring that future generations are able to enjoy the wonderful travel opportunities that we get to enjoy.

Are there other ways in which you are trying to make your travels more sustainable?  Are there ways in which we can help build momentum in this movement to make travel more sustainable?  We would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!

Posted in Air Travel, Bus Travel, Car Rental, Friday Sound-Offs, Hotels, Rail Travel, Sustainable Travel, Travel Advice, Wildlife | Tagged | 2 Comments

National Monuments – Devil’s Tower National Monument

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Devil’s Tower National Monument is an amazing geological feature in Northeast Wyoming.

Devil’s Tower National Monument is an amazing geological feature in Northeast Wyoming that was made famous in the move “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.  Think mountain made of mashed potatoes.  The grooves in the side of the rock is what is known as a spearfish formation, created when sea levels and the climate repeatedly changed.

Devil’s Tower, with its beauty and astounding composition, has long been a sacred spot for Native Americans.  Native American tribes, many of whom refer to the monument as “Bear’s Lodge”, have oral traditions that tell of how the monument came about.

To this day, Devil’s Tower continues to attract visitors, with over 440,000 people a year visiting the monument from all over the world.  On top of being one of America’s biggest geological wonders, it is also one of the best crack rock climbing locations in North America.

How to Get There

Devils Tower Map

Devil’s Tower National Monument is located in Northeast Wyoming, near both the South Dakota and Montana borders.  The closest large city to Devil’s Tower is Rapid City, South Dakota, which itself is a large tourist draw being that it is in close proximity to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.

It’s just a short 1 hour and 45 minute drive from Rapid City should you want to combine those destinations into one trip.  Other large cities with airports that are in close proximity to Devil’s Tower National Monument are listed in the table below as well.

Rapid City, South Dakota 1.75 hours
Casper, Wyoming 3 hours
Billings, Montana 4 hours
Bismark, North Dakota 5.5 hours
Denver, Colorado 6 hours

Best Time to Visit

It can get very cold in Northeast Wyoming during the winter, but if you are looking to combine some sight-seeing with outdoor activities, the months of November thru March might suit you well.  In the summer (June thru August), the temperatures are warm and rain is common, so it is really hit-and-miss on what type of weather you are going to get.

Arguably the best time to visit is during the Spring and Autumn shoulder months of April thru May and September thru October.  Though it can still be quite wet during the Spring, so our favorite time to visit Devil’s Tower National Monument is undoubtedly during the fall.  Besides, Devil’s Tower is especially beautiful with the fall leaves changing color.

Months High Low Notes
APR-MAY 62°F 33°F Moderate temperatures, but wet.
JUN-AUG 83°F 51°F Hot with occasional thunderstorms.
SEP-OCT 67°F 35°F Moderate temperatures and relatively dry.
NOV-MAR 39°F 12°F Cold temperatures with snow.

Top Things to See and Do

Whether you are just passing thru on your way out west, or staying for a number of days to enjoy this beautiful area, Devil’s Tower has an abundance of activities for you to enjoy.  It is a premiere rock climbing location and offers some extraordinary hiking opportunities.  Blow are some resources to assist you in researching and planning your trip to see Devil’s Tower National Monument.

Marvel at the Wonder of Devil’s Tower

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Because of its strange geological formation and its picturesque setting, Devil’s Tower offers some amazing photography opportunities.

Because of its strange geological formation and its picturesque setting, Devil’s Tower offers some amazing photography opportunities.  It is especially pretty when viewed at night, with a clear, starlit sky as a backdrop.

Take a Hike

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None of the hiking trails at Devi’s Tower are especially long or difficult, so it is a great way for everyone to experience the wonders of this beautiful monument.

If you would like to get a little more up-close and personal, there are hiking trails that weave you thru the forest and up close to Devil’s Tower.  None of the trails are especially long or difficult, so it is a great way for everyone to experience the wonders of this beautiful monument.

View the Wildlife

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Many species of mammal, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish call the park their home.

A part from just being a pretty area with a strange rock formation, Devil’s Tower National Monument is also a great place to view wildlife.  Many species of mammal, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish call the park their home.  These include such animals as deer, pronghorn, bison (otherwise known as American buffalo), big horn sheep, prairie dogs, beaver, porcupine, coyote, fox, mountain lion, and bobcat.

Photo Gallery

Here are just some of the stunning pictures we were able to capture in Devil’s Tower National Monument.  It’s an amazing place to explore.

 

Posted in Hiking, National Parks, North America, Road Trips, United States, Wildlife, Wyoming | Tagged | Leave a comment

Rhinos Chasing Hyenas in Ngorongoro

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Two black rhinos grazing in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

You never know what you are going to see when you go on safari.  That is one of the things we love the most about it.  We got pretty lucky when we were on safari in Africa.  We got to see all of the animals we wanted to see, as well as some pretty amazing behavior from the animals.

Without a doubt, one of my favorite things we got to see was a black rhino chasing a number of spotted hyenas in the Ngorongoro Crater.  You can see how formidable black rhinos can be, and why most other animals give them their due respect.

We aren’t really sure what set the rhino off.  If you watch the video, it almost looks as though it is protecting something.  Or it could be that the hyenas were after something and the rhino wanted no part of the hyenas in it’s neighborhood.

Whatever it was, this rhino was having none of it.  Let us know what you think.

Posted in Africa, Ngorongoro Crater, Safari, Tanzania, Video, Wildlife | Tagged | 3 Comments

Friday Sound-off: Is ‘overtourism’ a problem?

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Venice, Italy is one of the cities most effected by over-crowding.

‘Overtourism’ isn’t a term you hear very often, but it appears as though it was a hot topic at the 25th World Travel Monitor Forum held in Pisa, Italy November 9-10, 2017. At the invitation of IPK International and supported by ITB Berlin, roughly 50 tourism experts met to discuss the latest trends and hot topics in the tourism industry.  And it appears over-crowding and ‘overtourism’ was one of the hot topics.

It is a concept that, as travel enthusiasts, we may not actively think about a whole lot, but I am sure it is something that is often in the back of our minds.  I know it is often in our minds as we travel.

Increasingly crowded destinations not only have an impact on travelers in terms of longer wait lines, lack of accommodations, and more expensive trips, but it has an impact on the destinations and local infrastructure as well.  In fact, in the past year overtourism has led to an increasing number of protests by residents.  We have outlined just a few of the articles written about the topic in the past year below.

According to a World Travel Monitor representative survey, in which 29,000 international travelers from 24 countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas were surveyed, roughly 25 percent of all international tourists feel as though their travel destinations have been “over-crowded”.  We have summarized some of the other key findings from this survey below.

  • 9 percent, or roughly 100 million tourists, said this over-crowding has directly effected the quality of their trip.
  • The group that reported the most issues with over-crowding, at 13 percent, was families with young children and young people under 34 years-old.
  • In terms of origin, Asians reported experiencing issues with over-crowding most frequently, with 15 percent of those surveyed saying they have been directly effected by over-crowding on their trips.  This was followed by 9 percent of North American travelers and 8 percent of European travelers saying they have been effected by over-crowding.
  • In regards to activities, skiers and snowboarders reported the most issues with over-crowding, with 19 percent of those traveling to engage in winter activities reporting issues with over-crowding.
  • According to the survey, the cities most effected are Guangzhou (24%), Shanghai (23%), Beijing (21%), Amsterdam and Istanbul (both at 19%), and Barcelona, Florence, and Venice (all at 18%).

At the World Traveler Forum there was plenty of discussion on how to address some of the issues with over-crowding, such as managing seasonal visitor flows, spreading out tourism benefits, and investing more in infrastructure.

And it was mentioned that Venice, Italy has already taken great strides to try and tackle the issues it is facing with over-crowding by banning cruise ships from docking directly at the waterfront, increasing tourism taxes, and fining tourists who break the local laws.  It will be interesting to see how these efforts and others pay off in the coming years.

We have certainly seen first-hand the effect that over-crowding can have in our travels throughout Europe.  Longer lines and a scarcity of accommodations is something that every traveler needs to factor into their travel planning these days.

We would like to know your thoughts.  Have you had any bad experiences with over-crowding?  What have those experiences been and where did you have issues?  What would you like to see these destinations do to counteract the problems with overcrowding?

Posted in Africa, Asia, Europe, Friday Sound-Offs, North America, South America, Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

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Two juvenile Mountain Gorillas wrestling

A cute video we took in Rwanda of two juvenile Mountain Gorillas wrestling.  We were trekking through Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda.  There are only around 7 groups of mountain gorillas left in Rwanda, so they are still extremely endangered.

If you decide to visit, we would highly recommend people stay at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge.  There are also treks to see Golden Monkeys if you are interested.

 

Posted in Africa, Hiking, Mountains, National Parks, Rwanda, Video, Wildlife | Tagged | 2 Comments

National Parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton

For those of you who know me, you know how much I love scenic landscapes.  I guess that is what has drawn me to our national parks.  They have some of the most beautiful landscapes this world has to offer.  There is nothing more serene than being in nature with nothing to occupy your mind except for Mother Nature’s beauty.  That is what got me into photography in the first place.  I wanted a way in which to capture those moments to share with others.

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I have been to exactly half of the 46 National Parks in the continental United States, with plans to visit the remainder of the parks here and outside the 48 continental states.  And I have plans to write about each and every one of those parks so that I can share with you my experiences and any tips I might have collected along the way.


No better place to start than with this country’s first national park and two of my favorite national parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton.  As you can see in the map below, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are located in very close proximity of each other, in Northwest Wyoming.  In fact, Yellowstone National Park is so large that it covers small parts of Montana and Idaho as well.

Yellowstone and Tetons Map 1

How to Get There

When we visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton, we drove so that we could take in some of the views along the way.  To give you an idea of how long it will take you to get there, I put together a little drive time table below to give you an idea.

From City Drive Time
Denver 10.5 hrs
Minneapolis 14.5 hrs
Chicago 20.5 hrs
Milwaukee 19.5 hrs
Kansas City 18 hrs
Seattle 11 hrs
Portland 12 hrs
Salt Lake City 5 hrs

 

If you aren’t interested in driving, you can always fly into Billings, Montana and then drive to Yellowstone National Park.  From the airport in Billings, it is about a 3 hour drive to Yellowstone.  From Yellowstone, it is about an hour drive South to get to Grand Teton National Park.

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Best Time to Visit

Yellowstone and Grand Teton are fun to visit any time of the year, and the best time to visit will ultimately depend on what you want to see when you’re there.  Summer (June thru August) is the peak season for the parks, so the parks will be the most crowded during these months.  However, if you get off the beaten (or paved) paths and explore the back-country of the parks, you can escape the crowds any time of year.

If you are into snow shoeing and cross country skiing, then the winter months (December thru March) will be of the most interest to you.  The park is so quiet and peaceful during the winter, and the thermal features are extra beautiful under a fresh blanket of snow.

Top Things to See

There are so many things to see in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.  To give you a place to start in your planning, I have outlined some of my top spots in both parks for you below.  I have also included some great resources below where you can find more information about the parks.

Yellowstone National Park

The following are my top attractions in Yellowstone National Park:

Grand Prismatic Hot Spring

The largest hot spring in the United States, the Grand Prismatic hot spring is my favorite site in Yellowstone National Park.  Different color algae grows in the different temperature bands of the hot spring, giving it beautiful rings of color.  There is a board walk that takes you right up to the hot spring, but if you have the time and are adventurous, I would suggest taking the hike up behind the hot spring on to the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring Overlook.  The views are amazing!

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Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls

The Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone consist of the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls.  There are several hikes that give you a great view of the falls, as well as the Lookout Point, Artist Point, and Falls Overlook, which allows you to get to the precipice of the falls.

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Old Faithful Geyser

Arguably the most famous attraction in Yellowstone National Park, I probably don’t need to give you an introduction into Old Faithful geyser.  Popular because of its predictability, Old Faithful erupts every 45-125 minutes and can usually be predicted by park staff almost to the minute.  There is plenty of seating up close to the geyser, but if you want to get a really great perspective of the eruption, take the Observation Point Trail.  There are some great views of Old Faithful from this trail.

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Mammoth Hot Springs

Located in the far North of Yellowstone National park, Mammoth Hot Springs is a very large group of hot springs on a travertine hill. It includes over 60 thermal features, including the Angel Springs, Devil’s Kitchen and Devil’s Thumb, Marbel Terrace, Painted Pool, and the Sulpher Pits.  There is a boardwalk that takes you thru the hot springs, and if you have the time I would absolutely recommend exploring the thermal features here.  A great way to get more information about the Mammoth Hot Springs region of Yellowstone is to check out this online Virtual Tour.

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Hayden and Lamar Valleys

I absolutely love the valleys of Yellowstone National Park, and Hayden and Lamar Valley are arguably the park’s most famous.  They are, without a doubt, the best place to view wildlife in the parks.  You are almost guaranteed to see bison, elk, and antelope grazing in the valleys.  And if you are lucky, you will get to see grizzley bear wandering thru or the wolf packs that patrol the valleys for prey.  Bringing binoculars (spotting scopes are even better) is an absolute must as the valleys are very big and sometimes the wildlife you want to see is quite a ways away.

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Yellowstone Lake

Not as often mentioned as the park’s thermal features, hot springs, and waterfalls, Yellowstone Lake should not be overlooked when planning a trip to the park.  It is the largest body of water within the park, covering 136 square miles, and has an average depth of 136 feet.  My favorite park of the lake is seeing the thermal features releasing steam next to the shoreline.  Makes for some fascinating views.

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Roosevelt Arch

Found at the Northern entrance to the park, the arch is one of the most iconic images of Yellowstone National Park.  It welcomes visitors with the message, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”, which was taken from the Organic Act (the legislation passed in 1872 that designated Yellowstone as the world’s first national park).  President Roosevelt himself laid the cornerstone of the arch in 1903, and the arch has been welcoming visitors to Yellowstone ever since its completion.

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Norris Geyser Basin

The Norris Geyser Basin is a large geothermal area in Yellowstone National Park that includes a large number of geysers and other thermal features.  These features include Porkchop Geyser, Whale’s Mouth, Pinwheel Geyser, Emerald Spring, and Steamboat Geyser.  This is an area of Yellowstone that is another absolute must-see.  For a neat tour of the Norris Geyser Basin region of Yellowstone, check out this online Virtual Tour.

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Grand Teton National Park

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The following are my top attractions in Yellowstone National Park:

Jenny Lake

Formed by glaciers, Jenny Lake is jaw-dropping beautiful, especially at sunrise and sunset.  If you like camping and kayaking, I would absolutely recommend camping out at one of the campgrounds by the lake and enjoying some time out on the lake in a kayak.  On top of being incredibly peaceful, the views from the lake are gorgeous.  If you are looking for a campground, the Jenny Lake Campground is a great option.

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The Teton Range

They are pretty hard to miss.  Often likened to the Matterhorn of Switzerland because of their jagged peaks, the Teton Range has the most Swiss Alps feel of any other place in the US Rocky Mountains.  There are plenty of places to take in the view of the peaks, and I would suggest soaking them all in.

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Teton Park Road

A great way of doing an initial investigation of the park is to take the Teton Park road.  I would still recommend getting out of the car and exploring the back country, but some of the views from the park road should not be missed.  One of my favorite viewpoints is the Snake River Overlook.  There is just something about the river winding its way at the foot of the mountains that is just so beautiful.   If you are interested in some other scenic drives, here are some ideas to explore.

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Mormon Row

This is one of my favorite spots in Grand Teton National Park.  The view of these old buildings at the foot of the Teton Range is stunning.  Make sure you bring your camera because you can get some fantastic shots here.

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Here is a map on how to get to Mormon Row:

Mormon Row Map

Kayaking

In my opinion, if you want to really see the Grand Teton National Park, you have to get out of the car and explore.  There is no better way to take in the beauty of this park than from in a boat on a lake.  Especially when the lake is at the foot of the prettiest mountain range in the continental United States.  I would recommend Jenny Lake.  And if you don’t own kayaks, not to worry, you can rent them there.

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Snake River Overlook

This is one of my favorite scenic overlooks on the Teton Park Road.  The view of the Teton Range resting just beyond the meandering Snake River is a sight to behold.  I would absolutely recommend making a pit stop to take in the scenery.

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Hiking

Getting out in the back country to explore our national parks always pays off, and that is no different with Grand Teton.  There are views you just can’t see from the road.  If you have the time, I would strongly recommend getting out and hiking, even if it is just a short hike.  Here is a great resource for some of the more popular hikes in Grand Teton.

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Camping

If you like camping, Grand Teton National Park is a great place to do it.  The camp sites at the campgrounds aren’t right on top of each other, so you actually feel like you are camping.  Nothing like sleeping out in nature, and this is a gorgeous place to do it.  Just make sure you respect the campgrounds and practice proper bear etiquette.  Hear are some more options for campgrounds in Grand Teton National Park.

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Jackson Hole Gondola

No trip to Grand Teton is complete without a pit stop in Jackson, Wyoming.  Jackson Hole ski resort is gorgeous, as is the city of Jackson.  The shopping and restaurants are fun to take in.  But my favorite part of visiting Jackson is going on the Jackson Hole gondola.  The sites from the top are out-of-this-world.  Here is some more information on the Jackson Hole gondola.

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Posted in Camping, Hiking, Kayaking, National Parks, North America, Road Trips, Travel Advice, Uncategorized, United States, Wyoming | Tagged | 6 Comments

The Ring of Kerry Guide

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The county of Kerry in Ireland has some absolutely amazing and beautiful places to see within it.  So much so that we consider it a must-see for anyone who is thinking about visiting Ireland.  However, it is also a pretty big area, and planning what to see and how can be a pretty daunting task unless you have some guidance.

Well fear not, because that is exactly what we plan to give you in this guide to visiting the Ring of Kerry.  We are going to explain to you what the Ring of Kerry is, as well as touch on some of the top attractions that you can view on this famous Irish road trip.

How to Get There

The County of Kerry sits in the South Western part of Ireland, and is known for its pockets of Irish language speaking population and rugged, beautiful coastline.  The best way to tour this gorgeous countryside is to follow the popular circular route that has become known as the Ring of Kerry.

The Ring of Kerry is a route that follows the coastline of the Iveragh Peninsula for much of the route, and includes some forays into the stunning Killarney National Park.  It really is an amazing road trip.

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There really is a ton of beautiful and amazing things to see all along the Ring of Kerry.  However, when we visited Ireland a few years ago and did the Ring of Kerry, we found that a lot of our favorite sites were near the city of Killarney.

If you are short on time and are unable to do the whole route, we would recommend that you at least hit this area.  Between the Muckross Abbey, the Muckross House, the Torc Waterfall, and the Gap of Dunloe, there are some pretty amazing things to see in all in close proximity to each other.

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Killarney

The town of Killarney is a great place to setup base camp if you are going to be doing a lot of exploration along the Ring of Kerry.  It is a really neat town, with a lot of really great shops and restaurants, and it is in close proximity to many of the top sights to see along the route.  If you are going to be in the County of Kerry, we absolutely recommend stopping into Killarney to do a little bit of shopping and exploration.

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Killorglin

The town of Killorglin is another great place to setup your base camp if you are going to be spending a lot of time exploring the Ring of Kerry.  Like Killarney, it has a lot of really neat shops and pubs that you can enjoy while taking a break from exploring the route.

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Top 5 Things to See

There is a wealth of great things to see and do on the Ring of Kerry, and a lot of really great resources out there should you want to spend a good deal of time exploring this famous road route.  We have included some fantastic resources below that you can use to do some more in-depth planning for your visit.

We have included our Top 5 favorite things to see along the Ring of Kerry below.  These are some of the more amazing and scenic places we visited in all of Ireland.  Do you have a favorite place along the Ring of Kerry that we didn’t mention below?  If so, make sure you let us know about it in the comments section.  I am sure other travelers will be very grateful to hear your feedback as well!

Muckross House

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The Muckross House is a fully furnished 19th Century Mansion that is set against the unbelievable beauty of Killarney National Park.  It is an incredibly beautiful building, inside and out, and is very much worth the time to tour.  The property also includes some stunning gardens and farms that make it one of the most beautiful and unique properties in Ireland.

Muckross Abbey

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The Muckross Abbey was one of our favorite stops along the Ring of Kerry.  This old Irish monastery and graveyard is absolutely amazing and beautiful.  It is fascinating to tour the remains of the monastery and appreciate the architecture and the history.  One of our favorite features was a large tree that has grown up from the inside of the Abbey.  It is stunning how much the tree fits into the facade.  It makes for some truly incredibly photo opportunities.  Make sure you bring a wide angle lens to really capture the essence of this amazing place.

Gap of Dunloe

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Set in between the MacGillycuddy Reeks and Purple Mountain by glacial flows, the Gap of Dunloe is one of the prettier mountain passes you will ever see.  There is a road that takes you thru the pass and the scenery along the way is breathtaking.  Along the way, you might see some free ranging sheep and some fantastic old buildings that seem to melt right into the rocky landscape.  The Gap of Dunloe is a landscape photographer’s dream, especially around sunset, so make sure you plan plenty of time to take some fantastic shots if you visit.

Torc Waterfall

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This 70 – 80 foot tall waterfall, set within the wooded area surrounding the town of Killarney, is absolutely stunning.  It is only a short hike to get to the waterfall, so this is hiking experience that the whole family can enjoy.  The Torc Waterfall is an absolute must stop if you are doing the Ring of Kerry and are in the Killarney area.

Tetrapod Tracks on Valentia

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If you are a history buff, you are going to love the Tetrapod Tracks on Valencia Island.  And when I say history, I am talking about a time long, long ago past.  385 million years ago, to be precise.  The Tetrapod Tracks are the footprints left by a Tetrapod, which is one of the first animals to leave the water to live on land, that have been imprinted in stone.

Just as cool as it is to find a dinosaur fossil, looking at these tracks with your own eyes is truly awe-inspiring.  It isn’t that often that you get to witness ancient history in this manner.  If you do decide to visit, please make sure you are respectful of the tracks.  Their preservation is incredibly important.

Touring the Ring of Kerry

The Ring of Kerry is an amazing road trip that everyone should experience for themselves.  There are so many amazing things to do and see along the route, which makes it a must do activity for everyone visiting Ireland.  To give you a sense of what it is like to tour the Ring of Kerry, we have put together the short highlight video below.

Image Gallery

There are a lot of beautiful and amazing things to see along the Ring of Kerry.  Below are some of our favorite pictures we took at some of our favorite spots along the route.

Posted in Europe, Ireland, Road Trips, Travel Advice | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

African Safari – Lake Manyara National Park

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The entrance gate to Lake Manyara National Park.

When we visited Tanzania last year, we were very fortunate to be able to go on safari and see some absolutely amazing things.  I don’t think it is possible to truly understand how amazing safari in Africa is until you experience it yourself.  Seeing some of this world’s most amazing animals in their natural habitat.

The first national park that we visited while on safari was Lake Manyara National Park.  This 127 square mile park is about a 2 hour drive from Arusha and is home to a lot of Africa’s wildlife diversity.

Getting to Lake Manyara National Park

Lake Manyara National Park is located in Northern Tanzania, just Southwest of the Ngorongoro Crater National Conservation Area.  It is about a 2 hour drive from the major city of Arusha.  If you are planning a visit to Lake Manyara National Park, you will likely want to fly into Arusha.  The airport in Arusha is where most of the safari companies that service Lake Manyara National Park will pick you up upon arrival.

We used Tanzania Choice Safaris for our safari and we absolutely loved them.  We have relatives who lived in country and had used them on multiple occasions and had a lot of really great things to say about them.  They were very courteous, well organized, and extremely knowledgeable about the parks and the wildlife.  We would absolutely recommend them for anyone considering a safari in any of the national parks in Tanzania.

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Map of the National Parks in Tanzania.

Not surprisingly, the main feature of Lake Manyara National Park is Lake Manyara.  The lake rests up against the western boundary of the park, with the rift valley on much of the park’s eastern boundary.  There are a lot of open spaces around the lake where you can find zebra, wildebeest, antelope, buffalo, and other grazers feeding.  In Lake Manyara, it is very common to see hippos avoiding the heat during the day.

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Map of Lake Manyara National Park.

Best Time to Visit

If you are planning to visit Lake Manyara National Park, you are going to want to plan your visit for the optimal time of year to see the animals and avoid bad weather.  The best time to visit the park is between June and October, as the animals are easier to spot and the weather is typically better.  Conversely, you will want to avoid visiting during the months of March thru May, as this is when the worst weather typically occurs and the animals are typically seeking shelter.

Lake Manyara Best Times to Visit

June thru October

  • Animals are easier to spot as the vegetation isn’t as thick and the animals are typically congregated by the water sources.
  • There is typically a lot of sun and very little rain.
  • Because the weather isn’t as wet, malaria carrying mosquitoes are less prevalent.
  • You will want to dress warmly as the mornings can be cold at this time of year.

November thru May

  • The park is at its greenest and most lush.
  • It is typically the least crowded in April and May, which is the park’s low season.
  • Bird watching is best as the migratory birds are visiting the park at this time.
  • There may be a lot of mud on the roads because of heavy rains.
  • March is the height of the rainy season.

The Wildlife

There is an abundance of amazing wildlife within Lake Manyara National Park.  We saw a ton of animals from the moment we first drove into the park.  The animals that can be found in the park include the following:

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The animals that can be found in Lake Manyara National Park

Lake Manyara National Park is famous for its tree climbing lions.  While all lions can climb trees, most often they prefer not to as their size doesn’t make them as effective of climbers as leopards.  However, in Lake Manyara National Park, the lions have grown accustomed to climbing trees and whole prides can be seen resting in the trees.

We didn’t get to see the famous tree climbing lions while on safari, but our safari guide told us some really amazing stories about driving right up to trees without realizing there were lions in them.  So if you decide to visit Lake Manyara National Park on safari, make sure you keep an eye out for the famous tree climbing lions.

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One of the famous tree climbing lions that Lake Manyara National Park is famous for.

One of the more amazing wildlife encounters we had while visiting the park was spotting a bull elephant feeding by the side of the road.  He heard us coming, so we didn’t startle him.  That is important because elephants can be dangerous if startled or if they feel threatened.  As we approached, we came closer to have a look at us.  They are such amazing animals.

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A bull elephant we met in Lake Manyara National Park.

We also got to see quite a few giraffes while on safari in Lake Manyara National Park.  It is absolutely amazing to see them feeding in their natural habitat.  They are such peaceful and amazing animals.  Every so often, they would take a momentary reprieve from feeding to glance over at us to see what we were up to.

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A giraffe takes a break from eating to check us out in Lake Manyara National Park.

On Safari in Lake Manyara National Park

We absolutely loved our time in Lake Manyara National Park.  If you are interested in seeing what it is like to go on safari in this beautiful park, check out the video of our adventure below.

Photo Gallery

Lake Manyara National Park was such a magical place to visit.  Being able to see such amazing wildlife in their natural habitat was an experience of a lifetime.  Below are some of the amazing pictures we were able to get while on safari.

Posted in Africa, National Parks, Safari, Tanzania, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

April Parks Trip to Utah

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We haven’t posted in a few weeks as things have been busy, but we wanted to check-in as we have just finished making plans for a National Parks trip to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona for later this month.  It’s a trip that we are very excited about and we cannot wait to share our experiences in this amazing area with you.

Southern Utah is an area that we know quite well.  In fact, this will be my fourth trip to Southern Utah in the last 10 years.  There is just something about this area that keeps drawing me back.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and, for the most part, still mostly wild.  In fact, it is one of the most pristine areas left in the continental United States.

I hope to share many of the pictures and experiences we have in the area in the coming weeks, so I have included a rough itinerary of our trip below so that you know what to expect.  If you have visited any of these areas in the past, please share with us some of the stories and experiences you have had!

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Tuesday, April 17th – Fly into Las Vegas

Las Vegas, Nevada is undoubtedly the best place to fly into if you are planning on visiting the wealth of National Parks in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.  Zion National Park in Utah is roughly a 2.5 hour drive North from Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon is roughly a 4 hour drive East from Las Vegas.

After landing in the early afternoon, we will pick up our rental car and then head North towards Zion National Park.  I will be traveling with my wife and she isn’t that fond of camping, so we will be staying in a hotel near the park.  We will be staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites Springdale/Zion National Park because it is very close to the park and will allow us to get there bright and early the following day.

After checking in, we will be stopping by Zion Adventure Company to pick up some gear that we are renting for our trip to Zion National Park.  It will be absolutely necessary for one of the hikes that we are really looking forward to doing in the park.  The Narrows hike involves hiking up the Virgin River into the narrow slot canyon at the far end of Zion National Park.  Because you are hiking in a river and the water is cold, renting the right pants, socks, and shoes to keep you warm is essential.

We will be renting the Dry Pants Package for $45/person, which includes the following items that are essential for hiking the Narrows during the spring:

  • Gore-Tex Dry Pants
  • Canyon Shoes
  • Neoprene Socks
  • Hiking Pole

Wednesday, April 18th – Zion National Park

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On Wednesday morning we will wake up bright-and-early and make the 5 minute drive from our hotel to the park.  We want to be there early so that we can catch one of the first shuttles into the park.  From Spring until Fall, the only way to get into the park is by shuttle to minimize congestion within the park.  Catching one of the first shuttles will allow us to avoid the crowds.  There is a lot that we want to see in Zion, but three hikes stand above all else.

The Narrows Hike (Up to 16 miles)

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The Narrows hike is a hike that we are really, really excited about doing.  It is a hike that I haven’t done before because of either a lack of time or the conditions weren’t right.  The hike involves navigating the Virgin River (which is what carved Zion Canyon) thru the narrow slot canyon at the far end of the park.

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The hike can be made one of two different ways.  You can either hike up river from the Temple of Sinawava, which can be done only as a day hike and you must turn around at Big Springs.  You can also choose to do a top-down hike, which starts at Chamberlain’s Ranch.  This is a strenuous hike that requires a permit to do, so if you plan on doing the top-down hike, make sure you are capable of completing the hike and plan ahead to make sure you get a permit.

The Narrows Map

Angels Landing and the West Rim Trail (5 miles)

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The Angel’s Landing hike is one of the more infamous, and dangerous, hikes in the entire National Park System in the United States.  Since 2004, it is estimated that roughly 15 people have lost their lives attempting to complete this hike.  The Angel’s Landing hike involves scaling the spine of a rock fin that juts out into Zion Canyon.  You are confronted with narrow paths that only allow one-way traffic, with jaw-dropping 1,000-1,500 foot drops (sometimes on both sides).

The Park Service has done their best over the years to make this hike less perilous by installing chains and carving foot holds into the rock, but the hike is still quite treacherous and not for the faint of heart.  I did this hike when I was much younger, and the views from the top of Angel’s Landing are quite stunning.  However, I do not know that I will have the nerve to try this hike again when we visit in a few weeks.  It almost seems like I would be tempting fate.

The following guidelines should be strictly followed if you are going to attempt this hike:

  • Wear proper clothing and foot gear – If you are going to attempt to do the Angel’s Landing hike, make sure you are dressed properly.  This means no jeans, no restricting clothing, and no extra loose fitting clothing that can get caught up on branches or rocks.  Most importantly, make sure you are wearing proper hiking shoes.  This does not include tennis shoes or athletic shoes.  You should be wearing proper hiking shoes that are designed to grip and not slip on rock.
  • Do not bring young children on this hike – This should go without saying, but just this year a 13 year-old girl fell from the Angel’s Landing hike to her death.  Personally, I don’t think this hike should be attempted by anyone who isn’t old enough to understand the true danger and consequences of the hike.  However, if you are bringing your children on the hike, make sure you stay with them at all times.  There is no shame in turning around.
  • Do not attempt this hike if you are afraid of heights – I am not one who is overly afraid of heights, but this hike really scared the crap out of me.  You are walking on a very narrow trail, up-and-over rocks, with 1,000+ foot drops on both sides of you.  If you are afraid of heights, I would not attempt this hike.
  • Do not attempt this hike if you are ill, tired, or not feeling 100% – If you aren’t at your full capacity, you should not attempt this hike.  There is literally zero room for error on certain parts of this trail.  One slip, one stumble, or one momentary lapse of concentration and you will die.  Again, there is absolutely no shame in not doing this hike.
  • Always follow proper trail etiquette – You should always use trail etiquette when hiking on any trail, but it is especially important on this trail.  Some spots on the trail are only wide enough for one person, and the trail is used by people heading to the summit and returning from the summit.  So make sure you step aside when possible to allow hikers coming from the opposite direction to pass.  One accidental bump could prove fatal on this trail.
  • Always stay on the trail – It should go without saying, but ALWAYS stay on the trail.  Again, this is something you should be doing on any trail, but it is especially important on the Angel’s Landing hike.  The Park Service has installed safety chains along the trail for good reason, so use them.
  • Do not attempt this hike if you don’t have enough daylight or the conditions are bad – This hike is dangerous enough during the day and under the perfect conditions, and it can be downright lethal at night or in poor conditions.  Make sure you check the trail for ice and refrain from hiking on this trail if the rock is wet (which can make the trail slippery).  And if you don’t have enough time to make it to the summit and back during the daylight (with time to spare), then wait to do the hike another day.

If you want to see some great views, but don’t feel up to doing the Angel’s Landing hike, then the West Rim Trail is a great alternative.  The West Rim Trail is the trail you take from the Grotto on the canyon floor up to the Angel’s Landing Trail head at Scout’s Lookout.  If you don’t feel up to doing the Angel’s Landing hike, you can continue on the West Rim Trail to the rim of the canyon.  While the views might not be 360 degrees like they are on the Angel’s Landing summit, they are still quite breathtaking.

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Emerald Pools Hike (1.2 to 3 miles)

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The Emerald Pools hike is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park.  The hike takes you up past three pools that collect water that is cascading down the canyon.  The lower pool can be found at the end of a short hike from the canyon floor.  From there, a further ascent up the Emerald Pools Trail will take you to the Middle Pool and Upper Pools.

While the name of this trail might make it sound harmless, don’t be mistaken.  Many people have lost their life while hiking on this trail.  Although the fall from this trail might not be as high as the fall from Angel’s Landing, it is more than high enough to kill a person.

Thankfully, the Park Service has chained off some of the more dangerous areas of the trail and the trail has become much safer in recent years.  However, you should still exercise caution when hiking on any trail that involves exposed cliffs.

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Thursday, April 19th – Grand Staircase Escalante

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After spending the day in Zion National Park, we will be driving to Bryce Canyon National Park that night.  We will be staying in the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn, which is one of my favorite places to stay in Southern Utah.  If you haven’t read the history of Ruby’s Inn, I suggest you do so.  It is absolutely fascinating.

On Thursday, we will wake up and head to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  This monument is one of those that is being cut in half, so we want to make sure we get to do some more hiking and exploring within the monument before that happens.

Zebra and Tunnel Slots (5.3 to 7.2 miles)

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We cannot wait to explore the Zebra and Tunnel slot canyons.  They are both prime examples of what makes this area so special.  It is a relatively easy hike that should take between 3-5 hours to complete.  Some parts of the canyons get very tight, so if you are extremely claustrophobic, this may not be a hike for you.  However, if you can tolerate some tight places, this hike is one of the more fascinating hikes in Southern Utah.

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Spooky and Peek-a-Boo Slots (2.9 miles)

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The Spooky and Peek-a-boo Slot Canyons are another set of slot canyons that we hope to explore while within the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  These are some of the other amazing slot canyons that you can hike inside the Grand Staircase.  This hike is a little more difficult than the Zebra and Tunnel Slots hike, as there is some rock scrambling that is involved.  However, it isn’t too difficult and it is definitely a hike that we recommend.

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Friday, April 20th – Bryce Canyon National Park

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After checking out the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on Thursday, we will head back to Ruby’s Inn outside of Bryce Canyon National Park for a good night’s rest.  On Friday morning, we hope to be able to take a helicopter ride over Bryce Canyon National Park and parts of Grand Escalante National Monument.  Seeing these beautiful places from the air will give us a different perspective of these gorgeous landscapes.

Navajo Loop Trail (1.3 miles)

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One trail that we are very much looking forward to hiking within Bryce Canyon National Park is the Navajo Loop Trail.  I have visited Bryce Canyon National Park three times in my life, and on all three occasions I have taken this hike.  This loop trail takes you thru some of the most beautiful and picturesque parts of Bryce Canyon.

The trail is rated as a “moderate” hike by the Park Service, but there really isn’t anything technically challenging about the hike.  There is a very steep decent, with gradual switch-backs, at the start of the hike and then a steep accent, with more switch-backs, at the end of the hike.  This elevation change likely explains the “moderate” rating.  I think this is a must-do hike for anyone visiting Bryce Canyon National Park.

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Queen’s Garden Loop Trail (1.8 miles)

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The Queen’s Garden Loop Trail is another fantastic loop trail within Bryce Canyon National Park that is worth exploring.  If you are looking for a longer hike thru some of Bryce Canyon’s prettiest areas, you can do the Queen’s Garden Loop Trail instead of the Navajo Loop Trail.

The Queen’s Garden Loop follows the Navajo Loop Trail going out into the canyon.  However, instead of heading back towards Sunset Point, the Queens Garden Trail heads North towards Sunrise Point before looping back.  It is another fantastic hike that isn’t too technically challenging.

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Fairyland Loop Trail (8 miles)

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Another great hike in Bryce Canyon National Park that we are looking forward to doing is the Fairyland Loop trail.  It is a trail that I have not hiked before, so I am really looking forward to that.  At roughly 8 miles, it is a rather long hike.  Because of that and the elevation changes, the trail is rated as “strenuous” by the Park Service.  However, the trail isn’t too technically challenging, so as long as you are in shape you should be able to complete this hike.

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Saturday, April 21st – Grand Canyon National Park

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After doing some hiking in Bryce Canyon on Friday, we will drive South to Page, Arizona to spend the night.  We are staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites Page-Lake Powell.  Waking up on Saturday, we will hit up some of the most beautiful sights in Northern Arizona.  Our first stop will be to Horseshoe Bend, which is an absolute must stop location if you are heading to the Grand Canyon.  It is an absolutely stunning piece of landscape that is located just outside of Page, Arizona.

Horseshoe Bend (1 mile)

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Created by a sharp 180 degree turn of the Colorado River, Horseshoe Bend is one of the more stunning pieces of landscape created by the river.  There is a view point trail head that is located just outside of Page, Arizona.  From the trail head, a short hike of a little over a mile will bring you to the Horseshoe Bend Scenic Overlook.  You will want to make sure you plan enough time because this is a view you will want to take your time enjoying.

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South Kaibab Trail (Up to 6 miles for Day Hike)

West Kaibab Trail

Our last big adventure of this trip will be a hike within the Grand Canyon National Park.  I have been to the Grand Canyon before, but I have yet to do any hiking with in the park.  My goal is to one day do the rim-to-rim hike, but we won’t have enough time to do that multi-day hike on this trip.

We have decided to check out the South Kaibab Trail because it is one of the most scenic trails from the South rim of the Grand Canyon.  The North Rim doesn’t open until May, so we will have to visit the South Rim on this trip.  Both the South and the North Rim have their share of scenic viewpoints and fabulous trails, so this isn’t too disappointing for us.

The trail head for the South Kaibab Trail is located between the Yavapai Point and Yaki Points, near the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.  From here it is a strenuous 1.8 mile (round trip) hike to Ooh Aah Point and a 6 mile (round trip) hike to Skeleton Point.  The Skeleton Point is the first spot on the trail where you are able to view the Colorado River, so making it to that point will be our goal.

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Sunday, April 22nd – Fly Home from Las Vegas

After taking some time to do some hiking in the Grand Canyon, we will make the 4 hour drive back to Las Vegas to spend the night.  Our flight home on Sunday morning leaves bright-and-early, and I am sure we will be pretty exhausted by then.  If all goes as planned, we should have some amazing pictures, video, and stories to share with you when we return.

Posted in Arizona, Canyoneering, Hiking, National Parks, North America, Road Trips, Travel Advice, United States, Utah | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The Cliffs of Moher Visitor’s Guide

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No place exemplifies the coastline in Ireland, with its steep, rocky cliffs and crashing waves, more so than the Cliffs of Moher.  To say that the cliffs are scenic and beautiful would not be going far enough.  It is some of the most beautiful coastline that we have ever visited, and we have seen beautiful coastlines in many parts of the world.

There are many ways in which you can take in these beautiful cliffs, and we plan to fill you in on those secrets in this article.  So if you are planning a trip to Ireland in the near future, make sure you take good notes and bring that camera along.

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The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, so they get quite a bit of foot traffic every year.  There are multiple ways in which you can view the cliffs, and each have their advantages.  If you have the time, we would absolutely recommend viewing the cliffs from both land and the water as each provides such a uniquely different perspective.

View the Cliffs of Moher by Boat

There are more than a few companies that provide tours of the Cliffs of Moher, and the nearby Aran Islands, by boat.  Viewing the cliffs by boat allows you to get a completely different view of these majestic cliffs.  It also allows you to see all of the amazing bird species that use the cliffs for nesting, including the beautiful Puffins.

If you are interested in taking a boat tour of the Cliffs of Moher or the Aran Islands, Viator has some pretty great tours that you can book in advance of your trip.  Otherwise, you can purchase a tour at the Doolin Pier.  Just make sure you research the tour times in advance.

Walking the Coastal Walkway

For those who are more adventurous, there is an absolutely gorgeous coastal walkway along the cliffs that you can take advantage of to get really up-close-and-personal with the Cliffs of Moher.  The walkway changes elevation quite frequently and can be rough in areas, so make sure you pack the proper hiking shoes if you plan to make the full trek.  Hiking the full path takes about 2 hours each way, so you will need to plan plenty of time as well.  For those who would like a little more security, you can look into some of the guided walking tours along the walkway that are offered.

The Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre

The Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre and the O’Brien Tower are absolute must-sees if you are in the area, so make sure you stop by if you visit.  The O’Brien Tower is a gorgeous stone tower that sits along the cliffs.  If possible, try and plan your stop around sunset as the views of the cliffs and the tower at sunset are stunningly beautiful.  There is a parking lot at the visitor centre, but it can get pretty busy.  If you want to avoid the crowds, consider parking at the Doolin Park and Ride and then taking a shuttle bus down to the visitor centre.

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Getting to the Cliffs or Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are located in the west coast of Ireland between the towns of Doolin and Liscannor.  If you are looking to take a boat tour of the cliffs, we would recommend visiting Doolin, as they have some really great tours of the cliffs and the neighboring Aran Islands.

Doolin is also a great spot to park and catch a shuttle that takes you to several points of interest along the cliffs on its way to Liscannor.  Its really a great way to get around the area without having to worry about finding a place to park your vehicle.  It’s a hop-on-hop-off shuttle, so it really is a great way to tour the area.

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Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

In case you would like a better sense of what it is like to visit the Cliffs of Moher, we have included a short video tour for you below.  You can see first-hand just how beautiful the the cliffs are, both from land and from the sea.

Photo Gallery

Below is a gallery of some of the beautiful pictures we were able to take of the Cliffs of Moher.  It is such a stunning landscape, so make sure you bring your camera if you visit.

Posted in Europe, Ireland, Travel Advice | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Art of Travel Photography – Exposure Blending for Dummies

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In this installment of my Art of Travel Photography series I am going to talk to you about one of the photo editing processes most commonly used by photographers today.  This editing process is a bit more advanced, but I am going to illustrate the process for you in very easy to understand terms and simple to follow steps.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with exposure blending, it is the process of blending two images that were taken at two different exposures to make one balanced image.  To put it in simpler terms, you take one picture at a high exposure (to lighten the darker areas) and one picture at a low exposure (to darken the light areas) and then combine the images to get the best of both worlds in one shot.

To further illustrate the concept, let’s use a real-life example.  For instance, let’s look at the picture I have posted above.  In this image, we have a boat dock and boats on a lake with a beautiful sunset in the background.  This image is actually an exposure blending of two separate images.

The first image I took was a high exposure image that lightened the boat dock and boats so they aren’t just silhouettes.  The second image was a lower exposure image that really brought out the colors in the sunset in the background.  By combining both of these images using exposure blending I am able to get the details on the boat dock and boats and the colorful sunset in the same image.

Now, some of you that have more experience with photography might be asking, “why didn’t he just use luminosity masks”?  And you are right, using luminosity masks would be an easier and more effective way to do this.  However, it is also a more difficult process to learn.  My goal is to give those who may not have as much photography experience the tools to take their travel photography to the next level.  For that reason, I decided to outline the manual blending process because it is easier to learn.

However, for those of you who are interested in learning more about how luminosity masks work and how you can use them, here is a fantastic tutorial on using luminosity masks to do exposure blending.  It takes some practice to get the hang of, but it is a very effective tool to have in your tool bag once you learn.

Step 1:  Take the same image at two different exposures

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The first step in using exposure blending is to obtain your images.  To get two images of the exact same thing, you are going to need to use a tripod.  If your pictures vary even a little bit, you won’t be able to use this technique.  So, you are going to want to get your camera setup on a tripod and make sure you are setup for the shot you want.

Once you have your camera and tripod ready, you are ready to take your pictures.  You will want to take one picture at an exposure that is high enough to give you the detail in the areas of your photo where you want details.  In the example above, I used an exposure of 1/40 second to get the shot on the left.  This shot is light enough to show the detail of the sand on the beach and the dock and boats on the water.

Conversely, your second shot should be at a much lower exposure to show any detail that might get blown out in a higher exposure.  For example, in the image on the right above, I used an exposure of 1/125 second to bring out the colors and detail in the sky that were lost in the higher exposure image.  The problem with using this image alone is that the details in the beach, dock, and boats are all lost because the exposure is too low.

To make things easier, most DSLR cameras have a built-in feature called exposure bracketing.  The exposure bracketing feature will automatically take a high and low exposure shot when you take a picture.  This is useful because it means you won’t have to fidget with your camera between taking the high and low exposure shot, which could move the camera ever-so-slightly and wreck the process.  So if this functionality is available on your camera, we suggest you take advantage of it.

Step 2:  Make adjustments to those images in Adobe Lightroom

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Once you have your two images, the next step is to use Adobe Lightroom to make any necessary adjustments to the images.  For instance, if you want to adjust the white balance of your image, this would be the ideal time to do so.  Once you have finished making any necessary adjustments, export the images out of Lightroom so that they can be imported into Photoshop for the next step in the process.

Step 3:  Import those images into Adobe Photoshop

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Now that you have your photos, we can start to talk about the exposure blending process.  In order to blend them, you are going to need to load them into Adobe Photoshop.  To do this, select the File menu, then select Scripts, and finally select Load Files into Stack to load the images into the Photoshop stack.

Step 4:  Make sure the high exposure image is on top

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Once the photos are in Photoshop, as I have illustrated above, you are going to want to make sure that your high exposure image is listed on top.  If it isn’t on top, you can use your mouse cursor to drag-and-drop the high exposure image on top of the lower exposure image.  This order will be important in order to complete the next steps.

Step 5:  Use the Selection Tool to select the area you want to mask

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Now that the images are loaded in Photoshop in the correct order, we can start preparing to make our mask.  The mask is what is going to allow part of the lower exposure image (the sky) to become visible while hiding those parts of the higher exposure image.

Put in simpler terms, we are going to essentially put the high exposure (or lighter) image on top of the lower exposure (or darker) image and then erase the parts of the higher exposure image that we don’t want to use so that those parts of the lower exposure image will become visible.

The easiest way to erase the area of the high exposure image that we don’t want to use, thus exposing the area of the low exposure image that we do want to use, is to use the selection tool.  The selection tool allows us to select the entire section of the sky so that we can make that the selection for our mask.

The [ + ] option allows you to add parts to your previously selection, while the [ – ] option allows you to remove parts of the image from your previous selection.  Once you have just the sky selected, you are ready to move on to the next step.

Step 6:  With the high exposure image selected, add a mask

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In this step we create the mask that will allow us to do our exposure blending.  With the selection of the sky made, we simply hold down the ALT key and then press the add mask icon (as shown above).  Once the mask is added, you will notice that the sky from the high exposure image will disappear, exposing the sky from the low exposure image that we want.  You will also notice a second image icon next to the high exposure image that looks something like the image below.

Blend 1

This is the mask that Photoshop has created based on your selection of the sky in the image.  The portion of the high exposure image that was visible in the sky area is now hidden in favor of the sky portion of the low exposure image.

You will notice that, while the general image we are looking for is starting to take shape, the image is far from perfect.  It is very noticeable that we took two separate images and combined them.  This is especially noticeable with the hills in the background that are too highly exposed (or too light) for how dark the sky is.   We will address that in our next step by doing some refinement blending.

Step 7:  Use the Eraser Tool to further blend

Step C

The last step in the exposure blending process is to use the eraser tool (as shown above) to further refine the blending of the two images.  In the case of our example, we are going to start by erasing some of the top (or high exposure) image to reveal some of the bottom (or low exposure) image beneath it.  This will make the transition between the two images much less transparent and make our image look more realistic.

It is important to note that we aren’t using 100% opacity when we do our erasing.  If we did, we would be left with the same solid transition lines between the upper and bottom layer, and we will fail to create the smooth transition that we are looking for.  Instead, we recommend using something in the neighborhood of a 30% opacity and then layering your eraser strokes to give it a nice smooth transition.

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As you can see in the illustration above, what we are doing in this step is essentially making that hard line between the black (low exposure image) and white (high exposure image) less noticeable by using the eraser tool to erase 30% of the top layer (with a 30% opacity setting).

We can then move closer to the transition line and add another coat, which would give that area a 60% opacity.  Then we can move even closer to the middle transition line and add a final coat, which would give the area just above and below the line a 90% opacity.  The end result will be a nice, smooth transition like you see in the final product below.

The Final Product

Grand Teton Sunset Blended

As you can see in our final image, we have taken advantage of the colorful sky that we were able to capture with our low exposure, and combined that with the foreground detail on the beach and boats that we were able to get with our high exposure shot.  In order to make the transition between the two layers less noticeable, we did some further blending around the transition line.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice makes perfect, so we have included the two images that we used for our demonstration below.  Please feel free to save them to your computer and use them to practice doing an exposure blend.

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Part 3: Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning

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After months of planning and organizing, our planning for our Machu Picchu and Galapagos Islands trip is finally complete.  We have been doing our best to take you along with us during our planning process so that we can demonstrate to you how our unique planning process works.  Hopefully this information has been helpful for you and you and you will be able to use some of this process to plan your future trips.

During Part 1 of our Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning series, we discussed the What, Where, and When of our planning process.  We showed you how we typically determine when it would be best to visit a specific location by looking at the average temperatures, precipitation levels, and tourist numbers throughout the year.

For Part 2 of the planning series, we focused more on the How and the How Long by looking at how it would be best to visit these areas.  We took a look at the Tour Package, the Solo Planning, and the Combination approaches to planning a trip.

In this final segment of our planning process we are going to finish answering the question of How as it pertains to our transportation options and accommodations. In Part 2, we were able to outline a rough itinerary of our trip, and in this article we are going to fill in the blanks. The good news is that this will ultimately allow us to answer the final question in our planning process, the How Much.

Rough Itinerary Review

Before we get into the planning of our transportation and accommodations, let’s review the rough itinerary that we outlined in Part 2 of our planning process. As you can see below, we are set to fly to Lima, Peru on Monday, September 3, 2018 and return from Quito, Ecuador on Friday, September 15, 2018.

 September 3 Fly to Lima, Peru
 September 4 Spend the day in Lima
 September 5 Fly from Lima to Cusco, Peru and spend the day in the Sacred Valley
 September 6 Tour Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu
 September 7 Travel Day
 September 8 Galapagos Tour Day 1 – Pick-up at Baltra Airport in Galapagos
 September 9 Galapagos Tour Day 2
 September 10 Galapagos Tour Day 3
 September 11 Galapagos Tour Day 4
 September 12 Galapagos Tour Day 5
 September 13 Galapagos Tour Day 6
 September 14  Travel Day

 

Booking Flights

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You can also see on the itinerary that we have a number of travel dates that we have to fill in transportation for.  These dates are as follows:

  • On September 5, we need to get from Lima, Peru to Cusco, Peru
  • On September 7-8, we need to get from Cusco to Baltra, Galapagos
  • On September 14, we need to get from Baltra to Quito, Ecuador to fly home

At first glance, this may not look too difficult. We only have 3 travel dates that we need to take care of, so booking airfare should be a breeze. In reality, it wasn’t all that simple. We are flying to-and-from some small airports in isolated locations, so the number of flight options isn’t as great as it would be if we were flying to-and-from major cities. We also want to make sure we build some buffer time into our travel so that we have some flexibility to overcome a delayed or cancelled flight without missing our scheduled tours. In this end, this required quite a bit of thought and planning, but I think we have a pretty solid plan.

Flight from Lima, Peru to Cusco, Peru

For the flight from Lima to Cusco, there wasn’t as pressing a need to build in flexibility as we aren’t scheduled to begin our tour of Machu Picchu until September 6. However, we are planning on spending September 5 in the Sacred Valley to assist in acclimating to the altitude, so we wanted to make sure we got an early flight to Cusco. We ended up booking a flight that gets us to Cusco early in the morning on September 5 and it only cost us $122 a person, so we feel good about our flight choice.

Flight from Cusco, Peru to Baltra in the Galapagos

Planning our transportation from Cusco to the Galapagos proved to be a bit more challenging. We have to be in the Galapagos before noon on September 8 if we don’t want to miss any of the tour. If there were direct flights from Cusco to Baltra Airport in the Galapagos, this would be pretty simple. We would just book an early flight and be done with it. Unfortunately, there aren’t direct flights from Cusco to Baltra.

Instead, we needed to look at booking connecting flights thru Lima, Quito, and\or Guayaquil to get to Baltra. If this didn’t complicate the logistics enough, many of the flight combinations that were available had a twenty-nine hour duration or more. This means that many have a long layover in an airport. I don’t know about you, but we don’t really like to be spending a lot of time sitting in an airport when we are traveling.

This also presents a problem with timing because many of these flight options with long layovers depart Cusco on September 7, but don’t get into Baltra until late morning or the afternoon on September 8. This leaves us very little flexibility in getting to our Galapagos tour on time should a flight get delayed or cancelled. In Tanzania, we had a flight from Arusha to Zanzibar cancelled on us multiple times, so we know first-hand the importance of building some flexibility into your flight schedules.

In the end, we ended up booking a flight out of Cusco early in the morning on September 7 that arrives in Quito early in the afternoon on September 7. Instead of sitting in an airport overnight, we are going to spend the night in a hotel in Quito on September 7. This will allow us to spend the day exploring Quito and not have to worry about dealing with a long layover.

On September 8, we will get up very early in the morning for a flight from Quito to Baltra. We are going to catch the earliest flight to the Galapagos, that way we have options for catching a later flight should our flight get delayed or cancelled. To further validate our choice before booking, we took a look at the on-time history of this flight on flightstats.com to see how often this flight has been delayed or cancelled. With a 100% on-time history, we felt confident enough in our choices to book these flights. Combined, these flights cost us approximately $550 per person, which isn’t bad.

Flight from Baltra to Quito

Our last in-trip flight that we had to book was a flight from Baltra to Quito on September 14 to catch a flight home. At this point we hadn’t booked our flight home yet, so we had some options. Our Galápagos Islands tour wraps up in the early afternoon on September 13. We could have looked for a flight home from Quito on the evening of September 13, but that would be really tough to do and build in some flight flexibility. The last thing we want to do is miss our flight home from Quito.

So, instead of pushing our luck, we decided to spend the night in Quito on September 13 and then book a flight home from Quito on September 14. This would give us plenty of flexibility should our flight from Baltra to Quito get delayed or cancelled, and it would also give us some more time to explore Quito. It’s a win-win. We ended up finding a flight for roughly $200 that was reasonable that gets us to Quito in the early afternoon, so we are pretty happy about that.

Booking Hotels

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In addition to flights, we also had to find accommodations for quite a few days. Our Galapagos tour takes care of our accommodations from September 8 thru September 13, so we don’t need to worry about finding a place to stay on those nights. However, there are some nights where we have chosen to take care of accommodations on our own.

  • On September 3-5, we need a hotel in Lima, Peru
  • On September 5-7, we need a hotel in Cusco, Peru
  • On September 7-8, we need a hotel in Quito, Ecuador
  • On September 13-14, we need a hotel in Quito, Ecuador

Here is where saving up your hotel points really comes in handy. We have accumulated a large amount of Marriott points thru our other travels, so we plan to use these points to save on hotel bookings as much as possible for these dates. In the end, we were lucky enough to book all of these dates at Marriott properties.

Hotel Accommodations in Lima for September 3-5

When we arrive in Lima on September 3, we are going to need hotel accommodations until we depart from Cusco on September 5. Lucky for us, there is a Marriott Courtyard Miraflores in Lima that we can use our hotel points to book. Thus, cost for this hotel ended up being $0.

Hotel Accommodations in Cusco for September 5-7

We are flying from Lima to Cusco on September 5, so we need a place to stay in Cusco until we depart for Quito, Ecuador on September 7. Again, we got lucky in that there is a Marriott property in Cusco. We were able to make a reservation at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco for both nights, which we are very happy about. We did look at possibly booking a night or two at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, which sits just outside the gates of Machu Picchu, but it was way outside our price range. During the time we are visiting, the hotel so charging roughly $1,200 a night per room. It would have been very cool and convenient to stay right outside of Machu Picchu, but we just couldn’t justify that cost. Instead, we booked our stay at the Marriott for a total cost, with points, of $0.

Hotel Accommodations in Quito for September 7-8

The next night of accommodation that we needed to take care of was for the night of September 7, checking out the morning of September 8. As I mentioned earlier, this is the night that we will be spending in Quito on our way to the Galapagos instead of spending the night in an airport. We were happy to discover that Marriott has a hotel in Quito. Instead of spending an uncomfortable night in an airport, we will be spending the day exploring Quito and then spending the night at the JW Marriott Hotel Quito. With points, the cost will be $0.

Hotel Accommodations in Quito for September 13-14

The last night that we needed to worry about finding accommodations for was our final night of the trip. Remember, instead of opting to try and find a flight home from Quito on September 13 when our Galapagos tour is finished, we are building some flexibility into our flight schedule and not flying home from Quito until September 14. Lucky for us, we already know that there is a Marriott property in Quito for us to take advantage of, so we booked a night at the JW Marriott Hotel in Quito for the night of September 13 with Marriott points. Again, with points, the cost was $0.

Flights to Lima and Home from Quito

The last logistical task we had to sort out was our main flights to Lima and then home from Quito. In addition to Marriott points, we have also accumulated a number of Delta Airlines miles that we can take advantage of. We ended up finding a Delta Airlines flight that departs in the late evening of September 3, arriving in Lima, with a return flight from Quito that gets us home in the early afternoon on September 14. With points, including taxes and fees, the tickets will cost us approximately 81,000 points and $106 per person.

Comparing the Cost of This Trip to Full Tours

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As we mentioned in Part 2 of our Machu Picchu and Galápagos Islands planning, we decided to use a combination on self-planning and destination tours to travel to Machu Picchu and the Galápagos Islands. We cal this the combination option. The reasons we prefer to use this option when traveling are the flexibility and moderate cost savings this option provides.

While this way of planning a trip doesn’t afford the flexibility and cost savings that planning your entire trip on your own does, it does afford quite a bit more flexibility and cost savings then taking a full blown tour does. As a reminder, here are some of the full tours that cover both Machu Picchu and the Galápagos Islands that we were able to find.

By taking care of some of our transportation and accommodations, but using tours to see Machu Picchu and the Galapagos, we still get the advantages that go along with using a tour to see a destination, but we saved quite a bit of money relative to using a full blown tour. Here is a break-down for the costs of our trip. This is the total cost for all flights, all hotels, all tours, and all extra costs for visiting Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.

 Delta Flights to Lima and home from Quito $0
 2 nights hotel in Lima $0
 Flight to Cusco $122
 2 nights hotel in Cusco $0
 Machu Picchu Tour $430
 Flight to Quito $300
 1 night hotel in Quito $0
 Flight to Baltra $250
 Galapagos Tour $1,200
 Flight to Quito $230
 1 night hotel in Quito $0
 Total Cost:  $2,532

Granted, we are saving quite a bit of money by using hotel points and airline miles. However, even with the full tours, most tour costs do not include the cost of flights. We like to pay for our flights on cheaper trips even if we have the miles to use so that we can cut costs on bigger trips like this. Flights are such a big piece of the cost of a trip and it helps significantly if you can cut that price out of the equation.

The same thing applies to hotels. We like to pay for our hotels on smaller trips, even if we have the points to use, because it allows us to further cut costs on these big trips. If we paid for our hotels on this trip, at $150 a night it would add up to an additional $900 in cost. That would put the total cost of our trip per person at $3,432. That is still significantly below the cost of a full tour that visits both Machu Picchu and the Galápagos Islands.

With this, we have answered the final question in our trip planning process. We now know How Much it will cost us to take the trip. Should the cost be too high when doing planning for your trip, you can go back and make adjustments before booking your tours, accommodations, or flights. With the information you have gathered in your planning, you will know which costs you can cut that will have the biggest impact on the bottom line for your trip.

Summary

Now that we have been thru our entire trip planning process using a real-life example, you should have a good understanding of how we strategically plan our trips to maximize our time at our destinations and minimize the cost of our trips. Below is a recap of some of key aspects of our planning process.

The What

Determine what you want to see. In our case, we wanted to see Machu Picchu and the Galápagos Islands.

The Where

Determine where you will need to travel to see those things. In our case, seeing Machu Picchu and the Galapagos would require us to travel to Cusco, Peru and Quito, Ecuador.

The When

By looking at the average monthly temperature, precipitation level, and tourist numbers, you can determine what the optimal time to visit your location would be. For us, early September gave us the best conditions to visit.

The How Long

Before you can determine how long you will need to travel, you will need to determine the logistics of your trip. The biggest decision you will need to make is whether you will plan the trip entirely on your own, use a tour company, or use a combination of self-planning and tour. After figuring this out, you will be able to start putting together a rough itinerary. For our trip, the rough itinerary we put together ended up being a 12 day itinerary.

The How

With a rough itinerary in hand, you can start to fill in your transportation, accommodation, and tour needs. We recommend banking any hotel points and airline miles you accumulate for larger trips and pay for flights and hotels on smaller trips even if you have the miles to use. In our case, this saved us tremendously as we were able to use hotel points and airline miles for our main flights and many of our hotels. This allowed us to afford transportation between multiple locations within our trip and two wonderful tours.

The How Much

Once you have filled in your transportation, accommodation, and tour needs, you will have a pretty good estimate of how much your trip will cost. If the price is too high, you will have a lot of information to use to adjust your trip to lower the cost. Lucky for us, we were able to plan our trip at a cost that is well below the cost that tour companies are charging to see both locations.

Posted in Air Travel, Equador, Hotels, Peru, South America, Travel Advice, Trip Planning | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Safety Tips That Every Traveler Should Follow

Traveling can be an amazing, fulfilling, and eye-opening experience. It can be an experience that leads to great personal growth and valuable life experience. A vast majority of the time, we can completely safe when we travel. However, there are times when traveling can be unsafe and even dangerous as well.

With the right information, the right preparation, and the right mindset, you can make sure that your travel adventures are as safe as they can possibly be. We have compiled a list of suggestions that we have read elsewhere, heard from others, or have learned from our own experiences. We hope that this list will be of value to you as you plan your next adventure.

Before You Leave

Your efforts to make sure you are safe when you travel should begin even before you leave for your trip. There are a number of things that you can do to make sure you are more prepared should something come up when you travel. We have outlined these tips for you below.

Register With Safe Traveler Program

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Always register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program before traveling internationally.

 

The most important thing you can do before you travel is to register for the US State Department’s Safe Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) before you leave. Registering for STEP will notify the US State Department of your plans to travel overseas so that they can inform the US embassy in that location of your visit. Should anything happen within the country, such as a natural disaster or act of terror, the US embassy will be able to contact you and assist. We strongly recommend that you register for STEP before you take any trip outside of the country.

Let People at Home Know Your Itinerary

Another important thing that you can do before you travel is let your family and friends know where you will be traveling, where you will be staying, and what you will be doing. This will be important because they will be the people you depend on the most in the case of an emergency. If your family knows your itinerary they can relay that information to the US embassy overseas or the emergency services should something happen.

We cannot stress enough how very important this is for you to do. We would recommend that you send more than one family member an electronic copy of your itinerary, and then print off a copy and leave it somewhere that is easy to find in your home. That way you can be assured that someone who can help you will always have access to this information should the need arise.

Make Copies of your Passports

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Make copies of your passport to carry with you and to leave at home with family in case an emergency arises.

Along with making copies of your itinerary, we would also strongly recommend that you make copies of your passports. Should you lose your passport while traveling, this could be critically important. We would recommend that you keep one copy with you and then leave one copy with your printed itinerary at your house. Having this copy probably won’t get you into another country, but it will likely help you get back into your own. We usually take a picture of our passports and then store an electronic copy one our phones.

In Your Hotel or Hostel

When you travel, a large portion of your time will be spent in the hotel and hostel accommodations that you make. Those places are where you will sleep and they will be the home bases for all of your explorations. For that reason, it is especially important that you take the appropriate steps to ensure that you and your possessions are safe where you stay.

Request Room on Higher Floor

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If possible, stay in a room on a higher floor that is away from any exits or fire escapes.

We have heard from travel security sources that the safest place to stay in a multi-level hotel is somewhere above the fifth floor. According to these sources, you want to stay away from the lower level rooms because those rooms are too easy to target for break-ins.  You also want to avoid rooms that are near fire escapes and exits and they provide an easy getaway for thieve.

If you have to leave your room, make sure you always use the Do Not Disturb sign and leave the TV or radio on loud enough to hear from outside the door.  This will deter someone from trying to break into your room.

When you are in the room, make sure you keep the dead bolt locked.  If someone knocks on your door unannounced, make sure you call down to the front desk to verify that the visitor is expected by the hotel or hostel.  Below is a list of general hotel or hostel guidelines from CrimeDoctor.com that are a great resource to follow:

  • Always request a room on an upper floor, if possible
  • A solid door with a good deadbolt lock is best
  • Electronic card access locks help limit access
  • Make sure your door has a peephole and night latch and use it
  • Turn on the TV or radio just loud enough to hear through the door
  • Turn on a single light in the room if you plan to return after dark
  • Inspect the room hiding places upon entering and check all locks
  • Ask the bellman for an escort and use valet parking if alone

Use a Door Alarm

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A portable door alarm can add an extra level of security.

A cheap an easy, but very effective, way that you can add another layer of security to your hotel or hostel room is to use a portable door alarm. These sensors are typically either motion activated or use magnets to detect when an intruder attempts to open your door. Should someone attempt to enter your room, these door alarms may scare the intruders off. At the very least, these door alarms will give you some extra time to react to the situation. They are a very handy tool and very convenient to travel with because of their small size.

Check with Front Desk Before Letting Anyone in Room

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Check with the front desk before answering the door for any unannounced visitors.

One way that intruders could attempt to enter your room at a hotel or hostel is to pose as a hotel worker that needs to service the room. Most of the time it really is a hotel employee, perhaps from house cleaning, who really is just looking to service your room. However, there have been instances where criminals have used this deception to get into rooms. For this reason, do not ever let someone into your room until you confirm with the front desk that the person requesting access really is a hotel employee. It only takes a quick phone call and every hotel should be happy to assist.

Lock Up Your Valuables

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Utilize the hotel room’s safe to keep your valuables safe.

In addition to protecting your own well being, you are also going to want to make sure that you protect any valuables that you have with you.  The best way to make sure your valuables are protected is to keep them in your hotel room safe.  Should your hotel or hostel not have safes in the room, we would recommend investing in a portable travel safe.  Both affordable and easy to use, these devices can keep you valuables out of the wrong hands.

Stash Emergency Money

There may come a time when traveling when you will lose your wallet or purse.  Whether it gets stolen, or is just lost an misplaced, you could be left without any money in a foreign country.  This is a horrible situation to be in.

This is why it is important to always keep a stash of emergency cash separate from the rest of your money.  It could be a stash of cash, or perhaps a second credit card.  Whatever you decide, make sure that you can use it in a pinch and that it is enough to at least get you home in an emergency.  If a time comes that you really do need it, you will be happy you took this precaution.

While Out and About

So far you have learned about the preparation that you can do before you travel to keep you safe, as well as ways in which you can make your stay at a hotel or hostel more safe.  The last zone of safety I would like to discuss with you is when you are out-and-about during your travels.

Make Smart Transportation Decisions

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Automobile accidents are one of the leading causes of death for travelers.  Make sure you don’t get into any unsafe vehicles.  If you do feel unsafe in a vehicle, politely ask to get out.

According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), one of the leading causes of death for people traveling are motor vehicle accidents.  That is why one of the most important things that you can do to keep yourself safe when traveling is to make good decisions on the transportation you use.

Make sure that any vehicle you get into is in safe condition.  Avoid getting into any vehicles that may look like they haven’t been well maintained, and never get into a vehicle that doesn’t have seat belts.  Most importantly, if you don’t feel safe in a vehicle for any reason, ask to get out.

When we travel, we typically do a little research before we leave on which forms of transportation are the safest and most reliable.  It may take a little more time, but this information can be extremely valuable when you are in-country.

Never Look Lost

Even though you may find yourself in a situation where you don’t know where you are or where you are going from time-to-time, it is important to not act as though you are completely lost.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for directions, but you shouldn’t portray yourself as being completely out of your element.

It is no secret that criminals tend to target tourists, and if you panic or act like you are completely lost you will be paining a large target on your back.  Instead, remain calm and start to look for places where you can stop to get directions.

If you are driving, you may want to find an excuse to pull over to do something else (like getting gas) and re-access your situation or ask for directions.  If you are traveling by foot, you might consider hailing a taxi or stopping into a restaurant or other establishment to get some directions.

Know the Emergency Numbers

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Write down the emergency numbers in the area you are traveling.

Hopefully you will never need them, but it is always a good idea to have the emergency numbers you may need handy if you do.  If you are traveling outside the United States, those emergency numbers may be different than when you are used to.  When you arrive, make sure to ask about the emergency numbers in the area.  Your hotel or hostel is a good resource.  Also, make sure you write the numbers down.  In the case of an emergency you may not have the presence of mind to remember the numbers.

Learn About Common Scams in the Area

It’s unfortunate, but petty theft and scams are something you have to be aware of wherever you travel.  If you aren’t aware of some of the typical scams and areas with high petty theft, you might become a victim.

To protect yourself, do your due diligence before you travel.  Research areas at your destination that may be known for high petty crime.  Public transportation is typically one of the hot beds for petty theft.  Also, make sure you do some research on what scams people have been known to run in the areas you are traveling.  The more you know, the more you will be able to look out for these scams.

Never Venture Out Alone

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Avoid venturing out alone, especially at night.

When venturing outside of your hotel or hostel when traveling, it is always safest to be out-and-about with others.  Criminals tend to target individuals who are on their own because they are typically softer targets.  If you are going to be out-and-about for the day, we would recommend you try and got out with other people.

If you are solo traveling, you could look into doing a tour or seeing if someone else from your hotel or hostel would like to go with you.  It is especially important to not venture out alone at night.  If you find yourself out late, try and use a taxi, Uber, or Lyft to get a ride home as opposed to walking.  There are also social media apps that can help keep alert the authorities should you run into an emergency situation.

Don’t Get Too Drunk

One of the worst things you can do when traveling is get really drunk.  Drinking can impair your judgement and lead to bad decisions.  Bad decisions can really jeopardize your safety.  If you are going to be drinking when you travel, make sure to keep it in moderation.  This is especially important if you are going to drinking outside of your hotel or hostel.  If you are traveling with others, then make sure you look out for each other.  If someone in your group appears to be drinking too much, make sure you let them know.

Don’t Flash Valuables

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Avoid flashing around valuables and try to never keep anything of value in your back pockets.

If you are planning on traveling with valuables, make sure you don’t flash them around too much when you travel.  We would suggest leaving your expensive watch, bracelet, or designer purse at home when you travel.  It will be less that you have to worry about when you are shuffling between airport, hotels, and tours.

If you must travel with expensive items, then we would suggest that you lock them up in your hotel safe when you don’t need them.  If you have to take them outside the hotel, then make sure that you keep an eye on them at all times.  Don’t leave these items in a bag at your feet when you’re at a restaurant or waiting in line.  You will be surprised at how ingenious criminals can be.

If you carry a wallet, make sure you keep it in your front pocket.  It is much more difficult for a thief to steal something from your front pockets.  We would advise that you refrain from keeping anything of value in your back pockets.  If you are carrying a bag, make sure you carry the bag in front of you.  If you have a camera backpack and need to carry it on your back, you might want to invest in small padlocks to prevent the pockets from being unzipped.

Posted in Car Rental, Hotels, Safety, Travel Advice | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Friday Sound-Off: What Tool is Best for Learning a Language?

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For today’s Friday Sound-Off I would like to get your opinion on something that should be of interest to most travel enthusiasts.  That topic is learning another language, and which tools that are available are the most successful.  There are a variety of tools that are available for purchase or for free, and all have their share of supporters and detractors.

Like your average American, I have had some language training in junior high, high school, and college, but I only know enough to not be completely lost when listening to others speak.  When I try and speak Spanish, it takes me a bit of time to articulate my thoughts and I often make mistakes in my word use and pronunciation.

With an upcoming trip to Peru and Ecuador this fall, I would really like to brush up on my Spanish.  I think this is a perfect opportunity to hone a skill that I have been meaning to improve for years, but have never found the time for.  I am sure there are plenty of other people out there would are in the same boat as me, so I thought this would be a great topic of discussion.

PC Reviews does an outstanding job of reviewing each of these providers, which I have listed below.  If you have any thoughts or opinions on any of these tools, I would really love to hear from you.  I am sure you would be doing plenty of others who are reading a great service as well.

  • Rosetta Stone – $169.99 for 12 Months Online Subscription
  • Simon & Schuster Pimsleur Comprehensive – $99.95 for 30 MP3 Audio Lessons Plus Cultural Notes
  • Rocket Languages – $99 for Level 1-2 Online Access; Approx. 66 Lessons
  • Fluenz – Request quote for Levels 1 and 2, Plus 2 Years Online Access
  • Living Language Platinum – Request quote for 12 Months Online Access, 12 Live E-Tutoring Sessions, 3 books, and 9 Audio CDs
  • Babbel – $12.95 for 12 Months Online Access
  • Yabla – $9.95 for 1 Month Online Access
  • Duolingo – No charge for Online Access to All Language Programs
  • Transparent Language Online – $199.95 for 12 Months Online Access

 

 

Posted in Friday Sound-Offs, Languages, Recommendations, Travel Tools | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Our Visit to a Maasai Village in Tanzania

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We were welcomed to the Maasai village with a welcome dance.  These Maasai warriors danced among us.

One of the neatest and most educational experiences we had when traveling in Tanzania last year was a visit to a Maasai village.  They have such a unique and amazing culture and it was really cool to be able to visit with them and learn more about their way of life.

We took a 4 day safari thru Lake Manyara National Park, the Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.  Along our many drives we would see the Maasai villages and the young boys out herding their cattle.  It was fascinating to see how they lived from a far, but we wanted to know more about their culture and way of life.

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During the welcome dance that the Maasai performed, the women in the village gathered in a line to sing. 

That is why we were very happy when our safari guide told us that he knew of a Maasai village that is very open to visitors and asked us if we wanted to stop by.  We jumped at the chance immediately.  The village was near the Ngorongoro Crater along our drive home.  So with that settled, we set off for the village, excited to meet some new people and learn about a new culture.

Welcome Dance

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Maasai warriors dancing and playing their instruments during the welcome dance.

When we first arrived at the village, we were greeted with a very warm welcome and asked if they could perform a welcome dance for us.  You can see that welcome dance in the video that we have posted below.  It was absolutely amazing.

The women stood in a line and sang while the men, with their spears and instruments, danced among us.  After a short time we were asked to come into the village, where the dancing continued.  The men gathered into a semi-circle, and then one or two at a time they moved to the center of the circle to jump.  After a few jumps they would stomp their feet and then give way for the next man to move to the center.

It was amazing to be there and witness their dancing in person.  It was obvious that they take great pride in their dancing and that it plays a big part in their traditions.  We would come to learn more about the meaning behind some of their dances when we got to talk to the Maasai during our visit.

They asked us to join in the dancing and we took our turns jumping.  I think I got a whole two or three inches off the ground when I jumped, to the delight and amusement of our hosts.  It was fun to partake in the dancing and learn about their culture none-the-less, and we were all very grateful for the experience.

Their Way of Life

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A Maasai woman poses for a photograph outside of her house.  The clothing and jewelry they wear is stunningly beautiful.

The Maasai are a nomadic people, meaning that they don’t stay in one place too long.  The Maasai rely heavily on the cattle they raise, so they are constantly on the move to find good grazing ground.  We were told that the measure of a man’s wealth in the Maasai culture is how many heads of cattle he has.  They are very protective of their cattle, which has led to some tensions in Tanzania between the Maasai and the government regarding whether cattle should be allowed to graze within the country’s conservation areas.

The Maasai culture is a patriarchal one, so most decisions are made by the elder males in the community.  Marriages in the Maasai community are arranged by village elders, and polygamy is normal in the Maasai culture.  If you watch the video we posted below, it is explained to us that polygamy originated in the Maasai culture because the men in the community travel much more than the women when herding the cattle.

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Two Maasai warriors we talked to pose for a photograph inside the village.

When a woman marries, she is gifted a herd of cattle from which her sons will care for, overseen by their father, and build up herds of their own.  When the parents pass away, the eldest son will inherit his father’s herd and the youngest son will inherit his mother’s herd.  Their daughters do not receive any inheritance.

Maasai warrior culture is roughly broken down into a set of broad age groups.  Children generally live at home with their parents.  However, once young boys hit their teen years, they will start to be taught the warrior culture by their older brothers.

It is during these teens years that boys will also go thru the process of Emuratta, which is a ritualistic circumcision ceremony that marks the first stage in their transition to manhood.  Once they have graduated this process, they will be sent to live in a “manyatta”, which is a camp for like-aged boys.  They will live there for up to ten years as they prepare to make their final transition to manhood and marriage.

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We were asked to join in the dancing. 

In these camps they are separated from the rest of the Maasai, and not allowed to eat or drink in the presence of a woman, so that they can learn to become independent.  We saw several young Maasai men going thru this life transition in our travels to-and-from the wildlife parks when we are on safari.  You can tell these young men a part because they have white painted marks on their faces and generally dress in black (not the colorful garb that most Maasai wear).  Out of respect for their culture, we did not photograph any of these young men.

The Eunoto ceremonies, which mark a young man’s final transition to manhood, includes a ceremonial cow slaughter, their first taste of alcohol, and lots and lots of dancing.  We came to learn that one of these dances, the adumu, they had performed for us when we entered the village.  This was the dance where the men formed a semi-circle and took turns jumping.  We learned that the higher a warrior jumps during the dance, the stronger the warrior he is said to be.  I guess I am not much of a warrior.

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A woman poses for a photograph outside her house inside the village.

Women, from an early age, are conditioned to be subservient and to be respectful of their father and the village elders.  Women will typically take a communal approach to raising children in the Maasai culture, so the women in a Maasai community are typically very close to one another.

When we visited, we asked to purchase some of the beautiful jewelry that the women in the community had made.  By custom, we could not discuss this with the women and the men could not give us a price on the jewelry.  We had to pick out the items we were interested in and a man who was helping us would go to the woman who made that item to get the price for us.

The jewelry, and the sculpted animals they make by hand, are absolutely beautiful.  We were happy to pay a bit more at the village than we could get in Arusha for similar items.  You could tell that great pride was put into making these items.

Maasai School

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When we visited, school was in session.  The children sang us a beautiful song.

One of the coolest, and by far the cutest, things we got to see during our visit was the village school.  Class was in session when we visited, so we got to pop our heads into the classroom and say hello to all of the children.  The children were a bit shy at first, and who can blame them, but after an introduction they became more comfortable and sang us a beautiful (and adorable) song.

Video of Our Visit

In case you would like to learn more about the Maasai culture, we have prepared a short video of our visit.  The video includes much of the dancing that we were privileged to be able to watch, as well as our visit to the chief’s house.  It was an honor to be asked to tour his house and listen to him tell us more about the Maasai way of life.  We want to share those experiences with you.

Photo Gallery

For those wondering, we did ask to take the photographs we took during our visit and the Maasai were very gracious to allow us to take the video and the pictures that we did.  Below is a gallery of some of our favorite pictures we took during our visit.

Posted in Africa, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, Tanzania, Travel Advice | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Art of Travel Photography – Tips for Photographing National Parks

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Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park.

In this segment of our Art of Travel Photography series I am going to talk to you about photographing in National Parks.  There is good reason why photographers flock to national parks to take pictures.  National Parks hold some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and everyone wants to capture that beauty on film (or digital media).

I have spent over a decade photographing inside national parks.  From the deserts in Arizona, to the mountains of Banff in Canada, to the plains of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, I have taken pictures in all kinds of landscapes and conditions.  In this article I am going to give you some tips and tricks that I have picked up over the years that will help you make sure your next photography trip to a national park is a success.

Some of these tips I have learned from my own experience, some I have picked up from others along the way.  I have found all of these tips to be incredibly useful in photographing national parks.  I hope some of these tips will be helpful to you as well.

Know the Park Rules

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Warning sign inside Yellowstone National Park.

One of the most important tips that I can give you for photographing national parks isn’t completely related to photography.  Sure, each national park system has its own rules governing what type of photography equipment you can and can bring into a park without a permit, but some of the most important rules you need to be aware of are there to ensure your safety.

The last thing you want is to get seriously hurt or killed when attempting to take a photograph.  So before you start venturing off into the park to take some stellar shots, make sure you read the park’s safety advice and consult with a park ranger if you have any questions.  This could be something as straight-forward as bringing enough water with you on a hike, making sure you are safe among the park’s wildlife, or ensuring that you know how to properly navigate some of the park’s more dangerous features.

In regards to a park’s photography related rules, here are some general guidelines you should follow:

  • Stick to areas where the general public is allowed
  • Avoid using models or props in your photos
  • Don’t do anything that would require the park to monitor your or the park’s safety

Make Sure You Have Necessary Permits

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Camping in Grand Teton National Park.

To see some of the park’s most beautiful places you will often need to venture into the back-country.  In order to venture into the back-country at some parks, you will need to have the proper permit.  If you plan on visiting a park to photograph and will require a back-country permit, you are going to want to make sure that you obtain that permit as far in advance as possible.  At some parks these permits need to be booked well in advance because of demand.

Some of these permits are especially difficult to obtain.  The park service isn’t limiting the permits to make your life difficult, they do it to protect the parks.  No one wants to see some of the most beautiful park land get overrun.  If you are looking to do some photography in a park with a hard-to-get wilderness permit, below are some resources with some great tips to making sure you get the permit you need.

Respect the Park’s Wildlife

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Bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Everyone would love to get that fantastic wildlife shot that you can show your friends and family or share on Instagram.  I have gotten some pretty amazing opportunities to photograph some pretty spectacular wildlife in my lifetime, and it is always an amazing experience.  However, we have to remember that we are visiting the wildlife in their home, not the other way around.

National parks are created to protect the beautiful landscapes and critical habitats so that the landscapes and the animals that call them home will be here for future generations.  So, as travel photographers, it is critically important for us to be good ambassadors for the park system and do our part to make sure we don’t interfere with the wildlife.

Here are some tips I can give to assist you in making sure you get the shots you need without jeopardizing the safety of either yourself or the animals you are photographing:

  • Give animals at least 100 yards of room.  Never approach an animal any closer than this.  They need their space, just like we need ours.
  • Always do what the park rangers tell you.  If you are not supposed to leave your car or roll down your window, then do what they say.  Your safety may depend on that.
  • Bring long lenses with you.  I always try and have at least one long prime lens or zoom lens with me when I visit a national park.  They allow you to get the close-ups without having to actually get close up.
  • Take advantage of guided photo tours.  Your guides will be able to get you into position to safely take shots.

Don’t Over-pack on Gear

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Photographing Crater Lake National Park.

We all want to be prepared when we travel to our favorite national park to get some great photographs.  The natural instinct is to bring as much gear as you can because you never know which lens or filter you are going to need.  But every piece of equipment you bring is another piece of equipment you need to lug around with you.  The last thing you want is to be hampered down because you are carrying too much weight.

Now, I am not saying you shouldn’t bring the gear you need.  If you know you are going to need three different lenses to get the shots you want, then by all means bring those lenses.  In addition, if you know you are going to be camping in one spot to get the shots you are looking for, then having more gear probably won’t be an issue for you.

However, if you are looking to explore a park to get some shots, you might be better served by carrying just one body and a few go-to lenses with you.  Keep in mind, you are also going to need to carry an adequate supply of water and any other supplies you might need.

Here is a list of essential gear that I would recommend you have in your bag.  Unless you have a specific need for anything else, I would think twice about bringing it if you are going to do a lot of hiking.

  • Camera Body
  • Wide Angle Prime or Zoom Lens for landscapes
  • Telephoto Lens for wildlife
  • Polarizing Filter for Telephoto Lens
  • Polarizing or Graduated Neutral Density Filter for Wide Angle Lens
  • Extra Batteries
  • GPS Unit (if not built into your DSLR)
  • Tripod

This is more than enough gear to get the shots that you need.  The telephoto lens will give you some flexibility in range for wildlife shooting and the wide angle lens will allow you to get those fantastic landscape shots.  The optimal focal length of your wide angle lens and focal range of your telephoto lens will depend on whether or are shooting with a camera that has a full frame or crop sensor.

The Difference Between Full Frame and Crop Sensor Cameras

The biggest difference between a full frame and crop sensor is the field of view of the cameras.  For instance, a Canon 7D Mark II camera has a crop sensor that uses a 1.6x multiplier, whereas a Canon 5D Mark IV camera has a full frame sensor that has no multiplier.  This means that (at the same focal length) the field of view of the 7d Mark II camera is going to be 1.6 times closer than the field of view of the 5d Mark IV.

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The difference in field of view between a full frame and crop sensor.

There are pros and cons to having both a crop sensor and a full frame camera.  Crop sensors have the advantage of having more reach than a full frame camera does.  By “reach” I mean that you are going to be able to zoom in on far away objects far easier than you can with a full frame camera.

For instance, if you need to zoom in to 200mm to see an object with a 7d Mark II, you would need to zoom in to 320mm (200 x 1.6) with the 5d Mark IV to get the same shot.  This extra reach can be especially useful when doing a lot of long-range wildlife photography.

On the other hand, the full frame cameras generally create a much better image in low light.  The full frame cameras expose much more light to the cameras sensor, so images taken in low light usually require a lower ISO (light sensitivity adjustment) when taken with a full frame camera.  Full frames also allow you to get more of a landscape into an image from close range because the sensor isn’t cropping the image. This can be especially useful when doing a lot of landscape photography.

Get Up Early

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Sunset in the Grand Teton National Park.

One thing you are always going to want to do when you travel to photograph a national park is get up early.  And when I mean early, I mean long before the sun rises.  In fact, you want to be at the locations you want to photograph before the sun even starts to peak over the horizon.  This will also allow you to get some great sunrise shots to enhance your pictures if there is going to be a great sunrise that morning.

Not only will this allow you to take your shots during the golden hour of sunrise, when the light you will have will be at its best, but you will also beat the crowds and be able to get in prime position to get your shots.  Some of the most popular spots to photograph in national parks, such as Canyonland’s Mesa Arch, attract some pretty big crowds on a daily basis.  In order to photograph these spots, you need to stake a claim on the prime real-estate early in the morning.

Be Prepared to Hike

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Hiking in Mount Rainier National Park.

In order to get to some of the most beautiful spots in the national parks to photograph them, sometimes you are going to need to do quite a bit of hiking.  For this reason, make sure you dress appropriately when you visit.  You should make sure that you have adequate hiking boots and wear the proper clothing.  We would strongly recommend that you dress in layers.  Dressing in layers will allow you to quickly adjust your dress depending on the conditions.

You are also going to want to make sure that you bring enough water, and food if you will be staying out for a while.  If you are planning to camp in the back-country, you are going to want to make sure that you have a tent and the proper camping gear.  The last thing you want is to spend a lot of time and resources getting to a park and then realize that you are completely unprepared to get the shots you had hoped for.

Get Off the Beaten Path

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Solitude in Big Bend National Park.

While we are on the topic of hiking to get great shots, in many cases those hikes are going to take you off the beaten path.  While you will see some fantastic views from alongside the park roadways and at pull-outs, many of the million dollar views you will find in the national parks require you to hike into the back country.  Don’t be afraid to explore the less traveled areas.  You will be pleasantly rewarded for your efforts.

In fact, some national parks are comprised almost exclusively of back country.   For instance, you can see very little of Guadalupe Mountains National Park without getting out and exploring the back country.  Similarly, parks like Canyonlands National Park reserve their most fantastic views for those who are willing to explore off the beaten path.  That doesn’t mean you need to go on a week-long, or even an overnight, hiking expedition.  It just means that you need to plan some longer hikes to get to these treasured areas.

Bring a Polarizing or Neutral Density Filter

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The use of a polarizing filter enhanced the sky color of this shot taken in Saguaro National Park.

When you are shooting the epic landscapes that you will find in the national parks, having a polarizing filter or graduated neutral density filter will be critically important.  A polarizing filer will help bring out deep colors in the sky and minimize the loss of detail that reflecting light from the sun can create.

A graduated neutral density filter will help you control the sky from becoming too light and blown out when shooting in sunlight without making the foreground of your image too dark.  It does this by graduating the density of the filter and allowing you to darken half the image without darkening the other half.

I always have a polarizing filter on my lenses when I am shooting in the daylight and only take them off when I am shooting around sunrise and sunset.  I would recommend bringing a polarizing filter for each of your lenses when you visit a national park to shoot.

In the coming weeks, I will be talking about another option available to you in post-production called exposure blending.  It’s a way to take multiple pictures of the same thing, using different exposures for each shot, then blending those images so that you can bring out the detail in your foreground without having to lighten your sky.  There are some significant advantages to using this technique that I am excited to teach you about.

Be Creative in Your Framing and Composition

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Framing pictures, or using interesting objects in the foreground, can really enhance your photos.  This shot taken in Bryce Canyon National Park is a great example.

One of the most important pieces of advice that I can give to you is to be creative in your compositions.  Find unique and creative ways to frame your shots, use things in the foreground of your image to make your shot stand out, and change your perspective to make your shots unique.

In the shot above I could have just taken a picture of Bryce Canyon.  After all, the canyon itself is incredibly beautiful.  However, by using the tree in the foreground I have added depth to my image and made the picture more visually appealing.

When composing your pictures, make sure you take advantage of the Rule of Thirds.  Not just from a horizontal perspective, but also vertically.  Put interesting subjects in the right or left thirds of your images, or top or bottom thirds for that matter, to make your images stand out.  It will make a world of difference in how your pictures turn out.

Don’t Be Shy About Taking a Photo Tour

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Taking a photo tour allowed me to get this great shot of Antelope Canyon.

The last tip I have for you might be the best piece of advice I can give you.  Don’t be shy about taking a guided photography tour when at a national park.  I think it is human nature to want to do stuff on our own and to have that freedom and flexibility.  However, there is tremendous value in having someone along that knows the area and knows how and where to get the best shots.

A great example is my recent trip to Antelope Canyon.  I was able to get some truly fantastic shots of the canyon (pictured above) largely because I was with a guide who knew where and how to take the best shots.  I never would have thought to throw up sand to make the light beams entering the canyon visible in my shots.  It was a fantastic touch that really took my shots to the next level.

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