Advice

July 16, 2014

5 Reasons Guatemala is Ideal for Traveling with Children

agua volcano- antigua

Antigua Guatemala

The travel bug is incurable – that’s a simple fact. So when you’ve lived a life of exploration and can’t imagine it any other way, you’re not going to stop when you have children. Sure, the dynamic of your adventures with change, but family travel is an absolute blast with its own invaluable benefits.

Does having kids mean you have to shift from off-the-beaten path journeys around the world to purely domestic travel and uneventful beach vacations? NO WAY. Bringing your children along makes international travel and meaningful cultural interactions even better than they were when you were single.

One destination that’s particularly well-suited for traveling with children is Guatemala. Why? Here are 5 reasons (There wasn’t enough space for infinity):

Endless opportunity for outdoor activities and hands-on engagement: Every parent knows kids need to be actively involved to be entertained; Guatemala is the perfect place for that sort of involvement. There’s an opportunity at every turn for you and your kids to explore the wild outdoors and to roll up your sleeves and jump into the action, from kayaking around Lake Atitlan to hiking a path to Pacaya Volcano, learning to make chocolate from scratch and enjoying painting workshops to ziplining through lush jungle… and so much more!

Warm people and rich local culture: The most rewarding aspect – by a longshot – of introducing your children to a new culture is through unplanned interaction with regular people. Guatemalans are a pleasant, inviting bunch, eager to share their customs and traditions with visitors. Impressionable kids soak up these experiences in a way adults just can’t do quite as well, and every little encounter can make a world of difference in their development as open-minded citizens of the world. Whether they’re meeting local children they’ve written to ahead of time, taking a Spanish lesson in Antigua, or helping their parents barter for indigenous crafts at Chichicastenango Market, the little interactions will mean the world to them.

Excellent nature and wildlife: A child that isn’t fascinated by monkeys is about as common as an ice cream shop that doesn’t carry vanilla. Not to worry – Tikal National Park’s dense rainforest is teeming with spider monkeys and howler monkeys, as well as 52 other species of mammals and 333 species of birds, including a whole host of vibrantly colored exotic birds.

Amazing landscapes: In addition to the aforementioned rainforest in Tikal, Guatemala boasts a myriad of other enchanting landscapes. The brilliantly blue Lake Atitlan is the deepest in Central America and is considered by many to be the most beautiful lake in the world. Atitlan was formed by volcanic activity long ago, as evidenced by the three striking volcanoes that still surround it. If the kids are enthralled by the papier-mâche and baking powder volcanoes they make in class, they’ll be blown away witnessing the real thing!

Ancient Mayan archeological sites: A child’s imagination is powerful and limitless. Kids have a certain something many of us adults have somewhat lost along the way – an ability to put themselves in a vivid imaginary moment. When an adult stumbles upon the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal or Iximche, he/she will be thoroughly impressed and probably cherish the moment forever. But when a child discovers a site like this and learns a bit about the history of this once-glorious civilization, it resonates in a realer, more poignant way. Visions of the elaborate ceremonies, games, and rituals that once took place here will take over and bring that little mind on a journey us grownups may be too jaded to experience in quite the same way.

Let those 5 reasons hold you over for now… if you want to discover the rest of the infinite list of reasons Guatemala is the ideal spot to bring your kids, you’ll have to go see for yourself!

 



June 3, 2014

Cap and Gown—and A Map of the World

rodica daughter graduation

Rodica and Emily at graduation

As I watched my daughter Emily walk across a flower-bedecked stage in New York last week, dressed in cap and gown and surrounded by fellow students and professors, I flashed back to her very first steps… taken in her grandparents’ backyard at a barbecue, to the similarly excited applause of our family. Twenty years between these two momentous “first steps”—–a blink, it suddenly seemed.

We traveled a lot as a family during Emily’s childhood and teen years—to national parks, Alaska, the Sea of Cortes and Baja, Costa Rica, and to Europe to visit family. My work took me traveling, too, and whenever I could, I brought her with me. It was part of my goal as a parent to show her that she was part of a larger world, that travel builds bridges and friendship, and that the goodness of people prevails in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

A few months ago, she told me that she and a friend were planning a trip to Thailand shortly after graduation and when I asked if there was something I could contribute as a graduation gift, she grinned at me sideways and said, simply: “miles.” Girl after my own heart!

It made me so happy that our earlier travels together whetted her appetite to explore and learn more about our big, beautiful world… those of us addicted to wandering share a special secret: the world doesn’t get smaller the more you travel, it gets bigger. Traveling with our children opens up their world to them—with the added bonus for us of that tried, and ultimately true, cliché, “a lifetime of family memories.”

There are many milestones between that first step as a child and the one that leads to the edge of the known world that Shel Silverstein so marvelously described as, “where the sidewalk ends.”  And that’s where I expect my own daughter’s story awaits to unfold … where her imagination meets the horizon, somewhere out there on the map we all call home.



December 5, 2013

Family Reunions – Five Ways to Make it Work

Together in Peru

Together in Peru

The holidays have always been a time for families to come together, and more than ever families are meeting up in a new location, to share new experiences as well as each others’ company.  Whether it’s holiday time, a hard earned graduation, a milestone anniversary or birthday or just an excuse to get away, a family reunion can be a legacy trip of a lifetime. So how do you ensure your time and financial investment don’t go to waste?

1) Plan ahead! If your family is flexible and has an excellent sense of humor, a regrettable last minute decision to ‘wing-it’ may give you material to laugh about for years to come.  But if you prefer to not spend your vacation troubleshooting and negotiating every day, you’ll take your time and start planning for next year. The perfect villa, the right hotels, the ideal guide – those things don’t wait for late planners.

2) Support, Support, Support . Leave yourself unfettered to nonstop planning. Whether your familiy is 6 people or 26, knowing someone else is managing tasty on-time meals, arranging safe and reliable transportation, and showing you the best things to do – this is the gift of freedom to enjoy every minute with your family without a care in the world.

3) Use local expertise on the ground. Don’t try to guess how long it takes to get somewhere or what activity will be best when, or how to find the special secrets of your destination. Make use of a local guide experienced in family, and committed to showing you the way while managing every detail in advance. An unexpected plus: a terrific guide makes everything more fun!

4) Make every day count. Instead of unscheduled days wandering aimlessly while bored kids glue themselves to their video games, try experiencing new things together.  One terrific group outing to start each day gives you a framework, and something to talk about forever. Your afternoons can be more restorative or more active, depending on each person’s desire – hang by the pool, playing board games – or head out shopping or hiking. Then everyone unites again over a wonderful dinner, to reflect on the day. Plenty of together time, plenty of flexibility!

5) Consider a thread of special meaning to weave throughout your vacation. For some it’s a community project, or starting a family journal together. It might mean creating a treasure hunt (we can do this!), or a quest to check off your list of flora and fauna. With the help of your reunion planners and guide these things can be simple for you to include, and inspiring for your family to do together.

During this 2013 holiday season start dreaming of what can blossom for you and your loved ones in 2014. Maybe it is hiking at Machu Picchu, zip lining in Costa Rica, or snorkeling in the Galapagos.Imagine the flora, fauna and music of Brazil, the souks and mountains in Morocco, or breathtaking wildlife in Tanzania… Whatever your dream, enjoy it with your family!



November 4, 2013

Chris Gamel Pro Photo Tip – Rule of Thirds

Capuchin monkey in Costa Rica, by Chris Gamel

Quick Tip for better photographs: Use the rule of thirds.

When creating a picture, many photographers place the subject right in the middle of the frame.  It’s easy, but it is rarely the best option.  Instead, consider using the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds is a simple, yet powerful way of placing a subject in the frame.  To apply the rule of thirds, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over your image.  This gives you 4 intersection points; places where two lines intersect each other.  Photographers call these intersections “points of power.”  The key to the rule of thirds is to place the most important part of your image on one of the points of power.

This image of a capuchin monkey (taken in Costa Rica) is a perfect example of the rule of thirds in action.  The monkey is the most important part of the image, so I placed her directly on top of the top, left point of power.  Why does it work?  I have no idea, but artists have been using the rule of thirds for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

So, how can you use the rule of thirds to improve your next photograph?

Join Chris on a special family photography adventure in Costa Rica or Peru and put the rule to use!

For more photography tips and wildlife images, visit Chris Gamel’s website.



October 14, 2013

Photo Tips From Our Expert, Chris Gamel

Click the photo to see trips with Chris

How many times have you come back from a trip, but been disappointed by the photographs you captured?  You are not alone.  Creating images that accurately capture your adventures is difficult, but it can be done.  Here is a quick photography tip that is guaranteed to improve your images.

Quick Tip for better photographs: Fill the frame with your subject.

Too often we try to include too much in our images.  Amazing events are unfolding in front of us and we want to capture everything.  The problem is that while our eyes are great at ignoring visual distractions, our cameras are terrible at it.  To greatly improve your images, try this little trick.  Ask yourself what you are taking a picture of.  The fewer words you use to answer that question, the better.  Once you have identified your subject, fill the image frame with it.  Usually this means getting closer.  Fascinated by the dexterity of a local artist’s hands, get closer.  Want to capture the look of joy on your child’s face just before she zip lines through the rainforest, get closer.  Want to document that hungry look in the lion’s eye, get closer…..well maybe not.  In this case, it might be better to not get closer and to use a longer lens (you didn’t think wildlife photographers were crazy, did you?).

For example, look at this elephant image.  As she approached, I asked myself what it was that captured my interest.  The answer was obvious, an elephant was walking directly towards me!  Once I decided that the elephant was the subject, I zoomed so that her face and ears filled the frame.  There result is an image with impact that reflects my personal experience.

Now back to you.  How can you fill the frame to create better photographs?



February 19, 2013

The Beauty of Flexible Departure Dates

Young adult siblings on an elephant in Thailand.

We have plenty of prearranged departure dates to choose from, but there’s always the possibility that none of the dates you see listed fit with your busy schedule. Luckily for you, that’s not a problem; we can always organize a custom date just for your family.

We’re in this business because we want to deliver the ideal family adventure for each and every one of our valued clients, and we’ll never let rigid scheduling issues get in the way of that mission. You can even work with us to create your own private, custom itinerary or villa-style vacation if you’re not totally satisfied with what we already offer.

We find that the fact that we can always arrange custom dates is especially vital to emphasize when dealing with families with older teen and 20-something kids. Since this particular age group encompasses a wide range of life stages – high school, college, and the working world – what works for one young adult may not work for another. Older teens and 20-somethings have different school breaks and different opportunities for time off from work; this isn’t news to us, and we’re fully prepared to work with you to organize something that fits with everyone’s schedules.

Just give us a call and we can work through all your departure date concerns together.



February 14, 2013

You’re Never Too Old to Learn from Travel

An action shot from the game

When I consider the significance of travel in my own life, the clichéd-but-apt adage “Don’t let school get in the way of your education” comes to mind.

Three years ago, I was a junior in college; I was in the middle of a wonderful classroom education that, unbeknownst to me, couldn’t hold a candle to the 5-month practical learning experience I was about to dive into. I left in early January of 2010 for a semester abroad in a small city outside Madrid. Now, I’ll be honest here – I spent very little of those next 5 months attending classes or doing homework… but I also gained a concentrated dose of real-world knowledge and insight worth about 5 years of highlighting textbooks and attending lectures.

In addition to the 5-month period of culture shock and adaptation that was my semester abroad in general (that’s a long story for another day), I had opportunities for some incredible shorter travel experiences afforded by my proximity to surrounding countries. The most memorable of these was a week spent in Morocco with a small group of friends.

One vivid memory in particular that will stay with me for as long as I live took place on a humble little beach frequented by Moroccan locals. As a few of my American friends and I were walking along the beach, a young Moroccan man – probably about 26 – approached us. Seeing that we were white and out-of-place, he assumed we were probably from Spain and asked us somewhat shyly in soft, shaky Spanish: “¿Queréis jugar con nosotros?” (“Do you guys want to play with us?”) He motioned to a group of about fifteen Moroccans of various ages kicking a soccer ball back and forth and setting up makeshift goals with sticks and rocks. My friends and I looked at each other a bit uneasily, ignorantly considering all the worst case scenarios in our heads (locals running off with our valuables, etc.) as most sheltered First World kids can’t help but do when presented with the unfamiliar. Then we shot a mutual glance and shrug, as if to say “How often do we have the chance to play a game of pickup soccer on the beach with a bunch of Moroccans?” and I told the man we’d love to accept his gracious offer.

The friendly game that followed was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life; we laughed, high-fived, and congratulated each other’s athletic accomplishments through smiles and body language. I was ashamed to have ever – even if only for a brief moment – doubted these hospitable people’s genuine intentions. After a few hours of soccer, we shook hands and the Moroccans placed their fists over their hearts as a gesture of peace as we parted ways. Forcing myself to let go of ignorant preconceptions and embrace the new and different taught me that you get as much out of a travel experience as you put into it, and that you’re never too old to learn from the world around you. Do any of you have stories to share from your own experiences that highlight travel’s profound teaching power?



February 1, 2013

The Importance of Age Matching in Family Travel

Having fun with new friends!

We loved our Thomson trip with our teenage son Phil and can’t wait to do another. He really bonded with all the teens on the trip, and still keeps in touch with them. Even now, one year after the trip, he has just returned home from a visit with one of the other kids on the trip. As an only child, having other teens to share the trip with made all the difference in the experience.

- Kate, parent, Costa Rica Teen

We’ve organized a lot of family adventures over the years, and one thing we know for sure is that age matching has some priceless benefits. It’s hard not to enjoy a family vacation loaded with activities in a new and captivating destination, but an already-incredible trip can be improved dramatically by pairing your kids up with other kids of similar ages. The chance to share the experience of learning a new culture with peers and newfound friends holds a value that shouldn’t be underestimated. Whitewater rafting is a blast for kids no matter what, but doing it with other kids their age that they can relate to adds a whole new element of excitement to the adventure! Similarly, a too-cool-for-school teenager is sure to get more enjoyment out of a hike to Machu Picchu in the company of other like-minded teens than with just mom and dad or with a little kid who can’t keep the same pace… and we all know it’s much easier for you as parents and grandparents to let loose and enjoy your own vacation when you have the comfort of knowing your children or grandchildren are having the time of their lives.

We currently have several trips with families already booked, waiting for some new friends to join! Call us and see about joining one of the following:

Panama March 23 – 10-year-old girl

Galapagos and Ecuador Smithsonian March 8 – 18-year-old boy

Costa Rica: Volcanoes & Beaches June 15 – 15-year-old girl

Peru Smithsonian June 28 – 17-year-old boy looking for another boy in his age range

And there are plenty more in addition to these! Call Nicole for more information at 1-800-262-6255!



October 11, 2012

Five Things to Think About Before You Book Online

Oh, China!

Do you wonder why experts say you should book an international adventure through a professional based in your home country? Maybe you think you will save by going direct to someone ‘at the source’? After all, the internet gives us access to millions of options. Too many! But when you travel to exotic locales it really makes a difference to plan with someone who understands your own ‘native culture’, as well as the place you are traveling to. Think about:

5) Oh the misunderstandings you can encounter! A Five Star hotel in another country is not necessarily a Five Star hotel to our North American standards. Even ‘clean and comfortable’ can mean something very different in another culture. In fact, many countries cannot even rate their hotels on any standardized system we know. (And believe me, peanut butter there is nothing like peanut butter here.)

4) Different cultures have different expectations, rules, and customs. Sometimes you don’t mind winging it, to see what you’ll find. It’s part of the adventure, especially when you are young, single and carefree. But when you’re with the kids it’s comforting to have a solid interpretation of what you are heading into – and a local guide with enough experience to manage your expectations appropriately.

3) Maybe you have a food allergy, a sleep disorder, an aversion to bugs in your room. You’ll fully appreciate discussing your concerns with a friendly expert who speaks your language and understands your sensibilities, someone who will give you straight answers and solid advice – not gloss over the particular challenges of your destination.

2) The currency, the packing list, the information on charging your iPod…don’t you want that from someone who understands what you expect and need? Don’t guess at what it will be like, or spend hours researching online. Just refer to the complete predeparture booklet we’ll send you!

1) Internet Advice? Fun to search for late at night, but does it really pertain to you? Remember, you don’t know who is reporting, what they value, and whether their comments accurately address your needs. It is so much more useful to have a conversation in your native language with a professional who has been where you’re going. Someone who can listen to your needs and interests, and deliver the right things to you.

How much risk do you want to take? You probably (hopefully) wouldn’t hand over your savings to something you read about in a Yahoo forum (no offense, Yahoo). Likewise, be sure you invest your valuable vacation dollars and time so you can get the best return available. Look for an expert who has been there. And always ask for references!



August 20, 2012

10 Things Kids Bring Home from a Family Trip

Jessie, Ed, and Lillie in their front yard.

Thanks to Jessie Voigts, our special Guest Blogger for this excellent perspective on family travel:

You spend a lot of time planning family trips – and coordinating said trips! Between teens off with their ipods to dealing with toddlers and diapers, how do you KNOW that these family trips are worth it? But wait – your kids bring home a lot more from family trips than you think. Take a look…

1) Memories. Of course! But it might not be the memories you suspect – of whitewater rafting, or seeing the Eiffel Tower, or hanging with their cousins. It might be the cute squirrels at the local park, the best meal ever, discovering a new food they love, or learning something new.

2) Photos. Be sure to give your kids a camera to take photos. You will be surprised at both the angles (closer to the ground? Or super high, if you’ve got a teen taller than you are!), and the subject matter. Our daughter takes a little stuffed ugly with her, and photographs it wherever we go. Little Ugly has been in a lot of strange places.

3) Humanity. Whether your kids are upset about the stray or mistreated dogs in Nepal, Barbados, or Bahrain; or visibly learn about animal and human rights wherever you are (we’ve all fielded the homeless question), travel is a great chance to teach about humanity. By learning that others are less fortunate than we are, and trying to act on such knowledge, they are on their way to becoming good global citizens.

4) Funny stories. Nothing brings a family together more than camaraderie, which is, in turn, fostered by going through experiences together. From the funny assistant at the airport, to ordering a meal in a foreign language (mostly via sign language), to finding out that people in a certain country just LOVE babies and will hold them for hours and parade them around like a rock star, travel is packed with experiences that will provide great stories…for life.

5) A desire for peace. Our daughter, when seeing cultural differences up close, has gained a strong desire for peace and people to get along. She thinks that intercultural differences are fascinating, and has pledged to learn more about different people and cultures around the world, firsthand.

6) New Experiences, new friends. Whether it’s ziplining, scuba diving, hiking, camping, snorkeling with turtles, or viewing great art, new experiences bring people together and can foster a lifelong fascination or hobby. As well, you can make new friends from group travel, or through meeting locals. These can become friends for life.

7) Learning more about your family. You can learn a lot about people from being in close proximity to each other for an extended period of time. You can also learn about how people react in any situation – often surprising us, how well they can deal with a crisis. By learning more about your family, everyone becomes closer due to these shared experiences. Your teen might ask you to read and talk together about a book about a place you’ve visited, or your 5 year old might surprise you by painting, from memory, a piece of art they saw in an art museum on your travels. You might surprise your kids and husband by jumping first off the cliff into the deep water below, or your father might show unexpected depths while riding a chicken bus.

8) New cultures. Our daughter’s best friend, when asked this question, noted that in Hawaii, she was amazed to learn of the Hawaiian culture. She loved the luaus, the colorful fabrics, and how they utilized the hibiscus flowers in welcoming people. Our daughter loved watching kids tv shows in Ireland – she learned some Gaelic, as well as how kids learn and play in a different country.

9) Love of new foods. It might be roasted tarantula (doubt it), Thai food, boiled peanuts in the south, new jams and pickles, or recipes. Wherever you go, I’m sure you’re eating locally – and shopping at the grocery store whenever possible! You’ll find new foods you love (and probably new foods you dislike). Bring them home, and incorporate these new foods into your meals and snacks!

10) A desire to travel more. Long after the sand has disappeared from your swimsuits and suitcases, and the special candy you brought back is digested, you’ll find something not so surprising. Your whole family will have a desire to travel more – to learn and play and experience the world together. And that’s what family travel is all about – having new experiences, and discovering new cultures and people – together.

Jessie Voigts is a mom who loves sharing the world with her daughter. She has a PhD in International Education, and is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding, especially with kids (it’s never too young to start!). She has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled around the world. Jessie is the publisher of Wandering Educators, a travel library for people curious about the world. She founded the Family Travel Bloggers Association, and the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program. She’s published two books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. You can usually find her family by water – anywhere in the world.