Destinations

July 21, 2014

Serendipity in Huacachina, Peru

The dunes of Huacachina, Peru

The dunes of Huacachina, Peru

Below is the second weekly blog post from Noemi and Chris Gamel and their family, currently on a yearlong journey around the world: 

We learned an important lesson in Huacachina, Peru. Well, two lessons if you include that we can survive cold showers. More importantly, we learned that beautiful experiences often happen when your best-laid plans are derailed.

Huacachina is a fresh-water oasis surrounded by sand dunes near the city of Ica. We arrived by public bus to our hostel/home stay mid-afternoon and then walked over to the dunes for Kara and Tristan to play in the sand. Chris and I were still recovering from the early wake-up that morning, so our plan was to save the hike up the massive 300+ foot dune for the next day. Tristan had different ideas. Nothing was going to stop him from reaching the peak, not even tired parents. He raced to the top as fast as his legs would carry him, Kara not too far behind.

When I finally reached the top of the dune, I found Kara and Tristan sitting on the sand looking out at the majestic scenery. At that point, I was so grateful that Tristan had dragged us to the top. When Chris, who had paused to take photographs on the way up, finally sat down beside me all sweaty and huffing, we agreed, “It is worth it.”

If our children had followed our plans, we would have missed a serendipitous, radiant sunset among the dunes. Chris took this photo as we all admired the sublime view over the Huacachina sand dunes. Disobedience never looked so magnificent.



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!

 



July 16, 2014

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a Bit About Selection

South China Karst

South China Karst

After a recent 10-day meeting of the World Heritage Committee, a number of sites have been updated or newly added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. We’re proud to say that many of these sites are found within countries we have the pleasure of visiting on our family adventures – but before we get into which ones those are, you may be wondering what goes into the process of selecting a site for such an illustrious honor.

According to UNESCO, “To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” These criteria range from naturally occurring phenomena to sites of vital cultural significance and shining beacons of human ingenuity. The decision process is not taken lightly; every site on the list has very rightfully earned its place, whether for “exceptional natural beauty” or “conservation of biological diversity,” cultural/historical significance or for being a quintessential example of human creativity.

At this recent meeting, an extension was added to China’s “South China Karst” World Heritage Site, praised for its unique and breathtaking karst formations, “including tower karst, pinnacle karst and cone karst formations, along with other spectacular characteristics such as natural bridges, gorges and large cave systems.”

Among the cultural sites newly added to the distinguished list: the “Andean Road System” that runs through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; the “Grand Canal” in China; the “Precolumbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquís” in Costa Rica; and two sites in Turkey – “Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape” and “Bursa and Cumalikizik: the Birth of the Ottoman Empire.”



July 11, 2014

Who In the World Are the Gamels?

around the world

The Gamels all set to begin their journey!

Our friend Chris Gamel, professional photographer and educator, is officially off on his yearlong journey around the world with his family. While Chris documents the adventure in photography, his wife, Noemi — a pediatrician and children’s fantasy writer — will be providing weekly blog posts for all you adventure lovers out there to follow along! Below is the first of many:

Standing at the passenger drop-off curb at Cincinnati Airport with just a carry-on backpack and small shoulder bag, I turn to wave goodbye to my sister. My husband, two children, and I are left on the curb feeling excited and terrified at the same time. We are catching the evening flight to Miami, and then headed to Lima, Peru on the red eye. I am filled with a sense of irony knowing that the day after celebrating America’s Independence Day, we leave the country to embark on a year-long trip round the world (RTW). We will not step foot on American soil until next July.

I will be writing a weekly blog post for Thomson Family Adventures documenting our adventures. Chris, my husband, will provide the photography. Before we embark on this journey, we wanted to introduce ourselves.

Chris is an award-winning nature photographer and digital media educator. His varied skill set and PhD in wildlife biology will provide a unique perspective of the natural history and cultural experiences we encounter on this trip.

Kara, our 12-year-old daughter, is an aspiring filmmaker who loves science, writing, and drawing. She is looking forward to visiting Japan.

Tristan, our 7-year-old son, is an avid tree climber who loves futbol (aka soccer). He is looking forward to seeing the Great Wall of China.

Noemi (that’s me) is a pediatrician taking a break from the rat race to write diverse children’s fantasy novels, travel the world, and reconnect with family.

I hope you will virtually join us on our RTW experience. Who knows? You may just catch our wanderlust bug!



June 25, 2014

Cuba’s Culinary Revolution

Arroz-con-Pollo

Arroz con pollo — a Cuban staple

Currently in the middle of an exciting cultural shift that will someday be a notable chapter in world history, Cuba is an intriguing place – to say the least. Its increasingly celebrated cuisine serves as a microcosm of this momentous shift, and of the curious little island nation’s culture in general.
At its core, Cuban food is a medley of elements from cultures around the world, much like the Cuban identity in general. Its flavors are influenced by the culinary traditions of the island’s indigenous Taínos (a branch of the Caribbean’s native Arawak people), colonial Spanish settlers, the large population of people brought from Africa, and other more recent additions. As in many Latin American countries, rice and beans are common staples, as are chicken, beef, and pork. Many dishes also feature plantains and one of several varieties of root starches like yuca or potatoes. Soups and stews are also favorites, and the fact that Cuba is an island results in a heavy dose of fresh, deliciously prepared seafood.

The Republic of Cuba has seen its share of government restrictions. Those restrictions, while certainly still there, have been loosening lately – making way for some remarkable changes in the art, music, tourism, and gastronomical scenes. For a long time, the supply of ingredients was rigidly controlled by the government, as well as who was and wasn’t allowed to own and operate private restaurants. Given the tropical crops found on the island and the cooking influences from all over the world, the potential for a top-notch culinary scene was always there, but until recently, your family would have had a much easier time finding tasty Cuban food at an expatriate-run restaurant in Miami than in Havana.

Well, the doors are opening now… Varied meats and produce that recently weren’t available are now plentiful, herbs and spices are finding their way into local dishes, and the paladares (private restaurants typically operated out of families’ homes) are increasing their once-limited selections. Talented chefs that left Cuba for more professional freedom in other countries are returning to be a part of this culinary revolution, and more Cubans are choosing to pursue cooking careers in their native country. There are countless factors that make right now a thrilling time to discover Cuba – with the transforming world of Cuban cuisine undoubtedly high on the list.



June 16, 2014

Brazil: More than Soccer and Supermodels

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro

With the World Cup underway, Brazil is very much in the global spotlight. The choice to host such an enormous international event here is a controversial one that has drawn plenty of opposition. Regardless, all this attention is a reminder that there’s a lot to love – and a lot to learn – about Brazil.

Brazil is a vast nation boasting a rich history and an astonishing degree of cultural diversity from region to region. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, there were a very large number of distinct indigenous groups, lumped (in very general terms) into four major overarching groups: the Tupi (speakers of the many languages in the Tupi-Guarani family) and the Tapuia inhabiting the coastal regions, and the Carib and Nuaraque peoples in the interior.

The Brazil of today is an amazing melting pot whose vibrant culture benefits tremendously from a convergence of ethnic influences including indigenous Amerindian, Portuguese, African, and more recent immigration from all over the world. The friendly people, renowned for their striking looks, boast skin tones and hair colors of every imaginable hue. They dance to the rhythm of samba, jazz-inspired bossa nova, indigenous wooden flutes, Afro-Brazilian drum beats, and so many other fascinating styles. They parade down the bustling streets of tropical Rio de Janeiro in elaborate costumes and bring the spirit of Carnival alive. In the vibrant state of Bahia and its capital of Salvador, they carry on the captivating tradition of capoeira – a martial art full of movement and dancing invented by Brazilians of African descent.

The people of Brazil eat delicious and immensely varied cuisine influenced by indigenous crops, animals, and cooking methods, European and African recipes and ingredients, and so much more. They eat their national dish of feijoada (a stew of beans, salted and smoked meats, and vegetables cooked in a clay pot), a savory cheese bread called pão de queijo, and churrasco, an assortment of barbecued meats known for fueling the work of the South American cowboys known as gauchos.

Brazilians are a welcoming, resilient people who make up for the financial riches they may not have with the heart and personality that radiate from their kind souls.

In addition to its wonderful population, Brazil is home to unforgettable landscapes and wildlife. The city of Rio de Janeiro has quite deservedly been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an urban landscape nestled snugly between forested mountains and blue bays. There’s no better place to people watch than on the lively beaches of the Copacabana waterfront. Nearby, in the lush Atlantic Forest outside Rio, primate conservationists work tirelessly to reintroduce endangered golden lion tamarins to their natural habitat.

Then there’s the Pantanal, a different world altogether. This enormous tropical wetland harbors a stunning array of creatures; the vast expanses of open grasslands here actually provide far better wildlife viewing opportunities than a place like the Amazon, because the abundant animals aren’t hidden by high, dense vegetation. This is the perfect environment to ride on horseback like a pantaneiro – a cowboy of the Pantanal – and spot wildlife at every turn.

And at Iguassu Falls, hiking trails and catwalks offer views of these mighty natural wonders that are higher than Niagara Falls and wider than Victoria Falls.

Long story short, there’s a LOT more to Brazil than could ever be captured in a blog post… you may just have to come see for yourself.



June 5, 2014

Spotlight on a Stellar TFA Family

Larry zip lining in Costa Rica

Larry zip lining in Costa Rica

Since Thomson Family Adventures first came into existence over 15 years ago, it’s been clear that our adventures attract a special breed of family travelers. Thomson travelers are the type of families open to new and exciting experiences; they love to learn from the great, big world around them, and they’re committed to the people, wildlife, and natural landscapes of the countries they visit.

I’d like to highlight a man whose family epitomizes that special something TFA clients have, and the reason we love what we do: Larry Taylor. Larry and his wife, Mina, brought their teenage grandson on one of our adventures to Costa Rica in March of 2013 – a trip that provided us with one of our all-time favorite photos of Larry zip lining through the jungle. We just received another batch of fun photos from the Taylor family’s recent trip to Belize, along with some heartwarming anecdotes of cross-cultural interactions with local Maya children.

Larry and his family are the type of people that have that inspiring spirit of adventure we love to see. I had initially intended to make a quick Facebook post about one encounter they had in Belize, but decided instead to go a little deeper and give the consistently cooperative, enthusiastic Larry Taylor a call to find out a little more about him and his family and how travel and adventure play into their lives.

The Taylors live in San Diego, which has proven to be the perfect location for a family as physically active and ecologically conscious as they are. Larry walks two miles every morning, and loves to meet friends at a café by the beach at the end of his walk. His wife runs six miles every other day, spends two hours at the gym on her “off” days, and has been known to run marathons– not exactly a couch potato! The mellow, 17-year-old grandson they brought to Costa Rica and Belize is a true Southern California boy who loves to surf, snorkel, swim, and lifeguard.

Larry was born in California and lived all over the U.S., growing up in an Air Force family. He met Mina after she moved out west from her hometown of Brooklyn, New York, and it didn’t take her long to evolve into a lover of the outdoors amid gorgeous West Coast weather and scenery. They’re an ideal pair of world travelers; Larry’s a naturally curious history buff, into the people-to-people politics of things, geography, culture, nature, and geology (which is actually what his undergraduate degree was in). He worked in government for 18 years, taking measures to eliminate air pollution. In his personal life, Larry is still admirably active in fighting the ill effects of climate change and trying to protect the environment – he’s currently working to install solar panels in his home, and he recently ripped out his front yard and replaced the grass with rocks as a way of saving water.

Mina worked as a clinical psychiatric social worker in a hospital, helping patients who were going through crises, so she’s very much a people-person. Ever since she retired from that career four years ago, they’ve made it a point to travel as often as possible, and they never miss an opportunity to get out there and meet the locals, snorkel the reefs, test out the zip lines, and seek out those truly special travel moments that happen organically and unexpectedly. Larry loves both the structure and flexibility of our Thomson Family Adventures, as well as the unique chance to bond with his grandchildren while someone else handles the logistics and arranges a solid collection of activities for them to engage in together, instead of just dropping the grandkids off to do their own thing.

He shared several phenomenal examples of that togetherness making for some special memories, and of the beauty of unplanned events during his past family adventures. In one such anecdote, Larry told me:

“In Belize, the local guide took us out to a reef (all three of us love to snorkel; our grandson is a surfer and a lifeguard, so he’s a great swimmer, and we still love to get out there and join him!) He took us out to a spot where he said he’d show us some turtles, but what we didn’t know was that when we got there, the ocean floor would be covered with literally thousands of conch shells under the 40 feet of crystal clear water. The guide dove down and grabbed two conch shells and started banging them together. He told us that works as a dinner call for the loggerhead turtles, because the fishermen pound them against the decks and sides of the boats to get the meat out, so the turtles know when they hear the banging that bits of meat will fall out into the water for them to eat. The dinner call worked, and some beautiful loggerhead turtles showed up, and soon after eight to twelve harmless nurse sharks came over. That type of knowledge is what’s so great about the local guides we’ve had on Thomson trips — they can take us places and show us things non-locals wouldn’t know about.”

It’s those surprises – the unforgettable occurrences that can’t be written ahead of time into any itinerary – that keep the passion for travel alive in the Taylor family, and in all the wonderful families we’re lucky to have had on our family adventures.

The family ready for action in Belize

 

The Taylor family in Costa Rica

The Taylor family in Costa Rica

Maya children in Belize

Maya children in Belize

Teen grandson canyoning in Costa Rica

Teen grandson canyoning in Costa Rica

 



January 29, 2014

The Power of Soccer Balls

DSCN6058

The soccer balls arrive in Peru!

 

Soccer is a universal game around the world; we see it everywhere we go.  Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil – soccer is a language that needs no translation. (In Tanzania the kids often use an old balled up sock for a ball, and even barefoot they can score the heck out of the American kids).  So it is no wonder when guests of Thomson Family Adventures traveled to Peru in August they saw a huge need for decent equipment.

On their return to Maryland, Karen Druffel and the Elkridge Youth Organization (EYO Sports)  began a fun project to deliver their generous donations to the village they visited. Due to issues of customs and taxes we knew we couldn’t just send 10 soccer balls in one batch – and so we parcelled them out to our future travelers to take them in suitcases  to our local colleagues in Peru, who then took them to the kids. Thank you to everyone for your part in this glorious gift of generosity.

See their joy!

 

 

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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.