7 things that might surprise you about Cuba

© Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

I’ve traveled to many places around the world and have had incredible cultural experiences, but one place that always ranks in my top five is Cuba. I’ve made several trips to Cuba since I first started going in 2011, and I find it remarkable in so many ways in spite of, and because of, the U.S. embargo, which has essentially frozen its ability to do business with most parts of the world. So Cuba has adapted, beautifully, in ways that you’d never expect. Here’s what I’ve observed:

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UPDATE: Miracles from pennies: the Trailblazer story

In early June, we brought to your attention the Trailblazer Foundation and their mission: building wells to bring poor villages in Cambodia clean, drinkable water. The Foundation is in dire need of a new truck so they can continue to deliver well building materials to outlying villages.

Their fundraising campaign to raise $7500 is coming to an end on Sunday, August 7th. Trailblazer was actually able to sell their old truck for $1500 and put the money towards the campaign. They now only need $1830 to reach their goal. That’s only 92 people donating $20! Once Trailblazer reaches their goal, we will match a final $2500 so they can purchase a brand new truck and continue serving the poor of Cambodia. If you would like to help us and Trailblazer reach the goal, you can donate any amount to their campaign on IndieGoGo.

And if you haven’t already, read below to learn more about Trailblazer and their amazing work.

Scott & Chris Coats (2nd & 3rd from right) of the Trailblazer Foundation in Cambodia

Meet Chris Coats, co-founder with her husband, Scott, of The Trailblazer Foundation. Friendly Planet has supported Trailblazer since 2007, when we first discovered we could pay to dig wells in the Siem Reap area and help provide clean, potable water for the villagers surrounding the World Heritage site of Angkor Wat—a site that we visit on our tours. We’re proud to support the Trailblazer Foundation, and through our own Friendly Planet Foundation, we look forward to working together to help improve the lives of the villagers of Siem Reap who so graciously welcome us into their communities. The Trailblazer Foundation is currently running a fundraising campaign to help buy an equipment delivery truck, which they desperately need to continue their mission. To help raise awareness of the campaign, Chris took some time to tell us a little bit about herself and her husband, and why they started Trailblazer. She said:

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7 reasons you’ll love Sri Lanka

Judy Poliva is the Product Development Manager at Friendly Planet Travel. She traveled to Sri Lanka to plan our new Best of Sri Lanka Tour. She took some time to write about her favorite parts of the adventure, and here’s what she had to say:

In February, I traveled to Sri Lanka to plan a brand new Friendly Planet adventure. It’s important for me to experience first-hand the sites, hotels, food and transportation, so that I know exactly how the trip will feel for our travelers (and it’s my favorite part of the job too!). Not only was I not disappointed, I completely fell in love with the country. From the bustling modern capital city of Colombo, to the tea highlands and game safari, there was so much to savor.

As I prepared for my trip, it occurred to me that despite having visited and planned tours for many destinations, I really didn’t know very much about this small island nation south of India. I discovered that it’s a wild and ancient destination known for its lush rainforest, tea-growing highlands, diverse wildlife and world-class Buddhist ruins—with a history dating back to 3,000 years ago. And while it’s an up-and-coming travel destination that has made the “must see” lists of various well-regarded travel publications like Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler, it hasn’t yet breached the beaten tourist path, which is great news for world travelers who revel in the newly discovered places that offer authentic cultural experiences. Here I compiled some of my favorite experiences from my trip to give you a better idea of what Sri Lanka has to offer.

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What you should know after the Ecuador earthquakes

Ecuadorian woman

I recently returned from a press trip to Nepal, where I accompanied a small group of journalists to check out the country after last year’s devastating earthquake. While there, I got an up close and personal look at what it means to live in a country that depends upon tourism for its livelihood, and how crippling it is when the tourists stop coming. Like Nepal, Ecuador has just suffered a massive earthquake of its own, and while the effects of the quake in the major tourist areas of the country are not as significant in Ecuador as in Nepal, there is a real fear among Ecuadorians that travelers will cancel or simply not book trips to the country.

Like Nepal, Ecuador’s people are poor, and they rely on tourism in a big way. The country’s major tourism centers, Quito, Cotopaxi, Cuenca, the Amazon, the Galapagos, to name just a few, have been spared the earthquake’s devastation, which appears to have been limited mostly to the country’s central coast. In most of the country, hotels are functioning normally, airports are open, and touristic activities are continuing as usual.

Friendly Planet has an extensive program to Ecuador, and fortunately, none of our itineraries have been impacted by the earthquake. All of our partners in Ecuador are fine, including our passengers who were in Quito at the time of the earthquake, and our tours are proceeding as usual. I’m happy to report that despite dire predictions that tourism to Ecuador would crash after the quake, we have not had any cancellations, and reservations continue as usual.

If you’re planning a vacation to Ecuador and the Galapagos, please take a moment to read this short piece by Laura Dannen Redmen of Conde Nast Traveler.

5 Incredible Creatures You Might Find in Borneo

Limestone pinnacles, Mulu National Park
The opportunity to travel to faraway exotic destinations gives us unparalleled personal access to cultures, plants, animals and ecosystems we can’t experience at home. On this Earth Day, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate one of the most exotic, wild and scenic locations on our planet, Malaysian Borneo—a destination we’ve grown to know and love over the many years we’ve visited.

Borneo villagers © Tourism MalaysiaThe deep and mysterious jungles of Borneo have played host to headhunting tribes and giant man-like apes—and they are rumored to be the true setting for Mogli, Baloo and Sheer Khan in The Jungle Book. But for the modern-day explorer, Borneo is a unique treasure trove of biodiversity where the opportunities for discovery are limitless.

You can travel through scenic countryside lush with verdant rice paddies and tropical orchids. You can explore quaint tribal villages where entire communities live in a single longhouse and some still hunt by blow dart. You can discover birds with plumage that defy imagination, flowers with colors you’ve never conceived, and one special, orange primate that will hold a place in your heart forever. We are incredibly lucky to still have a place like Borneo—a place that maintains its unexplored, off-the-beaten-path feel while still being accessible to travelers like us.

And because of the untamed nature of the island, many species of rare, indigenous animals call Borneo home. So in honor of Earth Day 2016, we’ve compiled a list of five incredible creatures you might only find in Borneo.

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7 Surefire Ways to Beat Jet Lag

Beat jet lag

One of the best things about international travel is just that: it’s international! You’re crossing cultures, you’re crossing paths with new friends, you’re crossing off that bucket list…but unfortunately, you’re also crossing time zones. And the last thing you want while exploring the ancient sun temple of Machu Picchu or absorbing the grandeur of the Taj Mahal is a bout of jet-lagged induced drowsiness dragging down your travel groove. So here are some of my best strategies for overcoming jet lag, gleaned from 35 years of travel to faraway time zones.

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Downton Abbey Christmas 2016: Bittersweet Endings to New Beginnings

Liz in LondonLiz Hutchins is a Reservation Agent at Friendly Planet Travel and an enthusiastic Downton Abbey fan. Liz took our Downton Abbey Christmas Ball with London tour in 2014 and absolutely loved it. We asked her to blog her thoughts about the tour, and here’s what she had to say:

Well, fellow Downton enthusiasts, it’s been a wild ride. With the close of the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, we were left with a happy ending and a sad, but fond farewell to our favorite characters. It was wonderful to see the weddings, the birth of Mr. Bates and Anna’s son, and finally a triumph for Mr. Barrow. We all had so many things to appreciate, and now, with the series behind us, it is time to look ahead. What better event to look forward to, than our annual Downton Abbey Christmas Ball!!

Of course, when faced with the amazing opportunity to take this tour two Decembers ago, my thoughts went to the most important aspect of this special event…

What the heck was I going to wear?

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Even the familiar is foreign in Japan

Shinjuku, Tokyo
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

Imagine holding up a mirror and reflected back at you is everything you’re not.

Well, Japan is like that—which is why it’s so irresistible for those of us who yearn for travel experiences that make us question everything we thought we knew.

For one, they speak Japanese in Japan. Imagine that. English is not a predominant second language. In fact, outside of Tokyo, you’ll be hard-pressed to run into people who can actually converse with you. If you’re like me, this is all the more reason to go. IMHO Westerners are spoiled with English everywhere. Japan presents an opportunity to stretch ourselves in ways that few industrialized countries demand of us.

Oh, and the street signs? The train system information? The packaging on the things you buy? All written in Japanese! Folks, this is as foreign as it gets. You’ll be completely out of your element, and that, for those of us who really travel, is what we’re after, anyway, right?

Another thing, Japan is mostly Japanese. In this homogeneous society of 125 million, you’ll be a minority. Regardless of your race, if you’re not Japanese, you’ll be far outnumbered. It’s a startling experience if you’ve never had it before. And if you’re tall, you’ll feel like a giant in Japan. If you’re of medium height, you still might feel like a giant in Japan. (Sometimes like a big lumbering oaf, too.)

If you’re still with me, if you’ve got a sense of humor about all of this, book your trip and pack your bags. Japan is about to show you who you’ve never been.

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10 Super Cool & Totally Affordable Things to Do in Tokyo

The Tokyo Tower & Rainbow BridgeSaturday night in Shibuya against a backdrop of flashing neon ads and music from up above, walls of Japanese pedestrians stand ten people thick at each corner waiting to cross forward, back and diagonally once the light turns. When it does, a moving mosaic of people mingles in a remarkably orderly fashion through the intersection, and you find yourself wondering—like so many other weirdly wonderful moments in Japan—is this for real? In Tokyo there are a lot of people. Like 13,000,000 or so. It’s the world’s most populous city ahead, even, of Delhi and Shanghai. And as far as global cities go, Tokyo is uber hip. It’s uber everything, really. So shake off your jet lag and get ready to take a juicy bite out of the Big Mikan*. Here are 10 super cool and totally affordable things to see and do in Tokyo:

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The Galápagos: one big evolutionary party

Elaborate mating dances. Posturing and parading. Whistling and twittering. Lounging and basking. Such is the festivity of the natural world in the Galápagos Islands—where there’s always something evolutionary happening.

We can’t help but go all Darwin on you when it comes to the Galápagos, seeing as how the young naturalist’s visit to these islands in 1835 sparked a new conversation about life itself that is still ruffling feathers. From his observances of subtleties in animal adaptation in the Galápagos, Darwin determined that living things are shaped by the world around them.

The Galápagos Islands will feed your sense of awe and wonder.  It is here, and only here, that you’ll find the giant Galápagos tortoise, a 500-pound vegetarian that lives to be 150 years or more; the marine iguana, the only lizard that swims in the ocean; the Galapagos land iguana, poor thing, according to Darwin, from its “low facial angle (has) a singularly stupid appearance”; the Galápagos penguin, the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild; and the “true” Sally Lightfoot Crab that tiptoes nimbly across rock and sand.

Then there are the blue-footed boobies flaunting their cerulean feet for all the single ladies. These guys court, mate and nest all year round—talk about a party!

So what else do 95 species of birds, mammals and reptiles do for fun on the 13 main islands that make up the archipelago?

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