Friendly Planet Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Exploring the wonders of Thailand with a devoted and passionate local guide

I always look back on my trip to Thailand with fond memories. One of the biggest reasons why I had such a memorable experience is due, in large part, to our local tour guide Lek, who was warm, welcoming, and extremely knowledgeable about Thailand’s history, attractions, and culture.

Now, as we end our Exotic Malaysia & Thailand Sweepstakes, is a good opportunity for Lek to share with our readers what makes Thailand special from a native’s perspective, and what travelers can look forward to seeing when they visit. Read on for our Q-and-A with her.

Q: Lek, could you please share a bit of your background with us?

A: I was born, raised, and educated in Bangkok. After graduating from high school, I attended the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus [for college]. I was a secretary major, and then joined the travel industry. I’ve worked for several agencies, but I’ve been with Exotissimo, Friendly Planet’s local supplier, for almost ten years!

Q: What made you decide that you wanted to get into the travel industry?

A: When I was young I had contact with foreigners because I attended Catholic school. The nuns who came from abroad taught me English, and I got to know them. My interactions with the nuns and priests sparked my interest in travel, and I envisioned joining the travel industry by possibly becoming a flight attendant.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about being a tour guide? (more…)

Getaway Dossier: The colors and culture of Cuba

As you might know, we recently received our people-to-people license renewal to travel to Cuba. If you haven’t yet made the trip, boy, is it worthwhile. I recently returned from my first trip to Cuba and had an amazing time. In fact, Cuba was the shortest distance I have ever traveled to enter a whole new world.

Since my return, I’ve had Cuba on my mind, and I thought what better way to share my Cuban enthusiasm than to feature it as my next Getaway Dossier.

The most common things people associate with Cuba are cigars, antique cars, and salsa, but there’s much more to the country than you might imagine. This small island contains some of the most creative, artistic, resourceful, cultural, and friendly people you’ll find anywhere, and that’s before we even get to the colonial cities, unique religions, and plentiful World Heritage sites. To help shed light on this mysterious island, here are some of my recommendations for things to see, do, and know if you’re planning a trip to Cuba.

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Getaway Dossier: The side of South America you should see

Machu Picchu

We added three new South American tours to the Friendly Planet mix last week, so for my next Getaway Dossier, I thought I’d share my knowledge about all things South America to help you plan your next trip, whether you’ve already booked it or are considering one.

The most recognizable landmark on this continent is probably the Amazon River, but there’s much more of South America’s natural beauty and ancient history worth seeing. Here are my recommendations for the best things to see, do, and know about South America before the plane leaves the tarmac.

Weather: Opposites attract. Since South America is on the opposite side of the equator from us in the U.S., the seasons are a mirror of ours. When it’s summer here, it’s winter in South America, and vice versa. The most temperate times to visit South America are the spring and the fall, which is when the temperatures are the mildest.

The rainy season is in the summer (December to March). However, the rain doesn’t normally last long on any given day. Lima, located on the western coast, has moderate weather year-round with mild temperatures and cloudy skies. Rio de Janeiro, located on the east coast, is also temperate 12 months out of the year, making it a great place to visit.

In Machu Picchu on the southwest side of the country, and at the Iguazu Falls on the eastern side, the days are warm and humid. If you’re traveling anywhere with higher altitudes, dressing in layers is a must because temperatures will drop significantly at night.

Food: BBQ can’t be beat. South America boasts fantastic tropical fruits, such as coconut, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, and more. And its seafood can’t be missed, especially in coastal towns. My absolute favorite thing to eat when I’m in Brazil is churrasco, also known as Brazilian barbecue.

Meat is cooked on huge skewers over an open fire. Then, waiters come by your table and slice it hot off the skewer right onto your plate. If your stomach is a bottomless pit, you’ll love this: When you’re ready for seconds, thirds, or fourths, just hit the button on your table and a waiter will be at your side with fresh, hot meat.

Restaurants that serve churrasco appear most typically in Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu, but can be found all over the country as well. If you’re not much of a meat eater, most metropolitan areas offer a varied range of cuisine.

Currency: Tip the right way. Three of the most common countries to visit in South America are Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, and each has its own currency. The currency in Peru is the nuevo sol; in Argentina, it’s the peso; and in Brazil, it’s the real.

In restaurants in Peru, an 18 percent service charge is included in the bill if you pay with a credit card. If you’re paying in cash, there isn’t a fee so you should tip between 5 and 10 percent. In Argentinean restaurants, tip 5 percent of the bill if your service charge was added and 10 percent if it wasn’t. Tip movie ushers and bus terminal porters 1 peso, and air terminal porters 2 pesos per suitcase. As for tipping in Brazil, a 10 percent tip is usually included in the restaurant bill, but you can leave more if your service was especially good.

Tip cab drivers no more than 10 percent, and tip bellboys, porters, or concierges about 1 real per luggage item or for any help they provided.

Iguazu Falls

Landmarks: It’s all about the falls. Iguazu Falls straddles the border of Argentina and Brazil, and consists of 275 smaller falls and islands. They’re believed to be 200,000 years old and are absolutely breathtaking. Be sure to see the falls from both sides. The Argentinian side at Devil’s Throat is the most famous place to take in the spectacular views. There are also boat and helicopter rides that take you up close and personal with this natural beauty (weather permitting). The falls might be the main attraction, but be sure to visit a fantastic bird sanctuary nearby. You can see dozens of exotic species of birds, as well as butterfly and hummingbird exhibits.

Culture: Appreciate the modern and the ancient. South America is a fantastic mix of old and new. It’s inspired by the traditions of its historical culture while keeping in step with modern society. This is one of the aspects that makes the continent so beautiful. When you visit, you’ll see wonderfully modern cities with every imaginable amenity. Then you’ll visit places like Sacred Valley, where the people still honor the traditions of their ancestors in their everyday life.

Don’t forget: Layers, layers, layers. You’ll probably be experiencing significant weather changes from one location to the next, so I’d say the most important thing to remember when traveling to South America is to dress in layers. Make sure you wear good walking shoes, and bring sunscreen and bug repellent. Much of South America is in the rainforest, so you’ll definitely be happy you brought these along!

The tours we offer to these destinations highlight the history and wonder of ancient South America, and the emerging culture of its cities. It’s a beautiful continent and different from anything here in the U.S. — that’s what makes it so special.

For the full itineraries on our three new tours, visit our website. And if you have any questions, write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.

Calling all travelers! Friendly Planet is licensed to visit Cuba!

Friendly Planet is proud to announce that we have received a coveted license to organize and operate people-to-people educational exchange programs.

A People-to-People license is one given to a travel provider whose purpose is to promote contact with Cuban people through educational exchanges concerning art, music, culture, and a whole host of other topics.

And we’re elated to announce that the Treasury Department granted it to us. We received so much positive feedback that we knew we wanted to offer travel to Cuba in a meaningful way.

So we’re kicking off two brand-new educational programs. Our participant travelers will be able to engage in activities and cultural engagement with the people of Cuba. The best part: These programs will pack a lot of value at an affordable price, just like the rest of our programs.

The five-day Discover Havana program, priced at $1,899, allows Americans to meet local Cubans and interact in direct and open educational exchanges with these Cubans concerning, among other topics, education, art, and U.S. relations. It will all be set in Havana’s vibrant culture and rich history at some of Havana’s most historic and significant locations.

The longer, eight-day Colors of Cuba program, priced at $2,899, offers a more in-depth program of educational exchanges throughout this diverse island nation at many of its most culturally significant sites. Among these are Old Havana; Cienfuegos; and Trinidad, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These programs are a great value, and by my mark, they’re about $300 to $500 less than other Cuba programs out there. You can check out our website for a detailed itinerary on where we’ll be staying, what we’ll be doing, and who we’ll be interacting with, but I’ll give you an overview of what we’ll be doing there.

Our travelers will be able to indulge in Cuba’s art scene, which is so special because it gives them a look into the soul of these people. Meet and interact with local artists and photographers, talk to historians at museums, listen to music, and see art from all over the country. They’ll experience a cultural mix that will show the personal side of Cuba.

And one of the things we’re most excited about is our travelers will be able to interact and exchange ideas with the Cuban people. They’ll have meals with Cuban families, attend events in local neighborhoods, visit local schools and interact with the children, learn about community agriculture, and speak to Cubans who live in urban communities.

Both programs will include round trip airfare from Miami via U.S. government-licensed charter service and letter of authorization, as well as a Cuba entrance visa. Each program includes all land transportation; superior hotel accommodations; all meals; comprehensive programs of educational exchanges organized by Friendly Planet with a professional, English-speaking guide who will facilitate these exchanges; and a Friendly Planet representative who will lead you throughout the program.

Check out the press release we issued about our new programs in Cuba. And if you have any questions about Friendly Planet’s programs to Cuba, you know where to reach me or you can call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.

Getaway Dossier: Mayan culture and history is twice as nice in Guatemala and Honduras

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Mayan culture. Did you know that the Mayan people built entire structures without the use of any work animals, metal tools, or pulley systems?

Mayan architecture is very interesting to me. I’ve enjoyed spending some of my free time, with what little free time I have, learning more about their traditional ways.

It’s estimated that over half of Guatemalans are descendants of indigenous Mayan people. So for my next Getaway Dossier, I decided to focus on two countries rich in Mayan history: Guatemala and Honduras.

They’re both fantastic places to visit to learn more about Mayan culture and history, as well as experience some of the most beautiful natural sights in Central America.

Weather: Warm and tropical. Since Guatemala and Honduras are located between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, they are warm year-round, but not unbearably hot. For the most part, the climate is moderate, with the lows near 60 degrees and highs near 80 degrees. The rainy season is from May to October. In jungle areas like Tikal, Guatemala, it tends to be more humid than areas like Antigua, Guatemala, where it’s cooler, especially at night. So layers are a great idea when traveling here, especially if you plan on traveling between cities on a given day. Also, a light jacket is a great piece for the cooler nights.

Food: Spanish influences. Pulling from their Spanish and Mayan heritage, some of the food in Guatemala and Honduras is on the spicy side. Most traditional foods contain corn, chiles and beans, as they’re staples in these countries. There’s also a lot of fresh fruit. A favorite dish in Guatemala is tamales. They vary greatly across the country in terms of dough (it could be corn, potatoes, rice), filling (you could find meat, fruits, nuts), and wrapping (usually leaves or husks). Tamales in Guatemala tend to be wrapped in green leaves. Traditionally, tamales are eaten on Saturday, but they can be found any day of the week in most Guatemalan restaurants. Hondurans tend to cook more meat dishes, and they use a lot of coconut in their food. Another favorite meal in Honduras is breakfast. It’s a huge meal, and can have of any or all of the following: eggs, beans, cheese, avocados, sweet fried plantains, tortillas, roasted meat, and Honduran spicy sausages. Most restaurants will offer some of these foods. Or if you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, stop at a street vendor. They often sell delicious breakfast tortillas topped with eggs or meat.

Currency: Tip for tips. Guatemala’s currency is the quetzal and Honduras’ currency is the lempira. However, both countries widely accept the U.S. dollar. In Guatemala, tip is usually included on your restaurant bill. If it’s not, it’s customary to leave 10 percent. Banks generally give the best exchange rates on both cash and traveler’s checks, so be sure to exchange your money at a bank. In Honduras, tip will usually be included on restaurant bills as well, and a 15 percent tip is appropriate if it’s not. Bellhops and other hotel workers are usually knowledgeable about the best local restaurants and sight-seeing attractions. Don’t hesitate to ask for pointers on where to visit, and if they were helpful, tips are greatly appreciated.

Landmarks: UNESCO Sites can’t be missed. There are four UNESCO sites in Guatemala and Honduras and travelers shouldn’t miss the rich history that each offers. There’s Antigua in Guatemala, a beautiful city rich with Spanish colonial history. Quirigua, Guatemala is famed for its sandstone monoliths. The Tikal National Park in Guatemala has one of the most complex pyramids in the entire Maya world. In Honduras, Copan is a renowned archaeological site because it has the longest surviving text of the Mayan civilization. Each site has its own special history and visiting each one will give travelers a well-rounded cultural experience.

Culture: History melds with nature. Guatemala and Honduras have beautiful mixes of Mayan heritage and Spanish colonial history. It’s what makes them so special to visit — the culture cannot be matched anywhere else. The bright colors, delicious food, and good music will make you feel at home right away. Guatemala is well known for souvenirs such as worry dolls and masks, and beautiful, colorful fabrics can be bought in the markets. The Mayans had their own weaving techniques, and each village or area has its own distinct design. You’ll see it all around you when visiting these countries, and this culture is refreshing to experience.

Don’t forget: It’s a jungle out there. Because these countries have mostly jungle climates, bring bug spray, sunscreen, and wear layers. It’s also important to know that the water is safe for bathing, but bottled water is readily available almost everywhere for drinking purposes. Follow these tips, and you’re sure to have a sensational experience in these Central American countries.

If reading all this information about beautiful Guatemala and Honduras makes you want to visit, check out our new Best of Guatemala and Honduras tour. The full itinerary is on our website and you can always reach out to me with any questions you might have about these fascinating, historical countries.

Getaway Dossier: What to know before you go to Turkey

When we introduced our new Taste of Turkey tour last week, there were a lot of things I wanted to tell travelers about Turkey in our press release. Things like, what types of foods are served there? How should you dress? What should you pack? What’s the climate like?

But there’s only so much you can fit into a press announcement.

So I decided to start a series on the blog called Getaway Dossier. Here, I’ll share the information I’ve learned over the years so you can get to know Friendly Planet’s fascinating destinations before you go.

I’ll cover the great places to eat, landmarks to visit, and all the essentials you shouldn’t forget to take with you.

Since Turkey is top of mind, I’ll start there. Here we go!

Weather: Know the seasons. Turkey has the most temperate weather in the spring (April and May) and the fall (September and October). These months are also the busiest tourist seasons. Spring and fall have the least amount of rain and the most comfortable temperatures. In the winter, travelers can take their pick of numerous winter resorts. This is also when you typically find the best travel deals. The country can be quite warm in the summer and travelers should prepare accordingly with sunblock and sunscreen. Overall, it’s a great destination to travel to year round.

Food: Order a cabbage dolma and a doner kebab. A can’t miss Turkish dish is cabbage dolma. It’s a combination of sauteed rice, pine-nuts, currants, spices, and herbs, all tightly wrapped in translucent cabbage leaves. There’s also baklava and many “muhallebis” (pudding shops) with dozens of different types of milk puddings. But my favorite Turkish dish is doner kebabs. They’re made from rotisserie grilled and sliced lamb meat cooked on vertical spits. The edges are shaved off, and the meat is served on a bed of bread, salad, or pilav rice. When you’re in Turkey, you can’t miss these kebabs. They’re a common meal here, and it’s easy to find them in any metropolitan area.


Currency: Lira or euros? The primary currency is the lira, but many stores will post prices in both lira and euros. As with many countries in Europe, Turkey sometimes includes tip on restaurant bills and other services, so check before tipping extra. However, in upscale restaurants, a good practice is to tip 10 percent additional, even if the tip has already been included on the bill. And speaking of tipping, tip porters three million lira and tip tour guides around five to 10 U.S.D.

Landmarks: It’s a grand time at the Grand Bazaar. One of my favorite places in Turkey is the Grand Bazaar. It has over 4,000 shops on 58 covered streets. Any shopper would get lost in the sea of jewelry, rugs, leather goods, tiles, pipes, painted ceramics, and antiques available here, many of which are handmade. Bartering is customary and a good rule of thumb is to initially offer 25 percent of the price you are willing to pay. Most shop keepers are hardworking, honest people but if you do buy an antique, be sure to obtain an official permit to export it.

Don’t forget: Sneaks and sunscreen. Turkey is rich in history and archaeological sites and much of its ancient architecture and cobblestone streets still stand today. While beautiful to experience, this means some walkways can be tricky to navigate. A good pair of walking sneakers or sandals is important for a pleasant sight-seeing experience. Sunscreen and a hat are also great items to bring along, as you will probably spend a decent amount of your time out and about enjoying the history and culture of the country. These are general guidelines for any destination, but are especially important when visiting a country as full of archaeological history as Turkey.

Culture: Modesty is important. Like many European countries, it’s considered respectful to dress modestly when entering a place of religious worship. Women should cover their shoulders and wear modest-length shorts, and everyone should remove their hats and sunglasses inside. In case you’re wearing summer clothes and decide to visit a place of worship while on the go, most will provide a shawl to cover exposed shoulders and legs.

Turkey is a destination for every lover of architecture and history. The country finds its roots in Greek, Roman, and early Christian history. It’s even the site of an epic WWI battle, the Gallipoli Campaign. You’ll notice how it’s Eastern and Western influences mingle in everything you see. Turkey’s language is based in Latin, so English-speakers will have a general understanding of some street signs. However, the tiles of the buildings have a distinguished Eastern influence.

Our Taste of Turkey tour has seven departures leaving from November until March 2012, so there are a lot of opportunities in the future to see what this historic country has to offer. You can visit our website for the full itinerary. And as always, feel free to write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team if you have any questions about booking a trip to Turkey.

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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