About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

Women Adventure Seekers: Head to Nicaragua to Surf & Rejuvenate

April 28, 2016 by  

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nicaragua surf camp

The women of Chicabrava Photo credit: Chicabrava

You are built not to shrink down to less, but to blossom into more. To be more splendid. To be more extraordinary.

To use every moment to fill yourself up. – Oprah Winfrey

A few months ago, I got an email that set in course an experience that would teach me a powerful lesson on overcoming my fears. It was an invitation to attend a press trip to experience and review Chicabrava, an all women’s learn to surf camp in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. I read the email with both the usual excitement I feel when learning about a new opportunity to travel as well as slight apprehension about what I would actually be doing on the trip: Learning to surf.

I consider myself a very adventurous person who has traveled to over 40 countries, many of these trips solo, and has pushed my body and soul to the limit by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, trekking the Himalayas, tandem hang-gliding in New Zealand and diving in the Great Barrier Reef. But surfing? Now that is something I had never tried and quite honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

What I would come to learn about this entire experience was that traveling alone to Nicaragua and actually getting up on my surfboard to catch a wave was no problem at all. The real challenge I had to overcome was my immense fear and anxiety over the ocean. It terrified me.

nicaragua surf camp

Beautiful Nicaragua beach

 Pre-Trip Nightmares

Before I went to Nicaragua I had constant nightmares about being surrounded by sharks, smashed by the waves and trapped under the water left to drown. I know I was being silly about these fears but my anxiety over the ocean was real and powerful.

What was most shocking is that I grew up swimming. We had a pool at our home in Minnesota that I swam like a fish, day and night for three months every summer. I was even on a competitive swim team for five years, and I have snorkeled and scuba dived in calm reef water into my adulthood. Yet, the thought of ever going into the waves held me back. I didn’t dare enter rough water for over 25 years since a frightening incident in Mexico.

When I was 18 years old on vacation in Cancun, a group of us decided to take a ride on a banana boat. The ride was exhilarating as we rode the waves, bouncing up and down on our yellow inflated raft, screaming in joy at the top of our lungs; however, when it was time to get off an enormous wave came upon us and threw us into the ocean. All I remember is being smashed at full force by water and then tumbling over and over again, backwards in terror under the water. Although the terrifying episode probably only lasted a minute, it felt like an eternity. I thought I was going to drown. I emerged in tears, coughing out salt water and swore I would never get back in the ocean waves again.

Putting My Fears Aside

I kept my promise for decades until I received the email inviting me to attend Chicabrava, the first and best all surf retreat for women in Nicaragua. I had never even thought of learning to surf and putting my fear of the ocean aside, I decided it would be another new adventure and challenge for me to pursue. Little did I realize, this experience would be incredibly empowering and teach me an important lesson on overcoming my fear of the ocean.

Ashley Blaylock, a Houston native who had learned to surf at 19 and fell in love with Nicaragua as a young law student, founded Chicabrava in 2008. After completing her law degree, Ashley took a leaf of faith and moved to Nicaragua where she began working in real estate and spent her free time surfing. Despite her success, she yearned for something more fulfilling that would combine her passion for surfing with empowering women.

As one of the only female surfers in Nicaragua, Ashley dreamed of opening up her own surf camp that would offer unforgettable, life-changing vacation experiences for women from all over the world. Yet, the thought of opening her own business and how she would do it held her back. The death of her beloved Grandmother taught her that life is too short not to go for it, so she set aside her fears and started Chicabrava, the first all women’s surf camp in Nicaragua. Almost a decade later, Chicabrava is growing strong with a full-time staff, weekly surf camps and regular programs supporting the local community to help empower Nicaraguan girls through surfing. Ashley’s dream materialized.

What I learned is that women come to Chicabrava for many different reasons, but the most common thread is that women are looking for a way to be empowered. Besides learning or improving their ability to surf, many women come to Chicabrava after experiencing a difficult life event such as loss of a loved one or job or getting back on their feet after a terrible divorce. Some come together with their girlfriends while others like myself simply come alone. If they are searching for challenge and empowerment, they have found the place. The mission of the camp is “empowering women one wave at a time” and this is accomplished by inspiring personal change and empowerment through surfing. I can attest that it is truly a life-changing experience.

nicaragua surf camp

Me and my board, “Snow White”

Catching My First Wave

I stood on the beach frozen with fear. I was petrified of entering the ocean. The water looked rough and scary from where I stood. I also knew that there were jellyfish and stingrays around which was another thing that scared me. My chest felt heavy with anxiety and dread. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to go in. I wondered why on earth I was even there. What was I thinking?

The amazingly patient Sarah, my surf instructor, encouraged me gently. She let me take my time and didn’t push me to get in. I swallowed my fear, and entered with my board, Snow White, and slowly walked out into the water, swishing my feet like they had told me to do, to scare away stingrays. I was so afraid of being stung that I didn’t notice the first wave coming my way. “Dive!” Sarah yelled. But it was too late. The wave struck me at powerful force, toppling me into the water and throwing Snow White into the air. “Cover your head’!” I heard Sarah holler. Thankfully the board didn’t hit me but I got my first mouthful of salt water.

A little shaken, I hesitated again and despite Sarah’s calls to move deeper into the water. I looked around me and saw that the other women were already on their boards and felt silly that I was the only one way behind, pummeled in fear. My competitive nature took ahold of me, and I jumped on my board and paddled out deeper.

The first thing I had to learn was how to do a “turtle roll” under an approaching wave. It terrified me but after being struck again by another powerful wave, I gave it a try. As the wave approached, I grabbed the rails of my board and flipped over letting the wave crash above my board. I panicked under the water and popped up to another round of saltwater up my nose and down my mouth. This surfing thing wasn’t going too well. I realized at that point I had two options. Do another dreaded turtle roll under the wave or surf on top of it. It was time for me to overcome my fear.

I took a deep breathe, and paddled out further waiting for the right wave to come. I had practiced my “pop-ups” several times on the sandy beach but hadn’t attempted it in the water. I needed the perfect green wave and finally it came. “Paddle, paddle, paddle” yelled Sarah and my arms stroked the water. Just as Sarah told me to place my hands beside my chest and pop up into a plank, I felt the powerful rush of the water coming behind me. “Up” she yelled. My heart raced with adrenalin as I attempted to get up on my first wave. My legs were too straight and I fell head first into the water. To my surprise, when I surfaced I realized that it wasn’t too bad. I could do it.

Encouraged, I paddled out and tried again and this time I caught a wave. As I popped up onto my board and looked at the shore, I couldn’t believe that I had actually done it. I was riding a wave! It was a phenomenal feeling of joy and exhilaration. The thrill of actually getting up and doing it was amazing. I felt like I was on top of the world.

nicaragua surf camp

Women surfing in Nicaragua. Photo: ChicaBrava

I surfed for another hour that day, stunned by how far I’d come in such a short while. Just hours before I was terrified of even going into the ocean and now I was out there, overcoming my fears and anxiety and having a blast. I realized that stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something completely new is an empowering feeling and sometimes you need to do that in order to personally grow.

It was an important reminder to me as well that oftentimes in life the only thing holding me back is myself and that I can do anything as long as I set my mind to it.

As the week drew to a close, I felt incredibly grateful for this amazing, powerful opportunity. As promised, each and every one of us left Chicabrava feeling thrilled and empowered. We had shared rooms together, stories of our lives, words of support and encouragement, and developed a wonderful camaraderie with each other and the fantastic staff. Although we started off as strangers, we left as friends each one of us taking home a little piece of Nicaragua in our suitcase and feeling a little bit stronger.

If You Go:

Chicabrava offers weekly surf camps year-round in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. You can stay at the surf house in town or the more luxurious Cloud Farm up in the hills. Check out their website for more information at www.chicabrava.com.

*This post was contributed by By Nicole Melancon of Thirdeyemom and originally appeared on Thirdeyemom.com.

Why Some Cultures Eat With Their Hands….

April 21, 2016 by  

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My first cultural encounter with hand-to-mouth dining took place in a Berber home, deep in the High Atlas Mountains. Picking olives from a bowl was easy enough, but when it came to digging into the tagine, Morocco’s national dish,  my whole body started to sweat. Somehow I had to tear through big chunks of meat and vegetables with a small piece of flat bread, using only my right hand. The next challenge was to scoop up the food with my thumb and first two fingers and ferry it to my mouth without making a mess in the process.

Who would have thought that eating with the hands could be so hard?

dining etiquette

Moroccan tagine with sesame bread. Photo courtesy of Elzbieta Sekowska via Shutterstock

Hand-to-mouth eating is a time-honored tradition in many cultures across the world, and it’s often a reflection of a community’s hospitality and cultural identity.  In the Middle East and North Africa, people eat from communal dishes, while in India it is customary to share food from each other’s plate.

Dining etiquette still comes into play when eating with your hands, and knowing the rules of this custom will spare you some embarrassing moments with your hosts. Here are some table manners for dining in hand-to-mouth cultures, plus the surprising health benefits of tucking into food with your hands.

dining etiquette

Ethiopian injera. Photo courtesy of rweisswald via Shutterstock

Why Some Cultures Eat with the Hands

According to an Indian saying, eating food with your hands does not only feed the body, but it also feeds the mind and spirit. In Hindu Vedic belief, each finger represents the five elements — space, air, fire, water and earth — and therefore the hands are considered a powerful organ. For this reason, many Indians believe eating with the fingers creates a sensuous connection with the food, enhancing our awareness of “taste” and improving digestion.

Hand-to-mouth eating is also an important tradition in Muslim countries, where families and friends gather around tables laden with communal dishes. Many Muslims follow eating habits that were practiced and preached by the Prophet Mohammed, which include eating with the right hand and sharing food with others. In Muslim cultures, food is meant to be eaten slowly and moderately, and this can be kept in check by using the hands.

For practical reasons, many Africans still prepare and consume food manually. While in India and the Middle East naan or pita bread is used to spoon up food, the Ethiopians and Eritreans have injera; a spongy, yeast-risen flatbread similar to a pancake. In Western and Central Africa, a dough ball, fufu, serves as a spoon when eating soups and stews.

dining etiquette

Dipping pita bread in hummus. Photo courtesy of Eliane Haykal via Shutterstock

The Etiquette of Hand-to-Mouth Dining

It might seem like you can’t get it wrong, but there are rules to follow when eating with your hands in some countries. For starters, you should always eat with your right hand, as the left one is deemed unclean in Arab, Indian and African cultures. Your hosts might pass around a jug with water and a bowl to wash your hands in; a custom which is mainly common in African countries.

When eating with your hands in India, always use your fingertips, making sure the food doesn’t touch your palms. It is also important not to put your fingers in your mouth, but just push the food in with your thumb. If you’re sharing a dish with other diners, eat only from your side of the plate and wait until the end of the meal to lick your fingers.

In cultures where naan or pita bread is a substitute for cutlery, use your thumb and first two fingers to scoop food. When dining in North Africa or the Middle East,  it is normally the house owner who breaks the bread and distributes it to guests. Helping yourself to bread straightaway might upset your host.

Mastering hand-to-mouth etiquette might take a while, but your hosts will appreciate your effort — and probably spoil you with more food!

dining etiquette

Photo courtesy of zeljkodan via Shutterstock

The Health Benefits of Eating with our Hands

If you thought eating with your hands was unhygienic, think again! When we pick food with our hands, our fingers produce enzymes and digestive juices needed to break down food in our stomach. The bacteria, or flora, found on our fingers and palms also aid digestion.

The moment we touch food with our hands, our nerve endings send signals to our brain, which prepares the stomach for the digestion process. And of course, you’re less likely to burn your mouth this way.

Eating with our fingers helps keep us in good shape as we become more mindful of what we eat and how much we eat. This physical contact with food not only prevents overeating, but it also heightens our sense of taste.

So, are you ready to put your cutlery away and dig in with your hands?

CONTRIBUTED by Daniela Frendo

 

Transformative Travel: Visiting Namibia’s Himba Tribe

April 15, 2016 by  

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“Moro, moro,” I say in OtjiHimba, smiling into the smooth ochre-covered face of the Himba woman as I shake her hand, gripping her fingers by curling mine in, and shake once more.

She’s beautiful, her dark brown skin glowing red from the grounded ochre stone made into powder, mixed with cow milk fat (the mixture is called otjize) and applied to the entire body for beauty, sun protection and skin health. She’s wearing her hair dreaded in thick clay ochre with it loose at the ends — symbolizing she’s gone through puberty, otherwise she would have two plaits of braided hair styled forward on top of the head, or one if she were a male. There’s a decorative erembe crown crafted from cow and goat leather on top meaning she’s married for at least a year or has a child, as well as decorative beads on her ankles lined with two leather stripes, signifying she has two children. She’s topless, her breasts hanging bare, though on her neck is a large shell necklace meant for beauty and on her waist is a calfskin skirt.

“Where are is your boyfriend?” she asks, with my guide George translating.

“At home,” I say.

“You must have been afraid I would steal him,” she says, a smirk in her eye. Beauty and a sense of humor.

himbas

Young boys have one braid toward the front (young girls have two)

I’m currently visiting a Himba village of Ohunguomure in the Opuwo. Children run around, some naked and some in long tees and tanks, rolling around on a broken Ford truck back and having a jumping competition. The few Himba men dressed surprisingly in Western clothing hang in a secluded spot of the village, which is surrounded by a wooden fence. Most of the men are out herding their livestock — which is the equivalent of money to Westerners — or possibly in another village courting another partner, as the Himbas are polygamous and men typically have two wives. Arranged marriages are also common among the Himbas, and a young girl of 13 may already have a husband chosen for her. Once married, the man will bring the woman back to his village to live.

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Himba children having a jumping contest

Because of this female Himbas form strong bonds, as they’re left in the villages to take care of the children, cook the food, build the homes and sell the handicrafts.

History Of The Himbas

In the 16th century the Himbas migrated from the central eastern part of Africa as cattle herders. They followed the rivers from Angola to Namibia, and when the rivers became dry continued on, following the Kunene River toward the Atlantic Ocean. These waters were essential for drinking and allowing greens to grow for cattle to graze. Migration continued, with part of the group staying in Opuwo and the other continuing on and later becoming the Herero, the tribe my guide George descends from. We’d seen the Herero women in the Otjiikaneno Village wearing ornate German-influenced Victorian dress — wild to think about as they once dressed just like the Himbas, whose attire is now completely different.

The Himbas that remained behind didn’t have contact with the outside world for a long time — until Namibian Independence in 1990, when local tourism really started — which is how their culture is so strong. It’s so different from anything I’ve ever seen: the dress, the comfort with nudity, the small huts made from cow dung and straw, the beliefs, the sense of community, and sharing of goods and food. Sheesh, if someone asks for a bite of my candy bar I practically growl at them.

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Himba women starting to lay out their handicrafts

In the center of the village is an enclosure made from mopane tree wood that keeps the livestock inside. In front, a Holy Fire billows smoke, always burning to assist in communicating with the ancestral spirits. The link must never be broken, and so it is forbidden for anyone to walk between the Holy Fire and the livestock enclosure. The main hut of the Chief is in front of the Fire, though the Chief of this village has passed away. A gravestone adorned with painted cattle with its own enclosure sits nearby, and his family lives in the main hut.

Assimilating With The Himbas

George helps myself and my three other group members to assimilate instead of being outsiders. We even go into the main hut to learn more, sitting on cow hide rugs covering the floor, which are the Himbas’ beds. We’re told 7-10 people could sleep in the tiny hut, which is something else very foreign to me.

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My guide, George, with the Himba village (now deceased) Chief’s wife….

George also notes that unmarried women do sleep with their boyfriends, with the Himba man going to his Himba girlfriend’s village hut.

“So how does someone sleep with their significant other if they share a tent with nine other people? Do they inform them before?” I ask incredulously.

George explains. “No. You would sneak them in after everyone has gone to sleep.”

I’m still not understanding. “But wouldn’t the others wake up?”

“They would probably pretend to be asleep if they did. It’s really for the respect of the elders. The man would get to the woman’s hut late when is dark, leaving in the early morning while the elders are still sleeping. ”

As someone who lives in NYC I always complain I have no space and need more, but seeing this makes me realize the things we think we need sometimes seem this way only because it’s what we’re accustomed to.

A Visit Inside The Chief’s Hut

The Chief’s daughter sits pounding ochre stone into powder using a flat rock and a round rock, placing the finished product into a cattle horn to pass around. Soon we are coated in red just like the Himbas. The daughter then burns herbs and tree roots to blend into a fragrant smoke, which she wafts into her skin as a perfume as the Himbas don’t typically bathe due to lack of water resources.

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The Chief’s daughter showing us how she applies ochre to her skin

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My partial Himba transformation

Around us the walls are dangling with decorative garments, similar to a western closet. The daughter takes down a few marriage ceremonial headdresses, a lighter one with colorful beads signifying the woman has no children and a heavier darker one signifying the woman already had children. By the way, in the Himba culture if a husband dies and has a single brother, this brother can inherit the wife and children. Divorce is also a practice, though the woman must remember that whatever the man gave her family as a dowry — say, four cattle — they must give back double — eight cattle. Before this you may sit under a mopane tree and try to settle things with the help of the village elders.

It’s the traditional Himba form of modern western courts.

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The Chief’s daughter modeling the different headdresses that give insight into a Himba woman’s life

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The Chief’s daughter shows us how she makes her daily perfume

We also see what great recyclers the Himbas are, as reconstructed calabash are made into bowls, spoons and other household essentials. Their handicrafts also often incorporate repurposed items like piping and natural materials like wood, parasitic plants, seeds, leather and gemstones paying homage to Namibia’s mining heritage.

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George demonstrating how the calabash has been repurposed for kitchen use

Transformative Travel

My favorite part of the experience is interacting with the Himbas. Many of the women are interested in my tattoos, rubbing their hands on my forearm where inky flowers bloom. I pull my t-shirt off my shoulder to expose the small birds, and suddenly a slew of young women and children are touching the skin.

The kids are amazing, so excited to play and to have their photos taken. With each picture, I show the children and their families to get the thumbs up of approval, which is a gesture I’ve found helps me to communicate without words. I use my fingers to also negotiate when purchasing handicrafts when the Himba women from this and the nearby villages form a circle with decorative sheets to display their wares.

While this village in particular has about six women, there are now over 20 including those from nearby. This part of the stay is a bit more aggressive than I’d like, as the women cry out to come to them and thrust bracelets and wooden dolls into our hands, though luckily George assists in keeping things calm. In fact, I leave with two beautiful hand-carved dolls for 150 Namibian dollars (~10).

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The Himba woman I purchased the carvings from

George explains that it’s important to help support them but to not just give money when they insist, because it makes it worse for the next person who visits.

I take this to heart, as I think it’s very important when interacting with another culture to appreciate the differences, but to also immerse yourself in the experience as much as possible and resist treating the group like a human zoo. I imagine coming here without George, ignorant and having no idea how to act or what is appropriate. Maybe I would have walked between the Holy Fire and the livestock enclosure — a serious act of disrespect to the Himbas — or given them $20 to let me take some photos. Not only is that inauthentic, but these acts have negative consequences.

I also think it’s important to take something away from the experience. For me, I couldn’t get over the sense of community. Women helping other women raise their children, the sharing of resources they each work so hard to procure, the intense bonding and desire to help without such a focus on self. I’m also amazed at how closely they still live to nature, especially in this age when robots are threatening to take over any day now. While at home I try to live as naturally as possible, purchasing handmade vegan skincare and eating largely vegetarian, I’m nowhere close to the Himbas level of dedication. For them, though, this is their traditions and the life they know, not a transformation into some more noble way of living.

A Change In Himba Culture

While extremely well-preserved, things are changing for the Himbas. According to George, the reason we hear a radio playing music in the village or see Himbas with cell phones is because of Western influence and tourism.

“I’m not saying it’s bad. We all change. Kids are starting to go to school and get an education. And tourism supports them. It’s also important to interact with them and be one with them, and not just walk in and take photos and give them money.”

This helps form a cross-cultural connection and interact responsibly. Having a good guide is also essential to translate, to help you communicate and to tell you about what you are experiencing. Otherwise, you may just find yourself being asked for money with no real cultural or transformative experience.

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Himba women and children in the village

We end up driving some of the Himbas about 20 minutes away into the main part of Opuwo, as these people do shop for their basic needs as well as grab a beer from time to time. This to me is an unusual site, topless Himbas with their elaborate headdresses walking alongside women in jeans and t-shirts, different cultures blending together in one place. The walk home for them is nothing, either, as they’re used to walking long distances.

My guide George was phenomenal. I met a number of other travelers who didn’t enjoy their Himba village experience because their guide didn’t translate or facilitate, meaning the guide can make or break the experience. You can contact George at gkatanga@gmail.com or through the Vulkan Ruine Tours & Transfers website.

I asked Vulkan Ruine Tours to provide some additional tips for visiting a Himba village responsibly to share with my readers. They advise:

  • It is recommended to visit with a guide, who will be able to communicate to them in their own language and translate all they explain to you. The guide will also be able to inform you about their traditions and habits, what to do and what not. Please note that it is of great importance to abide by these rules or do’s and don’ts.
  • If you would like to bring some presents to the Himba, it is advised that you bring items they can use, like porridge, flour, rice, cooking oil, tobacco and tea/coffee.
  • It is not recommended to bring items from the western world, like little presents for the kids or sweets. The Himba tribe wants to maintain their own way of living.
  • Common Himba courtesy means that it is always necessary to thank them formally for their time and hospitality when saying good-bye.

Logistics:

Stay: Opuwo Country Lodge. This was my favorite accommodation of the stay, as along with comfortable rooms the infinity pool and lounge chairs overlooking the city and mountains from a high perch is a destination in itself at sunset. There is free Wi-Fi in the lobby. Rates range from $10 per per per night for camping to $116 per night for a single person luxury room. The double standard room for $57 per per person night is a good value.

Local Guide: I used Vulkan Ruin Tours & Transfers and was extremely impressed with their dedication to responsible tourism and education. My guide, George, and driver, Martin, were both fun and knowledgable, helping to facilitate all activities in a way that helped our group get the most out of them. I would recommend requesting them when making your booking.

When To Go: Namibia is a year-round destination; however, for wildlife viewing June through October is best as it’s dry season.

Currency: The Namibian Dollar. As of March 3, 2016, the exchange rate is about $1 USD = $15.67 Namibian Dollars.

Language: English is the national language, though most also speak Afrikaans and German (Namibia experienced a period of German rule from 1884 under German South-West Africa).

Staying Connected: If you travel a lot a KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker affixes to your SIM to give you local rates and eliminate roaming charges in 200+ countries. Otherwise, you can purchase a local SIM card from MTC. My starter pack cost about $5 and lasted me for eight days of pretty consistent use. Note: You’ll need an unlocked phone to be able to do this. You can call you cell phone provider to have this done if it’s not already.

Dress: Dress is casual and comfortable. While I’d read many guides saying you must cover your shoulders and knees, I didn’t find this to be the case in reality. While I’d skip dressing provocatively, shorts, tanks, tees and sundresses are totally fine.

Outlets: The four of us on my tour group ALL mistakenly brought the wrong converters. I even brought a 150+ country converter and it still didn’t work.

Must-Pack Essentials: Along with your typical gear, make sure to have:

  • Sunscreen
  • Light long sleeve shirt to block sun (I love the insect-repelling NosiLife line from Craghoppers)
  • Sunglasses
  • A hat (I like this insect repelling one from Craghoppers)
  • Scarf-shawl (great for chilly nights and plane/car blankets)
  • Aloe
  • A Telephoto lens
  • Namibian/South African Converter
  • Personal alarm siren (I didn’t feel Namibia was dangerous, but I always carry this)
  • Pickpocket-Proof Garments (again, something I always pack)
  • BUFF (for sun and dust protection)

 

The Mursi Culture in Southern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley

April 13, 2016 by  

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Many of us who grew up in Western countries were brought up to believe in a very narrow definition of beauty, and the media pounding us with images of skinny, fair top models with long hair hasn’t helped. But really, what is beauty? The Mursi people help us redefine beauty — a multi-faceted word which can mean different things to different people.

redefine beauty

Mursi woman wearing the clay plate she is most famous for in Minisha Village

Determined to grasp the concept a little better, I decided to set out on a journey to the Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia where the Mursi reside to find out more about what beauty means from the women who are most famous for wearing clay plates in their lower lips. It took me a couple of days to reach the Mago National Park — home to their villages. Considering Ethiopia’s very rich historical and cultural heritage and stunning natural landscapes, every second of the trip was worth it.

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Natural landscape around Arba Minch

In Arba Minch, I met my driver and local guide, Solomon Gezu Haileameriam – the young and ambitious founder of ‘Go Ethiopia Tours’. Born and raised in the area, Solomon is extremely knowledgeable about local customs and traditions, and very much loved by the people themselves. This, combined with the beaded t-shirt I was wearing, made approaching the Mursi in Minisha Village much easier.

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Mursi woman in Minisha Village

Having the opportunity to interact with locals, especially women, is not always a given. Since tourism in the area has been growing lately, the Mursi have become more accustomed to visitors and their ways. This translates into locals asking you for money in exchange for a photo as soon as you step in.

Luckily, the village chief and Solomon were good acquaintances, so they warmly welcomed us. I also quickly came to realize that the beads sewn on the t-shirt I was wearing were not only valuable for their beauty, but also for barter.

Beads play an important role in traditional Mursi culture. They are used in many ceremonies, but also in everyday life as a symbol of seduction. Attracted to the ones I wore, Mursi women approached me with many bracelets, clay plates and cloths to negotiate the price of my t-shirt.

After all the hype, beauty became the main topic of conversation. A woman confessed:

“Look at me now. Without my clay plate, I look horrible. Nobody’s paying attention to me. But you will see, let me wear it now and I will be the most beautiful woman on earth!”

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Mursi woman in Minisha Village

redefine beauty

Young Mursi girl with her ears pierced

When they are 10 years old, Mursi women pierce their ear lobes, and when they are 15, they cut through their lower lips to wear the colorful clay plates they are famous for. They carry these modifications to enhance their physical beauty and seduction skills. To make me feel welcome, they even offered to pierce my lip so that I could join them in being beautiful.

redefine beauty

Mursi woman mastering the art of seduction

The Mursi are very creative with their ornaments. They also use face and body paint, beads, horns, and scarification. The more ‘decoration’ women use, the more attractive they feel, and the more attractive they actually are to men. This, they believe, is what makes them special and unique in the region which is also home to many other tribes.

It would be no exaggeration to say that, in the local context, Mursi women are great masters in the art of seduction. In the light of the many gifts which accompany each marriage, unmarried women use as many beauty symbols as possible to attract a potential husband. Unmarried pay attention to beauty, and the value of gifts is not to be taken lightly. Presents include 38 cows and one AK47 gun given to the bride’s family!

redefine beauty

Mursi man holding an AK47

Meeting the Mursi, especially the women, was an unforgettable and powerful experience. They taught me a beautiful lesson by reminding me of one simple and humane fact that we sometimes tend to forget: beauty criteria are relative as it essentially comes down to culture. So let’s all enjoy being beautiful. This is certainly not my last visit to the area!

redefine beauty

Young Mursi boys in Minisha Village

Have you experienced how the Mursi redefine beauty? Have something to add? Please share in the comments below!

 

4 Decadent Culinary Experiences in Europe for Sweet Toothes

April 3, 2016 by  

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Vacations are all about indulgence, so treat yourself to something extra sweet this holiday. Here are a few great foodie vacations for travelers with a sweet tooth. Whether you want to whip up Italian desserts or know where all the best bakeries are in Paris, this list has you covered!

1) Immersive Italian Cooking Lessons – Tuscany, Italy

It’s hard to imagine a more authentic experience than learning to cook from a nonna (grandmother) in a medieval walled village in Montefollonico, Tuscany, Italy. Cook in Tuscany will make your dreams come true with their 6-day immersive cooking and culture stay. By having grandmothers teach their courses, you get to sample the lifestyle of the locals as well as get firsthand information on the cuisine and wine. Every day, you’ll make a dessert to accompany your meal. For example, you might make panna cotta with fresh berry sauce, topped with chocolate, crostata filled with fresh local jams, white chocolate truffle mousse, fresh-baked cantucci and freshly made cheese (made by you) paired with local fruits and honeys.

You’ll feel like part of the family, sharing meals and experiences with other culinary travelers, students and instructors. You can spend your free time roaming local shops and markets, wine cellars and vineyards, savoring local landscapes. Your stay will include daily excursions and tours of local and historic sites.

foodie vacations

White Chocolate Truffle Mousse. Photo courtesy of Cook in Tuscany.

2) Private Cooking & Pastry Tours – Paris, France

Paris Perfect is a luxury vacation apartment rental company in Paris that offers customized services for guests to get the most of their stay in one of the world’s greatest culinary destinations. Foodies with a sweet tooth might appreciate their Café Gourmand Cooking Class. Here, a local Parisian chef will come to your apartment to teach you about the art and science underlying France’s most indulgent treats. The chef will reveal secrets behind delightful desserts of your choosing, including a decadent chocolate mousse, the perfect madeleine, or a delicate fruit tart. You’ll conclude the class by tasting the treats and chatting over espresso.

foodie vacations

French macarons. Photo: julien haler/flickr

If you’d rather enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor, try a walking tour of Paris’ best chocolate and pastries in the Left Bank. You’ll start with a melt-in-your-mouth macaron in the glittering neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. You’ll continue to be delighted by the city’s pastries and meringues as you continue to taste your way through charming bakeries. At some, you’ll be able to go behind the scenes to discover the traditions of Parisian pasty chefs and chocolatiers. With your professional guide to answer your questions, your mind and stomach will be satisfied with this tour of Paris’ sweeter side.

3) Italian Cooking Classes and Walking Tours – Various Locations in Italy

The Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures is a new company providing culinary tours to Florence, Bologna and Rome, Italy. The tours include three cooking lessons, one focusing on sweets or gelato. In addition to learning to make your own food and dessert, you will enjoy walking tours with culinary stops, including pastry shops and gelato shops.

foodie vacations

Italian yumminess! Photo: Gregory Bourolias/Unsplash

4) Make a Favara Lamb – Sicily, Italy

Experience Sicily is hosting an 8-day culinary and cultural “Stirring Sicily” vacation filled with hands-on cooking experiences and tastings on the Island of the Sun. On the 4th day of the tour, you will learn how to make an unique Sicilian Easter treat called Favara Lambs made of marzipan (sweet almond paste) with a center of pistachio pesto. The local instructor (from GoSicily Cooking Experience) has been making these lambs since childhood and is from Favara — the town that is famous for making them.

The 8-day experience will be based in Castelvetrano, Sicily, Italy on an olive farm that produces U.S. certified organic olive oil. You will also visit western Sicily, enjoy two other hands-on cooking lessons with local “mammas,” and do a street food tour of Palermo, famous for cannoli. You’ll enjoy a tour, wine tasting, and exquisite, wine-paired lunch at a nearby vineyard, and dine at restaurants featuring both traditional and contemporary Sicilian cuisine.

foodie vacations

Favara Lamb. Photo courtesy of Experience Sicily 

What awesome foodie vacations would you recommend? Please share in the comments below.

 

 

May’s New York Vegetarian Food Festival

April 2, 2016 by  

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For those passionate about eating ethically and exploring meat-free and NYC vegan culture, the NY Vegetarian Food Festival isn’t to be missed. The festival was started in 2011 by Sarah Gross and Nira Paliwoda, two women passionate about living a healthy, sustainable and moral life (and who also host other interesting events for U.S. Veg Corp). We caught up with Sarah to learn more about the annual event — taking place this year on May 7 and 8, 2016 — as well as the benefits of a veggie-focused lifestyle.

nyc vegan

1. What was your inspiration for the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival?

I had been to vegetarian festivals in other cities around the country and just loved how I could spend the day sampling wonderful vegan food and learning about the latest products from fabulous NYC vegan vendors. It amazed me that the greatest city in the world (NYC!) didn’t have a large-scale vegetarian food festival of its own. So I discussed it with the friend who became my business partner, and we decided to jump in and create our own. At the time neither of us had any experience in running festivals. Maybe if we had known all the difficulties we would be taking on, we would have thought twice. But by now the NYCVFF is a smooth-running machine which is pure joy to be a part of.

2. What are some experience highlights attendees can expert to have?

I’m most excited to hear one of our new speakers this year. For a lot of long-time vegans, a book called The China Study has been our bible. It was written by groundbreaking physician Dr. T. Colin Campbell. His son, Dr. Thomas Campbell, will be speaking for us. He runs the University of Rochester Program for Nutrition in Medicine. But most of our speakers are just as incredible. We have Gene Baur who runs Farm Sanctuary. We have Dr. Casey Taft, who wrote Helping People Help Animals. And then there are all the vendors–more than a hundred of them! Plus we have a hilarious vegan comedian named Myq Kaplan, and a whole corner devoted to kids’ arts and crafts and storytelling.

nyc vegan

3. What is your personal story on becoming a vegetarian?

I’ve always loved animals. Back in junior high, I would go to my local animal control facility to volunteer to walk the dogs who were waiting for homes. I became a vegetarian first, and then a vegan when I learned that the dairy and egg industries are just as cruel to animals as the meat industry. It was only later that I discovered the health benefits of a vegan diet, and how much better for the planet a vegan lifestyle really is.

4. What are some of the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle for individuals?

In my case, the energy level is amazing. I love to work out every day, and I attribute my stamina to the fact that I don’t have to waste energy on digesting meat. But beyond that, I have a peace of mind that comes from being in tune with the other creatures of the earth, knowing that I am not hurting or exploiting them.

nyc vegan

5. What are some of the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle beyond the individual (i.e. for the planet, etc)?

I could go on forever about the benefits to the environment, but let me just give you a few of my favorite statistics from EarthFirst:

  • The livestock sector is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Cows emit vast amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere – and the impact of these emissions is greater than that of CO2 from cars.
  • Overuse of antibiotics in animals is causing more strains of drug-resistant bacteria, which is affecting the treatment of various life-threatening diseases in humans.
  • Raising animals for food consumes more than half of all the water used in the U.S. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 25 gallons for a pound of wheat.
  • 20 times more land is required to feed a meat-eater than to feed a vegetarian.
    Overgrazing has turned a fifth of all pastures and ranges into desert.

6. What advice would you give to a meat eater looking to make the switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle?

Start slowly. You might begin by having one or two meatless meals per week, discovering new favorites, and then gradually increasing that number. You can experiment with all the faux-meat products, some of which are indistinguishable from the real deal. Check out the superior vegan restaurants popping up in every city, and splurge on a vegan chef’s creation whenever your budget allows. And, look deeply into the eyes of your dog or cat companion–guaranteed to give you a powerful jolt of motivation.

nyc vegan

The post Cruelty-Free Fun: The NY Vegetarian Food Festival appeared first on Epicure & Culture.

Transformative Travel: 5 Fabulous Yoga Retreats Around the World

March 27, 2016 by  

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Yoga is a great way to enhance other sporting and fitness activities that you do – and it brings a mindfulness to your life. It’s important to slow down and be present and aware, all lessons that we learn from yoga that can benefit other areas of our lives. Here are six great retreats you can do around the world.

1) Permaculture & Yoga Retreat (Costa Rica)

Spend some time with Rancho Delicioso and Anamaya in the jungle of Costa Rica and learn to plant a life-supporting garden. Modern consumerism causes the world to face many challenges from loss of habitat to environmental degradation and social disconnection. Rancho Delicioso believes it’s time to educate and to cultivate opportunities for positive change. Permaculture — derived from the words permanent and culture – uses scientific design to mimic efficient patterns and relationships found in nature and promote self-sustainability. Permaculture is yoga for the land, as yoga is permaculture for the body. Their permaculture and yoga retreat includes daily yoga and permaculture gardening classes, aerial silk and archery classes and healthy cooking workshops.

yoga adventures

Yoga in Aerial Silks in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rancho Delicioso.

2) Spain Yoga and Cycling Retreat (Mallorca, Spain)

Chillout Retreats has teamed up with international cycling experts Cyclespeed to offer a week of yoga and cycling in a Spanish island. Mallorca is a biker’s paradise and a training ground for professionals, though they welcome riders of all abilities. Every day, you will go on guided rides around the island coupled with traditional Hatha yoga classes that are fused with Pilates strategically designed to help cyclists.

yoga adventures

Photo courtesy of REI Adventures

These yoga classes are complemented with meditation sessions, which help you strengthen and gain control of your mind. Building awareness is a tool that can help you in life and especially on long, challenging cycle rides. You’ll also re-energize the body with healthy, nutritionally balanced meals designed for athletes.

3) Yoga & Volunteering & Spanish Immersion (Argentina)

Las Tierras de Avalon is a yoga retreat center 30 miles outside Buenos Aires, Argentina that also offers yoga coupled with volunteer opportunities. You will experience the harmony caused by yoga and meditation, enhanced by helping others in daily projects. Las Tierras de Avalon offers a rich cultural Argentinian experience, and can boost your Spanish language skills in a peaceful ambiance and an ecological environment.

yoga adventures
Sevasana in the salon at Las Tierras de Avalon in Argentina. Photo courtesy of Las Tierras de Avalon.

Volunteers work three hours a day while receiving comfortable accommodation, vegetarian organic cuisine, and Hatha yoga and meditation classes. Volunteer activities are catered to interests and need but can include bringing firewood, painting, helping in the vegetable garden, building with earth and natural materials, and feeding animals of the farm. The property has llamas, horses, rabbits, chickens and ducks.

3) Yoga and Ayurvedic Cooking Course (Kerala, India)

The healing system of Ayurveda dates back more than 6000 years and is considered the oldest system of medicine in the world. It is becoming increasingly popular for people hoping to lead healthy, balanced lives. Santi Yoga’s 7-day intensive Ayurvedic Nutrition & Cooking Course in Kerala, India will teach you about various aspects of healthy living expounded by Ayurveda.

yoga adventures

Improve your cooking and yoga.  Photo courtesy of Santhi Yoga.

You will learn how to create nutritious vegetarian meals made from grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, seeds, dairy products, fat, spices and herbs, based on Ayurvedic principles. Cooking and theory classes will be complemented with a daily yoga asana.

4) Yoga & Extreme Adventures (Caberete, Dominican Republic)

If you’re a woman who loves to play in the outdoors and has a penchant for thrilling adventures, Explorer Chick has just the trip for you. Their 8-day female-only Dominican Republic trip combines travel, community, fitness and adventure. On this excursion, you’ll jump from waterfalls in a jungle canyon, learn to surf, fly on a trapeze, hike Mt. Isabel de Torres and float down a lazy river in the Dominican countryside. You’ll balance out the adrenaline rush with morning yoga classes in an ocean loft and evening fitness class in a tiki hut.

yoga adventures

Jumping Ciguapa Falls. Photo courtesy of Nicki Small, Explorer Chick Adventures.

You’ll stay in an eco hotel that runs 90% on solar power and collects and uses rain water. Most of your meals will be organic farm-to-table thanks a partnership with a local farm, which you’ll visit to learn how the farm operates and how they are becoming completely self-sustaining. After your farm tour, enjoy a delicious picnic lunch on the property.

5) Writing, Culture & Yoga (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Spend five days with Pink Pangea in the Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Israel exploring your fears and your dreams. Through yoga and interacting writing activities you will reflect and open your heart, strengthen your mind and body, and reconnect with yourself. At the same time, you’ll deeply experience the Israeli culture by sampling the foods in the outdoor market, ambling through Jaffa’s ancient plazas, admiring the handmade crafts of Tel Aviv’s artists and relaxing on the beach. You’ll even meet a few of Israel’s contemporary artists.

yoga adventures

Yoga on the beach in Israel. Photo courtesy of Pink Pangea.

Which of these yoga adventures sounds best to you? Please share in the comments below.

 

Bucket List: 10 Ethical Wildlife Getaways For Animal Fans

March 21, 2016 by  

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Do you want to connect with the world’s wildlife, but don’t know how to do it ethically? Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, riding elephants or posing for pictures with tigers in Thailand may sound amazing — until you see or learn about the harsh conditions you may unintentionally support.

Fortunately, it’s possible to interact with local wildlife in a way that protects, conserves and enhances their existence, as long as you know where to go.

Epicure & Culture has rounded up the best ethical vacations for animal lovers around the world. All of these wildlife vacations will educate you about relevant issues and promote animal and environmental conservation — not to mention many of them allow you to volunteer with the animals.  All of these experiences will transform the way you understand the interaction between man and wildlife.

wildlife vacations

Manatee. Photo courtesy of Discovery Corps.

1) Have A Caribbean Manatee Adventure In Belize

Discover Corps combines meaningful volunteerism, cultural immersion and engaging exploration, including “vacations with a purpose” that support wildlife conservation. They partner with non-profit organizations to design a well-balanced program that allow travelers to get below the surface, purposefully experience a country and make a positive impact. Travel with them and work with endangered manatees in Belize, a land of coral fringed islands, the world’s second largest barrier reef and pristine rainforests.

You will spend part of your eight-day trip counting the population of the West Indian Manatee, monitoring their health and measuring key environmental factors. This crucial information will help people track these gentle creatures, who will in turn teach you about current conservation initiatives. You will also visit sandy beaches, colorful reefs and verdant jungles with hiking, swimming, kayaking and boating excursions. Discover the Mayan culture of Belize by visiting ancient ruins and spending an afternoon with an indigenous family making tortillas and cocoa as well as trying local instruments.

wildlife vacations

Galapagos Volunteer Vacation with REI adventures. Photo courtesy of REI Adventures.

2) Volunteer With Sea Turtles In The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The tropical climate and lack of natural predators in the Galapagos Islands has created an unparalleled assortment of wildlife, including the giant tortoise, penguins and marine iguanas, some of which are found nowhere else on the planet. The Galapagos is a mecca for wildlife enthusiasts worldwide, and REI Adventures connects travelers with volunteer opportunities that support the wildlife and habitat that makes the region so special. They partner with Conservation Volunteers International Program to create a Galapagos Islands Volunteer Vacation.

On this 11-day trip you will explore San Cristóbal and Isabela islands. You can make a real difference by gathering data about local turtle populations to support a research project led by Dr. Judith Denkinger. You will restore habitats and protect one of the world’s most extraordinary ecosystems, as well as actively explore the island through hiking, mountain biking and snorkeling with many opportunities to closely observe the wildlife, including giant tortoise, marine iguana, and penguins.

wildlife vacations

Volunteer at Senda Verde Animal Refuge. Photo courtesy of Tracey Buyce

3) Volunteer At An Animal Refuge In Yungas, Bolivia

One of the best places to work with wildlife in South America is at Senda Verde Animal Refuge and Eco-Resort in Yungas, Bolivia. Visitors tend to turn short visits into long stays because they fall in love with the animals and the work. The privately owned refuge happily welcomes volunteers, whether they can stay a couple weeks or months.

Participate in a rotational program working with rescued parrots, macaws, turtles, tortoises, bears, wild cats and monkeys. Primate lovers can act as substitute parents, caring for orphaned baby monkeys who need physical contact to survive. You can also take part in the “care bear” program, working with two rare Andean Spectacled Bears named Aruma and Tipnis.

Conveniently, the refuge has an ecotourism resort and restaurant onsite. The property uses solar ovens to prepare food for the animals, collects and transports recyclable materials to be reused, and purchases local products when possible. They are also working with local farmers to plant new native trees and combat deforestation in the area.

wildlife vacations

Africat health team. Photo courtesy of Wilderness Travel.

4) Help Veterinarians & Learn About Desert Lions In Namibia

Stand on the front lines of conservation with this unique opportunity to participate in veterinary checks of desert cats, with a portion of your trip directly benefiting appropriate efforts. Wilderness Travel provides an intimate experience for six travelers at a time to work with an international team of veterinaries and local experts.

Visit the renowned Desert Rhino Camp to understand how local research efforts help to ensure the survival of the black rhino. You will learn about the work of Dr. Flip Stander, an expert on the elusive desert lion, who spent many years isolated in the desert to accumulate this knowledge. June travelers can assist veterinarians in an annual medical check, including the weighing, measuring and vaccinating of leopards, cheetahs and lions.

wildlife vacations

Elephant Valley Nature Project. Photo courtesy of Vin Kebblewhite of Journeys Within Tour Company.

5) Experience A Cambodia Conservation Tour

Journeys Within wants to help you get to know Cambodia’s most beautiful sights while actively promoting the conservation of the species and places that make it special. Since some travelers want to see animals, they’ve partnered with organizations dedicated to conservation and humane treatment of animals so their customers can do this in an ethical manner.

On the Cambodia Conservation Tour, visit highlights of the country with wildlife visits interspersed throughout the itinerary. For example, in Phnom Penh you’ll explore national monuments and war memorials as well as the world’s biggest Sun Bear sanctuary. Leaving the big city, visit the Elephant Valley Project and hear stories of their nine beautiful residents who are able to roam in a natural habitat, free from poachers. Next, you’ll get to know the forest environment with an exciting zip line tour before heading to the Mekong River and meeting the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in their natural habitat. These are just a few experience examples.

wildlife vacations

Brazilian jaguar on the prowl. Photo courtesy of Wild Planet Adventures.

6) Spot Jaguars In The Pantanal Of Brazil

Demands from tourists eager to see jaguars in the wild at a low cost has pressured Brazilian operators to stoop to unsustainable practices, including baiting, radio collaring and allowing multiple boat viewings at once in Puerto Joffre. This acclimates jaguars to human presence so they begin exhibit behaviors as if they were in a zoo instead of in the wild.

As a sustainable alternative, Wild Planet Adventures takes you to the Taiama Reserve, not easily accessed by budget do-it-yourself travelers. Tourists and the public cannot enter this federally protected Ecological Station itself, but you can circumnavigate the island reserve in search of the elusive jaguar who often hunt caiman by the river. Wild Planet Adventures utilizes biologist guides with strict sustainable protocols, averaging about 1.5 jaguar sightings a day in this area. This high volume of quality sightings proves that jaguar tourism can exist sustainably thanks to protocols such as banning the use of radios, using highly trained biologist guides with strict viewing protocols, and limiting boats to one-at-a-time. Furthermore, instead of jaguars habituated to human presence, these jaguars around Taiama are alert, active and exhibit authentic behaviors consistent with wild animals in their natural habitat.

The rest of this action-packed itinerary includes other sustainable animal interactions like tracking anacondas, horseback riding through a private animal reserve, going on bird walks through woodlands and hiking through the rainforest looking for primates.

wildlife vacations

Kenya Marathon.  Photo courtesy of Safari Com marathon.

7) Running For Rhinos In Kenya

If you don’t mind getting sweaty to save the rhinos, consider an unforgettable safari marathon at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. In June, the Tusk Foundation — with Prince William as its royal patron — is hosting a world-renowned race where you can run alongside the animals you hope to save. After the marathon, runners go on gorilla treks courtesy of Aardvark Safaris, the event’s travel partner. Not only do the funds from your race protect animals, but you can visiting baby rhinos, partake in safari drives and enjoy eco-friendly luxury accommodations.

wildlife vacations

Grizzly sighting. Photo courtesy of Greg Shea/ Maple Leaf Adventures.

8) Protect Grizzlies Through A Bear Rainforest Ship Safari In British Columbia, Canada

Have you dreamed of encountering grizzlies in the wild? Maple Leaf Adventures provides an opportunity to glimpse the rare white spirit bear from the safety of a classical wooden schooner or tugboat, with proceeds of your trip benefiting conservation efforts. This boutique expedition cruise takes you through the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada, where bears, whales and wolves roam free through a vast expanse of fjords, islands and rainforests. Local crew and wildlife guides lead frequent short trips that include guided viewings in bear havens, rainforest walks, remote beach exploration, and visits to whale research stations and local villages. Groups are capped at 12 people, with everyone sleeping and dining aboard historic coastal ships, with meals that often incorporate fresh-caught ingredients.

Maple Leaf Adventures has been involved in the conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest since the mid 1990s, fighting hard to end the trophy hunting of grizzly bears. They also donate at least 1% of overall revenues to coastal conservation each year, and this trip includes donations to conservation research on whales and grizzly bears.

wildlife vacations

Breakfast on the lawn at Richards Safari. Photo courtesy of Richard’s Safari.

9) Safari Adventure To End Elephant Poaching In Kenya

If you’ve dreamed of game drives, birding and scenic bush walks, bush meals and cultural visits to Masai Villages, but want to make sure your visit promotes animal conservation consider staying at Richard’s Camps in the heart of Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park.   This luxury camp has 70 acres of private land situated on the banks of the Njageteck River and regularly wins awards for its private and exclusive experiences. This resort also has started the Mara Elephant Project (MEP), which tracks the movements of the elephants while employing a Rapid Response Unit to quickly respond to conflict situations and poaching alerts.

MEP also educates the local Mara community by teaching human-elephant conflict resolution methods and providing anti-poaching education so locals can live alongside the elephant. Whether you participate in the yoga retreat or just visit Richard’s Forest or River Camp, you can book an MEP excursion. This will include a presentation by local experts about MEP activities and operations and a discussion of the Mara community issues that affect the elephant. You can meet the team of rangers, view the tracked (collared) elephants on Google Earth and potentially tour of the MEP head quarters.

wildlife vacations

Beautiful elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

10) Volunteering At Elephant Nature Park In Chiang Mai, Thailand

Many tourists go to Thailand wanting to interact with elephants, but unfortunately they have no idea how abused the animals are. Many of the elephants that give elephant rides, paint or perform acts are poached out of the wild or bred in captivity, and are subjected to abuse to appease humans. Fortunately, there’s one place you interact with elephants in an ethical way: the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) rescue and rehabilitation center near Chiang Mai. ENP rescues elephants from horrendous and abusive situations and give them a place to live freely, have babies and form their own families.

This is one of numerous ethical Chiang Mai experiences. You can visit for the day or stay longer. Volunteer positions fill up months in advance, but if you’re lucky enough to snag one you can stay in a bamboo hut and work with the center. On any given day, you can help with bathing and feeding elephants, bagging elephant dung for a nearby organic farm and sharing the park’s mission with day visitors. Any money earned by the park goes right back to the elephants and those kept by locals who cannot afford proper medical care.

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