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Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip

Photo © Laura Martone.
Photo © Laura Martone.

Now that spring is here, it’s a good time for families to start planning their summer vacation, and for many, there’s nothing better than a good, old-fashioned camping trip. Besides its obvious economic advantages, camping offers a wonderful way for parents and their children to bond amid the great outdoors and develop a deeper appreciation for Mother Nature.

Luckily, America boasts a variety of landscapes – from mountains and forests to deserts and beaches – so there’s no shortage of camping possibilities. In addition to a slew of private RV campgrounds from coast to coast, the country also features a wide array of affordable campgrounds in national and state parks, most of which cater to tents as well as RVs. Given how large the United States is – and, therefore, how varied the climate can be – it’s possible to go camping in any season. California’s Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, for instance, can be excellent options during the summer months, while Bahia Honda State Park and other state-operated parks in the Florida Keys can be popular choices in the wintertime.

No matter where you go, though, it’s critical that you and your family members adhere to Leave No Trace (LNT) principles at all times. Such guidelines include, but are certainly not limited to, using established trails and campsites whenever possible, packing out all trash, and observing wildlife from a distance. So, it’s important that you familiarize yourself with these LNT principles ahead of time.

When planning a family camping trip, you should also make sure to gather all necessary gear beforehand, and fortunately, you’ll find several helpful resources for campers, including Coleman, Cabela’s, Camping World, REI, Bass Pro Shops, the Sierra Trading Post, and Campmor – all of which I’ve used in the past to procure necessary camping gear and supplies.

Another helpful outfitter is Coghlan’s, the self-proclaimed “outdoor accessory people.” Founded in 1959 and based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this family-owned Canadian company doesn’t offer large items like tents and sleeping bags; rather, this is where you go for the little, inexpensive, but necessary stuff, from binoculars and survival ponchos to tent pegs and first aid kits. I’ve been relying on Coghlan’s camping gear for decades, but recently, I was given the opportunity to review several items (pictured above) that I’d never thought to purchase for myself, such as the durable Flint Striker, which can ignite tinder even when it’s wet and cold outside, and the Dynamo Flashlight, a compact LED flashlight that literally fits in the palm of your hand, needs no batteries, and requires only a minute of fast winding to achieve 30 minutes of bright light. Kids, too, will find some must-have items in Coghlan’s catalog, such as the Bug-Eye Headlight, a lightweight, battery-operated LED headlamp that’s mounted on an elastic head strap and ideal for both exploring the woods or reading in the tent at night.

Yet another fun option for your favorite little camper is the Camper’s S’mores Grill, made of chrome-plated steel, fitted with a 17-inch handle to keep small hands away from the campfire, and equipped to accommodate three S’mores at one time. True, there’s nothing quite like sticking a marshmallow over an open flame and hoping it doesn’t catch on fire before you’ve had a chance to squish it between some chocolate bars and two graham crackers, but the trouble with that method is that the marshmallow is usually the only thing that’s warm. So, I, for one, am excited to try the S’mores Grill this summer – after all, you’re never too old to savor a S’more with your family and friends around a campfire. As a bonus, Coghlan’s even includes some curious S’mores recipes with each grill. Who knows? I might just have to give peanut butter or banana S’mores a try.

So, what kind of camping gear must you always take when venturing into the great outdoors, and where have you had your favorite camping experiences with your family?

Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation

A bed with white linens in a room brightly lit by french doors.
A hotel room in the Florida Keys. © Laura Martone.

Identity theft is, unfortunately, one of the many pitfalls of traveling. In the past, I’ve offered several posts on the subject, including a piece about evading pickpockets and a two-part series about safeguarding your identity. Since this is my last official week as Moon’s American Nomad, though, I thought I’d provide just a bit more related advice, which will hopefully prove to be helpful on any future trips you take—no matter the destination or circumstances.

So, here, courtesy of a comprehensive identity protection service known as TrustedID, are several more safety tips (a few of which I’ve shared before) for avoiding identity theft while on vacation:

  • Stay thin: Before you take on your summer adventure, go through your wallet and remove unnecessary credit/debit cards, as well as anything displaying personal information. Make copies of important documents before you leave, such as passport, driver’s license, and travel tickets, in case something happens to them.
  • Stay secure: Hotel computers and unsecure Wi-Fi connections are easy targets for hackers and identity thieves. If you need to check your email, always ensure that you’re using a secure network. Never access sensitive information, such as your bank account, on these networks.
  • Stay safe: While you shouldn’t carry personal documents with you when you’re out and about, hotel rooms aren’t necessarily the safest option. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops contain a huge amount of valuable data, so use room or hotel safes to lock these valuable items away.
  • Don’t stand-alone: Stand-alone ATMs are more likely to have skimming devices. Stick with bank ATMs whenever possible.
  • Beware pickpockets: It sounds old school, but this does still happen. Pickpockets prey on you in high traffic areas such as malls, amusement parks, and sporting events. Some are only interested in cash, but others are out for your driver’s license and social security number. Keep your credit cards and ID in a secure place, like a money belt. Don’t keep all your cash in the pouch though—spread it around with some in your wallet, some in the hotel room, and some even in your shoe.
  • No checkbook checkout: Checking account fraud is one of the most difficult types of identity theft from which to recover, and being far from home will only add to your frustration. When traveling, use cash, traveler’s checks, or credit cards for purchases.
  • Don’t brag: You may be traveling the world, but don’t let the world know you’re away. When you share your excitement and plans on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., the Internet now knows that your home will be unattended. There’s no better opportunity for a thief to empty out your house. Share travel plans only with close friends!

So, have such tips worked for you while traveling—and do have any additional advice for avoiding identity theft?

Trip Planning: Guatemala’s Pacific Coast

Pelicans flying low above the water as waves roll in to shore.
Pelicans at Monterrico, Guatemala. Photo © David Amsler, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Guatemala’s identity as a mostly mountainous country of cool lakes, evergreen forests, and wandering rivers has meant the coasts (Caribbean and Pacific) have traditionally been omitted from the collective consciousness in favor of its better-known, more traditional attractions. Very few of the Pacific Coast’s black-sand beaches are inhabited, the chief economic activities along the seaboard being fishing, shrimp farming, and loofah production. The actual sand beaches are separated, along much of the coast, from mainland Guatemala by a narrow channel known as the Canal de Chiquimulilla, running the length of the coast from the town of Sipacate east to Las Lisas, near the Salvadoran border, traversing Puerto San José, Iztapa, and Monterrico along the way.

[pullquote align=”right”]Things have started to change in recent years with the growth of Guatemala’s tourism industry, as visitors and foreign residents seek new places to explore beyond the well-trod path.[/pullquote]Things have started to change in recent years with the growth of Guatemala’s tourism industry, as visitors and foreign residents seek new places to explore beyond the well-trod path. The Pacific port of San José has always been popular with Guatemala City residents as a place for sun and surf, though foreign visitors will find more acceptable places to visit elsewhere along the Pacific seaboard; it’s just 90 minutes from the capital via a four-lane toll road. Adjacent to Puerto San José is the newer Puerto Quetzal, best known for its cruise ship terminal hosting an increasing number of seafaring visitors to Guatemala. The Pacific Coast plains are bisected by Highway CA-2, which runs west to east from the Mexican border all the way to El Salvador.

The beaches found in and around the area of Monterrico and its namesake sea turtle preserve have become the site of vacation homes and resort hotels. Nestled in between these two poles lies Iztapa, Guatemala’s original colonial seaport, which in recent years has gained notoriety as word gets out about the world-class sailfishing in Guatemala’s Pacific waters.

Map of Guatemala's Pacific Coast
Pacific Coast

Guatemala is also Central America’s surfing frontier, with some excellent breaks on many of the coast’s empty beaches, particularly around the village of Sipacate and farther west toward Mexico. Things get more primitive the farther west you head from Sipacate, though the port of Champerico might soon become a magnet for tourism investment. Champerico is a satellite of nearby Retalhuleu, a haunt of the Pacific Coast’s farming and ranching community and now the site of the large-scale Xocomil and Xetulul amusement parks that are collectively Guatemala’s most-visited tourist attraction. Other nearby attractions include the archaeological sites of Takalik Abaj, El Baúl, and La Democracia.

While many of the Pacific Coast beaches are not particularly good for swimming because of riptides, they are noteworthy because of their dark sand, the product of nearby volcanoes, which can be seen in the distance on a clear day. At the very least, the Pacific Coast offers the chance to enjoy a holiday in warm tropical weather, relaxing in a hammock strung between graceful coconut palms. This can be a welcome respite from an extended stay in the more temperate (and sometimes chilly) Guatemalan highlands.

Border towns, beginning with El Carmen and then moving south and east from the Mexican border, are generally unattractive and increasingly unsafe. There is no reason to linger in these parts.

Planning Your Time

Two nights would be optimal to explore and enjoy the twin parks of Xetulul and Xocomil. A few hours is enough time to explore the ruins of Takalik Abaj, but the excellent accommodations at Takalik Mayan Lodge might keep you busy for another two days. From here or nearby Retalhuleu, you can explore the Manchón Guamuchal wetlands for some bird-watching or just unwind at its beautiful beaches. Retalhuleu also makes an excellent base for exploring some of the surrounding countryside by bike, thanks to the presence of an excellent outfitter based here.

If you are in search of sand and sun, you might find yourself spending several nights at Monterrico. If your interest lies in surfing, you’ll certainly want to spend a few days in Sipacate or Iztapa. For sailfishing, Iztapa is the place to go and you’ll probably spend at least three days here. The 25-kilometer road between Iztapa and Monterrico is shaping up to be the closest thing to a Guatemalan Riviera and will certainly undergo some drastic changes in the next few years. For now, it’s still a sleepy seaside area largely dedicated to the production of loofah. East toward El Salvador is another small seaside town, Las Lisas, with a couple of noteworthy accommodations, but unless you’re heading out in this direction it’s a bit out of the way.

Western Border Crossings

The northernmost and quieter of the two border crossings is found at El Carmen, where a bridge across the Río Suchiate connects it with Talismán, Mexico.

The more active (and preferable) border crossing is at Ciudad Tecún Umán, 39 kilometers south. A bridge links this city to its Mexican counterpart at Ciudad Hidalgo. There are frequent buses from here to points along the Pacific Coast Highway (CA-2) including Coatepeque, Retalhuleu, Mazatenango, and Escuintla. Buses also depart from here to Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango. You can connect to either of the latter two via Retalhuleu, a better place to linger if a bus is not immediately available.

Both borders are open 24 hours, but you should try to be out of border areas by dark. As elsewhere in Central America, border areas here are rife with crime thanks to immigrants trying to make their way northward and those who prey on them. There are some basic hotels and restaurants here.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt

Photo of the book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.
© Laura Martone.

If you tend toward budget-friendly travel experiences, then you’ve no doubt already heard of Matt Kepnes—an award-winning blogger and well-known globetrotter otherwise known as Nomadic Matt, whose personal and professional mission is to “travel better, cheaper, longer.” While, by his own admission, he didn’t do much traveling as a child, this Boston native and occasional Big Apple resident has, as an adult, certainly made up for lost time. During an eye-opening trip to Costa Rica in 2004, the travel bug bit him hard—and apparently hasn’t released its grip yet.

Following a 2005 trip to Thailand, in fact, Matt quit his job back in the States, finished earning his MBA, and set off to see the world. Although his original trip was only supposed to last a year—long enough to expel this newfound passion for travel from his system—12 months soon turned into 18, and he’s rarely stopped traveling since. Roughly seven years later, he’s still exploring the world and embracing a plethora of unique experiences, from scuba-diving in Fiji to hiking the Grand Canyon to getting lost in a Central American jungle—yikes!

After his first round-the-world adventure, it didn’t take Matt long to start helping others realize their own travel dreams. Through his comprehensive website and popular blog (which he began in 2008), he’s not only shared his passion for travel with others, he’s also spread the belief that everyone should—and can—travel whenever he or she wants to… and not just wait for the perfect convergence of time, money, health, desire, and other favorable circumstances—a convergence that, for most of us, never happens—unless, of course, we make it happen.

As he states in the introduction of his recently released book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day: Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter (New York: Perigee Books, 2013, $15), “The greatest lie ever told is that travel is expensive.” He wrote the book, in fact, in order to dispel this widely-believed myth. “I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to tap a trust fund, have your parents pay for you, or win the lottery to travel. Anyone can travel cheaply and comfortably if that person knows the secrets to saving money on the road.”

As a fan of budget travel myself, I can certainly appreciate his belief—and expertise—and I can definitely understand why he’s been quoted by a variety of major media outlets, from National Geographic to the BBC. I have such respect for what he does, in fact, that I’d hoped to interview him for this very blog. I’d wanted to ask him about a variety of things, such as why he decided to get an MBA before embarking on his global adventure, what he considers the advantages and disadvantages of solo travel, how long he plans to be a globetrotter and how supportive his family and friends have been about his nomadic lifestyle, why he chose to share his expertise with others, how many people he’s inspired to travel the world, and what his favorite place is. Given my focus on domestic travel, I was also hoping that he’d be willing to share a few budget-friendly tips for traveling in the United States, as his new book only focuses on Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Central America, and South America.

But, sadly, he declined my request for an interview. Although I realize that he’s a pretty busy guy these days, I was naturally disappointed. I’d been looking forward to our chat, from one Nomad to another, but I have no doubt that most of the answers to my questions can be found somewhere on his comprehensive website.

In fact, I did discover some helpful advice there pertaining to U.S. travel, which Matt admits isn’t terribly popular among foreigners. For one thing, he says, “it’s a large country without a real tourist infrastructure. Hostels really aren’t big in the United States, trains don’t go a lot of places, and unlike a lot of places, we don’t offer working holiday visas. Moreover, round-the-world tickets only stop in L.A. or NYC.”

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for taking a road trip across America, a country that boasts, in Matt’s words, a “lot of national parks, a diverse geography, culture, music, and great regional food.” As someone who’s lived in New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, South Padre Island, northern Michigan, the Florida Keys, and many other wonderful places throughout America, I can attest to Matt’s perspective. According to him, bargains are also easy to find here, from urban hostels and couchsurfing opportunities to cheap food and money-saving national park passes. Happily, he also recommends several of my favorite destinations, including Boston, New York City, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes, Chicago, California, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, the Florida Keys, Disney World, and, of course, Washington, DC.

Even though Matt’s new book doesn’t cover U.S. travel, I still consider it useful for domestic travelers—if only for the inspiration that he provides as well as his assurance that anyone can travel, no matter how small the budget in question. In the first chapter, “Getting Over Your Fears,” Matt even dispels many travel myths with the following words of encouragement:

You aren’t the first person to travel abroad.

You are just as capable as everyone else.

The world isn’t as dangerous as the media says.

You will make friends.

You are never too old.

You can always come back.

Beyond the introduction and three helpful appendices about travel companies, packing suggestions, and vaccinations, the book itself is divided into three major parts: “Planning Your Trip,” “On-the-Road Expenses,” and “Breaking It Down by Region.” In essence, it’s a more compact version of his blog, with so many handy travel tips that I’d have to write my own book just to list them all here. Suffice it to say, though, I highly recommend this book to novice travelers and veteran globetrotters alike, and I’m extremely grateful that I was given the chance to review it for you. After all, it’s almost guaranteed to teach you a few new tricks for saving money—before and during your next big trip.

I, for one, learned lots of things while reading Matt’s book, including how to use money-making credit cards, find cheaper airline tickets, secure reputable travel insurance, avoid money-sucking pitfalls such as traveler’s checks, and save money on accommodations, food, transportation, and activities in a variety of countries, from France to Thailand to Costa Rica. I also appreciated his inclusion of other travelers’ advice and experiences to help illustrate and validate his own tips; after all, the world is filled with equally knowledgeable bloggers (such as Sean and Dawn Lynch of WanderingWhy, Nora Dunn of the The Professional Hobo, Michael Hodson of Go See Write, and my fellow SATW member Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere) who are more than ready and willing to dispense useful tips to the masses.

Admittedly, though, not all tips work for all travelers. An older couple, for instance, might not feel comfortable sleeping in a hostel filled with rowdy teenagers, and I, for one, would probably never feel at ease about hitchhiking, just to save a few dollars. But, overall, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day is quite a beneficial resource—filled with humor, enthusiasm, and oodles of practical details. Within its pages, Matt also clarifies that not every place will cost only $50 a day. As he explains throughout the book and reiterates in his “Putting It All Together” chapter, you’re likely to spend an average of $25 daily in Southeast Asia and $100 daily in Scandinavia, but if you follow Matt’s money-saving advice, the presumption is that it will all even out in the end. Of course, one of his most enlightening observations is that we often spend a lot more than $50 daily at home—which is why putting your stuff in storage and traveling the globe for a year might not be as farfetched as you may think.

Lastly, I should point out that his suggested packing list—culled from years of experience—has proven to be fairly helpful, although there are, at least for me, several items missing, such as sunglasses, a hat, my favorite hoodie, and a notebook. Of course, to keep my luggage light, I could always do what Matt suggests and “simply buy what I need on the road.” It seems like my husband, Dan, has been dispensing that same advice for years; after all, he’s a light packer, too.

Margot Bigg Offers Advice on Living in India

1. What are some of the best reasons for relocating to India?

moon living abroad in india cover featuring a marketIt’s a fascinating place to live, and there’s always something interesting going on so you are never likely to feel bored! It’s also going through changes very rapidly, not only economically, but also socially. Privatization in India didn’t happen until the early 1990s, and middle-aged and older people there grew up with a single, state-run TV station, Indian-made products and services, and—with the exception of the fortunate classes who were able to travel abroad and attend elite schools—very little exposure to the outside world. The younger generations have grown up with one foot in the “old India” and another foot in a global India, and they are inadvertently leading a cultural shift of a magnitude not experienced in the West since the late 1960s.

2. What surprised or shocked you when you first arrived?

How cold it was! I’d been to India before, but never to Delhi in the dead of winter and I only had one jacket with me! I had to rush out to buy warm clothes the next day! The southern regions are tropical so the temperature is relatively warm year-round. The North is another story—and while homes in the West are designed to keep you warm and cozy, Indian homes are constructed to keep you cool. It’s usually cooler inside than it is outside, and I sometimes find myself going outside in the winter just to stand in the sun and warm up!

3. Name some local customs newcomers should be aware of.

First, there’s a misconception that Indian women don’t shake hands with men. This definitely holds some weight with older generations and the rural poor, but in most business situations it would be rude not to shake hands with a female colleague! Also, it’s customary to always offer somebody something to drink when they enter your home or workplace. Most newcomers are pretty careful about the water they drink in India, but in most middle-class homes and virtually all offices, the water will be filtered or purified—Indian people aren’t immune to tap-water bugs, either! So accept it, it’s the polite thing to do! If in serious doubt, you can always ask for a boiled cup of tea instead.

4. What’s the best way to meet people and make friends?

That really depends on your age group. The under-40 set are pretty active on social media, so just join a few groups on Facebook or a city-specific expat network and you will end up meeting people pretty quickly. No matter what your age, going to events is always a good way to meet likeminded people. The big cities all have their own editions of a Time Out magazine, and details for most events can be found online or in the arts sections of local newspapers.

5. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to India?

Certain specialty foods are hard to find, and if you have any toiletries you simply can’t live without, you may want to pack a few extra bottles. Some prescription medications are not available in India, even under a different name, so check ahead. Women will want to note that tampons with applicators are not available.

6. Should someone find housing before they leave or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources newcomers should take advantage of?

Unless your company is providing you with something, it’s better to look upon arrival. Otherwise, you risk getting seriously ripped off (unless you are moving into a housemate situation). The first place to look is with your local expat club or website. Otherwise, the best way to go about finding housing is by consulting with an agent in the neighborhood you want to live in. He/She will have the inside scoop on what’s available in your preferred area, but be prepared to pay an agent fee equivalent to one month’s rent.

7. What’s the best way to manage your money in India? Any tips on opening a bank account?

Your company will normally help you open a “salary account”, which is essentially an interest-accruing checking account. Your company will have a tie-up with a bank of their choice, and this account will be used for the direct deposit of your monthly salary. If you want an additional account, it’s best to go to one of the international banks (e.g., HSBC or Citibank) when possible. You’ll normally need your passport, a residence permit, and a proof of address, plus a couple of passport-sized photos.

8. How much money would you suggest someone set aside before moving? What are the initial costs?

That entirely depends on your lifestyle. In a big city, a student or young person could easily move to India with about $500-1000 in hand, and still have plenty left over at the end of the month. However, if you want to get a luxury apartment and are bringing your family over, you may need upwards of $5000 for the first month, or more! It all depends on your housing budget, really. The equivalent of three month’s rent, plus a couple hundred dollars per person for food is enough. Naturally, if you plan to buy a car, you will need money for that too.

9. In which fields is it easy for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?

All industries that require educated people are easy to get into; as long as you have at least a bachelor’s degree you should be able to find something. So many industries in India are short of qualified employees, especially in the areas of language translation, technology, and outsourcing. Unfortunately, the Indian government now requires that foreigners earn a minimum of USD 25,000 per annum to work in India in most types of jobs, which is an exorbitant amount by Indian standards, at least for young professionals who want to work in local companies. However, this regulation has been criticized by leaders from many industries, who understand the need for a global workforce in a global economy. So let’s see how long it lasts! Note that this requirement doesn’t apply to language teachers and translators, embassy staff, or chefs.

Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler

The items mentioned in the article are laid out on a red deck chair.
Photo © Laura Martone.

Today marks the beginning of my final week as Moon’s American Nomad – and to be honest, I’m feeling rather bittersweet about it. I’ll miss sharing my experiences, tips, interviews, and travel finds with all of you. In spite of the fact that I’m currently wrapping up work on the second edition of my Moon Florida Keys guide, I’m going to do my best to post something every day this week – in an effort to leave you with as much information and inspiration as I can.

Of course, after this week, you’ll still be able to contact me via or check out my blog posts at the soon-to-be-revamped Wandering Soles website.

Anyway, back to today’s post…

Kicking off this final week, I’ve decided to share with you a few of my latest travel product discoveries. After all, there are innumerable items available to travelers – of all tastes, budgets, interests, and needs – and it’s not always easy to figure out their benefits and drawbacks from an online catalog. Just do an Internet search for “travel essentials,” and you’ll discover an array of relevant articles and websites, listing everything from compact luggage and stylish apparel to handy toiletries and electronic gadgets. I’ve even written my own share of posts about road trip essentials, RV-ing necessities, and other must-pack items.

But, in all truth, a list of helpful travel essentials could go on forever. Every traveler is unique, after all, and while some people might prefer traveling as lightly as possible, others only feel comfortable when they have access to all the comforts of home.

Still, I’m always on the lookout for new products, and I’m grateful to those who have occasionally sent me samples to review for you, my fellow travelers and soon-to-be-missed readers. So, while perusing the items that I’ve received in recent months, I’ve decided that the following five (all pictured above) might be of some interest.

Nuu-Muu X-Dress

Even as a travel writer and a frequent traveler, I often find it hard to pack efficiently. Will I need my bathing suit? A fancy dress? A warm coat? Sandals? Boots? Sneakers? Sometimes, depending on where you’re going and what you plan to do once you get there, it’s hard to streamline your baggage. Of course, versatility is often the key when packing. For instance, I’ll typically bring a dress that’s comfortable enough for sightseeing and fancy enough for dining in a nice restaurant, but of course, I’m always open to new ideas. That’s why I appreciate the sleeveless, lightweight dresses offered by Nuu-Muu, each of which is short enough to double as a long top over jeans, yoga pants, or similar garments. Both stylish and loose-fitting, they’re ideal for exercising, touring, lounging on a beach, or going out on the town, and you can even use them as an extra layer in cooler weather. In the case of the one that I own – the figure-flattering X-Dress ($70) – it can serve as both a roomy top or a little black dress, making it suitable for hiking trails, gyms, restaurants, and nightclubs alike. Generally speaking, these dresses fall into one of three categories – Nuu-Muu Classic, which come in various eye-catching colors and patterns; Ruu-Muu, which feature convenient pockets; and Mini-Muu, which are made for kids – and luckily, no matter which one you choose, it will be easy to clean while on the road, as Nuu-Muu apparel only requires a cold wash and a bit of air-drying.

MapiCase Nicea

After my husband, Dan, bought me my first (and, so far, only) iPhone, he admittedly set about finding a sturdy case for it. After all, as a classic klutz, I’ve been known to drop – and, consequently, break – more than a few items in my day, and even though we’d purchased the normally expensive iPhone at an extreme discount, I still didn’t fancy breaking it right out of the gate. Ultimately, I ended up with a waterproof OtterBox, and though I’ve had to replace it once (since, unfortunately, the belt clip isn’t as sturdy as the rest of it), it’s certainly spared my phone the typical consequences of various spills, including inadvertent tumbles onto concrete sidewalks. Still, the OtterBox can be rather bulky in certain situations, so it’s nice, from time to time, to have a more streamlined option, such as the Nicea Book iPhone 4/4S leather purse ($70), a slim, lightweight, wallet-style case that fits easily in most apparel pockets and can protect your iPhone from everyday scratches and abrasions. Although it opens like a book, with a magnetic lid that closes firmly, the Nicea still provides access to your iPhone’s camera, flash, headphone port, speakers, volume controls, and battery-charging port – and as a bonus, it features an inner pocket for stowing your ID, a credit card, and perhaps a business card or two. The only drawback for me is that the lid doesn’t close as tightly when the inner pocket is filled. Nevertheless, it’s a handsome case – I have the tea-hued one in crocodile-style leather – and it’s certainly not the only choice available in MapiCases‘ vast array of colorful cases, which are crafted not just for iPhones but also for Android smartphones, iPads, and tablets.

Etón Rukus Solar

Speaking of iPhones, mine goes pretty much everywhere with me, and while that’s partially because I like to stay in touch with friends and family, particularly my hubby, it’s also because my phone doubles as a Walkman, thanks to music-streaming apps like Pandora and Rhapsody. Unfortunately, though, it’s better to use my phone with earbuds than without them. After all, the little outer speakers don’t amplify the sound enough while I’m walking or biking around my busy French Quarter neighborhood – and they’re even less ideal for a large group of listeners, especially at a noisy place like a public park. Thank goodness, then, for the Etón Corporation, which has produced the Rukus Solar ($150), a wireless, solar-powered, lightweight, and easy-to-carry boombox with Bluetooth compatibility, making it possible to, yes, sync up my iPhone (or other smartphones and tablets) and stream music wirelessly – and loudly. There’s also a USB port that allows you to charge your phone and various other devices, no matter if you’re hanging out with friends at a secluded beach or staying with your family in a primitive campground, and while the internal lithium battery will enable you to use the Rukus for several hours after dark, it also comes with a handy AC adapter, just in case. So, you’d better believe I’ll be using my new Rukus at our next crawfish boil!

MirrorCase for iPhone

If you have a smartphone and you’re anything like me, then you probably employ it as a camera almost as often as you use it as a communication device. The only trouble is that, while we’re busy taking pictures or video clips of famous landmarks, fellow travelers, even a yummy dish at a fancy restaurant, we’re usually missing the actual experience. After all, it’s hard to appreciate the Taj Mahal or Golden Gate Bridge with a phone planted squarely in our line of sight. To solve this dilemma of “phone face,” MirrorCase has designed a sturdy case ($50) that features a high-quality mirror below your phone’s camera lens, allowing you to hold your phone at a horizontal angle and still see the action or scene in front of you while you snap a photo or record a video. In addition, because you’ll be using the free MirrorCase app instead of your phone’s own camera feature, the photos will be automatically flipped and inverted before being saved to the camera roll. The only problem is that, at least for now, MirrorCase caters exclusively to iPhone and iPad users.

HuMn Wallet Mini

If you’ve never heard of radio-frequency identification (RFID), it is, according to, “the wireless, non-contact use of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data, for the purposes of automatically identifying and tracking tags attached to objects.” U.S. passports and many credit cards contain RFID chips, making them – and you – easy prey for hackers. Luckily, RFID-secure wallets offer a solution for travelers concerned about identity theft. One such option is the HuMn Wallet Mini ($75), a thin, credit card-sized wallet that features two plates made of aircraft-grade aluminum and secured around your ID and banking cards by a durable, shock-cord strap. Sold in a microfiber bag, the HuMn Wallet Mini comes in a whole range of colors, from sunkissed orange and mint green to pearl white and matte black. True, it’s a bit pricier than what I might normally pay for a wallet, but it certainly has helped to put my mind at ease. Of course, according to the “Pickpocket King,” slim wallets are easier to swipe than fat ones, so be sure to keep yours in a safe place.

If you’re looking for additional ideas on the latest travel products – whether for you or for your favorite traveler – you can also take a look at the holiday travel gift guide that I posted a while back. The five-part series is filled with items that relate to inspiration, preparation, protection, convenience, and relaxation.

In the meantime, let me know if you’ve tried out any of the above products – I’d be curious to hear what you think!

Amador Causeway Sights

Palm trees line a path long the breakwater with a view of scattered boats floating in the water.
View of the water from the Amador Causeway. Photo © Traveling Otter, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The beautiful breakwater known as the Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador) extends more than three kilometers into the Pacific, calming the waters at the entrance of the Panama Canal and preventing that entrance from silting up. It was built from soil dug from the canal and connects three islands: Naos, Perico, and Flamenco.

The causeway has gorgeous views. On one side the majestic Bridge of the Americas spans the Pacific entrance to the canal, so there’s always a parade of ships gliding underneath it or waiting their turn in the anchorage. On the other side is the half-moon of Panama Bay, ringed by the ever-growing Panama City skyline.

The causeway is a nightlife destination for locals, and huge amounts of money are being poured into it in the hopes it will lure international visitors. In the last few years, restaurants, bars, and shopping centers have gone up in this area, as have a hotel, cruise-ship terminal, marina, convention hall, and amphitheater. Most of these have been built on Isla Flamenco on one end of the causeway and in Amador proper on the other. (Amador was formerly a U.S. army base called Fort Amador.)

The causeway itself has gotten an understated and elegant makeover, with new streetlights and a renovated walking path that left the palm trees along it intact but added benches for those who need a rest. Near the entrance to the causeway is a row of flags of many countries, though the U.S. one is conspicuously absent; flying the stars and stripes anywhere in Panama, especially at a former gringo army base, would be loaded with controversial symbolism.

Amador and the causeway can get packed with visitors on the weekends, particularly dry-season Sundays. The popularity of the bars and restaurants causes traffic jams on the two-lane road on weekend nights.

For those without cars, the main way to get around here is on foot, though it can be a long walk in the sun from one end of the causeway to another. Fortunately, most of the attractions are clustered at the end of the causeway, on or near Isla Flamenco. There’s a bike and scooter rental place at the entrance to the causeway. It may also be possible to flag down a passing taxi or bus for a quick ride up or down the causeway.

Avoid the taxi concession at the Flamenco Shopping Plaza. It’s aimed at cruise-ship passengers and their prices are outrageous. (The hourly rate is nearly 10 times the norm.)

Museo de la Biodiversidad (Museum of Biodiversity)

Designed by architect Frank O. Gehry, who is married to a Panamanian, this ambitious museum project is meant to do for Panama what Gehry’s Guggenheim did for Bilbao, Spain. The overly exuberant even maintain it will one day be a greater draw than the canal. This level of hype is a lot for any building to live up to, let alone one that is more modest in scale than the Bilbao Guggenheim and some other Gehry projects.

The museum’s completion has been delayed for years by funding shortages, and the expected opening date has been pushed back several times. The museum should finally open its doors during the life of this book, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

In the meantime, the museum has been offering talks and a look at scale models of what the finished product will be like. The schedule varies, but in the dry season has included visits at noon and 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and talks in English at 1 p.m. on Sundays. Entrance fee is US$2.

For safety reasons, visitors younger than 18 are not allowed, and adults must wear long trousers and closed-toe shoes. Construction can cause the cancellation of planned visits.

El Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas

There’s a long-established little museum, El Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas (Punta Culebra on Naos, tel. 212-8000, ext. 2366, rainy season hours: 1–5 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat. and Sun.; dry season hours: 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., US$5 adults, US$1 children), toward the end of the causeway, that’s well worth a visit. Try to call ahead of time, as opening and closing hours shift erratically.

This nicely designed marine exhibition center is run by the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Exhibits set up along a beachside path explain the extensive natural and human history of the area and touch on that of Panama in general. There’s a small outdoor aquarium and an air-conditioned observation building. Free telescopes are set up along the path; check out the ships waiting to transit the canal. At the end of the path are a few hundred square meters of dry forest, once common all along the Pacific coast of Central America, but now mostly wiped out since it’s easy to burn. It’s amazing what you may find in this little patch of forest. There are lots of iguanas, and the last time I was there I saw a shaggy three-toed sloth walking upside down along a branch just a few meters above my head.

The center is on Punta Culebra toward the end of the causeway. At the public beach on the first island, Naos, make a right when the road forks. There should be large signs.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Panama.

Rogue Review: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin

Today we welcome Ro Cuzon, a contributor for The Rogue Reader, as he reviews Ian Rankin’s bestselling new novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave.Standing in Another Man's Grave

Ian Rankin may be an acclaimed master of plot but it’s his prose that always hooks me first.  It happened again last week within the very first sentences of his new book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, in which his protagonist John Rebus comes back from retirement.

Forced to leave the Edinburgh police force several years earlier due to the age limit, Rankin’s moody, rogue detective is now a civilian working for a Scottish cold case squad known as the Serious Crime Review Unit. After Nina Hazlitt, the mother of a teenaged girl missing since 1999, convinces him that her daughter’s vanishing may be linked to other cases, Rebus muscles his way into the active investigation of the most recent disappearance, headed by none other than his longtime colleague Siobhan Clarke. There, the aging and cantankerous ex-inspector is confronted with new police technology and a younger generation of squeaky-clean, by-the-book cops who frown upon his drinking, smoking, and unorthodox methods, like his cozying-up to known criminal underworld figures.

Unlike the other novels in the series (at least the ones I’ve read), Standing in Another Man’s Grave gets Rankin’s hero out of Edinburgh and his comfort zone. Rebus does quite a bit of traveling up and down northern Scotland, its coast and the Highlands, musing in the process about the country and its people, “a nation of five million huddled together as if cowed by the elements and the immensity of the landscape surrounding them.” All along the way, Rankin expertly spins a suspenseful tale and around the halfway mark, as the stakes rise, the book becomes impossible to put down. Continue reading “Rogue Review: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin”

The Cascade Lakes Highway (a.k.a. Century Drive or Route 46)

The Cascade Lakes Highway (a.k.a. Century Dr. or Rte. 46) is an 89-mile drive leading to more than half a dozen lakes in the shadow of the snowcapped Cascades. These lakes feature boating, fishing, and other water sports, and just about every lake has at least one campground on its shore. Hiking, bird-watching, biking, and skiing also attract visitors. From downtown Bend, drive south on Franklin Avenue, which becomes Galveston Avenue, to the traffic circle at Galveston Avenue and Century Drive (at 14th St., about 1 mile from downtown). Go three-quarters of the way around the circle and you’ll be headed south on Century Drive. The route is well marked, and the road climbs in elevation for a significant portion of the drive.

Trees carpet a rise in the mountains above the tranquil surface of Cultus Lake.
The tranquil waters of Cultus Lake. Photo © Nick Perla, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Although there are many places to stop and explore along the highway, the stretch between Mount Bachelor and Crane Prairie Reservoir is the most spectacular, so if you’re just out for an eye-popping drive, you can take the shortened version described here.

The area around the Cascade Lakes Highway is part of the Deschutes National Forest (541/383-5300). A Northwest Forest Pass ($5 one-day, $30 one-year) is required to park at most trailheads.


For information about sites along the Cascade Lakes Highway, contact the Bend–Fort Rock Ranger Station (1230 NE 3rd St., Suite A-262, Bend, 541/383-4000).


Todd Lake

Shortly after you pass Mount Bachelor, you’ll find the turnoff to the exceptionally beautiful but equally rustic National Forest Service campground at Todd Lake. It’s a short walk up the trail from a parking area to the campsites at this 6,200-foot-high alpine lake. Tables, fire grills, and a vault toilet are provided, but you will need to pack in your own water and supplies, as no vehicles are allowed—a good thing, because the drone of a Winnebago generator into the wee hours of the night would definitely detract from the grandeur of this pristine spot. You’ll find good swimming and wading on the sandy shoal on the south end of the lake, and you can’t miss the captivating views of Broken Top to the north. Hardy explorers can portage a canoe up the trail for a paddle around Todd Lake. Because of the lake’s high elevation, it is often socked in by snow until about the Fourth of July. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the Todd Lake trailhead, but there is no additional camping fee.

Sparks Lake

Clear and shallow Sparks Lake, located about 25 miles west of Bend, was a favorite of Oregon photographer Ray Atkeson, and most visitors can’t resist trying to capture views of Mount Bachelor, South Sister, and Broken Top reflected in the lake. Broken volcanic rock forms the lakebed, and water slowly drains out during the course of the summer, leaving not much more than a marsh by late summer. This is a good place to let go of the idea of a formal trail and just explore the lakeshore on foot or in a canoe.

There is a campground, Soda Creek (mid- June–Oct., $10); bring your own drinking water, or be prepared to filter lake water.

The lake is open to fly-fishing only for the local brook trout and cutthroat trout, and the use of barbless hooks is encouraged.

Green Lakes Trailhead

Begin a hike into the Three Sisters Wilderness Area from this trailhead, 27 miles west of Bend. It’s about 4.5 miles from the trailhead along waterfall-studded Fall Creek, past a big lava flow, to Green Lakes. From Green Lakes the trail continues to the pass between Broken Top and South Sister. This trail is extremely popular, so it’s best to hike it on a weekday.

Devils Lake

The eerily green Devils Lake (29 miles west of Bend) is home to a very nice campground (Northwest Forest Pass required, no piped water) and an easy lakeside trail. Just across the highway from the lake is a popular trailhead used by South Sister climbers. The climb up 10,358-foot South Sister (Oregon’s third-highest peak) is challenging but not technical. Many choose to do this 11-mile round-trip as an overnight backpacking trip. Many more hike the trail just as far as the pretty Moraine Lake area (about 3.5 miles), then return along the same route.

Elk Lake

A resort and a marina mean that this is not the quietest lake in the Cascades. Elk Lake is just about the only place along this road that you’ll see sailboats, and it’s also a good swimming lake by about August. The cabins at the Elk Lake Resort (541/480-7378, $58 and up) make a good base for exploring the local trails if you are not up for camping, and are open during the winter for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. Accommodations range from small rustic cabins to larger, though still fairly rustic, cabins ($199) and modern homes ($299). An on-site restaurant is surprisingly good. During the summer a campground ($14) and marina are open.

Hosmer Lake

Just off the highway, Hosmer Lake (39 miles from Bend) is a favorite fishing and canoeing lake. It’s stocked with Atlantic salmon, but don’t count on eating them. Fishing is limited to catch-and-release fly-fishing with barbless hooks.

Even if you don’t fish and don’t have a canoe, it’s worth visiting Hosmer Lake for its spectacular views of Mount Bachelor, South Sister, and Broken Top. Of the two campgrounds on the lake, South ($10, no drinking water) has the best views and the best lake access.

Lava Lake

Lava flows formed a dam that created Lava Lake, which is fed largely by underground springs. Rainbow trout, brook trout, whitefish, and illegally introduced tui chub live in the lake, which is 30 feet deep at its deepest point and open to bait fishing as well as fly-fishing. A lakeside lodge (541/382-9443) rents boats and operates an RV park; there is also a Forest Service campground (mid-May–mid-Oct., $14, drinking water) near the resort.

Little Lava Lake

Make a pilgrimage to Little Lava Lake and stand at the headwaters of the Deschutes River. Groundwater from the snowpack percolates down from the Mount Bachelor and Three Sisters area to fill the lake (it’s thought that a large groundwater reservoir exists upstream from the lake); the Deschutes exits the lake as a meandering stream, flowing south about 8.4 miles to Crane Prairie Reservoir. Little Lava Lake shares a highway turnoff with Lava Lake.

Cultus Lake

Glacier-formed Cultus Lake is popular with campers, swimmers, boaters, waterskiers, Jet Skiers, and windsurfers. Anglers go for the big lake trout, also called mackinaw. An easy hiking trail follows the northern shore of the lake and then heads north along the Winopee Lake Trail to Teddy Lakes. From the trailhead to Teddy Lakes is about 4 miles.

The Cultus Lake Resort (541/408-1560 summer, 541/389-3230 winter, mid-May–mid-Sept.) rents cabins ($85 and up), motorboats, canoes, kayaks, and Jet Skis; it also operates a restaurant. During the peak of the summer season, cabins are only rented by the week.

Crane Prairie Reservoir

Crane Prairie Reservoir, an artificial lake, is a breeding ground for ospreys. These large birds, sometimes known as fish hawks, nest in the snags surrounding the lake and fish by plunging headfirst into the water from great heights. Cormorants, terns, bald eagles, and a variety of ducks are also commonly seen. Humans also like to fish—the most-prized fish is a “cranebow,” a rainbow trout that grows almost freakishly large in this shallow nutrient-rich reservoir.

A Forest Service campground (reservations, $16, drinking water) and the private Crane Prairie Resort RV park and fishing guide service (541/383-3939) are located here.

Wickiup Reservoir

The area of the Deschutes River around present-day Wickiup Reservoir was a traditional Native American camping area during the fall. When the dam was completed in 1949, these campsites were flooded. Today, the reservoir (about 60 miles from Bend) is known for its relatively warm water and its good fishing, especially for brown trout, which can weigh in at over 20 pounds. Kokanee and coho salmon as well as rainbow trout, brook trout, whitefish, and the nasty invasive tui chub also live here. Campgrounds are at Wickiup Reservoir ($10, no drinking water) and across an access road at North ($12, no drinking water) and South ($16, drinking water) Twin Lakes, small natural lakes that flank the large reservoir.

From Wickiup Reservoir, Route 42 heads east and north along the Fall River toward Sunriver. The Cascade Lakes Highway, Route 46, continues south past Davis Lake.

Davis Lake

It takes a little doing to get to large and shallow Davis Lake, and many of those who make it come for fly-fishing. It’s known for large rainbow trout as well as illegally introduced largemouth bass. Most anglers use boats or float tubes because the vegetation along the shoreline and the muddy lake bottom make it difficult to wade.

Davis Lake was formed about 6,000 years ago when a lava flow cut off Odell Creek. A fire in 2003 wiped out the West Davis campground; the East Davis campground ($12, drinking water), though reduced in size by the fire, still exists. Davis Lake is a good spot for bird-watching—expect to see waterfowl, woodpeckers, owls, and ospreys.

Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Oregon.

The Best of Eastern Oregon in One Week

Jettison your notions of Oregon as a cloud-enshrouded dark-green spot on the map and get set for expansive views, lots of wildlife, and a dose of the West in this tour of an area sometimes referred to as “Oregon’s outback.”

Grassy pastureland turns into rolling hills and then low, snow-capped mountains.
Along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway in Eastern Oregon. Photo © Baker County Tourism, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

If you’re flying in for this trip, consider using the Boise, Idaho airport. It’s much closer to Baker City, where this itinerary begins and ends, than the Portland airport.

Day 1

Start your tour of eastern Oregon in Baker City, but don’t linger in town for too long; head west to the near-ghost town of Sumpter (30 miles) and then up a ways into the Elkhorns for more gold-era history and mining ghost towns. North of Sumpter, follow the Elkhorn Drive National Scenic Byway to the near–ghost town of Granite. If you’re enjoying the drive, continue north and east to Anthony Lakes; from there, continue east back to I-84 and Baker City.

Day 2

Visit the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, then head about 70 miles east on Route 86 to Hells Canyon at Oxbow, where you can take a look at the Snake River’s gorge by car, jet boat, or on foot. Backtrack and stay the night in Halfway, just beneath the southern edge of the Wallowa Mountains.

Day 3

From Halfway, head about 15 miles east on Route 86, then turn north on Forest Road 39. This 54-mile summer-only road will take you up the eastern edge of the Wallowas past the area’s most accessible viewpoint onto Hells Canyon, to lodgings in the artsy town of Joseph or at nearby Wallowa Lake.

Day 4

Take the Wallowa Lake Tramway from Wallowa Lake. The tram lets you off at the top of Mount Howard, where there is a network of hiking trails. Then head west to I‑84 at La Grande and follow the interstate to Pendleton. Tour the Pendleton Underground and spend the night in town.

Day 5

Hop back on I-84 and take it west to Arlington. From Arlington, drive south on Route 19 to the John Day Fossil Beds. Just south of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, turn west onto U.S. 26 and take it to your night’s lodging in John Day.

Day 6

It’s a pretty drive south from John Day on U.S. 395 through Burns to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Visit the refuge headquarters a few miles east of Route 205, then continue south on Route 205 to lodgings in Frenchglen.

Day 7

If the snows have melted, drive the Steens Mountain Byway. Spend another night in Frenchglen, or head north to Burns before driving back to Boise to fly home.

Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Oregon.

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