Monday, March 19, 2012

Future Travel Plans - Singapore and Cambodia

I've settled on my travel destination for this year, and while I won't be going anywhere for about 6 more months I think it will be a great trip.

I'm going to Cambodia and Singapore!

The great thing about being a person who loves to travel is the meeting of people world wide that you can later go visit. Which is precisely what I'm going to do.

A friend of mine is moving to Singapore for work, so I've decided to go visit and work another county into it.

Originally I thought I'd go to Vietnam with Eric, since we travelled so well throughout Thailand together. However, he was wanting to go in May, which was too soon for me due to not having enough holidays built up to make the trip worthwhile.

Then I heard about Dee moving to Singapore and decided I'd work my travels around that. Not wanting to spend my entire time in Singapore (I've been there before, back in 2006 on my way to Australia) I thought maybe I would find a tour that went around Malaysia for 10 days before going and overstaying my welcome at his place. However, there weren't any tours with my usual go-to companies that would work, so I figured I would just do it on my own.

Then the other day at work my coworker and I got to talking about travelling alone. The thought must have been simmering away in the back of my mind because this afternoon I decided to see what tours there were in S.E Asia for approximately 10 days.

I found an awesome trip, with Intrepid Travel that fits my dates PERFECTLY. 12 days of touring from Ho Chi Mihn City to Bangkok. Cambodia Discovery

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How Safe Is Mexico to Travel?

I hear from a lot of clients that they wouldn't travel to Mexico because people are dying all the time. While this might be somewhat true, it's not tourists that are being affected and the problems are not in the tourist areas like Cancun, Mayan Riviera or Puerto Vallerta.

Compiled by my co-worker, Haley (, here is some good insight on the current situation in Mexico

How safe is Mexico for tourists?

Q&A with security consultant Walter McKay – from

The Mexican government is expecting 2012 to be a good year for tourism. In fact, Mexico is expecting 52 million tourists to visit its five southern states; that compares to 22 million foreign visitors to all of Mexico in 2011.

CBC News contacted Walter McKay in Mexico City to ask him about safety concerns for tourists in Mexico. A former Vancouver police detective, McKay is now a security consultant in Mexico, where he moved six years ago.

As well as consulting for individuals and businesses operating in Mexico, McKay has a website that maps and tabulates narco-related killings in the country.

Walter McKay, a Mexico City-based security consultant, maintains the website, which tracks narco-related killings in Mexico.

CBC News: How safe is it for tourists visiting Mexico?

Walter McKay:
There are areas that are very dangerous, like Ciudad Juarez, but there are also states like Campeche and the Yucatan (where Cancun is located) that have had only one murder in the whole year, but that doesn't make the news.

For the year 2010, Ciudad Juarez had almost 300 people killed per 100,000. It's horrifying. But it's not a tourist area.

What people from Canada want to know is, if I go to Cancun or Puerto Vallarta or Merida, am I going to be running through a hail of gunfire? And the answer is no.
If you are a tourist and you come down here with the kids to Puerto Vallarta every summer and you stick to the tourist areas, then you're fine.
If you are going to frequent bars, if you are going to look for drugs, if you are buying or selling drugs, or involved in any kind of illicit activity, your odds of being affected by violence in Mexico are going to increase dramatically. If you are here to just drink beer and soak up the sun on the beaches, then you're fine.

Has the violence been getting better or worse?
McKay: Generally, it's getting worse. There was a very high increase in narco-related violence due to organized crime and this drug war that [President Felipe] Calderon launched in December 2006. It spiked exponentially in 2010 and 2011. In 2007, it was an average of nine or ten people per day and last year it's up to 51 people killed each day.

Where do you see it going in the next year or so?
McKay: It's about as violent as it can get. When that many people get killed in horrific manners — decapitation, burning, bodies dissolved in acid — you can't get much worse than that.

Link: TO AVOID Mexico's trouble zones Security warnings and advisories

The violence has now spread out from Ciudad Juarez as the cartels fight for different areas. The declining violence in Ciudad Juarez is because one side is winning. I think, what you are seeing is the dominance of one gang taking over because you've got more members on the same team now.
Other areas — ­Culiacan, Jalisco ­— are starting to heat up. In 2010 there were some 15,000 execution-style murders. This year it's 18,600 so it's worse than last year.

What tourist areas of Mexico are the safest? 
McKay: The east coast, Cancun, Merida, are still fine. Veracruz is a state I would avoid. When you have gangsters dumping 35 bodies on a freeway in the middle of the day, that just does not give me confidence about the city or the state of Veracruz.
Oaxaca, all the beaches along there are secure.

If I wanted to be absolutely safe, I would go to Cancun. Los Cabos, Baja California as a state, is fairly free of violence.

The murders of the two Canadians were in places on the Pacific coast. What about other places on the Pacific side?
McKay: There is some activity in Puerto Vallarta but I think it's still safe if you stick to the tourist zones. Part of this is the tourists aren't particularly targeted. The overall level of violence we see is the organized crime groups fighting against each other over turf, for money.
They're not going to target tourists, they don't want to shoot themselves in the foot. They own a lot of these businesses, and a lot of this land and they don't want to see that revenue dry up, either.

What about the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo area?
McKay: That area had been quiet but in the last eight months it has been heating up because of what's happened around Acapulco, following the killing of [cartel boss Arturo] Beltran Leyva and the splintering of the gang into several different factions that are now fighting for control.
Acapulco had up to ten killings a day there for a while. Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo — ­a three to four hour drive north — have an average of 5-10 people killed in that area each month. Some days you'll get four or five bodies showing up. So there is activity there.

The Mexican tourism industry often points to crime rates in other Central American and Caribbean countries, which have very high murder rates.
McKay: That's fair enough. For example, Mexico City has a murder rate that's lower than many American cities; Chicago or Miami, for example. I live in Mexico City and I've lived in Los Angeles and they both have areas you avoid. There are areas as a tourist you wouldn't go.
Although I did backpack through Mexico in 2001, I wouldn't advise backpacking through Mexico these days. Calderon's initiative of waging this war is creating a culture of violence. Within this new culture, when you have problems, you solve them with a gun or you solve them with killing people.

Where to go in Mexico

Security consultant Walter McKay is often asked about safe locations for tourists in Mexico. Here's a list of some places that are safe, not safe, or somewhere in between.
  • Cancun
  • Cozumel
  • Playa del Carmen
  • Merida
  • Campeche
  • Oaxaca
  • Mexico City
  • Los Cabos
Not safe:
  • Acapulco
  • Veracruz
  • Ciudad Juarez
  • Guadalajara
  • Chihuahua
  • Jalisco
(Editor's note: Huatulco was listed when this story was first published, and was removed from the Not Safe list on Jan. 27, 2012.)
In between:
  • Puerto Vallarta
  • Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo
  • Tijuana
These people are realizing that the security forces, the justice system, basically, grant them immunity because they're just not solving any of these crimes.
For the most part, everybody is law-abiding; but those who aren't really have no deterrent. And if you're a young tourist, you've got a backpack, you've got some money or you just look out of place, you're looking like a target, like a walking ATM machine and they are going to withdraw cash from you as soon as they can.

How reliable are the government's crime statistics?
McKay: That's a very good question. The government had promised to be transparent and to release reports about what's happening in the country and they released a report that 35,612 people have been killed between Dec 2006 to Dec. 31, 2010. But they haven't released anything since.
The statistics now are from newspapers.
That's the impetus for my providing the data on my website. I have three volunteers who help me scan all the local media in the country and we post anything related to the narco-violence on my map. Then you can link to the story from there.
If you are a tourist and, say, you want to visit Puerto Vallarta, you can click on my maps back a few years, or even to yesterday, and see what's been reported in the media and know what everybody else knows as a local. You don't have to take the government's word. And how can we take their word when they haven't released a report in over a year now?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Adventure Travel - Where Should You Go?

I was recently asked to write an article for our work newsletter on the topic of adventure travel. 

Adventure travel brings to mind different things to everyone. To some, “adventure” is getting off the resort in the Caribbean to climb Dunn’s River Falls or swim with the dolphins, or perhaps go diving or snorkeling on the nearby reef. To others, “adventure” is bungee jumping, zip lining or climbing a volcano. Sometimes it means getting to know the locals, seeing how the people native to an area go about their daily lives and interacting on a more personal level. Regardless of the definition, adventure travel is always about one thing – getting outside of one’s comfort zone and experiencing something new.

There are a lot of companies that offer a taste of adventure and experiential travel. G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Tucan Travel and Geckos are all great companies that have a wide assortment of small group adventures in various comfort categories.  Service levels range from basic to comfort, and physical demand can range from easy to challenging. It’s not a stretch to say there really is an adventure tour out there for everyone.

Top Destinations for Adventure Travelers:
Peru: People who are active and want to test their limits can hike the Inca Trail or do the Lares Trek.  Those who are short on time or short of breath can do a much more leisurely trip and take the train to Ollantaytambo and take the bus up to Machu Picchu. Some companies offer the chance to do a homestay with local families where passengers can participate in daily life.  Peru also offers a taste of the Amazon, with many tours spending a night or two in the jungle.

Thailand and South East Asia: A tic on every backpacker’s checklist, Thailand and the rest of South East Asia is a great spot to do something out of the ordinary. From exploring ancient temples like Ankor Wat in Cambodia to elephant trekking in Chiang Mai, there is no shortage of interesting things a person can do. Thailand, the land of smiles, offers passengers jungle treks, cooking classes, temples and the chance to spend the night in a hilltribe village. Cambodia is less developed and gives travelers the chance to be immersed in Buddhist history. Most tour companies offer trips that combine multi countries and make it easy for first time Asia travelers to get around and feel like they are more than just a tourist.

Africa:  There are many ways to experience Africa, but not all of them make you feel like you’ve really gotten to know the continent. From camping to comfort safaris, trekking to overland adventures, there is something for everyone at all ends of the spectrum. Voluntourism is a fast growing component of any trip to Africa, allowing passengers to help out with various projects and give back to the communities they visit.  If passengers have lots of time available, overland trips can range from 21 days  to 50+, covering multiple countries, and consisting of camping and multiple forms of transportation.  Top places to go: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Victoria Falls.

North Africa and the Middle East: The word “safe” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when people think of this region, but there are plenty of places that a traveler can go and experience culture and adventure without putting themselves at risk. Morocco, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt (even with the recent disruptions) are huge with those craving a unique experience. Ancient history comes alive in these countries, and there is no need to feel uneasy when you have an experienced tour guide and a small group. Tour leaders help steer passengers away from troubled areas and adjust itineraries as needed, if needed.

There’s more to this planet than what you can see from the confines of a resort or by visiting only the main cities in any given country. Wherever your comfort level lies, why not step just outside it next time you travel and consider doing a small group adventure and get to actually EXPERIENCE the place you’ve gone to visit? 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Water, Ruins and Buses - Tulum Ruins and off to Cancun!

Our night in the thatched roof cabin was enjoyable, and we woke up with the birds. We went down and sat down for breakfast with some of the other people staying at the hostel while the son of the lady we'd met yesterday brought us breakfast. 

It was amazing. And beautiful!

We checked out but left our stuff. We had use of the bikes for the morning/early aft so we biked across the road over to the Tulum Ruins. Paid our entrance fee and walked around the grounds. Since we didn't have time for a proper tour (and really just wanted to swim) we headed for the beach. 

the last time I saw these sunglasses.. a massive wave knocked them off shortly after this pic.

This fella guarded our stuff while we swam
After our swim in the ocean we headed back to the hostel, changed clothes and let them dry in the sun for a bit before hailing a cab and heading to the bus station to catch the bus to Cancun. 

The bus ride was uneventful and much shorter than we'd anticipated. We didn't realize we'd arrived and had to scramble to get ourselves off the bus after confirming with the driver that we were indeed in Cancun. 

I'd picked a hotel right near the bus station, knowing we were basically just spending the night before catching our early morning flight back Toronto. We checked in, met the desk guy who'd moved from New York earlier that year and had the accent to prove it. 

We opted to go to the bus station to exchange our vouchers for tickets (and after it taking over an hour and a lot of arguing in Chetumal we had learned not to do things last minute) before wandering around the city to see what we could see. 

Which, apparently, is not very much. 

We walked up and down the main "strip" of Cancun, and eventually just stopped on a side street for a Corona before heading back to the hostel. Asked the New Yowrk-uh for suggestions on somewhere cheap to eat, and he pointed down the road. 

We walked in the direction he indicated and saw an open-air food court with activities going on in the middle. We opted for "traditional" Mexican food (I had something vaguely resembling tacos.) and watched what appeared to be a mass exercise routine. 

Due to our early morning ahead we didn't stay out too late, and went back to the hostel. Our room was full of people so we got our things all packed and ready to go so as to not disturb them in the morning. Crawled into bed, played some ipod solitaire and eventually just passed out.

Next morning - up early, back to the airport and home. :(