All posts by Laurence Constable

Laurence started traveling as a child, beginning with summer trips with his family to Lake Temagami in northern Ontario. He has since motorcycled the width of the United States, photographed big game in South Africa, and rafted from the interior of the Yukon Territory to the Alaskan coast. His European experience has taken him around the continent from Paris to Prague, and throughout the British Isles.

Squam Lake, New Hampshire

Canada

Canada FlagJust because Canada borders the U.S. doesn’t mean it is like the U.S. The eastern parts of Canada, such as Quebec and Ontario, are modern and sophisticated; while the west and north are still somewhat wild, and often seem untouched compared to the United States and Europe.

Canada’s population is an amalgam of indigenous people; descendent’s of French and British colonists who came to explore, trap, fish, and more; and in the west, a fast growing population of Asian émigrés. And with the vast majority of the country’s population residing near the southern border, there is a huge amount of land to the north that remains almost uninhabited.

Traveling in Canada
Canada MapCanada has a little bit of everything, from thriving metropolises (such as, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver) to the wild open territories of the northern provinces. The major cities range from being centers of culture, trade, and population, to gateways to the outdoors, cultural melting pots, immigration centers, and more.

The land in central and northern Canada is perfect for adventure travel like skiing, fishing, camping, hiking, rafting, rock and ice climbing, hunting, and more, as well as for the mining and logging industries that have set up camp there.

In the past decade, the native population of Canada has gained a much stronger voice in Parliament, which has led to growth in the regions they control; but don’t let that fool you: outside of the cities, the population is spare and the wilderness is open. Canada’s national park system is extensive, and park rules, in many ways, favor the wildlife over human visitors (for example, protection from bears, in many parks, is limited to using common sense when camping–even items like bear spray are discouraged or illegal, and guns for protection are strictly forbidden).

Weather in Canada

Spring, summer, autumn, and winter are all ideal for tourism in much of Canada, but keep in mind that the cold weather comes early and leaves late in the northern and noncoastal areas. Skiing is great, especially in the Canadian Rockies, and the season lasts from December through April. If you want to camp, hike, river raft, or enjoy other water activities on Canada’s lakes and rivers, the best time is the summer because in the shoulder seasons certain facilities could be closed.

For very adventurous travel (for example, to the Arctic interior), we’d suggest either going with friends who know the area well and have experience in all types of extreme environments, or signing on with a professionally guided trip, with whom you’ll hopefully meet interesting people and get the most well-rounded experience available. But bear in mind that guiding companies often sell trips months or even years in advance–sign up early and plan a lot, and you’ll certainly have a great time.

Canada Information
North / Central AmericaPopulation: 31,280,000
Government: Parliamentary democracy
Square Miles: 3.9 million sq mi (9,976,000 sq km)
Capitol: Ottawa (pop: 1,010,500)
Official Language: English, French, and native languages
People: British descent (28%), French descent (23%), Italian descent (3%), aboriginal peoples (2%)
Religion: Catholic (45%), Protestant (36%), and minorities from most of the world’s major religions
Major products/industries: processed and unprocessed minerals, food products, wood and paper products, transportation equipment, chemicals, fish products, petroleum and natural gas
Health risks: Cholera, dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, yellow fever

El Salvador

El Salvador FlagTo understand more about this troubled Central American country one only needs to watch the movie Salvador, about the brutal civil war that tore the country apart in the 1980s. The civil war is now over in El Salvador, and its beauty and splendor–including active volcanoes and cloud forests–are starting to show again.

Traveling in El Salvador isn’t like in other Central American countries, where independent travel is the norm. Currently, most people come to El Salvador to participate in the redevelopment and restoration of this post-war country. Organizations from all over the world bring people here to help with education, healthcare, and other initiatives that will put El Salvador on the road to recovery.

A recent blow to El Salvador’s revitalization, a massive earthquake hit the region in early 2001 causing a state of emergency. Not all the areas of the country were affected, but the area around the capitol San Salvador suffered greatly, and much is still needed to be done to help El Salvador recover from this latest tragedy.

Traveling in El Salvador
El Salvador MapThe 2001 earthquake disrupted all travel in El Salvador, so public transportation in the country is unpredictable. Some raods are still washed out so there is no way to tell how easy it is to travel around the entire country. But there is a good bus system, and if the roads are open, buses will run frequently. Renting a car is also possible, but it is best to discuss with someone first where you are headed so you know how the road is or if it’s passable.

U.S. and Canadian citizens do not require a visa but must buy a tourist card–valid for 90 days–upon arrival. Citizens of Australia and New Zealand need a visa; citizens of most Western European countries do not require a visa or tourist card.

Health Risks in El Salvador
Health risks include cholera, dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid, and dysentery. It is advised that you consult a doctor about what shots you may need before traveling to El Salvador.

What to Know
In 2001, the U.S. dollar became the official currency in El Salvador, but places still accept the old currency the colón. Things are more expensive here than in other Central American countries, but it is still comparatively cheap for most travelers–$25 to $30 dollars a day will get you reasonable accomodations and meals.

Weather in El Salvador
The optimal time to visit is the dry season, which is from November to April. The roads are in the best condition and most of the cultural festivals take place during this period. But during the main festival season, as well as before Easter and after Christmas, traveling is most expensive. The wet season–May to October–can still be nice, but expect daily rain showers.

El Salvador Information
North / Central AmericaPopulation:6,122,515
Government: Republic
Square Miles: 8093 sq mi (20,752 sq km)
Capitol: San Salvador (pop 1 million)
Official Languages:Spanish
People: 94% mestizo (Spanish-Indian), 5% Indian, 1% European descent
Religion: 75% Roman Catholic, 20% Protestant
Major products/industries: Textiles, coffee, sugar, beverages, petroleum, chemicals, fertilizer, textiles, furniture, light metals, cotton

Guatemala

Guatemala FlagAfter more than three decades of civil war, Guatemala is now emerging as a viable and popular tourist destination. The breadth of Central America’s ecology, culture, and history can be found in Guatemala in a distilled form: ancient Mayan ruins and soaring volcanoes stand side-by-side, and the government’s tourism-focused agenda has encouraged a rich and educational lexicon of Mayan history to arise.

Some say the political and economic pressure that demands the indigenous population put itself on display amounts to another form of oppression, for which Guatemala was known through much of its history. Despite this, indigenous Guatemalan culture lives on in the ruins and rituals of Mayans past and present. Recently, rural villages have been successful in coaxing travelers away from the Guatemala City/Antigua area, into the vibrant wilderness that helps define Guatemala as one of the most interesting and well-preserved countries in Central America.

It must be mentioned, however, that violent crimes exist–particularly in larger cities–and tourists should be aware of their surroundings and cautious of potentially threatening situations.

Traveling in Guatemala
Guatemala MapIt’s easy to get by in Guatemala on the cheap. A one-plate meal will go for less than US$2, while fruit and snacks from the markets are practically free. Camping is also quite cheap, and bus trips cost around US$1 an hour. A hotel room with bathroom, plus a couple of meals, won’t generally run you more than US$25 a day.

It’s hard to exchange anything other than U.S. dollars, but if you do have a different currency, go to the casas de cambio in the Flores or Guatemala City airports. ATMs are available sporadically in Guatemala City (and not available in most other areas), and most banks will give you an advance on your Visa card over the counter. MasterCard, however, is almost completely useless in most of Guatemala.

Waiters expect a tip of around 10%, on top of the 10% IVA (value-added tax). Hotels charge a 10% tourist tax in addition to the 10% IVA. Most hotels and shops have fixed prices, but you’ll be expected to bargain at markets.

Health Risks in Guatemala
Health risks include cholera, dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid, and dysentery. It is advised that you consult a doctor about what shots you may need before traveling to Guatemala.

Weather in Guatemala

November through May is the dry season and, climatalogically, the most pleasant time to be in Guatemala. Along with summer holidays, however, this is also the busiest season for tourists. Although the rain may seem like an imposition during the wet season, it’s worth planning your trip for this time of year if you want to avoid crowds and find bargains.

Republic of Guatemala Information
North / Central AmericaPopulation: 12.6 million
Government: Democratic
Square Miles: 42,500 sq mi (109,000 sq km)
Capitol: Guatemala City (pop: 2 million)
Official Languages: Spanish, Gar’funa, and 21 Mayan languages
People: 56% mestizo/ladino descent, 44% Mayan descent
Religion: Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Mayan-Catholic fusion
Major products/industries: Coffee, sugar, bananas, textiles and clothing, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, natural rubber, flowers, cardamom, tourism

United States

United States Flag“The land of the free and home of the brave.” This is the motto of the United States, but “free” has nothing to do with traveling there. Hotels, campgrounds, and national parks will all cost you if you want to go. Of course, this doesn’t mean traveling in the U.S. is impossible without loads of cash. Road tripping and staying with friends is just one way to save on the costs associated with being in America, and there is so much to do and see there, you can be virtually anywhere in the country and still have many interesting opportunities open to you. Whether you’re looking for islands, mountains, or historical heritage, the United States has it, and it’s never far from where you are.

As for the people, you’ll find all sorts. From rushed and manic city dwellers to laid-back country folk, there’s so much variety–and no lack of strong opinions just waiting to be expressed–it can seem at times like each American is cut from a different cloth, and that’s not far from the truth… The great American melting pot, some say, is much more like a tossed salad of cultures, all living next to and, generally, in harmony with each other, but very few are willing to give up their own heritage in the name of total conformity. That’s what keeps the United States interesting: Americans are never just Americans–they all have their own story to tell.

Traveling in the United States
United States MapTraveling in the United States can be hard if you want to cover a lot of ground. Unlike many countries in Europe that have great rail systems to transport you across the continent at a reasonable price, being mobile in the United States calls mostly for cars, buses, and airplanes. This makes going long distances expensive, so many people plan to visit one region at a time, be it New England, the Pacific Northwest, or other. But don’t worry about limiting yourself: there is so much variety in the U.S. that you could spend months in any one part of the country before running out of places to go.

The national park system in the United States is the world’s oldest (beginning with the protection, in 1872, of the Yellowstone wilderness in Wyoming and Montana), and currently encompasses a vast expanse of resources, from protected land to historic landmarks, museums, monuments, and more, across the nation.

Beyond the National Park Service’s managed land, each state has its own park service that acts as a microcosm of the federal system, adding to the already large amount of protected areas. But despite all of this, the U.S., especially along the coasts, can seem to be a single megalopolis, with cities connected by suburbs laden with strip malls and 10-lane highways. Still, even within these crowded streets are points of interest and historical significance. For example, some cities–like Boston–seem to have so completely embraced their histories that one can have a difficult time differentiating between the old world and the new. Others, such as Miami, have taken on whole cultures entirely unto themselves, where the influence of concentrated waves of immigration has worked to create almost separate countries, within the country.

But there are certain things that remain ever-present and all-American, no matter where you are. Take, for example, Super Bowl Sunday. Baseball may be the official national pastime, but (American) football’s huge popularity makes it a close contender for that title. For anyone traveling to the U.S. in late January, here’s a tip: get yourself invited to a Super Bowl party and you’ll get a taste of America in its truest form.

Weather in the United States
The weather in the United States varies tremendously depending on where you are. Anywhere along the southern border will have warm weather almost year round. While in the north, there are long, cold winters and beautiful but short summers. The autumn in New England is famous for it’s vibrant colors, when the leaves change, getting ready to fall. And summer, along the all of the coastlines, draws throngs of tourists seeking respite from the heat and humidty. Winter sends heat seekers south to the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and southern California coasts; while others are attracted to the snowy mountains in the east and west, for skiing and other cold-weather activities. The Pacific Northwest is notoriously rainy all year long (though the mountains and temperate rainforest’s more than make up for the otherwise inclement weather), while northern California is just as notorious for being cold and clammy in the summer months when, ironically, most of the out-of-town visitors arrive. [To quote a great American author, Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent, was a summer in San Francisco.”] The deserts of the Southwest can be dangerously frigid at night in the winter, and oppressively hot during the day in the summer, so most people interested in these areas go in the shoulder seasons, when they can enjoy the spectacular scenery without worrying too much about the threats of extreme temperature.

As always, a good rule of thumb is to do your research beforehand: check out weather reports in advance of your trip and talk to some people in the know. Hopefully you won’t get rained on, or have to run for the shelter of an air-conditioned room, and can enjoy the glory of the United States at its finest.

United States Information
Population: 285,000,000
Government: Democracy
Square Miles: 3,618,000 sq miles (9,370,000 sq km)
Capitol: Washington D.C. (pop: 570,000)
Official Languages: English, Spanish
People: Caucasian (71%), African American (12%), Latino (12%), Asian (4%), Native American (0.9%)
Religion: Protestant (56%), Roman Catholic (28%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%)
Major products/industries: Oil, electronics, computers, automobile manufacturing, aerospace industries, agriculture

Antiqua, Leeward Islands

Antigua (pronounced /ænˈtiːgə/ an-TEE-gah) is an island in the West Indies, in the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean region, the main island of the country of Antigua and Barbuda.

France

French FlagWhen most people think of France they think of style. From Paris’s tree-lined boulevards to the beautiful castles of the Loire Valley. The grandeur and romance of France keeps people coming back again and again.

France is the largest country in Western Europe, home to almost 60 million people. Ecologically, France has everything you could ask for, from snow-capped mountains to wonderful coastlines. The country’s history is present wherever you go: from Naploneon’s empire to the battlesfields of World War II, when you’re in France, you feel as though you are part of a living history.

Traveling in France
France Map Budget travelers can get by on around US$40 per day, but it means taking the notion of “living on a shoestring” very seriously. For a broader culinary experience than just bread and wine, and a comfortable room, a minimum of US$80 is needed. Of course, for the more high-end traveler, those rates may not accomodate you past noon; bank on dropping US$200 and up if you’re really living large.

Traveler’s checks are the most convenient way to carry funds in France and are accepted basically everywhere, especially in larger cities and towns. However, France’s ATMs accept all the major international credit and bank cards.

Restaurants and hotels will add 10%-15% service charge to every tab, but most people leave a few coins in gratuity if the service was good.

Weather in France

Spring in France seems to offer the best weather and fewer tourists. Once summer hits, the coast swells with heat, activity, and people. The weather is generally still good in Autumn, but you should be wary of shorter days and plan accordingly. It can begin to get cold toward the end of autumn even in the south, but if you enjoy winter activities, the Alps and the Pyrenees can be winter wonderlands, with skiing, snowboarding, and a plethora of other adventure or cultural activities at hand. In July and August, most of the city dwellers take a (roughly) 5-week vacation; you may find the cities “shut down” during these times.

What to know
As with every country you visit, at least try learn a little bit of the native language. Parisians, in particular, are notorious for ignoring tourists who don’t make the effort to speak French. Words as basic as bonjour (hello) and au revior (goodbye) will at least establish that you are trying to understand their language. Having a phrase book and studying common phrases you would use on a daily basis will help. You will get a much better response from the locals if you are trying to speak in French, and you may find that many of them speak English well enough to help you get your ideas across.

Also, don’t wear shorts if you want to blend in and not look like a tourist. In France, shorts are usually reserved for exercise, trips to the beach, and very hot days.

France Information
Europe MapPopulation: 59 million
Government: Democracy
Square Miles: 214,890 sq mi (551,000 sq km)
Capitol: Paris
Official Language: French
People: 92% French, 3% North African, 2% German, 1% Breton, 2% Other
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic, 2% Protestant, 1% Muslim, 1% Jewish, 6% unaffiliated
Major products/industries: Oil refining, steel, cement, aluminium, agricultural products & foodstuffs, luxury goods, chemicals, motor manufacturing, energy products

Antigua

Antiqua FlagThis is beach country! Located in the Caribbean British Leeward Islands, Antigua, Barbuda, and Redonda, all make up the single nation of Antigua & Barbuda. Antigua alone, being the largest of the British Leewards, claims upward of 300 beaches with plenty of room to bask in the sun, swim, dive, sail, and more. There are reefs and wrecks abound, for underwater exploration, as well as many sites on shore, for those less inclined to the water.

Between the capitol, St. John’s, and the next biggest town, English Harbor, you’ll find shopping, food and drink, galleries, and interesting colonial-era sites to enjoy. Redcliffe Quay in St. John’s is home to an array of West Indian restaurants and shops peddling art and other local wares, while the renovated Nelson’s Dockyard (an 18th century British naval base named for Admiral Horatio Nelson) is only one of English Harbor’s many historical attractions. For a little “less civilized” entertainment, Shirley Heights is the site of a weekly bender that attracts lots of locals and plenty of tourists. Perched precariously atop a cliff overlooking English Harbor, hundreds of feet below, the spot was once a lookout for marauders. These days it’s used every Sunday for a barbecue, rum punch, and reggae party. Who knows how many stumbling revelers have come close to that cliff’s edge!

Antiqua MapElsewhere on the island are Betty Hope’s Sugar Plantation–the first major sugar cane plantation on the Antigua, which played an important role in the development of the island’s once fruitful position in the sugar market (now you can see a renovated example of the many decaying stone sugar mills that dot the island, as well as the original still house); and beautiful Fig Tree Drive–a rough roadway escape into the volcanic hills of Antigua, through lush rainforest and banana (locals call them “figs”), coconut, and mango groves.

Barbuda
At a little under half the size of Antigua, Barbuda is the second biggest island in the Antigua archipelago. Only a 20-minute flight (3-hour boat ride) from the more bustling Antigua, its population is so small, one could easily mistake it for a deserted island. There is one town on Barbuda, called Codrington, and many pink sand beaches with opportunities for world-class birding, diving, fishing, and relaxing. The few resorts on Barbuda are exclusive and expensive, and the local residences are spare (about half the permanent homes were destroyed in Hurricane Luis in 1995), which make for a place of extreme solitude and beauty for the traveler in need of rest.

Redonda
The smallest of the Antiguan island chain, Redonda is an uninhabited, 1,000-foot-high rocky outcropping, about 30 miles southwest of Antigua. Anchoring at Redonda is difficult, as the surrounding waters are quite deep and the ocean floor there is very rocky. There are a few birds (such as the burrowing owl), goats, and other animals on Redonda, which is maintained as protected parkland by the Antiguan government, but the last semi-permanent human activity there–an American aluminum phosphate mine–closed its doors in 1914. Currently, the most exciting thing associated with the island is the long-running claim of royal ownership (of the “Kingdom of Redonda”) that began in 1865, when Matthew Shiell “claimed” Redonda for his son Philippe, who was succeeded by the poet John Gawsworth. Gawsworth, subsequently appointed many of his literary contemporaries as dukes and duchesses of his kingdom. The current “king” lives in Sussex, United Kingdom, and has likely never laid eyes on his empire.

Weather
AntiquaAntiguaThe best (and busiest) time to go to Antigua is during the (NH) winter: December through February. The daily highs average around 81°F, and the skies are typically clear. The island remains a popular tourist destination well into spring, but by June it starts heating up significantly. July and August are the hottest months, with average highs reaching the 90°F mark.

Antigua is a relatively dry island, though the months of September through November are considered the rainy season. As in the rest of the region, rogue storms can arrive very randomly and leave just as suddenly as they came, no matter what time of year.

Antigua, Barbuda and Rodonda Information
North / Central AmericaPopulation: 66,422
Government: Constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth
Square Miles: Antigua, 108 sq mi (280 sq km); Barbuda, 62 sq mi (161 sq km)
Capitol: St John’s
Official Languages: English and English-based patois
Religion: Anglican Church (about 50%), Roman Catholic, Moravian
Major products/industries: Tourism, agriculture, fishing, light manufacturing

Alsek River Rafting

The Alsek River is a wilderness river flowing from the Yukon into Northern British Columbia and into Alaska. The surrounding area from the Western edge of the Alsek to East of the East Alsek is known to locals as Dry Bay.

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Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico FlagPuerto Rico may be an economic territory of the United States, but its people are fiercely independent. Rarely will you find an American flag flying high, without a corresponding Puerto Rican flag nearby, sometimes flying even higher. The island’s capitol and largest city San Juan is a maze of old and new, with modern shops and restaurants, shanties, a fortress musuem, sky-scrapers and casinos, and shopping malls all standing in conjunction with each other. Maybe more so than any other place in the Caribbean, old mingles with new in Puerto Rico, and the streets of San Juan are just the beginning.

But the island’s population has much more humble origins. in pre-Columbian times, the Taino people–a mostly peaceful indigenous group–had developed an already complex culture on the island that would become known as Puerto Rico. When the conqistador (and later, governor) Juan Ponce de León arrived in 1508, the Taino were ill-prepared to defend themselves against his advances. They were taken as slaves, and by the seventeenth century, nearly all the Taino had been wiped out.

With the Spanish-American War, the U.S. occupied Puerto Rico and has stood by as the island’s economy has gone up and down over the last century. Compared to many other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has a high standard of living, but it still falls far short of average compared to the mainland U.S.

In recent years, tempers have flared as the debate over Puerto Rican idependence heats up and the U.S. military presense on the island of Vieques has gathered critical attention. But the population continues to reap many fiscal benefits from its commonwealth relationship with the United States. And because Puerto Rico cannot vote in U.S. national elections, achieving control over its future will require complete cecession from America.

Traveling in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico MapWhile Puerto Rico is comparatively inexpensive, it’s easy to spend a lot if you want to. Budget accommodations will cost you US$40-75, while high-end rooms can be as much as US$150 and up. Just glance out the airplane window as you land at San Juan’s international airport and you’ll see the many skyscrapers bearing the names of worldwide banks: ATMs, traveler’s checks, and of course cash are all readily accessible and accepted.

Renting a car is easily the most convenient way to see the island. There are also busses and a ferry system, which will take you to the eastern islands of Vieques and Culebra. Take a drive through the mountainous center of Puerto Rico to the U.S.’s only tropical rainforest national park, El Yunque. Or head up to the Arecibo Radio Telescope–the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world. Visit the old city of Ponce, or the vast strecthes of beach at Luquillo. No matter where you go in Puerto Rico, you’ll end up just where you want to be.

Weather in Puerto Rico
The tourist high season in Puerto Rico is the Northern Hemisphere wintertime. This is due mainly to the number of North Americans who want to escape the cold of their own hometowns. Weather in Puerto Rico is nice year round, but to get the best deals go during hurricane season. The weather doesn’t often turn bad there this time of year, but be sure to check the forecast before you go.

Puerto Rico Information
Population: 3,915,798
Government: Commonwealth of the United States
Square Miles: 3500 sq miles (9100 sq km)
Capitol: San Juan (pop 1.6 million)
Official Languages: Spanish, English
Religion: Roman Catholic (85%), Protestant
Major products/industries: Textiles, pharmaceuticals, electronics, agriculture, rum, tourism