10 reasons you’ve got to get to Rio de Janeiro

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Rio de Janeiro is a city of icons. From the statue of Christ the Redeemer that welcomes the world with arms open to the beaches brought to life by festive cariocas (that’s what Rio locals are proudly called), there’s a lot to see in this beautiful city. You might already be familiar with some of the most popular sights, but there are also new attractions and secret places worth visiting, too. Here are the highlights of Rio.

Selaron Steps

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Image c/osandeepachetan.com

The Selaron Steps are a set of steps covered in mosaics and painted tiles. They set a colorful background that’s not only mesmerizing but also the perfect backdrop for a group photo. What began as small renovation by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron to beautify the dilapidated steps in front of his house soon became an obsession. The mosaics and tiles spread to all the steps, as well as the walls. Brightly colored ceramic tiles and mirrors pay tribute to the colors of the Brazilian flag and renowned artists.

The steps are located on the border of bohemian the neighborhoods of Lapa Santa Teresa and run from Joaquim Silva Street to Pinto Martins Street.

Christ the Redeemer

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Image c/o Anthony_Goto, Flickr

Completed in 1931, the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks Rio de Janeiro from Corvocado Mountain and is inarguably Rio’s most famous attraction. Not only is the titanic statue incredible to see up close, the panoramic views of the city from Corvocado Mountain are stunning.

Many sightseeing companies will include a trip to Christ the Redeemer, but you can also catch a taxi to Corvocado and take a train up to the summit.

Ipanema Beach

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Image c/o Xavier Donat, Flickr

Best known from the Bossa Nova Hit The Girl from Ipanema, Ipanema Beach is one of Rio’s many lively beaches lined with rental beach chairs and stands selling coconut water. In the Ipanema neighborhood, you’ll find many upscale hotels and world-class restaurants, but the real action happens on the sand where you’ll stumble across people playing volleyball, soccer, and doing a bit of surfing.

In the evenings you’ll be treated to a spectacular display of color and silhouettes as the sun sets behind the mountains often referred to as the two brothers.

Sugarloaf Mountain

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Image c/o Ronald Woan, Flickr

Named for its resemblance to a Portuguese dessert, Sugarloaf Mountain is one of the most popular places to go for a birds-eye view of Rio de Janeiro. Take a cable car all the way up to the top, where you can not only enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the bay, but also walk the trails at the top of the mountain or grab some lunch at the mountain-top cafe.

RELATED: 10 Greatest Mountain Towns in the World

Museum of Tomorrow

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Image c/o Nels Highberg, Flickr

The Museum of Tomorrow welcomes the world to Rio by inviting visitors to think about both the history and future of the planet. Dedicated to sustainability, the science museum features exhibits on astrology, geology, and anthropology, as well as the effect of civilization on the environment. The futuristic building located on Maua Pier attracts visitors from all over the world and invites them to envision and plan for a better future.

The Royal Portuguese Reading Room

No book lover can leave Rio de Janeiro without a visit to one of the most awe-inspiring libraries in the world. Surrounded on all sides by three-stories of books, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room houses the largest collection of Portuguese books outside of Portugal. The library also has statues, art, maps, and is covered by a stained glass dome that will make you feel like you’ve stepped inside a cathedral made of books. A hidden gem, even among locals, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room is free and open to public between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.

RELATED: Most Incredible Bookstores in the World

Mirante Dona Marte

There are many spots to find a great view in a city surrounded by mountains, but if you want to avoid crowds and high-ticket prices then Mirante Dona Marte is the best lookout point in Rio. Though it’s designated as a heli-pad in the thick of the Tijuca forest, it’s open to the public, easy to drive to, and even has parking for a very small fee. Head there if you want to skip the crowds of tourists flocking to Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain. You’ll be able to see both famous landmarks from the 360-degree vantage point.

Copacabana Beach

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Image c/o Jori Samonen, Flickr

The world’s most famous beach, bustling Copacabana is filled with bars and coconut carts. You can go for a long jog along the black and white sidewalk, lounge on the sand, or take a break and shop in one of the Rio’s best districts. With plenty of restaurants, shopping, and carts selling fresh coconut milk, Copacabana is the perfect place to lie back, take a dip, and absorb the buzz of the city.

RELATED: 10 Amazing Beach Getaways That Aren’t the Caribbean

Botanical Garden

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Image c/o Rodrigo Soldon, Flickr

If you want to experience the incredible biodiversity of Brazil’s jungles but have no interest in learning how to wield a machete, Rio’s Botanical Garden is the place to go for an up close look without the hike. The gardens are an excellent place for a peaceful stroll, perfect for balancing out the excitement on the beaches.

Maracana

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Image c/o sarhjadeonline, Flickr

The most famous stadium in Brazil opened in 1950 for Brazil’s first World Cup. It has gone on to host many other matches, as well as musicians such as Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, and Frank Sinatra. Learn about the history of the stadium that’s synonymous with Brazilian soccer by taking a tour through the locker rooms and onto the field. Maracana was modernized for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games.

What’s hot in South America? We ask the world’s best travel bloggers

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The eyes of the world are on South America at the moment, and despite a few challenges, it seems to be putting on quite a show. So, we’ve asked a few of our favourite bloggers from around the world to give us their must-sees in this magical continent. Did they go for the natural wonderlands or the trendy urban centres? Brazil and Chile seem to have done pretty well, but there were a few surprises too.

And for all you living in Europe, the UK or North America, now’s the time to check out South America. We’ve currently got up to 15% OFF all our South American departures until 15 September 2016.

Macca Sherifi – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

As a photographer/videographer it’s hard to look past the Galapagos Islands. It is by far one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve ever travelled. No matter where you look the place is teeming with wildlife. The thing about the Galapagos Islands is it’s difficult to get around, but travelling from island to island by boat or plane is an amazing way to get a different perspective. You never know what you’re going to see. On the boat from Isla Isabela to Isla Santa Cruz not only did we see the largest pod of dolphins I’ve ever come across but we also saw huge Devil Rays flipping out water doing summersault after summersault. It was a spectacular show just for us, and you really can’t get that anywhere else.

You can follow Macca’s travels at abritandabroad.com

Annika Ziehen – Paraty, Brazil

The best thing in Brazil? Drinking Jorge Amados in Paraty, a heritage town that gives the term cobblestones a whole new meaning. It’s the home of gold diggers, pirates, and cachaça which makes it the perfect place for an adventure. Start by exploring the old streets of the city centre, but be careful not to get caught during high tide: the alleys closest to the shore turn into canals, formerly used to transport wares from the port to the warehouses.

Later, set out to hike the old Caminho do Ouro that was used to bring gold from Minas Gerais to the docks. Don’t forget to take a dip in the natural pools on the way and test your inner daredevil on the rock slides. Afterward you can stop for a well-deserved break at one of the local cachaça distilleries to sample the local version of Caipirinha: Jorge Amado. Named after the famed Brazilian writer, it uses Gabriela, a clove-spiced cachaça, and passion fruit. Only in Paraty!

Follow more of Annika’s adventures at midnightblueelephant.com

Katy Colins – Valparaiso, Chile

Chile is a spindly-looking country with arid deserts and glacial icecaps at either end, but it somehow manages to maintain a constant warm heart. Perfect for adrenalin junkies and cultured foodies, you’re guaranteed a friendly welcome from the locals (llamas included!)

My favourite place? That’s easy. Just over an hour away from the bustling cosmopolitan capital of Santiago lies the UNESCO port town and street-art haven of Valparaiso. For years, painters, poets and philosophers have headed to this bohemian mecca inspired by its relaxed attitude and faded charm. Where everything is a canvas and everyone’s inner photographer comes to life, snapping away the riot of colours, graffiti tags and pretty pastel coloured houses lining the steep streets. I was no exception.

Follow Katy’s adventures at notwedordead.com

Amanda Williams – Baños, Ecuador

My favourite South American destination so far is Baños de Agua Santa (or simply Baños) in Ecuador. This laid-back mountain town is named for its natural hot springs and known for the amount of activities on offer for the outdoor/adventure enthusiast. Whether it’s zip lining, canyoning, or hiking that you’re interested in, you’re spoiled for choice in Baños. Even this non-hiker was inspired enough by the setting to tackle more than 800 stairs in order to get a better view at a statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the town and surrounding mountains. There’s plenty to do, too. You can go hiking, visit waterfalls, and even have a go on a giant swing that, on a clear day, has views of the nearby Tungurahua volcano.

Follow Amanda’s adventures at dangerous-business.com

Chloe Gunning – Atacama Desert, Chile

It would be hard to find landscapes more awe-inspiring than those in the Atacama region of Northern Chile. I had an amazing trip there in February this year. To make the most of the region, I based myself in San Pedro de Atacama – an adorable desert town full of hippie restaurants, bars and ice cream shops. From there I booked onto special tours to visit the bubbling geysers, incredible lagoons, salt flats, gigantic sand dunes and the lunar valley. For me, the trip to see the lunar valley at sunset was one of my top travel moments of my entire time in South America. The light was magical and although there were lots of people there, it was strangely peaceful! It’s definitely one of the most photogenic places on the planet.

Follow Chloe’s adventures at wanderlustchloe.com

Victoria Brewood – Rio, Brazil

My favourite destination is Rio de Janeiro. I was supposed to spend just a few days there and ended up staying three weeks because I made so many friends. I loved the laid back Carioca lifestyle – tanning on Copacabana beach, eating icy cool ‘acai’, drinking caipirinhas as the sun goes down and dancing to the rhythm of the samba. It’s the blend of city, beach, food, music and dancing that makes this city a truly special one. The views, whether from Sugar Loaf Mountain or Christ the Redeemer, are also epic.

If you want to experience Rio like a local, I would highly recommend visiting Palaphita Kitch for sunset drinks. Sit on the bamboo sofas, order a cocktail and admire the views over the lake. For brunch you shouldn’t miss Santa Satisfacao in Copacabana, and for a typical churrascaria experience you can’t beat Carretao. The waiters will carve a selection of meats in front of you and they won’t stop coming until you tell them you’re full! On a Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the locals head on over to Lapa, where the streets are filled with food stalls and bars.

This restaurant chain is changing the lives of struggling Cambodian kids

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Through The Intrepid Foundation (our not-for-profit) we’re constantly teaming up with local community groups and NGOs doing some pretty amazing things. One of those groups is Friends International, a social enterprise that’s changing the lives of young people in South East Asia…in the most delicious way possible. Friends International has a chain of local-run restaurants that offer placements and vocational training for at-risk kids in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia. Each restaurant and training program reaches out to marginalised teens and young people, some of them living on the street, and teaches them basic skills like cooking, service and what it takes to run a successful restaurant. It’s the best kind of charity: one that actually empowers communities and achieves real change.

In fact we liked Friends International so much that we set up our own Eat for a Cause campaign ($3 of every Food Adventure we sell in 2016 goes straight to the restaurants), and the fruits of those efforts are beginning to take shape. Later this year, Friends International will be opening a brand new restaurant in Siem Reap, called Aharathan Me Phtas (translation: Aharathan means canteen and me phtas is someone who takes care of the family). It’s a city that’s probably on every traveller’s South East Asian Bucket List (thanks to the incredible Angkor Wat just down the road), but one that very few visitors understand. Poverty and begging are commonplace, and in some cases the lucrative tourism industry actually makes things worse for Siem Reap’s at-risk children.

We sat down with Laura Knight from Friends International to chat about the new restaurant opening and everything they have achieved so far.

 

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1. How did Friends International come about?

In 1994, Friends-International (FI) began supporting children and young people who were living and working on the streets of Phnom Penh. Since then, we’ve initiated programs in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia, and supported partner programs across the globe, in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The Kaliyan Mith programme began in Siem Reap in 2005, to address the urgent needs of marginalised children and young people in the city. Our overall mission is to protect children and youth from all forms of abuse and support them to reintegrate into society as functional and productive citizens. Kaliyan Mith is a big part of that process.

2. What are some of the day-to-day issues you are trying to address through Friends International programs?

Our programs work with vulnerable and marginalised children and young people, including children living and working on the street, migrants, drug users, youth in conflict with the law, children affected by HIV and AIDS, runaways and school drop-outs. We take a holistic approach by supporting children as well as their families or caretakers, so we can address the long term needs of vulnerable communities.

Siem Reap is a growing tourist hub. In the eyes of many rural Cambodians, it represents hope. The increasing wealth in the city attracts a large number of families in the hope of a better life. Unfortunately, with limited skills, young people often find themselves in dangerous situations and without any opportunities to earn a stable income. Marginalized families are often forced to send their children to work on the street (scavenging, begging, selling items to tourists, etc.) instead of going to school. Without stable income and housing, people are more vulnerable to chronic illness, abuse, drug use, crime, violence, and exploitation.

Unemployment among marginalized and unskilled youth is a big issue in Siem Reap. It’s crucial that we work with these young people and their families to offer them future opportunities. Likewise, supporting caretakers by improving their skills and chances of employment is vital for ensuring that kids are able to attend school.

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3. You’ve built several training restaurants across South East Asia to support at-risk youths. Why are restaurants so effective as a form of social enterprise?

Our business model’s been really effective, it’s true. There are now eight TREE (Training Restaurants for Employment and Entrepreneurship) in four countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Ethiopia). Establishing training restaurants as social businesses not only gives practical skills to vulnerable young people, it allows profits from the restaurants to be invested in the students and programs which support them.

Training can also be adapted to reflect the needs of the local labour market, or designed to respond to specific needs of the trainees. Running the workshops as a social business also allows students to gain practical experience and customer feedback. It’s hands-on stuff that they’ll be able to take with them anywhere they go, and many of our graduates have done just that.

4. Do you have a few favourite success stories?

I sure do. In Siem Reap, the Marum restaurant opened in September 2012 and since then over 200 at-risk young people have received hospitality training. We’ve managed to place about 140 placed in full-time employment. One of our students, Dara* was 19 and worked in construction, collecting rubbish on the dumpsite, when a social worker from Kaliyan Mith spoke with her about enrolling in vocational training. Without much money, Dara had been unable to complete Grade 8 at school. She didn’t have many skills that she could use to find employment. Following counselling with the social worker, Dara decided to enrol in training at Marum because she liked cooking and wanted to work in a hotel or restaurant. During her studies, Kaliyan Mith provided support to Dara’s family so they could get enough food and Dara could focus on her training. After completing the training, we helped Dara find a job with a regular salary so she could support her family. Dara and her family are happy now – she has a skill she can take with her forever, and she doesn’t have to rely on dangerous and unreliable work in construction or on the dumpsite.

RELATED: VISIT A KALIYAN MITH RESTAURANT ON OUR CAMBODIA REAL FOOD ADVENTURE

Another student, Sophat*, was living in an orphanage and was struggling at school. He had lost motivation and was planning on dropping out. The orphanage put Sophat in contact with Kaliyan Mith, and we spoke with him about the different vocational training options available. After a tour to find out more, Sophat decided to enrol in our hospitality training at the Marum restaurant. Despite his initial nervousness, Sophat proved to be an excellent student. He studied hard, was open to new ideas and was committed to become the best he could be. Sophat completed his cooking training in just three months and spent the next 12 months developing his service skills. Following graduation, we helped Sophat find work in a boutique hotel. We hear he’s still keen to keep learning and developing skills so one day he can become the service manager at his hotel.

*Names have been changed for this article.

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5. How is this year’s restaurant different from other restaurants you have set up in the past?

Kaliyan Mith’s new restaurant, Aharathan Me Phtas is a different social business model from the existing TREE restaurants. While we’ll still provide quality training, Aharathan Me Phtas will focus on training the parents and caretakers of vulnerable children and young people. Giving training to these guardians will help them become more financially stable and better able to support their families.

The restaurant will mainly cater for the local market, with delicious home-cooked Khmer food (anyone who’s travelled through Cambodia knows what I’m talking about!). Graduates from Marum and other TREE businesses tend to gain employment in existing restaurants and hotels. We’re hoping that graduates from the this new restaurant will be more likely to also set up their own small, home-based food stalls. The training will be a bit shorter than usual (about 3-6 months), so that parents and caretakers can quickly develop the skills needed to support their families. We’re also setting up an on-site preschool facility, so mums can learn without having to worry about the kids.

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7. When will the restaurant open? And (just as important) what are some of the local dishes travellers will get to taste?

Our latest restaurant is currently being set up, and is scheduled to open at the beginning of September. It will be open Monday – Saturday for breakfast and lunch, serving local Khmer food. Aharathan Me Phtas will offer a traditional Khmer breakfast of rice with grilled meats and will have four daily lunch specials, including soups, grilled meat and fish, fried dishes and salads. The lunch menu will change daily offering a selection of fresh, mouth-watering meals throughout the week.

Located on the Siem Reap River, Aharathan Me Phtas will be a great spot to try genuine, local Khmer cuisine – just like our students eat at home. The restaurant is also next door to our new training beauty salon, Phka Kravan, so customers can access quality, beauty treatments before or after they eat.

Travel season guide when to visit our favourite destinations

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Travel. It’s all in the timing. If you’ve managed to narrow down your ideal destination from the endless possibilities on offer (and if you have, could you please tell us how you did it?), the next question is: when do you go? For some countries it’s easy. Just avoid the monsoon/endless night/sub-zero temperatures/tourist hoards. For other destinations, there really isn’t a bad time.

So how do you narrow it down? Enter our handy travel season guide. These are our favourite times to visit some of our favourite destinations. Good weather, cool local festivals or a blissful lack of crowds: you’ll find them all in the suggestions below.

JAPAN – April

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Why April:  Cherry Blossom season, it is the most popular and busiest time to travel to Japan but if you can stand the crowds the beauty of the blossoms trees are well worth it. Even if you’re not big on nature, this is something you’ve got to see. Hanami (花見?, lit. “flower viewing”) is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers. Japan is a beautiful country regardless, but during cherry blossom it doubles in beauty, watch cities disappear under canopies of colour and national parks transform into spaces so surreal, you’ll think last night’s sake got the better of you. Typically, the blossoms bloom somewhere between late March and early May. Part of their magic is that they’re only in bloom for a week or two – less if there are strong winds or heavy rain. For a short magical period the cherry blossoms are everywhere.

You’ll find all sorts of celebrations wrapped up in the blooming of the cherry blossom. The collective shindig is known asHanami, which translates literally to ‘viewing flowers’. It encompasses all sorts of things: tea ceremonies, picnics, barbeques, sports and performing arts, all under canopies of blossom. Over one thousand years old, this celebration is very much a highlight on the calendar – and one you won’t want to miss. Blossoms vary slightly depending on the tree variety. The most common is a small white flower with five delicate petals. You’ll also find yellow, pink and green blossoms throughout the country. Trees in the south typically bloom before the north.

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Don’t miss:  Besides checking out the blossoms, the three ‘must-dos’ are 1) an overnight stay at a traditional Ryokan in Koya San 2) A naked dip in Japan’s traditional Onsen (Hot Bath/Showers)  and 3) our Tokyo After 5 Urban Adventure and eat and drink your way around some local bars and restaurants.

Insider tip: Don’t leave home without slip-on shoes, hole-less socks (you’ll have your shoes off a lot). There’s also no need to tip in Japan. It’s not really the custom.

BORNEO – August

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Image c/o NH53, Flickr

Why August: Borneo’s climate is typical for a tropical region: generally hot and humid all year-round. Temperatures are usually in the high 20s for most of the year, dropping back to the low 20s at night. Rainfall tends to be in short, heavy bursts followed by glorious sunshine. Generally August and September are considered the best time to visit, with the east coast getting wetter in October, while the lands around Kota Kinabalu get drier. The trees fruit at this time too, which means orangutans can be seen grazing closer to the ground. Always a bonus.

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Don’t miss:

  1. A Mount Kinabalu climb. Mount Kinabalu is special. At the summit, climbers are walking over mostly granite rock that has been shaped over thousands of years by wind, water and glaciers to create sweeping panoramas framed by craggy spires and an impossibly blue sky. You can’t climb Kinabalu without feeling there is something magical about the mountain. The climb up Kinabalu itself is challenging. Although it’s an accessible climb, compared to some other mountain treks around the world, the physical agility and mental strength required to both summit and descend Mt Kinabalu is intense. Because of this, and because you start summiting in complete darkness around 2am, guides become more than guides – they are coaches, mentors, protectors, motivators. They keep you calm and focused, hand you their gloves and coats if you are cold and keep you entertained and energised when you think you will never make it to the top. The challenge is worth it – seeing sunrise from the top of Mount Kinabalu is an unforgettable experience.
  2. The wildlife. Meeting the gentle orangutans of Sepilok is a must-do for visitors to Borneo. These orange-tinged creatures are captivating, entertaining and cheeky – and watching them play, eat and interact in the jungle of Sepilok is a privilege not to be missed. It’s also worth visiting Turtle Island, just north of Sandakan, Turtle Island Park is a haven for endangered green and hawksbill turtles. Seeing turtles land onshore at dusk, or baby turtles hatching, is a properly unforgettable moment.
  3. Community Village stay. Borneo was our second destination ever. Sapinggi Ladsou has been Intrepid’s main guide on Mt Kinabalu since we started running trips in Borneo twenty-five years ago. Over the years, Sapinggi and his wife, along with their ten children, have also welcomed Intrepid travellers into their home as part of a community village stay in Borneo. The whole family has been overwhelmingly generous with their hospitality, and they are well known and loved by the past travellers and staff who have visited them.

Insider tip: The Poring Hot Springs are steaming hot pools of water near Mt Kinabalu, and a relaxing place to unwind after trekking the mountain. Sliding into the open-air baths is a therapeutic way to soothe your muscles. A nice outdoor reward for completing the climb.

The via ferrata: Following 2015’s devastating earthquake, the operator of the via ferrata (Mountain Torq) had completely rebuilt the trail and Intrepid now includes guided ascents of Kinabalu on our Borneo – Hike, Bike and Kayak adventure. The Mt Kinabalu via ferrata (or ‘iron road’ in Italian) is devised to give climbers with little or no climbing experience access to rock faces normally reached by mountaineers and rock climbers. Kinabalua’s via ferrata is the highest via ferrata in the world at 3776M, and the only via ferrata in South East Asia.

CUBA – December

Cuba’s subtropical climate is ideal for travelling, with most places catching the cool trade winds that blow from the coast. This gives Cuba pleasant temperatures year-round. June, July and August are usually the hottest months, the dry season runs from November to April and the wet season from May to October. Even in the rainy season, downpours are short and heavy and shouldn’t hinder travel plans. Tropical storms and hurricanes are more prevalent in September and October but rarely cause problems for travellers.

Why December: When it comes to Cuba, our advice is simple: go as soon as you can. Cuba has been in a time capsule: when Castro pressed pause on economic progress in the 60s, he also inadvertently pressed pause on Cuba. Visiting Cuba has been like stepping back in time – there’s almost no internet and ancient Chevrolets driving down cobblestone streets. All that is changing quickly with new American travel laws, and that’s why Cuba it’s best to get there as soon as possible. In December, the weather will be at its very best, too.

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Don’t miss:

  1. Classic cars and cocktails in Havana. Classic cars and cool cocktails sum up Cuba to a T, so we married them together on this Havana tour straight from the mid-century. Cruise at low altitude through the faded elegance of Havana’s grand, old suburbs, then stop for a sundowner at the swinging Hotel Nacional.  
  2. Music & Dance. Cubans love to dance, and trust us, they’ll help even the most uncoordinated traveller find their rhythm. Try some Salsa, Rumba, or Afro-Cuban Conga moves. There are open-air street parties and jazz clubs, so it’s best to embrace it all and just revel in the infectious beats and lively atmosphere of Cuba’s legendary nightlife.
  3. Trinidad. Havana may have gotten the reputation for being Cuba’s delightfully colourful city, but it’s Trinidad that’s Cuba’s real star. Located on the south side of the country’s centre with just over 73,000 inhabitants, Trinidad offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The town has a more relaxed energy and the brick roofs, cobblestone, and peeling paint further add to its charm. Getting out and taking a hike is definitely recommended, especially through El Cubano National Park up to the gorgeous Javira waterfall. Jump in and swim up to a cave for some bat-watching, bathe in the shallow waters for the ultimate post-hike cooldown. One of the best beaches in the world, Playa Ancón is just a short drive outside Trinidad. White sand, turquoise water, few people – the winning combo? Sip from a rum-filled coconut courtesy of a man with a horse-drawn cart, then kick things up a few notches with a beach BBQ organized by your guide.

Insider tip: Cuba’s much bigger than it looks, and the public transport is generally slow, complicated and subject to frequent cancellations and delays. We use private transport to get around, but if you’re looking for plenty of beach time you might prefer our Cuba sailing holiday. Or we also have cycling trips in Cuba.

SRI LANKA – January

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Sri Lanka has a tropical climate, with temperatures remaining in the high 20s throughout most of the year. The dry seasons are June – August and December – March.

January is the busiest time for our best-selling trip – Circle Sri Lanka. It’s the best time to visit the south and south west beaches as well as the hill country. Dry, sunny, and not too humid. Sri Lanka is a hot destination in more ways than one. Due to rising demand, last year we launched a Real Food Adventure in Sri Lanka, and this year we launched Sensational Sri Lanka, which goes to Jaffna in the north of the country. It’s the first time we’ve visited this area of the country since the civil war.

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  • Sri Lanka is a hot destination because it really does have it all – food, culture, wildlife and beaches. It’s also an easy destination for Australians to explore in 2-3 weeks, and it offers great value for money so you won’t blow the budget.
  • The cultural triangle is a major drawcard for our travellers. All of our itineraries visit Kandy, Anuradhapura, spend time in Sigiriya to visit and climb Lion Rock, and in Polonnurawru we ride bikes through the ancient city.
  • Sri Lankan food is also a massive drawcard – that’s why we launched our Real Food Aventure which includes flavour-filled curries and sweet desserts, the amazing Sri Lankan seafood on offer at the Negombo seafood market, and the tea plantations of Bandarawela. The elephants of Udawalawe National Park are also a highlight, and our Sri Lanka Family Adventure includes a visit to the Elephant Transit Home to learn about the organisation’s work with orphaned or abandoned baby elephants

Sri Lanka is still an emerging tourism destination, so even the main sites don’t feel too touristy. It’s also relatively small and easy to get around – but packs a punch with a huge variety. The culture of Kandy, hiking and village homestays in the jungle highlands, safaris in Yalla National Park, the southern beaches around Unawatuna, or the Northern town of Jaffna – it’s all pretty special.

India by Etch A Sketch…you’ve never seen it like this before

India-taj-mahal---Claudio Accheri

Artist Jane Labowitch likes to doodle. In fact she’s made it her full-time profession. And the instrument she’s chosen to do it? None other than the humble Etch A Sketch. That childhood toy that had created innumerable dodgy-looking houses and questionable stick figures since its invention in France way back in 1960.

But Jane goes one step further than your regular ‘etcher’. With a painstaking approach to detail, she can create exquisite works of art using, essentially, two white plastic dials. Up, down, side to side. That’s all it takes to copy artworks as complicated as Seurat’s A Sunday on the Grande Jatte. We loved Jane’s work and sent her on a trip to India with a mission to capture some of the chaos and local colour and bring to to life on the humble Etch A Sketch. We reckon she nailed the brief.

Here are Jane’s Indian masterpieces, complete with a little insight into their creation. Or scroll down for an exclusive etch-a-interview.

Tuk tuks

Etch A Sketch India tuk-tuk

“I photographed the tuktuk in the middle of a busy street corner in Delhi. I was attracted to this corner because there was so much happening, and it reflected my experience in the city. Everything was in constant motion with the hustle and bustle, and to ride through it all on a tuktuk was quite exhilarating! Creating machinery on an Etch A Sketch can be difficult, because there’s very little room for error. Everything has to be precise, so I made sure to slowly map out where everything on the vehicle lived. I used simple shading mainly consisting of parallel lines so as not to detract from the detailed line work that makes up all the smaller, more intricate elements within the rickshaw.”

Hamayun’s Tomb

Etch A Sketch India Hamayuns Ttomb

“My jaw hit the floor upon first gazing at Hamayun’s Tomb. Made of sandstone and marble, it is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal and the moment I saw it I knew I was going to immortalise it on an Etch A Sketch! The toughest part of this rendition was keeping everything as symmetrical as I could. I used a little artistic license to remove obstructing foliage so that the Etch A Sketch drawing solely focused on the structure.”

Amber Palace – the Hall of Mirrors

Etch A Sketch India Amber Palace Wall of Mirrors

“The Amber Palace in Jaipur is gorgeous and insanely intricate! There is a section called the Hall of Mirrors because there are thousands of mirrors embedded into the designs on the wall. I can only imagine how beautiful it must look under candlelight at night. I focused on a small portion of the hall because otherwise it would have been impossible to etch all of the intricate details of the embedded designs on the walls. But even zoomed in, the amount of detail is staggering. Though it took me some time to replicate the pattern on an Etch A Sketch, I’m sure it took the artisans countless hours to create such beautiful designs.”

The Red Fort

Etch A Sketch India Red Fort

“The Red Fort is gigantic! There was so much to take in. My eye was drawn to this beautiful arcade, saturated with grand detail. It continues to blow my mind that pretty much everything I’ve seen in India was built hundreds of years before the US was founded. This Etch A Sketch rendition was one of the most time-consuming for me to create; I’d estimate that it took at least 10 hours in total. There is little room for error when it comes to architectural renditions. I had to take extra care and work slowly to save myself from making a mistake big enough to warrant starting all over again.’

The Taj Mahal

Etch A Sketch India Taj Mahal

“Our group woke up at 3:30 am so we could see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and it was definitely worth the early wake-up call. We were the first people in line and, for an ever-so-brief moment, we had a completely unobstructed view of the magnificent structure. Our tour guide shared the story of the Taj Mahal with our group and half of us were crying by the end of it (including me). It is truly the most magnificent monument of love, and I am so thankful that I got to travel across the world to see it.

I was so so excited about creating the Taj Mahal on a full size Etch A Sketch. A couple years ago I created a simpler rendition on a pocket (small) Etch A Sketch, and I’ve been itching to see the real thing ever since. This rendition took over 10 hours to create. As with the Hamayun’s Tomb rendition, I had to take extra care to keep all of the architectural elements symmetrical. The shading in the bushes took a great deal of care as I made very minute loops to give them their texture. The water in the fountain is comprised of minute waves. I decided to keep the shading relatively simplistic on the Taj Mahal itself because I didn’t want to distract from the beauty of the structure. It’s my favourite rendition I created from my trip in India and I’m so proud of how it turned out.”

So Jane, how did you get into Etch A Sketch art?

I started playing with an Etch A Sketch when I was around 4 years old. Growing up, it was one of those toys we had around the house and I would play with it often at my grandma’s to pass the time. I played with the toy so much that I inadvertently taught myself how to move the stylus where I wanted it to go, without having to think about which way to turn the knobs. From there, my Etch A Sketch skills grew with my drawing abilities. If I could draw it, I could etch it! In high school, I was getting a really great response for my Etch A Sketch art so I decided to spend more time on detailed renditions. I went to art school after graduating from high school, and was consistently creating Etch A Sketch art outside of the classroom. It’s something I’ve always done, and I would have never guessed as a kid that I’d be making a living from it today!

What’s the process? 

There’s a lot that I do to prepare for an Etch A Sketch drawing before I even start turning knobs. The first thing I do is choose my subject (usually from a photo reference or drawing) and choose which size Etch A Sketch I am going to use. I tend to choose a classic (large) Etch A Sketch for my most detailed work, and the pocket (small) size for quicker, simpler renditions. After determining what I’m going to draw and what size Etch A Sketch I am going to use, I test a few Etch A Sketches in that size to find the one that functions how I want it to. Every Etch A Sketch is a little bit different in how it’s manufactured – for example, some styluses inside the toy draw thicker lines on the screen than others. For simple work, I might prefer a heavy line. For my more intricate work, I lean toward a thin line so that I can capture more detail. After choosing the exact Etch A Sketch I am going to use, I resize my reference photo to be a 1:1 scale to the size of the Etch A Sketch screen, and print it out. I also keep my reference photo open on my computer so I can freely zoom in and understand certain details that my printed photo might not show.

Now that I have all materials at hand, I start etching! I don’t consistently start in the same place, but I prefer to start with the hardest stuff first, because if I don’t like how it turns out, I can start over early. Though I rarely restart, it’s nice to get the difficult parts out of the way first! From there I work on mapping everything out slowly, constantly using my scale reference as a guide to ensure that I am paying attention to proportions. After I finish all of the important line work, I set about the equally time-consuming but significantly easier part of the drawing – shading and details. At this point I am able to relax a little because the line art is taken care of which is the most difficult part of the drawing. I employ various shading techniques, such as parallel lines and minute little squiggles, to register different tones of grey. I sometimes have to go over the same area over a dozen times to get the darkest tones in my work. As I work on the shading, I clean up the initial line work by going over the lines and giving them different weights. I have to be careful, because this part requires me to perfectly trace over lines I’ve already created.

Once I finish the art, I photograph it using natural light. If it’s a work I am particularly proud of, I will preserve it so that it cannot be erased. This is a lengthy and messy process all in itself! I drill a hole in the back of the toy, shake all the powder out, clean the toy thoroughly and go over any lines that might have faded during the preservation process. I then seal the hole and glue down the knobs so they cannot be used to create new lines.

What are your favourite things to draw? 

I have always loved drawing people, because every person is unique and it’s a really fun challenge to capture someone’s likeness using only one line. I also love how, in contrast to architecture, people are made up of organic lines that are free-flowing and lack the precision necessary to draw a building. It’s especially fun to draw someone’s portrait from life, because it’s a more difficult challenge than working from a photo.

I really enjoy drawing pop-culture related art on Etch A Sketch as well! It’s my way of paying homage to the things I admire and enjoy, and I’ve gotten great reception from others who are also fans of the things I choose to etch.

Are you planning to combine travel and Etch A Sketch in the future?

Definitely! This trip to India was so much fun and served as amazing artistic inspiration for me. I’d love to continue exploring new destinations and cultures through the screen of an Etch A Sketch. Right now I am working on a series of art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and would love to visit other art museums throughout the world to etch masterworks from life. But I’ve also thought a lot about the idea of etching “en plein air”, or etching landscapes out in the open.

The best travel complaint we ever received…the sequel

Complaint---Intrepid-Travel

Well played, Rebecca Gadsby, you serial complainant. Last year you cut us to the bone with this scathing indictment, and this year you’ve followed it up with another venom-soaked tirade that we will probably frame and hang in the lobby one day. If we had a cap, we’d doff it to you.

Dear Intrepid,

You may remember me, as I wrote detailed letter of complaint last summer on my return from a very disappointing trip to Thailand.

I decided, against the advice of patriotic Brits, to embark on another one of your tours; merely to see if I could find something to complain about, thus reinstating my citizenship in the UK as a ‘true Brit’, and to be respected amongst my friends again (you may remember that I was concerned about extradition following last year’s trip).

I wisely chose Cambodia as my destination this year, as I thought this would provide plenty of opportunity for misdemeanours. It was difficult, I confess, and I had to work terribly hard at it, but I’m delighted to say that I fulfilled my quest to find fault with your company. I will forthwith outline my concerns about this trip;

1. Firstly, I was horrified to discover from my GP that I would require ‘malaria tablets’ for this trip. This was very alarming indeed. Did you know there were dangerous monsters in this country you’re allowing decent British people to go to? Why have Intrepid not taken steps to abolish these dangerous invaders of the skin? Do you know what’s fun about mosquitos? Nothing. They’re horrible little blighters that drain your blood during the night. It was a miracle that I had any blood left after 5 bites (I have no idea how much they take, but I suspect a pint or two). Please take steps immediately to get rid of them before any other poor British traveller is forced to live with dots on their skin for 5 days.

2. My tour guide, Pheap, was far too nice. And he smiled too much. One should be suspicious about someone who is friendly all of the time and his general sunny disposition each and every day was very disconcerting. One had to wonder what he was up to. Combined with this he always wore bright patterned shirts; I suspect he was trying to hypnotise me. Please provide your guides with a dull grey shirt and train them to adopt a sterner look – at least for a large portion of the day. This will be less disturbing for the perceptive English traveller.

3. The scenery during the kayaking was far too beautiful and serene to be real. I have strong suspicions that the Khmers are conning both you and me and they have created the scenery in a workshop and it’s actually all just fiberglass. If I wanted to go to a film set, I could have popped to Pinewood studios instead. I can’t possibly show the pictures to my friends and family; they won’t believe they’re real and will probably accuse me of ‘digitally enhancing’ them. Some nice grassy banks with the odd cow is a more-than-sufficient view. Mountains draped in lush green jungle and the twisted trees in the river forest is all a bit, well, unbelievable. Have you got Tim Burton working for you now?

4. Now, the Temples tour: I’m sure they will all look lovely when they’re finished, but it is completely unacceptable to take us to a building site as part of the trip. There was rubble everywhere which created many perilous trip hazards and as for the weeds – well! Someone needs to employ a gardener ASAP, as it looks like it hasn’t been attended to for hundreds of years (I enclose a picture for reference). Can you believe that I actually saw a tree growing out of one building?! It’s a disgrace. Also, there wasn’t a builder in sight – at any of the temples – so I suspect work on these buildings is going to be very slow and I don’t anticipate any results for some time. I saw a chicken wondering around, but it didn’t seem to have any tools, so it seems likely that it was just surveying the building. You should probably take the Angkor temples off your itinerary until building work is complete.

5. I lead on to my final, and most important complaint; there was a serious lack of English Breakfast tea and I was forced to go without for the entire 10 days. As an Australian company, I am aware that you may not understand the importance of ‘proper tea.’ I will enlighten you; it is detrimental to the British and a perfectly good trip can be completely ruined by the absence of decent tea. We live off tea; it is how we are fuelled. Our brains cannot operate without it and our body’s functions are stabilised by it. For instance, after our thrilling bike ride through the villages, one needed to calm down, assess the situation and return to a normal heart rhythm by drinking tea. I’ve never understood how other cultures do this without tea, but believe me; it is essential to the British. The sub-standard tea provided was not acceptable in the slightest and, in fact, made me quite angry. Intrepid should provide each and every hotel/tour guide/restaurant with the correct tea with immediate effect. This should probably be done at every location you visit around the world. I cannot bear the thought of another British traveller suffering in the manner that I did.

Hopefully this advice will help you to make the correct adjustments to the Hike, Bike & Kayak trip to Cambodia. I anticipate taking another one of your trips next year; but you should not see this as a reflection of your hard work, organisation, astuteness or the dedication of your guides. It is merely out of a sense of curiosity to see if my complaint about the tea has been addressed.

The most mind-blowing travel videos of all time

Best-travel-videos-of-all-time---Unsplash

Travel videos are what happens when you take the world’s most beautiful places, turn them upside down and shake hard. The visual wanderlust that falls out – when paired with a suitably moving instrumental score, or possibly an Alan Watts voiceover – is sometimes overpowering. It can make people do crazy things. It’s like that mirror in Harry Potter: people have wasted away in front of travel videos, living in a dream world of wanderlust, where the sunsets are always filtered, and time moves in dramatic horizontal pans and super slow-mos.

So when we were pulling together the 9 best in the world, we knew we’d have to pair them with a public service warning. Consume at your own risk. May in extreme cases lead to adventures. You have been warned.

9. Collecting Moments, Intrepid Travel

Yeah, yeah we know. It’s a bit self-indulgent. But this little video we put together definitely gives us the Travel Tingles (they’re like regular tingles, but more exotic). Anyway, we only put it 9th out of modesty. And whatever, it’s our blog.

8. Koh Yao Noi, Phillip Bloom

The travel video answer to all those who had written off Thailand as ‘just another overrun tourist destination.’ There’s still a lot of beauty there, if you know where to look. Also a great example of the way drones have changed independent filmmaking.

7. In Japan, Vincent Urban

‘In Japan’ is the perfect title for this entry from filmmaker Vincent Urban. It would be impossible to be more in Japan than this. You’ll see what I mean.

6. The Golden Land, Two Humans Travel

Two Humans Travel is a filmmaking power-couple, made up of the effortlessly awesome Tayla Gentle and Ben McNamara. They adventure over the world making travel videos like this one. You can envy them if you want.

5. Abisko, Betty Wants In

If you’ve never heard of the little village of Abisko in Northern Sweden, that’s okay. The rest of the world hasn’t either. Filmmaking team Betty Wants In travelled into the snow and brought back this beautiful snapshot.

4. The Ridge, Danny Macaskill

That freeze frame kind of says it all, doesn’t it? The Ridge is a travel video for anyone that’s passionate about Scotland, or mountain biking, or ridges.

3. This is Africa, Benjamin Dowie

A moving look at filmmaker Benjamin Dowie’s trip through Uganda and Tanzania in 2013. Love the soft, grainy feel of the shots. It’s hard to shoot an Africa video that finds so much beauty in everyday moments.

2. The Island Lost in Time, Maxwell Griffin

Despite the fact you could put Joze Gonzales’ music to footage of a lonely potato and still make people feel things, filmmaker Maxwell Griffin didn’t let the music do all of the talking in this travel video. Cuba is the real star. That’s as good a measure of success as any.

1. Watchtowers of Turkey, Leonardo Delassandri

The OG of modern travel videos. Leonardo Delassandri’s whip-smart editing and crazy panoramas have been mimicked dozens of times in the last couple of years, but there’s still only one master of the art. Sit back and enjoy. This is as good as it gets.

Flying solo on a South Africa group tour

South-Africa-Cape-Town-2---Intrepid-Travel

In June, I travelled on a group tour for the first time, Intrepid’s Kruger and Coast trip. I must admit that I was sceptical about whether I needed to travel on a group tour. I was worried about how much free time I’d get, having to spend 9 days with the same people, and concerned that instead of getting under the skin of a country; I’d just have to look at it through the truck windows. This 9-day overland tour, from the game parks of Kruger, through Swaziland and the beaches of Mozambique, down to Durban completely changed my view of what a group tour can be. Here are 5 reasons why I’ll also travel on a group tour the next time I head to Africa.

1. Getting around

Intrepid-South-Africa-safari

One of the official languages in South Africa is English, which definitely helps when travelling alone. However, public transport in South Africa is at best unreliable, sometimes non-existent, and at worst, quite dangerous. Even disregarding the safety concerns, it’s the huge distances that you’ll need to travel which can make travelling around Southern Africa arduous as an independent traveller. The roads can be very poor, and our group visited some really off-track destinations – like the idyllic Mozambican beach camp nestled against the India Ocean – which, travelling on my own, I would never have even heard of, let alone have gotten to.

 

2. Save those rand

South-Africa-Cape-Town---Intrepid-Travel

Life in Southern African is pretty cheap; eating out, drinking, and fun activities – think bungy jumping, white-water rafting and Great White Shark cage-diving – are all much cheaper than at home. But hiring a car as an independent traveller is definitely not cheap, and the cost of catching taxis alone soon adds up. In fact, the initial reason why I chose to go on a group tour was because it was the most cost effective way of getting around this hugely beautiful, but hugely huge, country. Africa is about the open spaces, the bush and the veldt, and the cheapest way of exploring those endless horizons is to join a group tour. Our guide for the trip, Simbana (aka Simba) knew which bars sold the cheapest beers, which street stalls sold the cheapest Biltong, and when we should stock up at the supermarket rather than the relatively expensive gas stations.

3. Safety in numbers

South Africa has had a questionable reputation when it comes to travelling alone. The situation in cities like Jo’burg and Cape Town is improving, but there are definitely times when I was glad of being with 14 other people on a truck, and not waiting for a bus on my own, at night, in Johannesburg. South Africa is one of those countries where trying be overly independent and macho ‘just for the story’ can end pretty badly, so travelling in the company of knowledgeable local guides, along with a few other like-minded travellers certainly put my mind at rest.

4. Local knowledge

South-Africa-tribes---United Nations Photo

Image c/o United Nations Photo, Flickr

I like to think of myself as a pretty independent and experienced traveller, having backpacked around over 60 countries. But travelling around Africa is never straightforward. To quote Leonardo Di Caprio in Blood Diamond: ‘TIA. This is Africa.’ Our guide Simba couldn’t have been more knowledgeable about the people, the places and the wildlife we encountered. As anyone who has travelled around Africa will tell you, border crossings can be a nightmare. Travelling in the company of local guides who know the intricacies, languages and occasionally even the customs officers at border crossings make the whole process immeasurably smoother.

5. A ready-made group of friends

South-Africa-group-tour---Intrepid-Travel

It’s true that being a lone wolf provides limitless freedom, but everyone gets lonely from time to time. There are only so many times you can laugh to yourself about the day’s events before wishing that someone would laugh with you. Travelling on a group tour was like adding boiling water to Super Noodles: I instantly met some ready-made friends. This is where choosing the right company to travel with is really important. I love meeting people from other countries, and by choosing a global company like Intrepid, I travelled with really diverse group like-minded people from all over the world, which led to plenty of fascinating conversations around the campfire. On my tour were people from Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, the US and a couple of fellow Brits. The opportunities to sit next to, cook with, share a couple of beers with and explore the African bush with people from different cultures was one of the real highlights of the trip for me, and the group dynamic made these interactions completely natural and I now have a completely new set of friends for life.

How to Eat Like a Local on the Road

Enjoying good food is an essential part of any vacation — at least according to David McInerney, the co-founder of the New York City-based grocery delivery service FreshDirect, who spends most of his time traveling the world sourcing food for the company. The way to savor memorable cuisine, he said, is to skip fancy restaurants and eat as the locals do. “You’ll get the best meals by eating the way the people do who live in the destination you’re visiting,” he said. Here, he shares advice on how to do just that:

Image result for how to eat like local on road

Talk to the Locals

The best way to eat like the locals is to talk to the locals, Mr. McInerney said. Police officers, construction workers and security guards are all reliable sources to ask for restaurant recommendations. But be specific, and ask these people where they like to eat. Mr. McInerney has had many pleasurable meals using this tactic including on a recent trip to Milan, where a bus driver recommended his favorite pasta place. “Thanks to his tip, I had incredible fettuccine with white truffles that was very reasonably priced,” he said.

Try Several Restaurants for One Meal

An enjoyable way to get a flavor of the local food is to spread a single meal out over three or four restaurants — have appetizers in one, entrees in another and desserts at a third. Another approach is to hit several restaurants that serve the region’s specialty, such as visiting a trio of lobster shacks in Maine to try different versions of lobster rolls.

At a Resort, Ask for the Staff Meal

Resorts tend to serve food that caters to a variety of palates and doesn’t necessarily reflect the destination’s cuisine, but travelers in search of authenticity should ask if it’s possible to try the staff meal, which is often prepared by locals for locals. Mr. McInerney said that the many staff meals he has eaten throughout his travels, including the curried goat he recently enjoyed at a resort in the Grenadines, have been among the best meals of his trips.

Be Willing to Travel

Don’t limit your food options by sticking to the heart of the city in whatever destination you’re visiting — many of the spots popular with locals tend to be away from tourist-heavy areas and are in the outskirts of town or farther. “The best barbecue I’ve ever had was a 40-minute taxi ride outside of Atlanta where a woman cooked ribs on a smoker outside of a trailer,” Mr. McInerney said.

Choose Appetizers Over Entrees

Starters, compared with main courses, are usually simpler and give travelers a taste of dishes that locals eat; they’re also cheaper. Grilled octopus in Spain, oysters in Seattle and steak skewers in Argentina are examples of popular appetizers in these destinations and are foods that locals regularly eat.