TRAVEL TOGETHER MONTH…Extraordinary Deals to Extraordinary Places

by Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA

September is Travel Together Month!

To celebrate the breadth of experiences offered by our tour operator members, USTOA has curated a collection of value-packed savings for travelers and special travel agent offers available throughout the month of September.  Featured on https://www.ustoa.com/travel-together-month are special prices, premium offers, bonus commissions and more to destinations across the globe from the country’s leading providers of independent and escorted group travel.

Kelley Ferro traveling with Swain Destinations in Papua New Guinea.

Kelley Ferro traveling with USTOA member Swain Destinations in Papua New Guinea.

Travel Together Month is a highlight of USTOA’s Travel Together campaign…a growing collection of videos and blog posts that celebrate “live like a local” experiences around the world accessible through USTOA tour operator members. There’s a wealth of content that is yours to view and share…and if you do, use #traveltogether to join the conversation.

A tour group lead by USTOA member VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations takes in the view from high above Brac, Croatia.

A tour group lead by USTOA member VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations takes in the view from high above Brac, Croatia.

Here are some highlights of the special Travel Together Month offers, which can be booked throughout September. All travel details, restrictions and booking instructions can be found on the Travel Together website.

For consumers:

  • Abercrombie & Kent: Save $4,000 per couple on the 10-day “Egypt & the Nile” Luxury Small Group Journey. Available on select 2016 departures.
  • Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic: Free round-trip air from Miami to the Galapagos (up to $1,250 per guest) on select 2015 departures aboard the National Geographic Endeavour and National Geographic Islander.
  • Mayflower Tours: Receive free airfare on the “Enchanting India with a Ganges River Cruise” itinerary departing 3/15/16, a value of $2,500 per couple.
  • Quark Expeditions: Save up to $2,300 per person on the following three Ocean Endeavour voyages including Buenos Aires flights: “Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent,” “Falklands South Georgia and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings” and “Crossing the Circle: Southern Expeditions.”  Available on select departures through 12/31/15.
  • Swain Destinations: Book the “Baillie Lodges Australian Luxury Defined” itinerary  including an island-inspired barbeque lunch with premium wine and a 15-minute scenic helicopter flight over Uluru and get upgraded to the next luxurious suite category at Southern Ocean Lodge, a savings of $2,000 per person, plus 15% off travel gear at the Swain Destinations Travel Store. Valid on travel from 1/1/15 – 12/24/15.
  • Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection: Save up to $1,600 per couple on select 2016 Europe boutique river cruises when you pay-in-full at time of booking.

And for travel agents:

  • Alexander + Roberts: Earn an extra booking bonus of $100 per couple on top of full commission every time clients take advantage of pay-in-full savings ($600 per couple or $300 per solo traveler) on 95 original Small Group Journeys, Small Ship journeys and go-any-day Private Journeys to Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, the Middle East and Antarctica. Commission available on departures through April 2017.
  • Celtic Tours World Vacations: Enjoy a land only FAM rate of $499 per person sharing on a 5-night independent Tuscan experience. This travel agent exclusive includes accommodations at Villa Casagrande, breakfast daily, a welcome dinner, and car rental to explore the region. Book 9/1/15 – 12/15/15 for travel through 3/30/16.
  • Down Under Answers:Earn a $50 bonus commission when you book any Virgin Australia air/land inclusive vacation to Australia. Commission available on departures from 10/1/15 – 6/30/16.
  • Goway Travel: Book one Shongololo Africa train trip and earn a free 14-day train journey; your partner travels with you for 50% off. Valid for travel on any 2015/2016 journey.
  • SITA World Tours: Book clients on the “Peru: Ancient Civilizations” journey and earn a 20% commission plus an $82 appreciation bonus in the form of a SITA American Express Gift Card; clients receive room upgrades in Cuzco to oxygenated rooms and a Shaman Blessing ritual at Machu Picchu. Valid on daily arrivals through 12/10/15.

Note: deals can be booked September 1-30, 2015. All travel details, restrictions and booking instructions can be found at www.ustoa.com/travel-together-month.

Videos and blog stories can be found at www.youtube.com/user/ustoanyc and www.ustoa.com/blog, as well as www.ustoa.com/traveltogether. Follow the adventures on Twitter and Instagram by using #traveltogether and by joining Facebook chats at www.facebook.com/USTouroperatorsAssoc.

For more information about tours and packaged vacations, visit www.ustoa.com.  And, remember that when booking with USTOA Active Members, you also get the assurance of knowing that they are held to the highest standards in the industry with our $1 Million Travelers Assistance Program.  Visit www.ustoa.com for complete details.

Papua New Guinea: Where Smiles Loom Large

by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador

A question weighed heavy on my mind as my plane circled the landing strip at Mount Hagen, somewhere over the rugged heart of Papua New Guinea, a spellbinding place where the verdant Wahgi Valley is buttressed by the towering spires of the imposing Central Cordillera.

How do I live like a local out here?

My first glimpse of Papua New Guinea’s rugged Central Highlands.

My first glimpse of Papua New Guinea’s rugged Central Highlands.

Swain Destinations, USTOA and AFAR sent me halfway around the world to get at the essential nature of the PNG travel experience; to meet local folks here, there, and everywhere; and to discover a remarkable moment or two. But how to do all that in a place as unique as Papua New Guinea? Where to begin?

PNG has a reputation for being one of the wildest places on earth – millions of people in the vast interior and out along the coast continue to practice subsistence farming and fishing as they have done for tens of thousands of years; more than 800 languages and dialects flit on air currents from the Bismark to the Coral Sea; while rumors abound of highland people whom have never had contact with the outside world. In fact, the people of Mount Hagen were first introduced –not by their choice, mind you – to the West in 1933. So how would I, as a traveler, reconcile this PNG with the way I live my own life back home on North American soil?

Turns out, all I had to do was smile.

The secret to keeping veggies fresh at Mount Hagen Market.

The secret to keeping veggies fresh at Mount Hagen Market.

After landing at Mount Hagen, my fellow Swain Destinations travelers and I were carted over to the Mount Hagen Market, a buzzing hive of human (and not-quite-human) activity. I made fast friends with a betel nut vendor’s tree kangaroo, zipped between rows of impossibly colorful fruits with names I couldn’t possibly pronounce, skipped over scurrying chickens, and shook hands with just about every man and woman in attendance. There was electric undercurrent to our visit – our group made up the entire foreign presence at the market that day, and it was certainly no secret that we were there.

Papua New Guineans are often quick with a smile – and a chicken.

Papua New Guineans are often quick with a smile – and a chicken.

Wide-eyed children fell over one another in an effort to get in front of my camera, convivial ladies carved up fruits and veggies and doled out generous samples, and men with steel in their eyes and machetes on their shoulders smiled enormous betel nut smiles when a casual grin was sent in their direction. In this place of vast differences, the one constant – though it was kept concealed at first – was the smile.

The ubiquitous – and notorious – betel nut. Betel nut is often chewed with lime in Papua New Guinea, and produces a red residue called buai pekpek, a common sight on streets floors everywhere (save for Port Moresby, where the chewing of betel nut is banned).

The ubiquitous – and notorious – betel nut. Betel nut is often chewed with lime in Papua New Guinea, and produces a red residue called buai pekpek, a common sight on streets floors everywhere (save for Port Moresby, where the chewing of betel nut is banned).

Mount Hagen’s reputation as a lawless frontier keeps some visitors at bay, but nothing during our visit set off alarms. In fact, the local folk we did meet couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming.  Save for the terrifying Asaro Mudmen we encountered in the hills.

We followed a winding dirt road into the highlands, out past quaint villages, perfectly manicured fields, and children playing in small mountain streams. We came to a stop opposite what seemed to be impenetrable bush, but our guide led us down an otherwise impossible to find path to the gate for the Pogla Cultural Centre. Upon crossing the threshold, I was struck by what I can only describe as an otherworldly presence; an elderly woman in full highland regalia tended to a small fire, while opaque specters danced in the bush beyond the flames. As if on cue, the sky clouded over, and the Asaro Mudmen came stalking out of the green. These ghastly apparitions wore skirts of grass and leaves, long talons of bamboo on their fingertips, white mud on every inch of their bodies, and imposing helmets of mud, each decorated with what I could only presume were human teeth and animal horns. The Mudmen cut a striking figure against their surroundings; I could only imagine what their true enemies must have thought when the Mudmen set upon them during battle.

The Mudmen appear as ghostly appiritions from the woods, ready to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies.

The Mudmen appear as ghostly appiritions from the woods, ready to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies.

Legend holds that a band of peaceful villagers, originally from the village of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands, were waylaid by another tribe and forced to abscond from their traditional homelands. These villages were chased into the Asaro River, where they waited for the cover of night to aid in their escape. But as they rose from the water covered in mud, their enemies thought them evil spirits, and retreated in terror. The Asaro Mudmen then began crafting their incredible helmets to use as a deterrent against any would-be invaders.

Mudmen make their helmets from river mud and stone, and sometimes decorate them with human teeth, horns, and feathers. The fingers pieces are made from sharpened bamboo.

Mudmen make their helmets from river mud and stone, and sometimes decorate them with human teeth, horns, and feathers. The fingers pieces are made from sharpened bamboo.

Our group managed to hang in for the entire performance put on by the Mudmen, and were granted an opportunity to peek behind the masks, where huge smiles were hiding. Our Mudmen ranged in age from 9-16, and are part of a family dedicating to preserving an antiquated way of life and scores of highlands traditions. The family’s patriarch shared with us Mudmen lore, and his reasons for why it is important that native highlanders protect their ancient traditions in the face of an ever-modernizing Papua New Guinea.

A friendly face appear from under a heavy helmet.

A friendly face appear from under a heavy helmet.

My first real glimpse at life in PNG ended with a visit to the beautiful lodge at Rondon Ridge, located at 7,100-feet above sea level on the hipbone of Kum Mountain. I marveled at the mountain views as I contemplated life in the valley below. I think it was in that moment that I realized just how awesome the opportunity before me was – a chance few people on earth have to experience an ancient culture and way of life quickly vanishing from the face of the earth. I decided that if I couldn’t exactly live like a local in my limited time in PNG, I would learn all I could about a very special way of life.

The serene surroundings of Rondon Ridge.

The serene surroundings of Rondon Ridge.

For highlights of Flash Parker’s tour of Papua New Guinea, click here.

Flash Parker is an AFAR Ambassador, photographer, travel writer and author from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by Lonely Planet, Conde Nast, Canadian Living, USA Today, Get Lost Magazine, GQ Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more. Follow Flash Parker on TwitterFacebookInstagram or on his website.

 

Papua New Guinea: Exploring The Most Remote Place on Earth

by Kelley Ferro

Our group exploring the Karawari River

Our group exploring the Karawari River

Things I learned when traveling to Papua New Guinea

  1. Leave your watch at home
  2. Downtime is necessary
  3. People who travel to Papua New Guinea are just plain cool
  4. Laughter is the universal language
  5. Go with an experienced tour operator 

“Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle!” shouted Lisa Greene, an attorney from Colorado. In the middle of the Sepik, one of the most remote regions in the already remote Papua New Guinea, Lisa had captivated the attention of 50 squealing children with her “wiggle.” She was dancing like crazy—moving her hips, throwing her hands up and hopping around on one foot, then the other. We had just arrived by riverboat to this small village and we were greeted by slew of curious onlookers, most of which were children. And then Lisa broke out the “wiggle” and the tribe had no idea hit them. Cries of glee filled the palm tree studded village center.

Laughter breaks down barriers. In this moment of pure silliness, we all felt united with the local villagers. I realized, as I giggled along with them, that comedy is the one of those special few common denominators. I also realized that I wouldn’t have experienced this moment if I hadn’t been traveling with this particular group of travelers on our Swain Destinations’ customized itinerary.

We met Lisa and Kathy, two college pals and moms from Boulder on a “girls trip,” a few days earlier at one of the Papua New Guinea lodges. Our tour itineraries overlapped and we were able to share part of this journey with them. Exploring this part of the world,  rarely seen by travelers, made us all become friends fast – we were fellow explorers sharing in this once in a lifetime experience.

Travel to Papua New Guinea requires a few things in all travelers. First of all, you must be eager   to learn and understand the culture of the people that you meet along the way. There’s so much natural beauty in this country but the true treasures of this destination are the people.

You have to be flexible and have a sense of adventure. This is not the strict itinerary, check-off-the-sites type of trip. To understand this country, you must understand that each day is different. It’s not the easiest place to get too and once you arrive, you might not have all the modern comforts of home (though a digital detox is healthy every once in a while!).

No words needed for us to bond over selfies

No words needed for us to bond over selfies

Lastly, I highly suggest traveling with a specialized tour operator, such as Swain Destinations. Papua New Guinea is primarily relationship based and you can’t just walk into a village without having a guide prearrange your visit. Just simply getting to and from lodges and activities requires a bit of effort and on a tour, you don’t need to worry about all those logistics. Swain Destinations in particular specializes in customizing your itinerary as well, so you can focus your time on seeing and doing exactly what you want. For us, it was meeting as many locals and immersing ourselves as much into the Papua New Guinea culture as possible.

Clearly, there’s a kindred spiritedness amongst those who choose this unique destination. That camaraderie is crucial when you want to share the impact of some of these experiences. For instance, I hadn’t expected to bond with a young girl, painted in ceremonial garb as we took selfies with my iPhone or the impact of feeding a confident hornbill, straight out of my hand. It’s those types of moments that are really hard to communicate with friends and family back home. Sometimes you just have to be there. That’s why you can relate with your fellow travelers in a way that can’t be replicated with anyone else.

First family that we met in the Sepik

First family that we met in the Sepik

Traveler bonding is more prevalent in Papua New Guinea compared to other destinations and that has a lot to do with time. And Papua New Guinea definitely runs on its own time. The itinerary is made to be flexible as it is wholly dependent on things out of our control, like the weather. However, this gave us time to really connect. Often, even on our travels, we don’t have time to have uninterrupted conversations. We enjoyed extra coffee waiting for the weather to clear for our flight to the lowlands. We played cards in the main lodge when a surprise tropical thunderstorm hit the Karawari. We spent hours watching river life go by as our boat gently cruised between villages. And these calm moments were equally as important as the action packed ones. I was able to reflect on the Papua New Guinea way of life, talk about what we were seeing with the group and have uninterrupted access to the guides.

I learned just as much from my fellow travelers as I did from the local villagers and guides. We laughed, shared stories from home, exchanged travel tips and played games. We supported, helped and inspired each other.

In each of the three areas that we visited, I found the local PNG people to be so welcoming and excited to have us. Our Swain Destinations tour arranged for local guides to serve as ambassadors, bringing us in the villages, the homes and to the sacred buildings of many local tribes. We danced in Huli Victory Dances, tasted Sago Palm pancakes and listened to the Mud Men storytelling. We toured local markets and watched women fish on the river. We became a part of the daily local life, “wiggle” and all.

Friendly local children

Friendly local children

What makes Papua New Guinea so special, in my opinion is the people you meet. This trip was not only enriched by the local people and local guides, but also the fellow travelers we met along the journey.Papua New Guinea gave me an even deep understanding of what it means to #traveltogether.

 

Live Like a Local in Peru

From mountains to deserts, from city to sea, Peru’s diverse landscape is as rich as its culture and has had many stories to share since ancient times. Join Kelley Ferro, travel expert and video journalist as she journey’s through Peru with USTOA tour operator Travcoa.

Known as a culinary capital of South America, Peru is the perfect travel destination for foodies. USTOA tour operator member Travcoa introduces travel expert and video journalist Kelley Ferro to local cuisine, markets, restaurants, bartenders and chefs.

Join travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com Kelley Ferro, as she explores the culturally rich and historic capital city of Lima, the first stop on her private journey through Peru with USTOA tour operator Travcoa.

For more on USTOA’s Travel Together campaign in Peru, click here.

Saxony Reborn From the Ashes of War

by Adriana Yampey, AFAR Ambassador

On Valentines Day 1945 British and American heavy bombers were dropping thousands of tons of high explosive bombs over Dresden, destroying 6.5 kilometers of the city center and killing an estimated 25,000 people.  It’s almost impossible to believe that such devastation took place. You would not know this when visiting the city today.

In early May I had the opportunity to travel to Saxony with Saxony Tourism and Avanti Destinations.

I admit I had preconceived ideas about Saxony. I knew much of the big cities, of Dresden and Leipzig, were destroyed in World War II followed by years behind the Iron Curtain, and imagined it undeveloped, grey and uninteresting.

But Saxony proved me wrong with its beauty, restored architecture, some in the same style they were before the war and a lot of them completely transformed in order to keep up with the times.

Seeing Dresden today makes it hard to believe such destruction ever happened.  The locals however do not want to forget; in many restaurants and pubs you will see haunting images of the past hanging on walls.

I arrived in Dresden, early morning and as soon as I reached the old center I fell in love. Spring is the perfect time to visit this city and Saxony in general. The fresh, and sweet smell of the lilac trees, and wisteria complement the city’s impressive architecture beautifully.

It’s so easy to loose yourself, and become a local, on the streets of Dresden. I walked for hours without knowing, and really not caring about time. Notable sights are the Church of Our Lady, the Dresden Cathedral, the The Fürstenzug or the Procession of Princes, made from 23.000 Meissen porcelain tiles, making it the largest porcelain artwork in the world. Apart from this was surprised to see just how visited Dresden is; large groups swarm all over the city led by knowledgeable guides.

Later I visited Görlitz and Meissen which are smaller towns in Saxony, untouched by the destruction of World War II.

I found Görlitz very charming, with narrow, cobblestone streets and stunning architecture. Most of the 3500 architectural monuments have been beautifully restored to look like in their glory days, making them a visual treat for visitors.

Meissen Porcelain

Meissen Porcelain

Meissen is the home of the oldest hard-paste porcelain factory in Europe. Again, the beauty of this little town mesmerized me. The visit to the porcelain factory was a real treat; there is incredible effort, love and dedication put into every porcelain piece that leaves the factory.

Vibrant Leipzig

Vibrant Leipzig

Leipzig was the last stop on the tour and quite possibly my favorite. A city that, much like Dresden, was heavily destroyed in World War II today is beaming with life. People everywhere, cafes with large open air terraces at every corner, full at all times, street performers, a buzzing nightlife and a flourishing art culture.

The adventurers out there will be impressed with Saxony for the large offer of outdoor activities. Rock climbing, kayaking, cycling, rides in hot air balloons, are only a few things on offer. The most impressive nature trip was to Bastei Bridge in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of Germany.

Bastei has become the most popular day trip destination in Saxon Switzerland. From a height of 194m you can enjoy the picturesque panorama and view the miniature villages on the Elbe River.

Saxony showed me how wrong I was to have preconceived ideas on how a region should look like post war and Communism. It is a beautiful, vibrant and friendly part of Germany that must be explored.

 

Germany-based AFAR Magazine Ambassador Adriana Yampey, who has also lived in Romania, France, Italy, Belgium and the United States, dreams of seeing the world and documenting it through photos. 

Follow her travelers on Adriana’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. You can hear more about her journey to Saxony at AFAR.com.

 

Leipzig’s Art of the Future

by Kelley Ferro

Porsche? Nutcrackers? Harmonicas? Bach? I had no idea that Saxony, a free state in Germany, had so much going on! It wasn’t until my chat with Shireesh Sharma at the USTOA conference this past December that I realized the variety of types of art flourishing in a relatively small part of the world.

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

Saxony is a term often synonymous with Dresden, and after seeing this capital city, it makes total sense. Dresden, the home of a long line of royalty, hugs the Elbe River and boasts a majestic baroque skyline. However, Leipzig, the quieter sister of Dresden, captured me even more. Located on medieval trade routes in the time of the Roman Empire, Leipzig was a powerful city with renowned cultural importance back in the day. The home of Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Martin Luther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (and the list goes on), Leipzig is more than familiar with the arts. This city was built upon it. Bach composed in St. Thomas Church in the city center, Goethe’s Faust 1 was inspired by the city’s historic wine bar Auerbachs Keller, and Mendelssohn performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Concert Hall. And today, this city still pulsates with artistic energy. My independent tour with Avanti Destinations brought us to this city to experience the younger side of Saxony…and I’m sure glad that they did. Just walking the streets, I could feel and hear the buzz. Galleries, art schools, street performers…the past, present and future of art all blended together.

Outdoor Cinema at the Spinnerei

Outdoor Cinema at the Spinnerei

To me, nothing exemplifies Leipzig’s place in art more than the Spinnerei, officially named Leipziger Baumwollspinnerai. This 1884 cotton mill was one of the largest in Europe, producing five million kilograms of yarn in a single day. To accommodate that level of production, the mill had to be large, and I mean LARGE. It’s hard to comprehend the scale until you see it yourself but I can understand why it was dubbed a “city within a city.”

The factory compound spans several blocks complete with brick warehouses that previously housed spinning rooms, production halls, worker housing, and even a fire brigade. Now, these same buildings sport cracked windows, graffiti walls and ivy covered entrances. Eerily quiet on a Friday morning, from the outside, Spinnerei could be confused with a forgotten factory but inside, the darkened hallways told a very different story.

Hallways leading to LIA

Hallways leading to LIA

“Most of the artists are sleeping,” Michael from the Information Office chuckled, as he led us inside one of the buildings.

After the Wall fell, Leipzig lost some of its former glory as an industry hub and places like the Spinnerei shut their doors. However, in 1994, the Spinnerei was reinvented. Local artists saw these massive, unoccupied spaces as the perfect location to set up shop, literally.

 Werkschau Gallery at the Spinnerei

Werkschau Gallery at the Spinnerei

More than 100 artists have since filtered in and set up studios in the past 20 years and now the buildings have a new purpose. They are home to working studios, indie cinemas, galleries, cafes, rental apartments and more. There’s a one-stop-shop art supply store so the artists have access to all the materials they need. Even an underground bar and weekend nightlife scene has sprung up through this new artist “city.”

Entrance to the Werkshau Gallery

Entrance to the Werkshau Gallery

With 11 galleries, artists are getting exposure and many are selling their works to the curious public. One gallery in particular, Werkshau, displayed just one piece of work contributed by every artist at the Spinnerei. One corner had a 20×20 foot oil painting, around the other bend was an alleyway with a projector screening a video montage that reminded me of The Ring (art is subjective right?). In the middle of the space, I found myself moved by three human figures with fox faces, carved out of wood. Still there were more portraits, photography and installations, some of which incorporated movement, sound and light. And all these were produced by current Spinnerei artists, who were likely creating somewhere in the Spinnerei at that very moment.

A Foxy Werkshau Exhibit

A Foxy Werkshau Exhibit

Michael took us up to LIA, an artist in residency program where young artists from all over the globe come to collaborate, learn and make art, all while living in their own studio. They sleep, create and exhibit all in the same place. Luckily, our interviewee was awake when we knocked on her studio/home.

Kylie Lefkowitz is a multi-media artist from New Jersey and she’d been living in this large one room studio for the past 4 months. Her bed was tucked off in the corner featuring a James Franco calendar, piles of clothes and scattered art supplies on the floor, not unlike a typical college dorm room.  The rest of the space was her exhibit…she was truly living her art. I liked how Kylie focused on words: messages, thoughts, musings and phrases that she expressed via all types of media. Each piece definitely made me think and feel.

Don’t’ feed the artists

Don’t’ feed the artists

We interviewed her as she swung on her hammock, telling us about living in Leipzig, being a part of LIA and calling this studio home – all with unbridled exuberance. We could have talked with her all day. Her candid stories were fascinating and it was through her that we realized just how impactful the Spinnerei really was and how it played a big role in Leipzig.

Some artists here use it as a workshop, a great studio space, she told us. The galleries draw large crowds, some of which are buyers. Other artists use the Spinnerei as a place to collaborate and be inspired. With so many artistic minds in one spot, it’s only natural for partnerships and co-working to take shape.

Walking out of her studio, down a hall that looked like it could be in a horror movie, I realized that so much of the charm of the Spinnerei was how it hasn’t been changed or commercialized. The rusty freight elevators creakily opened out onto dimly lit*, empty hallways. But behind the doors, around the corners, down the passageways were bright studios, natural light flooding in and art flooding out.

Not your average gallery

Not your average gallery

The Spinnerei hasn’t tried to cover or clean up it’s past. It embraces what it used to be; it preserves it and celebrates it. It allows art to spring up like weeds around the broken buildings, infusing them with new life. Yesterday’s artistic greats of Leipzig still hold the torch of some of the most monumental developments in the art and music world, but what is keeping Leipzig fresh, thought provoking and current, is what is happening at the Spinnerei.

This is a microcosm of what has happened in Saxony.  It is a rebirth, a new beginning.

Leipzig might be most famous for its artists of the past but it is the artists of today that are taking Leipzig’s art scene into the future.

Kylie in her studio (and awesome tank top)

Kylie in her studio (and awesome tank top)

Author’s Note: I later learned the “dimness” was because the Spinnerei is a GREEN facility.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

 

Eating My Way Through Saxony

by Adriana Yampey, AFAR Ambassador

On my recent trip to Saxony, with Saxony Tourism and Avanti Destinations I was able to taste carefully prepared traditional German dishes with a Saxon twist. But beyond the great food, I loved the way many of the restaurants depict the region’s past and hold interesting stories, if you are willing to listen.

My first experience with Saxon food was the 1900 restaurant in Dresden. Decorated in 1930s memorabilia (to include a real size tramcar inside the restaurant) it offers delicious, and very sizable pork dishes and Saxon dumplings. Here I had the opportunity to sample quarkkäulchen, a type of potato and quark dumpling served with grated apples and cinnamon, an interesting and very delicious dessert.

Dining at Pulverturm

Dining at Pulverturm

Another must-try in Dresden is the restaurant Pulverturm. The former gunpowder tower has been restored and decorated in a way that takes you back to medieval times. With an open kitchen, you can see the suckling pig, roasting on a spit, as soon as you enter. Another sumptuous desert I sampled was eierschecke, a confectionary specialty of Saxony. One thing to not miss out on is the famous funnel drinking, called “Dresdner Trichtertrinken”. It’s a green liqueur called “Cosel tear” which people drink after the meal. Cosel was the mistress of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. The drink is supposed to represent her tears upon Augustus’ death.

Eating at Schiller Garten

Eating at Schiller Garten

No trip to Dresden is complete without a visit to Schiller Garten, dating from the end of the 17th century, and situated at the foot of the King Albert Bridge, on the shores of the Elbe River. For a few euros you can choose half a chicken with fries and a freshly baked pretzel, or a pork knuckle as big as your head, and wash it down with refreshing beer. Unfiltered and unpasteurized, it feels like each sip is a meal on the tongue. It is probably the most local thing you can do in Dresden.

St. Jonathan

St. Jonathan

While visiting Görlitz a great place to eat is St. Jonathan. The interior is cozy and romantic, with high ceilings and gothic arches. The managing director of the restaurant had a very small part, as the Chef, in the Oscar nominated movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, filmed on the streets of Görlitz. It was interesting to hear him speak about his experience although he and the rest of the town are used to big movies being filmed in Görlitz. Here I tried, for the first time, red beet soup and delicious steak tartar. Who knew I would ever enjoy raw beef?

Panorama Tower

Panorama Tower

I loved Leipzig for the relaxed atmosphere and diverse food scene. Panorama restaurant at the top of Panorama Tower was a special treat. It’s a fine dining restaurant that takes Saxon food to a new level of sophistication in a romantic setting, on top of the city.

Auerbachs Kellar

Auerbachs Kellar

A very interesting (and the second oldest restaurant) in Leipzig, is Auerbachs Keller, dating to at least the first half of the 15th century.

Saxon Potato Soup

Saxon Potato Soup

We had lunch in the Goethe Keller, probably the most famous guestroom in Germany, decorated with semicircular paintings depicting images from Faust. Painted by Andreas Bretschneide in 1625, they are among the most important urban and cultural history exhibits in Leipzig. Beside Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner dined here. Be prepared to have huge meals of traditional Saxon food.  As a final Saxon treat try the potato soup with sausages served at many cafes in the center of Leipzig.

Lunch at Auerbachs Kellar

Lunch at Auerbachs Kellar

Reflecting on my trip, having made my taste buds happy with the many Saxon dishes, I will have to come back with family in tow.

Germany-based AFAR Magazine Ambassador Adriana Yampey, who has also lived in Romania, France, Italy, Belgium and the United States, dreams of seeing the world and documenting it through photos. 

Follow her travelers on Adriana’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. You can hear more about her journey to Saxony at AFAR.com.

Peru’s Sacred Valley

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

Peru is a beautiful country where the topography varies drastically. When I flew into mountainous Cusco from coastal Lima the beauty (but mainly the altitude) took my breath away! My tour group was to visit some of the popular towns and archeological sites in and around what is called the Sacred Valley, which runs from Machu Picchu to Urcos along the Urubamba River in the south-central region of Peru. This valley encompasses a large area so trying to pick a feasible number of destinations within the valley can be daunting. Luckily my tour group was led by USTOA tour operator member Travcoa and partner PromPeru who provided an incredible itinerary which included visits to the following: the ancient city of Cusco, the colonial settlement of Chinchero, the agricultural sites of Maras and Moray, the small yet busy Machu Picchu Pueblo, and of course Machu Picchu itself.

Perhaps the best place to start exploring the area around the Sacred Valley is from the once capital city of the Incas, Cusco. Cusco is a beautiful city wherein the locals have a strong link to their Inca ancestors as most structures are literally built on top of old Inca foundations. Central Cusco seems like a complex maze of streets and alleys but it is surprisingly easy to navigate on foot. The Plaza de Armas which is both scenic and centrally located makes for a great place to start exploring Cusco. One structure that shouldn’t be missed is the La Catedral (and attached Church of Jesus Maria). The ornate cathedral that was built in the 1500s’ is a great example of the Spanish religious influence in the region. Another thing you’ll notice that has Spanish influence is the Portal de Panes – a covered area of sidewalk surrounding the plaza, where there are numerous handicraft shops and relaxing cafes that offer views overlooking the plaza. It makes for an ideal place to sit and have a drink or to simply do some people watching.

From the Plaza de Armas, our group headed southeast towards a major Cusco attraction – the Q’orikancha complex, a large and breath-taking temple of worship, of great importance to the Inca. The ingenuity of the Inca is apparent at Q’orikancha as its’ geographic location within the Cusco Valley aligns with hundreds of sacred monuments, significant stones, natural springs and prehistoric quarries. What’s even more impressive is that during the summer solstice the suns’ rays only shine into a specific area of the temple where only the emperor was allowed to sit.

Driving through the Sacred Valley was incredible; the Andes provide a very dramatic backdrop and the random livestock make you feel miles from civilization. We made stops at the Moray agricultural and ceremonial tiered-ruins and at the breathtaking, centuries-old Salinas salt pans, but for me the most moving local experience was our stop at the Chinchero Weaving Cooperative. As we entered the collective I felt bombarded by color. There were around 25 women of varying ages, most working on some type of loom. The woman who greeted us also gave us a very engaging presentation that explained how these women create such stunning, intricate pieces. We learned how the alpaca and llama wool are turned into yarn, how the yarns are dyed, and how some of the looms operate. It was a thought-provoking presentation and the women working at the cooperative were so welcoming and kind. I later learned that Chinchero means “Village of the Rainbow,” a perfect name and quite befitting of my experience.

Our next stop was the town of Aguas Calientes, or what is now called Machu Picchu Pueblo. As I stepped off of the train in Aquas Calientes, I was immediately surprised by the change in climate; the chilly breezes vanished and made way for a mask of humid air and a continuous sequence of fog and cloud seemed to roll through the small town perched above the Rio Aquas Calientes. The town itself is rather small and can be explored on foot in a couple of hours. Judging by a conversation we had with locals, most people only spend one night in the town. It is a beautiful quaint town but when you’re standing in the shadow of a giant (Machu Picchu) it’s tough to truly shine as an attraction. Additionally, Machu Picchu Pueblo is a challenging place to get to but I think this only adds to the allure of Machu Picchu, making the feeling of seeing the monument all the more special.

On the day we were to visit Machu Picchu, the group awoke early and joined the queue for the buses that drive up to Machu Picchu around 5 am. With a bus full of almost palpable anxiety, we ascended for the next twenty minutes traversing one switch-back after another into a thick blanket of clouds. We arrived at the entrance and made our way over to what is known as the Viewing Platform. Despite some light rain and overcast skies, the ruins of Machu Picchu looked glorious. Our guides from PromPeru gave us a very informative tour and I learned a lot about the former residents of the Citadel. However, after hearing about Hiram Bingham and the 11-year-old boy who led him around the area that first time I had a hard time replacing that image in my head. We spent a few hours walking around, giving us time to see all angles of the complex. It is such an incredible place that moves everyone in a different way; a rare gem of magnificent ingenuity that truly is a wonder.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California. Hear more about his journey to Peru at AFAR.com.

The Hills Are Alive with the Sounds of the Inca

by Kelley Ferro

I remember those history classes back in high school where we memorized dominant civilizations that shaped the world as we know it. Even in textbooks, the Incan Empire was particularly impressive with their communal practices, integration of other people and their (mostly) peaceful expansions across Western South America. But it’s hard to really grasp the magnitude of an empire that spanned across multiple countries and was made up of millions of people, especially when all of it happened hundreds of years ago. On paper these things can feel inaccessible. But one way to understand history is by going to the source, and one visit to Peru is all it took for me to fully realize the history of the Incas and Peru’s heritage.

You just want to frolic through these fields, trust me.

You just want to frolic through these fields, trust me.

I arrived in balmy Lima on an April evening on tour with Travcoa, and was surprised by how much larger and more vibrant the city was, compared to what I had expected. Shoppers strutted along the streets lined with contemporary boutiques, children played in parks, friends sipped Pisco at cozy cafes and surfers tackled the Pacific break along the city’s expansive coastline. I wanted to live here!

Lima skyline from one of the tallest buildings in the city

Lima skyline from one of the tallest buildings in the city

This city was very much alive and much more modern than my Incan history lessons had led me to believe.

Though Lima balanced its youthful exuberance with iconic cathedrals, museums and tributes to its world famous past, it wasn’t until touchdown in Cusco that I really understood Peru’s backstory.

Incan Temple of the Sun converted into The Church of Santo Domingo by the Spaniards

Incan Temple of the Sun converted into The Church of Santo Domingo by the Spaniards

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire. The Temple of the Sun was where the Inca King addressed his people, adorned in all gold so his constituents could see his gleaming reflection from miles away. The temple was seized by the Spaniards, converted to a Spanish cathedral, and all traces of its Incan heritage were covered up. So much power, importance and strife were held inside these walls…walls that happened to be five feet from the doorstep of my hotel, the Palacio del Inka (which used to be an Incan Temple and later a Spanish Palace, naturally).

Filming inside the magnificent Temple of the Sun

Filming inside the magnificent Temple of the Sun

Here in Peru, history is not only something to be remembered, it’s also something you can still participate in today. You can touch the walls, and sleep in a former temple. Suddenly, the ancient past didn’t feel so ancient anymore.

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

Outside of the charming city of Cusco, we explored the small towns scattered across the daunting Andes. Towns inhabited by local indigenous people, such as the Quechua, many whose families have lived there for generations and are descendants of the Inca. We stopped at a women’s weaving cooperative, the Center for Traditional Textiles, where I was able to talk to the Quechua women and interview their coordinator. I learned that in the past, the Quechua culture revolved around agriculture and the Quechua women did more of the handicrafts and managed home life for the family, while men labored in farming, a typical scenario of many worldwide cultures. Now, however, since the Western world is changing things in rural Peru, the Quechua are losing some of their traditional culture for more modern alternatives. The goal of this women’s weaving cooperative is to have elder women teach younger women the highly skilled art of weaving, something that has been a part of this culture and this land since Inca times.

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

A bonus was travelers like me got to stop by, watch them work, learn about their craft and take home a scarf or sweater, with proceeds going back to the women. This seemed to be a beautiful balance of providing financial empowerment for Quechua women, educating travelers about traditional customs and preserving the ancient culture.

Machu Picchu

Machu PicchuStaring at Machu Picchu, I had to close my eyes as a gust of smoke was blown over my face. As the Shaman recited something in a monotonous rhythmic tone, I felt a splash of some sort of herbal potion on my face. I was participating in a cleansing ritual, something the native Quechua Indians have performed for centuries. Willko Apaza, the resident shaman from a nearby village, came to meet with me and perform this ceremony at the Sanctuary Belmond Lodge, the only hotel located on Machu Picchu. It was quite a picturesque spot, a landing area with a background view of the Andean peaks. A blanket had been laid out with the various natural instruments that Willko used to invoke the spirits of Quechua beliefs. And I silently stood – arms and legs out in shape of a star – as Willko talked to the spirits and used ancient practices to help improve soul. Sure, this is a service that you pay for, much like a spa experience, but Willko was a real local, practicing revered Shaman and he performed the ritual with as much seriousness and dedication as his ancestors had done many times before. I was honored to be able to partake in such a significant part of the Quechua culture. Not only was I witnessing the past, I was able to be a part of it.

Machu Picchu’s Famously Well Crafted Walls

Machu Picchu’s Famously Well Crafted Walls

Of course, Machu Picchu is the highlight of Peru and a MAJOR reason why travelers visit this spectacular country. And after experiencing it at dawn, getting lost among the well-constructed village streets and breathing in the high Andean air of this unbelievably well preserved town, I could definitely see what all the fuss is about. Machu Picchu is very close to exactly what it was, when it was a thriving town 500 years ago. To see it in person, you half expect villagers to walk out of their homes, Incan farmers to be harvesting the terraced fields or maybe to witness the Incan leader addressing his village from one of the highest altars. It’s not just breathtaking views and Instagram fodder, Machu Picchu is still very real. Being here reminded me that the Inca were real, living people that had real joys and struggles in their lives, like you and I.

Peru taught me that the history may have happened hundreds of years ago but it can still be present today. And understanding what Peru is today is crucial in fully grasping the destination’s past. Not only seeing it, but experiencing that the past is what will carry it into the future.

Machu Picchu is even better in person.

Machu Picchu is even better in person.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

Lima Peru: The City of Kings

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

My plane landed on a warm and humid evening, the ocean’s fog in combat with light, city-smog. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Lima, but after a few days of guided, local experiences led by USTOA tour operator Travcoa, I fell in love with Lima’s charm. It’s an inviting city and one with ample signs of growth: western billboards line the streets, luxury automobiles cruise the streets and construction projects emerging EVERYWHERE. I found it to be an exciting city that is finding a fantastic balance between old-world charm and new-world comforts. It is a city of contrasts, inviting locals and there is so much to explore.

On our first day in Lima, we first started the day at the vibrant Mercado de Surquillo in south-central Lima.  As we entered we were stopped in our tracks by a plethora of unrecognizable fruits and with help from our local Prom Peru guide a vendor let us sample some: the custard apple, the yellow dragon fruit and the lucuma – with a texture akin to pumpkin but a flavor that resembled maple syrup! After our healthy fruit-filled tour of the market, we headed towards Señoria de Sulco in the Miraflores district of Lima where a cocktail and cooking demonstration awaited us. We were introduced to the head bartender who had the ingredients of Peru’s best known cocktail, the Pisco Sour, displayed in front of him. The bartender began to masterfully exhibit the process of making a Pisco Sour. Its ingredients are few: pisco (a grape derived alcohol), lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, and a drop of bitters. The result was a very refreshing cocktail that is reminiscent of a margarita. Following the Pisco Sour lesson, we moved downstairs to watch a ceviche demonstration. Ceviche with its unadulterated simplicity, has always been one of my favorite meals. The chef chose sole, a mild white fish, and after mixing in a few other ingredients had crafted a light dish bursting with citrus and seafood flavors, all with a subtle underlying heat. It was some of the freshest and most well prepared ceviche I have ever had.

Later that evening we headed to the Larco Museum for an extremely insightful guided tour of the museum’s thousands of well-preserved ceramics. The museum is roughly divided into three parts: the main museum with tidily displayed exhibits, the warehouse museum – a mind boggling labyrinth of ceramics, and the erotic art museum which houses an intriguing selection of Mochica inspired, sexually-fused pre-Inca artifacts.  The Larco Musuem is absolutely packed with what is the largest collection of Peruvian antiquities on the globe and is a destination that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The following morning our group toured the incredible San Francisco Church in central Lima. The church and attached convent grounds provide enough material for hours of exploring. As you enter the church’s grounds, you notice the stone façade towering over the entrance. On the day we visited a group of school children waited in line to tour the church while they whooped in glee as a group of pigeons confusingly flew laps in front of the church’s towers. Tucked away in the churches depths we were led through the catacombs which were only discovered in 1951. The eerie tour takes you through winding tunnels underneath the church where you can see the human remains of an estimated 70,000 thousand people – very spooky as many of the remains are arranged into patterns or designs. Despite the catacombs, the church is architecturally stunning and I recommend visiting earlier in the day when the grounds are still quiet and you can walk through the vaulted ceilings and columns undisturbed.

One of our final activities in Lima was a visit to Hacienda Mamacona, a family run hacienda that offers guests a rewarding look into Peruvian traditions and culture. Once we arrived at Hacienda Mamacona we were given a frosty Pisco Sour then led to our seats near the performance arena. The host formally welcomed everyone in attendance then we watched the “Dance of the Devils,” a Peruvian folklore dance where a group of masked performers engaged in funny and quirky pantomimes. Next, we were introduced to the unique and indigenous Peruvian Paso horse. Through a series of routines, the Paso horse displayed its’ prized gait – one that is so smooth riders often hold a glass of liquid which will not spill. After the horses paraded around the ring a few times, Peruvian folk dancers came out and graced the ring with their elegant costumes and even more elegant movements. Finally, in an incredible display of skill, the Paso Horse “danced” with a female folk dancer, and even though they weren’t hand-in-hand the horse’s ability to mirror the woman’s movements was astounding.

We left Lima for a short time only to return for one last day, and for me (and I believe the rest of the group) that wasn’t enough. I was impressed by the city and truly wanted to explore more; I felt as if I had only began to see what this city offered. Lima’s pulsating energy was irresistible and once you’ve experienced some of its hospitality and charisma you will definitely crave more!

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California. Hear more about his journey to Peru at AFAR.com.