Saturday, May 7, 2011

South America’s Switzerland: Five Reasons You Shouldn’t Miss Uruguay

When we told our friends and family we were shipping off to Uruguay for 4 months, "Huh? Where's Uruguay?" was the typical response. Let's face it. At least for now, Uruguay probably isn't on most people’s hot list of places to go. In our own case, we didn't know a single other person who'd traveled to this second smallest South American country with heavy European influences. But after our visit, we know it won’t stay a secret for long…

What made us choose Uruguay? My partner Stuart and I like a good adventure, and we jumped at the chance to venture there after reading several intriguing articles about the country. Mention of wine, gauchos, beaches, and good food were all big reasons for our decision to go. And we weren’t disappointed. Here are five reasons we give Uruguay the travel thumbs ups:

1. Low under the radar

Uruguay is usually not on the A list of places to visit… yet. At the time of my writing, even Lonely Planet didn’t offer a separate guidebook on Uruguay. Instead, a section on Uruguay is included in the book about Argentina. Destinations off the beaten tourist path always have great appeal to us, and we loved this country of Spanish and Portuguese flavors.

Thinking of driving? Here’s a note to drivers: except for the main roads crossing the country, most roads here are not surfaced. If you like off-road driving, however, Uruguay is the perfect place. Just don't expect many of the roads to show up on local maps. If a low-key culture full of surprises is your kind of vacation, then Uruguay’s for you. Experience gaucho culture in an authentic setting which is still unspoiled. Then there's mile after mile of beautiful countryside with hardly a house in sight. Relax on beaches where it's just you, the sea, and the sand.

2. The hospitable people

The Uruguayan people are up there with the best. They're warm, kind, friendly, and proud of their land. They'll do their best to help you in any way. Develop a relationship with Uruguayans. Just ask them about their centuries’ old culture and colorful history. As a matter of fact, strike up a conversation with Uruguayans, and they’ll probably tell you their country is home to superior healthcare and high quality wines. They’ll tip you off about the delicious Uruguayan beef, not to mention the country’s top-notch beaches. You’ll learn that Uruguay’s government is said to be the most honest in all of South America.

3. Personal safety usually not an issue

Uruguay has been called one of the world’s safest, most stable countries. As in any large city worldwide, Montevideo has its petty street crime areas, largely pickpockets. Generally, however, you're far safer in Uruguay than you would be just about anywhere. Of course, use common sense as you would at home. Don't do anything to make yourself conspicuous as a visitor.

4. Quality wines at great prices

A visit to a bodega (vineyard) in Uruguay is a fantastic way not only to taste superb wines, but also to see the winemaking process behind them. The vineyards are mostly small compared to operations in larger countries, and we think this is part of the draw. Chat with the owner and learn the history of the vineyard you’re visiting. Enjoy the local wine, especially that made from the Tannat grape for which Uruguay is deservedly famous. Want to take a bottle or two home with you? You can buy tasty reservas for around US$22 per bottle.

5. Galloping gaucho culture

The gaucho “cowboy” culture is what makes Uruguay even more attractive for travelers. What better way to take it in than on a traditional ranch? Go for an all-out luxury experience or roll up your sleeves and work side-by-side with the gauchos. You'll to learn to ride gaucho style, herd cows, or brand calves. For the more adventurous, you might even help with (errr…) worming sheep.

As a welcome bonus, unlike countries such as Argentina, where you’re hit with a US $140 visitors' tax on arrival, Uruguay has no visitors' tax. If you have a U.S., U.K., Canada, or New Zealand passport, that's all you need as a visitor to Uruguay for tourist stays up to 90 days. Almost every place you go in the country, the nature beauty will seduce you, and the friendly people will welcome you. Don’t miss this South American gem. Visit Uruguay! Feliz viaje!

~A guest post by Honor Dargan

Honor Dargan is a UK travel writer who fell in love with Tokyo and relocated there in 2001. Discover great travel destinations with Honor. Follow her on Twitter: @tokyotopia

If You Go:

Monday, April 25, 2011

New State Dept. Proposal Could Limit U.S. Passports


I was aghast to hear there is a possibility your office will require irrelevant personal data from U.S. passport applicants via the proposed new government Form DS-5513. The entire concept strikes me as an excuse to start a U.S. citizen future tracking system for all those applying for U.S. Passports. It is without question a bad, bad idea with major, adverse implications. How could your agency restrict or deny the right to travel freely outside our country to any American citizens who decide NOT to release such confidential information to you?

Why would your office need lifetime employment history details, information about a passport applicant's siblings, religion, the mother's address prior to an applicant's birth, etc. before granting a citizen of our country a rightful passport? The scrutiny of overseas-born persons applying to become naturalized American citizens is one thing, but forcing a law-abiding U.S. citizen to provide irrelevant data on a passport application is unreasonable. Such a practice reminds me almost of the bygone Iron Curtain era. Travel is one of our most precious freedoms as citizens, and passports are our right.

Future U.S. passport applicants are applying for passports in order to TRAVEL out of our country. Their American passport applications have nothing to do with the top secret security clearance paperwork regularly required for sensitive government positions. Our country already has the western world's lowest rate of passport holders. If your office creates additional hurdles for U.S. passport applicants by implementing Form DS-5513, I am convinced it would be an improper use of your power as our federal passport agency.

Hindering international tourism is not the U.S. State Department's role. Imagine the likely impact on our own nation's commerce if other governments worldwide followed suit with their own version of DS-5513. What would be the economic effect on inbound U.S. tourism if, for example, European or Asian travelers were required to release such confidential information to their own passport offices before their documents were processed? As someone employed in the vital travel and tourism industry here in the U.S.A., I strongly doubt any of my stateside industry colleagues would support your proposal for Form DS-5513.

I urge you to throw out this ill-conceived proposal and focus your attentions on your real mission. Restricting our travel options and breaching U.S. citizens' confidentiality are out of line, and quite frankly, I am shocked to learn you are even considering Form DS-5513....If governments around the world choose to place restrictions on which travelers can enter their countries freely, that is the prerogative of those governments. It is neither the State Department's responsibility nor right to impede an honest, law-abiding U.S. citizen's travel on the planet we share.

Ann Lombardi
Tour guide, travel agent, U.S. voter, and long-time traveler

***ATTENTION U.S. Readers: April 25th (today) is the last day to voice your thoughts on passport Form DS-5513. Send an email now to:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Only 7 Days Left to Win Your Dream Trip Worth $10K!

Hope your week is off to a great start, but hey! Wouldn't it be amazing to score really big by the end of the month? Travel dreams do come true; it could happen to you....if you win the Sony $10K Getaway Giveaway to the dream destination of your choice! But don't put off writing us your virtual postcard. You don't have much time left to enter. Keep reading...

Imagine you're on your dream vacation and you're writing us a postcard from that special destination. In your card, share where you are and what you're reading. Then have some fun describing all the great things you're enjoying on your fabulous vacation. Make us green with envy. We'd love it if one of OUR readers snagged this grand prize. But remember: the contest deadline is Tuesday April 19th, only one week from today! So go ahead and fill out the entry form on the pink, black, and white Sony widget above this post. Include your information as well as your English language essay in 400 words or less. In the meantime, we'll be crossing our fingers for you. Good luck and happy travels!

~Ann Lombardi & Wendy Swartzell
The Trip Chicks®

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Travel Dreams Will Come True! It Could Happen to You...

If you're the lucky winner of the Sony® Reader™ $10K Getaway Giveaway! What's top on your bucket list? Dreaming of Antarctica, Thailand, Peru, or Switzerland? Dying to experience Tanzania, Brazil, the Galapagos, Italy, Australia, Costa Rica or...? You could soon find yourself whisked away to a place great travel memories are made. We're partnering with Sony® to give you a chance to score a whopping $10,000 for your own dream vacation.

Just write us an online postcard imagining you're already visiting that once-in-a-lifetime getaway, and yes! Then you could be on your way to vacation magic. So don't delay! You know that vacation is long overdue. What better way to plan your escape than with a $10K travel expense budget, thanks to the generosity of the good folks at Sony®. You'll also snag a Reader Pocket Edition™ for you and a friend, plus a $100 Reader™ Store Gift Card. In addition, we’ll pick one person submitting an online postcard through The Trip Chicks® blog to win a Reader Pocket Edition and a $25 Reader Store card.

Now close your eyes and dream about an eye-popping destination long on your wish list. You may enter as often as you wish, but remember: each entry must be unique. Hurry! The contest ends on April 19, 2011, and a lucky winner'll be announced by May 1, 2011. Here's what else you need to know:

How to Enter

Entry Period: April 5 – April 19, 2011

Imagine you’re enjoying your dream vacation. It could be any place on the planet. Write us a creative postcard from that special destination. Tell us where you are and what you brought along with you to read. Share what cool things you’re up to there, what you're plan to do and see, and who's your lucky travel companion. Paint us a vivid picture. If you make us envious, you will have done your job!

Winner Selection

Voting period: April 20 – April 26, 2011

Visitors to will vote for their favorite entries one time per entry per day during the voting period

The person whose postcard receives the most public votes by April 26th on will be awarded the grand prize including:

•$10,000 travel stipend
•two Reader™ Pocket Editions
•$100 in Reader™ Store gift cards

Good luck! We hope you win one for The Trip Chicks®. Happy travels!

~Ann Lombardi & Wendy Swartzell

Monday, April 4, 2011

Jewel of the North: The Land of Ice and Fire

For a really unconventional getaway, treat yourself to Iceland, the "Northern Jewel of Europe," only a six-hour flight from Orlando. The Trip Chicks did, and discovered a surreal place of ice and steam, gurgling hot springs, rugged lava fields, and welcoming Nordic people.

Home to 40 percent of Iceland's 280,000 inhabitants, the delightfully uncongested capital Reykjavik boasts an appealing mix of city attractions, clean air, pristine natural sights, international cuisine, and hot night life. Our middle-aged intuition told us to forego the latter and concentrate instead on the low-key side of Reykjavik. An imposing downtown statue of beloved native son Leif Erikson, the first European to set foot on American soil 1,000 years ago, stands guard over this northernmost world capital. Nearby, the massive Hallgrims Lutheran Church stretches heavenward and on a clear day, offers a splendid 100-mile view.

Dorothea Larusdottir, our new Icelandic friend, led us through the narrow Reykjavik backstreets, along centuries-old houses topped with corrugated iron. There's not a tree in sight, we heard, because axe-wielding Vikings chopped down forests long ago and used the wood for fuel and mighty ships.

"Ann couldn't find you in the telephone book, Dorothea," Wendy said, as we ambled through the old town. Dorothea grinned, "Let me tell you about our Icelandic family name tradition." We passed a troop of proud parents toting their newly-baptized babies, pink-cheeked cherubs in flowing white gowns.

"My family name, 'Larusdottir,' translates as daughter of Larus," Dorothea explained. "My dad's first name is ‘Larus.’ Icelandic children take their father's first name for their last name and add either 'son' or 'daughter' at the end. So, my brother's family name is slightly different from mine because it has another ending." We were surprised to find out that names in Iceland are alphabetized in the phone directory by first names rather than by last.

Our stomachs were growling noisily as we headed to the busy indoor farmers' market. There we sampled Icelandic tastebud ticklers like dried fish, morsels of lamb, and an assortment of licorice, some creatively covered with coarse salt. Open-minded as we are about food, we felt somehow a tad suspicious when Dorothea steered us to her neighbor's fish stall. "Try these," she winked, handing us four dime-sized, unidentifiable beige chunks which were skewered on toothpicks. She giggled in rapid-fire Icelandic to her pal behind the fish stand.

A small group of curious shoppers soon gathered to watch the action. We quickly downed the mysterious, ammonia-smelling cubes, without a groan or grimace. "You both are now honorary Vikings!" cheered Dorothea, surprised at our hardy American stomachs. The crowd applauded our feat. It seems we had just eaten raw, fermented shark meat, which is covered with rocks in a deep hole for two months. Then it is hung to dry in a shed for another three or four. We politely took a rain check on the "Black Death," a bitter Icelandic schnapps said to be the perfect way to cap a shark meat snack.

The next day we peeked into shops with colorful Icelandic woolens and munched on more licorice. Then it was time to explore the most photographed site in all of Iceland: the Blue Lagoon. Sharing the 30-minute cab ride with a bubbly Norwegian woman we met by chance at lunch, our excitement grew as we drove by black lunar-like lava fields sprinkled with green moss.

Not far in the distance, we spotted that much-photographed plume of thick steam. Desperate to escape the frigid air after changing into our swimsuits, we raced from the lockers to the water and quickly took the plunge. Imagine swimming in a milky blue, mineral-rich lagoon, heated by geothermal energy more than 5,000 feet underground. The slippery warm water was exquisitely soothing. Scooping up chalky clay silt from underneath our feet, we slathered it over our faces like the natives do, hoping it quickly would work its magic so we could depart as beauty queens. Around us, happy tourists and locals alike splashed, relaxed and rejuvenated. Bundled up in their insulated red jackets, lifeguards in ski caps reminded us of the Icelandic version of a scene straight out of "Baywatch."

The next day our long-awaited "Golden Circle" tour beckoned. The 8-hour daytrip whisked us away by bus from the core of the city to the heart of inner Iceland. At Thingvellir National park, site of the world's first parliament in 930 A.D., we stood at the edge of a huge rift of tectonic plates, a dramatic valley dividing North America and Eurasia. A stone's throw away were the thundering Gullfoss waterfalls and a lively geyser, one of the country's most active hot springs. Every few minutes, boiling sulphur water exploded high into the air while awestruck tourists gasped at mother nature's display.

With stunning fjords, crackling glaciers, and energetic geysers, unspoiled Iceland is a nature-lover's dream. Yet we had barely scratched the surface of this European land so close to our shores. "Takk," Iceland, for your lingering warmth and beauty. We know we will return.


~by Wendy Swartzell & Ann Lombardi

The Trip Chicks®

Monday, December 27, 2010

An Incurable Bug

Last May over lunch in a busy Atlanta diner, the couple next to us made a startling confession. It'd been eight years since Rev. Brown and his wife had vacationed more than a long weekend. "The economy's in a slump, and we're really busy at the church," he sighed. In our country of chronic workaholics, the Browns certainly weren't alone. "One day...."

Can't remember the last time you enjoyed a real vacation? When did you sneak away for more than a couple days, without even calling into work or checking your emails? Maybe you've seen the figures. A recent study by found that almost 33% of Americans routinely forfeit part of their hard-earned vacation time. As a matter of fact, the U.S. has the highest lost vacation rate of any industrialized western nation.

Some of our fellow citizens are forgoing vacations altogether. Sobering too is proof that European medieval peasants took off more time than today's average working American! Sadly, the U.S.A. has not joined the list of countries mandating vacation time for the nation's work force. We need to fess up. America's national vacation deprivation syndrome is out of control. Our top mission in the new year? To encourage our overworked compatriots to catch a serious case of the travel bug.

No more excuses. Go away in 2011! A vacation is actually good for your health. Eye-popping travel deals abound and are yours to snag. Do it! Mark your calendar right away. Remind yourself you really deserve an escape. From now on, make your vacation a priority every year. While you're at it, plan to stay away at least one week. Really unplug. You'll come home a changed, rejuvenated person.

On his first getaway since 2003, Jack the attorney did. As we cycled along Dutch tulip fields at their glorious peak, he stopped to savor the rainbow of colors. Then he choked up. That afternoon he vowed never to lose vacation days again. When Jack returned to his practice, he emailed us that he had never felt more focused and productive in his life.

Still not convinced? A vacation is the sure cure for burnout; it's therapy for your heart, mind, and soul. There's plenty of scientific proof. Just ask Mel Borins M.D., author of Go Away Just for the Health of It. He says the lack of regular vacations is likely a contributing factor to America's rate of heart disease. Listen to Dr. Susan Biali, a physician who cites studies showing frequent vacationers often live longer than those who don't break away from life's routine. People who took "multiple vacations, up to five a year, had a 32% lower death rate from all causes," says Dr. Biali.

Back to the Browns and our chance meeting at the diner. Jotting down the name and phone number of the Swiss cousins she'd never met, the pastor's wife made us promise to call her relatives next time we were in Switzerland. We not only phoned family Knecht, but were invited to stay with them for three days. As we picnicked in a flower-studded alpine meadow, we raised our glasses to toast the Browns. We felt sure a Swiss dream holiday was soon in the works for them.

After returning to Atlanta, we made plans to meet the pastor and his wife in July. "We've gotten our passports and are ready to make our first trip across the big pond," gushed Mrs. Brown. "We're so excited, and we can't wait to hear all about Switzerland!" On July 11th we headed to the diner early to set up our laptop slide show. "Where's Mrs. Brown today?" Wendy asked, seeing that Rev. Brown was alone. There was a long pause. Then tears trickled down his flushed face. "My dear wife passed away in her sleep two weeks ago," he sobbed.

It was a wake up call that hit hard. There are way "too many places, yet too little time." The benefits of vacationing seem even more precious the older we become. Travel is by far the world's best medicine and greatest education. Each stamp in a passport symbolizes keen insights and new friends on the planet we share. Jump back into life revitalized and grateful. Give yourself the ultimate gift: put your vacations on life's front burner. Catch the travel bug!

~Ann Lombardi & Wendy Swartzell

The Trip Chicks®

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Three Dumb Things People Do To Mess Up Their Trips (Apologies, Dr. Laura)

You're stoked about your vacation. It's way overdue, and this time you're sure things should go without a hitch. But wait...Yes, many great travel experiences are full of serendipity. However, too many curve balls can mess up a trip royally. Here are three things to avoid before you even leave home:

1) The "Everything But the Kitchen Sink" Syndrome

Of course you love those lavender stilettos and new snorkeling fins, but will you really use them on your hiking trip to Austria or your cruise to Alaska? When in doubt, leave it out. Your luggage can be your vacation ball and chain, keeping you from enjoying free and easy travel. It's a pain to pull a muscle, miss a tight train connection, fork out luggage surcharges, or spend hours tracking down a checked bag lost en route, all because you allowed your heavy luggage to hold you hostage. Less is more. Trust us!

2) The "I Didn't Get Around to It" Trap

Time is indeed the most precious of commodities in today's fast-paced world. We need to take our vacations to restore balance, to feed our hearts and souls, and to escape from routine. Besides, vacations are good for health. Yet far too often, our time off becomes just a P.S. in our lives, relegated to the back burner of life's priorities until the very last minute. That's when the trouble starts. A little planning and a handful of research go a long way to ensuring a fairly smooth trip. Don't fall victim to "Before we left, I just didn't have time to...a) reconfirm our flights, make sure our seat assignments are still intact, and print our boarding passes b) make copies of the hotel and car rental confirmations c) check our passport expiration dates d) confirm whether or not we need a visa for the country we're visiting e) make sure that special museum is open the one day we hit the city f) verify rail schedules to see if the day trips are really doable from our base town g) read the weather forecast for our vacation spot h) ask the neighbor to collect our mail, water the plants, check our house in our absence, etc. Save yourself the stress. A trained travel agent can help you. Make a short list of what to do and what to know before you go. Start checking things off little by little. Then you'll be able to kick back and enjoy your getaway worry-free.

3) The "I'll Sleep Longer, Eat Better, Drink More H2O, Exercise More When I Get There" Myth

No you won't. Start now. It's probably not a smart idea to pull three back-to-back all-nighters before a long flight to New Zealand, or even a shorter one to L.A. for that matter. Rest up before you go. Break in those cool new shoes. Your feet will thank you for it. Run around the block and briskly go up a flight of stairs with your packed suitcase in tow. It's a quick fitness test. Get in reasonable shape several weeks before you head out. Start hydrating days before your flights. Sure you might have to get up from your airplane seat more often, but drinking plenty of water is great for your skin. It helps you beat jet lag and keeps you regular too. Yep. A rested, nourished, fitter person is usually a more content, easy-going traveler, and a heckuva lot more pleasant to be around in transit and on vacation. Now, let's see if WE too can just practice what we preach next time we leave home! :) Happy travels.

~Ann Lombardi & Wendy Swartzell
The Trip Chicks®