Thursday, 23 April 2009

San Pedro prison closes to tourism

News from Bolivia
: San Pedro Prison has closed its doors to tourism. It was only a matter of time. As I reported in the Guardian in January, the prison was allowing up to 50 backpackers enter through its iron gates every day for a bizarre tour that allowed them to try some of cocaine that was manufactured in makeshift factories inside. (Yes, you read that right.)

The tours have been run on and off for years, but this time the (totally unofficial) organisers pushed it too far. There was an increasing lack of discretion. Travellers were being allowed to take cameras in and were uploading pics on to flickr
and videos on to YouTube (Were all prisoners asked permission about this?). Rumour had it that local tourist offices were offering tours under-the-table, while those that turned up at the door, like I did, found that money was exchanging hands in a sideroom on prison premises.

The prisoners leading the tours had become greedy. If they'd had any sense, they would have halted them on the six-month anniversary of the arrest of Leopoldo Fernández, a controversial ex-governor accused of genocide. That day inevitably brought protesting crowds and film crews. According James Brunker, a photographer based in La Paz, when one of the film crews got wind of a tour group inside, they decided this was "far more interesting!".

In the news report (above), the TV station presents the tourists as sneaky villains, hiding under jackets and running off while flipping the crew the bird. This isn't typical and I can only presume people were shouting accusations to get a reaction. None of backpackers I met there were sneaking out as if they'd done something wrong - it was all a big jolly for the most part. That was the disconcerting part.

The main concern for Bolivians, however was not the daytrippers, but the police and their evident involvement. "Who is watching the police?" asked an editorial in La Razon.

I emailed James to find out more. "As part of Evo's [the president] anti-corruption drive, the prison heads have been sacked and replaced. It's been common knowledge for years that a whole load of criminal activities have been run from inside the jail and there are some very rich prisoners in there as a result. A lot of this involves abuse of the local visitor system and even the families who live inside."

It wasn't looking good for Evo if the international media was becoming increasingly interested in the illegal goings on in San Pedro. And this was set to increase massively as Brad Pitt's San Pedro movie, Marching Powder, goes into production.

However, the most concerning part of this denouement is that during the "clean up" ordinary prisoners had their visitors' rights revoked for a day. A riot followed. According to reports, tear gas was used, at least 15 people were injured, and 80 children were evacuated.

Meanwhile, the backpackers have their pictures and exciting stories. Some of their money may have been put to good use helping those inside, but we'll never know for sure.

"I don't think tourist visits have restarted," James tells me. "Though there's always a few backpackers in the square and vicinity, probably curious just to see the prison as much as to try and get in."

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Going local with Buenos Aires taxi drivers

"Right," says the taxi driver, as the cab door slams shut. "Where do you want to go?"

"Well, the thing is," begins Layne Mosler, as she slides into the back seat, "we want you to tell us. You see I have an unusual request …"

And Layne begins to explain her quest – to find the most interesting restaurants in Buenos Aires without the help of guidebooks, online tip-sharing sites, and travel-networking websites. Instead, she goes straight to those who know the city's ins and outs better than anyone: the taxi drivers.

The 34-year-old Californian has been living in Buenos Aires for four years, and for the past two years she has been taking weekly taxi excursions to eat at the places recommended by the drivers and posting the details on her blog,

Enamoured with the idea, I make Layne a proposition: one Saturday in the city, one taxi-gourmet marathon, with lunch, afternoon tea and dinner all dictated to us by our drivers. After more than 60 taxi adventures, Layne is unfazed by the challenge, and so we find ourselves jumping in our first cab from the cobbled streets of the Palermo district...

  • Read the rest of the feature and watch the video on Guardian Travel today.

WAYN: the relaunch

WAYN is one travel networking site I've never really got on with. It was a combination of the Twee cartoon mascot, the spam, and those one-line emails from guys trying to pick up a date. There also seemed to be a lot of users that weren't even particularly interested in travel, instead spending most of their free time at home chatting online.

But just because it wasn't for me I wouldn't sneeze at its success. With 15 million members, WAYN is one of the biggest travel-networking sites out there and it boasts many happy, dedicated users.

Nonetheless, the WAYN guys have realised that to keep profiles active they can't rest on their laurels. Not in this field. And so the site has undergone an extensive overhaul, relaunching this week having tackled past criticism head on. (Including bidding adieu to their little cartoon friend.)

You can clearly see the influences of Twitter and Facebook in the new design, but the biggest change of all is that "Where are you now?" seems to have morphed into "What are you doing now?" Users are being encouraged to share intentions through the site - similar to Dopplr - for trips abroad or even something as simple as a local cinema trip.

"One of the main things to admire about WAYN," wrote Travolution this week, "is that they have never been afraid to re-engineer the business, and talk about it so publicly." The article continues with praise for the founders' brute honest, quoting cofounder Jerome Touze as saying, "We have done some things right, but have done many things very wrong. I look at some things now and say: 'what the f**k were we thinking."

Sometimes this is just what we want a social-network founder to say. It translates as "we're human; we make mistakes; we're learning and adapting". That's all any of us can do in this ever-changing field.

Dedicated social-network users often come to feel like that they "own" the sites as much as the founders. They need to feel that their voices are being listened to and they're not being dictated to. Site founders have to be careful not to become bigger than their sites. This is how nearly came a cropper. A massive technical hitch in 2006 led founder Casey Fenton to send an email to all members announcing the site was unsalvageable and did "not exist anymore". This provoked outrage ("how can he give up now?", "how can he take our networks of friends away from us?"). There was even talk of legal action. However, it ended happily when volunteers banded together to save it, Casey came back on board, and the project went on to become the version-two site that we have today.

When tipped its millionth member earlier this year, this figure seemed huge and an incredible sign of success. Remind yourself that WAYN has 15 times that many and suddenly Jerome's claim to have "done some things right" seem like quite the understatement. As the social-networking market gets increasingly crowded, let's see where it goes from here.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Are you a social netsetter?

Are you a social netsetter? Travellers spending time social networking while away: it's a subject that's been hotly debated in recent weeks.

First came a survey from TNT magazine that used the buzzword "netsetter" in reference to travellers who upload pictures of their trip while they are on holiday, as "bragging rights".
(The Daily Mail then took this one step further and declared that "social netsetters are holidaymakers who travel abroad so they can get images on to websites to show off to their friends". As if that's the sole reason to travel. A slight exaggeration, I think.)

Since then travel writer Rolf Potts has caused a stir by telling travellers to steer clear of Twitter.

Rolf highlighted his criticism with an anecdote about an old university friend who, in the 1990s, got a bit too enthusiastic about his new answerphone.

Whenever he left his dorm room, Doug would change his outgoing machine message to fit his current status. “Hey, I’m off in accounting class right now,” he’d say, “but leave a message and I’ll call you back.” “I’m going out to see a movie and maybe go to a bar, but leave a message and I’ll call you back.” Whatever Doug was going to do next — eat lunch in the cafeteria, travel to Portland, study in the library — invariably made it into a freshly updated answering machine message.

An amusing story, however Rolf doesn't seem to grasp Twitter. He thinks - just as I once did - that all people do is post about what they are doing right now. (It's funny how avid users leap up to Twitter's defence at this point, but the site itself - with a slogan "What are you doing?" - does little to dispel the myths.)

There was a good retort to Rolf yesterday on BootsNAll, explaining why he shouldn't be so quick to judge.

The key is not to overuse these sites. The best social media users can see the pros and the cons, and occasionally laugh at the whole damn thing. (See this excellent parody above. If the link doesn't work, find it here)

Would you class yourself as a netsetter? Do you Tweet when away? And when you upload your holiday pictures, is it to brag or to share?

Monday, 13 April 2009

Going local in Pennsylvania

I just received an email from this chap above. His name is Ken Hull, he's an artist from Pennsylvania, and he thought I might be interested in a book he's written called 'going LOCAL!' (He's so passionate about this that only caps and an exclamation mark will suffice.)

It turns out Ken has spent years riding, exploring and tasting his way across central PA, bypassing the US's numerous chains behind and finding the best locally owned places for food, beer and coffee. His book brings together some of his favourite spots.

If you're heading to Pennsylvania, order a copy from his site: In the meantime, here's a taste of one of his local experiences:

Elk Creek Café and Aleworks –
100 West Main Street, Millheim, PA. (814) 349-8850

A number of years ago Tim Bowser helped to open a little place called the Equinox Cafe in Millheim. Situated along Rt. 45, this is a one stoplight town and not really a place one would invest money and time in to create an eclectic coffee shop. But when Tim and associates opened the doors of the Equinox, it was like the whole consciousness of the valley opened and folks poured in…

The place was a Mecca for coffee, simple foods and the best BYOB music jams in the valley. But, in 2006, Tim presented his beloved community with the next chapter in his already awesome dream – a full-blown brew pub and restaurant. They responded with resounding support and financial backing, and the seeds of Elk Creek Café & Aleworks were planted. (And if you know anything about Penns Valley, you know it's a fertile land and anything planted here grows strong and hearty.)

Going local is something Tim is very passionate about. Elk Creek uses nearly 100 % local organic meat and dairy. Produce is “in season” and the beer is brewed and kegged in the back room.

The official cuisine at Elk Creek is called Nuevo Dutchie – a combination of gastro pub food and what rural Pennsylvania is known for – Dutch-style cooking. According to Tim, “Dutch cuisine is a cookery of the land, you used what was available and you used everything except the oink.” And this place is, as Tim put it so well, “an omnivore’s delight”. Meat lovers as well as vegans can enjoy a wonderful meal prepared fresh and at a fair price.

Tim set out to cultivate a gathering place for the community, brew great beer, serve great food, support and showcase local produce, meats, dairy, music and art – all in a sweet place and all with a great vibe. He told me his “community” is not just Millheim and Penns Valley (that's his home), but his reach goes well beyond his grasp and he considers any like minded folks no matter where they're from, a part of his community. He's a true indie spirit whose dream has been made reality and it’s waiting for you in Penns Valley at the Elk Creek Café and Ale Works. Enjoy!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Going global

I've just watched Leonardo DiCaprio's eco documentary the 11th Hour for the second time. The below quote from one of Leo's talking heads stuck in my mind the first time round and it now seems more appropriate than ever.

From Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly:

We need to be slower; we need to be smarter. Slow means disengaging from consumerism as the main avenue of experience. It doesn’t reject any consumption, but it says we’re not going to live our lives mediated by stuff sold out there in the market. We’re not going to base our identities and our meaning on what we buy. Instead of the long commute, the bigger car, the bigger house, let’s enjoy the local produce and have time to ourselves. Let’s understand that things are thieves of time because the more things you have, the more time you have to spend working to pay for them, the more your life is chained to a rhythm of perpetual purchase.

Being smart means reintroducing a term from before the Industrial Revolution — frugality. Frugality does not mean poverty or deprivation. It means the wise use of resources.

I'm with Nathan on this. Are you?

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Blogs on Argentina: the number one resource

Looking for a blog on Argentina? Here's the place to head:

I'm impressed with this site. It's simple, understated, and does just what the title implies: lists all the travel blogs in Argentina. Or at least the vast majority of them.

These are then neatly divided into practical subheads: Expats in Buenos Aires, Expats outside Buenos Aires, Argentine blogs, Travellers' blogs. There are no frills here, no widgets, no distractions - it just tells you what you need to know: what blogs are out there, where they are based, and how often they are updated.
The list even inspired an article in Argentina's national newspaper, Clarin.

It was put together by a New Zealander called Matt, who lived in Argentina from
January 2005 until April 2007 and wrote a blog of his own, Suitcaseonwheels. Although this blog came to a natural end when he moved back home, he cleverly kept his bloggers' round-up ultra low maintenance, so that he can still keep on top of it. If you find a blog that's not on there, just leave a comment. Matt drops by every now and again to update the site - adding newcomers and moving inactive oldies into the archive section.

I wish every destination had something similar. And here's hoping Matt will continue to keep his list up to date for all those in, or coming to, Argentina and that it doesn't suffer the same dead-link end as sister site,, which once collected Argentina's Spanish-language blogs.

If anyone knows where to find other lists of Argentinean blogs in English and Spanish, post them here. In the meantime, Spanish speakers should make a beeline for Blog de Viajes, which just picked up Best Spanish Language Travel Blog in the Lonely Planet awards. And also, which was nominated for best microblog.

Any that Matt has missed? Let me, and him, know.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Tent surfing anyone?

If you’re still not convinced by the idea of sleeping in someone else’s home as a couchsurfer, there is one last alternative. Why not try their back garden instead? All you need is a tent and roughly 15 euros to find off-beaten-track camp spots on private land via Give it a try and the world - or, in the early stages, mainly Sweden – could be your oyster.

I've written more on this and other offshoots of in this week's TNT magazine

Tent picture: wiki commons

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Going local in Peru

From an article published in today's Guardian.

Sonia Guzman is the sort of storyteller who has you hanging on every word - even if you can't understand all of them. We're sitting around her dining room table and she's recounting Inca legends. She is speaking in Spanish, and there are lots of long Quechua names, yet somehow I manage to follow. With tales of ancient battles, thwarted love and lost gold, I feel like I've stepped into Inca Jackanory.

Sonia is my homestay host in Ollantaytambo, a historic town in southern Peru's Sacred Valley, known for its cobbled streets and mountainside ruins of 15th-century storehouses and agricultural terraces. Sonia's house is a traditional, stone-built Inca structure, with an open courtyard that looks straight up at some of the most dramatic ruins. It's been in her family for generations and is decorated with all manner of Peruvian artefacts, from mythological ceramic bulls to Quechua festival masks.

I've found Sonia through Leap Local (, a website that allows travellers to recommend local guides and services. It's not dissimilar to TripAdvisor, but the aim is to draw attention to smaller outfits and ensure money goes to communities. It's part of an emerging crop of online communities whose focus is specifically local. These sites range from blogs written by a network of local "spotters" around the world (see to virtual marketplaces where the tiniest of enterprises - even individual chefs or guides - are given an online presence.

I'm giving hotels, tour operators and even Machu Picchu a backseat and basing my entire trip around Leap Local. Read the rest at Guardian Travel....

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

NYC hotel with its own social network

There are lots of hotels that like to think they are offering not just a place to sleep but "a lifestyle" too. Generally speaking, you shouldn't believe them. These are normally the sort of places who also try to sell you their branded CD of forgettable chill-out tunes.

However, one place that could have a legitimate claim on the idea is the Pod Hotel in NYC. During your stay they won't just provide fresh towels and free wifi, they'll sort you out with a social life too. Just dial room service and...

Ok, not quite. No telephones involved. It's all on the net, of course. Yes, you've guessed it, the Pod Hotel has its very own social network.

It's a rather basic affair, more like a simple forum, but it's proving very popular. When guests make a reservation, they are given the option to join the forum. There they'll find a section for each month of the year, subdivided into four categories: Eat With Me; Drink With Me; Shop With Me; Go Out With Me. If you're going to be in town that month, you can start your own post - inviting others to meet up with you - or you can respond to an invite that's already there. Site statistics show that, so far, 1776 users have contributed 251 threads and 564 posts.

I like the idea. It's perfect for travellers who are past bunking up in huge hostel dorms and yet miss the social experience of shared accommodation. It's also perfect for a city like NYC, which can be a lonely place for a solo traveller.

That's not to say you have to be on your own to use it. Couples and groups of friends are getting in on the idea too, often making plans with other guests before they've even set foot on NY soil.

All good, although you could argue that people should be more willing to start an occasional spontaneous chat in a hallway, without feeling the need to exchange emails first.

The network has earned the Pod Hotel the nickname “The Facebook Hotel”, based on the generation they are targeting and how they are targeting them.

"Get a feel for Pod culture," announces the website. Easy now, Pod Hotel. I like your style, but watch yourself or you could be selling mood CDs before you know it.