Where to go? When to go? What to see? How long to stay? But first, where to stay? What to do while you’re there? Then where to go next? How to get around?
Wow, there’s a lot to this research. And if you decide to forego a tour, it’s all on your shoulders.
Undertaking your own planning means you’ll learn a lot and be able to customize a trip to meet your needs. But it also means responsibility, and that could mean stress. Don’t want all that on your shoulders? Then recognize as much early on and buy a tour or enlist a travel agent to help out. Even if you’re going with a tour, you should do plenty of destination research to learn what you can see and do in your free time.
And for those of you who are wondering what does all this have to do with photography, the answer is everything. Choosing a destination rich in photo opportunities can improve your personal gallery exponentially.
Whatever you decide, the most important question has yet to be asked: Where do you find the information to answer all these questions? First, let's look at some photos...
Mexico: A mini portfolio (Photos © Derek Doeffinger)
In just over a week, our carefully planned trip to Mexico took us from millions of monarchs to cliff divers in Acapulco to surfers in Puerto Escondido to weavers in Oaxcaca City and much more.
Start with travel books—not the Internet
How should you find all this information? By first looking at travel books. Books? Isn’t that old school? Yes, but I did say “by first looking at travel books.” Later on you’ll use the Internet. Why books first? Because into one small volume that you can hold in your hand, a good travel book packs an enormous amount of information about a country, its cities, its climates and weather, its culture, its events, and so on. That one volume can save you hours of web surfing.
Which books? Frommers, Fodor, Insight Guides, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet Guides are some of the leaders. Early on in my research, I rely on two or three of these books to get a broader view of a place. But my favorite guide is the original down and dirty guide--Lonely Planet (their web site isn’t comprehensive enough). I’ve found their guides to be accurate and informative, and especially well-suited for the less well-heeled (or more cost-conscious) traveler seeking venues a bit skewed from the mainstream. Although a recent photo article suggested Lonely Planet guides recommend mainly heavily visited tourist destinations, I think the guides are right on the mark. With a planet of six billion wired people, there are few travel secrets, and if a place is worth seeing and within reasonable reach, people will be there.
Location and timing
Where and when to go are probably the two most important decisions. Once you decide where, you need to decide when. As regards when, I try to avoid crowds, which means at least a bit off season. I look for the month that offers both good weather and some exciting events. Local festivals and celebrations can be colorful without drawing in huge crowds the way the running of the bulls does in Pamplona. In Latin countries, the weeks before Easter usually offer both good weather (but it’s rainy in the Andes that time of year) and a variety of colorful religious festivities to attend.
Besides, we all know the answer to crowded tourist destinations—go off season. But not way off-season. Going to Machu Pichu at the end of September avoids the heaviest crowds; going in January dares the heaviest rains.
How to use the Internet
The Internet excels for transactions and communications. Once you begin to settle on a destination or two, see if you can find firsthand advice and information on the Internet. Search for a tourist-oriented or government-based website on your destination and contact them. You may be able to dig up a local tourist guide who can help via email. Remember, you probably want information about places and things to photograph.
Use a search engine to find photos of the places of your destinations. That way you’ll not only get a more realistic feel for the photographic potential of a place, but you may uncover some photographers you can contact for inside information; they might even offer show you around when you arrive.
If you’re a Facebook user, post a note that you are looking for a person knowledgeable about your destination who would be willing to act as an adviser. Of course, let’s not forget the obvious. Let your friends and greater family know of you plans and see if they know anybody. Also look for local travelogues (often given at libraries) on your destination.
As Americans we are used to driving our own cars wherever we go. Although I haven’t rented a car in Mexico, I did talk to several people who had and they generally reported it to be a good experience.
I recommend the inter city Mexican bus system, especially first class buses. The buses are modern, comfortable, safe (seatbelts provided), frequent, and very reasonably priced--usually a much better experience than an American airplane. You get to meet a lot of people and see much of the countryside. And the bus stations are often quite modern. A couple of downsides: you can’t simply stop and explore any area that appeals to you. The movies (dropdown screens like on the airplanes) they play are in Spanish, often loud, and often (not always) second rate. Check www.mexexperience.com for which bus companies service which parts of Mexico.
For a truly colorful experience, try the local transportation system. Hop on a colectivo or combi (name varies by country) and you may be sitting crammed with twenty others and a rooster or two in the back of a pickup or a mini-van. If that’s a bit too colorful or too challenging for your safety needs, maybe a local bus will do. It can be almost as colorful but a bit more traditional in seating and safety.