Some rules of travel to which I try to adhere are as follows. Plan stops so that it takes less than a day to reach the next destination, and preferably less than 4 hours. Don’t travel at night if you can help it; night buses are typically the ones robbed or wrecked, and dark roads are infinitely more dangerous. I’m never tempted to “sleep” on a bus and save the cost of a hotel room because I always end up at the destination comatose rather than refreshed. Build lots of flexibility in your schedule, and don’t feel pressured to reach everywhere on your planned route. Have sites that are considered “nice to see” rather than “have to see.” And of course, try to give yourself a good amount of time in each habitat type of importance. As a rule of thumb I try to stay a minimum of 3 nights in each major type, and preferably longer if time and money allow. This provides at least 2 early morning birding excursions, possibly three, depending on departure times. Trip reports will give you an indication of how much time a site warrants, how many species are “must see” and how difficult they are to find.
If sleeping at the budget end of the hotel range, I try not to commit to more than the first night or two. You never know if the hotel will live up to its Trip Adviser or Lonely Planet ratings. I recently checked into a hotel because my guide book said it was closest to the park entrance and cheap. What they didn’t know was that when anyone in another room walked, the entire building swayed as if it were going to fall down the mountain. I abandoned my second night’s payment and moved to a more stable hotel slightly farther away. Admittedly the first hotel was still standing 2 weeks later, but the shared bathroom was partially slumped.
Exceptions do need to be made for high end lodges, but it is surprising what you can do with a cell phone at a moment’s notice. I once booked into an upscale reserve during high season from a bus 2 hours from the jump off spot for the Lodge. They even gave me a third off from the asking price. My advice is to do a little research, have a place in mind, but don’t feel compelled to book your entire trip in advance because you never know, you may really, really want to stay on and try for that fabulous trogon or pitta you heard about over dinner. I do carry a guide book, generally one of the budget ones like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, or Blue Moon, and a cell phone so I can call to check on rooms and appropriate bus stops. The weight of the book is more than offset by the benefit of having phone numbers and bus station locations in my pocket without the requirement of a wifi connection. Once when traveling overland from Panama to Mexico I cut the country sections from my Central America guide as we left the country. At the border, we passed the section to a group entering the country. This lightened our lode, and recycled the book.
Busses, planes, and rental cars
How you get from one place to another will depend largely on time and money, and the country you are visiting. For the uninitiated, driving is a two person job where traffic lights may be vague, signs in a foreign alphabet, and traffic patterns the opposite from home. Granted, some countries are more challenging than others. Traffic in one may be a free for all, while traffic in another may follow laws familiar to the reader. I tend to use public transportation when possible and rent cars when there is no alternative, or if intending to camp. Busses, trains, and planes let me sightsee and relax while someone else finds their way out of Bangkok, Guatemala City, or Quito. Many countries, unfortunately not the USA, have well developed bus and train routes, and cheap taxi rides when you reach the end. Due to the plethora of world traveling backpackers, these routes are generally well documented online or in guide books.
Keep in mind that when at a bus, subway, or train station you are at your most vulnerable to thieves. With you is money, identification, and credit cards, your hands are occupied with luggage, and you may be slightly disoriented with the sights and sounds of the station. At the risk of being patronizing here are a couple of things that can save you grief. I am a real advocate for a money belt to hold whatever isn’t likely to be needed that day including money, credit cards, and passports. I use a belt that wraps around my middle under my shirt because pickpockets can’t see or reach it, and I can always feel its presence. I’ll often put the pocket part of it behind me in the small of my back, but tucked under the top of my pants, low down like a lumbar support. It doesn’t make an obvious bulge on my stomach, and it makes train and bus seats a bit more comfortable. Because my day pack holds my binoculars, camera, bird book and etc., if in a crowd or standing on a bus or subway, I wear it on the front, like a big belly, to keep anyone from slitting it with a knife or discretely unzipping pockets. This has never happened to me or anyone I know, but packs are worn this way by locals in many countries, so I tend to follow suit.
Another tip is If you are waiting with a friend while traveling, put your luggage and valuables between the two of you, or under your feet instead of to the outside of your chairs. I’ve seen thieves in Guatemala work in pairs where one distracts your attention to one side while their accomplice steals belongings from the other. If your belongings are between the two of you, then someone is always looking across it no matter where the distraction occurs.
Never hang a camera, bag, or purse from your chair back, particularly in an outdoor restaurant; it is far too easy for someone to walk bye and pick it up, or for you (me) to leave it behind when jumping up to see an amazing bird that just flew bye. A friend in Argentina was distracted by a group of children only to have his bag lifted off the back of his chair. I put my purse, if carrying it, over my knee or in my lap. If I’ve got a day pack, it goes under my feet where it is in constant contact with my leg. Sometimes I’ll even put my foot through the arm loop. While on a public bus, if my daypack or purse is on an overhead rack, I take the time to clip one of its straps around the rack to prevent easy removal. If getting off the bus or train while enroute, I always, always, take my valuables (including bins and camera), no matter how secure it seems. And finally, not to be gross, but I try to plan so I don’t have to use a bathroom at the station. While squatting in a Manila bus station bathroom I watched my first SE Asian leach rear up and actively track me down. A fascinating natural history experience, but yuck!
Busses and minibuses in most countries can be very economical and comfortable, but slow. If you don’t relish the time spent sitting, then fly between locations. In-country flights are often nearly as cheap as a private car, and much faster. Crossing borders by plane is a bit more expensive, but often more convenient than on the ground. Delays at boarder crossings reached by ground are various and interminable, whereas, in an airport they are generally finite and practiced. Keep in mind that crossing borders automatically raises the price of your airline ticket, so if costs are an issue, within country flights and ground crossings may be more attractive.
I do make exception for rental cars when renting a camper van or a car to camp from. The freedom of traveling with your home on your back is very convenient and liberating. Do keep in mind that being alone in a camper out in the bush can result in unwelcome encounters with locals; take care where and how you park for the night. I once camped at a lovely beach area near Albany, Australia on a Wednesday night. I had a family of Brown quail dust bathing 10 feet from my chair and Red-winged Fairywrens in the bushes. When I returned on a Saturday night, the site turned out to be a minor weekend party spot. I was blasted with music from the first few cars that dropped in, but then a more aggressive (drunk) visitor accidentally rammed my van. I’m pretty sure they intended to back up close so they could spray the van with dust and dirt as they pealed out, which they did, but they backed to quickly and too far. As instant karma would have it, the van had a heavy pipe bumper but they had a Toyota pickup with a new and lovely dent. No harm done, but my nerves were shaken and bush camping was never again as peaceful. From then on, when not in an official campground I parked so I could leave at a moment’s notice by either pulling forward, or backward.
I often find myself using small boats for birdwatching, and am truly amazed and entertained at the variety of boat shapes and sizes. Longtails, outboards, inboards, canoes, and sailboats, bi-hull, mono-hulls, and outriggers, boats come is countless shapes and with variable reliability. Choosing a boat can be a challenge, and if you are like me with little knowledge about them, a bit daunting. Getting the name of a good captain from a local is a good start, but you may not always have a chance to do this. If going for any great distance, for example, across open ocean where other boats may not be easy to flag down, I look for ones with two (working) engines, in case one fails. If venturing into mangroves or planning on viewing wildlife from the boat, I check that the captain is willing and able to turn the boat engine off periodically to allow for photos and viewing without vibration. For safety’s sake, this may not always be possible, but it may also be a statement of his confidence in the motor. Similarly, I look for a push pole or paddle in the boat just in case. By and large, my experiences in small open boats has been good, with only the occasional time spent floating to allow the petrol in a flooded engine to evaporate and smoke a cigarette… no we weren’t blown out of the water, but it was mildly exciting.