A dozen tips for independent travelers

During my backpacking trip through Africa, there were so many moments when I though to myself, I’ve gotta remember this for the next time I travel.

Like most independent travelers headed for developing countries (independent = travelers who aren’t with a group and figure out accommodation and other details as they go), I knew to bring a money belt, invest in a pair of durable shoes and abide by simple food rules: boil it, peel it, cook it or forget it. But I learned a few more tricks along the way, ones you can use for your next travel adventure.

My tips for independent travelers:

Mom shows us how easy it is to use a stand-alone net.

1. Love your mozzie net. If you need a mosquito net, buy one that includes poles and sets up like a tent. (I use this Skeeter Defeater from Long Road Travel Supplies.) Hangable nets are useless when there’s nowhere to hang them.

2. Learn to Skype. Skype, a free service that allows you to make calls over the Internet, is the cheapest way to call home.  The drawback: for it to work well, you need a solid Internet connection, which can be hard to find in some developing countries. If you plan to Skype often, you may want to bring your own headset.

3. Be your own office assistant. Create sticky labels with addresses of anyone who deserves to get a postcard. You won’t have to carry an address book, and you’ll know you sent all required postcards when the labels are gone.

4. Buy visas along the way. It takes a little planning, but buying a visa in the country adjacent to where you’re going is usually cheaper than buying it from home and requires less paperwork. Just make sure there’s an embassy for country #2 in country #1, lest you get stuck without one. Also remember to ask about multi-country visas, which also can save you money.

5. Cipro for the sicko. Convince your doctor to prescribe several doses of Cipro, or Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic that treats bacterial infections — pretty much anything that forces you to spend your entire day squatting over the toilet. Since travelers often suffer from stomach bugs in developing countries, it’s smart to have this drug handy. Bring Bacitracin ointment, too, and use it; even small cuts become easily infected when you’re not at home.

6. Make room for music. Ditch something in your pack so you can bring lightweight, portable speakers for your iPod. You’ll use them at hostels, on the beach, everywhere you want to share your music with others.

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Six reasons to detour to Burkina Faso

Of the seven countries I visited during my backpacking trip, Burkina Faso was one of my favorites. It’s sandwiched between two West African countries that are popular with tourists – Mali to the north and Ghana to the south – and yet the French-speaking nation sees few visitors.

Here’s why you should add this culture-rich country to your itinerary:

Tempted to munch on these fried caterpillars...

1. Fried Caterpillars. They’re a popular snack in Burkina, sold by roaming vendors who carry them in buckets or bowls on their heads. Crunchy and burnt, these insects look awesome hanging from your mouth for a photo to send back home.

2. Fewer tourists mean less hassle. Compared with its neighbors, Burkina attracts few tourists. Perhaps partly for that reason, Burkinabés are friendly but not aggressive, and rarely hassle foreigners to buy whatever they’re hawking. Even though this country isn’t as well known with Europeans and Americans as Mali and Ghana, there’s still plenty of affordable accommodation.

3. Motos make for a cheap thrill. Motorcycles are the primary means of getting around in Burkina, which is a perfect excuse to rent one and zip around the city. If you’re afraid to drive a two-wheeler, hail a moto-taxi.

Locating Burkina Faso on a map of Africa.

4. Tourists and volunteers boost an impoverished population. Burkina ranks as one of the least developed countries in the world. Since fewer international non-profit organizations are on the ground there than in neighboring countries, it may take some digging to find volunteer opportunities. But once you do, you know you’re helping a needy population.

5. Buses beat bush taxis. Burkina’s two biggest cities, Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, are connected with a beautifully paved road, one of the nicest you’ll see in West Africa. Riding the Greyhound-like bus, which boasts tickets and a full seat for each passenger, is luxurious compared with the bush taxi transport that’s popular throughout most of the West Africa.

6. Ouagadougou. Nowhere will you find a capital city with a more euphonious name than Ouagadougou (pronounced WA-ga-DOO-goo). It’s almost as good as saying you’ve been to Timbuktu. And to make it easy on you, locals and visitors shorten the name to Ouaga.

Which countries would you like to visit in Africa? If you’ve already explored the continent, which countries would you recommend?

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