A Photo Essay Of One Of The World’s Most Neglected Tourist Destinations: Socotra Island

In the middle of the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia’s pirate waters, is the Yemeni archipelago Socotra. Of its 4 islands, the main Socotra island is one of the most remote, visually stunning, culturally intriguing, and least visited places on Earth.

You might be wondering is it safe to visit Yemen – and while that’s a bigger question – the answer for Socotra is a flat yes. Socotra isn’t the easiest place to get to but a few irregular flights don’t correlate with an expensive trip. Being Yemeni territory and the nominal connection to the mainland has hurt a Socotran tourism industry that’s never properly gotten off the ground. Only 4,000 tourists visited in 2011 which means many of the world’s travelers are missing one of the best reasons to visit Yemen.

If there were a mascot for Socotra, it would be the dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). Throughout Socotra’s interior, dragon blood trees grow all over sharp cliffs and rolling hills. Their “blood”, red resin from the tree, is used locally to cure a number of medical problems – remedies famous even to the ancient Greeks.

The pink flower of a bottle tree (Dendrosicyos) – one of three hundred species of plant that can only be found here.

A grown bottle tree, about 2.5 meters tall (~8.2 feet). They begin flowering when they’re quite short so I didn’t have to climb this one to get a nice flower closeup.

Meals in Socotra are a simple matter eaten with hands, preferably under shade, and often in the company of good conversation. Though unlike a good raki night, there’s no alcohol around. Socotris are strict Muslims.

Although Socotra is a part of Yemen, Socotris have a distinct culture set apart from the blend of African, Indian, and Arab influences surrounding it.

Not technically required, visiting Socotra without a guide you’ll likely end up missing local hiking trails, plants that only grow in one square half-kilometer in the universe, as well as hidden pools to cool off during the hot days. Annual temperatures average in the high 20s Celsius (mid-80s Fahrenheit) with humidity 70% or higher.

For a guide, I can highly recommend Saaber Aamer, pictured above (email: saaber.socotra@gmail.com tel: 00967-771-969-576).

The remnants of ancient lava flows roughly 5 million years old in Socotra, which is located between the Arabian and African tectonic plates.

As you can imagine, fish is a staple food on Socotra.

There aren’t a lot of people in Socotra and only one settlement you could call a city, is the capitol (called Hadibo) near the airport. Everywhere else there are tiny town, where there’s not a lot going on. Most Socotris live in the countryside.

The way to make a living is by fishing or through tourism.

Workers at Socotra’s only harbor.

There couldn’t be a more nondescript plant on Socotra but the healing powers of its sap are known to locals; put on cuts it has a mild pain relieving effect.

These aloe vera plants might be one of the reasons Alexander the Great wanted to conquer Socotra 2,400 years ago.

Although Hurghada, Egypt is one of the best places I’ve snorkeled in the world, Socotra is a close second. The fish don’t expect to see humans which gives you the opportunity to see a lot of curious sea life up close.

An endangered Egyptian vulture takes a break from the heat. There are only an estimated 21,000 mature adults left in the world and the population of Egyptian vultures has fallen by half over the last decade.

A large lake I’m told you can climb down into for a better look. I’m still not convinced it’s feasible.

Sand with pockmarks from a light rain shower along a beach where the water comes up only to your ankles 5oo meters inland.

The most remarkable part of Socotra is how much it makes you feel like you’re on the edge of Earth, far from problems and Internet connections in a little explored piece of the world.

Eventually the tourists will come, inevitably changing what Socotris themselves want to preserve about what makes Socotra so special. Socotra is definitely one unexpected travel destination you should visit before it becomes a hit – but if you still aren’t convinced – you can take a look at more of my pictures from Socotra and around Yemen here.

See It Like A Local: Announcing The Wander Around Istanbul Tour April 2015

November 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Culture, Food, Lodging, Site News

blue mosque istanbul

There is no other city like it in the world and while Istanbul certainly has a well beaten tourist path, Wandering Earl and I would like to show you everything in between. Back in 2013 we invited you to our I Love Istanbul Tour and I’m more than excited to bring back the next version for 7 days and 6 nights beginning April 14th, 2015.

istanbul street foodIstanbul Tour Details

I’ll be hosting the tour with my friend Derek Baron (Wandering Earl) who’s been running successful tours around the world for the past three years. Accommodation, daily meals, transportation, entrance passes are all included in the Wander Around Istanbul Tour which costs $1,000 for the trip April 14-20th, 2015.

“When I first signed up for the “I Love Istanbul” tour I thought – What have I committed to? What if Earl is a total weirdo? But I had no reason to worry. It felt more like I was traveling with friends who wanted to show me everything great about the city. If I had traveled to Istanbul on my own I would have hit all the main tourist destinations, but the benefit of following Earl (and fellow tour leader Anil) is that they know how to find the real treasures.” -Amanda O.

You can find more details and signup at the link here or ask me any questions in the comments below.

Wander Across India

In case you want to cure your wanderlust a bit earlier than next spring, Earl also has his Wander Across India Tour coming up on February 10th, 2015, a two and a half week tour of the world’s largest democracy.

haridwar india

I was with Earl to help out on his first India tour in 2012, which is a great deal at $1,850, considering meals, accommodation, transportation, and activities are included over 16 nights.

We’re Waiting For You!

We try to keep both the Istanbul and India tour groups small and in both cases they’ve already got a few spots filled; so don’t want too long to let us know you want to join. Those of you who are interested in either (or both, hey wanderluster!) can find out more and sign up the links below:

So you’re ready for whichever adventure you choose, check out this photo from shows the landmarks to look out for when flying into Istanbul and prepare for your first 48 hours in India.

Ask Photojournalist Romain Carre What It’s Like To Report From Conflict Zones

November 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Culture, Discussion, Security

romain carreI first met Romain Carre when I was traveling in eastern Ukraine, back in April right before civil war broke out in Donetsk. It’s a lot easier for a travel blogger like myself to stay conspicuous with this small camera in my hands but for professionals like Romain, photographing times of turmoil is much more dangerous. In Romain’s own words,

Born in Paris in 1983 I was first was into computers from the age of 10 and changed direction at 20. After different orientations (such as art school, medical school and faculty of history) I decided to orient myself on the field of photojournalism. During five years I’ve covered different fields such as Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Libya, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine and others, mainly focusing on conflict fields. You can see some of my photography from these places on my site, RomainCarre.com.

Leave your questions for Romain in the comments below, he’ll be by later today to answer anything you want to know!

Romain’s work has been published in Al Jazeera, ParisMatch, VSD, Time, Elle, Le Figaro, Le Monde, le Parisien, Vesti Reporter, and FranceTv – he’s also worked for WostokPress and Sipa Agency. He’s currently in Kiev, Ukraine and will be here live chatting for two hours, from 12pm-2pm US EST to answer any and all questions you have about photographing conflict zones – all in the comments below!

How To Spend A Short Trip To Vilnius, Lithuania

October 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Advice, Culture, Security, Travel

cathedral square vilnius lithuania

The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, is the ideal size for active travel feet who want a city that can be wandered around with nothing more than leg power. Like 2 to four minutes in Dubai, Vilnius is small enough to be thoroughly explored on a short day or two trip but leaves enough behind for a subsequent visit or longer stay. Here’s how to best introduce yourself to this Baltic city of 540,000 people.

Get To Your Hotel First, Not The Airport

Vilnius is really refined almost to its edges, except where taxi drivers meet Vilnius International Airport. The majority will gleefully try to charge you triple the normal rate to get into town and while there are airport shuttles available, an honest cab is too inexpensive plus convenient to pass up. One quiet way to beat those shady taxi drivers is to call ahead to your hotel or hostel to have them send a cab for you.

vilnius city tour

Speaking of hostels, I can highly recommend Jimmy Jumps House which is comfortable, clean, and close to town. Here’s my full review of Jimmy Jumps House with more details.

Most of you who’re familiar with eastern Europe know this is standard practice to avoiding getting ripped off (in India as well) so be sure to have your unlocked mobile phone and hostel digits handy. (In case you don’t, the departures terminal upstairs has free wireless for a Skype Out call.)

From Art To Old Then Back Again

When walking around generally one wants to see unique – and brick buildings with straight edges in Europe just isn’t it. You’re better off starting with Uzupis, literally “across the river” in Lithuanian. It’s the hippie-ish we-might-be-smoking-weed-before-painting-things neighborhood of Vilnius.

uzupis bridge vilnius

Visually, it’s interesting, whether you happen to be intoxicated or not. (Keep in mind marijuana is illegal in Lithuania.) Although they don’t look inviting, many of the alleyways are colored with extraordinary talent next to pawn shops that accept Uzupis’ own currency. Yes, Uzupis is a lot like Copenhagen’s autonomous neighborhood Christiania, aesthetically and ideologically.

vilnius uzupis alleyway

Hike, Don’t Walk To The Three Crosses

You can almost miss the Three Crosses monument, which overlooks Vilnius and offers the best views of the city. Just north of Uzupis, don’t just walk straight up, come around and stroll through Hill (Kalnai) Park first. Then, make use of the hiking trail (not the paved asphalt path) going around to the right – where you’ll be able to see the remains of the original monument destroyed by the Soviets in 1950 – the current crosses were placed in 1989.

three crosses vilnius

Hiking down the paved path this time leads you around Gedimina’s Tower, remains of a 13th century fort that most travelers without a specific interest can skip. You’ll end up in front of the Vilnius Cathedral whose side rooms filled with passionate praying reminiscent of Metekhi in Tbilisi, Georgia give a glimpse into Lithuanian faith.

vilnius cathedral

Depending on the season, there’s often a jollier atmosphere right outside in Cathedral Square next to Bell Tower; where I witnessed a student dance group practicing their moves for a large crowd.

15 Minutes On To The Old Town

Meandering slowly south you can recharge with a snack and coffee at a place like Saskaita on Pilies Street, a part of town that captures hungry tourists and locals alike. Granted you might be thirstier for a stronger drink – like a local beer at Snekutis (the one across town toward the bus station.) Whether you’re leaving town on to nearby Latvia or staying for a few more days, much of Vilnius is accessible within a half hour’s walk of calorie burning sightseeing.

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