Here are a few more tips from our South African Adventure:
Check the exchange rate
When we visited South Africa in the summer of 2013 the exchange rate was 10 to 1, meaning we had a strong purchasing power with US dollars. While South Africans experience an expensive standard of living, with high costs for gas and utilities, as travelers we could take advantage of a significantly cheaper cost on lodging, gas, etc. Artisan products were very affordable too, so it can be worthwhile to plan to buy a lot to bring home, if the exchange rate is still the same. Locals told us that the US dollar was even with the Rand in 1994 at the end of apartheid. While the social issues have certainly improved since this change, the economy has struggled.
Watch for political unrest
In Summer 2013, Nelson Mandela was very ill and there was a concern that there might be civil unrest when he died. Now that he has passed away, I don’t know that this concern came to fruition, but this fear speaks to the deep divides that still exist in South African society. While we encountered wonderful people from all races and backgrounds, and we did not experience violence while we visited, we heard about it a lot, especially in the Johannesburg. Security is ubiquitous and every place of business had electric fencing, bars and/or security guards or guard dogs. The politics are corrupted and because of this the ANC is no longer endorsed by those who started it, like Desmond Tutu. We heard that election years can be especially troubling, so consider this when you go.
Meet the People
Above all, spend time getting to meet the wonderful people of South Africa. Wherever you go, you’ll have a chance to connect with people working in restaurants or resorts, selling artwork, giving tours and cleaning your room. While it’s important to speak carefully if the topic is politics or social issues, do get to know the diverse residents of this beautiful country. You’ll come away with a better understanding of the country and the many universal issues faced by South Africa.
This past summer our family traveled to South Africa and this is a list of tips that helped to make this a great adventure!
Don’t assume the flights are too expensive
We traveled in June-July and the roundtrip flight from Chicago to Johannesburg was just over $950. Flights to Capetown were significantly more expensive. We had a layover in Amsterdam, and flights directly to Amsterdam were actually more expensive than to Johannesburg. It was a very long pair of flights – 8 and 10 hours.
Go on safari like the South Africans do
Most likely “South Africa Safari” as a Google search will result in numerous hits for private safari companies that cater to your every whim to the tune of $500 per person, per day. Instead, do it like the South Africans do – simply book a rondavel at Kruger National Park for about $100 per night, and stay in the park. It’s much like Americans would visit Yellowstone. You drive on paved roads throughout the park and look for the Big Five. We saw every animal we were looking for, except wild dogs, which are very endangered.
Visit Soweto with a professional guide
We used Pieter Strydom from Big Six Tour Safaris and he was fabulous. A guide like this can give you amazing insight to the culture in South Africa, and Pieter was able to answer many questions about the history, economics and current turmoil.
Buy tire insurance, but reconsider the four-wheel drive
We had booked a four-wheel drive vehicle, which cost an extra $500 per week, but in our first bed and breakfast stay, our hosts said we really didn’t need it, since the clearance was no better on the Honda CRV than it would be in a sedan, and June/July is the dry season. So we took the car back to First Car Rental and they made a simple switch which resulted in a huge discount. The sedan worked as well as the CRV would have – the low clearance was a little tight a few times on unpaved roads, but there was never a reason for 4-wheel drive in the dry season.
Be prepared with a few Rands to tip the gas station attendants
Every gas station is full service, and it can be startling to have men surround your car as soon as you drive up. They will fill up, wash your windows, and bring the credit card machine to your car so you don’t have to let go of the card. It is customary to tip the attendant 2-5 Rands, which is a very small tip in dollars. Unfortunately, we didn’t have cash when we first filled up, and when we returned to the car, the tire was flat… The attendants helped us to switch to the spare and we drove to the next town. A local got the station owner to open up the store on a Sunday afternoon to take care of our tire. Tire insurance came in handy!
Between Paquera and our place in Pochote, the Curu Wildlife Refuge offered a great spot to see spider monkeys in their natural habitat. Well-groomed and marked trails (with varying degrees of “safe” steps and bridges) led us throughout the refuge so we could watch birds, deer and monkeys in the trees, sometimes very close. Watch out for the crocodiles in the estuary, though. Signs clearly warned us to not wade in the creek!
Tourists could also rent horses and purchase snorkel and scuba trips here, and the cottages for rent looked over a great beach. Remember to bring sun block and mosquito repellant.
We had brought our snorkeling gear on the trip, so were anxious to see some wildlife under the sea, as the bay near our bungalow didn’t offer many tropical fish to look at. We took a guided tour from Curu Wildlife Refuge and our guide took us to a snorkeling spot near Isla Tortuga. The snorkeling was good and it wasn’t too expensive, at only $25 per person. We spent a couple hours on Isla Tortuga eating wonderful fruit our guide had prepared for us. He also taught my son how to split a coconut with a rock – amazing!
We also enjoyed watching the parrots that hang out near the gift shop, and some Ticos play a sport that looked like a cross between volleyball and soccer.
Probably the most unique part of our trip to Costa Rica, were the unconventional daily canine visitors that came to our porch. Our neighbor was an American from Louisiana and he made his mission to be a refuge of sorts for stray dogs who lived on Playa Pochote. He was caring for a total of 10 dogs when we visited, provided veterinary services, spayed/neutered, fed and loved these dogs daily. Larry even brought the whole bunch inside at night when campers were shooting fireworks during the holidays. As neighbors, we got to join in on the loving part, as they hung out with us on our porch every day, and went along with us on our morning beach walks.
One of the dogs, Feo (Spanish for “Ugly”) holds a special place in our hearts. A stray for most of his life, and named by the people in town, Feo was taken in by Larry and provided a safe and loving place to call home. He’s in his twilight years now, and has experienced a life full of hardship. But despite his past maltreatment by humans, Larry said, “He never gave up on us.” Feo has poor eyesight and chronic infection in his mouth, but is the sweetest and happiest dog in the yard. What a gift to have a person like Larry to love animals like Feo.
The dogs also provided some security at night, as a few slept outside our doors and barked when they heard someone walking nearby. Over the course of two weeks, we really got to know these dogs and they made our stay very memorable.