Salkantay & Machu Picchu: Trekking through the Andes

Salkantay was our first multi-day trek, ever. Eek! Going into it I was equal parts anxious, and rediculously excited. We walk a ton, but not 20+ kilometers a day, up mountains, with a pack, at altitude, for 5 days straight. This was going to be the most challenging thing we had taken on thus far, but the reward at the end would be more than worth it. Aside from eating and drinking everything we encountered, this was one of the things we had most looked forward to in planning out our trip.

Here’s our story…

Continue reading “Salkantay & Machu Picchu: Trekking through the Andes”

Have you heard of Montenegro?

At only 9 years since it’s independence from Serbia and the former Yougoslavia, but with known civilizations dating back to the 6th century, Montenegro is the (second) newest old country in Europe. This blend of old and new could be felt in the historic Old Town fortresses that now housed trendy hotels and restaurants. It could also be seen in the pop-up stands along the roads where locals sold their homemade olive oils and fruits to beach-goers from all over Europe. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) a long history of political and boarder changes, the people we meet seemed rather unfazed by the latest developments.

A church dating back to the 9th century in Kotor's Old Town.
A church dating back to the 9th century in Kotor’s Old Town.

Our decision to visit was initially spurred by Schengen visa regulations — since Montenegro has not yet joined the majority of Europe under Schengen it meant we could spend our time exploring the country without the anxiety of knowing our 90-day clock was counting down. It also checked an important box for me: visit a country that we didn’t know existed before we started out on our trip.

Continue reading “Have you heard of Montenegro?”

Korčula

Korčula was the perfect antidote to yet another week of gluttony and back-to-back sightseeing in Ireland. A 2ish hour ferry ride from the port town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, Korčula is one of the quieter islands in Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. The old town resembled a mini Dubrovnik with white stone houses crowded together in the ancient city walls, their bright coral red tops standing out against the picturesque green mountains beyond.

Once inside the walls, the town could be a bit overwhelming at first. It was, like most beaches in Europe, packed full of tourists off of the ferry boats and private yachts. Happily, the apartment we rented through a local travel agency was a short 10 minute walk outside the city’s walls – close enough for easy grocery shopping, but far enough from the all-night partying in town.

Continue reading “Korčula”

Ica: Wine, Pisco, and One Bad Grape

Ica, Peru is a small-ish town about 4-6 hours south of Lima, making it a popular weekend getaway from the city. The climate is dry and desert-like, and it’s perhaps best known for its wine and pisco Bodegas outside of town. Ica is Peru’s primary wine and pisco producing region, and we were excited to both check out the local wine culture and taste the national beverages!

We splurged on our hotel and booked Villa Jazmin (pronounced: veeya yasmeen), a cute boutique hotel in a gated community just outside of town. Our room had an amazingly comfortable king-sized bed, modern furnishings, and a private balcony. It even included a welcome Pisco Sour that we enjoyed next to one of the two pools. Compared to the last few weeks this was top-tier luxury!

Continue reading “Ica: Wine, Pisco, and One Bad Grape”

Chillin in Cusco, Peru

Our last stop in Peru was Cusco, homebase for our 5-day trek to Manchu Picchu via the Salkantay Trail. We booked 4 nights in Cusco so that we would have time to find and book our tour and adjust to the altitude before we needed to start hiking. It also gave us a much needed chance to recover from the Grape Incident of Ica.

One of the streets we walked frequently
One of the streets we walked frequently

Cusco ended up being a really cute destination in itself and quickly earned a spot as our favorite little city in South America. The picturesque cobblestone streets and colonial architecture are situated in the middle of a valley surrounded by the lush, green Andes Mountains. The two main squares are great for relaxing and people watching: parks surrounded by ornate churches, shops, and restaurants.

Continue reading “Chillin in Cusco, Peru”

Spanish Classes and Stray Cats in Lima, Peru

Lima was a last minute addition to our itinerary after Carnival interrupted our original plans to stick around Ecuador, and it turned out to be a great decision. Kyle found a Spanish school with great reviews in the Miraflores neighborhood (Peruwayna), and we arranged to spend a week there taking classes and exploring the city. 

We arrived in Lima on Sunday afternoon after about 30 hours on busses and happily settled in. Upon arriving at the bus terminal we said goodbye to our new Argentinian friend and hopped a cab over to the homestay we had booked through our school. Willie, our host, greeted us at the door (in Spanish) and showed us to our room where we unpacked before taking a quick tour of the neighborhood. We were on a quiet street in Miraflores, a safe, nice area with a young vibe from the local universities. Everything we needed was within a few blocks – the bank, a real supermarket (the first we had seen in weeks!), and tons of restaurants. It was nice to be back in the familiar landscape of a modern city.

The next morning we started our classes. After months off from work it was nice to have a regular routine again, if only for a week: classes were 9am – 1pm every day with a coffee/snack break mid-way through. When we arrived at the school we waited with the other new students and each had a short 1:1 interview with one of the instructors to determine class placement. Nothing like a test on a subject you haven’t studied in 12 years, on the first day of class! 😉

It all worked out though, and we both ended up in classes where we learned a lot. Kyle was in basic survival Spanish where he got a crash course on grammar and learned a long list of new words. I was in pre-intermediate 1, which ended up being more conversational. We had a lesson each day, but also spent a good majority of the class talking as a group, which improved my speaking skills and, more importantly, my confidence in my ability to speak in Spanish. In the end we were really happy with our decision to take the class. We’re certainly not fluent, but we can now at least get by without constantly having to ask “habla ingles?”

 

This mall has great views and you can watch people paragliding over the cliffs.
This mall has great views and you can watch people paragliding over the cliffs.

Our class schedule left us with the afternoons free for long almuerzos, exploring our neighborhood, and generally catching up on life. On our first day out we tried the local drink (pisco sour!) from one of the outdoor restaurants overlooking the ocean. We also booked a city tour on the double-decker Mira Bus where we got to see downtown Lima and the San Francisco Cathedral and Catacombs. Other highlights included hanging with the cats at Parque Kennedy and checking on pre-Incan ruins in the middle of the city.

Getting There

 

We arrived at the Guayaquil bus station early Saturday morning to the biggest mess of people we’ve seen at a transportation hub. And having flown through major US airports during snowstorms, hurricanes, and holidays, that’s saying a lot! We had to push, squeeze and shove our way back to the Cifa ticket window to pay our 50 cent exit tax amongst crowds of holiday-ing Ecuadorians and a number of loud chickens. Luckily, the guy behind the counter remembered us from the day before and we were able to squeeze in when the window opened and get our stamp in plenty of time to catch the bus.

We encountered the second mob of the day later, at the Ecuador-Peru border. It was our first boarder crossing on a bus and we didn’t quite know what to expect, but we definitely were not prepared for the 2-hour long line outside the customs office. It took so long for everyone on our bus to get through that we ended up ditching the bus and hopping a cab with a guy from Argentina that we had made friends with earlier, just so we could make our next bus to Lima. Hooray for friends that speak fluent Spanish! Happily, it all worked out and we made our bus, which ended up exceeding our hopes with full cama (180 degree reclining) seats, 3 decent meals a day, and personal TVs at every seat. Go Civa!

Stay

 

We opted for a homestay through our Spanish school, and it turned out to be a great way to experience the neighborhood. Willie, our host was patient with our (lack of) Spanish skills, and it was nice to have the use of a kitchen again.

Do / See

 

Gorgeous Cathedral and Monastery with Catacombs
Gorgeous Cathedral and Monastery with Catacombs

The Catacombs and San Francisco Monastery are a must-see. The history in both is astounding: a library with books dating back thousands of years, huge intricate paintings and tapestries, and underground caverns filled 20 meters deep with bones.

Some of the 25+K people buried here
Some of the 25+K people buried here

The Mira Bus tour itself we had mixed feelings on. It was a great way to see the important areas of the city without the effort of trying to figure out cabs or busses. However, it was pretty expensive, and with traffic in Lima being the worst we’ve seen yet we spent a lot of time inching along smog-filled streets.

We also missed out on the Plaza del Armas, because there was a demonstration going on and the police power to keep people (including tour busses) away was intense with machine-gun armed guards and tanks blocking surrounding streets. In summary, I would probably skip Mira Bus in favor of a private tour, or take cabs directly to the sites we wanted to see.

In Miraflores alone there was a lot to do and this was where we spent the rest of our time. One of the coolest spots (in our opinion) was the ruins from the pre-Incan city of Huaca Pucllana.


Our first pyramid
Our first pyramid

It was a quick walk from the place we were staying, and admission included a guided tour of the ruins, an archeological site that’s still being explored. If you’re looking for a treat they also have an on-site restaurant that’s highly rated. The dining area overlooks the ruins which are lit up at night, and the dinner reservation includes an after-hours tour.

 

One of Kim's many new furry friends
One of Kim’s many new furry friends

For cat lovers, Parque Kennedy is not to be missed. It’s one of the main parks in Miraflores and home to about 150 stray cats and kittens. It’s unclear exactly how they got here (some claim that a nearby church brought the first cats in to deal with rats in the ’80s), but they are now a staple in the neighborhood. Locals come to pet them on their lunch breaks, and there’s a group of residents that come twice a day to lay down food and water. After our first trip here we bought a bag of cat food from the supermarket and returned the next couple days, sneaking food to our new furry friends while park security looked the other way.

 

Another favorite place was the coast in Miraflores, with amazing views from the shops and restaurants built into the cliffs, and tourists paragliding overhead.

 

Eat

 

Once again, we were big fans of the menu del dias. Most of the restaurants in Miraflores offered a set lunch menu for a decent price. Barranco Beer Company was one of our favorites, with a 2-course meal and local beer. It was a long walk from Miraflores, but absolutely worth it for the food and the ocean views along the way.

 

Drink

 

We had our first Peruvian Pisco Sours here and were instantly hooked. It’s the national drink made with Pisco (of course), lime juice, sugar, and egg whites. Yum! We also tried out the local beers – pretty standard for a cheap local brew. The beer at Barranco was much better. For wine, we grabbed a bottle of Peruvian Blanco de Blancos, a white blend from Taberno at the supermarket. It was surprisingly sweet, but perfect for desert.

 

Lessons & Tips

 

  • Beware Carnival. All countries have their own version on different dates, and it effects everything. While I’m sure the parties can be fun, don’t count on getting anywhere on time unless you’ve booked far in advance.
  • Taking the time to (start to) learn the local language was absolutely worth it. It helped us feel more comfortable going to less touristy restaurants and less like self-centered Americans that expected everyone else to learn English. And it feels great to be able to do basic things like direct a cab driver, or check in at a hostel without expecting the other person to speak English. I’m continuously amazed by all of the Europeans we meet that speak 3 or more languages.
  • I am very grateful for California’s smog regulations on vehicles. The exhaust from the Collectivos (mini buses) was intense and left me with a perpetual sore throat.

 

Current Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
A few more photos:

 

Many of the streets are lined with amazing murals like this one
Many of the streets are lined with amazing murals like this one
Punch buggy blue, no punch backs!
Punch buggy blue, no punch backs!
Lots femurs stacked
Lots femurs stacked
The pyramid was a burial mound for the local inhabitants
The pyramid was a burial mound for the local inhabitants
It rained so little here they built this pyramid out of mud bricks stacked like this
It rained so little here they built this pyramid out of mud bricks stacked like this
#Tobywashere
#Tobywashere

Galapagos Part 2: Isla Isabela

Hello again! Apologies to everyone following along — it’s been a crazy-awesome-fun last month, and in all of that we’ve fallen quite a bit behind in our posts. We’ll try our best to catch you up quickly!
 
Beautiful Altar in the Church on Isla Isabela
Beautiful Altar in the Church on Isla Isabela

Isla Isabela was the largest, yet most undeveloped of the 3 Galápagos Islands that we visited. The streets were all unpaved – for the moment anyway – and the town was small enough to walk anywhere in a few minutes. It also had the laid-back vibe of a beach town that can run on island time. We still have no idea what the hours were at our favorite bakery, only that they (usually) weren’t open in the mornings, and occasionally were o pen on our way home for dinner. Even the church embraced island life with a floor-to-ceiling mural depicting Jesus rising over a beach and stained glass windows of giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies.

 

An example of the stained glass windows of the church, other images included the Blue-footed Boobie, Marine Iguana and Frigatebird
An example of the stained glass windows of the church, other images included the Blue-footed Boobie, Marine Iguana and Frigatebird
After our busy week on San Cristobal, the slower pace of Isla Isabela was welcome, and we took the opportunity to slow down too. The wildlife here was similar to San Cristobal — with the exception of the elusive Galapagos penguins — so we didn’t feel the need to push ourselves to do lots of snorkeling and tours. Instead, we spent time swimming at the beach and walking around. 
 
Getting There
 
Since all ferries originate from Santa Cruz we had to take two separate boats over to Islabela: the first from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz, and the second from Santa Cruz to Isabela. Normally the boat rides are pretty smooth, but we managed to time our transfer with a big rainstorm, and ended up soaked on the first leg of our journey. We passed the time between boats in a small coffee and fro-yo shop on Santa Cruz that we remembered from our first stay on the island. Talking with the guy working there we learned that it’s rare for this much rain to come through — most houses aren’t built to deal with it and a lot ended up flooded. Our wet boatride didn’t seem so bad by comparison!
 
Do / See
 
Volcan Sierra Negra
Sharp volcanic rock in amazing colors
Sharp volcanic rock in amazing colors

We only did one official tour on Isabela — a hike up and around the rim of one of the island’s volcanos. At 19 kilometers round-trip it was one of the longer hikes we had done, but the views made it worth it. We were the first tour group on the trail so we had it to ourselves for the most part.

Clouds rolling into the 11m wide caulder
Clouds rolling into the 11m wide caulder

It was also clear weather up until the very end, so we were able to see all the way across the crater, and had views all the way to the ocean from our lunch time vantage spot.


 

Volcan Chico, inside an old mini crater.

 

Wall of Tears
Wall of Tears facing North
Wall of Tears facing North

The day before the volcano hike we did another long trek, out to the Wall of Tears. Left over from Isabela’s earlier days as a penal colony, the massive wall built by prisoners for no real purpose was a striking reminder that the islands hadn’t always been a protected oasis. Along the road to the wall were beaches, lava tunnels, and a few giant tortoises making their way slowly.

Lava Tunnel, with crystal clear lake

 

 

Tortoise Center and Flamingo Lagoon
Curious little Tortoise
Curious little Tortoise

Near the main beach is a short trail through the marshes to the island’s Tortoise breeding center. Similar to the center on San Cristobal Tortoise eggs are gathered, hatched, and raised in captivity until the animals’ shells have developed enough to withstand threats of the outside world, some of which include introduced species like dogs, cats, and even cars and motorbikes. On the way to the breeding center we passed a lagoon filled with bright pink flamingos.

It was a breeding center…

 

 

Beaches
"Make sure to get my good side"
“Make sure to get my good side”

Isabela had the best beaches of any of the islands with warm water and white sand. Our only regret was that we didn’t rent a boogie board for the waves! 

 

Concha Perla
Above the sea
Above the sea

By the time we got to Isabela we were pretty snorkeled out. We passed on the snorkel tours and instead opted to check out the small lagoon just outside of town on our own. We passed a couple snoozing sealions on the way, and there were a handful of fish in the lagoon itself, but compared to the spots we had been on San Cristobal it wasn’t overly impressive. 

Under the sea
Under the sea


 

On our last day we came back here and tried to rent a kayak to paddle out to the nearby cove and try to see some of the island’s famed penguins. Unfortunately, the main kayak stand was closed the whole time we were there (lunch? siesta? who knows!) and the only other guy renting kayaks on the beach was selling tours for more cash than we had on us. Frustrated, and sad about missing out on the penguins, we finally admitted defeat and headed to the beach.

Beach time
Beach time

 

Stay
 
We went back and forth on whether to book a hostel before we arrived and ended up doing so at the last minute, through Booking.com. Our planning paid off when we were greeted by a free pickup from the dock, saving us the long-ish walk with heavy packs and Dramamine-induced grogginess. Sula Sula, our hostel, ended up being decent with clean, comfortable beds, A/C and breakfast included. 
 
Eat
 
We had most of our dinners at the touristy restaurants around the main square. The fixed-price ‘cenas’ were a good deal and the food was pretty decent. We did hear rumors of cockroaches from other travellers we met, but chose to ignore the warnings and try our luck. Happily our gamble paid off and there were no crunchy surprises in our soup. 
 
A couple other stand-out spots for us were the bakery a couple blocks away from Sula Sula, and the small juice shop on the main square. The woman that ran the shop was friendly and made fresh-to-order juices from local fruits like pineapple, papaya, and watermelon.
 
One last staple in our daily meals — Ecuadorian ice cream popsicles. They were sold at every corner store with flavors ranging from standard blackberry (mora) and coconut to more obscure native fruits like taxo, and were the perfect match for a warm day at the beach.
 
Drink
 
Along one of our hikes we met a couple from San Francisco who we continued to run into over the next couple days. On one of our last nights we ended up checking out the beach-side bars together. The first bar had tables on the beach, a pretty low-key atmosphere, and decent drinks. Kyle opted for a Cuba Libre, and I had a Caprinarah — a sugary, fruity cocktail we’d been seeing on local drink menus. It was delicious! 
 
Our next stop, Bar de Beto, was attached to the hostel our friends were staying at. We had stopped by earlier in the day and it was packed with a group from a cruise ship hanging out on the hammocks. When we tried to go back after dinner it was closed up and all the lights were off, but by the time we finished drinks at the first bar it was back in full swing — this time with a disco ball, salsa dancing and some intense flashing lights. Again with the completely random island hours! Anyway, fun little bar with really strong drinks served up in coconuts.
 
Lessons & Tips
  • Keeping a balanced budget means hard choices. And deciding how much you really want to do something and what you are (or aren’t) willing to sacrifice for it. For us, it meant no penguins. But, this helped keep us on budget enough to say yes to a more expensive trek with friends a few weeks later.
  • Along those lines…no matter how long the trip is, you’re never going to see everything. And everyone you meet or talk to is going to have one more “must-do” to share. And if you try to do it all you’re going to end up exhausted with a half finished checklist. Our POV: It’s much better to pick a few must-do’s and leave time to really enjoy where you are and what you’re doing.
  • For boat rides in rough water always grab a seat near the back. Especially if you’re prone to motion sickness…
 
Current Location: Mendoza, Argentina
Other Photos:
Lounging Sea Lions
Lounging Sea Lions
Underwater Selfie
Underwater Selfie
Flamingo Lagoon
Flamingo Lagoon
Kim in the Lava Tunnel
Kim in the Lava Tunnel
One of the many small cauldera's on Volcan Chico, where we ate lunch
One of the many small cauldera’s on Volcan Chico, where we ate lunch
Fog rolling into the 11Km wide crater
Fog rolling into the 11Km wide crater

Galapagos Islands: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Sea Lions

We are often asked the question, “Of all the places you’re planning to go, which are you most excited about?” For me the answer was consistently “The Galapagos Islands”. An archipeligo of 18 main islands and over a hundered other smaller islands and rocks 563 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are famous for their diverse wildlife. From the three species of boobies (bluefooted, redfooted, Galapagos) to the endemic marine iguanas and Galapagos penguins, the Galapagos Islands are not like any other place on earth. It’s hard to capture the epicness in a blog post, but I think Kyle’s photos do a pretty great job 😉

The most striking thing for me about the Galapagos, and San Cristobal in general, was the relationship of humans and animals. Animals are given the rule of the land here, as evident in the fact that the islands and surrounding waters are made up of mostly protected areas that require the accompaniment of a guide.  Because of this, the animals here are often curious, sometimes indifferent, but rarely fearful. The sealions especially seem to be enjoying their free-reign — I went for an early morning run and found most of the benches lining the dock to be occupied by snoozing sealions.

Of the 18 large-ish islands, only 4 of these can be visited without a multi-day cruise. We opted to focus on just two of those islands, with a quick stop-over on the main island.

Ferry Baltra to Santa Cruz

We arrived at the main airport on Balta island, an old army base from WW2, and took a bus, boat taxi, and public bus to cross over to Santa Cruz, and get to the main town of Puerto Arroyo where we spent our first night. The landscape coming across the island was a bit of a shock — though greener in the highlands, it was much more desert than lush island oasis. We did get to see some really cool cactuses, and the contrast of the bright blue sea against the black volcanic rock was stunning.

Puerto Arroyo turned out to be a fairly large town, and it was obvious that the town’s economy revolved around the tours and cruises that departed from it’s harbor. Every few feet was another tour operator followed by a restaurant that specialized in burgers or pizza. This also meant high prices in town, so we opted for an AirBnb (yes, AirBnb has rooms in the Galapagos!) run by a local couple that was about a kilometer north of the main street. Though not fancy by any means it was more than sufficent for a night’s stay.

The next day we departed for Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal where we had booked a week’s stay at another AirBnb, this one run by a Swiss-Ecuadorian couple. The boat ferry over was smooth and we got to see a couple other islands on the 2.5 hour journey. Upon arrival we were met by more sealions than I’ve ever seen in one place — they covered the docks and played in the water around our boat.

Porto Baquerizo Moreno from Shipwreck Bay

We were happy to find San Cristobal to be a bit smaller than Puerto Arroyo. The second most populous island, it did have it’s own airport and port for cruise ships, but both were on the (much) smaller side. It was a quick 5 minute walk from the dock to the place we were staying, and we were on the outskirts of town again. Everything was in close proximity, including markets, restaurants, and shops.

Though tempted to spend many lazy days in the rooftop hammocks enjoying the island pace of life, we also didn’t want to miss a second of this adventure. For the most part we were up with the sun, and to bed pretty early. The only late night partiers appeared to be the roosters. I had, somewhat ignorantly, assumed that roosters started making noise at daybreak. Wasn’t that what was depicted in movies, TV, and children’s books? Apparently not so with these roosters. Our first night on the island I woke up to such a racket that I convinced myself that it must be sometime after 6 and started the process of waking up, only to look at my phone and see that it was actually 3am.

Noisy party roosters aside, San Cristobal was a unique, beautiful place with kind residents and I hope we can make it back someday. It’s really encouraging to see all of the conservation efforts inplace, though as always there’s room to improve. On our second day one of the huge cargo ships that brings supplies out to the island ran aground off the coast, the third in a year. Officials appeared to be quick to get the proper ropes in place to contain the mess, but it was still disheartening to see this happening in such a fragile environment.

Getting There

When we first began researching the Galapagos I was discouraged by the widely advertised cruises that came with a per-person price tag in the thousands. There’s no way we could afford this without cutting the whole trip short. Additionally, these cruises meant anywhere from 4 – 10 days on a boat in the open ocean. To a traveller prone to seasickness this is basically hell.

After some pretty extensive research we came across some one-off blog posts about people who had visited the Galapagos the way we wanted – on their own, no cruise necessary. One of my good friends had also done a similar trip a few years earlier and assured us that yes, it was totally doable (thanks, Jenny!). So, we booked our roundtrip tickets from Guayaquil, Ecuador!

The tickets were a reasonable $373 each (though we ended up paying a bit more to extend our stay once we were on San Cristobal). Even with the $10 tax and $100 park entrance fee this still felt like a pretty good deal for getting to the coolest place ever.

Stay

We used AirBnb for our stay on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. It was fantastic. Both rooms averaged well below local hotel costs, and sometimes hostels as well. Plus, it’s a really great way to support local families. In both cases we had a clean, private room with private bathroom. 
 
Our hosts in San Cristobal were especially great. Silvia and Jose were both incredibly kind people. They even let us use their coffee grinder, kitchen, and even their emergency backup wifi to contact our bank when it shut off our debit card for the second time while the power was out (a story for another time). 

Do / See

There is SO MUCH to do on San Cristobal. And for the most part it isn’t even necessary to take tours — we were able to explore a lot of the beaches and wildlife just by following the marked hiking paths. We liked it here so much that we even added on an extra day.

Isla Lobos

The first Blue Footed Boobie

Isla Lobos (lobos = sealions in Spanish) is a small island off the coast of San Cristobal. It is often passed over for the much acclaimed diving and snorkeling at nearby kicker rock. But, at almost half the price, we found it to be a great deal and a fun way to spend a morning. Our boat left from the main pier around 8am and passed by a couple areas for photos en route to Lobos. We saw sealions sunning themselves on a floating dock, the beaches, the pier, unoccupied boats…pretty much anywhere they could lay down for a sunny snooze. We also saw our first blue footed boobies on the rocks near San Cristobal’s beaches a little ways out of town! 

Wonderfully colored crabs
Wonderfully colored crabs

Once the boat arrived at Isla Lobos we all got out and our tour guide brought us around to a few different areas. We saw hundreds of crabs, tons of sealions swimming in the water and napping under mangroves, marina iguanas, blue footed boobies, and frigate birds (the males have bright red sacks at their necks that puff out when mating). Our tourguide had made friends with a baby bluefooted booby over the last 6 months and it eagerly walked up to greet him, following his hand motions with it’s beak, and even showing off a bit.

After the on-island portion of the tour we got in the water for a 45 minute snorkel where we saw lots of fish, a stingray, and more bluefooted boobies hanging out of the cliffs. The highlight was a swim in one of the shallow pools with sealion pups. They were so playful and curious! You’re instructed to keep your distance, of course, but many would come right up to you. At one point our whole group was watching a few playing to our right, and I turned around to find another pup staring me in the face! We stayed until one of the male lions got agitated and started barking. Time to go!

Full Island Tour

We debated quite a bit on our second tour. We knew we wanted to snorkel, and really wanted to get to the north side of the island that was only accessible by boat. But most of the tours headed that way only made a couple stops and were on the more expensive side. After talking to a few tour companies, we found one that offered an around-the-island tour. It circled the entire island, making a few snorkel stops along the way. Perfect!

We set off early, around 7:30am in a small fishing boat with 4 other passengers, our captain, and our guide. As we set out around the east side of the island we quickly learned why this was the only tour that circled the whole way around — while the west side is fairly protected by the archipeligo, the east side is nothing but open ocean. I popped a couple dramamine and hoped that our little boat was up for the challenge!

The scenery around the island was spectacular and well-worth the bumpy ride. We saw lush, green mountains that ended in vertical black-rock cliffs, waterfalls pouring out of the cliffs into the ocean, and pristine white-sand beaches.  Our first stop was at Blanco beach, known for it’s marine turtles. Here, we snorkeled in a secluded lagoon with three giant (seriously, the biggest was at least 6 feet!) turtles, and explored the beach where we were the only people for miles. We did not see any of the tintoreras (harmless sharks without teeth), but I did come across a sea turtle snacking on sea grass. Their jaws are massive!

Kicker Rock through the key

 

Kicker Rock up close

After this we headed up to Punta Pitt, the only place on the island where you can see the redfooted and Galapagos boobies. Tours destined only for Punta Pitt allowed visitors to hike up the cliffs to get closer, but as we had a full day ahead we just took our photos from the boat. We also stopped for another snorkel here, where we encountered tons of brightly colored fish, and a playful sealion that swam up to us as soon as we jumped in and stuck with our group the entire time, swimming close, and mimicking us as we swam down and around.

Continuing on to the east side of the island we circled Kicker Rock for some photos (we couldn’t snorkel here because it requires a special permit and specific tour only for this spot), then headed on past Isla Lobos to one of the beaches we had stopped at after our Lobos tour. I was pretty cold and snorkeled out at this point, but Kyle went out and expolored the surrounding rocks that were full of…you guessed it…more fish! Overall, a fantastic day.

Highlands

I had read a few blog posts about travellers renting a taxi for the day to explore the highlands of San Cristobal. This usually included a trip through El Progreso, a small farming community, a hike to the only fresh-water lake on the island – in the top of a crater, a tortoise breeding center, and supposedly the best beach on the island. The draw of these places was enough to eventually overcome my trepidation of negotiating all of this, for a reasonable rate, in Spanish, with one of the pickup truck drivers that are the island’s taxis.

Luckily it turned out to be easier than we had expected. We flaggged down a woman cab driver named Isabel who was patient with our less-than-perfect Spanish and told us a little about the island on the way. She was super nice, and even gave us a couple bananas from a tree at her home to snack on along the way.

The lake, El Junco was pretty awesome. We hit it on a rare clear day, and we could see the landscape perfectly reflected in it. As the only freshwater lake on the island, many of the seabirds come here to rinse their features and it was cool to see them one after the next dive headfirst into the lake.

At our next stop, The Galapaguera, we arrived around feeding time, and were greeted by a giant (4 ft long) tortoise snacking on some leaves right next to the entrance. Walking along the paths we saw other equally massive tortoises. We also checked out the breeding center — the central purpose of this facility. Giant tortoises were hunted almost to extinction in the earlier part of the 20th century, and invasive species continue to be a threat to their eggs. This center, and others like it on Isabella and Santa Cruz, works to ensure that as many tortoises as possible survive and can be released back into the greater park lands.  The workers collect the eggs, taking care not to reposition them, then go through a tedious process to ensure that the baby tortoises have a similar experience to the wild where they spend about 30 days in total darkness digging themselves out. After this, the tortoises are separated into areas based on their age until they are old enough to raom the whole facility.

Punto Chino by land

The last stop was Punto Chino, a soft, white-sand beach on the east side of the island. It’s protected by a cove so the water never gets too rough. Here we found more of the striped fish from earlier and tons of tiny finches scavenging on lunch scraps —  right out of our hands!

Interpretation Center & Frigatebird Hill

In spite of it’s completely ambiguous name, the Interpretation Center was actually really interesting. It has a comprehensive history of the islands through present-day. Just past the Center was the path to Frigatebird Hill. It’s a rather steep but well-maintained trail through the volcanic rock desert landscape. At the top are two viewing platforms, great for watching the sun set and (you guessed it!) bird watching. There’s also a path down to another beach on the backside of the hill that we didn’t make it to. We got distracted along the way by this guy:

Beaches

San Cristobal is full of gorgeous beaches – all that’s needed is a wetsuit and snorkel to enjoy! We rented wetsuits for the week so we could explore on our own, and it ended up being a great decision. We used them almost every day and it was fantastic being able to go out on our own schedule.

Aside from our tours, we went to three other beaches on our own: Lover’s beach tucked back behind the Interpretation center, La Loberia about 1 km north of the airport, and the beach closest to town. The first two were the best, more secluded by their distance from the town. Kyle saw his first sea turtle at Lover’s Beach, along with the usual fish and sea lions. There were sea lion pups everywhere — one we came back to our stuff to find a pup passed out next to my Nikes.
 

 

Lover's Beach before sunset
Lover’s Beach before sunset

Lover’s beach was especially picturesque at sunset. We decided to adventure up to the abandoned lighthouse to get some photos from a higher vantage point. After traversing the rocks and marine iguanas we encountered a family of sealions camped at the entrance. We had come this far, so we gave them a wide berth and snuck in around behind them. What we didn’t anticipate was the sealion pup that decided to follow us inside while we were up at the top. We came down the stairs to find him camped out under the bottom one, blocking our only exit! After trying to coax him to move to no avail we were left with one option: leap over the little guy and be on our way before the bigger ones got angry.

 

La Loberia was a much longer trek, but equally worth it. The beach itself was nice, the water was warm, and I encountered my first sea turtle. He let me follow him around for awhile until I got tired and turned back. On the way back to the beach we also encountered a massive Stingray that emerged from the sand right beneath us!
 

Eat

The food on San Cristobal was mostly underwhelming, but you don’t come to the Galapagos for the food, right?

Bomb food and amazing service!
Bomb food and amazing service!

For the most part we stopped by the local bakery for breakfast pastries and had Almuerzos for lunch ($3-5 for a 2-course meal plus juice). Our favorite dinner spot was this little pirate-themed seafood restaurant a couple blocks from our AirBnB. We watched the Super Bowl here with another American and a handful of Europeans.

 
 

Drink

No drinking recommendations, sorry! Aside from a couple beers while watching the Super Bowl, we were on a much needed detox following Bocas.
Current location: Cusco, Peru

Guayaquil: A Tropical Paradise

Malecon Iguana
Malecon Iguana

Ok, maybe “Tropical Paradise” is stretching it a bit. But Guayaquil has such a bad rap that I felt I owed it to this not-so-bad city to help boost it’s ratings.

Before arriving in Guayaquil we did our usual internet research and everything we read seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: spend as little time as possible in Guayaquil. Portrayed as a crime-ridden city with lackluster food and little in the way of entertainment it seemed to fall short on all levels. The consensus was so strong that I was certain we’d be lucky to make it out of the city without getting robbed, mugged, or at the very least coming down with a severe case of boredom.

Maybe we set the bar so low that it was impossible for Guayaquil not to exceed our expectations, but we were actually pleasantly surprised by the city.

When we arrived at the airport customs / immigration was fast and efficient. We were pulling our bags from the conveyor belt and heading outside to the clearly marked taxi area in no time. Moreover, there was a giant sign and airport official directing people to the taxis to ensure that passengers were taking official, licensed cabs. No sign of the sketchy fake cabs that were all over the internet.

El Carmen Hills
El Carmen Hills

Things continued to look promising as we got into our cab and headed for our hostel. A giant monkey sculpture greeted us as our cab drove through the tunnel to downtown Guayaquil. The city itself was pretty drab, aside from the colorful houses that dotted the Santa Ana and El Carmen Hills. However, our hostel was in a great location, right on the Malecon, a pedestrian pathway decorated with trees, flowers, restaurants and street vendors, which stretched a few kilometers along the Guayas River.

bad posture
Working the night away on the balcony.

We only had a few days total in Guayaquil, and much of it was spent catching up on email, blog posts, photos, and dealing with some issues back home. In the time that we did have free, we tried to take in the sights and explore the neighborhoods surrounding our hostel.

One thing that struck me about Guayaquil — it was the first city we had been to where tourism wasn’t a central pillar in the economy. There are pros and cons to this, of course. On the plus side, you can experience what it’s like to actually be a part of this city, outside of the glitzy facade that tourist-centric areas put on; this is one of my favorite aspects of traveling. On the other hand though, we definitely stuck out everywhere we went, and both sightseeing and food options were pretty slim.

In Kyle’s words “It was a city like any other”.

Getting There (and Away)

It was a quick flight from Panama City into Guayaquil, only a couple hours with no layovers. We were a bit anxious on the way to the airport when our taxidriver decided mid-route to drop a friend off at her home and got us stuck in the worst traffic jam, but all turned out alright. Much easier than when we tried to leave…

While in the Galapagos we learned that Carnival is a national holiday in Ecuador and goes from approximately Feb. 13 – 18. Most businesses are closed Monday and Tuesday as Ecuadorians escape to the local beaches for the long weekend. This threw a bit of a wrench in our plans as we had hoped to take Spanish classes in Cuenca, Ecuador that week. When we found out the school was closed for carnival we reassessed our plans and instead decided to head to Peru early to escape the chaos and take classes there instead.

Fresh Flowers
The bathroom at Guayaquil airport had fresh live flowers, one of many niceties not seen in the States airports (electrical outlets also outnumbered people at least 20:1!).

We landed back in Guayaquil from the Galapagos on Thursday 2/17 and immediately hopped a cab to the bus terminal to purchase our tickets for Friday’s overnight bus to Lima. The bus terminal was part of a giant 4-story mall and it took us awhile to find the ticket windows. When we did, we quickly realized that Carnival was going to be a bigger problem than we thought — all direct buses to Lima were booked solid until Sunday afternoon. It takes 22 – 26 hours to get to Lima which meant missing our first day of classes.

Refusing to accept that Carnival once again ruined our plans, we continued asking around and were eventually pointed in the direction of the CIVA ticket window, a company we hadn’t heard of, but at this point we were desperate. After sharing our story with the guy at the ticket window (Necesitamos ir a Lima para clases de espanol en lunes a las ocho de la manana!) he confirmed that all of their buses from Guayaquil to Lima were also full, however if we could get ourselves to Tumbes, Peru they did have a bus that left Tumbes at 4pm on Friday, arriving in Lima around 11am Saturday. Finally! Hopeful, we hurried over to the Cifa (another bus company) ticket window and purchased two tickets to Tumbes, leaving at 7am the following morning.

Back at the CIVA window, feeling extremely proud of ourselves for figuring this all out (in a foreign language nonetheless), we presented our tickets to the guy that helped us concoct this plan only to find out that the Friday bus from Tumbes to Lima was full. Apparently it didn’t occur to him to check this before directing us to purchase our tickets for that day. Luckily there were still a couple seats left for Saturday and we were able to shuffle everything around to make this work. We would have one extra night in Guayaquil, but still make it in to Lima for our classes on Monday.

Stay

Manso Boutique Guesthouse
This cute hostel is located right on the Malecon (waterfront). They have spacious rooms for all types of travelers, from low-cost dorms, to comfortable rooms with a private bathroom and TV. They even offer complementary sea salt scrubs with their bath products, and ear plugs (not that you need them here). Add to that A/C, free filtered water, and great shared spaces with hammocks and it makes for a more than sufficient place to crash for a few days. Breakfast is included and they usually serve lunch and dinner a la carte from their mostly vegan menu.

Do / See

Museo Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneous
A free museum with a surprisingly wide variety of exhibits, this is a great place to spend a few free hours. It’s situated at the end of the Malecon, with a view overlooking the Guayas river. The first exhibit we checked out was a brief overview of Ecuador’s early history, including local artifacts that dated back to pre-Incan times. The second hall featured paintings from an Ecuadorian artist. The entire gallery was dedicated to his work and it was really interesting to see how his style and subject matter changed over time, spanning both local landscapes and everyday life. Next to this were two modern art exhibits, one of which featured work by students and local artists that took shapes and patterns from ancient artifacts and turned them into modern art pieces. All of the exhibits were in Spanish, but we were able to figure out most of it.

Malecon
Malecon 2000

Malecon
It’s obvious that the city put a lot of time into making this a safe, pleasant place to spend time. The gardens were well kept and full of flowers. There were even some land iguanas hanging around! We went for a few walks here and it felt safe day and night.

Guaya River
Floating up and down the tides of the Guaya River.

Being right along the Guaya river you can watch as all the leaves and water plants flow up (and then back down) the river with the tides. At times it was so congested it was hard to tell where the shore ended and the river began.

9 de Octubre
The main avenue in the city, this is a great place to check out if you want to get a feel for what it’s like to actually live / work in the city. This street starts at the Malecon and runs perpendicular into the city. It passes through a couple plazas and a park full of vendors and locals. Along with the usual city park vendors there were (a lot of) clowns, what looked like a school marching band, and photographers with props that included a 3-foot tall lion toy.

Eat

Coffee & Sweets
We visited this Starbucks-clone a few times with consistently good results. It’s an Ecuadorian cafe chain with decent coffee and a pastry section that would put Starbucks to shame. Pie, breads, cakes, flan, mouses, all made fresh on-site. Yum!

Menestras del Negro
A popular fast food restaurant with traditional Ecuadorian food: chicken, fish or beef with rice and beans. It was ok for a quick cheap bite, but not outstanding. I would guess this is what most foreigners would say about McDonald’s or Burger King…

Rasaca’s
This restaurant is located right on the Malecon, near our hostel. Although it was touted in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor as one of the better restaurants in Guayaquil, we were unimpressed. The prices were on the higher side, our server neglected to bring us one of the drinks we ordered, and Kyle ended up with an upset stomach. On top of that the waiter told us our credit card wouldn’t work so we paid in cash, only to find out later that the charge had gone through. My assumption would be that our waiter justo keyed the cash assuming we’d never notice…not cool.

Parilla Grill
We found this grill right around the corner from our hostel and it turned out to be our favorite dinner spot in Guayaquil. Most of the meat dishes come out on mini charcoal grills that are delivered right to your table. While it was also the most expensive both the food and the service were excellent.

Drink

The areas we explored didn’t seem to have much in the way of stand-alone bars. It seemed that most people either had their drinks with dinner or went out to other neighborhoods after. We did try one local brew though, a beer that was made and sold at our hostel. It turned out to be too metallic for our tastes — which was probably a good thing for our wallets!

Tips and Lessons

  • Guayaquil was our first introduction to electric shower heads. Instead of turning on the hot and cold water via taps, you select hot, warm or cold on the shower head which uses electricity to regulate the temperature.
  • Unless you’re going to celebrate Carnival, avoid it like the plague. If you are going to celebrate, book everything ahead of time!
  • Guidebooks, blogs, etc only go so far in preparing you for a place. While its good to do some research it helps to also approach a new place with an open mind, something we’ll continue to work on.

Current Location: Ica, Peru

Panama City: Part II – A bit of Luxury

Our second randevou with Panama City began at 4am when we were unceremoniously dropped off at the bus station. After many confused looks and waking up enough to turn on our cell phones, we confirmed that yea, it was in fact 4am. And we were standing in a bus terminal that wouldn’t open for hours, with all of our luggage. Awesome.

We took a quick inventory of our options:

  1. Go to the hostel we had booked and hope they took pity on us/had a free couch. Nope. Our reservation email confirmed that reception didn’t open til 7.
  2. Find a 24 hour diner and have a looong breakfast. As lovely as this would have been, we didn’t have internet and neither of us trusted ourselves to communicate correctly to a cab driver in Spanish: please take me to a decent 24 hour restaurant in a decent neighborhood.
  3. Were the bars still open?? Wait, right, we have all of our luggage…
  4. Wait it out in the bus terminal. This was where we ended up, in a waiting area that the security guard ushered us to after being told that no, we could not just take a seat on the ground near the taxis.

Once 7am finally rolled around we caught a cab to our hostel in the El Cangrejo neighborhood, one of the trendy areas that bordered the banking district. Luckily, they answered the door and we were able to drop off our heavy packs. Not-so-luckily, we were told to come back at 3pm, the official time of checkin. Sleep-deprived, we stumbled into a near-by diner for some breakfast, before taking a walk through downtown.

After an unsuccessful attempt to go to the mall (opened at 11am) and the movie theater (which was supposedly in the mall), we sat down outside, feeling pretty bummed, and more than a little exhausted. We had barely slept the night before and I was a bit frustrated with myself for pushing us to book our hostel rather than a proper hotel. Granted, the prices were much better, but a hotel would have afforded us an air-conditioned lobby to hang in, and Panama City had some really nice hotels.

I voiced my frustrations to Kyle, and his response was “why not?”. 10 minutes later we were relaxing on the big purple couches at the hotel across the street, checking our email on the free wifi, and enjoying the A/C. Thus began the more luxurious side of our trip, which included a day of lounging at one of the nicest pools in the city, followed by a nine-course tasting menu and a bottle of Argentinian Malbec at one of the top restaurants in the city. A much needed vacation from our vacation!

Getting There

We booked the full transfer from Bocas del Toro to Panama City at our hostel, assuming it would be both faster, and easier. Well, we were right on one account, we realized as the bus sped up and down the winding mountain roads. The bus also ended up being two busses, the first which dropped us and all of our luggage at a one-window bus station down a sketchy-looking road in David at 10:30pm. Thankfully, we were with about 20 other backpacking tourists as well, and one guy helped translate for us, confirming that the bus driver said another bus would be along within the hour.

The next bus arrived and it was definitely a step down from the public bus we took from Panama City to David. They had also double booked our tickets, or so they said after a brief conversation with the exceptionally grumpy looking people sitting in the ones listed on our ticket. So, we ended up stuck in the very back, with the toilet. Overall, not our favorite bussing experience, but we made it!

Stay

Our hostel, Autograph Lodge, came highly recommended on a bunch of booking sites. After the great time we had at Bubba’s we were excited to check it out and meet some of the other guests. We had the back room off of the garden, and while it was quiet and the room was clean, we were a bit bummed to find that the hostel wasn’t really set up with any social areas. The neighborhood was good, but we both agreed that next time we would splurge on one of the nice hotels downtown.

See / Do

Cinta Costa
Walk or jog along Cinta Costa at high tide. Great views of the skyline from this park that follows along the water’s edge. Make sure you catch it when the water is high though, otherwise the smell can overwhelm the skyline views.

Hotels

Legs or hotdogs?
A beautiful pool, thanks for letting us crash…

Hang at one of Panama City’s many high-end hotels. If you can splurge on a room, most are still a much better deal than in the US, and the rooftop pools are the perfect antidote to the heat. If not, most still have bars and restaurants where you can enjoy the atmosphere (and if you’ve packed proper clothes no one needs to know you’re actually staying at the hostel down the street).

Eat / Drink

Best beer in Panama City, good nachos as well!
Best beer in Panama City, good nachos as well!

La Rana Dorada

I believe there are two or three in the city — we ate at the one in El Cangrejo. It’s a brewpub that also does food and we were more than happy with both. We had an enormous plate of nachos and two of their signature beers. It was a cute location with tables outside and seemed to be a popular spot with local 20 and 30-somethings.

Manolo Caracol
We went back and forth on this for awhile on whether to go here because it would be our most expensive meal of the trip at $41/pp, plus taxes, tip, and drinks. However, where else could we get a 9-course menu prepared by one of the city’s top chefs, for that price? We finally decided to go for it and were not disappointed. The food was inspired by traditional Panamanian cuisine, and made with local ingredients. I could go on about the flavors, but I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…

IMG_0178IMG_0182IMG_0183IMG_0177IMG_0176

Tips & Lessons

  • Always ask what time the over night bus arrives, and if there are any middle of the night transfers.
  • Always pack some nice clothes – you never know when you’ll need them, and you don’t want to be caught at a nice restaurant with hiking pants!
  • Even happy budget travelers need a bit of luxury now and the

Current location: Miraflores, Lima, Peru