Over the past year the things that we look for in travel have changed pretty drastically. For one, I’ve found myself seeking out places that will challenge me and push me outside of my comfort zone, but which also afford me the ability to move around and explore safely and independently. My love for travel stems from being able to see and experience life in another place, through another lense. Which shouldn’t by nature be easy, but when it works has led to some of the most humbling, eye-opening experiences that have transformed the way I view and interact with myself and the world around me. Korea – somewhat unexpectedly – ended up being one of these places.
Boats and wine are two of my favorite things, ever.* So as I’m sure you can imagine I was ridiculously excited to be traveling to Venice. I mean, the city is built on a giant canal system! Boats are not only the norm, but often the only option to get around. And Italy is home to some of my favorite wine varietals in the world. Plus, we’d be meeting up with two of our good friends from San Francisco. Really, could it get any better?
The only thing giving us pause…budget. In addition to it’s architecture, history, and waterways, Venice is also famously Italy’s most expensive city. For two travelers on a strict budget we were a little anxious going in. But, with some careful planning and a few tricks along the way we were able to have an amazing time without totally destroying our bank account. Here’s how…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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!
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!
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.
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.
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:
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 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!
The food on San Cristobal was mostly underwhelming, but you don’t come to the Galapagos for the food, right?
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.
No drinking recommendations, sorry! Aside from a couple beers while watching the Super Bowl, we were on a much needed detox following Bocas.
Panama City was a great starting point for our adventures into South America — I’d definitely recommend it to anyone heading to South or Central America. It was much bigger than any cities we passed through in our previous travels to Costa Rica and Belize. And way more modern, but with a distinctly Central American feel. The juxtaposition of everything made this an especially interesting stop: tourists and locals, poverty and wealth, old colonial ruins and brand new skyscrapers.
Our first few days in Panama City were a mix of relaxation and exploring. And trying to remember / learn key phrases in Spanish. I quickly realized that much of what I learned in high school was either forgotten or not incredibly useful. While I could conjugate an irregular verb I was at a complete loss to understand directions to the bathroom. It’s something that I’ve noticed with a lot of U.S. schools (maybe elsewhere too?) — everything is taught to pass a test, not necessarily learn in a way that can be applied to real life. But, we’re working on it!
The first time I successfully haggled our taxi fare down in Spanish was one of my proudest moments.
We had booked the first few nights at The Country Inn and Suites by the Panama Canal at the recommendation of one of Kyle’s coworkers who was originally from Panama. A bit outside of the noise of downtown and with all the comforts of a US hotel chain it was an easy transition into our travels. The hotel was clean, and modern with comfortable beds, air conditioning, and a pool with views of the canal. Plus it included free breakfast and cookies!
The only downsides were the over-priced taxis and the on-site TGI Friday’s. I suppose with a captive audience of mostly tourists both were to be expected.
See / Do
This old colonial part of the city is a must-see. It’s incredible to see the transformation happening here. Crumbling colonial buildings completely overgrown with vegetation are side-by-side with newly restored bars, restaurants, hotels, and condos. The squares with their old churches and outdoor restaurants are also fun to check out.
We didn’t have a chance to wander too much this time — by the time we got to Casco Viejo it was only a couple hours before dark, and the heavy military/police presence and warnings from shop owners not to go past 11th Street put us a bit on edge. We had seen the slums that boarder the town on our taxi ride in and the warnings did not appear to be exaggerated. Though we did later learn that the military presence is partially attributed to the presidential palace being in Casco Viejo.
The Miraflores Locks are the prime viewing spot for ships going through the canal. You can watch cargo ships and gigantic cruise ships come in and get ushered from Lago Miraflores out into the open ocean.
There’s also a multi-level museum that details the history of the locks, as well as a film that we unfortunately missed due to poor timing (the locks close at 5:30 and it was already 4:30 by the time we arrived). We did get to watch a ship pass through the first set of locks – so cool!
We had also pre-arranged with our cab driver to pick us up when the locks closed so getting back to our hotel was easy (our Spanish was improving…a little!).
Avenida Balboa Park
A nice urban park, worth a stroll for some good pictures of the Panama City skyline after lunch at the Mercado de Mariscos.
We opted to walk the mile to the Causeway from our hotel along the canal path, and then about 3 miles further down the Causeway. It was nice to get some exercise in and overall felt really safe. However the heat and construction made it just OK. I’d suggest checking it out in the early morning (before it gets too hot), and only after the construction is done, since the view of the city is almost entirely obscured by temporary walls.
Mercado de Mariscos
Our first stop on Day 1 was this local fish market just outside of Casco Viejo. It was cool to go inside and see all of the fresh fish for sale, but the highlight was definitely the ceviche from the vendors outside.
We skipped the restaurant in the market and instead spent a few hours sampling the $1.50 – $3.50 cups of ceviche and $1.50 local beers. It was fun trying to translate the menus to figure out what we were ordering. We did have a couple mistranslations, but everything was so good that we really didn’t mind!
We were here on a Saturday and it was apparent from the crowds of locals that this was more a locals spot than a tourist hangout.
Yacht Club restaurant near our hotel
I don’t know the official name of the restaurant, but it was just on the other side of the TGI Friday’s at our hotel and WAY better. The food and beer were decently priced — my fish tacos restored my hopefulness that we would actually be able to get good food in Panama. And the open air patio was a great place to catch the sunset over the canal.
Red Lion Pub in Casco Viejo
A fairly standard pub with slightly overpriced beer. I wasn’t overly impressed, but they did have a nice outdoor patio for people watching and, most importantly, a bathroom! (see below on our bathroom challenges…)
Gatto Blanco in Casco Viejo
We had the lovely rooftop lounge almost to ourselves at sunset. Once again the drinks were overpriced ($5.25 for a Heinikkan, yikes), but the views made it well worth it. We were much less impressed with the restaurant downstairs. The food was quite good, but expensive and small portions: we split a baked chicken entree and 2 sodas for $23. Not ideal for budget travelers.
Tips & Lessons
Tipping is 10% in restaurants. And often included in the bill. We found this out after leaving our waiter at TGI Friday’s a VERY nice (and completely undeserved) tip. It is also not standard to tip taxi drivers.
Public bathrooms are not standard. After walking around for a half hour trying to find the elusive public restroom referenced on all of the tourist signs near the Mercado de Mariscos, we finally paid a woman 25 cents for Kyle to use a small trough.
Brush up on Spanish. While you can get by with English in most places you will constantly feel like a tourist and haggling with locals is MUCH easier when you can speak the language.
We’ll be stopping back in Panama City for a couple days on our way to Ecuador, this time staying at a hostel in El Cangrejo. More on that area and downtown to come!
Current location: Isla Bastimientos, Bocas del Toro, Panama