After conquering The W and Salkantay within the span of a few weeks we were feeling pretty darn invincible. We were also ready to finally let go of planning for a bit and embrace spontaneity. The last few years we had seen our lives becoming more and more meticulously planned. From well-structured one-week vacations to dinner plans made with friends weeks in advance there was little room for unscripted adventure. A growing desire for more room to explore the world and ourselves was one of the major reasons we decided to take this trip, and so we decided now was as good a time as any to start throwing caution in the wind and see where it took us! Continue reading “The (Unplanned) Road North Part 1: Puerto Natales, El Calafate, Bariloche”→
Patagonia is one of those rare places where you’ll turn a corner and your jaw will literally drop at the beauty of your surroundings. It’s also one of those places that reminds you just how awesomely powerful nature is. Looking back now, having traversed 4 continents, I can still say it’s the most breathtaking place we’ve been.
The trek we set off to do is called the W. It is a well-traversed trek through the mountains in Patagonia that gets it’s name from the “W” shaped route that you take in and out of the valleys that boarder the mountains. The scenery as I mentioned is stunning: towering snow-capped mountains, massive glaciers merging into aqua-colored lakes. With every corner we turned was a new view that any amount of Googled images could not have prepared us for.
Whew. This was a LONG trip. We actually debated making the first part of this journey — bussing from Cusco, Peru to Santiago, Chile — it’s own post. After all, we initially set our “time spent in location” threshold for whether a location warrents it’s own blog post at 3 days. And, well, we just about hit that in travel time alone. Between our overnight ride through the Andes and the subsequent bus that covered half of Peru and Chile, we hit a grand total of…
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!
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Wall of Tears
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.
Tortoise Center and Flamingo Lagoon
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.