5 Things to Know Before Taking a Galapagos Islands Vacation

As I set off for the Galapagos Islands I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was heading to a place I had dreamed of going all my life, and I knew I could speak Spanish well enough that I would be able to find my way around, but I had not done any official research whatsoever. While there, I talked with many people and picked up tips and tricks which made the most of my week on the amazing islands, but this article will share a list of 5 things you should know before you take a Galapagos Islands vacation.

Giant tortoise Galapagos Islands

1. There are hefty taxes to get on to the island. Before you check in at the airport you must scan your luggage, and pay a $20 tax for visiting the islands. Don’t lose this ticket stub because you need to show it when you leave the islands! Upon arrival to the islands you must pay $100 to enter if you’re not from South America, $50 if you’re from South America, and $8 if you’re from Ecuador. Blue Footed Boobies

2. If you want to see the 3 main islands and make the most of a trip that is 7 days or less, look in to flying into an airport on one island and flying out on another island. You could fly in to Santa Cruz, spend a few days, then take a boat to Isabela, spend another few days, then come back to Santa Cruz and pass on to San Cristobal to spend your last few days. Boats do not go from Isabela to San Cristobal or vice versa, you must pass through Santa Cruz.Marine iguanas Galapagos Islands

3. If you’re flying out of Santa Cruz, you have two (or three) options for how to get to the airport. Option 1- take a taxi to the bus station ($1) and catch a bus at either 6:30, 7, 7:30 or 8AM. Apparently once the buses fill up they leave, so these times are approximate. I arrived at 7:45 and there were no more buses. I had to pay the full $18 to be taken to the canal in the taxi, which is Option 2. If you have an early flight, you could also try and talk to one of the dive shops (Option 3) beforehand to hitch a ride with them when they take off at 7am to head to the same canal which you must cross to get to the airport. They will charge you a little something, but it will be less than the $18 taxi fee. My flight was at 12:45 and I ended up leaving at 7:35 from Puerto Ayora to get to the airport and wait for a few hours. It’s not so bad. There are gift shops, places to eat, and places to sit, both inside and outside. Make sure you have something to do to pass the time. Galapagos Islands

4. If you do one paid tour on the Galapagos, make it the Los Tuneles tour on Isabela Island! With this snorkeling trip you will see as much marine life as you do while scuba diving, and you will also walk across amazing lava bridges and encounter hundreds of blue footed boobies, as well as spot dozens of penguins and sea lions. It is amazing to swim up close and personal with sea turtles, white tip reef sharks and rays, as well as massive schools of fish and even sea horses! In low season the tour costs around $75, and in high season it’s around $90, but it is totally worth every penny. Isabela island is by far the most natural and beautiful of the islands. On Isabela you can also see flamingos, and visit a giant tortoise hatching center, as well as snorkel for free at Concha Perla.

Los Tuneles Galapagos Islands

5. It’s actually kind of chilly! Despite being right around the equator, I found the Galapagos to be quite chilly. However, take this information with a grain of salt. I was there in September when the island was being affected by El Niño and I had several cloudy days. Bring long, lightweight pants as a safety precaution. I used mine every night. Also, having a room with hot water was much appreciated because after spending some time swimming in the ocean I felt chilled to the bone, and it was nice to come back to the room and warm up with the hot water. Galapagos IslandsThese are just a few useful things I learned while traveling the Galapagos Islands. Have you ever been, or would you like to go? What are some things that you would share with other tourists who are about to take a Galapagos Islands vacation?

sunset on Galapagos Islands

A Month in Ecuador

Ecuador. According to the tourism board, it’s all you need. I came into the country from Colombia, which lies to Ecuador’s north, and left via the coastal boarder crossing to Peru in the south. During my month in Ecuador I made my way through all sorts of incredible places, from cloud forests to crater lakes to capital cities to the coast, and even hopped over to the magical Galápagos Islands. It all proved to show me that the tourism board was right… You can’t help but love life while traveling in Ecuador.

Ecuador

 Coming in, I crossed the boarder from Ipiales, Colombia to Tulcan, Ecuador. My first stop was a uniquely manicured cemetery of all places! I spent an hour walking around and admiring the hedges trimmed to look like ancient Gods before I caught a bus to Otavalo, a city famous for its indigenous market.

Ecuador

 I spent one luxurious night in Otavalo at the Rincon de la Viajera and seriously considered spending another night for the bed alone. The next day I explored around Otavalo. My first stop was the market, which was a site to behold, from the distinct clothing of the indigenous people, to the beautifully woven tapestries to the knitted handbags and colorful trinkets. My one purchase was a colorful “cinta” which the women use to wrap their hair in a “trenza”. After the market I hiked over to the Peguche waterfall, where I had a bit of nature time before I caught an early evening bus to make my way 3.5 hours to the capital city of Quito.

Ecuador

 I rarely say a city is a highlight of a trip for me, but I really enjoyed Quito’s old town, and the people I met while in the city. I spent two days exploring around, visiting the churches and the art galleries and even accidentally bumping in to the President of Ecuador.

Ecuador

 From Quito I took a quick trip up to the cloud forest of Mindo. This was lovely and lush, with many waterfalls and birds, which are two of my favorite aspects of nature. While I was there, the “Tarabita” tour of the waterfalls was closed for maintenance, but I managed to meet a local who took me on the same trails, chasing after waterfalls and spotting birds along the way. He taught me that boys in tourist towns are not to be completely trusted, but I was still able to enjoy a fantastic afternoon in the nature with him before hightailing it back to Quito, to then continue on to Quilotoa.

Ecuador

 Quilotoa was spectacular. People visit to hike down to the crater lake or to walk around the magnificent crater rim, both of which are absolutely breathtaking, literally and figuratively. The town was cold and deserted, and full of indigenous people fully decked out with skirts, sweaters, ponchos, top hats and layered necklaces in the case of the women. It was a dry, almost desert-like landscape, and two nights was plenty for me, but the fact that we stayed at a place called Hosteria Alpaca, which had delicious community style breakfasts and dinners, 5 star beds, and personal wood stoves in each room made it a pleasant experience.

Quilotoa Ecuador

 From Quilotoa I continued on to Baños, a place known for extreme adventures and waterfalls. I had a rainy few days there, but a cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition, and I enjoyed my visit nonetheless. Biking from waterfall to waterfall, soaking in thermal baths so hot they were literally cooking me alive, swinging into the great unknown at Casa del Arbol, and standing next to the powerful hurricane-like waterfall of El Pailon del Diablo, were all things I will never forget about my time there.

El Pailon del Diablo

 After Baños I took a night bus and made my way to the Ecuadorian coastal town of Puerto Lopez. It was the time of year to see humpback whales migrating, and although I didn’t take an official boat tour, I did see them spouting up water when I was running along the shoreline. My favorite part about Puerto Lopez was meeting a wonderful German travel buddy, visiting the Los Frailes entrance of the National Park, and drinking delicious coffee at a cafe called Etnias. My least favorite part of the coastal town was the constant leering men.

Puerto Lopez Ecuador

 From Puerto Lopez I made my way down the coast to spend one night in a calm town called Olón, which had a beach that stretched out for miles. It was a beautiful place for my morning run and yoga practice. While there I caught a parade of all the locals kids dressed in their gym uniforms and it was absolutely precious to watch them march throughout the town chanting their class anthems.

School Pride in Olon

 Montañitas was my next stop, and it was just five minutes up the road from Olón. This was the loudest town I have ever visited in my entire life. It is known for being a party town, and it lived up to the reputation. The music would start around noon and blast until 5am or beyond. I am lucky I can sleep through just about anything, but I could literally feel the bass vibrating in my chest. I was told that if you stay “across the bridge” it’s a calmer atmosphere, and that might be true, but where I stayed (Hostel Moai) was in direct line of the clubs. Although it was a really nice place, it was anything but quiet.

Montanitas Ecuador

 After Montañitas I continued down the coast to Guayaquil and spent a day there getting to know the iguana park, the malecón (boardwalk) and hiking up the colorful Cerro Santa Ana. Guayaquil is home to the airport that brought me to my next stop: the Galápagos Islands.

Cerro Santa Ana

 The Galápagos Islands were the true highlight of my time in Ecuador. The sheer quantity of exotic animals was amazing and the fact that they were so curious and playful was a true delight. I never expected to have penguins and seals literally look me in the eyes while snorkeling, or to have schools of hammerheads and golden rays swim by while scuba diving. Every day on the islands was special and full of surprises.

Blue Footed Boobies

 After a week on the Galápagos I flew back to Guayaquil, and spent a day at the home of my Couchsurfing host in the nearby town of Naranjal, eating delicious home cooked bolon soup and playing with kittens before continuing on to Cuenca.
The city of Cuenca is full of things to do, places to see and people to meet, however when I got there I was tired, and learned that a package I had been waiting for had finally arrived in Guayaquil. I decided to head back and get it personally, but first I spent one day touring around the city admiring the graffiti, the galleries, the ruins, the churches, the architecture, the markets and the hat making shop.

Cuenca Hats

 Back in Guayaquil I was happy to reunite with my German friend from Puerto Lopez and to be back in the house of my Couchsurfing host. It felt a bit like “home” after being on the go for nearly a month straight.
Overall my month in Ecuador was pretty incredible. The country has a bit of everything: jungles, cloud forests, volcanoes, mountain ranges, historical cities, ruins, beaches and the incredible Galápagos Islands. I saw more wildlife here than in Colombia, and also saw more people dressed in beautiful traditional indigenous clothing.

Quechua kids

 As a traveler, Ecuador is more expensive than Colombia when it comes to food and lodging, although to a normal vacationer $2.50 for a meal or $15 for a room is typically considered extremely cheap. However the transportation in Ecuador is incredibly inexpensive due to the fact that they have the third-largest oil reserves in South America. Overall, it is extremely easy and affordable to spend a month in Ecuador.
One thing I loved about the country is that the people speak more slowly, so having conversations is typically quite easy, but one thing I detested was that the men were constantly coming on to me, trying to take my hand or charm me with lies. After I came back from the Galápagos I had been planning to spend another week or so exploring the southern areas of Ecuador, but when it came down to it, I was really ready to move on, so I did. One month in Ecuador was just right.
From Guayaquil we caught a bus to Huayaquillas to cross the boarder into Peru, saying, “Hasta luego!” to Ecuador.

Boarder Crossing to Peru

Say Hello to Strangers

The world isn’t full of dangerous people, it’s full of friends you haven’t met yet.

As I travel the world, non-travelers always ask me, “Don’t you get lonely?”

My response is, “I am never alone.”

Traveling on your own teaches you many very valuable lessons, two of which are:
1. How to be happy with your own company
2. How to make friends quickly with complete strangers

The first is a deep personal journey I’ll let you embark on in your own time. However, allow me to elaborate on the latter, as making friends with strangers has always been my specialty.

When it comes to saying hello to strangers and making a new friend, it comes down to five simple steps.

1. Look people in the eyes. Project your positive energy with a warm smile. Typically you will get a feel for people with matching energies and will be able to understand if they are receptive to meeting someone new.

Say Hello to Strangers
An invitation for a run through the mountains and laughs shared over traditional food was all it took to become lifelong friends with this wonderful Costa Rican couple.

2. Embrace small talk. Break the ice by commenting on things relative to the moment. If you have a sense of humor, use it.

Anna Purna Base Camp
We met when I thought I had altitude sickness. The bloke in the middle laughed at me and told me we were too low for that to be possible. The next day these guys became my hiking partners, and we eventually hiked our way up to the AnnaPurna Base Camp.

3. Ask questions. Getting to know someone requires effort and interest. You’re not going to make a new friend staring down at your phone screen. It requieres active engagement and a bit of enthusiasm.

Tayrona National Park
I brought this crew together through asking lots of questions. From starting conversations in the middle of the street, to the shared shuttle bus, to the line in Tayrona National Park, our pack kept growing.

4. Don’t be shy. Tell people you are looking for friends to hang out with. People aren’t mind readers, sometimes you need to put yourself out there in order to make things happen.

eating in the hostel prison
We became friends after a free walking tour in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and we all decided to continue exploring the city together, after a quick coffee and chocolate ball, of course.

5. Make plans. After you have broken the ice and successfully engaged someone in conversation, make follow up plans if you want to hang out with this person again. This requires putting yourself out there a little bit more. You can ask them if they have plans that night or that weekend, or see if they are interested in joining you to do  something that you were thinking of doing yourself. Then get their contact information. If you just give out your information, you might find yourself waiting around, and that’s not how you want to be spending your time!

Poon Hill Loop

Of course these five steps are only the beginning. You must always trust your intuition. Don’t go wandering off with every stranger you meet. But do keep an open mind, and the next time you find yourself looking to say hello to strangers and to potentially make a new friend, think of these five steps.

Perfect example of all of the above:

I was recently in Mindo, Ecuador, a place which is best appreciated when you have a local friend who will show you the secret spots. While I was at a public waterfall, a local “lifeguard” reprimanded me for climbing on some rocks and we got to talking. We talked about the nature, the river, the waterfall and our beautiful surroundings. He told me all about how he loved to hike to the waterfalls for free, and I brazenly told him, “I need a friend like you!” and asked him what we was up to the following day. He happened to have the day off, and we made plans to go bird watching and waterfall chasing. With just the right stroke of luck and ambition, I had turned a stranger into a friend, and secured a personal tour of the coolest places that Mindo had to offer. Give it a try and see who you meet.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

Well, I had already seen the coasts, the forests, the rivers and the meadows full of sky-high palms, so why not see what the Colombian desert had to offer? This was essentially my reasoning when I decided to head down to Desierto de la Tatacoa on my way to Ecuador. It was a short, hot, dry, dusty trip, but the sunset and sunrise over the red desert lands alone were worth it.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

While traveling in Tierra Dentro I had met a swiss couple and they had spoken very highly of Desierto de la Tatacoa, so when I noticed it was en route towards the southern boarder I thought it would make a good pit-stop. I took a Magdalena night bus from Medellin to Neiva, leaving the city around 7pm and pulling in to the desert-like region around 6am. I caught a struck of luck as I walked through the station and found a van “camioneta” filling up outside of the station. I was the last seat, and for 15,000 pesos I loaded my bags into the back and sat down next to two other female travelers, one from Spain, the other from France.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

“Where did you two meet?” I asked. They both looked at me and laughed. They had only just met. We were all solo female travelers, embarking into the great unknown of the harsh, hot, desert. The 40kms flew by as the French traveler shelled out details on places to go in Ecuador, my next destination.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

Our Cootrana van driver stopped at a convenience store, where he told us it was a good idea to buy supplies, especially water because we couldn’t drink it in the desert. I hadn’t heard this, but it didn’t surprise me. The French girl had recently had her debit card stolen while on a bus, so she was short on cash and she opted out of buying water, but I took his word and bought a few big bottles. This turned out to be a lie. The water is available and absolutely drinkable in the desert.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

As we arrived to Desierto de la Tatacoa I caught my first glimpse of the red rainbow ridges of dry, crumbling earth which make up the labyrinth-like desert. It was so beautiful it gave me goosebumps. There was a flurry of excitement in the van. We were here!

Desierto de la Tatacoa

The driver took us to a place called Hostal Noches de Saturno, which he proudly told us “had a swimming pool”. The owner was kind, and after trying to charge us triple what we were willing to pay, he reduced his prices to 10,000 pesos each for a tent, and 6,000 pesos for me with my personal hammock. I ended up sleeping slung up under a roof nearby all the goats and pigs and whatever other animals were there. The food was not great, but it was not bad, and it was reasonably priced, considering we were in the middle of nowhere. We paid 5,000 pesos for a breakfast of eggs, arepa, coffee, hot chocolate and bread.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

After eating, the five of us from the van set off to explore the desert. We embarked on what we thought was the trail into the red desert, but it wasn’t the correct trail, and we ended up getting extremely lost, walking through a field full of cows and cattle, and asking a farmer for directions back to civilization. The two girls who did the talking started to lead us, but immediately they diverted from his directions. Being as Spanish isn’t my native language, and the other two were fluent, I figured maybe I had heard wrong, but I was nearly 100% sure the farmer had told us to stay left after crossing the stream, and that if we went right we were goners. When I voiced my opinion the girls shrugged it off. I decided it was better to stick together than to separate. Two hours later we were still doing circles in nasty desert brush, full of cactus spikes and thorny plants.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

The only saving grace was that the sun wasn’t fully out. As we finally saw the beacon Observatory glimmering in the distance I again started to enjoy the walk, knowing that we were kind of close to where we needed to be. The landscape was indeed beautiful, full of pink blooms on small round cactus plants, and we even startled two wolf-like creatures, black, gray and white, with bushy tails that reminded me of a raccoon.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

Walking in the desert is intense. I was happy I had both a hat and sunglasses, and I smothered on 30spf before taking off, so thankfully I was not burned. I used my hiking sandals, and because we went off the beaten path I had to be extra careful for thorns and debris. For anyone embarking on this hike I would recommend close-toed shoes with a thick sole. One of the girls stepped on a cactus spine and it lodged right through her shoe and into her heel. As you can imagine it was not pleasant.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

When we emerged onto the road, we came out through a very simple restaurant and hostel called El Tigre, and they kindly filled our water bottles before we continued. We had emerged about a 30 minute walk up the road from Saturno, and we ended up stopping at another hostel El Cabrito to refill our bottles again. The owner was making sweet arrequipe balls, and offered us one each to try. This place was totally chill,  with plants and birds and a hammock for each private room.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

When we came back to Saturno, we all crashed. I slept so hard that when a dust storm brutally blew through I could barely be bothered to lift my head. After a solid afternoon nap, I woke up to take a blissfully cold shower, and got dressed to set out for sunset.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

The same group from the morning set off towards the Observatory, and this time we found the “Cusco Loop” as it is called, which was located by an apparently nameless restaurant on the side of the road, with plentiful outdoor seating and a “parqueador”. This is the true path through the exquisite red desert. We sat above it all, soaking in the view and letting the warm desert breeze caress our skin.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

The sunset was magnificent, playing with shadows and light on the already diverse shades of red which stretched out before us. The dark blue shadows of mountains floated in the distance, and the silhouettes of cactus speckled the skyline.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

For dinner, we ate at the lone white restaurant across from the Observatory. Your options were chicken (pollo), beef (res) or vegetarian (vegetariano), and it came with salad, rice, fried potatoes, fried yuca, and juice. It was delicious, and cost 12,000 pesos with meat, or 8,000 pesos without. There was ice cold beer for 3,000 and it was a treat to be savored.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

We heard the Observatory was absolutely worth a visit, if the sky was clear, but unfortunately it was mostly cloudy. After dinner we spread out and marveled at the stars we could see, until the clouds swallowed them up. I did, however, happen to turn my head just at right time to catch an amazing shooting star as it soared across the sky. I’ll let you know how the wish turns out.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

We called it an early night, and as I settled into my hammock I was hot, but was so tired I fell asleep instantly. The next morning I woke with the noises of the animals, before the sun, around 5am.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

I decided to get up and considered walking to the “Gray Desert” which was located 8km in the opposite direction of the “Red Desert” which we had seen the night before. A small group from Saturno was planning to go there by motorbike, a 30,000 peso tour offered by the hostel, but in the end I decided to go back to the beautiful red desert on my own. Two skinny dogs accompanied me, and were playful companions throughout my morning sunrise walk.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

The Cusco Loop was absolutely beautiful and I was happy I was able to experience it. I took my time, exploring off the beaten path, but always coming back to it, as I had learned the day before that I have zero sense of direction in the lands of the desert.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

On my way back to Saturno’s I decided to have breakfast at a hostel called El Posada del Sol Verano or Doña Lilia’s place. It was delicious, and the place was gorgeous. I would definitely recommend staying there. Doña Lilia was a sweetheart.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

When I finally walked back up to Saturno’s I arrived at the same time as two police officers on 4-wheelers. They were rolling up to take a police report. The Spanish girl had taken a morning walk to the Gray Desert and had been robbed at knifepoint by a young kid on a motorcycle. He had stolen her money and her cell phone. I was instantly grateful for my four legged companions who had stayed by my side the whole morning, barking at every motorcycle or bicycle or car that approached us. Apparently robberies are not common, but you just never know.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

All in all, I was happy to visit Desierto de la Taticoa as it was beautiful, and the one-day, one-night time frame was just right. If you have visited Arizona, New Mexico or Utah in the United States you have had the opportunity to see some spectacular red deserts, but if you have never experienced a desert, or if you love the hot, dry, deserted landscape that comes with a desert, then a trip to Desierto de la Tatacoa is recommended.

Desierto de la Tatacoa