close

Ecuador

My Galápagos Islands Cruise: A Travel Dream Come True

galapagos tortoise dani1

The Galapagos Island have been a dream destination for me for as long as I can remember. I had this image in my head of remote islands with stunning volcanic landscapes and free-roaming tortoises and giant iguanas. I pictured the islands to be mainly uninhabited, and if there were people living on them, they would be outnumbered by wild creatures.
galapagos island iguanaI knew the best way to see the islands was to take a cruise, to sail around the islands for a few days, go on land excursions and snorkeling trips while enjoying life on the water in between. A few weeks ago, I finally boarded a plane to the Galapagos Islands and I was curious to see how the reality of a Galapagos cruise would compare to the picture I had in my head.
galapagos majestic yacht at sunsetAfter a two-hour flight from Guayaquil, we arrived on the island of Baltra, a small island that, other than being home to one of two airports in the Galapagos, is uninhabited. Flying in, we could see barren reddish ground below us. Baltra is the world’s first “green” airport, which means it is running on renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, wind farms, and seawater desalination.galapagos islandsBefore we were allowed to leave the airport, we had to pay the $100 National Park fee, and our carry-ons were searched. I quickly learned that it’s not allowed to bring apples onto the islands – or any agriculture goods, for that matter. Later I learned that it is strictly prohibited to bring any food on land with us when we set foot on the islands for land excursions.

From the airport, we took a bus to the ferry pier – everyone who arrives in Baltra has to go to the island of Santa Cruz, the second largest island in the archipelago. Within minutes of having boarded the ferry, we already saw wildlife: a pelican watched us suspiciously as we were boarding the boat, massive crabs crawled around the shore, and a myriad of birds were flying above us. On the short ten minute boat ride to the other island, we passed little mangrove Islands with more birds and a couple of spotted eagle rays swam in the water right next to the boat:
galapagos spotted rayBy now, we were on the Galapagos for 45 minutes – and was already completely smitten by the islands.galapagos islands pelicanWhen we arrived in Santa Cruz, we hopped on a bus which took us on our first land excursion, before we even boarded our yacht. We drove towards the center of the island, and as we got further away from the shore, the grey, dry bushes and branches that cover the rocky ground were replaced by a lush green forest. A rainstorm had just passed through the island and the smell of fresh rain mixed with the smell of the flowers and plants was mesmerizing.
galapagos yellow birdOther than the road that cuts through the green in a straight line, there was no sign of human existence anywhere. At some point, we passed through a village. Nothing more than a few little houses, each and every one flanked by banana trees; a donkey standing on the side of the road.

Our destination? Giant tortoises! We were on our way to see tortoises in the wild, and when we turned off the main road onto a dirt road, my excitement grew. I knew that seeing Giant Tortoises would be a highlight of my trip. It didn’t take long until we started seeing giant tortoises in the grass next to us, and several times our bus had to drive around tortoises on the road. Could this place even be real?!
galapagos giant tortoisesWhile initially we all let out excited aaahs and ooohs every time we saw one of the distinctive big, unmistakable shells, the tortoise spottings became more and more regular until there were dozens of tortoises everywhere around us.
galapagos giant tortoiseWhen we finally reached the end of the road, it felt like we were in tortoise paradise. We were surrounded by tortoises of all sizes who were sitting in the high grass, happily munching away on leaves and straw. They couldn’t care less about us, a group of camera-toting tourists, literally fresh off the boat.
galapagos giant tortoiseBefore we went on a walk around the area, we had lunch at a small restaurant, Rancho Manzanillo, on an open terrace overlooking tortoise territory. As a vegetarian, I am always a bit worried about the available food options, but here, I had nothing to worry about: my vegetarian rice dish was scrumptious.
galapagos lunchBellies full, we all put on wellies and headed down to a pond where the tortoises like to gather.
galapagos giant tortoiseOur naturalist guide – obligatory on every Galapagos cruise – told us that giant tortoises are the longest-lived of all vertebrate species, easily reaching over 100 years. The oldest on record lived to be 152 years, but it’s not impossible that there’s a tortoise somewhere on the islands that was already alive when Charles Darwin stopped in the Galapagos in 1835.
dani galapagos islands giant tortoiseWhen Darwin arrived, there were 15 different kinds of tortoises on the islands, now the number is down to 11. Hundreds of thousands of tortoises were killed when whalers and pirates stopped at the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are not on the brink of extinction anymore – but still an endangered species, there are only 15,000 of them left in the Galapagos, which is a tiny number.
galapagos island hammock tortoise
We learned that there are only two places in the world where giant tortoises live: in the Galápagos Islands and in the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

And the word ‘giant’ is the perfect word to describe these massive creatures, which often exceed five feet (1.5 meters) in length and reach up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms) in weight.

We spent a couple of hours with tortoises, which let us watch them eat, chill and even mate, and the two hammocks in between a couple of trees provided a perfect place for that.
galapagos mating giant tortoisesAfter saying goodbye to these gentle giants, we made our way to the port of Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora. This town is the most populated urban center (population 12,000) in the Galapagos Islands and this is where the yacht that would take us around the islands over the next few days was waiting for us.
galapagos islandsThe 16-person aptly named Majestic was amazing: eight cabins for two people each, a gorgeous sun deck with Jacuzzi and sun chairs, and a beautiful dining and lounge area.
galapagos yacht majesticWe got a quick introduction to our floating home over a welcome cocktail before we changed for dinner. My cabin wasn’t big, but it didn’t feel crowded. And most importantly: it had a big, comfortable bed. The nights are the time when the boat is moving from one place to the next, so you want to have it comfy.majestic cabinAfter our first Galápagos sunset and a delicious buffet dinner, we stayed up and chatted for a while, but most people retreated to their cabins around 9pm. It was a long day and we would have an early start the next morning.
galapagos majestic yacht at sunsetAt 6am, I woke up after a mostly well-slept night. I woke up once around 2am, which was when the boat started moving, which made me feel a little seasick. Luckily that feeling passed and I was able to sleep for a few more hours.

After waking up, I headed upstairs to the deck for a quick morning workout, and because I wanted to see where we were anchored. I got up to the deck just in time to see the sunrise. I saw an island to my right and an island to my left, Santiago and Isabela. A bunch of birds were flying right over my head, and they kept flying with the boat the entire morning. A frigate bird watched me from the navigation mast as I did some sit-ups.
frigate bird galapagos islandsI could hardly believe how serene it felt. The Islands seemed uninhabited, there were no other boats. It felt like our boat was the only one cruising around the archipelago, but I knew that there other boats out there, somewhere.
galapagos islandAfter a generous breakfast buffet of pancakes, eggs, breads, cheese, ham, yogurt, porridge, muesli and fresh fruit, it was time for our first wet landing. This means, taking the dinghy to an island near us and getting wet up to the knees while disembarking the dinghy.

Our first stop of the day was Santiago, which was inhabited by a small colony of fisherman until the 1950s, but has been uninhabited since the last of them left to join a bigger settlement on one of the other islands.
espumilla beach galapagos island walkWhen we jumped out of the dingy and waded through the shallow water onto the beach, I thought to myself, this is how Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panamá, must have felt like when he was blown off course during a voyage to Peru and landed in the Galapagos Islands instead. A deserted beach, lush green vegetation, a volcano looming in the background. The island hasn’t changed much since then.
galapagos beachThe beach we landed on is called Espumilla Beach because of the foam (espuma in Spanish) that is created as the waves crash against the shore.

As we walked down the beach, our feet sinking into the soft golden sand, we saw several turtle nests, and several turtles in the ocean, their heads peeking out of the water every now and again. Being able to visit such a remote place made me appreciate the fact that I was cruising around the Galápagos Islands rather than trying to explore them from an ‘island base’ – because it’s secluded beaches like this one that you just can’t get to unless you are on a cruise.
galapagos birdWe watched the ghost crabs quickly moving into their sand holes every time we got too close, pelicans and blue footed boobies dive bombing for food with a sudden plunge – head first – into the ocean, and an American Oysterhunter enjoying the solitude.
galapagos majesticOur second stop for the day: snorkeling! Our first exploration of the underwater world of the Galapagos took place just off the coast of Santiago. As soon as we jumped into the ocean we noticed how clear the water was, and we were surrounded by colorful fish immediately. On this first snorkeling trip we saw a small shark, a sea turtle and a spotted eagle ray. Not bad for a morning of snorkeling!
galapagos fishNext on our agenda was kayaking. We got to see the same coastal area we just explored underwater, except that we are now above water. We kayaked along the rocky cliff side of the island, watched some seals lazing in the sun and some blue footed boobies sunbathing on the rocks. Whenever I turned around, I saw nothing but the open sea. It truly felt like we were the only ones out there. So far, I still had not seen a single other boat.
galapagos sea lion on rockWe got back to the boat and had lunch, and right after we polished off our plates the boat started its engines to bring us to our next stop. While we were cruising, we had time to make use of the sun deck and the jacuzzi. The luxury yacht is just as much a part of this experience as the landscapes we passed and the wildlife we saw.
galapagos islands cruiseA couple of hours later, our stop for the afternoon came into sight: nothing more than a barren rock in the ocean, surrounded by smaller rocks, all bleak, without any sign of life on them. There were, however, four or five other boats anchored here, and we soon learned why: Bartolome Island is home to some spectacular lava formations, the most remarkable one being Pinnacle Rock, a rock formation that rises high into the sky.
galapagos islands pinnacle rockThe tiny island is said to have some of the most beautiful landscapes of all of the Galapagos Islands, including a tuff cone of an extinct volcano that can be climbed that offers stunning views over Bartolome and the other islands, and a variety of red, orange, green, and black volcanic formations. Sadly, we had frolicked in the water for too long during our morning excursion that we ran out of time to climb the volcano before sunset, but there was still time for another snorkeling session.
galapagos islands excursionWhat the island lacks in plant and animal life is more than compensated by the surrounding sea. This is a popular spot for Galapagos penguins, and sure enough two playful penguins joined us on our swim for a while. Watching them whiz around us and chase each other was highly entertaining. After they left, we swam slowly along the rocks on the shore and spotted several sharks, spotted eagle rays, star fish and a myriad of colorful fish. We all agreed that this snorkeling session was better than in the morning – and that one had already been amazing!
galapagos penguinBack on the boat, we had just enough time to change into some dry clothes before we set off on a short sunset ride in the dinghies to see the penguins again, this time on shore, and take pictures of the lava rock formations.
galapagos islands penguiinsAfter our sunset excursion, we had our nightly briefing for the next day and were told that we’d have breakfast at 6am. Another early start, and since we had such an action-packed day, everyone retreated to their cabins as soon as we finished another scrumptious dinner.
galapagos majestic dinner tableWhen my alarm went off at 5.30am the next morning, I was everything but ready to get up. My skin burned from too much sun and too little sunscreen the previous day. We fueled ourselves with a filling breakfast and at 6.30am we were already on our way to our first stop of the day: Las Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island.
galapagos beachAgain, we arrived on a completely deserted beach, the only sign of life were the fresh traces of sea turtles who came onto the shore to make their nests in the sand. Looking at the traces, our guide commented that we must have just missed them, that’s how fresh the tracks were.
sally lightfood crabsThe only ones who joined us on our morning beach walk were the hundreds of Sally Lightfoot Crabs that move quickly on the rocks along the shore, already visible from far away, thanks to their bright orange/red bodies. These agile little crabs were supposedly named after a Caribbean dancer, and the way they can climb up rocks on vertical slopes and run in four directions, I can see why someone said they resembled a dancer.
galapagos islands sally lightfoot crabsWe walked over to a little lagoon which is known to be a popular feeding place for flamingos. When we got there, we saw only one lone flamingo marching around the muddy water, but the flamingo population on the Galapagos is only 600, so even seeing just one of these distinctively colored birds felt special.
galapagos flamingoAfterwards, it was time for another snorkeling session. This time, we got to swim with turtles! Even though I’ve swam with turtles in the Philippines and in Mexico, it never loses its magic for me.
galapagos sea turtleThe species of turtles we swam with, the Green Sea Turtle, is the only kind of sea turtle that nests on the Galapagos Islands. Like many species of sea turtles, the Green Sea Turtle is an endangered species, their nests often destroyed by other animals, and the tiny hatchlings being eaten by birds before they can even reach the ocean.
galapagos turtleWe followed these majestic creatures around the coral for a while, watching them feed on sea grass and going up to the water surface to get air every once in a while. For me, it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday morning.
dani galapagos beachWe returned to the boat where, as always when coming back from an excursion, we were greeted with fresh fruit juice and snacks. We spent the rest of the morning on board, enjoying the sun deck, reading a book, or just gazing out at the ocean.
galapagos cruiseOne thing I loved about the cruise was how well we ate. Sometimes it felt like all we did was eat – especially that morning. In between our post-snorkel snack and noon we got to try another tasty snack of cheese filled plantains and then it was already time for lunch. Lunch was always served buffet-style, including vegetables, rice, some kind of meat and a fresh salad. For me as a vegetarian our chefs prepared a special dish for each meal, including vegetarian ceviche (the rest of our group got ‘real’ ceviche).
Galapagos Yacht DinnerAfter a couple more hours on the boat we reached Santa Cruz where we got off the boat to spend the afternoon in the small town of Puerto Ayoro, to buy some souvenirs, have a drink, or to check our emails (there was no Wi-Fi on board). We all loved the sea lions that seemed to have taken over the town – they were lounging on an otherwise empty dock, frolicking in the water, and stretching out on some benches along the pier.
galapagos sealGetting a glimpse of small town life on the Galápagos Islands was fascinating – can you imagine growing up in a place that remote? The town didn’t have much more than a bunch of souvenir shops and restaurants, a few small hotels and a big playground for kids to play.
galapagos pelicanWe got back to the boat just in time for another beautiful sunset, and then it was already time for our Farewell Dinner and Farewell cocktail. The days on the boat had gone by way too fast!
galapagos cruise sunsetThe cruise was not quite over yet though: On our last morning, we got up early for one last sunrise snorkeling session around Kicker Rock, a rock in the middle of the ocean that is popular with hammerhead sharks. dani galapagos islands yachtAnd yes, it didn’t take long until we spotted the first shark! In addition to sharks, we were joined by a group of sea lions, a lonesome turtle and again, hundreds of colorful fish. A memorable end to our four-day cruise.
Snorkeling
After breakfast, we disembarked in San Cristobal where we were once again entertained by the local sea lions who take up every single free spot around the pier. One last moment with these adorable creatures, and then we were off to the airport, where one last adventure awaited us.
galapagos sealSince our cruise ended in a different island than we departed from, we got to take a tiny 8-seater plane back to the main airport in Baltra. I ended up in the co-pilot seat, terrified at first, but quickly easing into the experience and enjoying the vast ocean views with a little island coming into view every once in a while. This was my first time in such a tiny aircraft, and having a front row seat for it made it even more exceptional than it already was.
galapagos tiny planeAs we approached the airport in Baltra, where our connecting flight to Guayaquil was waiting, I felt the strong urge to skip the flight and stay longer in the Galapagos. I was not ready to get back to the mainland, where emails, work and deadlines were awaiting me. I wished I had more time in this remote paradise – the Galapagos Islands had captivated me in a way no other place has had a grip on me in a long time.
galapagos kicker rockI am not sure if I’ll ever get to return to the Galápagos Islands, but if I do, I’ll make sure to spend more than four days there – I already missed the Majestic, which we had left only a couple of hours before, and I wanted to explore the islands we didn’t get to see on our cruise – like Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island or the beaches of San Cristobal Island.
galapagos land iguana

Stay tuned for a full article on how you can visit the Galapagos Islands – on a cruise like I did with Galapagos Luxury Charters, or independently.

PIN IT!

read more

Quito – A chilly welcome to Ecuador

quito views5

I was surprised by what I was reading on my Kindle. “Set in a picturesque valley some 2,800 meters above sea level, Ecuador’s lofty capital sits just 25km south of the equator. Its historic Old Town is a splendid maze of cobbled streets, colonial architecture and churches, dazzling attributes which helped it become UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site (along with Krakow) in 1978.”, marveled the author in the Independent article about Ecuador I was reading while enjoying my very first cup of scrumptious Ecuadorian hot cocoa.quito hot chocolateThe article made Quito seem like a gem of a city, a town so beautiful that it would sweep me off my feet. The problem was, I just didn’t feel it. I had spent three days in Ecuador’s capital, my first stop on my trip through the country, which is usually enough time to make me fall for a place. But Quito and I, we just didn’t connect.quito viewsI was a bit wary of visiting Quito, after hearing stories of robberies, people throwing feces from church towers to distract you so that they can take your belongings (see here, here, here, and here), and Quito being a bit sketchy all around.quito street artThe cab driver who brought me from the airport to my hotel (a great opportunity to practice my rusty Spanish during the 45-minute ride) put me at ease, however. Quito had gotten much safer over the past few years, he assured me. I had nothing to worry about.Ecuador QuitoAnd so I excitedly took off on my first exploration of Quito, headed straight for the Old Town. And it  was pleasant, yes – I just didn’t think the churches and the architecture that I saw there were ‘dazzling’, and I also wouldn’t call it a ‘splendid maze’. Lofty – yes, I could agree to that, because Quito is, at 9,350 feet (2,850 meters), the second highest capital in the world – only La Paz, Bolivia, is higher. Was I missing something? Upon returning to my hotel, I did some further research to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and through Alex in Wanderland (who also wasn’t the biggest fan of Quito), I learned about a free walking tour.QuitoThe next morning I joined about ten other travelers on a tour of Quito’s Old Town, this time with commentary from a local, and including a few spots that I had indeed missed. Did any of them wow me though? Unfortunately, I still didn’t love the city, but I have to say that I am glad I joined the walking tour because it gave me a much better understanding of the Ecuadorian culture and some insights into the life, history, and politics of the country.QuitoOur guide Andrea took us to the central market for example, where she gave us an introduction to the local fruits, and where I was excited to learn that one of my favorite Colombian fruits, lulo, grew in Ecuador, too, but was known as naranjilla here. Andrea introduced us to several other Ecuadorian specialties, whetting my appetite for the Food Tour the hostel offers once a week for only $10(unfortunately).Ecuador MarketThe walking tour also brought us to my biggest oversight: The bohemian La Ronda neighborhood with narrow cobblestone alleys and colorful houses, which I found more charming than any other part of the city I’d seen so far.La Ronda QuitoBut even with Andrea’s lovely introduction to Quito, I still wasn’t too impressed. It didn’t help that it was raining every day during my entire stay, which means the city was always covered in a layer of clouds and the temperatures were in the 50s – too cold for me to be comfortable. Instead, I never left my guesthouse without my rain jacket and a scarf.quito new town viewAs for my taxi driver’s comment about Quito having become much safer, Andrea still warned us that it wasn’t a good idea to walk up El Panecillo Hill, on top of which the 45-meter-tall Virgin of Quito thrones over the city, (made of seven thousand pieces of aluminum!) a popular sight for tourists, but apparently not save to walk to. My guidebook had also warned to walk up this hill.quito statueOverall I felt like there was just not a whole lot to do in Quito. I visited almost all of the churches, including the beautiful, ornate Neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional which turned out to be my favorite, and where $2 bought me admission to the bell towers, which offered great views over the city, albeit the cloudy skies never went away for long enough to make it a truly stunning view.Basilica del voto nacionalJust a short walk from the Basilica del Voto Nacional church was the Centro De Arte Contemporaneo De Quito, the Contemporary Art Museum, which, I was happy to find out was free to visit. For an art lover like me, it turned out to be a highlight of my visit to Quito. During my visit they had a photography exhibit about a native group in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which was superb, as well as the ‘Tres mil leguas de algodón’ exhibit by Ecuadorian artist Fabian Patinho for which he photographed women who were comfortable in their bodies in underwear in an intimate setting and then turned them into acrylic paintings.quito contemporary art museumAs I walked out of the museum, I noticed that the walls across from the museum were covered in murals and graffitis – the best ones I’d seen so far! The street art felt like an added bonus to this artsy morning.Quito Street Art EcuadorI almost made the same mistake Alex In Wanderland made to skip the ‘New Town’, but after reading in her article that she regretted waiting until her last night in town to check it out, I decided to head over there to see how it compared to the Old Town. Again, it didn’t blow me away, but it was nice to see that there was an area with lots of restaurants, bars and nightlife, something I hadn’t seen to the same extent in the Old Town, and as I ventured further away from Plaza Foch, the main square in the New Town, I found especially the little plaza Borja Yerovi with its colorfully painted houses and murals delightful.New Town QuitoI even decided to stay in the new part of town upon returning to Quito so that I’d be right by some nice coffee shops and bars, and maybe check out the nightlife. I congratulated myself on that decision when I stopped in Quito for the second time a few weeks later.QuitoTo be honest, I wouldn’t have come back to Quito had it not been for a mountain biking tour of Cotopaxi volcano I wanted to do. Since this particular tour only runs on weekends, I didn’t get to do it during my first visit, but I really wanted to climb at least one volcano in Ecuador, so why not go for the second highest active volcano in all of South America? Cotopaxi is one of the highest volcanos in the world, reaching a height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters).cotopaxi volcano climbAgain, the weather gods weren’t on my side when I returned to Quito, but I tried to make the best of my volcano tour. On a grey and rainy day, our group of six piled into a minivan, and when we arrived in Cotopaxi National Park, the volcano was hiding behind a massive cloud. We drove up until a parking lot to do a short climb up to Refugio Jose Rivas at 15,953 feet / 4,864 meters – the highest point you can climb to at the moment. Summiting hasn’t been possible since August 2015, when the volcano woke up and started spewing ash again for the first time in thirteen years.Cotopaxi Bike Tour EcuadorAs we were making our way to the Refugio, it started snowing, and what started out as light snow turned into a considerable snowstorm by the time we reached the top. The snow turned into rain when we descended again, ready to hop on the mountain bikes, ruining the experience I had been very much looking forward to.dani cotopaxiWe arrived at Laguna Limpiopungo at 12,566 feet (3,830 meters) completely soaked, muddy and chilled to the bone. The flora and fauna of the Altiplano, which I had admired when we were driving through the Altiplano that morning, was barely visible in the rain, and I couldn’t even bring myself to take out my camera and snap a picture of the lagoon, which is popular with birds and would have made for the perfect place to end our tour at. This was certainly not the mountain biking adventure I had been hoping for, but I guess you can’t be lucky all the time.cotopaxi bike tour daniWhen I was dropped off in Plaza Foch, the center of the bar scene of Quito’s New Town, after the tour, I knew I had made the right decision to stay in this part of town: the plaza, which had been quiet the night before, was bustling with people, the coffee shops and restaurants were all busy. It was Friday night and I was determined to make my last night in Quito a memorable one.QuitoI found a lovely vegetarian restaurant, El Maple, and right across the street from it, a fantastic artisanal German micro-brewery, Cherusker Cerveceria. On the same street (Joaquin Pinto), I checked out The Lucky Charm Pub, and around the corner Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, which happened to be right next door to Radar, a gay and lesbian bar. So while I didn’t grow fond of Quito during my two visits, I felt like I ended them on a good note with a little taste of Quito’s superb nightlife.Quito

Have you been to Quito? What did you think of Ecuador’s capital?

read more

Polaroid Of The Week: The Swing At The End Of The World

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador Baños end of the world swingBaños is known as Ecuador’s adventure capital, and I knew there were a bunch of activities I could do here that would give me a nice adrenaline rush – rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, zip lining and canyoning, to name just a few.

The one attraction that gave me sweaty palms though? The infamous ‘swing at the end of the world;, where you dangle from a tree house over a cliff, high up in the mountains over Baños. It’s one of those places that you see a picture of and know you have to go there. Or is that just me?

For years, this was one of the only places I knew about in Ecuador. I knew about the Galápagos Islands, I knew about Quito, and the Swing At The End Of The World.

Since this was the thing I was most excited about doing in Baños, it was where I was headed to first. Initially I attempted hiking up the mountain, but when, after walking for an hour, I still hadn’t even made it to the bottom of the mountain on top of which the swing sits, I changed my mind and took a Chiva instead, a truck that’s converted into a tourist shuttle with benches in the back.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure if I’d actually swing on the swing or just take some photos, because I have a terrible fear of heights. But eventually I decided that I’d regret not doing it, and chances that I’ll ever return to Baños are pretty slim.

And so I got in line for about half an hour for two minutes of swinging over the cliff.. and I am happy to report that I lived to tell the tale.

I continued my adventurous week in Baños with a mountain bike tour along the popular waterfall route and two firsts for me: rafting and canyoning. How did that go? I’ll share my experiences in a detailed article on Baños soon… stay tuned!

read more

Polaroid Of The Week: Colonial Beauty in Cuenca, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador cuenca

When my mosquito bite count reached one hundred and my laptop’s cooling fan started making noises as if it was trying to tell me ‘I can’t deal with this heat anymore‘, I decided that it was time to get away from the beaches for a while and give both my laptop and my itching limbs a break. The beach had been nice, but I needed to get somewhere high enough for the mosquitoes to not get there. And so I headed to Cuenca, at 8,370 ft (2,550 meters) too high for mosquitoes to continue to feast on me and cool enough for my laptop not to overheat.

Cuenca is a popular expat destination, with 5,000 mainly North American expats living there, and it is easy to see why. Life in Cuenca is pleasant, cheap and tranquil. Mountains surround the city, and you can walk everywhere in the center. Cuenca has 52 churches and the best preserved colonial architecture in Ecuador, so much so that UNESCO declared the city center a World Heritage site. It was a city that I liked immediately – the first time I had this feeling during my time in Ecuador!

Without many ‘must see’ landmarks, I adapted to Cuenca’s slow pace and got into a nice routine of a daily morning run along the river, followed by a tasty breakfast in one of the coffee shops in the city center. I’d work for a few hours on my laptop and then head out and just wander the streets, curious to see what I’d find. I stumbled upon gorgeous colonial buildings, quaint plazas and plenty of good restaurants. After eating mostly Ecuadorian food for the past few weeks, I was delighted to find Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and tasty Italian food, including pizza (and I am a hard-to-please pizza snob!).

The only mistake I made? I waited too long to do a couple of things I had on my to-do-list, most importantly climbing the bell towers of the impressive Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, Cuenca’s main church, built in 1887, whose domes of sky-blue Czech tile (pictured in the Polaroid) are visible from almost anywhere in town, and where the view from the top over the city is supposed to be fantastic. Instead of heading up there on a sunny day, I felt lazy and decided to ‘do it later’ – only that the blue skies never returned. Instead, I experienced a couple of rainy and grey days, making it also not worth it to go to ‘Turi’, Cuenca’s best viewpoint, to get a view over all the city’s red-tiled roofs.

However, I was still enjoying my time here, even though I didn’t make it to all the places the guide books recommended. Instead, I experienced Cuenca like a local, with a nice routine, slowing down my travels, and appreciating the laid-back atmosphere, before my action-packed next stop, where many adventure activities would await: Baños, aptly nicknamed Ecuador’s adventure capital.

read more

Polaroid Of The Week: Beach sunset in Montañita, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador montanita
After my week in hot and sticky Guayaquil I couldn’t wait to get to the beach for a fresh ocean breeze. I had heard great things about Montañita, a small village on the Santa Elena Peninsula on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. Montañita is the country’s number one surf spot, and, as I learned when I arrived there, a prime party destination for people from all over South America. Think South America’s answer to Ibiza, only with less mega clubs, but with loud music right on the beach instead, blasting from several discos right along the shore.

The problem with that? I was just not in the mood for a mega party, and I had also been warned about walking around town at night by myself. A couple of backpacking girls from Argentina were brutally murdered in Montañita less than a year ago, and I didn’t get a good vibe from the village. The beach was okay, but nothing special, and the waves were so insanely high that there was a red flag on the beach every day, warning people that the surf was intense and the current was strong.

I ended up preferring the two beaches south and north of Montañita – Olon to the north was much more charming, with seemingly nicer accommodation and cuter restaurants, plus several appealing beach bars and less tourists. Manglaralto to the south seemed like it lacked foreign tourists entirely – or at least I never saw any when I ventured down there.

What all three villages have in common: the amazing sunset spectacle the sky put on for us every single night. I made sure not to miss a single one – Pacific sunsets never disappoint.

read more

Polaroid Of The Week: Taking In The Views Over Guayaquil, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador guayaquil

After cruising around the Galapagos Islands, I was in urgent need of a break to catch up on work projects and to deal with the hundreds of emails that had piled up in my inbox while I was on the boat (I get so many emails these days, I can barely handle the volume anymore!). I decided to stay in Guayaquil, the city where I’d flown to the Galapagos from, which happens to be Ecuador’s largest city, and one of the largest sea ports in all of South America. Beyond that, there’s not all that much to do and see for tourists though. A newly revamped river walk, the Malecon 2000, made for a great running track in the mornings, and for some good entertainment in the evenings (people watching, and an IMAX cinema that showed LaLa Land).

Just north of the Malecon sits Las Peñas, the city’s oldest neighborhood, where colorful little houses are built into the side of a hill, Cerro Santa Ana. The neighborhood used to be a slum, but a regeneration project transformed it into the tourist attraction that it is today. 432 stairs lead up to the top of the hill, each one numbered, so that with each step, you are painfully reminded you how many more stairs you still have to climb. Once you reach the top, however, you are rewarded with spectacular 360° views over Guayaquil and the wide Guayas River. There is also a little chapel on the top of Cerro Santa Ana, and a lighthouse which you can climb for even better views (including the chapel – see Polaroid). The brightly painted houses, little plazas with palm trees, and alleyways where cats were lounging in the sun and laundry was drying in the air made this my favorite part of the city – I even made my way up these cruel stairs twice, despite the relentless heat. That heat was what eventually made decide on my next stop: the beaches along the Pacific Coast, about 2.5 hours west of Guayaquil, seemed like a perfect place to escape the heat of the city for a while.

read more

Polaroid Of the Week: Cruising Around The Galapagos Islands

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador galapagos

This week I went on a trip of a lifetime: a 4-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago  of 20 islands, 42 islets, and over 250 rocks in the ocean, a 2-hour flight of the coast off mainland Ecuador, is a nature and wildlife lover’s paradise! For four days, we cruised around some of the islands, with frequent snorkeling stops and island explorations. The boat would anchor in the ocean, and our dinghies would bring us to the shore. With the exception of one island, Santa Cruz, we never encountered any other people, it always felt like we were the only ones out there. Even when the boat was cruising in between islands, we often didn’t see another boat for hours.

The snorkeling stops were my favorite part – we swam with penguins, sharks, rays, seals and turtles. Something I never tire of! On land, we watched Giant Tortoises mating, eating and just being, we watched sea lions take over the ports of the two towns we stopped in, and we watched hundreds of colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling around the rocks near the shore. I photographed iguanas, blue-footed boobies and other birds, I got up for a sunrise snorkeling session near a rock in the middle of the ocean which was a popular spot with hammerhead sharks, and I sunbathed on a dreamy, secluded, tropical beach.

It truly was a dream trip for all the experiences I had – but then there was also the boat I was on, which was a big part of it, considering that’s where we spent the majority of our time. Aptly named ‘Majestic’, it was a gorgeous 16-passenger yacht with a beautiful sun deck and a Jacuzzi. Our crew spoiled us with tasty buffet meals and snacks every time we came back from an excursion, definitely exceeding my expectations in terms of food and service. I couldn’t have been happier about doing this trip with Galapagos Luxury Charters, who put together personalized, all-inclusive cruises around the islands.

I can’t wait to share all the photos (well, maybe not all of them, considering I took well over 800) and stories of my Galapagos trip with you – I have yet to look at all the footage I took with my underwater camera but I will start sharing it shortly on my social media channels, so make sure to follow me on Instagram and Facebook for a first peek.

read more

Polaroid Of The Week: Quito’s Stunning Basílica del Voto Nacional

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador quito

I’m back in South America! And it strangely feels like I’ve never left, even though it’s been nearly eleven months since I said goodbye to Colombia. But considering I was in Mexico until mid-April and then again a whole month in November, it shouldn’t be too surprising that everything feels strangely familiar.

The Latin America traffic craze, the bustling markets and town squares, the noise (horns, speakers, megaphones), the street food vendors everywhere.

There were a few things though that made Quito, my first stop in Ecuador, feel different: 1) there are many women in traditional native dress, with long skirts and braids, hats and colorful shawls, which remind me a lot of the native dress in Bolivia.

And 2) The altitude! Quito is the second highest city in the world (only La Paz sits higher), and with an altitude of just over 9,200 feet I definitely felt the affects of it. I don’t think I’ve been to a place that high since traveling around Bolivia three years ago.

I’ll leave my thoughts on Quito for a separate article, but let’s just say I didn’t really connect with the city. That doesn’t mean I had a bad time here, but I didn’t see anything truly amazing and didn’t feel like I needed to spend more time here than the 4 days I had in Quito. I wandered the streets of the historic Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), I visited several of Quito’s stunning churches including the Basilica of the National Vow, pictured, which is he largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. I went to the new part of town (where I had an amazing Ecuadorian hot cocoa!), I went to the city’s biggest park and roamed the central market, and while all of that was nice, it just didn’t feel very special. Maybe it was the chilly weather (temperatures in Quito are in the 60s year-round) and the fact that it rained every day (thankfully not all day), Quito just didn’t wow me. I will be back in Quito at some point to use it as a base while taking a couple of excursions (I am planning to take a mountain bike tour of Cotopaxi and to visit the famous Otavalo market) – maybe I’ll warm up to Ecuador’s capital then.

Next stop: The Galápagos Islands!

read more
css.php