A South American Birthday

When I woke up at 3am to catch my flight in Guayaquil, Ecuador to La Paz, Bolivia, it didn’t even register that it was my birthday.

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The night before I had been editing photos and chilling out in (what I called) my ghetto hostel and was able to Skype a couple friends thanks to a good internet connection. Then it was time to climb the fire escape to my prison room, and try to sleep for a couple of hours before my flight.

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I avoided going to bed until midnight, and then I had horrible dreams of bed bugs getting into my ears; so, while I lucidly dreamt I also lay rigidly on my silk sleep sheet until about 2:00am. Then, two Portuguese girls came in and made a huge racket. My birthday wasn’t off to a great start.

When I got to the Guayaquil airport, things went as they normally do, though I had a heck of a time understanding the flight clerk (I blame exhaustion, but the accent in Guayaquil is much faster so I always had to ask people to repeat themselves). When I got to the gate, the boarding time was only marked as 5 minutes before the departure time and I immediately knew something wasn’t right.

Sure enough, at 6:10am (20 minutes post departure time), the announcement came. “We are offering you a free breakfast, but unfortunately we will be delayed. We will have an update at 8am.”

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I didn’t much care, because after I ate my boxed breakfast (which included a delicious croissant!) I passed out on a bench, drooling and crooked-necked. I woke just before 8am in time to see masses of people marching toward the flight desk.

“The flight to Lima will be delayed until 13:55,” they said, “We’re sorry,” they said.

Frig. My connection in Lima to La Paz was at 10:30am; there goes that. I wait patiently in line while Ecuadorian, Chinese, and Canadian (shocking!) nationals budged their way in front of me to get information on their connections. I was so tired I didn’t even care if I flew to India, but eventually after the 6th person pushed me out of the way I got more aggressive and asked about connecting to La Paz. After all, I’m much taller than these tiny people …

“Sorry, there’s only one flight from Lima to La Paz at 10:30am. You will have to stay in a hotel in Lima and leave for La Paz on June 18, but we will pay for this. Please take the bus now to another hotel in Guayaquil so you can rest, and we will bring you back here for 13:55.”

First thought: You’re offering me a free bed?

Second thought: Darn, I was hoping to have a mini-party at my fun hostel in La Paz. I was even going to buy a party hat and wear it until people asked me why I was wearing it (I’m such a loser …).

I spent the next hour in line going through the customs that I just cleared to leave the country. My back hurt. And people were still budging to get to the front of the customs line. Happy birthday?

I get on a bus and we drive for 15 minutes to the fanciest hotel I’ve seen in South America. The lobby is gorgeous, and considering I fell asleep on the bus and dropped a bottle of ice tea everywhere, my main priority was to get. in. the. bed.

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Then she said free breakfast.

So I:

  • Went up to the gorgeous room
  • Got lost in the stairwell because I couldn’t figure out the elevator
  • Had to ask the cleaning lady to help me open my fancy door
  • Dropped my things on the desk
  • Forced myself downstairs to enjoy a custom omelette, coffee, and chocolate croissants. Mmmmm!!

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By the time I got back upstairs it was 11am. The bus was leaving at 11:30am to go back to the airport, so I chose to shower in the waterfall shower instead of sleeping. I felt pretty good! (Also note that this whole time I have no idea where my big bag is … but I’m lucky that I pack extra things in my carry-on. I still have only a ginormous hope that my bag will make it to La Paz …).

Anyway, people push AGAIN to get on the bus and then AGAIN into the customs line (seriously people, we are all going to the same plane … do you need to be so friggen rude?), but finally we are back where we started.

Cue Drake – “Started from the bottom now we’re heeeere.”

I consider asking the flight lady if I can get first class, because, of course, it’s my birthday. But then she tells me the giant plane is almost empty. What’s this I feel? Oh, it’s fucking ELATION.

I sleep in a row of three seats for the entire two hour flight. We get to Lima, and I’m ready to be shuttled to my luxury hotel for the night. I figured I could do worse than to stay in a fancy birthday hotel (that last one went for $250/night … so …).

When I get off the plane, two Swiss girls and I realize are both headed to La Paz and inquire about our hotel process together. But to our surprise, the flight crew had boarding passes for us on a late flight! Not only that, but we also had a dinner voucher, a Peru calling card, and free entrance into the VIP lounge.

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WHAT’S THIS? ELATION 2.0?

In the hallway, I tell the girls it’s my birthday and they burst into song, right there. Then we happily skip to the VIP lounge in our grungy backpacker clothes. We immediately get settled and order free beers and champagne.

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Since then I’ve been eating mini sandwiches, mini croissants, mini brownies, and sharing stories with my two new friends. I also received this amazing birthday greeting from friends back home, the best HB serenade video from my favourite three year old, and got to Skype my brother. 20140617-222844.jpgI’m only missing that reliable and loving call from my Dad. But.

Well, you know.

All in all, the day has turned itself around. I was overdue for a birthday adventure anyway, right? Guess I’ll go to Bolivia now.

 

 

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South America – Banos, Ecuador

What does one do after a dream trip come true? One goes to Banos!

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A must stop in Ecuador, Banos is adventure central. I got in around 9pm, after my indirect bus dropped me off in Ambato on some random street corner … that was … weird. Luckily, two white girls in the same predicament decided to hail a taxi, so I quickly jumped in with them and split the cab.

Because they kept us seriously busy in the Galapagos, I was exhausted, so chose to relax on my first day. I even splurged the $11/night for a private room, because sharing is caring … but only until you’ve spent 8 days on a tiny boat … Day 2 onward I adventured, and adventured hard though.

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Mountain Biking from the Andes to the Jungle

For $7USD you can rent a bike from a local agency and ride 25km down a beautiful 1000m trek, from the Andean mountains into the jungle. At first, I really didn’t think I would like it (being that I am not the most fond of bicycles in general), but my new friend Verity from London (seriously, this is becoming a trend, everyone is from London?) convinced me to do it with her. Once we started I was so happy to be doing it. The scenery is breathtaking; we biked through tunnels, on the side of the highway, on gravel paths beside cliffs, and even under waterfalls. Add to the mix Clumsy Sonia, being chased by rabid dogs and sweating profusely while hiking the jungle, and you get adventure!

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We made our way to the Pailon del Diablo waterfall, parked our bikes for free and hiked to a huge waterfall. They even have a small cave you can crawl through to get yourself behind the waterfall. There’s a hella lot of water that comes down, (J. you would love it)! Triumphant and exhilarated, we returned up the massive hill soaking wet and then enjoyed (devoured) batidos and empanadas.

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Thermal Baths

The next day my new travel buddies and I woke at 6am and waddled our way in the dim morning light to the baths. We had heard that if you go before 7am, it’s much less crowded and a more pleasurable experience.

When we arrive, there are three pools* (one hot, one cold, one lukewarm). We start in the lukewarm pool, and realize we do not meet the apparent minimum age requirement of 55. It was sort of comical, watching these 50+ seniors with bathing caps swim around in murky, brown lukewarm water. At one point, a man started to do something akin to the butterfly stroke, while another lady swam past us kicking with her head in the water. Strange ….

We tested ourselves in the hot bath (45 degrees was it? I was still half asleep). We only stayed for a minute, which was a good thing because I almost fainted on the way out. We then bravely plunged into the cold bath (I’m awake at this point), before showering and exiting. Overall, I’d say it was quite the experience, but definitely not the relaxing or therapeutic vision I had coming in to a town called Banos (meaning baths…).

*Note: not pictured because it’s weird to take photos while bathing with seniors … 

Canyoning

We recharged with a quick breakfast after the baths, before going canyoning. Probably the most exciting and difficult activity I’ve ever done, I repelled down 4 giant and challenging waterfalls, and got to slide down 2 more; all for $25. This will be in my top 10 life experiences for sure.

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Casa del Arbol

After repelling we made our way to the edge of the world and swung from a giant tree house. Pretty cool swinging experience, though I do wish there had been less people so I could swing for longer.

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Finally, we finished our efficiently adventurous day by enjoying beers and batidos alongside the first World Cup game.

So in summary … If you come to Banos, be prepared for adventure. I recommend spending at least 4 (or 5!) days here: one to figure out what you want to do and 3 to do it all. Other things to do, if you like:

  • Massages for $25
  • Eat Thai food at Cafe Hood
  • Enjoy great beer at the Stray Dog pub
  • Zip lining (looked great!)
  • Paragliding
  • Hiking & sweating, then showering
  • Chilling out (Banos is very safe and cute. Just a cool place to reset)

I’m now in Montanita, a  beach/party town in the northern-ish coast of Ecuador. I was able to meet some friends from the Galapagos cruise here, so a semi-reunion if you will.

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Next stop, Bolivia! Egad!

South America – A Galapagos Cruise

My trip to the Galapagos was amazing, unbelievable, and surreal. I’ve included “how to” tips below, but here’s why this was one of the best things I’ve ever done:

  • I made new wonderful friends.
  • I swam with turtles, sea lions, sharks, rays, and tropical fish.
  • The geek in me soaked in teachings about evolution and the island history.
  • We snorkelled 2-3 times per day, and hiked at least once per day.
  • Some days we hung out on the beach and did nothing.
  • I enjoyed some of the worlds most beautiful and diverse landscapes.
  • We visited a location where marine iguanas were filmed for the Planet Earth film series.
  • I think snorkelling might be ruined for me forever, because this is some of the best snorkelling in the world.

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Overall, this 8 day trip was one of the BEST things I’ve done in my life, and a big check mark on my bucket list. I still dream about swimming with sea lions …

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Some things that may help you, when you book this once in a lifetime trip for yourself …

1. Book your tour through an agency (or if you can figure out how to, through a boat owner). I chose a Backpacker yacht with the help of CarpeDM, which cost about $1,300 USD + the flight from Quito. There are larger, fancier yachts that cost more, but I’m kinda broke.

  • Book it last minute for the best deal, but know that spaces do fill up and I’ve heard July is maintenance season for the boats so spaces may be tighter.
  • I would say a 4 day cruise is too short (you spend day 1 and day 4 as half days going back and forth to the airport), but an 8 day cruise is worth it if you can handle sea waves and small cabins.
  • Large boats handle seas better – smaller boats give a more intimate, flexible tour.
  • Cruises get access to places that the day-trips do not get access to. I’ve heard it can cost up to $175 for a speed boat from Santa Cruz to the far islands; and you only get a couple of hours there before you have to turn around. Put that $175 toward a boat cruise and save up; it’s worth it.

2. Choose a small to medium size boat

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  • We got catered service. There were 12 of us on the boat, and our guide was able to make itinerary changes based on what we wanted to do most. Already been to Tortuga Bay? No problem, he says, let’s spend time in a cave pool.
  • Downsides are that the cabins are tiny, you basically have to shower while sitting on the toilet, and my room in particular strongly smelled of diesel because it was right next to the engine. But remember: you don’t spend all your time in your room.
  • Our King of the Seas boat was able to get into smaller bays, and we almost always had beaches to ourselves (which is unreal when you’re on a beach that’s ranked among the top 10 in the world). Our guide also got to know us each personally, and we didn’t have to wait for 100 people to disembark. Only twelve people on an island, now that’s cool.
  • The crew and the cook made special dishes for us. One day, we bought kernels at the grocery store and Mario had popcorn and hot chocolate ready after our afternoon snorkel!
  • If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you’re more likely to be matched with a group of people that have similar interests. I feel really lucky to have cruised the seas with the people that I did, they were all lovely.

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3. Buy sea sickness pills.  Mariole is the brand I got from the pharmacy. The tiny boat could only go a max of 4 knots in the large, open-ocean waves, and though I’ve been on boats before, I definitely got very sick. On Day 1, while chatting on the top deck, I had to say, “I’m sorry Tom, I need to lie down,” and promptly placed myself on the floor. I invited Tom to keep chatting, and he didn’t skip a beat! Ha!

While I was lying there with my eyes closed, another new German friend says, “I’m sorry Bill. I am very sick and cannot talk at this moment.”  At least I wasn’t alone on Team Nausea!

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4. Choose a Southern Islands itinerary. Even our guide said the Northern Islands aren’t as good, because you have more landscape and plant-life and less wildlife and snorkeling. I guess it depends what you’re into, but the Southern Islands (Espanola, Floreana, San Cristobal, Kicker Rock, Lobos Island, etc.) gives you the most for your money (landscape, flora and fawna). I’m sure you can’t go wrong in the Galapagos in general, though.

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5. Tip the crew. The guide and crew have separate envelopes at the end of the cruise. We estimated between $3 – $5 per day, per envelope. Of course, if you don’t think the crew did a good job, that’s your prerogative. Our crew was amazing, teaching us to salsa, drinking with us, and going the extra mile with post-snorkeling snacks and dinners. The King of the Seas(Victor, Jacinto, Wilmer, Mario, and Luis) did a great job!

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6. Other good things to know

  • Most boat guides will pick you up at the airport as a group. We had to wait a good 3 hours for everyone to arrive. Don’t plan on going anywhere fast …
  • If you get a guide named Jacinto, you’re in for a great tour!
  • To get from the airport to Puerto Lopez, you have to:
    1.  (~$1USD): Take a bus from the airport to the harbour,
    2. (~$0.80USD): Take a small ferry, on which your  bags are stored atop the roof
    3. (~$1USD): Take another bus to Puerto Lopez.
    4. The whole trip takes about an hour, I’d say, and you’re basically herded like cattle. I chose to arrive the day before my cruise, take the bus-ferry-bus combo to Puerto Lopez. The only problem is that I had to then do the same thing in reverse to meet my group at the airport, and then bus-ferry-bus AGAIN back to Puerto Lopez and our boat. So, moral of the story: if you can fly in on the same day as your boat cruise, you should do it. This 1-2-3, bus-ferry-bus thing gets old … 

There are more tips to share, I’m sure, but if you are curious just comment and I will try to help! Information is scattered, and it’s difficult to decipher what islands offer what. So ask away if you have any questions!

In summary … go to the Galapagos. Don’t think, just go.