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Backpacking Packing List – Essential Items for Your Travels

You can literally get away with travelling with just a passport and some cash in most cases, however if you’re looking to get off the beaten path, you may want to be a little more prepared in your packing.

A few other essential items:

  1. Bring 2 credit cards and 2 debit cards from different banks, keeping them in separate places. When your bank automatically freezes your account because of suspicious activity in Honduras, you’ll be glad you have another card and can pay the dive shop for your Open Water Course. This is also in case you are robbed – a sad reality of many backpacking adventures.
  2. Have a photo of your passport and flight information saved in your phone and backed up on Google Photos or the iCloud. It is also helpful to have a printed copy so you aren’t held up at the Panama/Costa Rica border when your phone dies and you don’t have proof of onward travel in order to enter Costa Rica because you were relying on keeping all your flight information in your phone.
  3. Local currency and a little bit of your own currency from home. Having a small amount of your own currency allows you to do a small exchange on that final day if you run out of money without paying the withdrawal fees on a bank withdrawal (the last thing you want to do is pay $5 in bank fees for a $5 final meal) but doesn’t require you to change money back and forth multiple times. There are a few (very few) places where travelling with US cash is helpful. If you are on the tourist trail, there should be plenty of currency exchange places happy to exchange your Canadian dollars for local currency in any amount.
  4. Drivers license. I like to empty my wallet and only bring the essential cards. Your drivers license should be considered an essential card to bring with you. Keep this separate from your passport (with your back up debit and credit card) as a back up form of ID should your passport end up travelling without you.
  5. Clean ziplock bags. You don’t know what you will need them for until you need them and are happy you brought them.
  6. A pen. It seems so simple! This is probably the number one thing I forget every single trip and am left bothering my neighbour on the plane to borrow theirs to complete my customs forms.
  7. Hand sanitizer, wipes, toilet paper. Not every country has a fully equipped bathroom like at home. You may find yourself squatting behind a Guatemalan bus station and grateful you brought your necessary items for this from home. Likewise, not every country sells the tampons you might be used to at home.
  8. Extra pair of shoes. I have learned this
    Walking back to Akbol Yoga Retreat in San Pedro, Belize

    lesson too many times while travelling and have left behind many broken soles. Thankfully a kind woman at a yoga retreat gave me her shoes (how yoga of her!) so I no longer had to walk around with a rope tying my flip flop together after a 2 mile walk back to the retreat centre. True story.

  9. Pills. pills. pills. I don’t recommend playing pharmacist when you travel, except when you have to. Due to some of the situations mentioned below, I literally travel with every single one of these pills, every single trip. I have only been hassled once for having them all in one massive pill bottle (Lithuania of all places) but if you have space, you should probably keep them in their labelled containers, especially any prescription medication.
      1. Melatonin. To help with sleep and jet lag
      2. An anti-histamine such as Benadryl. I didn’t know I had any food allergies and I didn’t know Benadryl isn’t an over the counter medication in every country until my throat was swelling up in Thailand and I wasn’t able to get Benadryl at any of the 3 pharmacies we tried. You also never know when you will wake up in a bush of poison ivy in the Amazon, 5 hours travel from the nearest pharmacy or doctor. True story.
      3. Antibiotics. This one is dicey, not all physicians will give you a prescription of antibiotics just in case but when you get a case of Bali belly, you’ll be happy you have them. Make sure to understand proper dosing for the specific conditions or ailments before just randomly popping pills.
      4. Probiotics. After not having a bowel
        If you are going to eat like this, pack probiotics. Carb loading before a night of drinking for New Years eve in Costa Rica.

        movement for over a week while sailing from Panama to Colombia, these are now essential. Because of the change in diet when travelling, you should just take these preventatively rather than waiting until you actually have an issue.

      5. Pain killers (Naproxen, Acetaminophen, Advil, whatever you like) – whatever you use at home, bring it with you for headaches and minor ailments.
      6. Pepto-Bismol Pills. Because the liquid would be messy to backpack around and when you’re lying on the floor of your AirBnB in Hollywood, the last thing you want to do is run out to the nearest CVS to buy some.
      7. Gravol or another anti-nausea pill. I learned why the boat from La Ceiba to Roatan is nicknamed “the vomit comet” and wish I had taken the Gravol at least 30 minutes prior to departure (there is no point taking it after you start barfing as I did).
      8. Anti diarrhea medicine. No explanation needed. We have all been there.
      9. Cold & Flu medicine – day time and night time. Because when you are kayaking with seals in New Zealand, it confuses the other kayakers when you sound like a barking seal due to the bronchitis you are fighting.
      10. Vitamins. Because there isn’t a lot of nutrition in beer and the other things we tend to consume on vacation.

If you are going to be travelling or backpacking around, it is important to keep things compact. I’ve seen people with oversize suitcases trying to navigate cobblestone pedestrian only s   treets or water taxis while I walk by with ease with my organized pack. It is painful to watch, and with some simple packing tips, you can avoid being that person.

Do this… a well packed bag in Nusa Lembongan, Bali

 

The key to packing is to ensure everything you bring will be used, and is an essential item. When you’re travelling around for a month or two on trains, planes and automobiles, you are going to regret bringing those 12 different travel books stuffed between your damp, oversize, cotton, Costco beach towel when you could have just uploaded them onto your ereader nestled in your dry, compact travel towel.

Ciudad Perdida hike
Don’t do this… a stupidly packed plastic bag for a 4 day trek through the jungle to the lost city of Ciudad Perdida, Columbia

You can head out to Mountain Equipment Co-op and purchase the top of the line everything, but for the casual backpacker, Amazon is usually your best friend as it has great products (with reviews) for great prices.

    1. Battery pack. Since our phones are now also our cameras, music players, note pads, etc. a dying battery can cause stress. This is the battery pack I use. It is a bit bulky and heavy compared to some others, however the amount of charges I get out of it makes it worth it.

2. A compact quick dry towel. This can be used for showering if you stay places that don’t provide towels (hostels, campgrounds, etc) but can also be used as a beach towel, yoga mat, pillow, etc. Do not bring your fluffy large cotton towel from home. It will not dry when you pack up and will end up smelling moldy in your first day or two of travel. My favourite ones are from Amazon or Lululemon.

3. Tide Sink Laundry Packets. The inevitable will happen and before you are ready to do a full load of laundry, you will run out of clean socks or underwear. Or perhaps you will fall off a horse into a mud puddle in Ecuador on your first few days of a 3 week trip and will want to quickly wash the clothes you were wearing. These don’t take up much space and have saved me many times.

4. Dr. Bronner’s 18 in 1 pure castille soap. This can replace the tide sink packets and several other things as it has 18 uses. I can’t imagine travelling without this as I use it for a body wash, laundry soap and dish soap (I haven’t discovered the other 15 uses yet but I imagine they’re just as great!)


5. Ereader. I prefer reading books over an ereader however I do not prefer carrying books around so this is a compromise I make. I opted for the Kobo brand of ereader as it syncs with my local library. It is slow, has very few bells and whistles, but it allows me to store hundreds of books for those long plane and bus rides between destinations.

6. Earbuds. Not just for listening to music, but also for killing time on the plane as some airlines no longer provide headphones for the entertainment.

7. Lifeproof phone case. Drop proof, water proof, Dawn proof. I tried taking it snorkelling once without great results (difficult to  press button to take a photo when underwater) but I do feel safer about my phone getting tossed around in my bag when wrapped up in this case.

8. Travel Adapter. Not every country runs on the same voltage as we do and if you want to fry your brand new travel flat iron, you can try plugging it into a socket without an adapter, if the prongs seem to line up, but you’re better off using an adapter when you go somewhere outside of your home voltage.

I do get a super tiny (tiny) kickback from Amazon if you purchase these items through the links on this page but these are all products that I seriously recommend purchasing, and I have purchased myself through Amazon for my own travels. 

Knowing Your Air Travel Rights


On a trip to Miami a few years ago, my flight departing YVR was delayed due to a mechanical trouble. This resulted in missing my connection to Miami through Chicago. United Airlines did what would be the most economical resolution and booked me on their next flight to Miami much later that evening. I had somewhere to be, and so I reminded them of their obligation to put me on the next available flight, on any airline, and was on my way to Miami shortly after on an American Airlines flight. Had I not known my rights and accepted the airline’s first offer, I would have been stuck hanging out at Chicago O’Hare airport for several hours, missing the party in Miami. Likewise on a trip from Toronto to New York, United Airlines cancelled my flight due to “weather” (I think it was actually because the flight was only half sold) despite all competitors still flying at the same time on the same route. They automatically rebooked me me on a flight 3.5 hours later and with some pushing I was able to get to New York on an American Airlines ticket at my originally scheduled departure time.

Passenger rights vary from country to country, and airline to airline; I will not go into great detail into all of them but rather provide you with some general tips:

  1. If you encounter a delay, cancellation or involuntary bump, first jump on Google to see what your airline’s responsibilities are before you accept an offer from the airline. The most economical or first offer from the airline may not be the one most appealing to you. For example, I had been out for a few pre-flight beers when my flight to Australia was cancelled by Air Canada until the next day. They informed me I should go home and come back to the airport the following day and did not offer any compensation for additional costs as I was “local” (although I live 30 minutes away from the airport). I did not have transportation to/from the airport and was unwilling to pay the $70 taxi fare each way myself, and was able to have Air Canada pay for both taxi rides for me as this was an unnecessary expense for their delay.
  2. Be careful booking your own connections. For example, when I flew Air Canada to London, and then booked a separate ticket to Rome on Alitalia, I was warned to leave enough time for the connection as they would not be responsible if I missed this connection the same way as if I had booked with Air Canada the whole way in which case they would be responsible for re-booking the missed connection to Rome. Airlines often book their own tight connections knowing they will be responsible to re-book passengers if the flight is missed. You cannot take such liberties with booking.
  3. Those low cost carriers such as Sunwing, Air Transat, Allegiant, Ryanair, etc. do not have the same passenger rights as flying full service airlines such as Air Canada or WestJet. I try to avoid these airlines at all cost, especially after a significant flight change on Air Transat to Fort Lauderdale where I was simply told they had the right to change my flight by 12 hours without any other options provided. I remember explaining to the person I was travelling with why we paid more to fly Air Canada as we walked out the airport past everyone we had travelled to Mexico with while they were arguing with Sunwing about their luggage that never appeared.
  4. Delayed or lost baggage compensation varies by airline and is why you should always book on your travel credit card as suggested here. I had Lufthansa try to explain their super complicated compensation process when my bag was delayed on a trip to Wales (they wanted me to return the clothing I had bought by mailing it to them to get 100% reimbursement or I would only get 50%?) and I was grateful I had proper insurance through my CIBC Aerogold Infinite VISA as their process seemed onerous.
  5. The 24 hour grace period for booking errors is one I mention in my blog about booking here but should be mentioned again. Not all airlines or booking sites honour this, but it is great to be aware of in case you make an error while booking (or you book a flight impulsively before actually checking if you can get the days off work…)
  6. Europe has some serious passenger rights with minimum compensation for delayed flights. The airline isn’t going to advertise this or hold your hand through the filing process – the onus is on you to know about this. On a recent flight from Reykjavik to Copenhagen, I was compensated 400 euros for a 3 hour delay. That is more than I paid for my entire flight!
  7. Don’t forget food and drinks! With any cancelled or delayed flight situation, they’ll usually throw in some vouchers for food or drinks while you’re stuck waiting around. Don’t be shy to ask.

By knowing your rights (or at least Googling them at the time a situation occurs, because who really has time to read all that fine print when planning a trip) and following my tips on utilizing a travel credit card, you should never be left stranded, sleeping in an airport, or paying out of pocket for expenses that should be covered by an airline. The Canadian federal government is currently (2018) working on a Passenger Bill of Rights that I imagine will be similar to the one in the US. Although this is a fantastic step to protect passengers flying on those airlines who do not honour the same level of customer service, I do feel Air Canada already follows many of the guidelines that are introduced in this bill and by a little self advocacy, I have been able to ensure my travel experiences have been as smooth as possible during the delays, cancellations, and complications that are inevitable with air travel.

A great website to start your search on rights should you come into a situation while flying is: airefarewatchdog although I suggest that you verify any information you read on any blog with the actual airline website as policies can change faster than blogs get updated.

7 Tips to Travel Like a Boss

If the travel bug is found to be genetic then I can thank my dad for my addiction.  Since he takes 120+ flights a year I asked him to summarize some of his top tips for those who are a bit more amateur with flying. Understanding these common issues can make travel a bit less stressful, and by following my tips on knowing your rights posted here, you can navigate these bumps with a bit less stress.

Screaming at the ticketing agent isn’t going to get your grounded flight in the air any faster during a snowstorm so pack a good book, grab a drink, and learn to travel like a boss – preferably in the business class lounge.

Rob’s Rules of Travel:

1)    Connecting flights – No matter the weather conditions and other factors causing delays, when your incoming flight is late your connecting flight is always on time.

2)    Nexus/TSA Pre – Despite all the signs and information available some people still insist on taking off their shoes, coats and remove liquids, electronics that they don’t have to.  Clearly should be a test when you sign up and only allow those who can pass a minimum intelligence level to qualify.  Anyone who still can’t figure out how to go through security should be suspended from the program.

3)    The later the flight the further out your gate is.  Want to arrive at gate 99 in YYZ, try arriving at 1:00 am for a healthy 30 minute walk. Better yet, when the weather is horrible and the first 200 metres is outside.

4)    There is a definite correlation between how much of a hurry you are in, and how delayed your flight is.  Midday flight no appointments, right on time.  Birthday dinner, running close, guaranteed 4 hour delay.  When the pilot announces that the flight looks like it will arrive early, almost guaranteed to have a ground hold, gate occupied or ground crew shortage to prove them wrong.

5)    After you spend time on seat selection and prebook a bulkhead, aisle, or exit row seat how is that some people have the gall to ask if you would mind changing with him so he/she can sit beside their spouse?  Really not sure you always need that much closeness anyway but I sure don’t have a problem saying “hell no”.

6)    Flight delays come in 20 minute increments.  Even when you verify on an independent app like Flightviewer that the incoming flight hasn’t even left yet and you will be at least 4 hours delayed, the airline insists on letting you know 20 minutes at a time.  Some kind of training program I guess to keep customers on their toes.

7)    Airline food actually gets a bit of a bad rap.  Not the free hot meals they still insist on forking out on overseas flights.  No those are crap and should be avoided at all costs.  I’m talking about the buy on board stuff.  Pretty good sandwiches, salads and snacks which improved dramatically once you started having to pay.  In fact, I have asked for a selection from that menu when flying business class as the selection was better than the pre-plated stuff up front.  On the other hand, people bringing their own food on board should be banned.  Whole plane ends up smelling like a food court and what is it about being on a plane that all of a sudden you can’t go a couple of hours without food?

Booking with Points

As mentioned in my blog about loyalty clubs and rewards points, I am going to try to explain why I have chosen the Aeroplan program (at least until 2020 when it is said to be parting ways with Air Canada) and some general rules on how to make the most of those points you accumulate.

That’s enough to go around the world! Almost twice!
  1. I prefer to fly Air Canada and Star Alliance airlines. Say what you will about any issues you’ve had with Air Canada, they’re still rated the number one airline in North America.
  2.  I am able to accumulate Aeroplan points at a rapid rate, allowing me to redeem several free flights a year. Using a combination of flights, credit card points, and random small accumulations at Esso and with the Carrot App I rack up these points far faster than Airmiles or other comparable programs would. Note: travellers, you should be putting EVERY purchase on your travel reward points credit card. Even that $2 tea you buy at Starbucks. Everything. 
  3.  I’ve looked at other reward points programs and most give you a dollar amount that can be applied towards a travel dollar amount. This is great for when you find those seat sales, but I like to use my Aeroplan points for those really expensive or remote trips and am happy to pay (with my travel rewards credit card) for bargain seat sales when it isn’t worth using points.

There are lots of websites out there that will do the math for you on when it is worth using Aeroplan or not. I do not abide by a simple formula, but rather look at opportunities to take advantage of their flat rate travel rewards system to maximize value for remote destinations.

For example, a trip from Vancouver to Whitehorse is typically around $600-700. Because of the short distance, it is only 15,000 Aeroplan points. By contrast, a flight to LAX is 25,000 points but typically costs $200-$300.

Obviously, the flight to Whitehorse is the better value. It is less points for a flight that costs significantly more. If I was to use a different travel rewards program based on monetary amount, I’d be left paying 2-3x as much to go to Whitehorse. But with Aeroplan, I am able to go for 10,000 less points, saving me a significant amount of money.

I have used Aeroplan for short haul flights internationally as well (thanks to the partnership with Star Alliance). This has served me well with an expensive connection to Lithuania from London, as well as from Ecuador to the Galapagos.

Another perk of the Aeroplan program is the ability to include stopovers. I once took a trip from Vancouver to Toronto to Miami and back to Vancouver for 25,000 points. Any trip within North America is 25,000 points but you can add a stopover for free, making this itinerary a better value than just going to Toronto or Miami on their own. In this case, to purchase the ticket would have cost me over $1000.

I have used these single stopovers within North America several times, however I have yet to try the mini RTW (round the world) stopover option. On international roundtrip rewards, Aeroplan allows you to book TWO stopovers. Rather than their full RTW option with 5 stopovers for 200,000 points, this mini RTW option should be able to get you to a couple different continents for a much lower point amount (75,000 – 90,000 points).

Now don’t get too excited and switch all your loyalty to the Aeroplan program. It is not without its faults. It does require some flexibility, either with dates, or with random stopovers – sometimes stopovers that don’t make any sense. This program is best for someone who travels frequently and is able to discern when to best use the points vs. paying for flights. It is not for the person who saves up their points for 5 years for a 60,000 point trip to Europe, only to discover the taxes on the points are more expensive than the latest advertised seat sale.

The taxes on flights are the next largest downside to Aeroplan following the lack of availability.  As mentioned, the taxes on a flight to Europe can be more than paying cash on a flight to Europe ($600+). Likewise, there are some flights that have almost no taxes, like Seattle to Central America where taxes are $15-30. There are several airlines who do not charge all the same fees and levies that Air Canada does, and many airports who do not, hence why flying out of Seattle airport on United airlines, can save hundreds of dollars over an Air Canada flight from YVR.

Unfortunately the Aeroplan website does not have any quick way of comparing things (it would be amazing if they had a platform similar to Google flights!) so researching the best use of your Aeroplan points can be time consuming and onerous. Knowing that availability changes daily, I remember spending every day for a week or two checking flights from YVR to Miami, Fort Launderdale and West Palm Beach every morning until the dates I was looking for opened up.

One last note… Aeroplan also has hotel stays and merchandise. I have never found this to be a value. A night at a cheap Best Western for the same number of points as a flight within North America? No thank you… I stick to using my Aeroplan points only for flights.

This is just a quick blog about why I choose Aeroplan over the points programs based on monetary travel amounts. If you are interested in learning more secrets about how to maximize your Aeroplan points, there are a bunch of fantastic blogs out there that go into serious detail.

The Art of the Stopover

As a fairly seasoned traveller, I am always looking for how I can get the most out of my travel time. One easy way to do this is through stopovers.

I’ve been able to spend a day or two in places I want to check out but don’t want to stay too long in, and have been able to turn a single vacation into two destinations. Since I live in Vancouver, and Toronto is home, I will often use a stopover on my way to Europe or south to stop in and visit family and friends.

How to do this? You have already learned how to find the cheapest flights with my tips here, but the ones with the best stopovers may not be listed first as Google Flights tends to list in order of price. The cheapest flight may not be the best value. There is a function where you can click “show longer or more expensive flights”at the bottom of your search results which I recommend always exploring. I suggest looking for either the shortest stopover, or the longest stopover to avoid spending time waiting around the airport. You can also use the multi-city search function to create your own stopover ideas.

Option to look at longer stopovers on Google Flights search result

3-6 hour stopovers are useless to me and I rarely book flights with these stopovers. I’d rather pay a little bit more to reduce my airport time, either through a quick connection, or through a long stopover allowing me to venture into the city. I’ve been able to make the most of stopovers ranging from 6 hours to several days. Beyond 24 hours can impact taxes/fees so be aware of this (I try to do the 23.5 hour stopover in Toronto to avoid having to pay extra fees but to allow the most amount of time visiting as possible).

Stopovers can also work a different way…. when you are going somewhere, and then add a destination. I was planning a trip to Toronto and was able to add a side trip to Cancun for only an extra $100 total (in business class!!! Whaaaat?) and then fly home from Cancun to Vancouver. It is always fun to play around with Google Flights to see where you end up!

Some airlines promote free stopovers to encourage you to visit additional places.. Icelandair is probably the most famous for attracting visitors to Iceland on their way to Europe from North America however other European airlines such as Air France and KLM do the same with their home bases (Paris and Amsterdam).

A few things to consider when looking to leave the airport on a stopover:

  1. Is this city somewhere I want to explore? Is it worth the trouble/cost to check it out (usually the answer is yes as even exploring a place I don’t like such as Beijing beats sitting in an airport for 14 hours). There are additional currencies to obtain, different weather to pack for, research on transportation and sights, etc.
  2. How far away is the city/nearest attractions? For example, in Vancouver, you can jump on the skytrain from YVR airport and be downtown in 30 minutes.
  3. Do I need to claim and recheck my bags before leaving the airport? Or will I be stuck carrying my bags with me for my stopover?
  4. Do I need to go through customs? Do I require a visa? In China, Canadians are eligible for a 72 hour transit visa which allowed me to visit Beijing. The line to get this visa at the airport however was lengthy and did cut into my 14 hours of exploring time.
  5. How much time do I need to get back in time to catch my next flight? It is important to factor in any stressors that could arise such as traffic or a transportation break down.
  6. Costs. Those pesky Houston stopovers on the way to Central America can get expensive as they are often overnight and require a hotel – thus increasing the price. If there is another flight available that avoids this cost, even if slightly more expensive, it is likely a better value to avoid hotel cost.

To give you an idea of what you can do on a stopover, below are some stopovers I have managed to enjoy while connecting on to my final destination.

  • New York City (via Newark, NJ airport) on my way to Puerto Rico, and again on my way to Ecuador – the train from Newark gets you to Manhattan Penn station in under an hour.
  • Frankfurt, Germany on my way to Croatia, and another time on my way to Lithuania – There is a direct train from the airport to the centre of the city which is incredibly walkable.
  • 40 km bike ride around Adelaide during a 6 hour stopover on my way from Port Lincoln to Perth, Australia.
    40 km cycling ride around Adelaide on a 6 hour stopover.
  • Honolulu, Hawaii on my way to Sydney, Australia – I ended up taking a couple of days here to enjoy my first trip to Hawaii before heading down under.
  • Beijing, China on my way home from Australia. The 72 hour transit visa line was lengthy but thankfully I had 14+ hours.
    Thankfully only one day and not long enough to get too hungry… Beijing, China
  • Several hours in Toronto AND several days in Amsterdam on my way to Turkey.
  • Tokyo, Japan on my way home from Bali, Indonesia. This train was rather long and infrequent however I had 14+ hours and still managed to see quite a bit of the city.
    A day in Tokyo, Japan
  • Hong Kong for a few days on my way to Thailand. Having a few days doesn’t require as much rushing or planning as stopovers of a few hours.
  • Houston, several times on my way to Central America. This is one stopover I can’t really recommend. The airport is not served by any efficient transit and there isn’t much to see or do. If you have to fly through Houston, try to keep it short.
  • San Francisco – if you only have an hour, try the chicken pesto sandwich from Kleins, but if you have a few hours you can jump on the BART and be downtown in no time, hanging with the sea lions at Pier 39.
  • Toronto – my other home. If a route I’m flying has a stopover option for Toronto, I’ll take it, even if only for a few hours. If I only have 3 hours I’ll often have friends come pick me up to grab something to eat at Jack Astors nearby in Mississauga. Otherwise, the new Union Pearson Express train makes going into downtown even for only 5 or 6 hours worthwhile when in Toronto.

This isn’t entirely foolproof. On a recent trip to the Philippines (March 2018) I was denied the transit Visa in Shangahi and spent nearly 10 gruelling hours in the airport. A shorter stopover would have been nicer here. Other than China, I’ve never heard of this being an issue.

Regardless of where your travels take you, you can add a little bit more adventure or culture by looking beyond the basic search results for your flights.

Ecuador & The Galapagos

Ecuador remains one of my favourite places I’ve visited and I am excited to share the reasons why with you! The country has everything one could want to visit, and other than the Galapagos, is quite budget friendly.

Trip Length: 22 days
Dec 24. 2016 – Jan. 15, 2017

Guayaquil – Montanita – Galapagos (on the Golondrina) – Quito – Amazon – Banos – Latacunga (Quilatoa) – Quito (Otavalo)

Go: If you love the outdoors, hiking, surfing, Spanish language, yoga near the beach, South American food and culture, vegetarian and vegan friendly food options, and if you carry a sense of adventure.

Don’t Go: If you want North American style comforts of home, prefer McDonalds over Empanadas made fresh on the street, if you would rather watch cable tv than share a drink with locals on the street, or if you’re afraid of altitude sickness or if your attachment to your phone and the fear of getting robbed outweighs your sense of curiosity and adventure.

Costs:
Flights:
YVR – GYE, UIO – YVR: $1192 CA (I booked fairly last minute over the holiday season – 3 weeks prior to my trip, by planning in advance you can cut this down by at least 30-50%)
Quito (UIO) return to Lago Agrio (LGQ) $57 US (at this price, why bother taking a bus?)
Guayaquil to Galapagos, Galapagos to Quito: 15,000 Aeroplan points plus taxes (check this article here on when it is worth using points)

So many flights!

Tours:
7 night cruise through the Galapagos on the Golondrina $1687 US ($1600 for the cruise, $30 bank fees, $57 non issuance fee for not booking my flight with them) You do need to bring some additional money for snorkel gear, wetsuit rental, alcoholic beverages and tips for your guides.
2 night stay at Jamu Lodge, Cuyabeno $238.88 US (including activities, food, transportation, etc)

Other:
Accommodations, food, buses to destinations, and taxis were all very cheap. You can get a decent hostel bed in Quito for $10 US/night (even cheaper if crowds and cleanliness aren’t a concern)although my major score was a private room in Banos for $15 US/night. The north American in me cringed when I needed to take a taxi from the centre of Quito to the bus terminal as at home I would never take a taxi for 25 minutes but it turned out to be only a few dollars (I don’t remember the exact amount, sorry!) You’ll notice through this blog that I took taxis quite often. This is a pretty standard way of getting around cities in Ecuador and are significantly less than your standard Uber ride at home.

Day 1:
YVR – EWR
I started my trip with a stopover in New York City on Christmas Eve. I only had 7 hours at Newark airport which didn’t leave a lot of time, but it was my 3rd trip to New York in 2016 so I knew what I wanted to see. I jumped on the NJ Transit train from Newark station and was at Penn Station in Manhattan in no time (under an hour). I was able to visit the ridiculously crowded Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building, Central Park, Times Square, Christmas windows at

Rockefeller Center, New York City on New Years Eve

Macy’s, and spend some time in my favourite area, Bryant Park where all the little Christmas vendors were out while people ice skated around. Although I didn’t have a lot of time in each place, I had a chance to enjoy the Christmas lights and holiday spirit (crowds) before jumping back a flight to Ecuador.

One more short connection through Bogota and I landed in Guayaquil on Christmas Day. The Terminal Terrestre bus terminal was a short walk from Guayaquil airport (although I did have to ask for directions more than once) where I caught a direct bus (2.5 hours) to Montanita. The bus terminal is a 3 story chaotic place so it took me awhile before I found the ticket agent for a direct bus to Montanita which was conveniently located next to an empanada stand on the top floor.

I saw no reason to spend any time in Guayaquil. Large Latin American cities do not appeal to me in general as they tend to be crowded, noisy, and often have higher crime rates. Also, any time spent in Guayaquil would have been subtracted from my beach time in Montanita.

Montanita (4 nights)
I spent 4 amazing nights at Casa del Sol in Montanita. I can’t say enough about this place. I arrived on Christmas Day to an incredible dinner with the community hosted by Casa del Sol and spent the rest of my time jumping into the activities offered in this beach town including:

  • Surf lessons ($20/each) from a guy down the beach. The staff at Casa del Sol offered to help me find an English speaking instructor but I was able to practice my Spanish and learn to surf at the same time by hiring a local.
  • Yoga classes at Casa del Sol with the fantastic instructors in their beautiful yoga facility
  • Horseback riding to Cascadas de Dos Mangas – it was beautiful to trek up into the lush forest and go for a swim in one of the natural pools however I might recommend just hiking if like me, you aren’t confident on a horse. My apprehension was confirmed when my horse bent down to drink some water and stumbled a little under my weight, dropping me in the puddle
    Horseback riding to Cascadas de Dos Mangas

    (without a helmet because… South America). There is probably a more organized way to do this hike or ride, but we had heard about this place from another person (there are no words to describe his physical interpretation of horse back riding as he thrust his hips around) and so jumped in a taxi and found someone renting horses in front of a little tourist shack who agreed to give us a guided tour.

    Montanita sunset
  • Beach time. Montanita’s beach sprawls for miles and so it is pretty easy to find your own little space to relax. The sunsets are breath taking.
  • Checking out the iguanas hanging out in the sun near the bridge in town.
  • Eating – I was surprised by the number of vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants in town and ate some of the most incredible food on this trip in
    Granadilla fruit – SO tasty!

    Montanita. The granadilla fruit was a new taste for me and something I continued to enjoy my whole time in Ecuador. The harder shell on it made it great to throw in my bag for long bus trips and travelling around. The best gelato of my life (sorry Italy) was at the little restaurant across from Casa del Sol (I don’t remember the name, but you’ll find it) For Empanadas “the size of your head” as they were described to me, check out Tiburon.

    Empanada “as big as your head” from Tiburon, Montanita
  • Drinking – I didn’t take advantage of the nightlife in Montanita as much as I would have in my younger years but I did check out a couple of clubs and of course, cocktail alley. The nightlife in Montanita is what you would expect for a beach town and if you enjoy late nights of dancing, this is your spot.

Detour: If I had stayed longer I would have gone up to explore some of the quieter beach towns up the coast including Isla de la Plata (poor mans Galapagos)

Guayaquil (1 night) & Galapagos (7 nights) .

Seal pup in Galapagos

I left Montanita just after sunset to catch the final bus back to Guayaquil as I had an early flight to Baltra in the Galapagos the next morning. I stayed at the Holiday Inn near the airport to keep travel time at a minimum as the hotel was literally on the hotel grounds and I was able to walk over to board my flight the next morning. Because I booked separately from the others on the Golondrina cruise, I had some time to kill waiting around at the airport where food was minimal, internet was non existent, and one could only peruse the 2 airport shops for so long. I attempted to go for a walk to explore the area but the Baltra airport is literally the only thing in the middle of a desert. Bring a book.

Once everyone arrived, we boarded a bus down to where the Golondrina boat was loading. I opted for the “itinerary C” as it covered the islands I was most interested in visiting, and the dates suited my timeline. There are so many islands and options of cruises to visit, below is a brief description of the islands I went to which may help you decide which ones to visit. Each island was so distinctly different that even after 7 days of island hopping, I could have easily stayed longer!

Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz Island: Instant gratification. Right away we got to see seals, iguanas, and several species of birds. An amazing introduction to the Galapagos and the diversity of wildlife we would encounter over the next week.

Genovesa Island:
El Barranco: This island was quite dry and we spent a significant amount of time looking at birds. The coolest part was probably catching a glimpse of an owl!

Bones at Darwin Bay

Darwin Bay: Back to the beach and more seals. The guide promised we would be sick of seeing seals by the end of our cruise but I can honestly say that did not happen. We walked around this bay and were able to see some bones of different creatures which was interesting, however I was more enthralled with the live animals we encountered.

Penguins in Bartolome

Bartolome:
It was a super early morning but we were rewarded with penguins at sunrise! We were able to jump in and snorkel with them which sounds cooler than it was, they really weren’t too interested in playing with us. But they were beautiful to photograph on land.Following a short hang out with penguins on the rocks we docked and then explored the island. The short hike up the wooden stairs provided one of the most picturesque views of the Galapagos, possibly my favourite view of the week.

Bartolome, Galapagos

Sullivan Bay (Santiago Island):
The lava fields were such a contrast from the the previous islands. We didn’t see much animal life other than some red crabs but the outlines of lava in the rocks were beautiful.

Santiago Island lava field

South Plazas Island:
So. Many. Sea. Lions. Including lots of nursing babies! The iguanas also put on a nice little show for us feeding off the trees and climbing on each other.

Plazas Island baby sea lion Galapagos

Santa Fe Island:
We snorkelled around a bit in the bay and had a chance to see some really cool iguanas. They seemed pretty chill and not too bothered by our presence.

Leon Dormido: When we boarded the Golondrina I had said I really wanted to see Hammerhead sharks. I was informed that these are rarely seen snorkelling and usually one needs to dive to see them. While snorkelling around kicker rock, we were treated to 3 hammer head sharks swimming below us!

Hammerhead shark

Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal Island: After snorkelling with hammerhead sharks at Kicker Rock, we spent time relaxing on a beautiful beach alongside seal lions while watching turtles swim in the water. This was your typical white sand beach and possibly the most beautiful beach we stopped at.

Blue Footed Boobie

Lobos Island: This was my favourite island. I couldn’t get enough of the baby sea lion pups – some so small they were only a few days old! We even got to see the placenta of a totally new born pup. In the water, older sea lions were playing around treating us to a show that would rival the captive sea lions at Sea World but so much cooler in a cruelty free, natural environment. The island also had iguanas sun bathing and blue footed boobies.

Baby Sea Lion pups

Espanola Island:

Example of the daily itinerary posted for us on the Golondrina boat

We stopped at a few different spots on Espanola Island. More sea lions, iguanas, different species of birds, but I promise it doesn’t get old. Snorkelling around with the sea lions (and sharks!) was pretty epic. The sea lions were quite playful in the water, particularly curious of the Go Pro cameras some people were using. We were having a great time until the guide whistled for us to get back in the boat – I guess he didn’t like the look of one particular Galapagos shark that was hanging out with us. At no point on this entire boat tour did I ever feel at risk – these guides know the animals so well and it is their job to keep tourists safe. I trusted our guides judgment when it was time to get out of the water despite feeling quite safe swimming beside the sea lions and sharks.

Swimming with sea lions

Cormorant Point, Floreana Island:
Another super early morning – most days we left the boat by 6 or 7 am with our first hike or snorkel happening before breakfast. The flamingos on this island were tough to see in the distance but fortunately some people had brought binoculars and were happy to share them.

Sun rising on Cormorant

Devil’s Crown:
Although other times on this trip I had been a bit cold snorkelling, this was the one time I regretted not bringing a wetsuit or renting one. The water was freezing! And to add to it, I was getting stung multiple times every minute by mini jelly fish.

Charles Darwin Station, Santa Cruz Island:
This was one of only two stops on a serviced island with other tourists, accommodations, restaurants, etc. We went to the Charles Darwin Station where we observed some massive, slow, tortoises and learned a bit about the conservation efforts. I very much recommend stopping by this place as I think it provides some essential context to exploring the Galapagos Islands. The air conditioning in the little museum area was a nice touch as well. We had some time to hang around the town where I grabbed a daiquiri (or two) and enjoyed the break from the boat.

Seymour Island:
Our final day was spent with an early morning stop on Seymour Island. Although bird watching isn’t really my thing (you can probably tell by the lack of mention of all the amazing species of birds throughout the islands) I was completely amazed by the Frigate bird. The males have a massive red chest (actually their throat pouch) which is inflated to attract females.

Frigate bird

My time on the Golondrina boat can be summarized with a simple route of hike. snorkel. eat. repeat. which was absolutely perfect in every way! The guide had a saying that with a little optimism and enthusiasm things would always go well. This was certainly the case as we were treated to sightings of penguins, hammer head sharks, dolphins and a whale. The different species of birds, seals, and sharks were all pretty standard

Iguana in Galapagos

and abundant but we were fortunate to have seen the others. You will learn a lot about the different species, evolution, and even a little about the people of Ecuador. All this education provided alongside some incredible activities in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The accommodations on the Golondrina were basic and small – in fact, my roommate and I had to take turns in the room if we wanted to stand on the floor but they were clean and the crew were friendly and helpful. The food was basic and tasty (you better enjoy rice as they serve it at every single meal) but the best part of the boat was the many options for outdoor space. The front deck was quieter (except when we all rushed to the front to watch the dolphins playing in the bow) and the back was more of a gathering place while we cruised through the Galapagos. There was plenty of room for everyone and there was even a small covered outdoor space for when things got a bit too windy. I will never forget celebrating new years eve on the Golodrina where we were gathered on the deck watching a seal who had jumped in our panga (dinghy boat) being circled by a shark. The excitement mounted when he jumped in the water to eat a water snake but luckily made it back in the panga before he became dinner for the circling shark. We also used flashlights to see turtles and fish swimming below us.

Friendly Iguana posing

Why did I choose the Golondrina? With so many boats to choose from, it can be a tough decision. Ultimately it came down to 3 things for me: dates, itinerary, and price. Because I planned my trip only a couple weeks before I left, prices had already dropped but some boats had sold out, limiting my options. There are several “last minute” Galapagos booking sites but I opted to book with the Golondrina staff directly.

After a week on the Golondrina, we arrived back at Baltra several hours before my departing flight back to Quito. A polite conversation with the check in agent got me on a flight leaving in the next half hour… for only $15 change fee. Same day change fees with airlines can vary in price from free to ridiculously expensive… it is always worth (politely) inquiring if you find yourself at an airport several hours before your flight time.

Quito (2 nights)
I caught the bus and then the crowded, slow, eco-via to get to the Community Hostel in Quito. I typically prefer to take public transit for budget and environmental reasons but this is one time I am going to say that taking a taxi or shuttle is probably worth the splurge, at least after the initial bus. The bus into Quito was long, but otherwise comfortable, but the crowded eco-via with a huge backpack in a city known for pick pocketing just wasn’t a good idea. It was hot, crowded, uncomfortable and slow. I finally arrived at my accommodation, happy to finally put down my bag after standing on the eco-via for far too long. The Community Hostel was everything one could want in a budget accommodation for solo travel. It was walking distance to the most amazing empanadas (they put sugar on everything in Ecuador, including their savoury empanadas) as well as offered many community events. I don’t often take advantage of these activities but the free walking tour was a suggested activity by several people and I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot of interesting facts and history about Ecuador from the walking tour and it gave me an idea of how to spend the rest of my day in Quito while orienting me to this large city.

Basilica del Voto Nacional

Despite snorkelling with sharks, canoeing with crocodiles, and sleeping in an open tree house in the Amazon with anaconda snakes nearby; the scariest thing I did on this entire trip was climb the clock towers of the Basilica church. Worth it. Do it. But if you don’t like heights, don’t look down.

View from the top of the Basilica del Voto Nacional, Quito

I took a taxi up to the Virgen de Quito after reading several warnings about not hiking up due to robberies of tourists. Quito is a beautiful city with amazing culture, food & people, but it is a large South American urban centre and care must be taken. Twice when I had taken my phone out to snap photos I had well meaning locals tell me to put my phone away or it would be stolen. I met individuals at the hostel who had been robbed and I carried a feeling that I might be leaving Quito without some of the valuables I had brought with me. Thankfully I managed to enjoy Quito without getting robbed, but it meant avoiding some of the things I might naturally enjoy, such as taking the stairs up the Virgen de Quito instead of a taxi.

A beer at the nearby brewery followed by a food tour hosted by my hostel wrapped up a pretty awesome day in Quito. The food tour was an excellent introduction to many of the Ecuadorian delicacies although I was a bit too timid to try some of the more adventurous options.

Note about food in Quito: I am not sure why I did it, I rarely eat poutine at home in Canada but I did try the poutine at Casa Quebecua in Quito. It was the worst! Stick to the empanadas and other local street eats and avoid this spot at all costs.

Jamu Lodge, Cuyabeno… the Amazon! (2 nights)

Following 2 nights in Quito, I headed back to the airport to catch my flight to Lago Agrio to spend a couple of days in the Amazon. I had arranged to share a cab to the airport with some others heading there from my hostel (a good compromise to avoid public transit but keep costs down) and set off on what would be a longer journey than I had anticipated. With all the excitement of booking the Galapagos, I hadn’t paid much attention to planning my visit to the Amazon. I knew I wanted to see pink dolphins and so booked myself 2 nights at Jamu Lodge as their website promised this opportunity. After a short flight of under an hour, there was a man waiting for me at the airport sent by Jamu Lodge. We drove for approximately two hours until we arrived at a river. I was fed a simple lunch while waiting for

Cruising the Cuyabeno River to get to Jamu Lodge in the Amazon

the motorized canoe to take me to the lodge. 2 more hours down the river and I finally arrived! Jamu Lodge was a bit pricier than a backpacker budget, but considering all things were included, was a great value. I had the opportunity to see pink dolphins (which are actually more grey than pink), monkeys swinging in the trees, crocodiles in the water during a nighttime boat cruise, and unfortunately (fortunately?) missed the anaconda snake encounter some others at the lodge had. The lodge is well organized with plenty of activities and

Sunset with pink dolphins on the Cuyabeno river

great space (hammocks) for down time. Unfortunately I caught some stomach bug and spent the majority of the ride to the Siona Community of Puerto Bolivar barfing over the side of the boat. While we were at the yucca garden harvesting the yucca, I snuck off to barf in private and the next thing I knew, I woke up passed out in a bush of poison ivy. Because whatever flu had me barfing and passing out wasn’t enough, I was now covered in a poison ivy rash (tip: always travel with antihistamines. They aren’t over the counter in some countries and even if available over the counter in Ecuador, the nearest pharmacy was at least a 5 hour journey by boat, van and plane). This couldn’t stop me from enjoying the Amazon so I participated as best I could with the remainder of the scheduled activities. A highlight was watching a woman from the tribe prepare Casabe from yucca. She was so strong! Literally draining the fluid from the yucca into a powder to make a tortilla. Amazing! Following this experience, we met up with a local shaman – and no he did not heal me (I didn’t ask) but we had the opportunity to ask questions

Shaman in Cuyabeno

and learn about the medicines and healing the shaman does within the community. I tucked into bed early due to the flu I was battling and although I’d like to say I fell asleep to the quiet sounds of the Amazon jungle around me, the lack of walls in the treehouse accommodation meant I was left trying to sleep with the monkeys from Montreal the floor below me and their animalistic love making, leaving the treehouse shaking. The following day I returned back to Quito on the reverse long journey I had just done two days prior. There are options to stay longer than 2 days but although there was a lot of travel to get to the amazon for only one full day and two nights, I felt this was enough opportunity to see and do everything I was interested in. If you have the time, I don’t think you’d regret an extra night or two here.

View of the beautiful and not sound proof huts from the top of my treehouse accommodation

Banos (2 nights)
Upon returning to Quito from the Amazon, I headed to the bus terminal to Banos. Note: the bus to Banos leaves from Terrestre Quitumbe (the south terminal) – there are two terminals in Quito, and they are on opposite sides of the city. The 3.5 hour bus ride to Banos following the journey from the Amazon made for a long day of travel. I can’t say I totally hate these travel days as they give me a chance to relax and catch up on reading. When you know you’re going to be travelling for 8+ hours, grab a good book and some snacks (granadilla and plantain chips travel well) and sit back and enjoy the ride. I arrived in Banos after dark so didn’t want to mess around trying to find a place to stay on foot. I jumped in a cab and tried a couple of options I had written down ahead of time. The second one had availability and I scored a private room for $15/night. The taxi ride from the bus station to two hostels around town cost me $1.50. I spent 2 nights in Banos but it is one of those towns you could actually settle into and spend a lot more time in. Sometimes it is helpful to book accommodations in advance but I wasn’t actually sure I was going to Banos after being sick in the Amazon, so I kept things open. This typically goes well for me as I

Town of Banos, Ecuador

do research a few options ahead of time to know what is within my budget, despite not actually booking things.

A few things I got up to in Banos and can recommend were:

    • Cascada de La Virgen – a waterfall in town. A nice little walk although nothing spectacular.
    • Casa Del Arbol – it was a bit confusing to figure out where the bus was and when to get to this super touristy, but breathtaking spot (literally breathtaking… that swing was absolutely terrifying!) I suggest asking at the visitor centre or your accommodations for the most up to date bus location/time to get here. Once on the bus, finding Casa Del Arbol was straight forward. There were actually several swings and look outs, a cute little treehouse, and a little cafe you can chill at before catching the bus (or hiking) back down.
      Swinging at Casa del Arbol, Banos, Ecuador
    • Pailon del Diablo – I took a short bus ride to Rio Verde however if you feel inspired, this would be a great bike ride. It was a bit challenging to find the correct entrance to this breat
      Pailon del Diablo

      htaking spot, but the locals appeared to be used to wandering lost tourists and pointed me in the right direction without me having to ask. There are quite a few stairs but nothing too challenging. You will get wet from the spray of the waterfall and crawling through the narrow caves. This is all part of the fun.

    • Chocolate banana empanadas near the bus terminal. These alone are worth staying in Banos longer for!
Chocolate Empanadas, Banos – go here!

Banos had it all. There was plenty to do (there are lots of adventure tourism options I did not embark on or list here, but you can’t miss the agencies advertising the options throughout town), cheap accommodations, beautiful scenery, great food and a general safe feeling walking around. I did walk around at night on my own and unlike Quito, I felt safe taking my phone out to snap a few photos.

Detour: I would actually recommend flying out of Guayaquil to allow you to visit Cuenca after Banos, visiting the next spots on my itinerary before Banos.

Latacunga (2 nights)

There is varying information about how to get to Latacunga from Banos and again, best to verify when you’re there. I opted for the bus to Quito/drop off on the highway/catch a taxi into Latacunga option. It was cheap and efficient. Latacunga isn’t much of a destination itself but had cheap accommodations, lots of places to eat, and was a good base to explore the Quilotoa Loop.

The following day I caught the bus to Quilotoa. This bus transfer made me a bit nervous as I had read the buses are infrequent. I am not going to list bus times as I don’t want to lead you astray but this site gave me the most accurate information.

I did confirm the return bus time with the driver when I arrived at Quilotoa but despite this I thankfully got out to the road early as I almost missed the last bus back! Part of the adventure is being prepared for missed buses so make sure you have some money for an alternate way back if you miss the bus. Don’t let this deter you from going to Quilotoa. It is definitely worth going for a day trip or if you can swing it, do the entire multi day hike. I only had the day so

Granadilla and plantain chips – essential Ecuador bus ride snacks

I hiked down to the lake and back up. The views throughout the entire hike were spectacular. It is pretty much straight down and back but the entire time you are looking over the water filled volcanic crater, Laguna Quilotoa. I contemplated taking a kayak out on the lake as there are rentals at the bottom of the lake but the altitude sickness was kicking my ass. I hadn’t been prepared to be affected by altitude sickness so hadn’t brought any cocoa leaves, cocoa tea or cocoa candies. Altitude sickness is tough to describe but it almost like the space between drunk and hungover, when you wake up with a bit of a dizzy headache but still feel slightly silly and forgetful. I slept off my altitude sickness back in Latacunga and prepared to check out the Cotopaxi volcano the following day.

Laguna Quilatoa

Detour: Spend a few days and hike the whole loop

Quito (1 night… that turned into 2)

I jumped on a Quito bound bus with the intention to get off at the entrance to the Cotopaxi volcano. My broken Spanish failed me when I thought I had shared my intention with the driver, and by the time I realized we had passed Cotopaxi, it was too late to stop. I asked the driver if it was too late and stopped at the nearest town, much further away from the Cotopaxi entrance. Before I could protest and let him know I was ok to skip Cotopaxi and stay on the bus until Quito, he had thrown my backpack on the side of the highway and quickly told me what I assume was directions on how to backtrack to Cotopaxi. I ended up hanging out on the side of the road for a little while, contemplating if I wanted to go back to Cotopaxi or continue on to Quito when I decided to jump on the next Quito bound bus.

Detour: It would have been nice to check out Cotopaxi. Figure out your directions and your Spanish ahead of time so you don’t miss this spot as I did.

I spent the rest of the day in Quito revisiting some of my favourite spots (no, I did not climb the clock tower steps to the Basilica again) and grabbing a few things to bring home including some dark chocolate, alpaca wool socks from the market, and Zumir Plug Tattoo cinnamon whiskey which is basically like Ecuador

Ecuadorian version of Fireball – try this!

ian Fireball. This cinnamon whiskey was responsible for a very messy night with friends when I got home… a story for another blog.

My flight home wasn’t until late at night leaving me one last day in Quito. I opted to head to Otavalo to check out the market and Peguche waterfall, a short taxi ride from town. The market was massive and went on for quite a few blocks, however mostly sold many of the same wares seen at the markets in Quito. If you make shopping your main reason to go to Otavalo, you might be disappointed if you’ve already seen the markets in Quito. The Peguche waterfall however, is an Indigenous ceremonial site and completely worth checking out!

Peguche Waterfall near Otavalo Ecuador

I headed back to Quito to grab my bag and make my way to the airport. When I arrived, they announced that they had overbooked my flight and asked for volunteers to take a later flight. I queried about the compensation and to arrive home at YVR 45 minutes later, I would be provided a $500 United credit to use on future flights. For a frequent traveller like myself it was a no brainer. That flight voucher paid for 3 round trip tickets to California in 2017! Since the connections were different, I was actually leaving a few hours later on my new flight so was put up at the airport hotel until departure time. For more information what to do if you hear the announcement for people voluntarily opting to get bumped off a flight, click here.

General Ecuador Tips:

  • If you have more time than money, you may want to fly to the Galapagos early and stay on Santa Cruz to try and score a last minute deal on a cruise. Day trips to the islands are another option but I recommend doing an overnight cruise to maximize the time you spend exploring the islands over travel time.
  • Try to learn a little bit of Spanish before you go. Out of respect for the locals, you should at least try to converse with them in their language (even if it means getting thrown off a bus on the side of a highway because you weren’t able to clearly articulate your destination)
  • Keep an eye on your belongings or consider leaving them at home. I thankfully didn’t have any negative experiences, but I met several others who had been robbed. Thankfully, unlike other South American cities, violent crime is rather low in Ecuador and it is just petty theft you need to worry about.
  • If you are going on a Galapagos tour, check what items are not included that you may want to pack yourself. I brought my own snorkel, underwater camera, and booze on board to save myself a few dollars. Some of the early morning snorkel outings are quite chilly, you may want to bring your wetsuit or rent one. They also help protect against jellyfish stings.

Ecuador is one of the most amazing countries I have visited and I look forward to the opportunity to return in the near future. I can’t say enough about this place and hope this blog has given you a few ideas of how to spend your time there. Please feel free to email me at wanderingsincedawn@gmail.com or reach out on Instagram @wanderingsincedawn if you have any questions about something you have read here.

Seal in Galapagos, Ecuador

Take the Bump

There is a lot of negative press about airlines overbooking flights and bumping passengers. As a budget traveller who often has flexibility with her itinerary (I often don’t even book accommodations or plan where I am going until I arrive) voluntarily giving up my seat has resulted in flight credits to feed my travel addiction on several occasions. There are entire websites dedicated to figuring out how to book on a flight most likely to be oversold, and people who are able to travel completely free by taking advantage of these opportunities on a regular basis. I am not this organized but have been lucky enough to get bumped on a few occasions. The airline will provide you with food vouchers, accommodations (if necessary) and a voucher for future travel. When you hear the announcement calling for volunteers, always inquire as to what the revised flight plan and compensation are. When I went to Ecuador, I got a $500 travel credit with United Airlines and arrived home only 45 minutes later than my originally scheduled flight. Getting bumped off a flight in San Francisco resulted in staying in one of the nicest Hilton hotels I’ve been to, better than my bed at home and a $350 flight credit. I remember a friend declining a bump because she had already booked and paid for her hotel in a stopover city, not realizing the airline would have put her up in an equally as nice (if not better) hotel, free meals, AND provided her with several hundred dollars’ worth of flight credits for future travel. Since she was only connecting through this town and catching another flight the following day, this bump would have actually saved her the trips to and from the airport at this stopover.

Because I live near a major international airport, I have the flexibility of knowing I can take many different routes to get home. If you live somewhere less serviced by major airlines, taking the bump may not be as beneficial to you as a delay on one end could cost you a day on the other if your home airport only has one flight/day and you miss that connection.

Swimming with Dolphins

Kayaking with dolphins off the Coast of Kealakekua Bay, The Big Island, Hawaii

Maybe you clicked on this post because you want to swim with captive dolphins or ride elephants while travelling. Or maybe you were intrigued if I might promote such an unethical abuse of our tourist power?

If you take one thing away from anything I have written on this website, let it be this…

We have an obligation as visitors to other countries to respect their culture and their environment. This includes their animals. Our obligation includes not participating in any activity that is exploitative of the people or the animals of the place we are visiting. 

Wild and free dolphin cruising the bow of a boat in Paihia, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

You don’t need to watch documentaries such as The Cove or Blackfish to know that putting an animal meant to swim free in a tiny tank is cruel. Likewise, you don’t need to be an expert on elephants to know that the rocking back and forth behaviour they exhibit while chained up waiting for the next tourist to ride them is a sign of stress. If you are ever uncertain if an activity is unethical or abusive to animals, err on the side of caution and avoid it. Even those friendly tigers tourists get their photos snapped with… not natural. Don’t do it.

Rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand living their best life of freedom

Some places have caught on to this animal rights movement and have gone as far as to promote their facilities as rescue sanctuaries to make you feel better about coming. There are some legitimate sanctuaries where you can visit these animals; I went to one in Chiang Mai, Thailand. But you need to do your research as not every “sanctuary” is actually ethical towards how they treat their animals. The sanctuary in Chiang Mai did not allow us to ride the elephants and we were all required to watch a video on the abuse elephants in the tourism industry face in Thailand before we could be introduced to the elephants that had been rescued and lived there.  The best recommendation I have is to do your research before attending any of these “sanctuaries” to ensure they are legit.

If you are really keen to swim with dolphins, then I suggest getting your PADI certification and jumping in their habitat, hoping they will approach you. And they will. As an advanced PADI diver, I have had the opportunity to dive and snorkel with dolphins in Hawaii, Panama, and Honduras. Dolphins are naturally curious and

Dolphin Family riding the bow of a boat off the coast of Paihia, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

intelligent animals and will approach you on their terms when they feel safe. I cannot count the number of times I have had dolphins approach the bow of a boat I’ve been on, joining us for a ride in our wake.

Rather than the artificial experiences these swim with dolphin/ride with elephant advertise, get out there in nature and let these beautiful creatures approach you. I guarantee that if you spend enough time out on the water, you will have a dolphin encounter more amazing than anything Sea World can sell you!

Dolphins riding the bow of a boat in Oahu, Hawaii

For more information, a simple Google search of “ethical travel” will provide you with more information on how to reduce your impact on the places you visit, including how to enjoy nature in the mostnatural way.  For those who are still intent on visiting aquariums, Sea World and participating in swim with dolphin programs, please watch “the Cove” and “Blackfish” beforehand to know exactly what you are doing. 

 

Yoga Abroad… To Retreat, or Not to Retreat?

Now that you’ve read my tips on booking flights and accommodations, you don’t need to feel restricted to the all inclusive yoga retreat packages you see advertised at your yoga studio because you’ll be able to find the best deals to book it all yourself in a more a la carte fashion.

A week retreat in Bali sounds amazing, but spending thousands of dollars to have someone organize your trip does not, nor does flying half way around the world to stick to someone else’s itinerary. I’ve been able to incorporate yoga into several of my trips for a fraction of the cost while maintaining the flexibility to tour around and enjoy other parts of the region.  That being said, if you like the idea of having someone else plan everything for you, stop reading now and go book that retreat you saw advertised at your yoga studio. For the rest of you, continue on…

If you’re like me, you enjoy a good early evening yoga class after your daytime activities followed by a night out at the bar so finding a class a day is plenty without having post meditation kale smoothies shoved down your throat all day (do people actually eat kale on vacation???)

Some of the most amazing yoga classes have been while on vacation. Don’t use travel as an excuse to take a vacation from your yoga practice.

Some of the places I’ve visited that I can personally recommend if you’re looking for a holiday with some yoga in it are:

Estudio Casa Del Sol, Montanita, Ecuador. If you’re keen to do a retreat, this would be my top recommendation. I opted to stay at the facility, taking advantage of the comfortable and simple accommodations, healthy breakfasts, beach access, and a couple yoga classes without fully committing to a retreat. I brokered my own surf lessons, meals in town, horseback riding to the jungle, etc. as I was looking to do things on my own schedule but if you want to explore this area, their retreats are a great value and include so much more than just yoga for the area. There is no better yogic teacher for living in the moment than Jackson the dog who stole my heart while I was there.

Ak’bol, San Pedro, Belize .  When you imagine what a yoga retreat should be, you likely picture  Ak’bol. Serene, simple, and nice accommodations on beautiful grounds, including a yoga platform under a thatched roof extending out on a dock into the ocean. Again, I didn’t sign up for a retreat but stayed in their accommodations and did a couple classes. If I’m being honest, I was more interested eating deep fried pickles while watching crocodiles swim around at the Lazy Croc BBQ restaurant (which is sadly no longer open) which is the joy of not signing up for the full retreat experience but just wanting to add a little Namaste to your day on vacation.
If you’re looking for a yoga retreat centre in Belize, definitely check out Ak;bol. However if you’re just wanting to do some classes and spend more time doing island activities, I would recommend the island of Caye Caulker over the busier, louder and larger San Pedro.

 RandOM yoga, Caye Caulker, Belize remains one of my top choices for a yoga class while on vacation. This entire island has that live in the moment, laid back yoga vibe going on, and there is no better way to end a perfect island day with a sunset class on a rooftop. 

Yoga Utila  in Honduras gave me one of the best yoga classes of all time. The classes here alternated between a top deck overlooking the bay, or a lower dock a bit further down the street. On one amazing day after going out diving all day and having the fortunate luck to snorkel with a whale shark, and then a pod of dolphins, I opted to end my day with a sunset yoga class. While watching the sunset from my triangle pose, I was able to watch a pod of dolphins playing in the bay. That moment right there sums up all the feelings of why I love travel.

OM Cashew Hill Puerto Viejo Costa Rica: I actually visited this before it moved to the new location. I imagine the passion of the owners carried over into its new space so will recommend it here. And I hope they brought the chocolate shop with the incredible drinking chocolate that used to be located below their studio with them to the new location!

Bocas Yoga in Bocas del Toro, Panama is an indoor studio which isn’t typically my preference when visiting a tropical country. However the quality of instructor is superior and they helped me finally master wheel pose (which I actually can no longer do… perhaps time for a return visit?)

The Yoga Barn, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia had a beautiful, green setting. I was only able to make it to one class which was a bit crowded. They utilized tennis balls and partners which I found to be interesting and a little fun. The entire town of Ubud is the type of place you go to connect, and this yoga studio is no different. I would have liked to explore some of the other options but I can definitely recommend the Yoga Barn as a good spot to start if you find yourself in Ubud.

I’ve done so many other yoga classes while travelling, these are just my top recommendations. To find others, I suggest doing a quick Google search with the name of the place you’re going + yoga.  Often these types of places have budget accommodations on site you can book into as with some of the above. There are also quite a few outdoor yoga classes listed on www.meetup.com. If you find yourself in a big city, the local Lululemon store will always have a free class each week with info on their website.  Through these simple online searches, I have found myself in downward dog outdoors in Balboa Park in San Diego, watching the sunset from a beach in Hawaii, and many other random spots around the globe.