Luang Prabang, Laos: A UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Chances are that Luang Prabang, Laos (pronounced Lao, without the “s” at the end) is not on your travel list (it wasn’t on ours), but it should be.  There is something spiritual about this little city that just mesmerizes you. We actually had some of the most memorable cultural encounters in little-known Luang Prabang. We came to Luang Prabang on the recommendation of our travel agent, and I am sure glad we did.

I am almost hesitant to write this post.  I kind of want to keep Luang Prabang a secret and all to myself and those who have discovered it. Luang Prabang has a small village hippie vibe. It is a backpacker’s paradise. It is considered the best preserved city in Southeast Asia, which also earned it its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Unlike other major Asian cities, the pace of life in Luang Prabang is slower and the scenery more rural. We spent three days there, but Luang Prabang is the kind of place that you think you only need three days for, but wish you had a little more. In fact, a lot of people we met along the way came to Luang Prabang with the intention of staying a few days, but extended their trip for several more days, or, in some cases, weeks.

Before you go, you should know that a visa is required for U.S. citizens who visit the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. To get a visa, your passport must have 6 months of availability on it, and you must have two blank pages available for the visa. You can purchase the visa at the airport upon arrival, but, I strongly recommend you get a visa before you come as many visitors purchase the visa on arrival or are unaware of the visa requirement and then purchase upon arrival.  Since most people are in line for visas, the lines can get quite long. If you purchase a visa on arrival, you get a 30-day visa.  If you pre-buy the visa, you get a 60-day visa. Since we already had visas, we bypassed all that mess and went right through customs in a matter of mere minutes, with no lines at all.

We stayed at the Luang Say Residence, which is a colonial-style boutique luxury hotel set in a lush tropical garden. The hotel is very tranquil and serves an excellent American-style breakfast.  The property is also worth exploring. We arrived in Luang Prabang just in time to visit the night market. Apparently, there are a lot of unexploded ammunition left over from the Indochina and Vietnam wars. The locals take these wartime leftovers, turn them into keepsakes and jewelry, and sell them at the local markets.  We had some action packed days in Luang Prabang! Along the way, during our all-too-short time in this magical little place, we had some very meaningful experiences and encounters with locals.

On our first full day, a visit to the Pak Ou Caves was on the itinerary.  The Pak Ou Caves are about two hours by boat from Luang Prabang.  So, to get there, we had to first board our very own slow boat, which was an adventure in and of itself.  Check out the gang plank we had to walk: On the two hour journey down the peaceful Mekong River, we got to see a lot of rural everyday life along its banks. After a couple hours, we arrived at the caves! The caves overlook the Mekong River and are  hidden in a mountain side.  Inside the caves are hundreds of old Buddha statues. There is something very spiritual and peaceful about climbing into a cave full of treasure! Little golden Buddhas glittered from every corner.  The caves are guarded by monks… After our visit to the caves, we stopped at a local village, the Muangkeo Village, to try rice whiskey. We came to a village where we were greeted by an older woman who makes the rice whiskey at her home. Rice whiskey in clay barrels: I’m not gonna sugarcoat this part– the village rice whiskey is not smooth. It is unlikely to ever win any tasting awards. It tastes like liquid fire. But it’s all part of the experience, so, by all means, drink up!

We stayed a bit to explore the village and meet the local people. Walking through this village, which only got electricity the year before we arrived, you get the sense that it is set up as a cultural stop for tourists looking for a village experience. There were several “shops” where locals sold handicrafts and I questioned whether they were really made by these particular locals. The best part about this visit was stopping in at the local school house, where we got a chance to visit the local children at school. They were so cute that we ran out into the market and bought them all snacks. Word gets around fast in this little village because the next thing you know, little kids were coming out of everywhere lining up for their snack! It was like Christmas came early for these little kids! They were so happy and appreciative that they sang us songs as they ran around eating their treats! At last it was time to bid adieu to our new village friends and get back into town. After a long day on the Mekong, we came back into Luang Prabang to visit the museum and have some lunch.During lunch, we saw a group of monks crossing a make-shift bridge.  We decided to follow them and explore the temple on the other side. By the way, the reason why this bridge seems so ill-constructed is because it only exists for several months. Every rainy season it is destroyed by flooding, so, every year, they construct a new ramshackle bridge to replace the one destroyed the year before. The next day started way before dawn! This was probably my favorite day because we got to do three very cool things that gave us a more authentic experience. The first, and probably my favorite, is that we got to participate in the daily ritual of givings alms (or thanks) to the monks. This is a sacred ceremonial tradition in Laos, and our guide set it up so that we could not only witness it, but participate in it.

This ritual takes place a sunrise in the streets of Luang Prabang, but you have to get there way before that to secure a spot and set up. Our local guide set up our mats and brought our offerings for us.As the sun rises in Luang Prabang, around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal (as monks only eat once per day). All the food that is collected is shared by the monks of each temple.

There are many rules to both attending and participating in this ritual, but the most important is that it is a silent ritual, so you are not supposed to talk, break up, or follow the processional. If you are giving alms, you must be dressed modestly, you must kneel, and must remove your socks and shoes, and you must not touch the monks. You typically sit on the floor to give your alms as the monks pass you by. Offerings are typically rice and fruits.  We had traditional offerings, but we also brought along some American treats, like peanut butter, almonds, and snack bars, which the monks were very excited to receive.  The monks carry a large bowl which they keep open, and you place your offering in their bowl as they pass by. This processional goes quickly and there are a lot of monks, so you need to be on your game, as they will not stop and wait for you.  Here’s a pro tip: when you get your big bowl of sticky rice, roll it into balls so you are ready make an offering at lightning speed!  At the end of the processional, the monks line up in front of their temple and chant a prayer before heading into their temple to share their food and eat their daily meal.

After the ceremony was over, we were invited to explore the inside of one of the temples. First, we left an offering of sticky rice in the tree. When the locals visit the temples, they typically bring an offering of marigolds, and our guide came prepared.  She gave us this beautiful cone of marigolds that we offered to the temple. Our next order of business was to go to the morning market and buy all the ingredients we would need in order to cook a traditional meal at our guide’s home which we would share with her family. She gave us our lists and our money, and we were on our way.The morning markets are fascinating.  They are a great way to get a glimpse of everyday life and interact with the locals.  There is an array of fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish on display. And then there are these: Insects and snakes?? My adventurous spirit only goes so far… No thanks!

After our shopping was done, we went into to town for a different kind of shopping, which leads me to the second coolest thing we did on this day: a visit to a Hmong village! We were so intrigued with our cultural village visit, that we asked our guide to take us to a true local Hmong village that is not set up for tourists. Before we went, we stopped off at a local market to purchase snacks and educational materials to give to the children, and then we were off.

On the nearly hour-long drive, we got to see some more rural areas of Luang Prabang.We arrived at the village with our goodies in tow! The Hmong are an ethnic group that live up in the mountains. There is a long history of persecution of these people, which you can read more about here. But, we were here to visit the children of this ethnic village, and help them practice their English!The children were so excited to receive their treats and clapped along as we sang the English ABCs. They were very curious and excited to see Western tourists in their village. We happened to visit when UNICEF was there for the purpose of vaccinating the children. They come once a year to hold a vaccine clinic and provide basic medical care to rural populations of children.On the way back from the village, we stopped at the famed Kuang Si Falls. These falls, while certainly not as large as Victoria Falls (which we visited the year before in Zimbabwe), are stunning in their own different way.  They are a series of smaller falls that collect in beautiful turquoise pools.  The cost to get into the park is about $2.50 per person. There are a series of trails and bridges that you can use to walk among the falls. You can even swim in them, although when we were there in late November, the water was cold; but that didn’t stop this spectacle.  Allow me to introduce you to the Amazing Asian Man, with whom I fell in love. Not only was he wearing a magnificently small Speedo, but he would climb up to a tree or rock, strike a pose, and demand that his friends photograph him before he jumped into the water.  I was mesmerized by this creature, and he has inspired in me a book idea! After studying this jewel for a very long time, we made our way over to the bear sanctuary on property. These black bears are an endangered species because their bile is used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. This sanctuary rescues them and houses 23 bears. I love animals, so I just loved watching these bears roam and play.Our next stop was to Ok Pop Tok to get our weave on! Ok Pop Tok is a living crafts center set in the jungle on the Mekong River. It teaches traditional weaving techniques in demonstration style classes or you can sign up for half day, full day, or multi-day classes. You can even stay on the property while you attend classes. They have a shop that follows fair trade principles and have Village Weaver Projects, where their weavers work with local NGOs to teach skills to artisans in villages in 11 different provinces, using their knowledge of the market to help villagers make a better living from their handicrafts, as well as buying, selling and promoting their products.

We came for a half-day class where we learned about the different fabrics, how the dyes are made using natural ingredients, how to create and then to dye the fabrics, and how to use the weaver’s loom to make different patterns.  The cool part about our class is that we got to come home with a scarf that we made! But, our day of learning was not over.  It was time to go to our guide’s home and learn to cook a traditional meal that we would share with her family, which is where we had the third coolest experience!

First, we had to get dressed for the occasion…Then we got to work cleaning, chopping, mincing, and cooking. While we worked in an outdoor kitchen, inside, the elders prepared the centerpiece that they would use to offer a blessing to us. They used banana leaves, marigolds, and sweets for the offerings. Candles were placed in the center and poles of white string were placed in the center. Our guide’s uncle, a former monk, led the blessing ceremony as the elders sang.One by one, each elder removed a set of white strings and came around in a circle placing one string on each of our wrists as they gave us a blessing.  At the end of the ceremony, they offered us the marigolds.  After the ceremony, it was time to eat and party! We shared the lovely meal we prepared with her family.You see the guy in the back row, third from the left? We nicknamed him “Uncle Crunk”! He kept coming around with a growler of Beerlao (the main, locally brewed beer in Laos, which Chad says is actually a pretty good lager) and  doing the ‘ol “one for me and one for you!” It wasn’t long until Uncle Crunk, was well, Crunk!  He turned on the tunes and then it was time to dance; and, let me tell you, Uncle Crunk LOVES to dance, especially with his new American lady friends. Here is also where my sister, whose name is Haroula, solidified her nickname: Colorado, Asian Temptress. If you are wondering what I am talking about, then you need to read this.

Although we only spent few days in Laos, they were truly excellent days! That’s the thing about traveling; sometimes you come across a gem and love it more than you could have ever imagined, and it changes you as a person. That is how I feel about our short time in this charming little country and city. I hope you too make it to Luang Prabang one day, and when you do (or if you already have), I’d love to hear from you! Sa Bai Dii!

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Krabi, Thailand: Koh Lanta

No trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to one of Thailand’s breathtaking islands. I strongly urge you to skip the overly commercialized Phuket and opt for one of the less developed islands.  During our trip, we chose Koh Lanta, which is located in the Krabi Province. Conde Naste Traveller has listed Koh Lanta in the top 10 islands to visit in Thailand. If you are looking for a low-key boho vibe and nearly deserted beaches, then this is where you want to go; and, may I suggest that you make this destination the splurge part of your trip.

To get to Koh Lanta takes some effort, which is why the party crowd has not yet overtaken this paradise.  We took a regional flight from Bangkok to Krabi.  Once we got to Krabi, our resort staff was waiting for us with a sprinter van. We drove for almost two hours to their private dock where we boarded the property’s speed boat for a 45 minute ride through utter beauty.We chose the Pimalai Resort and Spa, which is Lanta’s first five-star hotel. It is set in a tropical forest on the edge of white-sand Ba Kan Tiang Beach near Lanta Marine National Park.  We stayed in their Chairman’s Villa, which is totally private, beach-side, and has its own infinity pool! The resort itself is a destination. The on-property restaurants are delicious and the spa is top notch!  The resort also has an array of activities you can book, including diving, snorkeling (which Chad loved), island exploration, cooking classes, and treks. I am going to shut up now and let the photos tell the rest of the story (although these pictures don’t do the natural beauty of the island justice, nor do they properly convey the absolute peace and tranquility that this resort provides to its guests; I HIGHLY recommend that you make it to this Heaven on Earth sometime soon!)…

Chairman’s Villa: Private foot path to the nearly private beach: The sunsets were unreal: Relax, snorkel, float…

 

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Chiang Mai, Thailand: The New City

It has been over 800 days since Chad and I were last in Chiang Mai, but the memories of our time there are fresh.  We often think back to a moment or a experience we had in this magical little city. It was certainly our favorite city in Thailand, and one of our favorites of all time. Chiang Mai is peaceful, spiritual, friendly, and beautiful. It is a place that stays with you. It is worth a trip to Thailand just to visit this serene city. Allow me to share with you a perfect three-day itinerary for Chiang Mai, Thailand’s principle northern city.

As with most flights, we arrived into Chiang Mai in the late evening and checked into an oasis, 137 Pillars House, a luxury property that is located in the heart of Chiang Mai.  This would turn out to be one of our most favorite properties throughout our journey. The property consist of 30 luxury suites in a literal oasis. We stayed in one of six East Borneo Suites, which had a  large vintage tiled verandas extending over tropical gardens, a vast walk-in closets, and an en suite bathroom with Victorian bathtub and separate indoor/outdoor garden showers. It was like heaven.  Their breakfast was held in an outdoor pagoda and was delicious.  Their small pool area was so serene.  It was like returning home to a haven everyday after long days of touring. The next morning we were met by our private guide, Nikki, who, together with our driver, would be with us for the rest of our time in Chiang Mai. Nikki, like most of the Thai people, was so warm and friendly.  Her goal was to make sure we were having an amazing time, and, she succeeded in that goal. No ask was too great a feat for Nikki!On our first full day in Chiang Mai, a city tour with plenty of temples were on the itinerary! Chiang Mai has some very beautiful temples right in the heart of the city. If your are going to visit the temples, here are some things you should know. First, bring a scarf to throw over your shoulders. It can get pretty warm in Thailand, but bare shoulders for women is a no-no. Second, wear shoes that you can easily take on and off and which you do not mind leaving outside while you visit the temples. Shoes are not allowed to be worn inside the temples. Third, and probably most important, bring a good pair of socks that you don’t mind getting dirty because you will be doing most of your temple walking in socks!

Before we set out on our temple tour, Nikki made sure we stopped and got a Thai delicacy- mango sticky rice.  We literally stopped at a woman’s house, who Nikki said made the best mango sticky rice in all of Chiang Mai. She was right! What is mango sticky rice, you ask? Well, it is just what it sounds like– warm white sticky rice, topped with sweet, sweet mango, then topped with sweet coconut cream/milk and garnished with a few nuts. Even if you don’t care for mangoes, like Chad, you will like this. You can’t not like it. It’s incredible.Now we ready to temple! Temples, or wats as they are called in Thailand, are the backbone of Thai culture. Our first stop was to Chiang Mai’s best known temple, Wat Phra Singh. The temple houses an important Buddha statue: the Phra Buddha Sihing which gives the temple its name.

We next visited Wat Chedi Luang. While this temple might not look like much from the outside (comparatively speaking), it is stunning inside, and, the most interesting part is that you can buy prayer banner based on your birthday and hang them from the temple ceiling. We also visited Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. We visited some other smaller temples as well: One of the coolest experiences we had while visiting the temples was a chance to sit with a novice monk and have a monk chat. You can ask the monks anything you want about life as a monk, and it gives the monks a chance to practice their English. While becoming a monk is sort of a process, it is voluntary, and a monk can return to civilian life whenever he chooses. This blog post gives a good concise explanation of the process.  Monks eat twice a day and depend entirely on charity and donations in order to eat.

This is the monk we chatted with:Throughout the day, we had some other monk encounters, like this one:This may be a good place to tell you about one of the stranger Thai customs we encountered: Thai public restrooms. The Thai are concerned with cleanliness, so, at some of the temples, in addition to paying to use the restroom, you also have to wear what they call toilet shoes.  Yes, you read that right, toilet shoes. Oddly enough, toilet shoes are public shoes that they loan you in the restroom facilities that are worn only when using the toilet. You leave your regular shoes outside. Seems kind of opposite of sanitary, right? Also, this is where you become thankful for those socks. Another odd bathroom custom are the signs that instruct you not to stand on the toilet seat and squat, but rather, to sit on the seat.  I am not sure why this needs explaining, but I assume that local or indigenous people who do not have indoor plumbing sometimes take a pilgrimage to the temples and are unaccustomed to using an indoor toilet facility.  I don’t know; all I know is that I was amused and grossed out at the same time.  After a morning of visiting temples, we decided to spend the afternoon at a weaving cooperative where we learned about ancient weaving techniques from Thai weavers. Our next order of business was to get a famous Thai foot massage! Not only was this cheap, it was an hour of pure bliss.In the evening, we visited my favorite temple in all of Thailand, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, to watch the sunset ritual. You have to climb over 300 steps just to get to the temple, but it is sooooo worth it. In addition to the temple, there is monastery on top where regular people can stay and join a silent meditation program. You get a lotus flower when you come in, and, at sunset, the temple bells begin to ring. The monks come out in a processional and all chant prayers together.  You, along with the silent retreaters who are wearing all white, can join the monks as they circle the temple and kneel to pray. It was a magical and spiritual experience, and one of my favorite during out visit to Thailand.  I thought it was going to be hard to top our first day in Chiang Mai, but I was wrong.  On our second day, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, and this was by far my most favorite experience in Thailand. Before I tell you about out incredible experience here, I strongly encourage you to read my post about being a socially conscientious traveler. If you know Chad and I well, then you know that we are major animal lovers, and we would never intentionally support, visit, or participate in an activity that exploited animals.

Elephant tourism is very popular in Thailand, and that often means that the elephant is being mistreated for the sake of tourism and revenue generation. While Chad and I were very excited about the possibility to have one-on-one interaction with these beautiful, gentle giants, we love animals and we did not want visit a program that exploited them. After a copious amount of vetting, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, which is an elephant conservation organization that rescues unwanted or formerly exploited elephants with the goal of preserving the Asian elephant population in Thailand. Patara emphasizes education about the plight of the elephant with programs that allow you to learn about elephants while participating in their daily care. Their “mahout” for a day program, includes a bareback ride on the elephant. We did not see bull hooks being used, and, importantly, there were no chairs or wicker basket strapped to the backs of elephants to facilitate the ride, which hurts the elephant.

When we got to Patara, we were introduced to the baby and juvenile elephants and got a chance to feed them and interact with them. This included petting them and getting elephant hugs and kisses. I was already in love. After a couple of hours of that, we were taken to another part of the park where we were assigned a uniform and an elephant whom we would be responsible to care for that day.  Our elephant’s name was BunJin. He was the largest elephant, the only adult male, and the baby daddy to all the other elephants.  Needless to say, he was a pretty popular guy. But, even popular guys need to eat and be cleaned, and that was out job! We also learned simple hand gestures and commands in Thai that the elephants knew, like telling them “Didi” which means that he or she was a good boy or girl, that helped us interact with our elephant. This is my sister, Haroula (Ha-Rue-La), and this is a fun story that would probably embarrass her! Needless to say, her very Greek name isn’t the easiest to pronounce for American people, let alone the Thai! Well, they guy who assigned to help her decided that since he couldn’t say Haroula, he would just call her Colorado! And then, to top it all off, as the day went on, this young Thai boy fell in love with Colorado, so we began calling her Colorado, the Asian temptress. This name turned out to be pretty appropriate as the trip went on!
After BunJin was groomed and fed, it was time to ride him for an hour through a hillside jungle where we would find a pool in which to bathe him in. Have you ever mounted and dismounted an animal that is taller than you standing on your head and weighs as much as house? It ain’t cute, I can tell you that. How do you get up? Well, you climb onto his head from the trunk or you hoist yourself onto his back from his leg. Getting off? Now that is the sexy part.Don’t we just look like an advertisement for visiting Thailand? If you could only hear the expletives that we were whispering to each other as we were trying to stay balanced on this gigantic creature who liked to look down, chase lady elephants on the trail, and always (without fail) tried to shove himself between two trees because the scratch felt good! Remember, we are riding bare back, so there is nothing keeping us on this elephant but pure balance! Also, he’s got coarse little hairs poking us in the butt, and, as Chad will later learn, a colony of fire ants on his back! Alas, we made it to the pool alive! BunJin just walked us right in, rolled over and then demanded to be bathed.  After splashing around with the elephants for a while, we were treated to a delicious picnic.This truly was an incredible experience. Nonetheless, I continued to wonder whether riding an elephant at all was ethical. I have read several articles about this since then, and while it is probably best to not ride an elephant at all, the safest way to ride an elephant is bareback and on the neck, like we did at Patara. Also, I can honestly say that I did not see any of the elephants being mistreated, and all the locals truly seemed to care for and have bond with these animals.

The best option in Chiang Mai is probably Elephant Nature Park. They have several elephant interaction day programs to choose from and even overnight and week-long volunteer programs, but none of them allow riding. Another beautiful aspect of this operation is that they have an on-property dog rescue.

Along the way during our travels in Thailand, we met other travelers who had also visited Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, places that Chad and I made the conscious decision to avoid. I urge you to do the same. These tiger attractions have captive tigers and allow visitors to pet not only baby tigers but also full grown adult tigers.  Based on my research, they are known for drugging the tigers to keep them sedated enough to not attack tourists and also beating the tigers when they are too sedated to interact with the tourists.  It literally made me sick to hear that people were supporting these attractions and perpetuating the exploitation of tigers. So, I implore to you avoid these inhumane places if you go to Thailand.

Another popular but controversial tourist draw in Chiang Mai is visiting the Karen Long Neck Villages. The artificial hill tribes popped up around the northern Thai border in the mid-1980s as a result of a civil war. The tribe has a custom whereby female tribe members have elongated their necks as a result of years of wearing heavy brass rings around their necks (from as early as the age of 4 or 5), thereby inspiring tourism to these villages. Many international tour companies discourage these visits because it is like visiting a human zoo, which was why Chad and I avoided the visit. This article does a nice job of explaining why the visit is considered exploitative of the tribe’s people, particularly the women and children. However, that does not stop thousands of tourists from visiting these mostly fabricated villages to buy “local” goods, watch children perform for tourists, and snap pictures of themselves with women and children who have the golden rings around their necks. To be fair, there are other articles that discuss respectful/socially responsible ways to visit these hill tribes.

It is exploitative experiences and attractions like these, found all over the world, that I emphatically encourage you to avoid. There are so many other alternatives and more meaningful and authentic experiences to have in the world that do not contribute to the suffering of an animal, a child, or a woman. You just need to spend a little time fully researching the activities, attractions, and experiences that your travel agent, your friend, or the internet recommends.

Okay, I am climbing off my soap box now. After a wonderful day spent at Patara, we decided to spend the evening at Chiang Mai’s famous night market. You can find everything from food, music, massage, and handicrafts at the markets. If you are adventurous, you can find almost any insect or bug to eat. No thanks, but you can. On our final day in Chiang Mai, we decided to indulge. We spent the day at the best hotel in Chiang Mai, the Dhara Dhevi. The Dhara Dhevi is like a luxurious Vegas hotel. It has beautiful grounds, several restaurants, gorgeous shops, and a top notch spa. It is an incredible hotel, but I still preferred the intimacy of 137 Pillars House, so I recommend a day trip here.

We came for the brunch, which, although pricey, was exquisite. It had offerings of every kind, including carving stations, full seafood buffets, made to order sushi, and the most beautiful deserts ever. After eating way too much, we strolled the grounds and visited their beautiful on-property temples and shops, including their macaron and pastry shop!  We next indulged in a nice long massage followed by tea! We ended the night in one of their fabulous restaurants where we enjoyed a traditional Thai dance and dinner show. Chiang Mai is like Shangri-La. It has beautiful scenery, friendly people, and amazing experiences just waiting for you. It is a clean, budget friendly city with relatively mild temperatures and serves as the perfect place to start your journey of Northern Thailand. Chad and I truly loved our time there and would like to return to experience the Yi Peng Festival, where thousands of lanterns are released into they sky (Google image search it if you just want to swoon).

If you have been to Chiang Mai or are planning a trip there, drop me a line. I would love to hear about your experience in Chiang Mai. Until then, sawatdi.

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Iceland: A Guide To Visiting The Blue Lagoon

BL16The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is probably the most famous geothermal pool in the world.  It is certainly the prettiest and most luxurious. There are hundreds of geothermal pools all over Iceland; but, people travel all the way to Iceland just to visit this one. Trust me, I get it. It is every bit as beautiful as it looks online. So, here is all you need to know about the Blue Lagoon in one neat little post. You are welcome!

The most important thing you need to know about your visit to the Blue Lagoon is that you need a reservation; and I sure hope you made your reservation way in advance of your actual visit, because if not, I am sorry, but no lagoon for you! Only a certain amount of people are allowed into the lagoon per day and reservations are a must.

You can book your reservations online.  They have four different packages, ranging from standard to luxury, that include different benefits. The most basic package includes entrance into the lagoon and use of their silica mud masks for about $50.00.  The luxury package includes entrance, the mud mask, use of a towel, a free drink, an algae mask, use of a bathrobe and slippers, reservations (but not the cost of the actual meal) at their restaurant (LAVA), wine with your meal, a product set, and access to the exclusive lounge for about $234. In my opinion, the premium package (which includes everything that the luxury has except for the product set and exclusive lounge access) is the way to go, and that is what we did. With this package, you don’t need to worry about bringing your own towel, slippers, and bathrobe.

If you are on a budget, the standard package is fine; just remember to bring your own towel, cover-up or robe (you need this because it is freezing once you get out of the water!), and slippers.  You may want to also bring your own snacks or lunch because food at the lagoon, like in the rest of Iceland, is very expensive. There is a water fountain. Otherwise you have to purchase your drinks.

When you make your reservation, you will select a time. Depending on the day and time of year, the lagoon is open from 8:00 a.m. through 11:00 p.m. Also, it is open every single day of the year! In my opinion, the earlier you come, the better. If you come right when they open (at 8:00 a.m.), you will practically have the whole place to yourself! The picture above was taken around 9:00 a.m. The later you come, the more people you will be sharing the lagoon with. When planning your visit, keep in mind that from April 23 to April 27, 2017 the Blue Lagoon will close for renovations.

Also, from the reservations page, you can book your transportation to the lagoon. Buses will come pick you up from your hotel or even from the airport if you are doing a layover visit (Yes, this is a thing)! Transportation will run you about $30 round trip. You can also drive yourself and park in their lot. From the reservations page, you can also request a reservation for an in-water massage at an additional cost.

If you are coming from the airport, there is a handy luggage check area where you can leave your bags while you visit the lagoon. If you forgot to bring your swimsuit, no worries, they will rent you one along with a towel, robe, and slippers!Blue Lagoon Iceland Luggage StorageOnce you arrive, you will take a winding path to the entrance.  Just before the entrance are little trails you can take to see the outside of the lagoon.BL blue lagoon to cieland entrance path Blue Lagoon Iceland Outside 2 Blue Lagoon Iceland outside Blue Lagoon Iceland EntranceWhen you walk in, you will line up based on the package you purchased to check-in.  At check-in, they will assign you your towel, robe, and slippers, and give you a bracelet that acts as your locker key and your credit card on the property.Blue Lagoon Iceland Entrance Inside Blue Lagoon Iceland check in Blue Lagoon Iceland locker keyFrom the check-in, you will be escorted to the locker room where you will choose a locker. You must shower before entering the lagoon. The locker rooms have restrooms and shower facilities, but don’t expect the same amenities as a spa. They have a soap and like one blowdryer, so bring your own toiletries and blow dryers if you need them for afterwards. Blue Lagoon Iceland lockersThe locker rooms lead out to the lagoon entrance area.  There are two ways to enter the lagoon: from the inside pool that has a door that leads to the outside or from the outside using a sloped ramp. There are places to hang your towels and robes inside and outside, but space is very limited. Blue Lagoon Iceland Exit from Lockers Blue Lagoon Iceland Map Blue Lagoon Iceland inside entrance to pool Blue Lagoon Inside pool entrance Blue Lagoon Iceland door to pool Blue Lagoon Iceland hanging rack BL3 BL7Once inside the lagoon, there are shallow and deep areas. There are also saunas and steam rooms as well as swim up bars where you can buy drinks and from where you can get your mud and algae masks. If you plan to take pictures while inside the lagoon, make sure you bring a waterproof case for your camera or phone.BL10 BL6 BL12 BL8 BL9 Blue Lagoon Iceland main building Blue Lagoon IcelandThe water temperature is between 98 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (37-40 degrees Celsius). Apparently, there are 9 million liters of water in the pool that renews itself every 40 hours. It is about 2 feet at its shallowest point and 5 feet at its deepest point. There is no visibility under the water. Because it is so hot, it is important to stay hydrated before, during, and after your visit. Also, the sulfuric water can really dry out your hair, so load it up with conditioner and try not to get your hair wet.

The water is made up of silica, algae, and other minerals.  The water is looks blue because the silica reflects sunlight; however, the water is actually a whitish color.

The Blue Lagoon has three dining options.  There is a small snack bar right outside the locker rooms on the ground floor, a cafeteria, and a full-service restaurant.  If you want to eat at the restaurant, you must make advanced reservations.  You can order a la carte or from a three-course pre-fixe menu.  The food is tasty, but be prepared to splurge on lunch.  We did the pre-fixe menu, and our meal was about $125.00 for lunch!Blue Lagoon Iceland Cafe Blue Lagoon Iceland dining Blue Lagoon Iceland restaurant BL17 we2 Blue Lagoon Iceland patioIn addition to their exclusive lounge, there is a rest and relaxation area, a gift shop, conference rooms (so you can hold a meeting or event here!), and a full service hotel (as in you can sleep at the Blue Lagoon, which has its own set of perks!).Blue Lagoon Iceland shop Blue Lagoon Iceland Relaxation AreaAlso, if you are going to get a massage or other treatment, you are taken to a secluded pool that has these floating beds where your treatment takes place. Every few minutes they dip you into the water to keep you warm.Blue Lagoon Iceland massage treatment areaAlthough it is majorly touristy and pretty pricey, the Blue Lagoon is certainly worth a visit. I loved that we went during the winter.  There is something sort of surreal about being in your bathing suit while the ground is covered in snow, and you are bathing in super hot water while snowflakes hit your face. It was definitely a memorable experience!

 

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Iceland: What To Know Before You Go

church6If you’re being honest with yourself, Iceland probably only recently came on your radar.  It’s not like you dreamed of going to Iceland since you were a child. In my opinion, social media has almost single-handedly boosted tourism to the once mostly unknown (from a tourism perspective) country. But now that you know about it and have seen all the amazing pictures, you HAVE to go right?!?! I mean, it is soooo cheap! You can get there in just a few hours and for just $99! I know! I felt the same way. Which is why I am writing this post.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a GREAT time in Iceland. The people are so friendly! The country is so beautiful! The food was delicious! But there were things about Iceland that I didn’t know until I got there, and I do A LOT of research for our trips. So, I feel like it is my duty to arm you with as much information as possible about this trip so that you come prepared and enjoy every second of it.  Here we go …

FLIGHTS 

There are basically two ways to get to Iceland: WOW Air and Icelandair. I am sure you have heard of WOW.  Big pink planes? Low, low fares? Well, there’s a reason for that. You.Pay.For.Everything! Want a seat? It will cost ya. Bringing a bag? Gotta pay! Would you like to drink some water or eat a snack on the plane? Well, there are no freebies here.  You MUST pay. FOR WATER! (This is NOT a joke).

So, assuming you can even find the $99 fare (they exist, but most of the time it’s slightly higher than that, like in the $200 range), you have to be prepared for the extras. And, that is also assuming you live in a city from which WOW departs.  If not, then you have to factor in your domestic ticket, and don’t forget to leave enough time to claim your luggage, transfer to the international terminal, re-check your bags (and check yourself in), and go through security. Once you factor in all the extras, your $99 fare is more like $400 to $600, which honestly, is still pretty inexpensive.

Also, make sure you adhere to their very strict baggage restrictions because if you don’t, you’ll be paying. And, before you board, load up on snacks, drinks, and in-flight entertainment, because their planes do not even have TVs!

Icelandair is slightly better.  Yeah, their base fares are higher, but once you add on the basics from WOW (which you don’t pay extra for on Iceland Air), there’s not much of a difference, and you can get JetBlue points for flying on Icelandair. Also, their baggage allowance is a little more generous, if you are making a stop and are flying JetBlue for the first leg, your bags will be checked all the way through, they offer a beverage service, and there is in-flight entertainment. So, if you ask me, it all shakes out to about the same in the end, with Icelandair being less of a hassle.

HOTELS/APARTMENTS

Iceland’s tourism really started to grow in the last eight or so years.  First, they experienced a financial crash in 2008 and then, in 2010, they had a massive volcanic eruption which covered the European skies in ash and grounded planes all over Europe for days. As a result of these two events, the media flocked to Iceland to cover these stories, putting Iceland on the map. Since then, tourism has gone from an insignificant industry in Iceland to the island’s biggest industry. In fact, tourism has risen by 30% every year since 2010. Then Hollywood came a knocking: Game of Thrones, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Instagram followed, and before they knew it, Iceland had more tourists than they knew what to do with.

Why am I telling you this? Because, Iceland is still learning how to host and cater to tourists. This is most evident in its tourist accommodations. Compared to other cities, there aren’t that many hotels, and most people stay in apartment-type accommodations. If you are used to big, fancy luxury hotel brands, well, sorry about your luck. There aren’t any. Even at nice, corporate run hotels, there is a sense that something is just lacking.

For example, most of the flights get into Iceland at an ungodly hour (like 4:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.), so I suggest you book your room for the day before you arrive so you have a room ready when you get to the hotel. Don’t expect the hotel to accommodate you.  They won’t.  All they offer is luggage storage. So, you see many weary travelers napping in the lobby.  Same goes for the apartments.

If you are lucky enough to get a hotel that serves breakfast, don’t expect much. It will be buffet style and basic. No omelette stations here. Any special requests will be met with looks of bewilderment. For example, a lot of the tour pick ups begin before breakfast does because you have to travel a long way. Most hotels in tourist cities know this and can accommodate guests with a breakfast box or bagged lunch. Not here. Thankfully, they have 24-hour grocery stores, so you can (and really, have to) fend for yourself.

If you are staying in an apartment, there will likely be no breakfast. But, that’s okay, you can go to the 24-hour mart and buy food to prepare on your own. But, check and make sure you have the necessary tools to cook (you know, like a pan) because a lot of the apartments have nothing!

Also, bring ALL your toiletries.  The hotels will provide soap (from a pump bottle), and it ends there. No shampoo. No conditioner. Nothing. This is especially the case if you are staying in an apartment. Time to hit that 24-hour market again. But, I will say, the WiFi in Iceland is good, strong, and readily available!

FOOD/ALCOHOL

The food in Iceland is delicious. Fresh fish galore. But it is EXPENSIVE! Like very expensive. I dare you to eat dinner for two for under $150. I literally dare you. It is nearly impossible.  And, not just at nice restaurants, but everywhere. A salad and pizza for lunch cost us $80! Lunch at the Blue Lagoon was $120!

Also, you need reservations everywhere. This is also not a joke. If you don’t pre-book restaurants, you are going to have one hell of a time finding a place to eat dinner. Again, this is another painfully obvious sign that, while well-meaning and friendly, the tourism industry in Iceland is simply overwhelmed and playing catch up. Time to get back to that 24-hour market! No, but seriously, even local, seemingly casual spots will ask you if you have a reservation when you walk in. The good news is that tipping at restaurants is not a thing here. Like, not even 10%. They literally don’t expect to be tipped.

If you are shocked by the food prices, you will die when you see how much alcohol costs.  Chad was looking at a beer menu that had $85 beers. As in $85 for a bottle of beer. He was able to find a good, locally brewed craft beer on draft for $15 (that was the best “deal” he found!). We paid $8 for a ginger ale. It is insane! So, what’s a lush to do?  I’ll tell you! When you get to the airport and collect your luggage, you will see a duty free shop.  Stop in and LOAD UP.  Better yet, stop at duty free in the States and LOAD UP. Buy all the alcohol you think you will need. You’ll be the most popular person in town.

Also, a side note about the food: Some restaurants offer puffin (a cute little bird that looks like a penguin), Minke whale, and Icelandic horse on the menu. Please don’t order/eat these things. These are traditional foods that were eaten back in the day out of necessity. Most locals do not regularly (if at all) eat these things. They appear on the menu solely for tourists. Please don’t contribute to the terrible whaling industry or support the needless slaughter of cute little birds and horses. Okay, PSA over.

TOURS

You are going to be hard-pressed to find a company that offers individualized private tours. I asked around. They looked at me like I had two heads. Who would pay for that? (Um, ME!) They literally do not seem to understand the concept of private tours. The best you can hope for is a small group tour.  Opt for that.  It is a much nicer experience. Unless, of course, you want to rent a car and go at it alone; but I would not recommend that in the winter when there is about four hours of daylight and a whole lot of snow (sometimes causing unexpected road closures)! Most of the waterfalls and scenery spots are two or more hours outside of Reykjavik. In the spring/summer when there is endless daylight, you should be fine. Whether you take a small group tour on a mini bus or larger group tour on a big bus, you can rest assured that your vehicle will be equipped with WiFi. Also, most people were not tipping the guides; but, if you were on a small group tour, and the guide was good, you should tip. They don’t really expect it, but, in my opinion, it’s the right thing to do.

You are also going to have to pre-book these tours. They fill up fast, and they are also not that cheap. Because the weather changes so quickly in Iceland, make sure you have a Plan B activity in case your tour gets cancelled.  Three of our tours got cancelled, but luckily, we were able to re-book onto other tours. Be mindful though that if everyone’s tour cancels due to weather conditions, a lot of people will be trying to re-book onto the few tours that are still operating, unaffected by the weather.

Finally, have an idea about what you want to see and make sure you are going in the correct season. For example, if Northern Lights is your goal, then you have to go in the winter.  But, in the winter, you have limited day light (sunrise is at about 11:00 a.m. and sunset at about 3:30 p.m.), so you don’t get much time for day-time activities and there is no greenery.  If greenery and scenery is your goal, then go during the spring or summer where they literally have almost 24 hours of daylight.

WEATHER

Which brings me to my next point– the weather. The locals say if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. That saying is so true.  One minute its snowing and the next the sun is out! So, come prepared! Depending on the season, it could be snowy, then cold, then FREEZING, then sunny all in one day. Bring layers– clothes for the cold and for the rain. And, now is not the time to be cute; wear sturdy weather-proof boots.

MONEY

The official currency is the Icelandic Krona, but most places take the Euro or the U.S. Dollar. But, if you pay in Euros or dollars, they will give you change back in Krona.  My advice is to avoid all of this, and just use a credit card that does not have foreign transaction fees. Surprisingly, credit cards are widely accepted in Iceland. On planes, at hotels, on the tour buses, in taxis (in case you were wondering, there is no Uber here, but the entire city is very walk-able), in stores, and at restaurants.  This way, you get the daily rate and don’t have to bother with cash.

THE NORTHERN LIGHTSNL7It’s basically on everyone’s bucket list. It’s like one of, if not, THE reason to go to Iceland. But, if you go to Iceland expecting to see all those (filtered!) photos from Instagram with your naked eye, you may be disappointed.

This is a pretty good explanation of the what the Northern Lights are. Visibility is measured on a scale (known as the Kp index) of 0 to 9.  Zero means no chance of seeing the lights, while 9 means the best viewing ever in life. Just so you can temper your expectations, 9 hardly ever happens.  In fact, the highest our guide had ever seen in all his years of chasing lights was a 7, and that was a rare event that he told us about with a great deal of excitement. He said he would basically die if he ever got to see a 9. In Iceland, a 5 is about the best you can hope for, but usually you get between a 2 and a 4. You can monitor the Aurora forecast for Iceland here.

You may want to take a seat for this next one. You should know that you rarely see the bright green color in person.  To the naked eye, the lights appear as a whitish/grayish band that kind of looks like a wisp of clouds. On the night we went out, the forecast was about a 4, and, after many hours of standing outside and waiting in frigid temperatures, we saw a faint green color. I was not prepared for this. I thought I was going to see a magnificent bright, neon green band of lights dance through the sky. You know, like the ones I’ve seen on Instagram. I was wrong. I also thought I was going to capture this phenomenon on my iPhone camera! Wanna know how that turned out for me?  Like this:NL iphoneThere are some iPhone apps that claim to help you capture the lights, but I could not get them to work. If you want to get fantastic pictures of the lights, you need professional grade gear. And it’s not enough to have a professional camera, a tripod, and the correct lenses. They all have to be set to the correct settings. It is very technical, so I found what appears to be the definitive guide on how to photograph the lights, and I linked it here. Amazingly, when you photograph the lights correctly, you can see all those beautiful colors right from your digital camera!

But don’t despair, here’s the good news: If you take a small group tour with a professional guide, the guide will set up your equipment for you and help you shoot the northern lights. If you don’t have all this fancy gear, the guide will also be shooting, and, at the end of the tour, the company will email you a file with all the lights from your trip already edited for you! Also, I learned a neat little trick. Apparently, the guide sets the shutter to flash like 10 times.  He had us stand in front of the camera with the lights behind us.  He then used his phone’s flashlight which he brought up to about eye level and then lowered again while the lens was shooting. Apparently, this helps people show up in the foreground with the lights in the background!NL4Finally, patience is a virtue with the lights. You sometimes have to drive to a couple of spots and just wait. It is VERY cold, so overdress in layers and pay special attention to your shoes and socks situation. There are no bathrooms, and you will be out there for about four hours. Although I was initially disappointed that the lights display was not quite as bright and colorful as I was expecting, it was still a pretty amazing experience, and I am so glad we did it.

THE AIRPORTReykjavik AirportFor being so relatively new to tourism, Reykjavik has a surprisingly impressive, modern little airport! First, it is all digital and almost all self-service. You can check yourself in, print your boarding pass, and print your bag tags all from self-service kiosks.

You get your boarding passes and bag tags here:Reykjavik Iceland Airport Check in Reykjavik iceland Airport Bag DropYou check you luggage in on your own here: Reykjavik Airport baggage claimEven their security is fully automated! Reykjavik Airport Iceland SecurityIt is a very quick and easy process, which leaves plenty of time for you to stroll through their quaint little shops and have a real meal before you board your (meal-less) flight!Reykjavik Iceland Airport FoodEven the restrooms are automated, allowing you to wash your hands and dry them all from the sink!Reykjavik Iceland Airport BathroomAnd, throughout the airport are little stations asking you about your satisfaction with check-in, security, the restrooms, and cleanliness!Reykjavik Iceland Airport satisfactionAs you can see, Iceland is a dichotomy of sorts.  In some ways it is so progressive (airports, WiFi, credit card usage), and in other ways so primitive (accommodations, tour operations, and the fact that they believe in invisible elves who have their own political lobby (that’s not a joke; give it a Google)). Nonetheless, I absolutely recommend that you hop over for a few days and check it out for yourself. It truly is a beautiful country filled with incredible sights, delicious (albeit insanely expensive) food and friendly people.

If you have any questions about planning a trip to Iceland or want to share your own quirky Icelandic tale, leave me a comment below or send me an e-mail! Until then, Vertu Blessaður!

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Reykjavik, Iceland: New Years 2017

FireworksIt seems like everyone went to Iceland in 2016. Instagram was littered with photos of the Blue Lagoon and the Northern Lights.  Facebook  and travel magazines touted the cheap airfares to Iceland and relatively short travel time.  At least one person you know went to Iceland in 2016 (hell, even the Kardashians went!), and we were no exception.  In early 2016, after returning from our New Year 2016 trip from Paris, I decided that we would spend New Years 2017 in Reykjavik, and I went into full research and planning mode.

Iceland is just as beautiful and otherworldly as it looks on Instagram; but, there were also some things about Iceland that surprised us.  Things that no magazine, blog post, or Facebook or Instagram post on Iceland ever mentioned.  It is for this reason that I plan to do a series of posts about Iceland, because I want you to get inspired to go, meet the friendly people, eat the delicious food (but not the Mike Whale and Puffin), and see the amazing sights; but I also want you to be prepared so you can maximize your time and your dollar and really enjoy your vacation.  In this post, I will tell you about our five-day trip to Reykjavik.

Day 1: 

Not being one to waste time, I had a tour planned for the day we got into town.  Sure our flight got in at 4:30 a.m. and when we got to the hotel our room wasn’t anywhere close to being ready.  And, yes, there were unexpected blizzard-like conditions (new to this South Florida girl), but that was NOT about to stop me.  We had been invited to go on the Reykjavik Food Walk (which, I am sure you guessed, was a walking food tour), and I was really looking forward to this tour because, not only was it a tasting tour, it was also sight seeing tour of downtown Reykjavik! So at 12:30 p.m, we gathered at the Harpa Concert Hall to meet our guide and small group and embark on our culinary adventure through the streets of Reykjavik.harpa2 reykjavik streetsThe first thing you should know about the Reykjavik Food Walk team is that they are uber (as in, “super,” not the car service!) friendly, responsive, and accommodating. They respond to emails and are happy to give you suggestions and recommendations both before and during your stay.  They will even help you secure dinner reservations (which, you will find out in my next post, are crucial if you want to actually eat anywhere in Reykjavik). I found them an absolute pleasure to work with and would recommend this tour to anyone (actually, I insist that you take it).  It really is a great way to orient yourself to the city, while eating some great local favorites.

Second, the tours are lead by young locals who know a lot about their city.  Our guide, Kjartan, was also an author.  He gave us tons of information about the city (including things we would have never noticed had he not pointed them out) and their Christmas traditions. For example, did you know that in Iceland, they don’t have Santa Claus?  (No Santa Claus?!?!) Instead, they have Yule Lads, and Christmas lasts 13 days — from December 23 to January 6 (it’s like a longer Hanukkah for gentiles!). During this time, Icelandic children are visited by 13 Yule Lads. Each Yule Lad is mischievous and has his own vice.  For example, Spoon Licker comes to your house and licks all your spoons.  Meat Eater eats all your meat.  You get the idea. Here is an image of a Yule Lad, indicative of those projected on buildings all over the city as a reminder to children that the Yule Lads are watching (kinda like the mall Santa):Yule LadEach of the 13 nights, children place a shoe in their bedroom window.  If they were good all year, they will find a treat in their shoe the next morning. If they were bad, they will find a rotting potato. Also, if Icelandic children don’t receive and wear a new article of clothing on Christmas Day, the Christmas Cat will come and eat them!  The Yule Lads are descendants from Gryla, an ogress who lives in the Icelandic mountains. She also eats bad children! I think this is why Icelanders are so nice! Growing up, all they hear is about how they are going to get eaten if they are bad. Anyway, if you are interested in these folk tales, you can learn more about them here.

Also, the people in Iceland created their own version of Pokemon Go.  Someone has pasted tons of small action figures on top of the city’s street signs. Locals go around finding them, and then they snap pictures of them and post them to social media.  If one goes missing, a new one appears in its place the next day.  According to our guide, nobody knows who is responsible for them, and honestly, had someone not pointed this out, we would have completely missed it.REY pokemanDuring the four-hour tour, you will also taste 13 traditional dishes, including Icelandic lamb soup, Iceland’s famous hot dog, homemade rye bread ice cream (which sounds gross, but was so delicious), seasonal meats and cheeses (which, unfortunately, includes Icelandic horse which I did NOT eat), lobster soup, and an amazing dessert! Along the way, our guide pointed out great local bars, breweries, bakeries, and restaurants. By the way, the man bun and beard game in Iceland is so strong.food walkdeliYou know what else I learned on this tour? If you ever you planned to go to jail, make sure you go to jail in Iceland.  First of the 300,000 people in Iceland, only 89 are in jail.  Also, until recently, the jail was located in this quaint little building in downtown (no bars, just views for days!):JailYou get a room with a view! Also, if you have a job and have to support a family, no problem! You can just check yourself out of jail and go to work and home for dinner as long as you check yourself back in at a reasonable hour! (Who is the arbiter of reasonable?  I don’t know, and they don’t either!) But, you know what the BEST part is about jail in Iceland?  On Sundays, they take the prisoners out for ice cream!!!! Not a bad deal, right?

The tour also walks you through the old harbor, stops for pictures at the famous Hallgrims church, and also gives you a taste of Reykjavik’s amazing street art scene. After the tour, we were pretty full, but that didn’t stop us from keeping our first reservation in Reykjavik at the Grill Market, or, as the locals call it, Grillmarkadurinn. grill marketDay 2:

So, today was the day we were set to go on an adventure! Chad was going to snorkel in between two continental tectonic plates, we were going to go into an ice cave, visit Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, and hike a glacier.  It was going to be epic! Except, remember that blizzard from day one? Well, she stuck around for day two, and all adventure tours were cancelled. Bummer!  But, that’s okay.  This is a common occurrence in Reykjavik during this time of year, and we were ready with Plan B — a tour of the South Coast! I am glad we did this tour because we got to see some amazing waterfalls, we walked on a glacier, and we visited the famous black sand beach!

We started the tour at the amazing Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which is famous because you can walk behind it!waterfall6 waterfall vikingFor some reason, these people were there in traditional viking garb, but we didn’t mind because they made for great photos!

We then made our way to a glacier on which we were able to take a short hike and enjoy the views!glacier6 glacier glacier5 glacier7Up next was the amazing Reynisfjara beach, better known as the black beach.  But, this is no ordinary beach.  You CANNOT swim here.  The wind is wicked strong and the waves are the most insane waves I have ever seen in my life. Like ever. In fact, tourists are warned to not stand too close to the shore, because more than one has been swept away by the swell and drowned. beach blackbeach7 black beach 2 black beach3When BAE matches the beach: black beach blackbeach5 blackbeach6 DSC3390 IMG_5523Seriously, these waves though… IMG_2200Our final stop was to the Skógafoss waterfallwaterfall7 waterfall8Day 3:

By day three, we were ready for some R&R, and there is no better place to do that in Iceland than at the Blue Lagoon, one of the 25 modern wonders of the world! I’ll save the logistics of the Blue Lagoon for a later post, but I will say here: make advance reservations (well, you have no choice on this one) and try to go at the earliest available time if you want the lagoon (almost) to yourself! BL BL16 BL18 BL19 BL6 BL10 BL4 BL5 BL11 BL12 BL8 BL14 BL7 BL3There is something surreal about being in your bathing suit in the snow and freezing cold. BL15 WE we2Our day didn’t end with the Blue Lagoon.  After a short nap, it was time to eat dinner at what is considered Reykjavik’s best restaurant and hardest reservation to score, Dill. dill4 dill3 dill dill2Dill serves classic Icelandic fare with a modern twist.  It is a small place that offers two tasting menus.  We had to do the shorter menu, because the weather had cleared up, and this was the first day since we arrived that the Northern Lights tours were operating!

The Northern Lights experience was the literal reason for this trip at this time of year, but there are some things I learned about the Northern Lights that I wish I knew before I went.  This will, in part, be the subject of another post about things you need to know before you go to Iceland, but I will give you a hint: seeing the lights is the exception, not the rule; patience is a virtue when hunting for the lights; and I hope you came prepared with more than just your iPhone!

This is what the Northern Lights look like on your cell phone camera (pretty amazing, right?):NL iphoneAnd here is what you get with a professional camera, with the right lens, set to the correct settings, and resting on a tri-pod:NL NL1 NL2 NL3 NL5 NL6 NL7 NL8 NL10 NL11 NL12 NL4 NL9Day 4:

Today we explored the Golden Circle, but, as you will soon see, it was more winter wonderland than golden. We did this tour with Time Tours, who also took us on our Northern Lights Tour (and provided our airport transfers), and, in hindsight, I wish I booked all of our day-tours with them.  They offer small group options, are very responsive, flexible, and very accommodating.

On the Golden Circle tour, you can explore the National Park of Thingvellir where you will find Silfra, the Mid Atlantic Ridge which is the divide between two continents (Europe and North America) and home to the Eurasia and North-America tectonic plates.  You can actually snorkel and dive between the two continents here, which Chad was all signed up for, until the weather spoiled his plans!GC11Silfrarock GC17You also visit Gullfoss Waterfall, one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls.GC5 GC9 GC4 GC15gc21And, you stop at the Great Geysir, which is Iceland’s version of Old Faithful and erupts every 6 to 10 minutes.GC3But, perhaps my favorite part was an impromptu stop to meet the friendly Icelandic horses, a breed of horse developed in Iceland. Unlike regular horses, Icelandic horses have five different gaits. They are the only horses in the world that have five gaits. Another rare (and beautiful) trait possessed by these magnificent horses is that they grow long furry hair in the Summer and Fall (which they shed in the Spring); this coat allows them to brave the extreme cold without need for shelter during the Winter. Because they have few diseases, Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and once exported, an Icelandic horse is never allowed to return.GC20 GC18 GC13 GC14 GC19 GC7 GC6petThey are so friendly and cute, so please do not eat them!

We also made a couple of stops just to enjoy scenery and a beautiful sunset! By the way, during this time of year, it is only daylight from about 11:00 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m. That’s right a whopping 4.5 hours of daylight, so use your precious daylight hours wisely!GC GC12This was the perfect way to spend the last day in 2016! But, we had a whole evening of celebration ahead of us, which began with arguably our favorite restaurant in Iceland – Apotek. We came here first on the last stop of our food tour to enjoy a delicious dessert made by their pastry chef, who is so talented that he is the official pastry chef to the government of Iceland. Honestly, I understand why they chose him.  We came back for NYE dinner, where we enjoyed a delicious pre fixe 5-course dinner with champagne for under $200 USD for a couple.  On NYE.  This, by the way, was one of the cheapest meals we had in Iceland. That’s not a joke.   apotek2 apotek3 apotekAt midnight, we took to the streets to see the epic fireworks show that happens all around the city.  There is no official fireworks show that is put on by the city. These fireworks are courtesy of the locals. Apparently, fireworks are illegal in Iceland, except on New Years, when locals can buy industrial strength fireworks and proceed to set them off (sometimes in an impaired state) all over the city! The nice thing is that the proceeds from the sale of the fireworks goes to The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue. It is their biggest annual fundraiser! I think the best place to see the show is at the Hallgrims church.NYE1 NYE2 NYE3 NYE4 NYE Fireworksnye6And, of course, no NYE celebration is complete without a late night snack from Iceland’s most famous hot-dog stand! Bill Clinton (and the Kardashians) ate hot-dogs here. NYE5Day 5:

On our last full day in Iceland (and in keeping with our 2017 New Years resolution to try new things and have more adventure), we decided to take to the open seas in search of whales! Now, if you have a sensitive stomach, this may be more of an adventure than you bargained for because, on this day, the seas were ROUGH!  But, we would not be deterred because Elding Adventures had invited us on an adventure, and we are not ones to turn down an adventure.  Also, they support animal conservation through education and eco-tourism, so win-win.whales whales2Booking the tour was super easy.  The Elding team is very responsive to emails and very accommodating to its passengers. We made our way to the harbor and easily found Elding’s office for check-in. Just down the road from their office is the dock where you can find their boats.  If you are worried about getting sea sick, they have a bowl full of Dramamine (both in the office and on-board), and you are free to help yourself!whale5 whale 3whale4 whale6 whale8Once on board, you are issued a jumpsuit which doubles as a life suit and an extra layer of warmth because it was freezing out! Check out this sexy #OOTD:whale10The boats are triple deckers, with the first deck being the internal cabin which is equipped with restrooms, a snack, bar, and barf bag stations! The second and third floors are exterior.  The boat has a guide and spotters who do the work of finding dolphins and whales for you. As I mentioned, the day we went, the seas were very very rough, but the staff was very attentive and helpful to passengers that were not feeling well.whale7 The tour lasts for about four hours, and while we did not get to see any whales, we did see white-beaked dolphins! Also, if you go on a tour and don’t see whales, you could redeem your ticket for one more voyage in hopes of catching a whale sighting!2 White-beaked dolphins 5 2 White-beaked dolphins surfacing2 White-beaked dolphins 7 2 White-beaked dolphins 9Whale Watching Iceland leaping DolphinsSince we didn’t get to see whales on our tour, I was curious about what the tours that do get whale sightings get to see, and Elding was kind enough to provide me with photos taken from some of their other tours where whales were spotted, including humpback whales, Minke whales, and killer whales. It is magnificent, so this activity goes back on the list! Must.See.Whales.2016_07_11_Megan 330Whale Watching Iceland Orca Killer WhaleWhale Watching Iceland Humpback PassengersElding Whale Watching from Reykjavik IcelandIn addition to whale watching tours, Eldin also offers fishing tours, northern lights tours, and, when in season, tours out to puffin island to see puffins birds, which are SO stinking cute (so PLEASE do not eat them)!Whale Watching Iceland PuffinsWhale Watching Iceland PuffinsWhale Watching Iceland Puffins????????????????????????????????????Whale Watching Iceland Flying puffin14 Puffin islandWhale Watching Iceland PuffinsFor the remainder of the afternoon, we walked the city streets to admire the street art and to visit the inside of the Hallgrims church, including a climb to the top of the clock tower to get some amazing views of the city!art sculpture art2 arty sign church5 church church1 church2 church4 church6Thus ended our five-day adventure in Iceland. We had such a beautiful time. I hope this post inspires you to plan your own trip to this (mostly) unspoiled nature lover’s paradise. Be sure to check out my future posts on Iceland to help you get ready for your trip.  And, as always, I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email or leave a comment if you have any questions about this trip or Iceland in general.

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The Galapagos Islands: Santa Cruz Island

SCTORTUGABAY3Santa Cruz Island is the most populated island in the Galapagos.  If you are doing a land-based itinerary, it serves as a great base for visiting Bartolome Island, North Seymour Island, and Santa Fe Island. By far, the nicest hotel on the island is Finch Bay Eco Hotel.  It is the only beach front hotel on all of Puerto Ayora, and it is only accessible by water taxi (which runs every 10-15 minutes from the main port and is free for guests), which means that it is away from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Ayora and all of its tourists.SCFINCHBAY3 SCFGINCHTAXI100 SCFINCHBAYBEACHSC FINCHBAY SCFINCHBAYPOOL scFINSHCWALK101 SCFINCHPROPEORTY100 SCFINCHSUITE100 SCFINCHVIEW100SCFINCHHAMMOCK100SCSWINIGUANA SCFINCHDUCK

Day 1:

When we finally made it to Santa Cruz, we had a few stops to make before we got to check into our paradise resort. Our first stop was to the Twin Pit Craters, two giant geological depressions of volcanic material formed by long and slow sinking of the ground. SCcraters2 SCCRATERS100Our second stop was to Manzanillo, a giant tortoise reserve, where giant tortoises live and roam free in their natural habitat. SC TURTLES2 SC TURTLES SCTURTLE4 SCTURTLES3 SCTURTLEPOOLThen it was off to Finch Bay for some R&R.  The nice part about Finch Bay is that you can book its naturalist programs (3, 5 or 7 day programs), which are all inclusive.  That means you get the room, all meals, and excursions on the property’s yachts.  As it turns out, this is a much better deal than going a-la-carte.  Breakfast is a large American-style buffet with great selections, including an omelet station and some regional favorites. On full-day excursions, your gear and a fully catered hot lunch is served on-board their yacht.  On half-day excursions, you come back to the hotel and choose off their giant menu of delicious selections. Every night, dinner is three courses, and the food is great.

Day 2:

Today was our first full day on Santa Cruz, and we had a full day excursion to Bartolome Island planned. Bartolome is the furthest island that the hotel’s yacht visits; so, be prepared for about 2.5 hours of traveling (on land and sea) each way; but, don’t worry, the accommodations are nice and it is TOTALLY worth it!  We first took the water taxi to town where we boarded a bus to the port.  From there, we took a zodiac to meet the yacht that would be cruising us to Bartolome: The Sea Lion. SCZODIAC SCYATCH SCYATH2Our first stop was to explore Bartolome Island and see the famous Pinnacle Rock, which is the best known landmark in the islands. On the way, a playful pod of dolphins would follow our boat.  Once we landed on the island, a group of sea lions were there to meet us.SCSEALIONSWe explored the island on foot, climbing to a vista point to get a better view of Pinnacle Rock. The nice thing about this island is that, unlike some others, they have installed a raised walkway to protect the terrain and make the hike a little easier.scPINNACLE ROCK SCBARTOLOME2We next boarded the zodiac to cruise around Pinnacle Rock and scope out some penguins on our way to the lava field.SCBARTOLOME SCBART SCPR SCBARTOLOME4 scBARTOLOME3Our day ended with a snorkel, where Chad got to snorkel with penguins, sharks, turtles and sea lions. He later declared this a tie with his snorkel in Isabela Island for the best snorkel of his life.

Day 3:

Admittedly, this was supposed to be our last full day of activities; but, I wanted to see a frigate bird, and the hotel’s yacht did not go out to North Seymour Island until the next day, so we extended our trip by one more day to do just that.  But that was for tomorrow.  Today we had a full day planned.  Our first stop was to Tortuga Bay, which is considered Ecuador’s most beautiful beach.  You can get here two ways: 1) by water taxi or 2) by land.  While the water taxi is faster, the seas are rough.  We did both.  To get there, we went the land option.  We drove to the start of the 1.3 mile trail and hiked on a pretty flat road onto the beach. Once we made it onto the beach, we walked another 20 or so minutes to Playa Brava and Playa Mansa where we saw sea turtles and iguanas in a gallery of mangroves. The waves are pretty big here, so you can surf, and the Santa Cruz Surf Club gives lessons here. On the way back, we took the ferry, which was about 30 minutes in some pretty large swells.SCTBIG100SCTORTUGABAYSCTORTUGABAY4SCTB SCTB2We returned to the hotel for a quick bite to eat, and then we set out to visit the town of Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research Station, which, by the way, was not as impressive as the tortoise conservation program we visited on Isabela Island. This facility is probably more well known because it is located on the most populated island, and it was the home of Lonesome George. Prior to his 2012 death (at approximately 150 years old!), Lonesome George was the rarest creature in the world, as he was the last known individual subspecies of his kind- a Pinta Island tortoise.  He was found in 1971, and he has served as the symbol for conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands. While several attempts were made, Lonesome George was never able to successfully mate, and when he died, so did his subspecies.  The research center is currently remodeling to add a Lonesome George exhibit to its facilities.

In the meantime, the new star of the facility is Diego. He is also over 100 years old, but unlike Lonesome George, he has been responsible for about 800 offspring and has been instrumental in saving his subspecies from extinction.  Here he is below (along with a beautiful land iguana):scDIEGO SCLISCCDRC SCCHARLES DARWIN2 Day 4:

I was so happy we made the split decision to stay an extra day because we visited my favorite island (from a wildlife perspective) on this day: North Seymour Island.  This was a full-day excursion aboard the hotel’s yacht that started off with a beach visit, where explored a flamingo lagoon and did some snorkeling.SCCACTUSBEACH SCNSI2The second part of the day was reserved for the visit to North Seymour Island where we saw some of the most dramatic landscapes, a ton of frigate birds (the ones with the big red swells under their neck), land iguanas, blue footed boobies, and sea lions.  Lots and lots of sea lions!SCNSI3 SCFRIGATE SCFRIGATE6 SCFRIGATE5 SCFRIGATE4 SCBABYFRIGATE SCBABYFRIGATE3 SCBOOBIE SCBOBBIEEGG100 SCSEALION3 SCSEALION SCBABYSEALION SCBABYLIONS100When we got back from our excursion, there was just one more spot we had to hit before we left the Galapagos Islands- Las Grietas.  Las Grietas is a series of volcanic crevices that were formed during the cooling of molten lava and has become a popular swimming destination.  To get there, you have to hike about 20 minutes from Finch Bay Hotel on a trail that winds through a forest of cacti and over a beautiful salt flat. The water is cool, clear, and very deep.SCCACTUS3 SCSALTFLATS SCLASGRIETAS SCLASGRIETAS2 SCGRIETAS SCSWIMPOOLSometimes, a little spontaneity pays off, and this was a perfect way to spend our unexpected extra and last day in the Galapagos. The Galapagos Islands were a captivating and memorable adventure, and this trip has quickly moved up into the top three places we have visited in the world! I hope this series of posts has inspired you to take your own trip to the amazing Galapagos. As always, if you have any questions or want to share your own tips, please leave me a comment or send me an email.  I love to hear from my readers!

 

 

 

 

 

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International Travel With Children: A Survival Guide

Sommers PostThrough the magic of Facebook, my freshman college roommate, Sommer, and I recently reconnected. She was married now and had two adorable children. But the best part, was that she was temporarily living abroad- in London- with her family and traveling through Europe with her two children.  I loved that she and her husband had the courage to say yes to a great opportunity (despite having a whole life with children in Florida) to live and work in London. An opportunity which would give their children the chance to experience life abroad, to learn in real time, to shape the very people they would become, and to create such great and lasting memories for them.

If you are an avid reader of this blog, you know that my main goal is to encourage you to travel no matter what stage you are in life and to give you the resources to help you do that.  The holidays are here, and with them comes time for family travel. Maybe you aren’t crossing the pond this year, but maybe next year you will. Because she can offer a perspective that I cannot, I asked Sommer to share some of the things she has learned in her six months of international travel with two small children, and she graciously agreed. I hope these tips give you the courage to take that trip that you have been putting off and to bring the family, too!

Staring at the bathroom counter, eyes squinted, I could see two pink lines slowly appear and my heart began to race. People were coming in and out of the rooms around me, boxes and furniture were being set firmly on the floor, but all I could hear was the rhythmic beating. I looked away from the pregnancy test and up at the mirror, I was already showing signs of the proverbial glow. My first instinct was to burst out of the bathroom and shout “I’m pregnant,” but I refrained. We were in the middle of moving into our new home, and I wanted to wait until my husband and I had a private moment. Later, after the last box was unloaded, I showed him the test and that evening we celebrated being in our first house and the impending arrival of our first child.

Over the course of the next nine months (ten really but no one ever tells you that), we began planning. We decorated the nursery, attended childbirth and childcare classes, read birthing and parenting books, hired a doula, solicited the advice of family and friends, researched and installed the car seat, and so on and so forth until the day came. I read every book, took every class, purchased every item of baby gear, and asked every question, but, when the day came, none of it had prepared me for the moment when my daughter was born. It was the most painful (i.e., labor) and most joyous experience of my life. My body has never felt so depleted, yet so full at the same time. Twenty-months later, when I delivered my son, the experience was not much different. All the preparation and prior experience, could not prepare me for what I would feel in that moment when my eyes first met his. 

This is the story I tell my friends when they ask me about having children, especially those preparing to have their own. It is meant to be reassuring and inspiring. It is honest and pure, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I leave out the details about the discomforts of pregnancy, blinding pain of contractions, and the sleep-deprivation that occurs in the weeks following birth. Many of the mothers that came before me did me the same courtesy helping build my confidence, and if I pried, they would share the less idyllic details. Mother code.

When my husband and I decided to temporarily move abroad with our children and travel with them internationally, I suspected that many of the fellow mothers I polled would adhere to the same “mother code” providing me with the sugar-coated version of their travel experience. Like with labor and delivery, we all know the “horrors” so why not focus on the positive, the motivational. “Bring an iPad and some snacks, and they will do great. They’ll probably sleep on the plane.” I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. So I planned for everything, and came equally prepared for nothing to go as planned.

Planning for Everything

Obtain passports. The waiting room at any local, state, or federal department can be a test of wills for a person of any age. For a two and four-year old child, it is a test of wills for every person in the room. It is also a good litmus test of whether you are ready to fly. Visit the US Department of State online, complete all your paperwork in advance and have your corresponding identification ready to go. Make an appointment (this will reduce, but not eliminate wait time). Bring quite activities and toys, snacks, and your creativity. Don’t worry about the pitch of your singing voice — sing Wheels on the Bus like you are Queen Bey. Allow 4-6 weeks for your passports to arrive by mail.

Consult your pediatrician and the CDC. Once you have submitted your passport(s) application, it’s onto the next waiting room. Take your child(ren) to the pediatrician and discuss any additional immunizations or care that should be taken for travel. Consult the CDC website for travel advisories before you finalize your destination. (Tip for travel: Bring the pharmacy. Pack a small kit of essentials for your trip including first-aid items, your go-to over-the-counter and homeopathic remedies, and any prescriptions your children may require. Their preferred flavor of fever-reducing medicine may not be available abroad.)

Book your travel. Now that the wait is over, book your trip with small children in mind. Whether you use a travel agent or book independently, use “family friendly” search criteria. Purchasing a seat for all travelers (even those who qualify for a lap seat) is beneficial. This gives you the option to bring and use your car seat aboard (just make sure is FAA compliant) plus you have gained some extra play room and leg room. Consider your transportation at your destination as well — trains are a great option where available. If using a car service or cab service, determine if a car seat(s) is needed. If you don’t being your own, ensure the service can provide one and the proper style seat for your child’s age, weight, and height. Where you stay may influence the type of transportation you may use. Keep this in mind when booking. Map hotel or vacation rental options in relation to points of interest. Ensure they accommodate small children (some boutiques and private rentals do not) and that a larger room is not required (occupancy rules vary internationally). Narrow your search with sites such as Trip Advisor or opt for an apartment/home rental through a site like Kid & Coe or Mrs. & Mrs. Smith Family. Choose a hotel or rental that not only “allows” children but welcomes them by offering special turn-down services, onsite activities, baby gear rental or toy/play areas. Babysitting services are a plus (wink).trainPack the essentials. Take an inventory of what you already have, what you can borrow, and what you need to buy. Aim to travel light (your hands will be full with your children), yet bring what you need to enjoy your vacation and not to mention the journey there. Packing for the flight itself (and don’t forget the return flight home) is as important as the trip. A carry-on with a day or two’s worth of clothes is recommend for cases of lost luggage, or spilled chocolate milk, as well as essential toiletries. A bag containing on-flight entertainment is also recommend (don’t bother with the glossy magazines, who are you fooling — you want be relaxing and reading). Pack your bag with activities to keep your child(ren)’s hands and attention occupied during pre-boarding and on the flight.

(By the way, to lighten your load, you may want to research baby equipment rental companies. You can find a list of them here: Travels With Baby).

Use pre-boarding time wisely. Leave enough time to get to the airport and through security without rushing your child or creating stress. At the airport, give them as much space as possible to stretch and play before boarding. Some airports now offer children’s soft play areas. Stock up on water and snacks. Hint: Gummy bears are an enticing “incentive” (okay, bribe) for good in-air behavior. Don’t be in a rush to be the first ones to be in line for boarding. Your seats are reserved, and as a family with small children, you (usually) have priority seating.

Nothing Goes as Planned

Board with intention. Find your seats, stow your carry-ons and take a deep breath. Pace yourself, the snacks, and the activities (remember, you have hours to fill), but keep them handy. The time you spend in the air is most likely less than the time an average women spends in labor. Trust me, this won’t take as long, and won’t be nearly as painful. There may be crying, there may be loss of fluids, and there may even be some pacing of the floor; and, most certainly (and perhaps more surprisingly) there will be joy.

Sit back and enjoy your flight (and your trip). Look your child(ren) in the eyes and tell them (and yourself) this is going to be an amazing adventure! Treat take off like a rocket ship blast off with a 3-2-1 countdown. Find shapes in the clouds outside the plane window or spot the stars on a clear night. Color or play tablet games with them. Walk the aisle for a good stretch. Chat about your destination and ask them what they most want to see or do. Recline your seat and let them lean their head on you. You may not sleep, but chances are they will. Find rest in the quiet moments.flyBring back a souvenir. I’m not talking miniature spoons or t-shirts here (Read: “I survived an international flight with a toddler”). The souvenir I’m talking about won’t collect dust on a shelf. Collect the moments you experience with your child, take pictures with your eyes and capture them in your heart. They will remember this adventure, perhaps not seeing a certain landmark or visiting a specific place, but the feelings of wonder and curiosity will linger. You have sparked their wanderlust. For the details they may forget, give them a personalized travel journal or make one of your own with their names and the details of the trip.

The fasten seat belt sign had lifted and the chorus of unbuckling sounded. The fully booked flight was relatively quiet — soft chatter, crisp magazine pages folding open, cabinets opening and closing as flight attendants prepared the snack cart. Closer to me, the sound of children giggling — my own two children, huddled together, making one another laugh. I smiled as I let out a sigh of relief. It was only the beginning of the flight, but I was optimistic. Hours later we would awake to the voice of the captain telling his crew to prepare for arrival. There had been brief moments of turbulence, for us and for the plane, but that’s to be expected on any flight with children aboard.  napsThis has been my experience flying with small children internationally, and these are the tips I have learned along the way. No “mother code” invoked. It can be stressful, but it can also be life-changing. You’re opening their eyes to the world, and you will see the world in a new perspective as a result. With several trips taken since our first cross-Atlantic flight, the newborn days of travel are behind us. We are more confident parents and more confident travelers. There’s only one thing left to plan – Where to Next?

__________

Sommer Stiles is a writer and graphic designer. An expat, she lives in London with her husband and two children. Sommer and her family have spent six months living abroad and traveling Europe. To learn more about their adventures or how to have one of your own, contact sommer.stiles@gmail.com.

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The Galapagos Islands: Isabela Island

BFBIt has been 18 days since Chad and I have returned from the Galapagos Islands, but it seems like a lifetime ago.  Almost like a dream.  Were we really even there? The Galapagos are so otherworldly, that as soon as you leave, you feel very far removed from your time there.

Chad and I did a land-based itinerary, and our first stop was to Isabela Island, where we stayed for three days.  If you are deciding on whether you want to cruise the Galapagos or take a land-based vacation, please refer to this post. This post also gives you all the logistical information you will need to understand how to navigate visiting the islands on a land based itinerary and what you can expect during your travels.

Isabela Island is a lot less commercial than Santa Cruz Island. It feels more authentic, and you have a lot more interaction with the locals. We took a small regional flight (read: 8-seater prop plane) into Puerto Villamil, which is the largest town on the island. Although the island is volcanic, Puerto Villamil is surrounded by white sandy beaches. Upon arrival in Puerto Villamil, you must pay $10.00 USD per person in cash.ISABELA AIRPORT 2 ISABELA 3Day 1: We stayed at Iguana Crossings Hotel, which, by all accounts, is the nicest hotel in Puerto Villamil.  The hotel is an eco-hotel and is the most innovative on the island.  It is also beach front, so spring for an ocean view room.  Behind the hotel is a wildlife-filled lagoon. The only problem with staying at an eco-hotel is the water use restrictions. The water in the faucets and the showers were timed to 8 seconds, so you had to keep pressing to have the water flow.  Doesn’t seem so bad for the sink, but try showering in 8 second intervals! Also, the water takes some time to get hot.  Other than that, the hotel is lovely, the staff is very friendly, and the full breakfast (included with the room) is delicious.  IG crossThis is the view from our balcony:front viewbeachAnd this is the view from our bathroom: view from bathroomIt’s kinda nice to wake up to a flock of social flamingos cackling outside. Also, the sunset view wasn’t too shabby either! This is unfiltered, by the way:sunsetThe hotel is aptly named since it does indeed sit right before an actual crossing for iguanas; and for whatever reason, when they cross the dirt road, they do so at the actual crossing.IG cross2 iguanaBut we didn’t have too much time to linger on property, because just two hours after we landed, we were already off to our first adventure: a trip to Las Tintoreras! Las Tintoreras is a chain of small islets.  You must take a boat from the harbor about 10 minutes away to reach the small island.  On the way, you see plenty of manta rays and sea turtles.   sea turtlePrior to reaching Las Tintoreras, the boat took us on a small sea cruise where we spotted our first blue footed boobies and a penguin!boobie and penguinWe also met some local fishermen who were cleaning their day’s catch – the large and sweetly delicious Galapagos lobster, which we later ate for dinner that night.

lobster lobster2 lobster3Upon arrival, we were greeted by the plentiful Sally Lightfoot CrabscrabsWe disembarked from the small boat and began our island exploration.Los Tintoreras signBut for the wildlife, the island is uninhabited, and you must visit the island with a naturalist guide.  There is a trail full of iguanas (so watch your step) that leads to a bay that is located within a volcanic crack. From the crack, you can see white tip reef sharks.iguanas iguana and sharksIf you continue to follow the trail, you will find yourself on a deserted beach where sea lions hang out.sea lion on beachFrom there, you must turn around to return to the location where you boarded the boat and go to another little snorkel spot. Upon returning from the trip, we were greeted at the port with more lounging sea lions.sea lion on a benchDay 2: Today we had an early morning tour to Los Tuneles, a place where lava flows formed unique, arcs, tunnels, tubes, and lava bridges both above and below the ocean and offers some of the best snorkeling on Isabela Island; and, according to Chad, the best snorkel he had in all of the Galapagos! It was a regular ole’ sea sanctuary. It takes about 45 minutes to get there by boat, and, honestly, the waters can be kinda rough on the ride out. We weren’t too worried because our captain was a man they called the Ecuadorian John Travolta (and, I am still kicking myself for not getting a picture of him because he did look like a pudgier, Latin American John Travolta!), and his first mate was JESUS (of whom I managed to get a picture).

But, not to worry, because with a little internet magic, I found someone who had the forethought to snap a pic of John Travolta.  Now, obviously, this is not my photo – and I have no idea who those people are – but, I mean, seriously, does that man in the middle not look just like John Travolta? He has the bluest eyes (which you can’t see in the pic below, but, trust me, they are the color of his shirt), and they call him Travolta on the island.

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Anyway, he loves snorkeling, so he usually jumps in the water and joins you.  Jesus too! This is Jesus:jesusIs it not total perfection that he is holding a fish? So, on the way to Los Tunneles, you pass this rock where penguins usually hang, so the boat will stop to scope them out (cue major sea sickness, even if you aren’t prone to it). While you are busy spotting birds, Jesus throws out clear fishing line from a spool (like, he doesn’t even use a fishing rod) that has a hook at the end, and within seconds, he is pulling up fish by the dozens.bird rock bird rock2Snorkel time! In case you were wondering, while the water is clear, it is also cold (about 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Pretty much every tour operator has wet suits, masks, and fins for your use while snorkeling, and everyone went in with a wet suit.snorkel snorkel2After hitting two snorkel spots, you make your last stop at Los Tunneles, where you disembark and explore the lava tunnels and all the boobies waiting to welcome you! By the way, these pictures do not do this magnificent place any justice, like not at all.LT LT2Another fun fact about this incredible place – see the tall skinny cacti in the picture below? These are called candelabra cacti. They grow out of the volcanic rock at the rate of one centimeter per year (or about one meter every hundred years); so, the cactus on the left hand side of this picture is about 400-500 YEARS OLD! Pretty amazing, right? LT3 LT4 LT5 LT6 LT7 LT8 LT13 LT9 LT10 LT11 LT14Once back on Isabela, I stopped by for a visit with my sea lion friend again. LT15We had the rest of the afternoon free, so we decided to do some independent exploration. Every morning, we saw this bridge, and we wondered where it went, so we decided to find out.bridgeThe trail is about a mile long on pretty flat terrain.  It is a scenic route that has two flamingo lagoons along the way.  It also has some cute little rest areas.

trail 5 trail trail 2 trail 4But, it is what is at the end of the trail that is the real treat- a giant tortoise breeding center!turtlesAnd, in case you missed the first sign, there is this one here:
trutle4 turtle3 turtles2 turtles5Honestly, we are glad we came here because there were hardly any people, it is not at all touristy, it is free, and there are several tortoises from all stages of life in different pens.  Also, not to spoil it for you, but this breeding center was way bigger, had many more turtles, and was way more impressive than the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz.  Sorry, Charlie, but that’s the truth!

After retracing our steps through the trail, we decided to hit the beach in front of our hotel:beach6 beach7Day 3: Today’s itinerary called for a hike up Sierra Negra Volcano. You know, prior to this day, I was complaining to Chad that I did not think we were getting enough exercise on this trip; and then the volcano day arrived, and I shut up. For the rest of the trip.

Okay, so things you should know about this activity if you are going to do it (that I wish I had known!): 1) it’s TEN MILES round-trip (uphill half the way), and that is for the easy route (after about two hours of hiking you have to choose if you are going higher for a view or lower to a crater; oddly enough, the higher route is the easier one); 2) it’s cloudy; it’s sunny, it’s windy, it’s rocky; dress accordingly; 3) there are no bathrooms, so bring your own TP for the nature toilet. The views are incredible, and it’s worth the effort, but you need to wear the right shoes.  As in, NOT sneakers.  Wear thick socks and a good hiking shoe because little lava rocks will be in your shoes all day. If you do not heed this advice, then, at the end, you will have lovely, bloody blisters (like I did!).

volcano volcano2 volcano29Do not be deceived by the start of this trail.  You hike on a road like this for about two hours.  Not so bad, right?  Looks kind of flat. See how our guide is dressed? I was like, that’s a little over-kill.  Then, about half way through, I understood.  You are on the equator. You need a hat for this. And about a ton of sunscreen (like all over your face and legs; any exposed part really). And SPF lip balm. Or like a face mask, really.volcano4Plus there are pretty flowers along the way that grow wildly: volcano3And fresh guava that you can eat:volcano11After about two hours, you are rewarded with this view.  But, this is about half way. You still have to walk around the rim. volcano5 volcano6 volcano7 volcano8 volcano9 volcano10Rim walking:

volcano14This was a good time to take a little reflection break:  Stunning views with almost no other hikers, it was so quiet and peaceful. volcano16Plus, about a million of these are in my shoes: volcano12You start to worry when you see the bones because at this point, you feel like you may die, too. volcano13But, as the sign reminds you, you still got more climbing to do: volcano19 volcano18 volcano17 volcanoe23See the faint green back there. Well, that is where we got our first view up top after two stinking hours of climbing.  Look at us now! volcano20 volcano21 volcano22 volcano24 volcano27volcano26At long last, we made it to the top of the easier route.  This is where Internet comes from!! Just kidding.  Kind of.  These are GPS systems and seismographs. volcano28 volcano30Okay, time to trek back down!

You would think that after an activity like this, we’d take the rest of the day off; but you would be wrong. This was our last day on the island, and this is an Anastasia vacation, so no rest. We can rest when we are dead.  We had a snorkel spot to hit!

Concha de Perla is a great little snorkel spot that you can do on your own, and it is free to visit.  This means that it is also a little more crowded.  If you go early in the morning or later in the afternoon, there are less people.  Some say the snorkeling is better in the morning.  You can see rays, turtles, lots of fish, crabs, iguanas, star fish, and sea lions here.

Remember John Travolta from above? Well he and his wife, Carmen (you won’t miss her, trust me, her eye shadow job is something else.  Drag queens could get tips from her!), own a dive and tour shop called Rosedelco.  It is located right on the road heading towards the port, so we stopped in and rented wet suits and snorkel gear.

Concha de Perla is located in the Port of Villamil, where all of your day excursions have taken place. After entering the port, you will see a juice stand on your left.  Just past the juice stand is the entrance for Concha de Perla, which can be reached via a wooden pathway.portconcha concha11

En route, we encountered a sea lion road block.  We thought we would just jump over them, but they were not pleased with that.  They woke up and started barking and showing teeth. Who knew that they were so testy! Ultimately, a park ranger had to come wake them and get them to move off the walkway and onto the sand to continue their siesta! concha2 concha10At the end of  the pathway, you will reach a wooden landing that has benches on the left, and wooden poles to hang your stuff on either side.  There are two staircases that lead down into the (cold!) water. This is what the lagoon looks like: concha6 concha4 concha3You aren’t supposed to go past the rock in the middle. While we were visiting, one of those lazy sea lions decided he was hungry.  He came waddling up the walk to the platform, made his way down the stairs, and shot like a bullet through the water looking for fish! concha7 concha8This was a great way to spend our last day on Isabela, and I am so glad we didn’t miss this place. Unfortunately for us, all good things must come to an end; but, we were excited, because up next was Santa Cruz Island! Isabela is a special island in the Galapagos not to be missed – truly a nature lover’s paradise; and whether you are doing a cruise or a land-based itinerary, I HIGHLY recommend that you make a point of staying a couple of days here.

 

 

 

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Getting to the Galapagos: The Logistics

Tortuga BaySo, you want to go to the Galapagos Islands. Good choice! It is a literal paradise. But, if you have done any research at all, you may have already figured out that getting to this slice of paradise is not as easy as just jumping on a plane and going.  Getting to the Galapagos Islands is a process.

I truly believe that hiring a travel agent (one who specializes in the Galapagos Islands), especially for first timers, is worth the investment. You will see why in a minute. Is it the more pricey option? Yes; but it is also the option that is likely to maximize your trip and experience there.  We used a travel agent, and we were glad we did.  We met many people who had not, and most of them wished they had just to navigate the sheer logistics alone! Also, by using the expertise of a travel agent, we were able to cover a lot of the land-based options in the Galapagos, whereas our counterparts (the non-agent people) were not.

Land or Sea

The first choice you have to make is whether you want to do a land-based itinerary or a cruise.  You could combine these options, but you would likely be cutting time from one or the other (unless you have unlimited time and money; then, by all means, do both!). I am not a cruise person.  I don’t like them.  I don’t like being on a boat with all the people.  I don’t like the scheduled activities (and in the Galapagos the scheduling is strict!).  I like to do the things that interest us on our schedule, so for me this was a no-brainer.  Sort of. We chose a 9-day land-based itinerary.

There are some islands that you can only do by cruise (i.e., you cannot day-trip here on land-based itineraries).  These islands are Pinta, Marchena, Genovesa/Tower*, Espanola*, Santiago, Rabida, Santa Maria/Floreana*, and Fernandina*.  The ones that have the asterisk next to them are the ones Chad and I would like to visit on a return trip, which will have to be done by cruise. That’s right; I am going to break my own rule and cruise just so we can go to these islands. The remainder of the islands can be reached with a land-based itinerary. With the exception of a few animals, like red-footed boobies, the albatross, the flightless comorant, and the fur seal for example, you will get to see most of the BIG 15 of the Galapagos from a land-based itinerary.

Cruising

Since we did the land-based itinerary, I will go into more details on the logistics of that below.  If you are considering a cruise, here are some additional considerations.  First, the boats are small.  These are not the major cruise ships you are used to because the Galapagos National Park highly regulates the boats.  It limits the boats to 100 passengers, which can only take 20 people per group on land-based day tours.  At the time of this post, Silversea Cruises runs the largest cruise at 100 people with a hefty price tag. Celebrity runs the second largest cruise at 98 people.  Lindbald Expeditions runs the National Geographic tours and has two boats: a 48-passenger and a 96-passenger. Metropolitan Touring operates three boats: the 40-passenger, Isabella II, the 48-passenger La Pinta, and the 90-passenger Santa Cruz. After that, you have a choice of smaller privately owned boats (like the Nemo sail boats) or catamarans that have 10 to 20 passengers, or you can charter a boat. From all accounts, there is a huge difference between the amenities on the luxury vs. economy boats (and the price reflects that), and the accommodations are smaller.  Also, the higher-end the cruise, the better the guides.

Second, regardless of the cruise you choose and because of the tight regulations, you spend a considerable amount of time on the boat. The Galapagos National Park has pre-approved routes, and a boat cannot visit the same site twice (except for the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island).  So, you will likely have to choose from the northern islands, the southern islands, or the inner islands. The cruises begin and end on either Baltra or San Cristobal as these are the only two islands with airports.

Third, once on board, the daily itineraries are highly structured.  This is NOT freestyle cruising.  Like the land-based day-tours, the cruise tour options include a land portion (hiking, island visit, etc.) and a water portion (usually snorkeling from a zodiac as diving is not permitted from all boats). Also, the Galapagos National Park has a “sunrise to sunset” rule, so all activities are done during the day and all navigation at night.

Land-Based

For starters, all visitors to the Galapagos (cruisers included) will enter through Baltra Island or San Cristobal.  The most common and probably the easiest from a logistical standpoint is Baltra Island. You cannot stay, and indeed nobody (other than a limited number of military personnel) lives, on Baltra.  From there you will go to one of the three main islands where tourists stay: Isabela Island, Santa Cruz Island, or San Cristobal Island.

Santa Cruz is certainly the largest and most populated island. To get there, you take a short ferry (5-10 minutes) from Baltra to Santa Cruz island in calm waters.  The cost of the ferry is $1.00 USD per person per way for the government-owned ferry or $2.oo USD per person per way for the private-owned ferry. To catch the ferry, you must first board an airline bus from the airport that is headed for Itabaca Canal (NOT for Baltra dock).  The bus takes about 10 minutes.  Once you get to the port, you put your bags on top of the ferry and you go inside the ferry.ferry ferry2Once on Santa Cruz, and, in addition to exploring this island (which, honestly, doesn’t have much wildlife other than marine iguanas, sea turtles at Tortuga Bay, and the land tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station), you can take day-trips to Santa Fe, North Seymour Island, Bartolome, and South Plaza Island. All of these excursions offer great snorkeling and opportunities to see other animals on the islands, especially North Seymour Island.

To get to Isabela or San Cristobal, you can either take a ferry or take a regional flight on a small propeller plane.  To take the ferry, you must first take the ferry to Santa Cruz as described above, and then take another ferry from there. This second ferry is more of a speedboat than a ferry.  You can only take the ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela and back or from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal and back.  There are no ferries from Isabela to San Cristobal and vice versa so you must route through Santa Cruz to travel between Isabel and San Cristobal.  The ferries take about 2-3 hours depending on how fast the speedboat is, and, in rough waters (which is common in the Galapagos), 4 hours. Prices vary between $25-$35 USD per person one way with no round trip discount.

You must arrive 30 minutes prior to departure to have your bags inspected by the Galapagos Inspection and Quarantine System (“SICGAL”).  If you are coming straight from the airport, your bags should already be tagged and this won’t be necessary as long as you do not remove the tag (more on this below).  Nonetheless, you should arrive early because if you have to go through inspection, you can expect crowds.  Also, you should pre-buy your ferry tickets as the boats tend to fill up and then your will need to wait until the next day to catch the ferry. Below is the scheudle:

From  To   Departure Time Arrival Time 
 Santa Cruz  San Cristobal  7:00 / 07:00 AM  9:15 / 09:15 AM
 Santa Cruz  San Cristobal  2:00 / 14:00 PM  4:30 / 16:30 PM
 Santa Cruz  Isabela  7:00 / 07:00 AM  9:30 / 09:30 AM
 Santa Cruz  Isabela  2:00 / 14:00 PM 4:15-30 / 16:15-30 PM
 Isabela  Santa Cruz  6:00 / 06:00 AM  8:00 / 08:00 AM
 Isabela  Santa Cruz  3:00 / 15:00 PM  5:15 / 17:15 PM
 San Cristobal  Santa Cruz  7:00 / 07:00 AM  9:30 / 09:30 AM
 San Cristobal  Santa Cruz  3:00 / 15:00 PM  5:30 / 17:30 PM

If this seems like a lot of hassle (and, honestly, it is), there is another option, which is the one we chose! The alternative is an inter-island flight. Emetebe operates inter-island flights in small propeller planes.  The planes have a baggage weight limit of 25 lbs per person (oddly, they do not weigh the passengers) and can transport 8 passengers and a pilot. The way we did it is that, from Quito, we each packed a 25 lb carry on bag (in anticipation of this restriction) that had all the items we would need for the three days we were going to spend on Isabela Island, the first island we were going to be visiting.  When we arrived in Baltra, an agent was waiting for us to take our international luggage and transport it to the hotel that we would eventually be staying at in Santa Cruz when we returned three days later.  This agent helped us check into the regional flight, and we were off! We met up with the agent and our luggage when we returned. The flight is only 30 minutes and is very scenic! The flight costs about $150 USD per person per way. This is yet another reason why it pays to have an agent arrange your trip for you! Once we arrived in Isabela, another agent met us there and took us to our hotel.  This is important because this is not a traditional airport.  It is a landing strip with an open structure (see below).  There are no taxis waiting out front, so arrange a car before you get there, especially if you arrive on Sunday!isabela airport ISABELA AIRPORT 2 ISABELA 3By the way, when you get to Isabela, you must pay $10.00 USD per person IN CASH in order to enter the island.

When we returned to Santa Cruz, another agent was waiting to pick us up from the airport, rode the bus with us, took care of the ferry business, and got us to our hotel. We did have to wait 10 minutes at the airport for him, but that was okay with us because we did that in the catered VIP lounge!santa cruz airport VIP2 VIP VIP3But, I digress.  If you choose the flight option, here is what you have in store:plane plane6 plane2 plane3 plan4 plane5Try to sit in the first row for the best view!

Arrival in the Galapagos

So, now that you have all the information you need to decide whether you are going on a land-based tour or on a cruise, you actually have to get to the Galapagos, and if you thought that was easy, think again.  Allow me to open your world to a whole new set of logistics!

First, as we discussed above, you can enter the Galapagos from Baltra or San Cristobal.  To do that you must fly to one of those places from either Quito or Guayaquil on either LATAM or TAME airlines.  In my opinion, if you can get a direct flight from Quito to Baltra, take it.  Otherwise, there is a flight that goes from Quito to Guayaquil to Baltra.  When you land in Guayaquil, the Galapagos passengers stay on board for 30-40 minutes while the Guayaquil passengers deplane, and the new passengers come on board.  The direct flight is about 2 hours.  If you have to do the Guayaquil stopover, plan on 3 to 3.5 hours.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  There is a whole process that needs to be done before you even board the flight in Quito or Guayaquil.  Since we departed from Quito, I’ll give you the Quito rundown. Let me sum it up for you:  Get to the airport early.

As soon as you enter the domestic terminal in Quito, go all the way to the right.  You will see this:PARK FEE 2 GALAPAGOS AREA PARK FEEThis is your first stop.  You will need your passport, and you need to pay $20 USD per person IN CASH to buy a mandatory Galapagos Transit Card (IMPORTANT NOTE: When you arrive at your initial point of entry into the Galapagos Islands – again, for us, this was Baltra – you MUST ALSO PAY $100 USD IN CASH to purchase your mandatory Galapagos Islands license: a/k/a the Galapagos National Park Fee). They will issue you a paper that looks like a customs form. DO NOT LOSE IT. You will need to show it upon arrival and turn it in when you leave.

Up next, you must scan all of your luggage. At this point, airport personnel will place a plastic zip tie onto your luggage, such that it cannot be opened until it passes canine inspection in the Galapagos. Once you pay the $20 and collect your entrance ticket, you go here to get scanned and tagged:SCREENINGTAGAny unprocessed food or nuts will be confiscated. Only after you passed through here may you approach the counter to check in to your Galapagos flight.  If you hire a travel agent, there is a local agent that takes you to the airport and does ALL of this for you while you comfortably sit and wait.signOnce you get to the Galapagos, the real fun begins.  First, you enter the airport and must pass through their customs.  You will need your passport and the form mentioned previously (this is also where you will pay the aforementioned $100 USD Galapagos National Park Fee).  You will also get a neat Galapagos passport stamp! Then they will scan your bags … again!ISLAND SCREENINGpassport stampAfter this, you move to the luggage collection area.  There is a long yellow line.  You are not to cross this line and collect your bag until you are told to. Why?  Well, your luggage gets checked again.  By a dog; a fruit and vegetable contraband sniffing dog. So, all the luggage comes out and is lined up on belts.  The dog comes around and sniffs each and every bag.  If your bag passes the sniff test, then the plastic zip tie is cut off. Once all bags have been sniffed and approved, they allow you to collect your bag in what turns our to be a chaotic free-f0r-all!LUGGAGE CONTRABAND DOG LUGGAGE2 LUGGGAGE 3 LUGGAGE4 After you collect your bag, you either check in for your next flight if you are flying to Isabela or San Cristobal or you go out to catch the bus that will take you to Santa Cruz for your stay there or for your next ferry ride to Isabela or San Cristobal.

Whew!  As you can now see, the logistics in the Galapagos can be challenging.  If you wish to do this on your own, you probably will save a little money, but you will also spend a lot of time figuring things out and dealing with these logistics, which may cost you your sanity and precious vacation time!  Also, if you run into a problems along the way, you will be left with no support, especially for the locally booked activities and tours.

Packing

So, one last thing before you go: a packing list.  You will thank me for this later because you really need to pack as if you are going to an island and as if you were hiking.

First, try packing as light as possible.  The water is cold in the Galapagos, but you can rent wet suits for $10, fins and a snorkel mask for $5 each, and life vests for $5 each.  Also, all the tours will provide these and towels, so skip packing these if you can. If you have a prescription mask, then bring that.

During The Day

Like I explained above, most tours have a land and a water portion, so each day you need to be prepared for both.  You will know which you are doing first ahead of time, and some of the day-boats have changing facilities if needed.  You are going to need a day bag that can hold your change of clothes and shoes, and bring some large Ziploc bags or a dry bag as well.

For the water:

Depending on how long you are there, I would probably bring 4 bathing suits. You will be in the water daily, so they need time to dry.  Also, bring water shoes.  You sometimes have to do a wet landing in knee-deep water, and there are rocks.  Also, you are literally on the equator, the sun is EXTREMELY strong here. So, please be sure to bring a couple of bottles of 100 SPF sunblock (Yes – that is a real thing) and apply often – like, very often.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did! Also, bring a rash guard shirt, a couple of lightweight long-sleeved shirts, and a hat.  Bring the hat. You will SO thank me for this later!  A light windbreaker or scarf for the boat is not a bad idea because it is windy. Finally, I would bring a couple cover-ups for ladies and flip flops. Bring SPF chap stick or lip care and sunglasses. Many of the guides wear a scarf that covers their face, and honestly, I now understand why.

For the land:

I wore gym clothes every day: sports bras, workout tops, and workout pants.  I always had a lightweight long sleeve top, and I wished for a hat.  Bring the hat. You can do shorts and t-shirts, too. Do not wear jeans during the day.  You need lightweight, comfortable clothing.  You will be transferring on and off boats and zodiacs, so keep that in mind. Bring good, thick hiking socks (ESPECIALLY if you are hiking Sierra Negra volcano) and comfortable sneakers or hiking shoes.  Also, bring bug spray, and don’t forget your undergarments if you are changing during the day.

Miscellaneous 

Even at the resorts, the Galapagos Islands are very casual, so you can get away with light dresses or jeans or shorts and t-shirts/tops for dinner.  Bring aloe and after sun care products. Also, the waters can be very rough.  Even if you do not get sea sick, I guarantee you that you will feel a little queasy at least once. Bring Dramamine. Bring a GoPro or underwater camera with all the charging and waterproofing supplies (Ecuador uses the US current so no need to bring converters and adapters).  Bring a serious camera with lenses and your batteries and memory cards for the land portion.  The photo ops are unreal!

Other than that, bring photocopies of all your relevant documents, chargers, some protein bars, your prescription meds, your over the counter meds (Advil, antacids, anti-diarrhea, etc.), your toiletries (including hand-sanitizer), your PJs, a lightweight rain jacket or poncho, a light sweater or jacket, binoculars, and a good book or your kindle!

Money

Also, bring cash.  Ecuador uses the US Dollar, and while you can use credit cards at the hotels and most restaurants, you will need cash for tips and some restaurants or shops (and the $120/person Galapagos Park entry fees that I mentioned previously).  It is better to have and not need than to need and not have, and ATMs are not as readily available.  You should give a couple of bucks to baggage porters and cab/water-taxi drivers.  The norm is to tip 10% at restaurants. After your tours, you will need to tip the guides, and, if you were on a boat, the crew.  Typically, $10 per couple for a half day tour and $20 per couple for a full day tour for the guides are acceptable. Don’t forget the crew: about $15-$20 should be plenty.

Okay, you are all set! I hope this post helped you in your trip planning.  I know it is a lot to digest, so if you need help or you have questions, send me an email or comment below. Otherwise, bon voyage!

 

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