Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ecuador (in brief) Love Life

The last major trip of 2015 is in the books! With a few final passport stamps to round out the year I’m now giving that bad boy a rest for a few weeks. I feel a little naked without it on me and everyday needing to make sure that it’s still where I left it the night before. But now it’s time for holiday celebrations and ringing in the New Year. 

Apologies for not sending out Christmas cards this year, but stamps from Ecuador to the States were $2.50 and I've just been too lazy since I got back! So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year from me and my sea lion friend...

The first trip of 2015 was to South America so it seems fitting that the last trip would be back there. Ecuador was amazing and three and a half weeks there turned into some of the best travel that I’ve had this entire year. The destinations were fantastic, hello the Galapagos(!), and obviously I saw lots between cities, beaches, rain forest, and mountains, but it was more than sight seeing this time. This trip was incredibly fulfilling and the shared experiences with others recharged my desires to keep these traveling shenanigans going we much as possible. The Ecuador tourism slogan is 'Love Life' and I was indeed loving it all throughout my time there. I was also pretty happy about the cheapness of almost everything there - 10 months without a paycheck needed a budget friendly destination! 

I went into the trip excited but I’ll admit that I was somewhat hesitant and just felt like I was filling time until Christmas. When I got on the ground in Quito I decided that I needed to fully embrace the time there and make as authentic an experience as possible and also go as much backpacker style as I could (I’m not 25 anymore so there are some comforts that I want and will pay an extra $5 for). This was definitely the right way to go - between hostels, day trips, buses, and just chatting with folks wherever possible, I met more people in these few weeks than in most of my other travels and traded tips and stories helping to shape my route. Even though I was by myself I was rarely alone. I worked on my Spanish with lots of patient locals and despite usually only talking in the present tense and often just conjugating verbs into ‘I’ or ‘You’ I made do. Compared with my first travel of the year I was much more successful and loads more confident!

When I arrived in Ecuador I had only one real plan and that was to go to the Galapagos. I knew the dates I’d be on the islands and everything else until my return flight to San Francisco - all of my other destinations, transportation, accommodation, activities, etc - was on the fly. It’s really a good thing that my overly planning project manager self is pretty much non-existent these days and a low key flexible self has emerged. I’m working on a blend of the two now and allowing indecisiveness to just be known as willing, able, and flexible. You never know where a day or a night might take you so just be ready and willing!

I’ll put up a few different posts about the specifics of each of the spots that I visited but for now here’s the super Cliff’s Notes version. Also, now that I’m back to 1st world wifi all of my photos (read... 1500+) are now uploaded and organized into albums. Between my phone, DSLR, and GoPro this was definitely a photo heavy trip especially in the Galapagos and Amazon. I admit I just couldn’t stop snapping pics of the sea lions everywhere I saw them for eight days!

The trip shaped up like this (you can see these spots on a map here):

  • Quito [3 days] [Photos] - massive capital city of Ecuador, nice old town with squares and churches, questionably safe especially at night, easy half day trip to Mitad del Mundo to see the Equator

  • Galapagos [8.5 days] [Photos] - 600km off the coast of mainland Ecuador this is a world unto itself and a stunning display of wildlife both on land and in the water. It doesn't have to break the bank to visit if you're willing to play it a bit by ear!

  • Montañita [2 days] [Photos] - famous mainland beach town perfect for stoners, surfers, and partiers. It’s relaxing but not…

  • Cuenca [2 days] [Photos] - well preserved colonial city much smaller and cleaner than Quito with a nice National Park nearby

  • Baños [2 days] [Photos] - outdoor adventure town, Ecuador’s answer to Queenstown New Zealand, with rivers, waterfalls, mountains, volcanoes, and a very photogenic tree swing. Definitely wishing I had more time here!

  • Cuyabeno Reserve [4 days] [Photos] - Part of Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon rain forest, home to all sorts of birds, critters, and creatures, and much more beautiful with rivers and lakes than I imagined the rain forest to be

  • Otavalo [½ day] [A few photos in the Quito album] - town two hours north of Quito with famous craft markets perfect for last minute shopping before my flight

Enjoy the photos - more to come soon if you're interested in the location and activity details. And if you're curious what's coming for 2016 that's in the works too and let's just say it's going to be très magnifique! 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Ecuador bound

After a brief three weeks back in the States the passport is back out and my bag is packed. Next destination… Ecuador and the Galapagos. Iguanas, tortoises, seals, and all of Darwin’s creatures, here I come! I am quite sad that Lonesome George is no longer alive!

Let’s be honest though, I basically unpacked and re-packed immediately in San Francisco and only spent a few days there cramming in friends, new babies, Halloween, and enough glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge to hold me over for a little while. From there on to Minnesota and Philadelphia for more friends, kids, soon to arrive babies, and Mom time. Between trying to figure out how on earth to re-enroll for 2016 health insurance (and take advantage of this whole no income thing to get a subsidy), working on actual life plans for the start of next year (planning ahead but still with a healthy dose of procrastination), and watching the horrific events unfold in Paris and wanting nothing but love and hope to come out in the aftermath I’ve kept myself occupied for the last week. Time now for one last adventure before the end of the year.

While in San Francisco at the start of November I debated between a few different locations in which to spend Thanksgiving and these few weeks before Christmas. Warm weather was definitely driving the decision but so was cost. After a slightly more expensive October than I planned I figured I’d try and head somewhere where the dollar would go really far. With the exception of the Galapagos (the flight alone was almost as much as my US to Quito flight!) I think that three and a half weeks in Ecuador will do it. And to go with my attempted more budget friendly travels I’m going solely with my backpack. Having it with me for two months in Europe after Mont Blanc I think I grew attached to it. I figured I’d challenge myself to pack lightly and be really mobile. Let’s see how I feel about the bag in a few weeks!

The Galapagos has been on my dream destination list for a long time and one that falls into the category of ‘I need to get there before it’s ruined or doesn’t even exist anymore’. While most people plan months in advance for a trips to the islands, and pay an arm and a leg, I have no plans other than a hotel in Quito for a few days and then a flight to the Galapagos. The approach is to wing it and see what last minute boats are available for relatively cheap. After reading up a fair amount on different blogs this seems like a reasonable plan. I’ve given myself eight full days in the Galapagos and hope that’s enough to be fairly flexible on boat options. If getting on an overnight boat for three or four days doesn’t work out I’ll visit a few of the different islands on my own and take a few day trips. There’s more than enough to occupy myself with.  

After the Galapagos I have no specific destinations - there’s a lot highlighted in my Lonely Planet book from surfing the beaches of the West Coast to hiking and cloud forests in the Highlands. With two weeks I figure I can get a lot done if I so desire. So for now I’ll attempt to revive my rusty Spanish (I’ve been brushing up and practicing with the Duolingo app with hope that it will be better than earlier in the year) and see what Ecuador and it’s people have to offer.

Adios los Estados Unidos, hasta pronto!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Greek Sun & Relaxation

Greece was not part of any initial plan during this European leg, but then again I knew I had a month or so with zero plan after Iceland and Mont Blanc so anything was possible. While in London, and spending quality time in the travel bookstore, I was set to head to Turkey. I’d bought a flight from Budapest to Istanbul and was going to figure the rest out. Well, then there were bombings in the Turkish capital and additional State Department travel warnings that I thought it best to re-direct my course. However, I was still determined to find nice warm weather and beaches. Enter Greece. 

As it turned out the week in Greece was just what I’d wanted it to be - relaxing, a bit of sight seeing, and best of all mostly sun for shorts and flipflops rather than jackets and boots. The unfortunate piece was that my last minute changes and plans following made it so my friend Joanna couldn’t join. Next time! I also ended up with some unnecessary costs of hotel and flight changes but oh well, that’s what I get for being indecisive.

For this post I considered just using photos and letting them speak themselves but I needed something to pass some of the 10 hour plane ride from Frankfurt to San Francisco. Also, that little speck of dust in my camera (that was removed with one blow of an air can at the camera shop yesterday, ugh) has caused annoying black dots in my perfectly blue sky pictures so I'll need to do some editing outside of Google Photos for some of them. For now, please ignore and pretend it's a bird ;)

If you want only a pictorial view here are the photos: Athens, Santorini

From Budapest I flew to Athens with the plan to stay a few days to see the sights and then head to an island. Initially I was going to do three nights and two days and then head off but I decided to cut that down to two nights and a day and a half. This was more than enough to cram in many of the major sights, wander a few of the neighborhoods, and start my feasting of Greek salads, delicious meats, and cheap local wine.

I found a Greek travel website run by an American guy living in Greece so I started to do some reading and actually emailed him to get some ideas of what given my time frame might work island wise. He came back with a few suggestions and after some further research and changing my mind twice I settled on Santorini. This is definitely somewhere that I’ve always wanted to go and just had magical romantic images in my head. Given those images I’d pretty much always planned that I wouldn’t want to go by myself. I was saving the Greek islands for some far fetched future vacation. But at the end of the day after a few people were like ‘you must go to Santorini’ I decided to go for it - if I have the opportunity I might as well take it. The initial island of Kea that I was looking at would have likely been great and a short ferry ride away but oh well… Santorini was totally worth it!

Santorini is far from Athens though - it’s an 8 hour ferry ride (5 if you’re on the high speed one) - so I just sucked it up and bought a plane ticket. It worked it out such that I left at the crack of dawn on a Sunday and could get an equally early return to Athens on the Thursday in time to get my bags and re-check in for my already booked flight from Athens to Nice. Perfect, four full days to enjoy!

Let’s go back to Athens and Greece in general for a bit though. First and foremost I can see why Greece is in trouble. It just seemed to be so incredibly disorganized everywhere. I got off the plane and had planned to take the train into the center of the city to my hotel, seemed like a relatively painless two train trip and a short walk. Well, what do you know I get to the trains and they’re on strike - or at least for the few hours around when I wanted to leave the airport that section of the train was on strike. Really, jeez! So I took the bus. Dear lord, yes it was cheap at 5 EUR but it took forever and it was pretty much impossible to know where along the route we were. Luckily I figured out that I was going all the way to the end so that made things a little easier. Standing on a crowded bus with people’s massive suitcases rolling around wasn’t really my ideal afternoon. Then back at the airport when I was getting on flights and whatnot it was ridiculously chaotic. Perhaps flying RyanAir exacerbated it but it was definitely like herding animals and no such thing as a proper queue or for some just a complete disrespect for anyone who might have been in a line.

Considering the number of tourist who I imagine come through Athens each year their infrastructure seemed fairly weak. The nice thing is that you can get a single ticket for 12 EUR that lasts for four days and covers six or seven of the major sites/ancient ruins - sweet deal. But there’s not really much signage, description, or maps so I was just winging it with the map I got from the hotel. I suppose if I’d actually planned ahead on going to Greece and purchased a guidebook I might have been better off and use that to know what I was looking at. The sights were pretty awesome though and everything is very close in a condensed area so it’s super easy to pop between them.  

Lastly on my rant cash is key. Greeks can only take out 50EUR in cash at a time where as foreigners have no limits so locals are just hoarding all the cash they can. I get it and especially on smaller few euro purchases it’s expensive to deal with cards but more expensive things I was just annoyed. Many places won’t take credit card or will just tell you that their machine is broken. I also found that prices were totally variable and likely depending on who you asked you got a different answer. My taxi back to the airport at 5AM when heading to Santorini was like 10 EUR more than what I thought was the flat rate. The guy was trying to tell my why it was more and of course I didn’t understand what on earth he was saying so I just gave him the cash and got out in a huff.

Anyway, while in Athens I had a nicely situated hotel right near the Acropolis so I was right in the heart of it. I was able to easily check out a few different old neighborhoods and the key archaeological sights and the Acropolis Museum. With my 12 EUR ticket I saw:

The Acropolis (Parthenon, North and South Slope, Theater of Dionysus) 

Ancient Agora

Hadrian's Library

Kerameikos cemetery

Olympieion (temple of Zeus)

As I saw the sights I also I wandered through the nearby neighborhoods of Plaka, Monastiraki and Psiri. Lots of shops, vendors, restaurants, and bars. While the streets are quite dirty and there's a lot of graffiti and rundown buildings there's also some pretty great street art as well. Some very fun stuff to look at. 

Through the dirty and congested streets I checked out an amazing local market that should definitely not be visited by vegetarians! Along the way to the market there were loads of shops selling spices, teas, and other goods and then when you arrive at the market itself it's meat, meat, and more meat. There’s all sorts of meat, poultry, and fish for sale just hanging or sitting in the various stalls - refrigeration and whatnot somewhat questionable.

With enough ancient ruins seen and photographed Santorini was calling! As I discovered Santorini is a fairly large island with a few different towns with a variety of hotels and whatnot. I decided to stay in the town of Oia which I would soon learn was the home of picture perfect sunsets, cruise ship day excursion bus drop off, and a zillion stairs.

I’d debated whether or not to have the hotel arrange for an airport transfer and boy am I glad that I did. I would have definitely struggled to find where I was going because the town is really just stone alleyways and my hotel was down about 30 or 40 steps perched on the cliff side with no sign. Luckily the transfer also included someone to carry my bags!!

I definitely got a steal of a deal on my hotel room at Caldera Villas thanks to my last minute booking. I essentially had a massive apartment with kitchen and best of all fantastic patio looking out over the sea. It was a fabulous spot to sit any time of day. Not sure how I lucked out on the room but I was certainly happy with it. I’d usually sit for about an hour every morning on the hotel’s main patio enjoying the views and my breakfast while deciding what I might want to do for the day.

Once I’d explored a fair bit of Oia on the first day I decided that I’d venture out on the local buses to the main town of Fira and then off to beaches the following days. The buses were a hoot and the first time riding seemed to be very confusing for everyone! Once you had one ride under your belt you were a pro. They’re mostly older and well used coach buses and a guy just walks down the isle during each route to collect the fare. Every bus goes through Fira so regardless of where I wanted to go I always had to stop there and stand in the middle of the parking lot waiting to see which bus was going to your next destination. The schedule seemed to be just a guideline of when a bus might appear, I don’t think I got on one that actually left when it was apparently supposed to. But never having anywhere to be at any specific time it was never a bother.

The black sand beaches of Perissa and Kamari were quite nice and the water was nice and clear - a little chilly but felt good once you were moving around. Being that I was there at the end of the season the beaches were pretty quiet. Some of the restaurants and beach clubs were closed but plenty was open to serve my needs - a lounge chair and someone to serve me food and drinks :)

I discovered that there was a 10k coastal path connecting Fira and Oia and it went along the cliff sides with awesome views throughout. On my last day the weather wasn’t great so I figured this would be a perfect activity. I took the bus to Fira and then began to make my way back to Oia. When I’d first talked to the lovely lady at my hotel she made it seem like it was going to be really long and take like five hours. Once I’d done research on TripAdvisior and people raved about it and I realized it was only 10k I knew I had to do it - it took me about two and a half hours with a few little detours along the way. It was a perfect way to spend a few overcast hours still enjoying the views but not sweating profusely as I imagine I would have been if it was the height of summer!

The sunsets of Oia were indeed fantastic. There were loads of tour groups arriving throughout the day to Oia but usually between 5 and 6 at night was madness. The buses would arrive, the tour leaders waving their sticks or whatever item was being used to identify them, and the small alleys of the town, especially those heading towards the western edge, would be packed. I took to heading out some time shortly after six each day and either just finding a spot along the walkways or a table at a bar with a glass of wine to see what the sunset had to offer.

I was seeking relaxation, sunshine, and warm temperatures and Santorini scored on all! It was absolutely fabulous even by myself. Having now been to one Greek Island I know I need to see more - next time I hope to be able to do it from a boat and hop between them. I’d love to be able to do more swimming in the sea and finding small beaches and spots away from main towns.

Friday, October 23, 2015

I say Buda you say Pest

I'm a little behind on my tales of Budapest and it just comes down to shear laziness. I've spent the last four days in heavenly Santorini and just decided to soak it all in and not sit in front of the laptop too much. More on my Grecian detour in another post, for now Budapest.

While in London I spent quite a while wandering and reading in the amazing Stanford's Travel Bookstore. I could have been there all day but after an hour and a half I figured I'd spent enough time for one afternoon. While there I picked up pocket sized Lonely Planet books for both Prague and Budapest. These turned out to be great and best of all not bulky to be carrying around. They obviously didn't have all of the detail but enough of the major must-dos and some good other suggestions of walks and whatnot. After the few days in Prague I put that one away and moved on to Budapest. Seeing as I had done no reading up on what to do while there I figured my seven hour train ride from Prague would more than suffice.

I was originally going to spend five nights and four days in Budapest but the weather wasn't great and I was itching for some warmer temperatures. So in the end I cut it short by a day but still got to see a good amount of the city and didn't have to cram too much in each of the three days. The grey skies, patches of rain, and cool temperatures lent itself more to picking a few things to see and then enjoying some time in one of the fancy old cafes that are all over the city. Definitely some of the fanciest locations for an afternoon coffee - New York Cafe at the Boscolo Hotel and the Cafe in the Alexandra Bookshop were beautiful old spaces. The coffee is unnecessarily expensive, but you're paying for the fancy experience.

All of the photos from the three days are here.

Budapest's Castle area with Matthias church and the Fisherman's Bastion are fantastic and have great views looking across the river from the Buda side to Pest and the massive Parliament building that sits just across. The detail and paintings on the inside of St Matthias church, and numerous others, was beautiful. Floor to ceiling there was something to look at and admire.

The Old Synagogue in the Jewish quarter is stunning. I think I went in more synagogues over the week between Budapest and Prague than churches for once. Definitely shows that I was in a different part of Europe and for me quite fascinating since the last time I was in a synagogue was probably someone's Bar or Bat Mitzvah in 7th grade and certainly at that time I was not interested in looking around an admiring the space. I would have been more interested in when the party was starting!!

The Parliament in Budapest is a stunner of a building. It's got so many spires, details, and is just massive along the river front. In addition to admiring the outside I also did one of the tours to get to see the inside - for me it was totally not worth the money at all. It might have been the day that I did it on (they said it was unusually busy with actual activities within the building) but it was less than 30 minutes and two of the main things we didn't get to see. I was quite disappointed to not see the grand entry staircase which is supposed to be fantastic. It was also incredibly disorganized to begin with and trying to figure out where to be and what group to follow and attempt to listen to didn't lead to a good starting impression. Oh well!

Just down from the Parliament building along the water is a memorial called 'Shoes on the Danube'. It is simple pairs of shoes along the river bank as a memorial to Jews who were executed there but told to remove their shoes before being shot and then their bodies falling into the water. Seeing something as simple as shoes and of all sizes, men's, women's and children's makes for a memorable site.

One very small museum that I did seek out was the Miksa Roth House. Miksa Roth was a well known stained glass and mosaic maker in Budapest in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The house that he and his family lived in before the war is now a small museum and best of all they have a number of his pieces on display and then a rotating temporary collection. Looking up close at the stained glass and seeing not just the glass work but also the painting that he did over the glass to provide the details was amazing. I've seen a lot of stained glass throughout the various churches and what not but seeing it up close was quite different.

Last but not least I couldn't leave Budapest without taking in the local culture of Turkish style baths. There are numerous ones throughout the city and based on my research they range from feeling like a water park to much smaller traditional spaces. I was going to go to one of the larger ones, mostly to take in the architecture and see what they were all about, but I ultimately decided to head to a smaller one - not to mention that it was like half the price. Kiraly Baths was definitely no frills and seemed to be mostly locals (read seniors!) enjoying an afternoon of relaxation. There were numerous pools of varying temperatures, including a freezing cold dip(!), steam room and sauna. You just pop between them as you like. It was quite relaxing for my last afternoon there just before I then got an hour long Thai foot massage. I couldn't resist that either given that it was quite cheap - not Thailand cheap but way better than SF prices for the quality that I got!

With my bath experience complete, successful massage, and full belly from hearty Hungarian dinners each night I was done with the cold weather and looking to trade my boots and coat for flipflops and tank tops. Off to Greece I headed - 36 hours in Athens and then 4 days in Santorini.