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.