I take the question of “where should we stay?” very seriously when I travel. I don’t stop at a Hilton. Like food, where you stay tells the story of a place and I make it my mission to stay in a place where I want to take a picture before I mess up the sheets. Here is my list of the most amazing and unique places I’ve stayed.
A Treehouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts
That’s right. A giant, friggin’ treehouse. SQUEE. It was roomy and so unique! Beautiful grounds, luxury inside, with a compostable toilet in the tree house and rustic outdoor shower that made it feel like real tree house living. Highly recommend!
A prison cell in Ljubljana, Slovenia
This has literally been my go-to “fun fact” about myself since 2009. Because no one believes me when I say “I’ve spent two nights in a Slovenian jail.” Not technically AirBnB but still thoroughly amaaaazing.
Hammocks Galore in Galapagos
The White House in Puerto Ayora was a delight. Tiny rooms but plenty of hammock space and such a great location. I mean, I pretty much just love the Galapagos so you probably can’t go wrong anywhere but this, THIS place is a great start.
Cloud Forest Views in Mindo, Ecuador
Las Terrazas de Dana are AMAZING. Filled with tropical plants, beautiful views, unfortgettable hikes, and food we just couldn’t get enough of. Go to Mindo because it’s beautiful, but REALLY go to Mindo because this place is to die for.
Balcony Dreams in Sinaia, Romania
Sinaia is a sleepy little ski town famous for the Peles Castle. While not the most famous castle in Romania, it’s a beautiful and wonderful little spot. The Vila Camelia was a wonderful true Bed and Breakfast with a delicious spread, gorgeous house, and I scored a beautiful top floor room with balcony that looked at the most beautiful mountain view!
The Sweetest Spot in Topanga, California
She isn’t kidding when she calls this the sweetest spot. Fluffy white blankets, comfy beds, a beautiful view – everything right down to the coffee cups are absolutely adorable. Such an amazing getaway spot – just don’t let the drive up the Canyon road intimidate you!
Dar with Beautiful Rooftop in Fez
This was such a magical place – finding it was a treasure hunt and walking inside was a breath of fresh air. It’s been a few years so I don’t know if the same staff is there but I STILL remember how delicious the chicken tagine was that we had from the cook.
The Fortress in Vermont
Okay – full disclosure – I haven’t actually stayed here. But it’s run by good friends of mine and it is on my “must go” list… and it looks AMAZING. I have no qualms promising epic views and hospitality.
Keep checking back for updates! Also – I would LOVE to hear aboutyour favorite spots!!
In the Summer of 2019 my husband and I took off for New England for a week. He had a Pinball Expo to attend to promote the newest game for his company which meant I had a few days to frolic around the area. That, of course, meant that I scouted out all the literary things I could find in the area and woo-boy I found some amazing things!
First off, we spent a day in Boston. We stayed in a nice little airbnb in the North End of Boston. It’s a very Italian area, super walkable and pretty centrally located. We didn’t have a lot of time in the city but racked up the miles by trotting around the area and following the Freedom Trail which is, very conveniently, marked on the sidewalks.
I’ll be honest, while I did enjoy Boston, after spending so much time traveling elsewhere – and especially a lot of time in Europe – I wasn’t overly impressed with the history. My favorite tidbits of Boston weren’t really part of the Freedom Trail. The Boston Public Library was nice to pop into with a beautiful study room (any library with long tables and green lamps wins me over)
We also kind of stumbled across two memorials that I didn’t read anything about in my copious Boston Tour Book research that felt very powerful to me. The first we found was the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial which had hanging dog tags. It was a beautiful and moving way to capture the numbers.
The second was the Holocaust Memorial which was easily the most moving I have ever seen. The tall glass columns were filled with steam and name after name after name. Being able to step into the grating and be immersed in the sensation was… emotional. Don’t miss this if you make it to Boston.
After Boston we spent a couple days exploring Cape Cod and stayed in what can only be described as one of the coolest places I’ve EVER slept – an EPIC tree house in Plymouth. It was both luxurious and rustic and since it wasn’t quite on Cape Cod proper we didn’t have a crazy amount of traffic to deal with either. Honestly – I could have stayed there a week. The local spots were adorable and the tree house was a dream.
From there, we went up to Sturbridge for the pinball expo and HERE is where it start to get bookish. I waved good-bye and popped into a number of drool-worthy places for the literary inclined.
It was a blisteringly hot day when I made my way to Concord, but I didn’t let it stop me. I parked downtown and walked down to the Minute Man National Park which was a lovely place to stroll through and read a little history. The town is famous for Henry David Thoreau, Louis May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who wrote “the shot heard round the world”), and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
After walking the park, I found a couple websites that directed me to the cemetery where I could creep on/pay my respects to these literary heroes. It was a nice detour walk back into town.
I popped into a number of shops in the adorable little town proper but my absolute favorite was Nesting. I don’t usually go bananas about little shops (honestly, I get intimidated by almost any place that isn’t a coffee shop or book store) but I felt comfortable in the twists and turns of this adorable beige and tan beauty. Definitely check it out if you are there – LOTS of cards and journals.
Before leaving town I knew I needed to find my way to Walden. It was mysteriously closed in the morning so I waited in a gigantic line. The parking lots were huge and the place was packed – which, for me, was a bit tongue in cheek given why it was famous. I almost turned around, worried the magic would be gone, but decided I would make good on my entry fee and found a path that circled the lake.
While it certainly wasn’t the peaceful wilderness that Thoreau experienced, it is a truly gorgeous lake and I’m glad I stopped. The walk around the lake was pleasant but you could easily bring your swim suit and spend an afternoon – just be prepared to share the space if it’s a nice day.
The park did a great job highlighting where Thoreau was and there were a few literary gawkers there like me and not just sunbathers.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Mark Twain and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see his home in Hartford. The drive from Sturbridge was an easy one and I got to check off another state from my to-do list as well.
I got into Hartford early and planned to pop into a coffee shop for some writing and reading. I went to Blue State Coffee as they promised to donate 2% to democratic initiatives. The brew was tasty but, I’ll be honest, the downtown area where I needed to park and walk was not pleasant. I was nervous to leave my rental car where I did at 9am and Blue State overall had a cold atmosphere. I had hoped to walk around downtown Hartford but ended up getting my coffee, writing a journal entry, and heading to the house.
The Mark Twain House was a delight and well worth the drive to Hartford. The tour was expertly done. The information about Twain was super interesting but, even more, the house itself was awesome and fascinating. Very beautiful and unique with a top-notch gift shop.
I didn’t get the chance to visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe house and center as I ran out of time but it’s literally on the same grounds, which is super neat. I did pop into the gift shop which was full of feminist loveliness.
All in all
I had a lovely time bopping around the area and finding book-ish things to do. I can’t report on any really great coffee shops unfortunately (I went to a few but didn’t LOVE any of them). I also wish I could have gone up to Salem or a few other key historical spots. But if you’re in the area, I highly recommend the places I’ve highlighted here!
Headed to La Fortuna? Never fear – we tested out just about every ice cream option in town and can recommend our absolute favorites here:
ONE: The Guy in the Square
Ok, so, to be fair, this isn’t “ice cream”. It’s shaved ice with condensed milk and your flavors -we got raspberry and coconut and I just about went to heaven. Stir it up, drink it up, all walk walking around the square. What’s it called? I’ve heard all kinds but we just ended up calling it a “Copa”.
TWO: Kiwi Caffee Gelato
Slightly off the beaten path but not far (considering you can easily walk every single block of this town in a single afternoon), it’s not the first ice cream spot you likely found but it’s definitely one to get to. It’s full service, cute, and had some legit flavors! Unique and very friendly.
THREE: Unnamed? Near Pollo Fortuneno
Ok – I’ve googled, I even have a picture of the place (not very good, but it’s there) and I still have no idea what it’s called. Honestly, even when we walked in there was almost left because there was no one at the counter… but then someone from chicken place like… hopped the counter and served us. It was strange, but the gelato was excellent and the seating adorable. So – worth it!
If you’re in Costa Rica – you’ve seen a Pops. They’re everywhere! While not the most creative ice cream I’ve ever had, they are a solid option and were the ones open latest in town when we were there – so that’s always a plus.
Definitely our least favorite option. Don’t get me wrong, the product wasn’t bad, but the rum raisin was definitely skimping on the raisins, the flavors were only mildly creative, and they had a very string NO SAMPLE policy (excuuuuuse me?). Good in a pinch but I better be able to have a taste before I buy, I’m just saying
San Jose – Honorable Mention – Helados de Sorbetera
So, if you’re headed to La Fortuna then you will likely find yourself in San Jose at some point. If so, you need to find Helados de Sorbetera. Super authentic counter service that was packed to the gills and uniquely wonderful!
In January 2020, Marjorie and I threw money at a tour company called G Adventures and jetted off to Costa Rica. It was somewhat of an experiment after our Bucket List Galapagos Adventure. We both knew nothing could top Galapagos – but could this come close? And would we find value is someone doing all the planning for us (instead of the intense heavy lifted we did ourselves for Ecuador)?
TL; DR – 3/5 stars overall.Enjoyed our time, would not do a tour again.
First you might be wondering – what the heck is this? G Adventures is a one stop shop – you pay, you fly, you follow the leader. Check it out here.
Day 0: Car Rental and Quepos
Okay so we couldn’t resist a little self planning. We arrived one day early, met in the airport, and then we were off like a rocket. We decided to test the waters with a car rental. (This was a BIG DEAL for two city women who very rarely drive and don’t own cars)
We chose Adobe Car Rental after reading a fantastic review from My Tan Feet. My Tan Feet were SO helpful in the booking and understanding-what’s-next process – I highly recommend you use them as your jumping off point if you plan on renting a car in Costa Rica. Additionally, Adobe Car Rental was top notch. Excellent customer service (English/Spanish) and the worker came to the car with me, checked it, helped me adjust everything, etc. Top notch service I’ve never received with any other car rental company.
We jumped right on the highway and took the 3-ish hour drive down the coast to our ultimate destination – Quepos. For anyone squeamish about driving abroad – this stretch of road was pristine. Yes, some people liked to pass aggressively but there was nothing nerve wracking about it in the least.
Quepos is a cute little spot and we arrived in the midst of a political rally -which sounds ominous but was actually more of a street fest that was really fun to walk around in. We grabbed some ice cream at Pops (a chain that is everywhere in Costa Rica. Not bad but not drool-worthy. Think Chocolate Shoppe or Cold Stone, maybe?) and enjoyed the boardwalk.
We stayed at Las Cascadas in a room up in the canopy. It had an amazing view but no screens (sigh) so we had to stay huddled away since it was dark and giant bugs were not invited to our sleepover. Also the trek up to the room was at least a 50 degree angle, it was intense. Overall, the space was cute but the room and restaurant felt something to be desired. I wouldn’t recommend this place but suggest another!
Day 1: Quepos and San Jose
The following day we heavily debated – do we go to Manuel Antonio or the Spice Farm? We decided a lot of nature was in our future and, even though I’m sure Manuel Antonio is amazing – we skipped it in favor of Villa Vanilla. And, look for anyone who has been in Central or South America, we found this to be a real treat. We’ve see cocoa, we’ve seen coffee, but this to me was truly unique. It’s a very small operation with a jungle of variety of plants. It was educational, beautiful, unhurried, and delicious. I highly recommend this tour.
Instead of trying to shove too much into one day, we hopped back in the car and made it to San Jose for our orientation. Looking back – and with some knowledge, I would have done this totally differently. Our hotel in San Jose was nothing to brag about (El Sesteo). Some rooms didn’t have air conditioning, some did, but all were depressing. The courtyard was cute but it was definitely not a place I would have chosen on my own. Location was fine, but not great either… and here begins the reason why tours are just not my thing. I hate feeling like the money I put into the tour wasn’t used the way I would have used it. That might not be fair, but it’s true.
We had orientation which, honestly, for anyone with an iota of previous travel experience, was unnecessary. We met our guide, Gabriel, who was a lovely human being, but otherwise the information was general and not something that needed walking through. We learned that night that immediately in the morning we were boarding a public bus for about 4 hours to get to La Fortuna.
Here’s where I would have done it differently – since we already had the car, Marjorie and I should have just driven up to La Fortuna and spent the night there. There was NO reason for us to have a night in San Jose at all if we were already going to have a car. We could have skipped the public bus and had that much time in comfort and in La Fortuna.
Day 2: La Fortuna
We started our day on the bus which, if I’m honest, was actually way nicer than anticipated – but still, a long bus ride! (Also at every bus station in Costa Rice you’ll find a chain bakery that is SUPER tasty! Musmanni – check it out!)
When we arrived in La Fortuna we had lunch at the Rainforest Cafe (no, not that one) which was tasty and a place we went back to for breakfast. We decided to try and squeeze in an excursion (and save a little money) and instead explored a little of the town. La Fortuna is tiny with only a few streets around the main square. It’s very cute but it’s really just a jumping off point for all the various activities. And it was going to be home for three nights. On one hand, it’s nice to not move around a lot, but on the other, the hotel was (again) something to be desired. We stayed in Hotel Las Colinas and our room in particular was so small it was literally impossible to unpack (it was our beds and ONE tiny table – no dresser or closet) which defeated the purpose of spending a few nights, in my opinion. Now – it had a few positives with being in an incredible location to walk around and having an amazing view. But the room seriously sucked.
We did get an amazing ice cream on square and has a really great meal at Yellow Bark – so it’s not like it was a total loss of a day.
Day 3: La Fortuna and our First Group Excursion
I’ll admit, coming onto day three I was getting pretty salty. Two lackluster hotels, a bus ride, and basically nothing happening yet? I was feeling antsy and wondering where my money went.
But then – this! Our first kayak excursion! It was led by Desafio and I loved this. They took us over to Lake Arenal where we split the group into two – one group kayaked out to the peninsula while the other group did SUP (Stand up paddle board) and then we switched. During our break in the middle of the lake we had fruit and beer to enjoy.
This was my first time doing SUP and I was practically giddy I loved it so much. It was a beautiful and amazing spot to the activity and I highly recommend it. One thing to note – you do NOT need to be on this G Adventures tour for this! This is a tour hosted by Desafio and you can buy it one-off if you are in La Fortuna on your own.
After lunch, we went on a hike to get a better view of the Arenal volcano. This was organized through our guide and G Adventures, but it was, again, a tour hosted by Desafio that you can do without being part of a larger group. It was a nice little outing – definitely more “walk” than “hike” but did give some good opportunities to see wild life and pictures of the volcano with some informational tidbits.
Lastly, our group decided to partake in what our guide, Gabriel, called a more “rustic” hot springs experience. This, my friends, was the most unique and hysterical activity we encountered in our G Adventures trip. We stopped by a little market, bought some beer, and then Gabriel led us down some super sketchy steps into was was clearly just a dam run off or something super podunk. I almost lost my suit in a particularly aggressive portion but eventually the group of us set up shop in the back, Gabriel pulled out some candles, and it was downright relaxing and silly. We never would have found it on our own without Gabriel and it was definitely a perk to the trip. If you are in La Fortuna on your own and you ask around, you could find it, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it by yourself.
Day 4: La Fortuna
Our last full day in La Fortuna was unscheduled so we opted to try the boat tour up in Cano Negro. And there was a bit of the problem with the whole “other people plan for you” type of vacation – we weren’t sure what we were signing up for. We thought there was some kind of hiking element… or some kind of really unique situation. It was pretty much just a long, slow boat ride where you almost saw some wildlife. All in all, not our favorite use of our time (though it was lovely… just not quite active enough for us). It did include lunch, but our lunch stop was very awkwardly on someone’s farm property and there was no place to take advantage of the “outdoor commode” without showing your butt to the world.
We spent our final evening in La Fortuna enjoying the weather, walking, and doing a little shopping. It was lovely, but definitely time to go. Dinner at Lava Lounge which was tasty, but expensive.
Day 5: Sarapiquiand the 2nd Kayak Adventure
Welcome to Summer Camp!
Seriously – this was the point in our tour that you have to either laugh or cry. I think I did a little of both. We left La Fortuna in a lovely little private van and made our way to Sarapiqui. My jaw dropped when we pulled into Cinco Ceibas. The painted bus was adorable, the main lodge was fun and campy, but the fact that they housed NINE WOMEN in one of these cabins (with 3 bedrooms… 4 if you count the one that was just curtained off from the kitchen) and one bathroom was, to me, not okay. And don’t get me started on the food (the first included meals ALL TRIP). (Spoiler: the food sucked).
Look -let me back up here. I am not a finnicky traveler. I don’t get grossed out. I understand limitations. I was HOT about this though. I did not pay for shared accommodations. I paid a very decent price for this trip – it wasn’t supposed to be shoe string and, lemme tell ya, this is shoe string accommodation.
Ok – but if I was able to put aside my frustrations and absorb the good – let’s be honest we NEVER would have found this place on our own. And it really was like summer camp – we were the only people there and ate cafeteria style. It was kind of adorable.
We got there early enough to do our kayaking trip in the afternoon and that was a blast. It was a level 1 rapids – basically, a river with a slight current – which made the kayaking trip a LOT of fun. We dumped ourselves but it was a solid workout and an amazing trip. For people who don’t like adrenaline it was the perfect level up from a lazy river and a truly unique experience.
Outside of the kayak trip though there was NOTHING to do there (they didn’t even have board games in stock) so we chilled out in the main lodge (the only spot with mediocre wifi) until it was late enough to go to bed.
Day 6: Tortuguero
We bid a not unwelcome good-bye to summer camp and made the long-ish trek to Tortuguero. Now, this was a truly lovely place. Only accessible by boat I imagine a lot of solo traveler skip it but I definitely recommend finding your way there. It took a lot of travel but we eventually made it to the Baula Lodge – easily our nicest accommodations on the trip. While no luxury establishment they had cute little rooms in pretty colors, a nice pool, and fun places to hang out near the water.
We took a walk around the little town which was adorable (and honestly larger than I thought)! It’s all water taxis and cuteness around here and I could have spent more time but decided to enjoy the lodge instead.
Day 7: Tortugueroand Kayak Trip #3
We decided to have a packed day and started off with a morning hike to a beautiful look out. We had enough people join us that we had our guide come but it was something you easily could do on your own. It was a lovely little hike with some good stairs at the end.
Then it was straight to our third kayak trip which was delightful. It was a good three hours down the canals. Wide and beautiful at times and super narrow little hidey-holes in others. It was so much fun – we got really close to caymans and limbo’d under fallen trees. A truly wonderful and fun experience.
After a well earned lunch we then went back to the Tortuguero side of the river and took a nice long walk. This was led by our guide and we walked through the jungle, looking for wildlife, and then walked back on the beach side. It was relaxing and energizing and I got all the walking in the surf a gal could want.
Day 8: Back to San Jose
We took out time enjoying some coffee in the morning before heading back to the mainland. The boat trip back certainly seemed to take longer than the way there but eventually we made our way back to San Jose (and my faaavorite hotel. Sigh).
We took a little walking tour downtown, really racking up our steps (and wandering through some fairly sketchy areas) but finding some cute little tidbits in town. I’ll admit, what you read about San Jose in the guide books is pretty accurate. There are a few interesting spots but for the most part it’s not a very desirable city to wander. Half a day was plenty of time to feel like we got what we wanted out of it.
And that was it! There was nothing in the morning at all, just shipping us off to our destination. We walked a few blocks (again, so sketchy around our hotel) but found this adorable place (Hotel Grano de Oro) that had an excellent breakfast. It was a breath of fresh air before getting on our flights home.
All in All
We had a lovely time in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country with lots of fun activities. Taking out trip through G Adventures gave us things we could have – and would have – easily found ourselves but also a few extras. The kayak trips – the whole point of the tour was chose – were all exceptional and truly different. We might not have ever done one of them and definitely wouldn’t have done all three – so that was a huge perk. But the let down with the hotels and food was a big one. And – we did the math – but this trip more or less cost the same as Galapagos and Ecuador (well known for being expensive). That was definitely a let down as we figured we’d save a little this way but there were SO many added fees. I feel like ultimately we enjoyed ourselves despite the tour, not because of it, and Costa Rica just held enough positive attractive to keep us positive overall.
If you have the Galapagos/Ecuador on your Bucket List like my friend Marjorie and I did – you’re going to want to see this. Because we, my friends, nailed the PERFECT trip to paradise.
Let me start by saying planning a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos – especially the epically perfect trip Marjorie and I achieved – is not for people who hate planning. This took a lot of time and research and that is exactly why I am making this blog post. Because we absolutely, positively nailed it. Some of it was because of our extensive research, and some was plain dumb luck, but l wanted to put it all on the table so someone else can benefit.
First off: Luck. Our weather was absolutely perfect every day. We had one afternoon of rain in Mindo and that was it. If that weren’t the case, some of this would likely not have been as pleasant but hey – that is luck for you. I will say some of it was also good planning though; we went in early April. A time that is known for having “calmer” seas. So keep that in mind.
Itinerary – April 2019
One of the biggest decisions you have to make when you are planning a trip to the Galapagos is – land or sea? It is, however, in a lot of ways, a false decision. Unless you only plan on visiting one island (which would just be silly) you will have to do the sea. And that is why I recommend, 100%, to just suck it up, budget for the expense, and find yourself a cruise. I recommend you do ours, because ours was awesome, but don’t try to do all of the Galapagos without a cruise. I can say that with absolute certainty because Marjorie and I – we did both!
Here is our
Day 1: Arrived in Baltra, night in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
Day 2: Ferry to Isla Isabela, explored Isabela with NO guide (aka – free!)
Day 3: Full day Isla Isabela – day trip to Volcan Sierra Negra
Day 4: Morning ferry back to Isla Santa Cruz, explored with NO guide
Day 5: Boarded our cruise, afternoon on North Seymour
Day 6: Genovesa – hiking and snorkeling, kayaking, and beach time
Day 7: Bartolome and Santiago for hiking, with snorkeling in between
Day 8: End of cruise, flight to Quito, night in Quito
Day 9: All day exploring Quito Old Town
Day 10: Morning bus to Mindo, night in Mindo
Day 11: Mid-day bus to Quito, afternoon and night in La
Floresta neighborhood, part of New Town Quito
Day 12: Airport home
I would recommend the above plan to just about everyone. If
you can add days – DO it – but at the same time Marjorie and I were very ready
to stop the schlepping and come home. In all honesty, our trip was so perfect;
I think we both figured we were pushing our luck to continue to get perfect
after 12 days of travel.
Day 1: Arrival and exploring Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
When you arrive in Ecuador, you need to get a visa to go to the Galapagos.
Perk number 1 of having a cruise lined up: we were given directions from our guide (We used Jonathan at Happy Gringo. He was very helpful and responsive – highly recommend!) so we knew exactly how we had to stand in line to get our Galapagos visa when we arrived in Guayaquil. To be honest, it was not readily apparent and I think if someone only did vague research, it could have been missed. They don’t check it to get into the Galapagos but they definitely checked for it leaving. I assume massive fines if you don’t have it.
When we arrived in Baltra airport, that’s the airport in the Galapagos, it was all quite easy, to be honest. There’s really only one way to get out of the airport and that is the bus to the harbor. And when you get there, it’s just the one option of the short 5 minute ferry to the other side. From there, unless you have a hired driver, you pretty much have to take a taxi. Taxis on Santa Cruz are all white pick-up trucks which at first to me seemed weird, and later just seemed adorable. You’re looking at $25 to get to Puerto Ayora with the taxi and we didn’t get anyone heckling us for more money.
In fact – everyone in Ecuador, and especially the Galapagos, is incredibly kind. Seriously – great humans, the lot of them.
We stayed both of our nights in Puerto Ayora at Hostal White House. I give them all the stars I can give. It was cute, it was clean, it had powerful air conditioning and hammocks (essential living for me). Everyone we encountered was nice and helpful and it was in a very convenient location. I would recommend it in a heartbeat.
It was this fateful evening that we discovered our coconut ice cream shop. We visiting this place, I am not kidding you, at least 5 times. It was cute, it was simple, it was guava and coconut mixed and it was everything we wanted in life. It’s on Avenue Baltra (the main street down to the water) between roads 18 de Febrero and Charles Binford. You’re not going to find an address, but seek it out and pay the man $1.25 to full up your little cup. You won’t regret it.
Day 2: Isla Isabela
Marjorie and I were adamant about one thing regarding the Galapagos. We didn’t want to feel trapped. The concept of a long cruise really bugged us out. What if we didn’t like the guide? The food? The boat or our shipmates? We all know how one sour thing like that can really ruin an experience. Because of this, we hedged our bets. The first 4 days on the Galapagos were us on our own. We would do what we could guide-less with the least amount of commitments – and that took us to Isabela.
Isla Isabela is famous for a few things – 1) being awesome 2) being large 3) being young 4) being sparsely inhabited
It is all of these things. The town – the only town – is Puerto Villamil and has a population of 2,000. Especially compared to Puerto Ayora at 12,000 people (and what felt to be, really, rather bustling) this was a sleepy island getaway.
We stayed at Hostal Jenniffer which was, again, great. Our room and the lobby were both really quite large but sparsely furnished which is the best constructive criticism I can find. Otherwise it was clean, comfortable, with a full kitchen and – you guessed it – hammocks. Happy as a clam.
Your tour books will advertise a specific “free” beach with snorkeling available. We explored the island and felt this, honestly, to be a little silly. The beach the tour books reference is literally right next to the dock. It was a pleasant place to swim, but felt strange to try to snorkel there. There was supposedly another inlet somewhere but we couldn’t seem to find it (though, admittedly, we didn’t look that hard). What we found to be the most interesting though was that, honestly, all the beaches were free. There is another gorgeous one at a pier right as the main street opens up and then another one down the road near where a magical walkway to the Tortoise Breeding Center is – it’s all free, it’s all beautiful. Maybe that’s the only one that can be advertised as free but if you want to swim – just walk along the beaches and jump in. You won’t be the only one. Others are wider, clearer, and just nicer.
Okay – but let me back up. How did we get to Isla Isabela? Really the only way you can (other than some kind of mysterious hired plane) which that is the ferry. “Ferries” in the Galapagos are really just speed boats that seat about 20 people. They leave just two times a day and we opted for the morning. If you have any kind of qualms with waves, we highly recommend the morning rides. It apparently gets much more chaotic on the water in the afternoon and our rides were not exactly calm.
We bought our tickets in advance right from our hostel, but there were tickets available at multiple tour offices and I think you can buy it right on the dock the morning of. Everyone is going to charge the same rate, we never found differences. The boats aren’t huge though so I’d definitely recommend buying it the night before so you ensure you get a seat. Ours was full both ferry rides.
The ferry is a true two hours and for the most part was calm. But there’s a good 45 minutes when you are far enough away from both coasts that you are truly out in the sea and “calm” just isn’t a thing. Take your nausea medicine and be prepared to get splashed and jolted, depending on your spot on the boat. To be honest, it just wasn’t pleasant and was rather uncomfortable with all the people, but it wasn’t awful either. It’s the Galapagos equivalent of a public bus.
When we got to Isabela we checked in (our room was ready early, soooo happy) and then just plopped down at one of the restaurants mentioned in the guide books, Valero (right on the main drag, you can’t miss it). Here we got an Ecuadorian staple called a Bolon that we literally ate every chance we got- fried plantains with a mild white cheese and a fried egg. Ecuadorian coffee and fresh squeezed juice. Can’t go wrong. Overall this ended up being the least tasty of all the bolons we consumed but it was good. I can’t say I was encouraged by what the rest of the menu would be though, but the location was cute which made it worth it.
We then walked down the main – practically the only – road and veered off on a wooden walkway to the right where marine iguanas lounged all over each other and you crossed lagoons populated with flamingos. It was reminiscent of, of all things, the faerie glens in Scotland and was really a fun little walk. The walk ended in the Isabela Tortoise Breeding ground where we spotted all kinds of different tortoises of varying ages. It was cute and picture worthy.
Technically we could have walked back and then continued on to the Wall of Tears which is a big attraction on Isabela but we were very tired at that point. Instead we walked back, stopping for some fresh coconut water at Marani Surf Shop. It’s, of course, along the main road and is part house, part art gallery, and part restaurant – but it’s all awesome.
Then we took a break, did some beach swimming, signed up for our day tour the following day, and then went and grabbed dinner at The Booby Trap. Excellent food with a fantastic view and instagram worthy name. Win/win/win – though bring your bug spray, you’re close to the lagoons so mosquitoes are friendly there.
Day 3 – Hiking the Volcano – Sierra Negra
There are a lot of options for day tours on Isabela and we only had one day to play with. Los Tuneles is a highly coveted area but we knew we were going to have a lot of cruise spots so we decided to stay on dry land and headed up Sierra Negra. If you have an extra day, the Tuneles are supposedly worth it and I have no reason to doubt it.
However, if you have only one day, do the volcano. Even thinking back now on all the incredible things we did, this volcano hike was truly one of the highlights of the whole trip. We highly recommend our tour. We bought the tour from IsaTourEx and our guide was Sebastian. He has, apparently, been doing it for 15 years and clearly has his own, incredible, route. A ton of tours started at the same time but everyone else went on a different, lower route. It was hot and I got so sunburned, but it was honestly one of the most unique experiences of my life – and it was only our 3rd day into our trip.
We came back hot, tired, sore, and only really had the energy to sit, get some ice cream, sit on a beach, and then go to a restaurant that pulled the grill out to the sidewalk and fired up some meat. So YEAH we were going to eat there. It was called Maestro De Casa and I will say one thing – the Ecuadorians do a good grill. Anywhere we went whether it was beef or fish or whatever, if it was grilled, it was prepared excellent. So when in doubt…. Stop at this place with a grill for SURE.
Day 4 – Isla Santa Cruz
We took a VERY early ferry to get another bumpy ride back to Santa Cruz. We got a brunch of (you guessed it) plantain balls and fried eggs before working out our itinerary for our day in Santa Cruz.
Despite the heat, we ended up heading to Tortuga Bay. We highly recommend making your way here if you are on Santa Cruz. No guides needed, though there is a fee for entry. The walkway is hot and long but beautiful and then you end up on the most pristine, white sand beach you’ll ever see. Paradise. Circle your way around and there is an equally incredible beach where you are allowed to swim – pop your towel under a short tree and lay around in the water. It was heavenly and you could easily spend an entire afternoon. Pro Tip: There’s even a water taxi where you can pay to get taken back to Puerto Ayora (which we did – we were too burned to want to tackle the walk back).
That night we ate on restaurant row (Charles Binford road – it looks normal by day but impossible to miss around supper time). No idea what the restaurant was called but they all serve the same thing. We picked out our fish and shrimp and they grilled it up for us. The meat was good, the sides were fine. Nothing wrong with our selection but I’m sure you could go to any of them and get something as good – we stopped at the first restaurant on your right when you approach from Baltra Street.
Day 5 – Board the Cruise and Explore North Seymour
Cruise day! It was tedious travel for us to get back up to the airport (taxi, to mini-ferry, to bus) to be picked up but we found our guide easily and made our way onto the Archipel I. It’s hard for me to explain how excited we were about this
We had just spent the last 4 days on our own, we were tired and sunburned, and we walk into this gorgeous boat with the air conditioner blasting and we KNEW we had made an excellent decision.
We were so ready to put the planning into the hands of our (though we didn’t know it then) very capable crew. Our boat wasn’t deemed “luxury” but the cabin was way nicer and spacious than I expected – the beds were truly comfortable and the bathroom space really accommodating.
One thing to note – NO WIFI! At first I was a little worried but honestly, it was great to be 100% off the grid for 4 days. Still – we didn’t know about the lack of wifi in advance and didn’t really prepare our families. Whoops.
Honestly, I can’t say enough about our crew. They were so nice, friendly, capable, and accommodating.
Marjorie has a gluten allergy and not only were there lots of options in general, they were always careful to make her aware of what was gluten free and always provided her a special meal if needed.
That first day we took a short and delightful trip after our lunch to do an afternoon on North Seymour. It was the perfect starting off point with a (hot) hike that let us see lots of Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate birds. It was, already, a totally new and unique experience from what we did on our own.
We were able to do some snorkeling, equipment provided or you can use your own, and we were rewarded with snacks upon our return. Then free time, dinner, and hanging out or bed.
I’ll admit, for both Marjorie and I, sleeping on a moving boat was challenging. We seemed to be the only ones who had trouble though. They purposefully wait to travel until people are headed to bed, I assume for sea-sickness purposes.
Day 6: Isla Genovesa
We awoke the next morning in the giant circular bay of Genovesa. It was gorgeous and calm and provided a full day of various activities. We started off the day with a hike on Prince Phillip’s steps. This gave us even more bird sightings – including the red and Nasca boobies, as well a lot more frigates, iguanas, and the rest. It was also just beautiful scenery and our guide, Fabian, was fantastic. He clearly has such a love and passion for what he does and can really talk about the same birds over and over again with new information.
April was a good time to go because we were able to witness a lot of the mating rituals. Not that I’m really into a peep show but it was definitely interesting to see and talk about.
After the hike – which was, again HOT but not otherwise challenging – we were able to spend time snorkeling. Snorkeling is pretty much the best thing ever in my book and I could have stayed there all day.
When we got back to the boat it was lunch and then we had
the opportunity to go kayaking – which we did.
That was fun and different and another way to get moving. We were able to hug the coast of the bay and
saw more birds as well as sea lions. The water was so calm it was easy and
More down time and then we went for a hike on another part
of the island, the beach part, and we were able to experience a lot of the same
birds but a different landscape and a lot of sea lions as well. Then we ended our day with beach
relaxation. I really found the cruise to
be a good mixture of activity and down time both on and off the boat.
That night we experienced one of the most beautiful sunsets
I’ve ever seen.
Day 7: Isla Bartolome and Isla Santiago
After another long night of boat rocking (it was about 8 hours to get to and from Genovesa) we awoke at Isla Bartolome, which had been our “must” destination for the cruise.
Bartolome is has a very dynamic landscape and you can see all the lava rock. You climb 130-some steps to get to the top for some really incredible views. Other than it being a lot of stairs, it wasn’t an otherwise strenuous hike and the view is one of the most notable in the Galapagos.
It was one of those places where, when you got to the top, it really hits you how special this is. It’s landscape is truly like no other and we were so fortunate to be able to experience it.
We were then able to snorkel around the huge jagged rock famous in Galapagos pictures before heading back on the boat and cruising over the lunch time to Isla Santiago for more hiking. Santiago is cool and different as it is entirely a lava wasteland – you could easily be in a science fiction movie. This hike was less about animals and more about the craziness that is nature and the epically cool experience of walking on all the intricate lava flows.
After the short, but unique, hike, there was more beach time
with snorkeling as well. We did manage to spot just one Galapagos penguin which
checked off all the musts on our particular bucket list. April isn’t really ideal penguin season so we
were pleasantly surprised and lucky.
That night the boat took us back to Puerto Ayora and I spent the majority of the evening on the top deck. For me the rockiness of the water, due to some storms nearby that never got to us, was too much for me to be below deck. Looking back, I’m glad I was uncomfortable below, because I will remember that night for a long time.
Never in my life have I seen stars as bright as I have in Galapagos night. That peace, paired with the sea breeze, made for an emotional and unforgettable experience.
I was able to sit and chat with a couple members of the staff who were so kind and compassionate, wanting to ensure I was okay since I was out so late. I eventually went in, but I seriously considered staying out there the whole night.
Day 8: End of the Cruise and Quito
We woke to a beautiful sunrise and got off the boat early. We had a quick tour of the Charles Darwin Breeding Center and were able to see more of the giant tortoises – it wasn’t as impressive as the one on Isla Isabela but totally worth it if it don’t find yourself at Isabela.
It was quick, though, as we then had the bus back to the harbor, water taxi across, another bus to the airport, and then we were there. We had worked with our tour guide to ensure we had a direct flight to Quito which, looking back, probably wasn’t the best use of our time. Instead of taking the 10am flight, our direct flight was at 1pm. For us this was great because it was theoretically less time “traveling” and time in the air – but then, of course, we got delayed. We didn’t get into the air until close to 4pm. So we spent the majority of the day just sitting at the Baltra airport where there is – you guessed it – no wifi.
So, we lost almost a day of travel but made it safely and then took a bus then a taxi to our Airbnb in Old Town Quito (very cute, by the way, and recommended!). Our Airbnb host was very kind and helpful and even gave us a ride down to the Calle de la Ronda which is well known in Quito and had lots of restaurants. We opted to eat on our own so we could get some rest. We ended up at Leña Quiteña where we got some food samplers and I tried the Quito famous Canelazo – it’s a warm alcoholic drink made with their bluebird liquor, orange juice, and spaces. I, personally, was not a fan as it’s WAY too strong for me, but always worth trying!
Day 9: Quito Old Town
Our next day was all about exploring Quito Old Town. We tried our hardest to finds some of the recommended restaurants in our guide book but struck out, repeatedly, during the day. I won’t even mention where we had breakfast- it was more or less a diner and it served its purpose. Overall, while Old Town seemed easy to navigate, we had a hard time finding specific addresses.
We hooked our tour train up then to a free guided tour which, like every free walking tour I’ve ever experienced, was incredible. I always recommend this is the first thing you do when you get to a new city as they show you almost everything you need. I highly recommend Strawberry Tours (free!). We walked through Old Town, saw some great churches and squares, learned a little, and got plenty of tips on where to go next. In particular I think is the one of the best walking tours I’ve been on because we had LOTS of free samples. We literally stopped and had free coffee and tea at a cute restaurant (where we returned for dinner, more on that later) as well as had free candy samples and then even got a mini chocolate tour. We went back to ALL the places later and made purchases, so it was a win for everyone.
After our tour walked to the Basilica. Now, let me tell you, Quito is all about the views. Pretty much every activity boasts that you can get up high and see the world. So that’s what we did in the Basilica. There were some walkways that felt a little sketch and both of us almost had a panic attack when we saw the steps we had to climb to get to the top of the spire, but we both YOLO’d it and got some great images and memories. It was fun, but not essential.
Our lunch was ice cream (of course). We desperately tried to find a famous ice
cream place that didn’t seem to exist.
So instead we went to the candy shop we had stopped at on our tour (just
off Independence Plaza) and grabbed ice cream at the stand next to his and sat
in a cute, beautiful ivy-covered courtyard to each our lunch/snack.
From there we wandered the Old Town a little more, just going up and down the streets and really enjoyed the view. We truly felt we had seen and experience Old Town so we grabbed a taxi and it took us all the way up the mountain to see the Virgen of Quito statue. We took our pictures but didn’t feel like hanging out for an hour for sunset so we took another taxi back down to the Ronda where we went to have dinner at Masaya, where we had stopped on our tour. It was adorable, delicious, and also is a hostel so take a look at that as a possible accommodation. Service was lacking but we really enjoyed the experience overall and it was a fun, tucked away part of the Ronda.
Then, of course, we finished off our day with ice cream at probably the best ice cream place we had found on the mainland- Dulce Placer. It was definitely artisanal with really unique flavors and had one cute little table where you could look over the street. It’s very tucked away but so worth finding.
Despite all the warnings, we walked home that night and had
no issues at all. I’m sure it’s very important to be diligent after dark but it
was still early and it was actually beautiful walking through Old Town at
night. There were lots of folks out, too
so we felt very secure.
Day 10: Mindo
The next morning we checked out and got a morning bus to Mindo, the cloud forest. The bus was easy, if a bit long, and the comfort of the bus is probably what you would expect of South America. Air conditioning and wifi are not to be expected. The road was a little close to the edge at times but otherwise I felt secure enough to sleep without worries. When we arrived, we went straight to the office to buy our return trip. Apparently the bus can get full so decide on your plans and buy those tickets right away.
Mindo was everything it was advertised to be. Small and sleepy with a few streets for the town. We grabbed a taxi to our resort, Las Terrazas de Dana, which was 100% perfect. Ana was there and she took truly exceptional care of us. We were able to check in early, get breakfast, get advice, and soak in the raw beauty of Mindo. It was my first time in the rain forest/cloud forest and staying with Ana really made us feel like I was experiencing it in luxury. HIGHLY recommend.
We started off our day in Mindo by visiting the waterfalls. Ana helped us call a taxi who drove us to the top of the mountain where we immediately encountered a cable car. If you haven’t noticed by now in this blog, Marjorie and I are major chickens and it took some psyching up but we did the cable car with white knuckles (looking back, it really wasn’t that bad). On the other side we took a true cloud forest hike with beautiful canopies, mossy trees with huge leaves, and glimpses of incredible views. We opted to take the longer hike to the bigger waterfall, Reina. It was delightful and at times a little challenging, but totally walkable. We opted to hike back to where we started instead of taking the cable car back so we could see more waterfalls and also avoid hanging in the air with nothing to catch us. About 20 minutes away from our destination we really experienced the cloud forest as it rained on us. Though soggy, it was actually a cool experience.
We also had asked our taxi driver to come back for us so we
were able to hop right in, go to our bungalow to change, and then we opted to
check out Mindo proper. We stopped at the Hummingbird Farm which was cool but
small and don’t expect to get any pictures of those little devils unless you
have a truly legit camera.
We opted out of our chocolate tour since we had such a great experience in Quito on the free tour and instead popped into a few shops, bought chocolate, did some wandering and then went to The Food Studio for dinner. It was delicious and a fun gastro experience in what felt like a strange setting, but highly recommend for truly great food.
Day 11: Mindo and Quito (La Floresta)
We had opted for a midday bus which gave us time to explore a little more before leaving Mindo. We got up and hiked to the butterfly garden which had an impressive amount of butterfly as well as orchids and other cool flowers in the gardens. Worth it, especially if you are staying where we were since you could walk there. We were able to enjoy our breakfast (seriously, so good) and then took the bus back to Quito.
The taxi from the bus depot to the Airbnb in La Floresta neighborhood was a long one but, thankfully, taxis aren’t expensive in Quito. We had a gorgeous afternoon and evening in a part of Quito that was night and day different from Old Town. I seriously couldn’t even recognize it as the same place and I am so glad we decided to try out a different part of town. I feel like, even though it was only one afternoon, I really understood that Quito is a vibrant, beautiful city and not just the busy and congested areas of Old Town.
La Floresta was a breath of fresh air with incredible street art and modern buildings.
We literally just walked up and down the neighborhood. It was Sunday so most of it was closed but it was still delightful. We also stumbled upon an incredible museum I highly recommend. The Casa Cultural Truge Sojka was a starkly moving experience. The life of Trude was both horrible and fascinating – she was a holocaust survivor and a truly gifted artist. We had the privilege of receiving the tour from her granddaughter. It was spontaneous and memorable. We just walked up and knocked, but, if you would like to go, it’s better to call ahead and make an appointment.
Ultimately, we visited a very strange ice cream place, GelatoMix, which we both said was an experience but perhaps not one we wanted to revisit. They put cream and cheese on top of all their ice cream at this shop. It was very busy though so it must be quite the hit for the Quito pallet.
Our final supper in Ecuador was at La Macaria and delicious with no strange cheese additions. It was literally less than a block away from our excellent Airbnb and had absurdly small baskets of chips on the table (at least, small for us hungry Americans) and I shamelessly asked for multiple refills. The food was excellent and well worth the over eating. From there we went up to enjoy our final Quito views and head home.
Day 12: Home
All in all, with 10 full days on Ecuador land and sea, Marjorie and I were able to wrangle together an incredible adventure. I highly recommend anyone who is coming here for their bucket list to put in a lot of thought and creativity. We saw SO much by being open to both rigid tour and flexible planning. The “must-dos” are often, yes, MUST dos. But there are so many wonderful side items that you can find and I encourage you to take the time to do so!
Sorry, folks, this is not good. I know some of you loved the book, but this was cringe-tastic. It’s like Culbertson took all the bad parts of a YA novel and shoved it all into a beautiful package.
This book has so much potential! A recent break-up, an Italian vacation, twenty dares from a best friend – I love the premise. The execution was total blerg.
Where do I begin? Let’s start with my biggest frustration – the trip. That was the most boring, god-awful travel log I have ever read. Seriously, how do you write a book about a trip to Italy and focus only on the bad parts? I’d done a trip like what Jessa experienced in this book and I know what Culbertson was getting at – school trips abroad are generally terrible ideas. You sit in a boring bus all day, you barely have any time at locations, etc. I don’t want to read about it. I don’t need to see all the nuances of why traveling in a group sucks.
This book, to me, is just littered with Culbertson’s life experiences. It’s so obvious to me that each experience Jessa has Culbertson likely had in life. I’m all for authors drawing on true experiences, but this is just too much. All the referrals to specific musicals and games and whatnot – it was all too exact. Television shows and movies were just too alienating; as a reader I didn’t know a lot of the pop culture that was mentioned. None of it had meaning to me and so I just felt like I was listening in on a young girl’s (boring) life.
And then, of course, my main issue. Every single character needed to just get over him or her self. I know people are self-absorbed at that age but I don’t want to read about it in the extreme. Jessa’s pity party went on for far too long – blah blah you loved him blah. Based on everything we learned from Carissa, he obviously sucked, so you shouldn’t have loved him. And this whole “being too busy” thing was just lame. And can I mention how apparently everyone in their brother was poet or a singer? I know they were drama kids, but still.
I don’t know, it seems like very little in this book rang true (what’s up with Jessa having like six incredibly close guy friends? And everyone on the trip hooking up? What was up with her telling a new story for her scar all the time?) or, when things did ring true, I didn’t want to know (I don’t need to know how bored you are on the bus. I really don’t,)
It’s not my intention to be completely mean. I did finish it, after all. The writing was decent and there were some really nice lines but I just couldn’t get lost in it. So not worth it.
I finished reading this book while sitting on my couch, stuffing my face with Starburst jelly beans (side note; best candy ever). Needless to say, I don’t have any freaking clue what Kamkwamba’s life was like growing up. Or now, for that matter. I have no real concept of how hard farming in Malawi is. I don’t know how hot the sun gets or what it’s like to not have light after dark. I don’t know what it means to be hungry even for a day – much less an entire country being hungry in a famine. I don’t know what it feels like to have no money for school, to teach myself science, or to build something great.
What I’m trying say is, Kamkwamba and I don’t have a lot in common. I therefore feel like a D for not rating his book 5 stars. Oh well, it is what it is.
I certainly am glad I read it. There were many parts I won’t forget – particularly how he describe the famine in his country. It was incredible and he did such a great job at pointing out the parts of being hungry that became normal life. It made even a well-fed lady like myself feel cold all over. But that all fell away to the great joy I felt when he spoke about his first TED conference. Kamkwamba’s memoir does a great job at highlighting the highs and lows of his life.
Still, I don’t think this book is for everyone. If you like memoirs, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re not a huge memoir fan, you might want to pass. I found the beginning cumbersome with the stories of his family and the belief in magic in Malawi. I also found many of his descriptions of his learning and actual building of the windmill to be too detailed (probably because I didn’t understand it). I think they were valuable parts to write about and helped to round out the story, but it didn’t make for action-packed reading.
Regardless of the number of stars, I finished this book feeling inspired. I feel humbled and encouraged by the fact that there are people out there doing great things. Even though I know I will never achieve that kind of greatness myself, I hope I help a little just by hearing his story.
There a lot about this book that I love – there is so much to be jealous of. These girls found the time and dedication to travel for an entire year. It’s something I would love to do and it’s also something I know I will never do. It’s just not my life. So living vicariously was exactly why I picked up the book. These girls traveled to places I have never been and say such amazing things. I really loved reading about it.
Still, I just can’t rave about the book. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, it’s just a little bland. Vanilla. I can tell these girls are used to a very journalistic writing. Their prose all sounds exactly the same and, with names like Jennifer, Holly, and Amanda, I found it impossible to keep them straight. I was constantly mixing up who was who. I feel like the book would have really benefited if they could have figure out a way to develop different writing styles. Some visual aides could have really helped – you know they took a million pictures. I would have loved to have seen the beat-up van, Esther, the yoga retreat, etc.
Despite the adventures and nice mixture of this-is-what-I-saw and this-is-what-I-felt, it took me a really long time to get through this book. This is something I should be devoured. Besides the lack of voice, I’m not sure what was missing – other people maybe? One of my favorite memoirs is Somebody’s Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa because of the author’s incredible ability to observe others and bring them into the story. This memoir is firmly on these three girls and, despite being a young white woman traveler myself, I just couldn’t quite get invested.
Still, it’s certainly not bad, and it’s a great thing to read if you’re itching for a trip of your own but can’t get away. There are nice tid-bits along the way, too, that give some good perspective.
“After all my searching for something to believe in, what if taking the journey itself were the highest act of faith? Traveling anywhere that was foreign inevitably meant I’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. To venture out in the world, I had to have faith in the goodness of people – and to be open to the lessons that every new person might bring.
Amen, Holly. Or was that Amanda who wrote that? Jennifer?