Has anyone else started new traditions in the midst of this pandemic? Our family sure did. In an effort to get two feral children out of the house + help keep small coffee shops afloat during shutdown and shelter + feed our burgeoning caffeine addiction we started our own self tour of the city and coffee shops all over.
And it’s been so much fun! The lack of traffic makes getting downtown a breeze, giving us the chance to explore and see so many neighborhoods we never would have bothered trying to visit. I mean, who would drive and sit in traffic for 45+ minutes just for a new coffee shop? But now we are hooked and, since we’re a family of early risers, we still find ourselves checking out and exploring new spots.
So – our exploration is YOUR gain! I wanted to curate this extensive list of coffee shops that we’ve visited – I’ve clustered them by neighborhood-ish. This is thoroughly unscientific. It’s all my personal preferences but to give you an idea, here’s what brings a coffee shop to the top of the list:
My husband always gets a black coffee so he provides his thoughts on that staple coffee
I am a latte/froo-froo coffee gal so I LOVE finding a place with fun and unique specialty lattes to try
The pandemic has also brought rise to “Donut Saturday” in our house (blog post to come there, too!) and so a coffee shop with tasty snacks/food is also a plus
The Cute Factor
Give me a cute coffee shop – kitschy, sophisticated, whatever – and I’m sold. I’ll also get you a list of coffee shops that are great for indoor/outdoor workspace too, once I can properly test that (hard to say when we couldn’t sit indoor for, you know, over a year)
We’ve all been there – the coffee shop that is waaaay too cool to be serving you. That doesn’t do it for me. I want the friendly neighborhood barista, I want the helpful rep who can walk me through what’s in their indiscriminately named latte and I’ll come back for the service.
Elevate Coffee (Boystown) I’m low-key obsessed with this place. One, because I love boystown and being anywhere in that area. Two because the service is spectacular, and three because their coffee was soooo good. They have the best rose latte ever – it’s Rose Marzipan and has real rose petals and I was awkward-love-moaning while drinking it. If that isn’t a review, then I don’t know what is.
Two Hearted Queen (Boystown) Absurdly kind staff with very tasty drinks and do NOT pass up on ordering the scones. They are incredible. They have another location in Roscoe Village too that I’ll try to hit up some day.
Brew Brew Coffee + Tea (Avondale/Logan Square) They have tasty and fun specialty lattes along with some pastries, bagels, and tortas. We tried the mushroom and “sunrise” torta and both were exceptionally good (if soooo messy). Outdoor seating and even a couple spots inside right now. Park is right nearby too which was fun and nice.
Four Letter Word (Logan Square) Hard to tell the atmosphere as they did the walk-up window but coffee was good and the premise was cute so I’m all for a return visit.
necessary & sufficient coffee (Logan Square) Okay, I really enjoyed this cute little place. Fun lattes, and I tried their mushroom breakfast sandwich and holy COW was it tasty. Window walk up so not sure on seating I plan a repeat visit.
Sip of Hope (Logan Square) Love what this place stands for! We visited in the hardcore lockdown time so there wasn’t much to see but the place looked cute and the coffee was good. With 100% of their profits going toward mental health & suicide prevention how can you not want to buy something?
Botanical Cafe (North Center) Look, I’ll be honest. I don’t really remember the coffee. It must have been at least fine – but really, this place wins for being the cutest cafe of all time. It’s also a plant store! I mean COME ON. I was dying a little and loving all of it. Must see.
Cafe Urbano (Irving Park) Good coffee, good sammies, cute little flatiron style building location. I’ll take it.
Coffee Lab + Roasters (Lakeview) They have some amazing creative lattes and I want to try them all. Great coffee, good vibes, and donuts on the weekends (hollllla)
Doppio Coffee House (Lakeview) Nice place with good drinks and donuts. Strong lakeview vibes but I can dig it. It’s nice to experience nice things, you know? I can be classy.
11 Degrees North (Lakeview East) Here’s the thing, they had good coffee. Sure. But that’s not why I will be back. I’ll be back for those arepas man! Yummmmmm! Super cute, super nice staff. Definitely worth a stop.
Hero Coffee Bar (Lakeview) I’ll be honest, I wasn’t suuuper impressed coffee-wise with Hero. But they have a few locations and I did get something floral (I forget if I got rose or lavender) but those can be tricky. So I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially because they had a selection of bagel sandwiches that were quite yummy in my tummy so I won’t fight anyone who wants to take me back.
Kapej Coffee (Old Town) This snug little place pops up out of nowhere on a pretty residential street. It’s long and narrow and would be so much fun to snuggle into on an autumn or winter day with a crackling fire and – just, lovely. The staff was friendly and kind and they have a nice selection of various lattes and options. Been here twice and it feels like a place you’ve discovered.
Sip + Savor (Hyde Park) There are (I think) a few Sip + Savors around Chicago but we’ve only been to the Hyde Park location. Solid coffee and I love the spread of unique lattes and mochas. Snack selection is sparse but there’s lots of indoor space and an absolutely gorgeous park across the street with a great playground so major bonus for an outdoor place to enjoy your brew.
AndySunflower Cafe (Beverly) This place is so cute and the two women behind the counter (99% sure one was the owner) were exceptionally kind and helpful in explaining the menu to me. Excellent brews!
Big Shoulders (Gold Coast) Super cute inside and looked like they have cushy seating in non-pandemic times. It looks exactly like a “coffee shop.” They legitimately toasted a marshmallow for me when I got the marshmallow latte soooo they obviously are in my heart forever now. They have a couple other locations but I’ve only been to this one on State Street.
Wormhole Coffee (Wicker Park) It’s hard to be more hipster than Wormhole – but that’s why we love it, isn’t it? Smack dab in the midst of Wicker Park you’re right near Jeni’s (oh, heck yes) and they are serving up great coffee with a smidge of an outdoor space. If you can grab a spot, you can watch the riff-raff slide past and love every moment of it. Or at least I do.
Bru Coffee (Wicker Park) Just a littel further down Milwaukee Ave you can find Bru Coffee which has three things going for it – solid coffee selections, a spot right next to Myopic Books (be still, my heart), and a selection of to-die-for crepes. Seriously… what’s not to love? The crepes took a while when we were but holy cow were they worth watching for.
Caffe Streets (Wicker Park) Look, I’ll be honest, it was a little hard to judge this place in the midst of the pandemic. They had the whole window service thing going on and were ulllltra hipster so options were pretty limited. But the drinks were good and I appreciate solid COVID plan so they were worth the stop.
Sawada Coffee (Fulton Market) I’ll be honest here – Sawada Coffee didn’t do it for it. You’ll see they come up on just about every Chicago blog and I get it. They are clearly in-the-know when it comes to coffee and they mix a ton of their stuff with matcha – which, you know, cool but not really my flavor profile. They have donuts on Saturday at least and a few other selections so I feel good about that. But this is one of those places where it’s not just hipster, it’s the kind of place where if you are not hipster (which… guys, you’ll be shocked, this 30+ year old mom of two doesn’t quite fit the hipster vibe) you get side eye. And don’t you dare expect a smile, or even significant eye contact. This place is too cool for that.. but the coffee is solid. So there ya go.
Heritage Bikes and Coffee (West Loop) Gah, loved this place. They have a few locations but have only hit up this one so far. Fun lattes, good pastries, and a handful of other knick-knacks. Sufficiently quirky to give me happy vibes.
Groundswell Coffee Roasters (West Loop) This place has the perfect “my local coffeeshop” vibe. Friendly staff on a perky little section of Madison street that just begs to be strolled down. They had some donuts, some good coffee selection, who wouldn’t want to stop in?
Metric Coffee (West Loop-ish) Okay – this place is kind of hilarious. You get here and it’s all industrial and you totally have that vibe where you wonder if you put the warehouse or something in your GPS. Don’t fear, it’s real, you can walk in and order your very sophisticated coffee. But – FUN FIND – they had this amaaaaazing selection of ridiculously fancy donuts that I bought too many of (oops?). Not sure if that’s just a weekend thing or not but I’m willing to, you know, fight for the cause, and go a couple more times to confirm for you. No need to thank me. It’s a service.
Dark Matter — Mothership (Ukrainian Village) — Osmium (Boystown) — Electric Mud Coffee Bar (Wicker Park) Dark Matter has a few different locations and I’ve had the opportunity to frequent a few of them. They, honestly, are all about the same. Same menu, same vibe (uuuuultra hipster!). Their coffee is DELICIOUS and they have a few specialty options that are the bomb diggity. Not really any seating available, this is a get your coffee fix because it’s amazing and head out the do’ kind of place. Worth it and usually they have a selection of Do-Rite donuts available so, can’t fault that.
Places to pass on:
Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but there are a couple of places that just missed the mark and are worth saying – yeah, just skip them. – Printers Row Coffee Co. (Lincoln Park) – just fine, but not great. – Maison Parisienne (Lakeview East) – I went here because of the promise of pastries and they were decent but crazy $$ and the coffee was just okay to almost bad… – Ritual Coffeehouse (Irving Park) – just fine – GroundUp (West Loop) – coffee was not great and despite it smelling amaaaazing in there, the food was just okay. – La Colombe (Randolph/West Loop) – yeah, yeah it’s a chain and it shows. Nothing to brag about. – Oromo Cafe (Ravenswood) – accidentally went there twice and both time where ho-hum. Their specialty lattes sound delicious but both times I went their was sooo much debris in the bottom I had to ditch the last 1/4 of my cup. Disappointing. – MeLatte Coffee (Logan Square) – so this place is ADORABLE but the coffee was only so-so and unfortunately the empanadas, a huge draw for me, were not great. I don’t be stopping by again.
Okay so I live in a suburb just west of the city, so you can bet that I’ve been to our local stops. I wanted to pull these aside for special props. If you can get out here (it’s actually super easy to do so by car or green/blue line) I highly recommend doing so since we have some great brews:
Kribi Coffee Kribi is AMAZING. They have delicious coffee and one of the best chai tea lattes I’ve had. They offer specialty lattes and are always updating them for the season. Gelato and a little pastry selection, breakfast sandwiches and avocado toast, it’s easy to get a light meal. Donuts on the weekend from Do-Rite and lots of indoor and outdoor seating. One of my favorite coffee shops of all time. Also they have amazing staff, I always feel so welcomed (plus a frequent visit punch card, yes please!)
Wise Cup(Forest Park) Such a cute place with really tasty coffee (and samosas and amazing chutney!!). A few other pastries but nothing worth chatting about. They have outdoor seating on Lake Street which, if a little noisy, is a fun and hopping spot in Oak Park.
Sugar Fixe More bakery than coffee shop, they still make a mean cup (I am a little obsessed with their caramel-vanilla). This is the place to go if you are looking for some legit pastries and light snacks with your coffee. Amazing scones, croissants, and very classy desserts. Their indoor is really limited but their outdoor seating, while also limited, is adorable and on my favorite street, Marion, just off the main drag. Perfect spot to sit and enjoy life for a while.
BrewpointCoffee With another location in Elmhurst, this is a fairly established brand in Chicagoland and I’m sooo happy to have a spot here in Oak Park. They have super creative specialty lattes and other drinks and aren’t afraid of floral vibes (lavender, rose, etc – my faaaaav). Cute spot with indoor and outdoor seating. Well worth a stop.
Addis Cafe Addis makes great coffee and has their own homemade chai (helllllo). They also have the best waffles you’ll ever have. Period. Indoor seating is really cute and while their outdoor seating is on a busy road and might not be there post-pandemic since it’s in the parking spots, there are a few options.
Whirlwind Coffee Company New in town but already making strides! This place donates 100% of net profits to charity (holla) and their coffee is no joke. Great brews and while they don’t have froo-froo options on the menu they aren’t without flavors so it’s well worth the exploration. They are still ramping up so it was a little bare-bones but they have a side space outdoors that’s lovely. Great spot to stop.
MulataKitchen + Coffee Admittedly the name of this coffee shop is very controversial so I have two minds of this place, but they do serve a good cup of coffee and they have truly amazing empanadas.
BOOKMARK THIS PAGE, FOLX! We are still exploring the city and I’ll be updating as I go! I would love to hear from you about any place not on this list that is worth a visit!
If I could give just one piece of advice to a happy life, it would be this. Find yourself a travel buddy. Someone who is willing to plan a trip with you a year in advance.
I happen to have two – and it’s glorious.
Before this crazy thing called a pandemic started, Zoe and I were sitting in Texas and decided our next adventure would be beautiful. Outdoorsy. Full of hikes and lots and lots of time to sit, talk, and write. Little did we know in planning this trip it would be the perfect (the only?) safe trip to take during a global pandemic.
I’ll admit, it was still strange to get on a plane in early November, double masked and wearing glasses, wondering if we were being stupid by not cancelling this pre-booked trip. But, with me in Chicago and Zoe in Los Angeles, we actually figured going to the remote towns in Utah would probably incur less daily exposure. So we kept on and, with careful masking, hand washing, and distance, I am happy to say we emerged from the endeavor without spreading the virus to ourselves or others.
And it was SUCH a wonderful adventure. Utah, folks, while often overlooked, is well worth the time and energy. We spent a single night in Salt Lake City and were able to see a good portion of the sights before hopping in our rental car and making the drive to Moab. Our goal – Arches National Park and a lot of writing.
All in all – mission accomplished.
Exploring Salt Lake City
We landed early in SLC and got our rental car from Rugged Rental, via the Qeeq app. This was new to me and felt maybe a little sketch, but I found the service to be excellent with Rugged and the process flawless. Give it a try if you aren’t married to one of the big rental companies. Rugged isn’t based at the airport so it’s a little annoying needing to take a shuttle, but it was quick, easy, and cheaper.
You’ll be shocked to learn our first stop was a bookstore and café for lunch. We highly recommend checking out Oasis Café and the Golden Braid Books for books. Both are adorable and the food at Oasis was excellent – try the toasted brie sandwich. So simple. So heavenly.
By the recommendation of just about every blog or travel guide you see, we made our way down to Temple Square to walk around and see the sites. As someone who, admittedly, knows nothing about the Church of Latter Day Saints that wasn’t taught in the musical Book of Mormon, I found myself amazed, and somewhat bewildered, by the sights. There was beauty in the structures, but Salt Lake City is just so new – and it showed. The gaudy, built in the 80s, office building for the church was both an eyesore and yet somehow endearing. Like – bless their hearts, they were so enthusiastic they didn’t even think about the aesthetics.
The entire area around Temple Square was pretty, but eerily quiet. We weren’t sure what to make of it. It was a nice day in November – mid ’70s – but perhaps a little windy and cloudy. Sure, there’s a pandemic on, but regardless we were basically the only people around aside from the overly friendly guides in their skirts and always walking 2 by 2. The spider-like structure over a main road that had oddly Germany in the 1930s tones didn’t help much either.
I’m being judge-y. Salt Lake City is a cute, quiet little place with some lovely parks. We bopped around and found some cute street art too!
By the time we had walked around the Temple Square area, we decided it was time for another book store and made it over to Weller Bookworks. This place was lovely with a large selection, used and new. Definitely a good stop.
Dinner for us that night took us to the East Liberty Tap House which had a nice patio space with firepits. We both opted for the lamb sloppy joes which, while odd in theory, were magic in my mouth. We then walked down the street and found the grand opening of Pie Fight and snagged pumpkin cheesecake hand pies for dessert. They were excellent and the new business has such a cute walk-up window.
Our airbnb for the night was just blocks from the capitol, which is such a beautiful area. Our place was above a garage and so adorable it was worthy of a squeal. Highly recommend.
Salt Lake City is so well planned – the beauty of the foresight for what it would be is not to be dismissed. Sure, it’s rigid planning with excessively wide roads made those of us from lesser planned cities feel a little uncomfortable. To me, other than the couple hipster neighborhood we found, Salt Lake City felt a little too prescriptive – very clean, very structured. A little Big Brother feeling. It was interesting and new but I wouldn’t spend more than a day or two there.
Utah Road Trip – Salt Lake City to Moab
We took the long way to Moab since we had plenty of time between check out at 10am and check in at 3pm. So we went slightly out of our way by first heading to Park City and getting a coffee at Atticus Coffee + Tea. This place was adorable and busy. Lots of kitschy items and while, yes, there were some books but to call it a book shop was a stretch. Still, fun drink options so well worth the stop.
We walked the long length of the road and immediately wished it were later than 9am since many of the shops weren’t open. But there was lots of potential with other restaurants, galleries, book shops, etc. The boutiques looked classy and not repetitive. I’d love to go back there and explore Park City again.
I’ll never forget that it was here, after a nice stroll down the role, that we learned Biden/Harris won the 2020 election. Glorious, glorious morning.
We made our second road trip pit stop in Provo and visited Pioneer Book. Despite its lovely size, I have to say I found this book shop disappointing. It felt dated and they didn’t seem to do a good job with the inventory on the shelved – there were 10 copies of the same Danielle Steel book shelved next to another 10 copies of another Danielle Steel book, for example. I mean, books are books so it was nice, but definitely not my favorite book store.
We stopped at Peace on Earth for coffee and lunch. The coffee was amazing, but our grilled cheeses were pretty terrible. So – opt for drinks and skip the food.
Provo was our last stop until we got to Moab, whose size and variety of stores genuinely surprised us. This town is way more bustling than we guessed – it was certainly more alive than Salt Lake City! There are tons of food options though we found getting delivery to be absurdly challenging.
Side note – on our way back to Salt Lake City from Moab we stopped in this tiny town, Helper, for coffee at a place called Happiness Within. It was a nice little stop, coffee was decent, and the whole place felt kitschy. Worth pulling off the road for if you need to stretch your legs.
Highlights of Moab
We stayed at this airbnb, which was picked exclusively because there is an indoor rock climbing wall in the master bedroom and the second bedroom has a 3-story bunk bed. It was wild and also perfect. Highly recommend.
There are quite a few options for coffee in Moab but our favorite was definitely Doughbird. Good coffee (and while we didn’t taste any, the doughnuts looked amazing) but even better the staff was wonderful. So friendly! We went back to that exact reason.
We made most of our food during our stay, but we did end up getting take out from Arches Thai and Fiesta Mexicana and both were very tasty.
The best highlight of Moab though, was their bookstore, Back of Beyond Books. High praise for this place. Usually book stores in these little towns barely qualify to be called a book store but this place was legit.
Old and new books, lots of title relevant to the area, but even though the selection of fiction was small it was not limited. Someone is on top of it and had so many brand new books, really cognizant of what is going on in literature, amazing editions. Honestly, I was so impressed. Do NOT skip this place if you are in Moab!
The Hikes: Arches National Park and Canyonlands
Let’s start with the whole reason we were in Utah.
Arches National Park.
Its beauty truly knows no bounds.
The drive alone was magnificent but the hikes were also lovely. We’ll admit that even in November it was pretty busy. We heard that was likely a pandemic situation and that the weekend we were there, especially since the weather was okay to kind-of gross, typically would have been a lot quieter. Still, we and the other hikers were great with masking.
Aches National Park is well laid out with almost all the hikes being quite short. A lot of the sights are barely off the road which meant we were able to see Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Windows, all in quite succession. We took the most possible trail to Delicate Arch which we highly recommend. It was just far and challenging enough to finally feel like a real hike and the end sight of Delicate Arch was so worth it.
Honestly, we were able to see the vast majority of what we wanted to see of Arches in about 4-5 hours total. We missed a couple of spots and hoped to come back but the weather stopped us. It’s say you need no more than 2 days at Arches but it is sooo worth the stop.
Our last full day took us to Canyonlands to get a little variety and, we hoped, to try and catch better weather. We were wrong and ended up driving and hiking through some pretty significant snowfall. We had hoped to do a different trail, maybe more than one at Canyonlands, but the snow changed those plans. Instead we just went the short distance to Mesa Arch which was lovely and super eerie to see with the total storm clouds.
We probably missed some of the sights because of the weather but I can definitely say the views from the drive through Arches far exceeded Canyonlands. It’s an easy stop though if you find you’ve “finished” Arches and still have time on your hands.
Five Days in Utah – and we still want more
Ultimately, any place is going to be amazing when the purpose is to get together with an old friend and just be. But Utah was all we hoped it would be. Even with less-than-ideal weather we were really able to enjoy the outdoors and the amazing scenery. It’s a location well worth exploring and one that book lovers can snag some great finds too.
You know how sometimes we don’t explore our own backyards? It occurred to me not long ago that I’ve written a number of literary explorations around the country and have NEVER highlighted Chicago. Despite the pandemic I rectified that and managed to visit a lot of bookstores, especially over the summer when things were a bit more cheerful.
Support the community and take your own tour of Chicago via books with my guide of the best independent and local bookstores below!
I love this little used bookstore. They have an eclectic mix of books and the shop is relatively small. But they have the BEST gifts! From blind books to journals to unique cards and knick-knacks – if you have a literary friend you are bound to find something cute for them here.
You know those bookstores that just get you? They have the vibe, the beauty, and, even better, the inventory of books that makes you salivate? Roscoe Books is my happy place. They have so many great, new titles and lots of contemporary romance. Cute set up with the perfect mixture of lots of titles and room to stand. Win/win.
SO cute. I unfortunately went during a pandemic so I didn’t get to try the café part of the book café, but I know I would love it. This place is set up so perfectly with a great little selection of stories and what looked like an excellent place to sit and relax with a hot beverage. I can’t wait to check it out in full force in the future.
Pro Tip – there is a sister location, Volumes Bookstore on Michigan Ave!
Oooh man – guys, this place is so worth the trek up to Evanston. You’re in the heart of Northwestern but you disappear somewhere else entirely for this store. It’s tucked away in an alley (SO adorable) and it’s so much bigger than it looks. Crazy good selection and has that tilty, old school book store feel. Love.
Myopic is an establishment in Chicago. It’s your classic DGAF kind of used bookstore. Plenty of worn edges, musty corners, and books no one has touched in years. I also have a particular fondness for bookstores with stairs. This place has bizarre and wonderful half-levels that make you feel like an explorer.
Fun tip – it’s only a stones throw away from Volumes Bookcafe and Jeni’s Ice Cream… so you really never need to leave this block of the city. Ever. Just move in.
Back to my stomping grounds in Oak Park, this is a great new book store. It’s generously sized (they recently expanded!) so you know you can go in and get what you need. Tons of helpful staff and tips on what to choose next.
This is such a lovely spot! This poor bookshop has a grand opening just two days before the pandemic March shelter-in-place hit so they could use some love – and do they deserve it! The staff is friendly and the kids section is adorable. I highly recommend!
Black woman owned – so that right there makes it a winner. It’s not really open for in-store browsing because pandemic but they do lots of community support and it’s a fantastic stop. Definitely hit this one up!
This is a lovely little spot to hit up if you are exploring downtown Chicago – just a few short blocks away from Willis Tower. With bright, wide shelves and all new books it’s a great spot to find some of the “top hits”. Add a star for the creakiest floors ever (and I mean that in the BEST way possible).
Open Books – 651 W. Lake Street, Chicago (there are other locations in the city too!)
This book store is packed with books and yet the tall ceilings make it feel open (ha) and lovely. Great initiatives and events happen here too. It’s an easy place to get lost in.
Who doesn’t love a good themed bookstore?! Mysteries and histories are the game here and while the store itself doesn’t have a ton of browsing potential, they have a fun table of blind books and the staff will help you with anything you could desire. Madison Street in Forest Park is a delightful area to walk around (check out Twisted Cookie or The Brown Cow for some sweet treats)!
Perhaps a little sterile (though that’s not a bad thing in a pandemic) this place has lots of room to breathe. Plenty of new hits and a nice getaway in this outdoor mall area. Other locations around the city.
I’m still working my way through Chicagoland and have lots to explore so check back for more! Let me know where I should go next!
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!