galapagos, viewpoint, ocean

Planning for a Last-Minute Trip to the Galapagos

The Significant Other and I just got back from a trip to the Galapagos. Rather than gush about HOW COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY AMAZING IT WAS, I’m offering some tips to make your vacation planning easier. The devil is in the details! I think this is pretty extensive, but drop me a line in the comments if you have specific questions.

Booking a Last-Minute Galapagos Cruise

Cruises sound expensive right off the bat, but when you consider how much it costs to explore the Galapagos on your own, cruises can actually be cost-effective. For example, a day tour of North Seymour Island is ~$160. Add $20 for the hostel and $10 for home-cooked food. Factor in all the time and energy you’ll spend booking your own trips, and you’re already pushing $200. When you do the math, cruises aren’t that pricey.

NOTE: It’s impossible to base your budget off anything you read online or in a guidebook. Prices are constantly going up. Keep that in mind, and always bring extra cash in small bills $1, $5, $10.

If you can wait until two weeks before your vacation date to start looking for cruises, you can snag amazing discounts (~60 percent!). Book a flight to Quito, and stay at a hostel in the Mariscal District (NOTE: We stayed at the Traveler’s Inn. The breakfast is free and includes eggs, toast, yogurt, fruits, juice and tea/coffee. The wifi is incredibly slow, and the showers are luke-warm.) This is where all the tour companies have offices. Visit each tour office and see what kinds of deals they’re offering. Tour offices are generally open between 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. They will NOT be open after 12 p.m. on Saturday or at all on Sunday.

Please be aware that all tour operators expect you to pay in cash for the tours—even if it’s a couple thousand dollars. Luckily for U.S. citizens, Ecuador operates in American dollars.

Most tour companies will offer to book the flight for you. I booked the flight on my own so I’m not sure how cost-effective this is, but it’s definitely an option.

NOTE: We almost booked a cruise with Yate Darwin and would highly caution against it. There were many frustrating problems, which I won’t go into here. We ended up booking a four-day Angelito cruise using PalmaRoja Tours. I can’t recommend the Angelito highly enough. The staff was incredibly friendly and helpful. I have several food allergies, and the cook made special meals and snacks for me every day. I never had to worry! It was amazing. Plus, our guide Maja, was the best guide I’ve had in all my years of traveling. Really fantastic company.

If you can’t find a tour you like in Quito, you can hop on a plane to the Galapagos and head directly to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz. Tour companies also have offices in this city and will offer deals.

sea lion, galapagos

How to Pick a Galapagos Cruise

After days of research, all the cruises started blurring into one, and I suffered from information overload. I recommend picking the cruise based on the ease of access, animals you want to see, cruise size, days at sea and budget. Make a spreadsheet and assign points—it’s the only way to stay sane.

  • Ease of Access: You can (to my knowledge) take day trips to Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, North Seymour, Floreana, Bartolome, South Plaza and Santa Fe. We chose cruises that took us to islands we couldn’t reach on our own, like Santiago and Espanola.
  • Animals: Each island is known for specific animals. No guarantee you’ll see them, of course, but there were a few endemic species that I was dying to see. For example, North Seymour: blue-footed boobies and frigate males, Santa Cruz: tortoises, Espanola: albatross, Santiago: iguanas, Santa Fe: iguanas. The cruise that promised the most animals won.
  • Cruise Size: Pay attention to the number of people on the boat. Our head count was 16, and it was perfect. Anything larger, and you’re going to get lost in the shuffle. Anything too small and your boat will be so tiny that it bobs up and down with each and every wave. Ugh.
  • Days at Sea: I’m the kind of gal who likes her feet firmly planted on the ground. It was important that we got to see what we wanted to see but didn’t spend unnecessary time on the water. We ended up with a four-day cruise, but I think we also would have enjoyed a five-day. NOTE: six- and seven-day cruises are rare. It’s usually four, five or eight days. Also remember that a “four-day” cruise is really just two days because the cruise doesn’t start till late afternoon on the first day, and ends before 10 a.m. on the last day.
  • Budget: Go in with a budget for your cruise, and follow it. I had tour operators send me “deals” that were two- to three-times more than my max budget. It was tempting, but I had to put my foot down.

frigate, galapagos

Getting to the Galapagos

Flights to the Galapagos: There are two airports in the Galapagos: Baltra and San Cristobal. If you’re thinking of taking a cruise, fly into Baltra. Most (if not all) of the cruises start/end there.

Three airlines go to the Galapagos. TAME appears to be the cheapest at first-glance, but they tack on a whole bunch of fees at checkout that actually make them more expensive. I used Avianca for the most cost-effective flights.

NOTE: Don’t forget that there’s a $120 fee to get into the Galapagos. Airport officials will also search your bags for fresh fruit and animal products. I would highly recommend bringing in your own snacks since healthy food is hard to come by on the islands. They’re OK with dried, packaged fruit, granola bars, even peanut butter sandwiches! If you don’t want your bag locked with plastic ties after getting searched, tell the officials. Keep a pair of nail clippers in case they lock your bag anyway.

Getting into Santa Cruz from the airport: You’re not allowed to walk around Baltra because it’s a military base. You’ll take a short (free!) bus from the airport to Baltra’s dock. A $1 ferry will take you across the river to the island Santa Cruz. From there you can catch a (~$5) bus or take an $18 taxi (in total NOT per person) into town. It’s a 40 minute drive via taxi and longer with the much slower bus.

Taxis are poorly labeled, white Toyota pickup trucks.

Taxis in Santa Cruz: Once you’re in town, taxi rides should be about 50 cents per person up to $1 max. Taxi drivers often pick up multiple people so don’t be alarmed if a few strangers hop into the cab.

Snorkeling tips: Snorkeling is transportation, right? A few tips to enjoy your snorkeling experience: Try on your mask before leaving land. If you can press it to your face (without using the straps) and it stays in place, it’s a good fit. If you need glasses, bring your own prescription goggles as there aren’t any (that we saw) on the islands. Or you can make your own prescription goggles. Spit on your lenses or use baby shampoo to keep them from fogging up. If you have facial hair, your mask might not fit well. Slather on some vaseline to help make the seal. Your flippers shouldn’t fit comfortably when you’re on land. They need to be a little tight because they’ll loosen up in the water. Check the snorkel mouthpiece to make sure it has two notches to bite on. I’d recommend renting a full-body wetsuit for sun protection, added buoyancy and extra warmth (the water can get chilly).

Galapagos

Things to Do in the Galapagos

I’ll write another post with an outline of our cruise. These are the two day trips we took outside the cruise.

San Cristobal

We went snorkeling off Kicker Rock and explored Cerro Brujo beach for $100 with the tour company Cindy Sol. They were very professional and served a delicious lunch. I would highly recommend their services. I don’t have the cross street for the company’s office, but the harbor area is tiny (only ~five blocks) so you can either ask for directions or walk up and down the streets until you run into Cindy Sol). NOTE: Tour agencies close in the afternoon to avoid the heat and open up again in the evening. I’d recommend booking a day trip the night before. However, most tours leave at 8:30 or 9 a.m. so you can also show up at the office around 8 a.m. and book any available seats on the spot.

Stay at Casa Mabell for $20 per person. The hostel doesn’t have a microwave, and the owner doesn’t speak English. But the place is spotless, has AC, is two minutes from the shore, and if you can speak a little Spanish, the owner will help you book tours.

Get your laundry cleaned for $1.50/kilo at La Lavanderia Rosita. We gave our clothes to them at 8 p.m., and they had everything done by 3 p.m. the next day. Great service.

North Seymour

Booked this tour with Esmeralda III. We wouldn’t recommend this boat. The guide was unnecessarily rude. The tour also promised to take us to North Seymour in the morning (better wildlife pictures!) and then snorkeling in the afternoon (cooling off!). Instead, we spent far too much time snorkeling in the morning and saw no wildlife. Then, during the heat of the day, we were rushed around North Seymour. I absolutely loved the island (we saw blue-footed boobies and frigates!), but go with a different tour company.

Signing off for now! More tips later, and please add your own!

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What to Pack for a Trip to the Galapagos Islands

Here’s a very detailed list of what I brought to the Galapagos. It looks like a lot, but everything fit in a carry-on.

This list will save your checks for 365 days so if you like packing (*high five) early, you can return to this page and survey your progress!

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Why You Should Join NASW

science, sciwri14

I took a 15-hour Greyhound bus ride to my first NASW conference.

In just five hours I witnessed a shouting match, a fist fight and a prayer circle. When my seatmate leaned over and mischievously told me he was “running from the law,” I stopped keeping track of time and spent all my mental energy on willing the bus to go faster.

Now that I live in Lima, I’m trading my Greyhound ticket for a few plane rides. It’s a long trip to Columbus, but I can’t miss the NASW conference this weekend.

Over the years, the connections I’ve made through the conference have been invaluable. NASW members gave me the confidence to become a freelancer and provided me with the tools to succeed once I did. Free of charge, they’ve offered me advice on stories, shared sources and talked me through contract issues. I’ve been a member of several other organizations, but I’ve never been able to match the encouragement and support that NASW provides.

If you’re a science writer who’s interested in learning more about the organization and this awesome conference, get in touch! I’d love to chat: news@mbloudoff.com Also check out the hashtag: #sciwri14

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How to Deal With Diarrhea (Because Important)

The significant other didn’t want me to write this post. He protested loudly and prolongedly last night as I thoughtfully made notes. The female parental unit (who taught me the diarrhea song!) would also advise against hitting “publish.” But, I’M DOING THIS FOR YOU, GUYS, so here it goes.


If you make the trek to Peru from the United States, your weak, little gringo stomach is probably going to hate you for a bit. And your intestines? Well, those suckers are about 30 feet long collectively, so when they’re ticked off, you’re definitely going to know. They don’t call it “Montezuma’s revenge” for nothing, y’all.

Nobody wants to talk about diarrhea (except these guys) because, well, who wants THAT kind of imagery floating around in their noggins? Any way you slice it, diarrhea is the worst, and—in some cases—pretty dangerous. Unfortunately, odds are you’re going to get it at least once while traveling. If you live in Peru (or any third-world country, really), you’ll have it multiple times.

Here’s how to handle this crappy situation:

BEFORE You Go, Things You Really Ought to Know

Eat foods that will please your intestines. Repeat after me: “When my intestines are happy, I’m happy.” We all need to start paying more attention to our innards—especially ones that cover so much real estate!

You don’t want to start a trip on the wrong foot so avoid foods that you know upset your digestive system. Start taking prebiotics/eating foods that have prebiotics several weeks before you leave. The science on this changes all the time so ask your doctor for recommendations!

Stock up on Pepto and Tums before you leave. It’s difficult to find U.S. quality in Peru. And get chewables whenever possible—they work faster.

Also make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date. You can get a lot of gnarly bugs via contaminated food and water.

(Ladies, if you’re prone to infections down there I’ve got you covered. Insertable pills—oral pills don’t work well!—containing one or more of the following are helpful for warding off illness: Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus salivarius and Lactobacillus plantarum. Avoid anything with Lactobacillus acidophilus because apparently it’s not effective. I wrote an article about this one a few weeks ago so it’s relatively up-to-date, but check with your doc!)

You’re Gonna Have to Poo so Don’t Neglect the Loo

Yes, your foray into the wonders of diarrhea is just beginning! Assume that you’re going to get it at least once. How awful would it be if you had to go through the process while in a gross bathroom?

When you’re apartment hunting (or hotel shopping!), the loo is top priority. The majority of toilets I’ve seen in Peru don’t even HAVE seats so consider yourself ahead of the game if you’ve got one and it’s latched on correctly.

If you just love the apartment, but the bathrooms are dingy, ask your landlord to fix it up before you move in. This is a simple and reasonable request!

When it comes to hotels, ask to see the room before you check in. This is a standard practice here, and no one is offended.

Hey, Gringo, Let’s Be smart! Don’t Eat at That Food Cart!

Adventurous eating is awesome. You cannot truly experience a country without sampling its cuisine.

But please be smart about your food choices. American tourists are already the butt of SO MANY jokes. If y’all keep making me look bad, I’m gonna go “Soy de Canada.”

Go to a nice restaurant and order that guinea pig—don’t eat it off the street.

Avoid anything that’s not cooked or peeled (unless you’re at a really nice place). Salad that’s not washed in a cleaning solution is especially dangerous. #LifeExperience

You’re Feelin’ Kind of Slow, and There’s Grumbling Down Below

Have these on-hand at ALL times: Tums, Pepto and Immodium. Check your purse. Are all three accounted for? What part of havetheseonhandatalltimes did you not understand?!

When Your Stomach’s Feeling Sick, And You Need Help Real Quick

Peruvian pharmacies sell LOTS of medications, including antibiotics, without prescriptions. This is great for travelers because who has time to find/visit a physician while on the move?

But, be warned, the pharmacists at these counters are not highly trained like in the U.S. If you’re buying medication do not expect them to know what you need. Always look up the generic drug name and dosage beforehand. Write it down on a piece of paper, and give it to the pharmacist to avoid any confusion.

Before you leave the pharmacy check to make sure the pills are correct, and keep your receipt. You do not want to accidentally take bad medication.

Don’t Suffer Another Bout, Just Get Up and Throw it Out

Your intestines are on fire. Was it the chicken? That burger? The salad?

If you have any leftovers THROW THEM OUT. For someone like me who absolutely hates waste, this was a problem. But it’s always better to just chuck possible offenders than make yourself (or someone else) sick once again.

When You’re Sitting on the Pot and You Really Think You’ve Got…

Check out this Jezebel article “You’ve Been Pooping All Wrong.” Yup, there’s a right way and a wrong way. And when you have diarrhea, you better poo correctly. Seriously.

If Your Intestines Are on Fire, and the Sitch is Rather Dire

If you’re in pain and losing lots of bodily fluids, go to the hospital. For about $100 they can hook you up to an IV and pump you full of great medications that will take care of your food poisoning problem. It’s much better than waiting it out and potentially hurting yourself.

Got any other Pro Tips? Share ’em with me! Always happy to talk health, prevention and, more specifically, poo.

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Top 10 Things to do in Bogotá, Colombia

Just got back from a reporting trip in Colombia. In no particular order, here’s my recommendation for the best time in Bogotá. Big thanks to my oh-so fabulous friend Claudia for showing me around!
Candelaria: It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 
It was supposed to rain. Every day my weather app forecast gray gloom with cheery, little cloud icons, but buena suerte was on my side. Sun prevailed. I toured around La Candelaria for several days. The harsh equatorial light (wear sunscreen, gringos!) spotlit the neighborhood’s brilliantly colored houses. The effect was stunning. It quickly became my favorite place in Bogotá. Relax in a cafe and sip some of Colombia’s absolutelyridiculouslydelicious coffee.
candelaria, bogota, colombia
Museo del Oro: It’s Not About the Money, Money
In Peru, I’m not much of a museum person. The exhibits here have a very scrapbook-like quality to them, and I’m never quite sure whether I can trust the “facts” they tout. But Bogotá’s gold museum is stunning. Get to the museum first thing in the morning and leave a few hours to explore its four floors. There’s a restaurant connected to the ground floor that’s a great place for lunch. Save room for dessert, and make sure to order jugo!
gold museum, museo del oro, bogota, colombia
Museo de Botero: Go Big or Go Home
No trip to Bogotá is complete without seeing Fernando Botero‘s work in person. Don’t forget to snap the required Instagram photo with the huge, iconic hand just outside the courtyard.
botero, mona lisa, bogota, colombia
Monserrate: High on a Mountaintop
Take the tram to the top of Bogotá’s towering landmark. The altitude up there is drastically different so go slow. Monserrate comes complete with a market, souvenir shops, quaint church and, of course, gorgeous view. There’s also a little, rather romantic restaurant at the top of the mountain, but be cautious. If you’re going to eat there, don’t take any valuables. Thieves know police cannot respond quickly to thefts at that location, and according to a friend, robberies are common.
monserrate, bogota, colombia
Torre Colpatria: I’m on Top of the World, Yeah
This tower is the tallest building in Bogotá. Take the elevator up right before sunset for some great city pics.
 Torre Colpatria, bogota, colombia
Catedral de Sal, Zipaquirá: Workin’ for a Livin’
The Zipaquirá salt cathedral is a day trip outside the city, but you should definitely go and take the tour. They also let you mine your own salt!
 Salt Cathedral, Zipaquirá, salt mine
Andres Carne De Res: Shake Yo Moneymaker
Andres Carne De Res is a magnificent restaurant that turns into a dance party come nightfall! Don’t miss it. Make a reservation, and go with friends.
andres, bogota, colombia
La Puerta Falsa: Chocolate is a Girl’s Best Friend
I suggest the restaurant La Puerta Falsa, which has a very impressive list of historical patrons and is also loved by locals! They have a version of hot chocolate with melted cheese inside. Do it.
food, bogota, colombia
Plaza de Bolivar: Why is there a llama?
Buy a bag of seeds from the local and be a bird lady for the afternoon.
 Plaza de bolivar, bogota, colombia
Mercado de Pulgas: Shop Till You Drop
Crafts and jewelry and food! The mercado is a great place to stroll around and shop for family.
mercado de pulgas, bogota, colombia

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