Solo traveling Earl has been out on the road for years delving into backpacking adventures on nearly every continent. He has a knack for finding himself in some pretty interesting situations and has made all of the mistakes so that you don't have to.
When heading to the Galapagos, you certainly have some options. You can try and do it alone, basing yourself out of Puerto Ayoro and arranging day trips to other islands. Or you could join a multi-day Galapagos cruise and travel between the islands on a boat.
A Galapagos cruise is not a typical cruise. These are not huge ships with thousands of passengers. Most of the boats are of the yacht type, some looking good and others looking like they’ve seen much better days, holding anywhere from 10 – 100 passengers. Itineraries vary between 3, 5 and 8 days (sometimes longer) and between eastern and western and central routes as well.
I took an 8-day, eastern itinerary on board the S/S Mary Anne, run by the excellent Andando Tours.
The Mary Anne is the only sailing vessel in the Galapagos and the only vessel that could indeed complete its voyages by wind power only.
She had a presence. She was different than every single other boat we saw during our 8-day trip. She had a classic style to her, whereas the other boats were just that, boats.
The Mary Anne holds 14 passengers, with a combination of double, twin and single cabins (with no extra fees if you’re a solo traveler!). There are 10 crew members, too. The price of the trip includes accommodation, transportation, food, local permits and all activities.
Here’s a short video I made that shows you what it’s like on board the S/S Mary Anne…
A Galapagos Cruise On Board the Incredible Mary Anne - YouTube
S/S Mary Anne Galapagos Cruise: Accommodation and Food
The cabins are a good size, if not the largest cabins I’ve ever seen. And while they are simple, they are spotless, bright and comfortable (they have A/C, great beds and even closet space, along with good-size bathrooms with a full shower). I slept wonderfully every night, falling asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow.
All meals were eaten communal style at two large tables, with all kinds of dishes being served. The food was excellent and varied at all times. Breakfast would involve eggs, fruit, breads, local pastries and more. And for lunch and dinner, there was fish and meat, salads, soup, a couple of local sides and a delicious dessert.
After most of our activities, there were also fresh snacks waiting for us when we got on board and there were always snacks, coffee, tea and water available in the dining room throughout the day.
S/S Mary Anne Galapagos Cruise: Activities
When it comes to activities, each day is divided into a morning and afternoon session and usually, there were two activities per session. These could be any combination of hiking, snorkeling or kayaking, depending on what island we were at and what there was to see.
The hiking was never too strenuous as it was always along well defined paths set up by the Galapagos conservation board. The hiking pace was always slow as there was simply so much to see everywhere that our guide would stop frequently to explain what we were looking at. Even after a two hour hike, our group wanted more every time!
Kayaking took place on sturdy two-person kayaks and we usually took them out along the coast of an island, into beautiful coves, along white sand beaches where sea lions were playing around and past rocky outcrops where we could spot all kinds of wildlife. It was super fun to be out there paddling around in such settings.
With the snorkeling, the equipment was top notch, and the snorkel sites were some of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Hundreds of fish, sharks, sea lions, octopus, stingrays, turtles and more would make up a typical snorkel session. Every time we went snorkeling I said to myself that I would only stay in the water for 20 minutes or so and every single time I ended up out there until the end, usually an hour or more.
(One of the staff from the boat would follow us in a dingy so that if anyone wanted to get out of the water at any time, he was right there to pick you up.)
All of the above were not mandatory of course. Every activity is always optional as the idea is for all passengers to have the experience they want to have, something the staff stressed often.
S/S Mary Anne Galapagos Cruise: Our Guide
Our guide, Fernando, was phenomenal. Every other guide we passed during our hikes would stop and ask him questions as he clearly had more knowledge than all of them combined. His lengthy experience in these islands was unmatched and his passion for his work turned every single activity into an eye-opening, educational treat.
Again, phenomenal is the only word to describe him.
He also took safety very seriously.
While we watched as passengers from other boats fell on rocks, got separated from their group and were forced to board their dingy in dangerous conditions, we never had any of those issues. Fernando and the team were always watching, always helping and always making sure that everyone was safe at all times.
This might not seem like a big deal but in the Galapagos Islands, it’s a wild and rough terrain. And if you’re not careful, there are opportunities to hurt yourself. But again, nobody on our trip had any issues at all thanks to our guide and the incredibly attentive staff.
S/S Mary Anne Galapagos Cruise: The Experience
At night, we would head outside and stare up at the sky in order to take in that magical delight that is a sky full of stars, from horizon to horizon. The boat gently pushed through the small waves, we sipped our beers and enjoyed a mix of conversation and silence until we were ready for sleep.
In the mornings, despite the early wake-ups, there was plenty of chatter, with the excitement about spending yet another day in these islands quite evident among us.
And if you think that watching sea lions and sharks and iguanas and albatross and blue-footed boobies and turtles would get old after a couple of days, believe me when I say that boredom is not possible when in the Galapagos. Every moment spent observing wildlife is beyond fascinating, it’s never the same as any other moment and it only further solidifies the notion that a trip to these islands is an experience of a lifetime.
It’s not only the wildlife though. It’s the views, volcanoes, beaches, colors, natural aromas, plants and trees, warm winds and pure remoteness that builds this trip into something that can’t be copied anywhere else on this planet.
A Galapagos cruise is surreal. It needs to be experienced. And I can’t imagine a better way to visit this mind-blowing destination than on the beautiful S/S Mary Anne, a ship as unique as the islands she travels around!
Any questions about the Galapagos or about my trip on board the Mary Anne? Let me know!
A short time ago, I was on a flight to Ecuador, about to embark on a 7-day Galapagos Islands trip. As I’m traveling constantly, I barely had time to process my plans or to research or to gain a fair understanding of what I should expect.
All I knew is that my Galapagos Islands trip would involve:
a) Sailing for 1 week on board the S/S Mary Anne (run by the wonderful Andando Tours)
b) A lot of animals
c) Probably some other interesting stuff
How naive was I.
First, I spent 7 days/nights on board one of the coolest sailing vessels out there and in my opinion, the best ship for a trip around the Galapagos. As for interesting stuff…between kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, stargazing, constantly learning and just staring in awe at the otherworldly landscapes, I’d say that was easily covered.
And then the animals. A lot of animals?
In one week I ended up seeing an absurd amount of incredible, colorful, unique creatures…on land, in the water and in the sky. If I took a single hour from this one week trip, I would still be able to say that I did indeed see ‘a lot of animals’. Multiply that by 16 waking hours, multiply that by 7 days and you get the idea.
Here’s a taste of the experience that is an incredible Galapagos Islands trip (photos and a pretty cool video)…
Cute and Amazing Animals of the Galapagos Islands - YouTube
When I mention my Galapagos Islands trip, one of the most common questions I’m asked is whether I saw any blue-footed boobies. Well, yes I did, along with red-footed and nazca boobies….EVERYWHERE!
By the end of the second day, we had already seen well over 50 sea lions. You might think this would be sufficient and any further sea lion spottings would become boring. Not the case! I would have been thrilled to see 50 sea lions every day as they were by far the most playful, active, curious and wacky of all the animals we came across (as you saw in the video above!).
Baby Sea Lions
What’s even better than 50 sea lions per day? Baby sea lions. Look at the photos, watch the video and tell me you don’t want to adopt a baby sea lion right away!
I think the photos speak for themselves but every time we hopped onto the little zodiac boat for a ride to shore, we had no idea what we would actually find. Yes, we knew that the nature would be stunning but until we stepped foot onto each island, it was impossible to know just how stunning it would be…
A Galapagos Islands Trip Onboard the S/S Mary Anne
This is the awesome sailing vessel that I traveled on for the entire week during my Galapagos Islands trip!
With the super friendly Captain Mario at the helm…
Iguanas and Lizards
From colorful marine iguanas to spaced out land iguanas to perky lava lizards and more…almost every island we visited was full of such creatures. There they would always be, sitting on the beach, swimming in the water, sunbathing on rocks or just wandering around.
There were actually so many iguanas and lizards that our guide had to constantly warn us to watch where we were walking to avoid stepping on one!
The giant tortoises were naturally impressive, often weighing in at over 730 lbs (350kgs) and living for over 100 years. They don’t move around too much but it’s difficult to take your eyes off of them. They seem to reach deep into your inner being when they stare at you (ok, not that intense but they’re fascinating to observe!)…
With their intricate courtship dance, huge size, crazy ability to fly super long distances and the fact that young albatrosses spend 6 years at sea before returning home to find a mate, seeing these birds on Espanola Island was a real highlight…
So Much More
Everywhere I looked on this Galapagos Islands trip there were animals. Too many to remember, too many to even fathom. But every time I look at the photos myself, I realize that I spent an entire week completely amazed, impressed and thankful for such an opportunity, which is why a trip to this remarkable destination is worth every single dollar as far as I’m concerned. It’s a dream trip in every way.
Thanks for reading!
Any questions about the Galapagos Islands? Let me know!
If you’re interested in taking a Galapagos Islands trip, the 8-day experience aboard the S/S Mary Anne with Andando Tours is beyond incredible!
I never thought I’d go hang gliding. Then one day while in Rio de Janeiro my girlfriend said, ‘A friend of mine told me that we should go hang gliding.’
That was all it took.
We did 15 minutes of research, made a reservation and two days later we were in an Uber on our way to Sao Conrado Beach. It really was time for some Rio de Janeiro hang gliding.
The whole experience happened quickly.
We met Paulo, the owner of Just Fly Rio and our main instructor, on the beautiful beach. We signed some paperwork at the office of the local Rio de Janeiro hang gliding association. And then, after one last weather check, we hopped into Paulo’s jeep and began the journey to the top of the nearby Pedra Bonita mountain.
We were fitted with gear, given a safety lesson and provided with a few minutes of instruction while an assistant assembled the first hang glider.
Suddenly, Georgiana was hooked up to the wings and the instructor and two final safety checks were performed. Then, off they went. Running down the ramp and off into the sky, straight into the clouds. It was nuts.
At first, they immediately disappeared below, as if they plunged straight off the ramp. But after ten seconds, they re-appeared in the mist, soaring upwards along the edge of the mountains. And so her Rio de Janeiro hang gliding adventure began.
Ten minutes later, it was my turn. Henato, another instructor, showed up and we went through the same routine. Harness, instructions, safety checks…and before I had a chance to really soak it all up, I was also running down the ramp, attached to this huge green triangular wing.
And then the ground was gone and we were flying through the sky.
I’ll let this photo and video explain it all…
Incredible Rio de Janeiro Hang Gliding - YouTube
In brief, we loved it. Every minute of it. The sensation of flying really is something special…when you’re maneuvering with the wind, turning and twisting, rising up and floating down. At first it feels bizarre, but it doesn’t take long to become soothing and almost meditative.
Depending on where you do it, the scenery certainly helps too.
While flying, I actually asked Henato about his favorite places to hang glide (yes, we were having normal conversation up there!). He said the Swiss Alps was probably his favorite but this particular Rio de Janeiro location was second. And he has over 800 hang gliding flights under his belt, all over the world.
It’s hard to argue really. This Rio de Janeiro hang gliding experience takes off from a mountaintop above the dense jungle of the Tijuca National Park. You then fly through the clouds towards the white sands of Sao Conrado Beach, passing over neighborhoods tucked into lush green valleys, with views out over the rocky islands off the coast. And you actually land on the beach itself.
It’s beyond remarkable.
If you’re in Rio de Janeiro and want to fly, it’s worth looking into. I can’t imagine a better spot and as soon as you’re up there in the clouds above this gorgeous city, you’ll see why I’m so enthusiastic!
*The flight lasts between 7 – 20 minutes, depending on wind and weight. For a very reasonable rate you can receive photos ($15 USD) and videos ($20 USD) of your flight as well.
The owner, Paulo Celani (he was the main instructor as well), was thorough, very thorough, in terms of safety. Completely professional in every way. Whichever company you use, just make sure to read the reviews and see how others felt about the safety standards.
As I stood outside the tiny airport on Baltra Island, I was quite eager to get this adventure started. I could barely even chat with the 12 other people around me. My Galapagos trip with Andando Tours, on board the S/S Mary Anne sailing vessel, had now become a reality.
Eight days later, I was right back in front of that very same airport once again, and I could still barely chat with those around me. This time, however, it was because I simply didn’t want my Galapagos trip to end.
What happened in between is quite a tale.
It’s a tale of expectations being far exceeded. They were exceeded not because the initial expectations were low but because no matter what one’s expectations, there is no way to fully prepare yourself for the awesome experience that is the Galapagos Islands.
Galapagos Trip: The Wildlife
When an adorable baby sea lion scratches its belly for two minutes straight, when a bright red crab hangs out on a lava rock right next to a huge multi-colored land iguana, when two albatrosses engage in a beak to beak mating ritual, when a white tip shark swims right by…that’s a typical day while exploring these islands.
And that’s not to mention the giant tortoises hanging out in the pond, the sea turtles floating around in pairs or the hammerhead sharks elegantly lurking next to your boat.
Oh, let me not forget about the boobies – both blue-footed and red-footed and of the Nazca variety too. Black tip sharks, marine iguanas, pelicans, spotted rays…frigate birds, octopus, Galapagos penguins and short-haired owls. Finally, there were yellow warblers, pink land iguanas, doves, egrets, red-billed tropicbirds, mockingbirds and I’m sure I’m forgetting some others.
In short, there’s wildlife everywhere, to the point where I had to watch my steps for fear of stepping on an iguana, a sleeping sea lion or a Nazca booby egg. I’d be watching a turtle and easily miss the pile of 42 lava lizards on the rock next to me. I’d look at the lizards and miss the rays flapping their ‘wings’ just above the water or the baby hawk playing with the teenage frigate bird, which our guide points out is something he has never seen in 30 years.
It went on and on…there was too much to see, everywhere, all the time, on every single island.
Galapagos Trip: The Itinerary
It seems that many vessels alternate between an eastern and western itinerary and the one I embarked on was of the eastern variety. And while I have no idea what I missed out on (apparently there is a better chance of spotting whales on the western itinerary), I can’t see how anyone would be anything but impressed to the core with the eastern version.
Over the course of 8 days, we visited the islands of Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Santiago, Bartholemew and Chinaman’s Hat, Rabida, Dragon Hill, South Plaza, Santa Fe and Espanola (here’s a list of all the Galapagos Islands). We would anchor at each destination and take our small dingy boats to shore or to our kayaking or snorkeling locations. We would sail long distances at night and during the day, we sometimes stayed in one place and other times moved to a different part of a particular island.
On this itinerary, we were far away from civilization. The main town in the Galapagos is the 15,000 person community of Puerto Ayora and we spent one day there in the middle of the trip. Apart from that, we didn’t visit the two other islands that have permanent communities on them. Instead, we only visited islands that had no human settlements (and no internet!) and no more than a couple of other boats in each place we anchored.
It was paradise, pure wonder and so very otherworldly at all times.
Galapagos Trip: The Transportation
Our sailing vessel, the the irresistible S/S Mary Anne, held 14 people in cozy cabins, with a classic charm and a laid-back atmosphere that none of those luxury yachts we passed could possibly match. Having once been a racing boat in Germany some twenty years ago, the 66-meter Mary Anne, with her 3 masts, seemed right at home in the Galapagos Islands.
As the only Galapagos trip that can be undertaken by wind power alone, this sailing vessel certainly stood out, especially when those sails were hoisted. Out of every other ship we came across, none matched the character of our dear Mary Anne. (We knew this because passengers on other boats told us they kept wanting to take photos of ours!)
Don’t get me wrong, the entire experience was of the highest quality, with excellent food and service and attention to every detail. But our group, in fact, any group that heads up the steps of this ship, consists of real travelers eager to discover each island, eager to put on our shoes and head for the trail or hop into our kayaks for a good adventure or put on our snorkeling gear and jump straight into the cool ocean to see what the next underwater world will reveal.
And that atmosphere is why I would recommend the proud Mary Anne to anyone looking for a unique way to experience this mind-blowing destination.
Galapagos Trip: The Activities
Our days were long. Breakfast was served at 6:30am and we were off the boat by 7:15am. We hiked and kayaked and snorkeled, every single day, typically twice per day. And I’ll tell you this…I could have hiked and kayaked and snorkeled for another month without ever wanting to miss a single activity.
That’s how breathtaking these islands are when seen first hand. That’s how much awe is created upon every sea lion sighting, every bird sighting and every shark and pufferfish and angelfish and stingray sighting. The same goes for every sighting of a bizarre-looking plant or tree or natural formation or volcano or picture-perfect white or red sand beach.
I like animals. But I never could have imagined that I would want to follow the flight of herons and frigates or stare at at a red-footed booby for an hour straight. If you told me that 1000 sea lions would be fascinating, I would have told you that by the 10th sea lion I would be bored. How wrong that would be. Show me 2000 sea lions during one Galapagos trip and I’ll happily observe them all!
When I was out there snorkeling off of South Plaza Island and I broke away from my group, a large male sea lion suddenly appeared. He looked me in the eye and then swam only one meter in front of me. I turned around and swam after him. He twisted underwater and so I twisted too. We swam with each other for a good 2 minutes, playing around in a most acrobatic routine. And while his acrobatics were no doubt far superior to mine, he seemed to take delight in my attempt to synchronize. For me, it was pure joy.
When I swam around a large school of angelfish, I found myself only one meter away from a two meter long white tip shark. And while they are not known as a danger to humans, its long body and serious face certainly caused me to hold my breath and pause. But then, after that quick pause of fright, I happily turned and swam after him, following right behind for quite some time (until he swam into a dark cave and then I thought it was a good idea to turn around!).
When a baby sea lion popped out of the bushes and ran after a red and black land iguana, I pulled my head back in shock as the sea lion bit onto the iguana’s tail. The iguana pulled away and ran over a rock but the sea lion followed and grabbed its tail once again. They were simply playing together, as the crabs and birds and lava lizards all looked on.
There were endless moments of amazement.
Galapagos Trip: The Education
There were endless lessons to be learned as well.
Our guide, Fernando, was incredible, putting his 30 years of vast Galapagos and conservation knowledge to use as he explained, in fascinating fashion, every detail about every ecosystem, every bird, reptile and mammal, every plant, flower and tree, every volcano crater, lagoon and beach, every conservation program and research effort.
These islands reveal far more than what you could possibly read in a book.
From the various new species of iguanas that were created over a 10,000 year period to the learned behavior of the finches to the special role of cacti, we learned so many intricate details about how these islands came to be, how these animals came to be and how it all has and will continue to change due to both natural and human factors.
That education is something I won’t forget.
And it’s why I’m smiling so widely right now thinking about the stunning red sands of Rabida Island and the wacky albatross dances on Espaniola, the thousands of boobies building nests on Genovesa, the hammerhead sharks in Black Turtle Cove and the snorkeling off of South Plaza Island where we encountered hundreds of types of marine life.
I’ve been traveling nonstop for over 19 years now and I can state, without hesitation, that this was without a doubt a trip of a lifetime in every single way.
And that’s why, outside the Baltra Airport on that final day, I didn’t want to leave. This Galapagos trip couldn’t possibly be over. Or at the very least, I wanted to spot one last sea lion or lava lizard before I took off.
Well, I didn’t see either. However, moments before boarding the flight back to Guayaquil, a tiny Darwin’s finch flew through a window and right into the gate area. And you know what, that sendoff was more than perfect for me.
Please go to the Galapagos if you can.
Have you been to the Galapagos? Any questions about my trip?
My Galapagos Trip Details: Andando Tours, Quito, Ecuador
Vessel: S/S Mary Anne
That was crazy. My girlfriend and I recently booked a ton of flights around the world. We needed to get from Europe to South America, then travel all around South America before heading to the USA and back to Europe before I fly off to India in mid-February.
It’s not usually how we travel – to have 3 months planned out and booked before we arrive – but this time, it was the option that worked best given our tight schedule.
Our Flights Around the World
When we finished all the bookings, I didn’t know what to do. Celebrate? Sleep? Shower?
Here’s what we booked:
– Barcelona to Miami
– Fort Lauderdale to Quito
– Quito to Rio de Janeiro
– Rio de Janeiro to Ushuaia
– Ushuaia to Buenos Aires
– Buenos Aires to Santiago
– Uyuni, Bolivia to La Paz
– Cusco, Peru to Bogota, Colombia
– Bogota to Medellin, Colombia
– Medellin to Fort Lauderdale
– Fort Lauderdale to London
– London to Budapest
– Budapest to Delhi
At first glance, it would certainly be understandable to think that the above 13 flights around the world cost us an absolute fortune in total. I still have a difficult time looking at all those flights and not thinking that myself.
However, while that colorful array of air journeys certainly didn’t cost $200, the grand total of those trips…
That’s an average of about $169 per flight. Some of those trips are 1 hour long, others are 14 hours and the rest are in between. And in the end, those flights will take us to 4 different continents over a period of almost 3 months. That’s remarkably inexpensive if you think of what we’re getting for that amount of money.
(I know a lot of people use Skyscanner and Momondo but I’ve personally never found a cheaper fare on either of those websites.)
#2. Play around with dates and destinations.
Since my plans are rarely 100% set in stone, I always play around with various dates. I also play around with different orders of the destinations. For example, with our flight from Medellin to Fort Lauderdale, changing the date by one day reduced the price by $90. Going from Rio de Janeiro to Ushuaia and then to Buenos Aires was $150 cheaper than going from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Flexibility is key!
#3. Grouping flights / Multi-city flights
I always try to group flights together. On this South America trip, booking separate flights was more expensive than grouping together Rio to Ushuaia, Ushuaia to Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires to Santiago. Grouping those three together in a multi-city search saved us $200. (But booking Uyuni to La Paz, Bolivia was much cheaper on its own. That flight cost $85. When grouped with other flights, it increased the overall price by $130.)
From Cusco, Peru to Medellin, Colombia, it was also much cheaper to group two separate one-way tickets together than to book one complete ticket all the way through. By booking Cusco to Bogota and then Bogota to Medellin, we saved $110.
Here’s another great example: I once needed to fly from Budapest to NYC. The cost of the one-way flight was $650 at the time. I then decided to try and group it together with another flight I knew I needed to take 4 months later – Miami to Delhi. The airfare went down to $625, total! I ended up with two long-distance flights for the price of one.
Grouping random flights is one of the best methods for reducing airfares in my experience.
#4. Check the airline’s website
Once I find the lowest fare from the websites listed above, I’ll generally visit the specific airline’s website to see what they offer directly. Sometimes, the fare is the same or even lower. When that’s the case, I book it on the airline’s website as this takes away the middleman and is much easier to deal with, especially if there’s an issue at some point.
However, sometimes, as was the case with LATAM Ecuador, the fares on their website were MUCH higher than what we could get on Kayak for the same flights. In these instances, I definitely go with Kayak or Orbitz or whichever site offers the lowest fare. While it’s convenient to book directly with the airline, it’s not usually worth a few hundred extra dollars to do so!
If it’s a multi-city/grouped flight, it depends on whether it involves one or multiple airlines. If it’s one airline, it can be booked on the airline’s website and if it’s multiple airlines, it usually needs to be booked through the site offering the deal.
#5. Different languages
Our flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to London Gatwick is with Norwegian Airlines. I saved $37 by going to Norwegian Airline’s Swedish website versus using their English-language website, where the same flight was more expensive.
It’s a little tricky since there are often dozens of different languages you could test for each airline. But I will generally try a couple of versions, usually the native language of the airline and another country nearby, just to see if there is any difference in airfare.
#6. Discount codes
I’ve started doing this with anything I purchase online. Before I confirm the purchase, I’ll do a Google search for the name of the website or company followed by the words ‘discount code’. Something like “TAP Portugal discount code”.
Every now and then I find something that works. Maybe it’s $10 savings, maybe it’s 10% or more. All it takes is a few seconds and you could end up saving some money so it doesn’t hurt to try!
It Takes Time to Find the Best Airfares
Finding good airfares is not really complicated. Sure, there are some tricks involved, but it really just requires time. Search, compare, tweak dates, tweak destinations, group flights together, search again…and again and again.
But if you simply don’t like searching for flights, you might not want to spend as much time as I do looking for deals. I usually spend what my girlfriend describes as ‘way too much time’ trying to find cheaper fares. In the case of our 13 flights around the world above, it really did take us a solid 3 days, searching about 3 hours per day, until we finalized everything.
But we did save over $1200 each based on the total price we started with from our initial searches. I’ll take a $1200 savings any day for a few hours of work over a 3 day period!
The extra research also led to more direct flights, shorter layovers and better departure and arrival times. For me, the extra research is worth it even if all I get is a later flight that doesn’t require me to wake up at 4:00am. Also, I landed three flights in premium economy class (it was cheaper than regular economy for some reason), a bonus I certainly won’t turn down!
What’s the best flight deals you’ve ever found? Any advice to add?
I’m not a huge fan. I just don’t feel comfortable when the streets are jam-packed, when I need to constantly dodge other people, when I’m faced with lines and groups and little space to call my own.
As travel becomes more and more popular and commonplace though, such tourist crowds seem to be the norm all over the world. Walking down the street in many destinations requires a lot of focus in order to avoid bumping into strollers, lost tourists and group leaders that don’t seem to mind taking over the sidewalks.
Of course, I know I’m part of the problem too. I am indeed a tourist visiting these very same destinations.
Forget about low seasons and high seasons, forget about visiting cold destinations in the heart of winter or tropical destinations in the middle of monsoon season. It almost doesn’t seem to matter any more. Travelers are everywhere, all the time.
We were just in Granada, Spain during what was supposedly the low season. It was 10C / 48F and rainy but the streets were packed and the tapas bars full, every day and every night.
Before that we were in Porto, Portugal, walking around in the cold, right alongside thousands of others willing to line up for an hour at the Livraria Lello or ready to walk along the Douro River.
In Lisbon earlier this month we were quite thankful to be staying at an Airbnb away from the city center, and away from the crowds that turned the streets of the Chiado and Alfama neighborhoods into one big bus tour.
Tourist Crowds Shouldn’t Ruin A Trip
Of course, we still loved these destinations. I’ve always been a strong believer that travel is about the mindset anyway, not the actual places we visit. It really is possible to enjoy any country, city or village if we’re open to getting the most out of our experiences and we focus on the important stuff.
For me, that focus has always been local interaction and local activity.
And no matter how crowded or touristy a place might be, those two things are still ALWAYS possible. (I follow a simple 5-minute rule to help ensure I have local experiences.)
Tourist Crowds Are NOT Everywhere
At the same time, there are definitely moments when I just want to push through a crowd and keep running until I’m somewhere quiet, somewhere without other tourists around, somewhere without lines, where we can just enjoy our surroundings on our own.
That takes me to last week…
As my girlfriend and I walked around the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, a breathtaking palace and fortress so very worthy of at least one visit in a lifetime, I made two observations:
The Alhambra is one of the most impressive buildings in Europe.
I love Romania.
Yes, you read that correctly.
While the Alhambra completely blew me away and quickly became a travel highlight of this year, my mind couldn’t help but drift to Romania at times.
The Alhambra. AWESOME. And crowded. Corvin’s Castle in Hunedoara, Romania. Not as awesome, but definitely remarkable. And no tourist crowds at all.
The same goes for Sighisoara, Corund and Sibiu.
That short list includes one of the best preserved medieval villages in Europe, a stunning region in the countryside where traditional life is still the norm and a historic and gorgeous city. If all of those places were located in a more popular country, they, too, would be full of crowds.
But for now, they offer all the good stuff, without the over-tourism.
Sure, there are tourists in Romania but compared to the sights of Western Europe, there’s VERY, VERY, VERY few. (In Corund, one of my favorite areas, there’s almost none!)
Getting Away From the Crowds
Naturally, it’s not just Romania. There are many countries where even the greatest of what they offer can be enjoyed without the tourist crowds and lines and buses.
Such locations are becoming slightly harder to find these days, but they do still exist.
Actually, maybe they aren’t much harder to find. It’s just that everyone wants to visit the same places that they see on social media or that have the marketing budget to promote themselves as the destinations we ‘must see’ now. Or simply a destination where airlines are suddenly offering crazy cheap flights that we simply can’t turn down.
Whatever the root, though, it’s worth getting away from the crowds from time to time.
There really is something special about having a castle mostly to yourself, even if it’s not rated the most unbelievable castle on the planet.
There really is something rewarding about walking into a restaurant and being the only foreigner.
Or visiting a small workshop where the family is actually creating something useful for the community, not just to sell to tourists.
When you end up in the middle of a local religious ceremony or being invited off the street and into a birthday celebration, chances are high it didn’t happen in the middle of an extremely touristy city. It usually happens in places without crowds, where genuine interaction is still appreciated by all sides.
That’s why my mind drifts to Romania every now and then. It’s one of those countries that offers authentic interaction and rewarding travel experiences almost everywhere you go.
It’s also why my mind drifts to East Timor, Western Sahara and a local island in the Maldives. It’s why I’m just as happy in the streets of Timisoara or Moshi or on a random dirt road outside of Wanaka, New Zealand talking to a farmer about her horses as I am at the dreamy Gardens By The Bay in Singapore or wandering around Rome.
While those popular locations are popular for a reason, sometimes the lack of tourist crowds makes up for the lack of ‘top 10’ sights or ‘must do’ activities. Sometimes all we need is a destination all to ourselves.
Of course, ‘all to ourselves’ is impossible…but luckily, there are still destinations out there that offer something pretty darn close.
Thoughts? How do you feel about visiting incredible, but crowded, places vs less discovered destinations?
You want local travel experiences. You start researching destinations. You discover that so many cities are considered overrun with tourists. You hear about countries that appear to be so touristy, others say they’re not worth visiting.
It’s true. There’s a lot of destinations in the world that have a lot of tourists/travelers in them. So, if you prefer to stay away from mass tourism, it can seem like a real challenge to find an ideal destination to visit.
But…think about this.
In my 19 years of constant travel, it does seem to me that 90% of travelers (that’s not based on any real data!) visit the same places, eat at the same restaurants along the same main squares, walk down the same streets and wander in and out of the same shops, all over the world.
There’s nothing wrong with visiting the main sights or the most interesting neighborhoods as well, or eating that famous pastry from the famous bakery.
But if you want local travel experiences, all you really need to do is follow one very simple rule.
The 5-Minute Rule for Local Travel Experiences
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Turn around.
Step 2: Walk away.
Yes, that easy. That’s the rule.
We’ve been here in Lisbon for a few weeks now and this city is absolutely jam-packed with tourists and travelers and cruise ship passengers and foreigners of all kinds. There are lines and crowds in all of the ‘famous’ areas and there are a lot of ‘famous’ areas!
If you aren’t into visiting touristy destinations, you might feel the urge to flee from this city within a few minutes of your arrival.
At the same time…
Despite Lisbon, and Portugal in general, being one of the ‘tourism hotspots’ in Europe right now, our experience here has not been a touristy one.
Far from it, actually.
Again, all we do is turn around and walk away.
When we look for a place to eat, we look in neighborhoods that are a 5 minute walk away from the areas that are full of tourist-oriented restaurants.
When we want to have a coffee, we turn from the famous square, lined with cafes serving up low quality food and drinks to a never-ending stream of travelers…and we walk away. We head down a random street and climb up some random stairs.
When we want to explore the city, we head to the areas that are most popular with tourists and then we pick a direction and start walking away. Sometimes we’ll later head back and do it again in a different direction.
The Wonderful Results
Using this easy method, we end up with the local travel experiences that we prefer.
We end up at cozy local restaurants down quiet lanes, with doors that are not plastered with TripAdvisor stickers. There will be no English spoken, the customers will all be Portuguese and the prices will be a fraction of the tourist restaurants nearby…and the food usually much better!
We get a glimpse of real Lisbon life, in quaint parks full of locals hanging out, in hidden squares abuzz with everyday activity, in shops where the fruit and pastries are of the highest quality and the cheapest prices and in beautiful neighborhoods that don’t have well-known attractions to draw a crowd.
It’s authentic. It’s extremely rewarding. And it’s incredibly fun.
The real beauty of it all is that we don’t have to head towards the far outskirts of the city or to a small village an hour away from Lisbon (which would be wonderful too!) to make this happen. All we do is walk, for 5 minutes, away from the crowds of tourists.
It’s that simple. Local travel experiences can always be had…at any time, in every destination around the world.
It’s just up to us to have them.
What’s your experience in touristy destinations? How do you get away from the crowds?
It really is the best cafe in Lisbon. We figured this out as soon as we stepped inside.
The place is relaxed, well-decorated and offers comfy chairs perfectly positioned in front of huge windows overlooking the city below. There’s a great balcony with tables, too. I think the view from this cafe is one of the best views of the city by far.
The food and drink here are excellent and cheap. We enjoyed coffee followed by a bottle of vinho verde (12 Euros) and a huge cheese and homemade jam platter that was more than enough for two people to get stuffed on.
The staff are friendly, the atmosphere cozy and I can’t think of a better spot to spend a couple of hours in Lisbon, especially in the evening as the sun sets in front of you. (The cafe opens at 3pm or 5pm depending on the day.)
As one review I read put it, “Place should be packed, but it’s amazingly quiet.“
I absolutely agree with that statement. It’s the best cafe in Lisbon that apparently not many people know about.
My girlfriend found it online one day when we wanted to escape the very touristy Rossio Square. We were looking for something different and this place popped up, along with the words ‘hidden gem’.
It’s a funny place to reach, I’ll say that. Located on the same hill as, but underneath, the imposing Castelo de Sao Jorge, we had to take two long outdoor escalators upwards, meander along a couple of narrow residential lanes, walk up two big flights of stairs and then find the relatively simple entrance. It’s about a 15 minute wander from Rossio Square in the end.
But all that climbing and meandering is worth it!
As soon as we took a seat in front of the windows, we were thrilled that we chose this cafe for our evening break. It wasn’t too crowded at all, the wifi worked quite well in case you want to browse or do some work on your laptop and nobody seems to care how long you stay there. It’s open until midnight as well.
However, it really comes down to the view. It’s worth it just for that, especially since you’ll be far away from the tourist crowds on the Santa Justa viewpoint or any of the other well-known lookout spots that most tourists flock to.
Why not enjoy a perfect combination of atmosphere, comfort, quality food and drink and a slightly off the beaten path location along with that view instead? That’s the combination that made Cafe da Garagem the best cafe in Lisbon in our opinion.
*This is a guest post from a reader of Wandering Earl, a writer, fellow traveler and friend.
My name is Gordon Hopkins. I’m a writer for a small town newspaper in rural Nebraska, The Fairbury Journal-News.
A few years ago, I took one of Earl’s tours to India (I’m in the above photo!). It was my first ever journey to Asia and I think one of Earl’s earliest tours as well, so we were both finding our feet a bit.
Earl was nice enough to write a foreword to the book and even nicer to let me write a guest post on his blog. However, I promised him this wouldn’t be a commercial for my book. So I need to find something to write about that you folks might actually be interested in reading.
I have a great love for travel writing, as I suspect do you, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. So how about a list of travel books, a list of my favorite travel books? Travel book lists can be found all over the internet of course. The internet loves lists, after all. There is even a term for it: listicle (which sounds like something you see a doctor to get lanced).
Perusing these lists, you will certainly see a lot of the same titles over and over again. You will likely see some books you’ve never read or never heard of. However, there are some books you will never, ever see, despite containing some truly great travel writing.
So here is my list of the top five travel books never on anyone’s list of travel books.
“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.”
Creative Writing 101 should always begin with this opening paragraph of Capote’s “non-fiction novel.” “This is a true crime book, not travel book,” you say? Perhaps, but to Capote, who was raised in the South before becoming the doyen of New York literati, Kansas was every bit as alien as Mars, and he wrote about it as such, observing the “natives” much as he might a primitive tribe on some remote island.
There is more than Capote’s view of the plains of the Midwest that fascinates the reader, however. As Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the brutal killers of the Clutter family, hit the road, trying to evade capture, the book becomes a sort of homicidal variation of On the Road, with Hickok and Smith as evil twins of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
Published in 1993, this book is, in a sense, a pretty standard travelogue. The writer took trips to an exotic locale not many have visited, interviewed the locals, learned the customs, and generally tried to give the reader an impression of what life is like in this place that most will never see.
The reason nobody thinks of this book as a travel book is because this “exotic locale” is the grim, underground tunnels of New York City, and the natives are mostly the homeless, the misfits, the outsiders of “polite society.”
More recently, a fellow named Matthew O’Brien wrote a similar book called Beneath the Neon, about those living in the tunnels under Las Vegas. Perhaps this is the start of a new genre.
Fairly or not, many fans of the late father of Gonzo journalism were disappointed with the good doctor’s account of the Honolulu Marathon. What they wanted was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in Hawaii. What they got was somewhat different.
Oh, there is still plenty of alcohol and drug fueled lunacy. The book opens on a plane and a passenger exits the lavatory with a blue arm, having apparently dropped his stash down the toilet and then reached in to retrieve it.
However, Thompson’s view of the islands proved to be somewhat more thoughtful and introspective on occasion. The big difference between Fear and Loathing and this book is that Thompson despised Las Vegas and everything it stands for, whereas he clearly had respect and, in his own outrageous way, even love for the Hawaiian life.
It should also be noted that editing the book was something of an ordeal. It is liberally peppered with passages from Richard Hough’s The Last Voyage of Captain James Cook, which is in the public domain and clearly added to pad the book’s length.
Why is a science fiction book on this list? It is true that many science fiction stories tell of explorers and undiscovered lands, but those places are usually made up.
This novel is actually made up of four novellas, three of which were published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in the 1980’s. That is what those in the publishing game call a “fix-up.”
These stories are about a pair of American expats in Nepal, George Ferguson, a mountaineer and tour guide; and George Fredericks, apprentice to a Tibetan monk. Together they encounter a yeti, Shangri-la and the whole mythological milieu of that part of the world. But they also have to deal with the realities of beggars in the streets and bureaucrats in the offices and villagers scrambling for a living and demanding tourists and bugs and mud and rain and all the things one has to deal with when traveling in a foreign country. Despite the fantastic elements, it gives a surprisingly realistic look at Nepal.
Hitchens is best known today as one of the founding fathers of “New Atheism,” but he was first and foremost one of the best journalists ever to hold the job. His writing included not just politics but literary criticism, interviews and, yes, travel writing.
It is a pity he never published a book exclusively of travel writing, but of all the collections of his journalism, Love, Poverty and War probably comes closest.
Hitchens was British and, even though he lived much of his adult life in the U.S, his origins informed his views on Americana. He gives readers his impressions of traveling down Route 66 and Sunset Strip, as well as his thoughts on the cultural impacts of such American icons as Bob Dylan and William Faulkner.
This list easily could have gone on (and on and on and on). So you see, if you love reading about other worlds and other peoples, sometimes you don’t want to stick to the obvious routes. Not unlike actual travel. There is plenty of unexpected travel writing out there if you are open to it.
(I want to thank Gordon for inviting me to write the foreword for Beyond Our Borders. It was my first foreword and it was an honor to write it. And Gordon, I definitely look forward to traveling with you again somewhere, hopefully soon! – Earl)
Do you have any interesting travel books to recommend that are not normally on lists of recommended travel books?
If you ever find yourself in Cascais, Portugal, please walk past the beaches.
Head into the heart of the old town, but do not stop. Ignore the line at Santini’s ice cream shop, pay no attention to the imposing fortress and whatever you do, stay far away from the small market in front of the Marechal Carmona Park.
You’ll have time for this stuff later.
For now, keep your eyes straight ahead and walk away from all the activity and crowds. Follow your map towards those picturesque homes and traffic-less streets of the quiet neighborhood just west of the town center. Keep walking, even when you think you’ve gone too far. You’re on your way to the real highlight of Cascais.
Your destination is 310A Avenida Emidio Navarro.
You’ll know when you’ve arrived. While the sign on the sidewalk is small and simple, the massive, unmissable hanging plant, with its bold pink flowers, covering the entire front facade, makes this address stand out among the others.
And now, all that’s left to do is enter.
Welcome to Arte No Livro Bookbinding and Restoration.
During our random stroll through the part of Cascais that apparently few other travelers stroll around, we found ourselves attracted by the word “livro” (book) on the sign. Had we been walking on the other side of the street we would have easily missed it.
Once inside, and expecting a bookshop, we stepped into a world not so much like a bookshop at all but very much unlike any other world we’ve wandered through before.
We knew nothing about the art of bookbinding. I probably never gave it more than a few seconds thought, if that, in my entire life. But that was all about to change.
We were greeted by Fernando, the 68 year old owner of Arte No Livro. His father, Vitor, started the business back in 1917, becoming one of the most well known bookbinders in all of Portugal. Once he passed away, Fernando took over.
We then met his daughter, Andreia, who gave up her career in 2010 to dedicate her life to the family tradition.
After hearing the initial story of the business, we had a couple of questions, and before we knew it, the answers were provided by a complete tour of the peaceful and intriguing two-room operation.
Andreia seemed more than happy to take a break from her work in order to show two foreigners around, and to explain every aspect of what they do, even though we clearly were not going to bring them any books to be re-bound.
The variety of strange-looking and well worn machines and tools they use today to restore books are all original, most of them dating back 60 years. They all still function exactly as they should.
There are book parts scattered everywhere, along tables small and large, shreds of paper, book covers, spines…there are pieces of book parts galore as well.
The dying books dropped off by customers from around Portugal rest silently on the tables and shelves until it is their turn to be brought back to life. These are the books so precious to someone that those people are willing to spend good money to have the binding stripped, pages unsewn and covers removed, all so that they can be replaced with finer, more stunning and sturdier versions.
Fernando uses a narrow tool to carve off an old book cover while his daughter shows us the delicate sticks she uses to create beautiful engravings on the front covers of newly restored books.
In the far back corner a lone and comfortable lounge chair waits patiently for anyone looking for an ideal spot to read. A reading lamp next to it is more than ready to provide the light.
While the main room of Arte No Livro is dimly lit and the wooden furniture heavy and serious, the overall atmosphere remains light and cheery. It’s the atmosphere of a hidden place lost in time, yet containing so much joyous wisdom, limitless love and delightful devotion.
If you told me a bookbinding business would be the highlight of Cascais for us, you know how it goes. A chuckle perhaps? Or a wave of the hand in that ‘you’re silly!’ kind of way?
But it’s true. It was the highlight of Cascais. And it’s also why I love travel.
We remained inside for a mere half an hour, however, this is far more than you would think given the size and focus of the place.
Our final ten minutes were spent flipping through the books on the public bookshelves. There was an attractive pocket sized book about an island in Amsterdam, elaborately bound, certainly with a history that most likely nobody knows. A couple of books on those shelves we’d heard of, most we hadn’t, yet there we were touching and opening them all, as Andreia had instructed us to do.
It was impossible to not feel a child-like happiness while inside. It was also impossible to not feel a deep appreciation for the power and potential of all books and even more, for the dedicated, yet seldom-considered, craftsmen and craftswomen who keep these books alive.
To those involved in the respectable art of bookbinding, I offer a genuine salute to you.
As we finally turned to leave, we noticed what appeared to be a remarkably tiny book in a display case. It was the size of the finger nail on my pinky finger.
We asked Andreia if it was a real book.
She smiled widely, opened the display case and took out this magnificent thing, with its highly detailed cover and pages full of actual text inside. You’d need a very strong magnifying glass to read it but this naturally made the book even more impressive.
All we could do is shake our heads in wondrous disbelief.
With that we said our goodbyes and thank you’s, thank you’s which were as sincere as could be.
We came to Cascais for the beaches and the old town. And sure, we spent time at, and thoroughly enjoyed, both.
But if you ask me about this quaint fishing village outside of Lisbon and my eyes light up with a trace of some fondly remembered secret, you now know where that light comes from.
Luckily, that secret place is open to everyone. And it’s well worth discovering.
Are you ready? Do you have any ‘highlight of Cascais’ experiences to share from your own travels?