Basking in Thoughts of the Bucket List

I’d all but given up on my dream of finding a last minute discount cruise to the Galapagos Islands, my sole reason for flying to Ecuador at the end of my Mexico journey. While Plaza Foch lived up to its reputation as being the central location of dozens of travel agencies, discounts were not as deep as I had hoped. I wandered every street, popping into shop after shop, but nothing seemed to fit within my budget. Between that frustration, the robbery, and my busted camera, I was starting to turn my sights toward a return flight to the US.

I had one “must do” on my list before I left Quito, a day trip to their most famous hot springs, Termas de Papallacta. The hot springs resort, located two hours outside of Quito, had an office near Plaza Foch where I was staying. I was on my way over to inquire about public transportation to the resort, when I passed Tip Top Travel. While I knew their cruises were way over my budget, I found myself turning toward the door thinking, “never hurts to ask.” Turns out they represent all cruise lines, not just their own. Within minutes, my criteria was met, and I was booked on a cruise leaving in just two days…

Tomorrow, I would bask in the healing warmth of the hot springs, 11,000 ft up in the Andes where steam rises off the volcano-heated water to meet the wispy clouds pouring down from the verdant mountaintops. I would soak my cold bones, soothe my shattered confidence, and rest my weary mind while dreaming of finally crossing the Galapagos Islands, the longest standing item, off my bucket list.

Termas de Papallacta is located in the Andean village by the same name, about two hours drive SE of Quito.

I booked a day trip through a tour company. At $60 for the day tour, it was a bit pricey, but it included the $23 entrance fee to the pools, and entrance to the vapor cave.

While there is a much cheaper option via public transportation, it required two public bus changes and a taxi, something I just wasn’t up for, still feeling somewhat vulnerable. The tour would allow me to relax for the ride without having to be so paranoid about my possessions.

The drive up over the mountains was just gorgeous over modern 4 lane highway.

At the top of the mountain pass was this little chapel for drivers to pull off and rest, pray, or make offerings.

Cruises in the Galapagos Islands don’t come cheap. I knew this going in, so I set a “red line” budget of $3,000. This had to encompass everything, including airfare, $100 Galapagos National Park Fee, the $20 transit control fee, and crew tips. While this may sound extravagant to some, consider that this is about half price to what one pays when buying in advance, stateside.

Buying a last minute cruise means you must have all kinds of flexibility, be willing to accept any myriad of combination itineraries, and assume a little bit of risk. It also means you usually must purchase your own airfare, which has limited capacity. It can be a bit of a gamble as the price of the airfare goes up as the last minute cruise prices come down.

Termas de Papallacta is a beautiful resort. Though a bit out of my price range, it offers cabins with fireplaces.

Lobby of the Termas de Papallacta resort.

Roses are everywhere in Ecuador. The direct equatorial sun overhead enables them to grow on long, straight stems.

Bathrooms and changing area all surround a plant-filled atrium.

I am basking in the luxury of these bathrooms, a real treat from my shared bath back at the hostal.

I tried to keep my criteria vague, but the more research I did, the more my wish list grew. I had hopes of being able to afford at least an 8 day itinerary. Research cautioned against anything shorter, since the first day would be spent getting to the boat, while an early departure would be required on the last day to vacate the cabins for the next round of guests. While 5 day cruises were certainly more in line with my budget, they only netted out three days on the islands.

Another wish was to find passage on one of the smaller ships. Sixteen passengers was my maximum acceptable size. I wanted no part of the larger boats that hold up to 100 people, preferring instead to have a more intimate experience. Traveling with a larger group means having to choose between different activities, as the Ecuadorian government strictly requires landing parties to have one naturalist guide per 16 passengers. This means on larger boats, one must choose between activities, which tends to give me a bad case of “FOMO” (fear of missing out.) In a smaller group, one gets to “do it all”…or at least all that’s on offer.

One might think being right on the equator it would be warm here, but at 11,000 ft, it is cold!  Clouds hover over the mountaintops.

Steam rises up to meet the misty fog rolling down from the mountains, making the warm water feel even more soothing.

The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with orchids, rose bushes, and colorful blooms all around.

All the pools have some sort of massage jets.

There are four categories of cruise ship in the Galapagos Islands; Tourist, Tourist Superior, First Class, and Luxury. While the first two categories were likely outside my budget, I was hoping to be able to afford a First Class boat. This categorization often times dictates the caliber of the Naturalist Guide, something I learned could make the difference between a memorable experience or a mediocre one. The nicer boats tend to snag the better guides, as many of them work freelance. I also wanted a boat that included all snorkeling gear (inc. wetsuit) and kayaking.

I am probably the rare exception in that wildlife, the reason many come to the Galapagos, did not really factor into my decision. I’ve seen sea lions, penguins, and albatross in Antarctica, blue footed boobies and frigate birds in the Baja, and giant tortoises in the Seychelles. So for me, it was more about the overall experience in the pristine national park.

Underwater lounges aid in relaxation.

One of the sources where the volcanic heated water comes into the pools. Water is really hot near here.

There are six large pools for soaking here.

aaaaahhh….I can’t describe how soothing it feels to get out of my layers of fleece and slip into this warm water on a cold, foggy day…

Finally, I was hoping to find a boat that offered a single cabin, without having to pay the usual 50% single supplement. I knew this one was a long shot. While I’ve had to share rooms with other travelers in the past, I know having a stranger for a roommate can be a “make or break” situation.

Gabriel with Tip Top Travel listened patiently to all my needs, helping me weigh the pros and cons. In the end, he was able to come within eight dollars of my red line budget. And so, the deal was done. Day after tomorrow, I would set sail…

Quito, Ecuador: Don’t Let Crime Ruin Your Time

I had “theft” on the brain from the moment I landed in Quito, Ecuador. I don’t typically give much thought to petty theft and street crimes, having lived in Manhattan for ten years. I have accepted that theft can happen anywhere, so I do what I can to protect my personal belongings, keep them out of view, and stay alert and aware when walking the streets of any large city. Then I try not to think about it too much.

Accepting the risks while arming myself with local knowledge, I refuse to let fear dictate my Continue reading

Circus on the Playa

The title of this blog sounds like something from Burning Man, when in fact, it’s about another “sleepy little Mexican town” turned into a rockin’ tourist enclave. Wow! How the Playa has changed!

Playa del Carmen’s only claim to fame used to be the ferry that connects Cozumel to the mainland. Now, it has become a vacation destination in of its own. And at the heart and center of that destination is a full blown circus, complete with costumed Mayan warriors, aerial acts, jugglers and junk food. Continue reading

Has Cozumel Sold its Soul?

I first visited of Cozumel in 1979. Fact is, I’d never even heard of this island before my then boyfriend, Steve Sisco, suggested we go for vacation. Steve, having been the son of an offshore oilman, had spent most of his youth growing up in Cartagena, Colombia. He talked of diving off city walls into water so clear, so blue, that one could easily think they were in a swimming pool were it not for the colorful, vibrant tropical fish beneath the surface. In search of a similar place a bit closer to home, Steve had Cozumel on his radar. Living in Corpus Christ at the time, Cozumel was practically in our back yard. Continue reading

Bacalar, Mexico’s “Lake of Seven Colors”

After spending a week on the island of Caye Caulker in a near-vegetative state, I am eager to get back on the trail.  Having spent a good bit of time exploring Belize “pre-blog” days, my reason for returning this time around was solely to visit the island. So I head back across the border to mainland Mexico to continue up the Yucatan Peninsula.  The plan is to fit a couple more stops in before my flight from Cancun to Ecuador.  One of those spots Continue reading

Caye Caulker, Belize

My plan to travel “border to border” across Mexico using only ground transportation (no airplanes) was cooked up on a foggy, cold morning in San Miguel de Allende. I had just arrived on the overnight bus from Dallas to an unseasonably cold December in the 6,000 ft mountains of central Mexico.

Leaning up against the edge of the steamy pool in La Gruta Hot Springs, wisps of fog rising up off the hot water into the frosty 37 degree early morning air, I casually said to my brother Don, “I’d like to just keep going and explore more of Mexico, but I am not sure which direction to go.” Continue reading

Picking Up Where I Left Off: Yaxchilán and Bonampok

I’m back. Slowly but surely reassembling my techno-arsenal. It’s not easy, especially when you are one who views yesterday’s technology as an improvement over what is available for purchase today. The iphones have gotten bigger, the sole remaining ipod option will no longer fit into Steve Jobs’ tiny watch pocket, and Windows 10’s darkness is seeping through the cracks of my browser despite my brother Don’s valiant efforts to Continue reading

Real Time Update

Greetings, Friends and Followers. Time for a real time update from the “Middle of the World,” Ecuador.

Thanks to those who have written to inquire if all is okay since I had been posting regularly from Mexico, but have not posted in a couple of weeks. I have much to share, as I have seen some phenomenal places, both in Mexico and Ecuador.

But first there is a big black cloud that I need to clear.  I only want to write about this once, so as not to “go there” over and over again. I am ready to move on.  But friends have asked about photos and updates, and I have always tried to share the bad along with the good.  So here goes… Continue reading

Mayans and the Mayabell

In my last post, I mentioned the jungle lodge my brother visited a few years ago, sending back photos that have lured me ever since. He talked about the refreshing pool in the lush jungle surroundings, and listening to howler monkeys at night. I’ve wanted to visit since I first saw his photos. So when I called for my reservation, I asked for a more Continue reading

From the Mountains to the Jungle: Palenque

I have to admit, as much as I enjoy world history, I have always struggled to embrace ancient Mayan culture. So a couple of years ago when my brother Don sent back photos of Mayabell, the jungle lodge in Palenque, complete with stories of hearing howler monkeys and photos of floating in the refreshing pool, it was the jungle that intrigued me. Two years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that jungle lodge. I had to go there. One of the most significant architectural sites in Mayan history, Palenque, was just a sideline. Continue reading