I decided to blow a huge part of my budget on a trip to the Galapagos. I knew what I was in for – compared to the rest of South America, the Galapagos is REALLY expensive. When you are given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, however, you should probably take it. You can always find more money later (that’s the best philosophy when traveling, in my opinion!)

A Pelican and infamous Blue-Footed Booby

I did want to be a little frugal on my trip, because I still needed to get to Peru, and I really didn’t have that much money left. So, I did a little research, and got a little help from my volunteer country coordinator. She took it upon herself to book my plane ticket, which I was not so pleased with, as I have an ISIC card (or did, until my wallet got stolen later that month) and could have saved $75 bucks booking myself. There are only two airlines that operate flights to the Galapagos, so unless you are an Ecuadorian citizen or have an ISIC card (and go directly to the airline offices), you won’t find that much difference in price. It will probably be about $350.

Now, cruises are the most popular way of seeing the islands. This makes sense…because they are islands and therefore not very easy to get to. Unfortunately, they are very expensive and the  quality is all over the board. I decided that I would do a more unconventional visit and stay on individual islands. I got hooked up with affordable housing with meals included (about $20 a night with 3 meals a day) because of my volunteer connections. All I had left to pay for were day tours to other islands – which usually run between $50-150, depending on where you are going.

Lonesome George, slowly trying to sit down

The first 4 days I stayed in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, the capital of the Galapagos. This town is bustling with touristy restaurants and about 200 Galapagos gift shops. You must stop at this island, mostly because the majority of flights go here, but it is also the headquarters of the Galapagos. You can organize any tour you want, try to snag a last minute reduced spot on a boat, and most importantly, see Lonesome George, the 100-year-old tortoise who is the last of a Pinta Island species and the rarest creature on earth.

Sea Lion sunbathing on Bartholomew Island

From Santa Cruz I took a day trip to Bartholemew Island, an island that looks more like a moonscape with streaks of red, orange, black, and green volcanic formations, and the occasional cactus. You see thousands of Sally Lightfoot Crabs and an occasional marine iguana, until you reach the small beach. There are a few sea lions sunbathing, a couple  reef sharks swimming by the shore, and some penguins whizzing through the water. It’s a great island to do a day trip to, as you can pretty much see almost every amazing species of the Galapagos in one trip.

Isla Isabela

I spent the rest of my trip relaxing on Isla Isabela. Staying with a great host family, I enjoyed my time wandering around town, lounging with the giant iguanas, and enjoying a hot shower with good water pressure.  I snorkeled in La Perla with sea turtles, sunbathed with sea lions, hiked volcanoes, and swam through water channels with hundreds of reef sharks. I spent a week here, which is completely unnecessary. Most tours do a one to two night stay, complete with all the volcano tour and shark swimming tour.  However, I enjoyed the lazy approach to the Galapagos and the ability to really get a feel of what it was like to live on the islands. I ate incredibly fresh seafood grill and ceviche, enjoyed overpriced Coca-Cola, and got to catch up with my family and friends.

The beauty and wildlife of the Galapagos is unparalleled. Boat tours are a great way to experience this, but I was lucky enough to experience the friendliness of Galapagians as well.

Galapagos Penguins

Marine Iguana

Ecuador has a little bit of everything. Mountains, coast, and serious jungle. The Amazon, known more commonly as El Oriente in Ecuador, takes up a significant amount of land in the country. Visiting this part of country is a little more difficult, because towns are sparse, secondary jungle is more accessible, and the most remote places are difficult (I.e. expensive) to get to. Luckily, you can find some reasonably priced lodges that may not count as luxurious, but they wont break the bank.
A decent sized group of volunteers and I booked a 4 day, 3 night trip to the Cuyabeno River Lodge in the Cuyabeno reserve. This area, endangered by the oil pipelines running close by, has been designated a national reserve by the government, and is only accessible by booking a tour and/or staying at one of the lodges along the river. The Cuyabeno River Lodge is shallowly located in the reserve, only 10 minutes from the entrance bridge by motorized canoe. It is rustic, with minimal electricity and obviously, no hot water. They do provide the jungle necessities, however, including mosquito net, mostly comfortable beds, rubber boots, and rain ponchos.
The four day trip was interesting, with highlights including a short night hike

Tired group after a rough hike

(lots of spiders and even a jaguar growling in the darkness), and motorized canoe trips down the river to watch spider monkeys play in the trees and pink river dolphins rise for air in the black lagoons. Unfortunately, to really experience the wildlife of Cuyabeno and the Amazon, you need to trek farther than we were able to, being based at the lodge.

Anaconda basking in the sun

It’s a fun experience for those willing to embrace the numerous insects and not have too high of expectations on what wildlife they will see. I got the opportunity to swim with pink dolphins (although I hear that you shouldn’t swim in rivers in the jungle, but I think I’m ok!), kiss a tarantula, see baby anacondas, and take a million pictures of weird looking spiders. I also got attacked by fire ants, hardly slept, and was incredibly dirty for four days. I think the good experiences outweigh the bad.

Cuyabeno is a highly recommended jungle, having a good guide is very important, and not worrying about whether or not you might have gotten malaria from that mosquito bite is essential.

I haven’t written much about my life working in Quito, because to be perfectly honest, there isn’t much to talk about. People often think volunteering or working abroad is fascinating, and it can be, but most of the time, it is just normal work. This is something to keep in mind if you are considering doing some time of work abroad. You have your weekends free, but the rest of the time, you actually have to work!

I especially am a little lame, and being almost 23, feel the desperate need for sleep. Waking up at 6:30 every morning is like my own personal hell, and as a result, I end up going to bed by 10:30 every night. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to explore the night life, because I am just too tired.

Another problem is my lack of directional skills. I get turned around easily, especially in Quito (although they say it is impossible to do, because the mountains are always West, although that doesn’t ever help me). The buses are frequent, but  I don’t understand where they go. After a month and a half in Quito, I still have a problem taking about half of the public transportation in the city. Taxis aren’t very expensive, but it is very tiring to constantly get ripped off. Where I live in Quito is not conveniently located near anything, besides the airport. It always ends up costing me a lot to go out.

However, not all things are bad. I enjoy life in Quito, even if it is monotonous at times. I live with a very nice host family and get to play Wii with the grandkids fairly often. I come home from work, feast on a gigantic lunch, then go comatose while watching the World Cup. It isn’t a glamorous life here, but it is pleasant.

I also have gotten the opportunity to see several things in Quito,

Volunteers in the Mariscal

despite my earlier comments of never leaving the house. La Mariscal (aka Mariscal

Sucre, aka Plaza Foch, aka Gringolandia) is a very accessible, fun area to eat different ethnic foods and go out at night. It is filled with a lot of tourists, but Ecuadorians enjoy a night out in the Mariscal just as much as your average gringo. It is overpriced, but always filled with people and different things going on. It is your first stop as a tourist in Quito to find a hostel and meet some people.

La Ronda, Old Town Quito

Old Town Quito is also interesting to explore, with all kinds of shops, restaurants, and churches on every corner. Historic colonial architecture makes this area totally charming, and the police and government have worked hard to clean the streets up and make it a safer area. La Ronda is where to go at night, a beautiful narrow street with tiny bars playing live music, and people selling canelazo (a hot beverage made of juice and sugar cane liquor) and tasty empanadas. Most places have cover charges, which is a bummer for a poor volunteer like me. If it isn’t too crowded, it is nice to grab a glass of wine or canelazo and just roam the street for the evening. Watch out for the annoying mime, he is a jerk.

So, there are things to do in Quito. And I do get out of the house every now and then, but my life hasn’t been the most exciting here. I’m ok with boring weeks though, because I save my money for getting out of town and exploring beautiful Ecuador on the weekends. If only I didn’t have to be back at work on Mondays…

Well I have now reached my two week marker in Ecuador. It’s been an interesting experience but one that is not necessarily what I had imagined.

The most important thing to remember when volunteering is to remain flexible. When I arrived, it was apparent that the organization didn’t really know I was coming, nor did they have any idea what to do with me. I was put in the information office, where essentially, there was no work to be done.

It can be frustrating when you want to be helpful, and you find yourself unable to contribute. In larger organizations like government agencies, you have to put yourself out there, just like a job. Continue to ask if you can help and try to get acquainted with everyone in the office.

After a week of sitting in an office playing sudoku on my Ecuadorian phone, I met a lawyer who was applying for a scholarship to study in the United States. He needed some help editing his essay in English. This became my salvation from becoming the worlds fastest sudoku player. He has attempted to help me understand the legal process for reporting domestic abuse. It is frustrating work because the language barrier is more challenging than I expected, but at least I am doing more of what I came here to do, and that feels better.

A lot of countries don’t have quite as organized of volunteering/interning programs as the United States does. You have to find a way to be helpful, because sometimes nobody will be there to guide you.

Important lessons learned here in Quito, even if I’m not exactly doing what I wanted to.

I’m currently sitting in my room, which looks like a tornado has just hit. But don’t worry, that’s just my style of packing. Throw everything on the ground, and eventually it will find its way into the backpack.

I’m leaving tomorrow morning and will arrive in Ecuador with basically no plan. Granted, I’m supposed to be working for the next two and a half months, but I don’t even know a lot of details about that. After I’m done with my internship, I hope to backpack around a little bit (funds permitting), but I don’t know where I want to go.

I guess this is my travel style. I show up somewhere, then figure it out. It worked well for my last trip, even if arriving in a strange town at 4am with no idea where to go was a little scary. Is it the best travel style? Yes and no.

I like spontaneity, but I also like structure. I’m weird like that. I’ll plan my days out to the minute, but not follow my plan. The good part about this is it lets me go where the wind takes me, based on advice from other people mostly. The down side? Sometimes I feel that I might have missed out on something I would have liked, simply because I didn’t research well enough.

Everyone has a different travel style, and I know that at the end of the day, I have never regretted anything I’ve done, and I’m sure this trip to South America will be no different. I’ll figure it out as I go, but boarding a plane with no plan always gives me a few jitters beforehand!

Next post will be from Ecuador!

So as I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, I have been less nomadic and spent the past few months working in California. I have also been trying to find an internship or volunteer opportunity in South America in the human rights field.

This is not as easy a task as it may seem. While volunteer abroad websites are plentiful, they are often incredibly expensive. Spend $2500 for two weeks WITHOUT airfare? Not for a budget traveler like me! This has eliminated maybe 3/4 of websites out there.

Another problem is finding out if the program you will be working with is reputable. Information is scarce, but if you do enough digging you can find many online forums where volunteer alum offer their insight to prospective volunteers. Through Gap Year Forums  (http://boards.gapyear.com/), I found out that the animal rescue center  I wanted to volunteer at had undergone a lot of changes in recent years and might not be an ideal place to volunteer. Helpful!

My area of interest was also difficult. Human rights organizations usually aren’t interested in someone doing a short-term (relatively) internship or require law degrees or someone in law school. I’m not there yet. If I wanted to volunteer at an orphanage, there are about 50 million places. But that wasn’t what I wanted, so I continued my search.

Finding a low-budget reputable place that fit my desires seemed like an impossible task. I didn’t want to shell out a lot of money, but I also was specifically looking for something in the legal field (except for that whole animal rescue thing!). Finally, I gave up trying to find one that was relatively low cost and instead found one that was not as expensive.

I ventured on to http://idealist.org and spent a long time searching and bookmarking places. I finally settled on ELI Abroad – a program based in Denver that works with people to find volunteer and internship placements in 23 countries. They have a wide area of interests, and relatively low costs compared to other similar countries. For a 10 week internship program in Ecuador, I will be paying $1645 (plus airfare and insurance), including room and board. While many hardcore travelers scoff at the idea of paying to volunteer, sometimes it is necessary if you are looking for specific programs.

I leave May 13th and will be interning for a Women’s Rights group in Quito, Ecuador. I’m frantically trying to get everything together, and remember some of those irregular Spanish verbs. I will be updating on how the program goes once I get going.

If you are interested in doing some international volunteering, there are a lot of interesting options out there. Here’s a short list of websites to check out.

http://idealist.org (large database of volunteer opportunities)

http://www.wwoof.org/ (Free volunteer opportunities on organic farms)

http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/ (Free to low cost volunteering in South America.)

http://www.transitionsabroad.com/ (Travel/Volunteer/Job/Internship Database)

http://www.ecoteer.com/ (Low cost “Responsible” volunteering)

Please Vote!

Hi everyone, it’s time for me to ask for a personal favor!

One of my good friends from college, Chrissy, is applying for an STA World Traveler Internship. They are choosing two people to go to Peru, Brazil, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Egypt, and Western Europe. Their requirements are to take photos, blog, and inspire young people to travel the world. Currently,  Chrissy is working as an au pair in Belgium where she spends her weekends and off days traveling around Europe, taking AMAZING photos, and blogging.

She is exceptionally well-qualified and totally  deserving of this opportunity. The only thing is, she needs people to vote for her video application! If you have just one spare minute, please click on this link, check out her video, and vote if you feel like she would make a good candidate.


Thanks for your help! (if only I saw this internship opportunity earlier..hah)