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5 things I wish I knew before traveling to Brazil

With the Brazilian World Cup beginning in just two days, I wanted to take a moment to turn away from soccer and politics, and highlight the vibrant and passionate host country — Brazil. Brazil’s a destination that appeals to all types of travelers.

Adventure seekers can spend a day barreling through the rugged Amazon rainforest on a Jeep tour. Beachcombers can lounge on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana beach. Party animals can samba the night away at hot Brazilian clubs. Brazil is simply unlike any other place on Earth, and while it might be too late to book your trip to The World Cup, Brazil’s still a surefire bucket-list destination for anyone seeking beauty and excitement.

But before you book your flight, check out my list of five tips that you’ll find handy to know before traveling to Brazil. It’s sure to clear up some common misconceptions and help prepare you for this once-in-a-lifetime adventure:

1) Embrace the Brazilian culture

I’ve traveled from Chile to China, and dozens of countries in between, but Brazil stands out as a true cultural gem. The 3.288-million-square-mile country was built on a foundation of indigenous Brazilian traditions, Portuguese customs, and African influences. These independent cultures have shaped modern-day Brazil, creating a unique mix of food, music, religion, and local sights. Visitors can view the intersection of African and indigenous Brazilian traditions by attending a capoeira performance — a Brazilian martial art that combines dance, aerobatics, and music. They can indulge in European sophistication by sampling pastéis de nata, a Portuguese custard tart, in a Brazilian café. Finally, they can feel the unbreakable union of a diverse country by attending a Brazilian national team football game. Brazil has embraced its past to create a nation that accepts all traditions. My only advice is to leave all preconceived notions at the door before traveling to Brazil, as it’s unlike any other Latin American country.

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Getaway Dossier: The side of South America you should see

Machu Picchu

We added three new South American tours to the Friendly Planet mix last week, so for my next Getaway Dossier, I thought I’d share my knowledge about all things South America to help you plan your next trip, whether you’ve already booked it or are considering one.

The most recognizable landmark on this continent is probably the Amazon River, but there’s much more of South America’s natural beauty and ancient history worth seeing. Here are my recommendations for the best things to see, do, and know about South America before the plane leaves the tarmac.

Weather: Opposites attract. Since South America is on the opposite side of the equator from us in the U.S., the seasons are a mirror of ours. When it’s summer here, it’s winter in South America, and vice versa. The most temperate times to visit South America are the spring and the fall, which is when the temperatures are the mildest.

The rainy season is in the summer (December to March). However, the rain doesn’t normally last long on any given day. Lima, located on the western coast, has moderate weather year-round with mild temperatures and cloudy skies. Rio de Janeiro, located on the east coast, is also temperate 12 months out of the year, making it a great place to visit.

In Machu Picchu on the southwest side of the country, and at the Iguazu Falls on the eastern side, the days are warm and humid. If you’re traveling anywhere with higher altitudes, dressing in layers is a must because temperatures will drop significantly at night.

Food: BBQ can’t be beat. South America boasts fantastic tropical fruits, such as coconut, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, and more. And its seafood can’t be missed, especially in coastal towns. My absolute favorite thing to eat when I’m in Brazil is churrasco, also known as Brazilian barbecue.

Meat is cooked on huge skewers over an open fire. Then, waiters come by your table and slice it hot off the skewer right onto your plate. If your stomach is a bottomless pit, you’ll love this: When you’re ready for seconds, thirds, or fourths, just hit the button on your table and a waiter will be at your side with fresh, hot meat.

Restaurants that serve churrasco appear most typically in Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu, but can be found all over the country as well. If you’re not much of a meat eater, most metropolitan areas offer a varied range of cuisine.

Currency: Tip the right way. Three of the most common countries to visit in South America are Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, and each has its own currency. The currency in Peru is the nuevo sol; in Argentina, it’s the peso; and in Brazil, it’s the real.

In restaurants in Peru, an 18 percent service charge is included in the bill if you pay with a credit card. If you’re paying in cash, there isn’t a fee so you should tip between 5 and 10 percent. In Argentinean restaurants, tip 5 percent of the bill if your service charge was added and 10 percent if it wasn’t. Tip movie ushers and bus terminal porters 1 peso, and air terminal porters 2 pesos per suitcase. As for tipping in Brazil, a 10 percent tip is usually included in the restaurant bill, but you can leave more if your service was especially good.

Tip cab drivers no more than 10 percent, and tip bellboys, porters, or concierges about 1 real per luggage item or for any help they provided.

Iguazu Falls

Landmarks: It’s all about the falls. Iguazu Falls straddles the border of Argentina and Brazil, and consists of 275 smaller falls and islands. They’re believed to be 200,000 years old and are absolutely breathtaking. Be sure to see the falls from both sides. The Argentinian side at Devil’s Throat is the most famous place to take in the spectacular views. There are also boat and helicopter rides that take you up close and personal with this natural beauty (weather permitting). The falls might be the main attraction, but be sure to visit a fantastic bird sanctuary nearby. You can see dozens of exotic species of birds, as well as butterfly and hummingbird exhibits.

Culture: Appreciate the modern and the ancient. South America is a fantastic mix of old and new. It’s inspired by the traditions of its historical culture while keeping in step with modern society. This is one of the aspects that makes the continent so beautiful. When you visit, you’ll see wonderfully modern cities with every imaginable amenity. Then you’ll visit places like Sacred Valley, where the people still honor the traditions of their ancestors in their everyday life.

Don’t forget: Layers, layers, layers. You’ll probably be experiencing significant weather changes from one location to the next, so I’d say the most important thing to remember when traveling to South America is to dress in layers. Make sure you wear good walking shoes, and bring sunscreen and bug repellent. Much of South America is in the rainforest, so you’ll definitely be happy you brought these along!

The tours we offer to these destinations highlight the history and wonder of ancient South America, and the emerging culture of its cities. It’s a beautiful continent and different from anything here in the U.S. — that’s what makes it so special.

For the full itineraries on our three new tours, visit our website. And if you have any questions, write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.

Why one traveler keeps coming back to Friendly Planet Travel

It’s the shout-outs of travelers like Sue Phillips of Solana Beach, Calif., who provide the motivation for me to continue to do my day job — designing extraordinary group tours to exotic destinations for adventue-seeking travelers like you.

She’s already been on three Friendly Planet Travel tours and has two more booked. Sue, I hope you’re taking advantage of our Refer-a-Friend program!

Sue came to my attention when she sent me an e-mail after returning from Friendly Planet Travel’s Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands tour. I copied it (verbatim) below.

“Fabulous trip! Can’t say enough for Friendly Planet tours. Everything is a shiny 5 stars! We’ve also been to China and Vietnam previously and they were amazing trips. We will be going to India with Friendly Planet in February and really looking forward to it. We are taking our 8 year old grandson in July to Mediterranean 3 Continents trip with Friendly Planet. He is very interested in Greek Mythology, so this will be a special trip!” — Sue Phillips, Solana Beach, Calif.

Sue, I’m delighted to hear that you keep returning to Friendly Planet Travel again and again! We work very hard to earn your trust, and everyone in the office sends you a huge thank you for your loyalty, and we promise to keep working hard every day to make your vacations special.

And be assured your grandson is going to be the star of his class when he returns to school in September. We’ll make sure of that. Thank you for your note, it certainly made my day.

New travel regulations will better protect the Galapagos Islands and improve touring

You might have heard about the new regulations going into effect in 2012 to better protect the Galapagos Islands. If you haven’t, Gadling covered them in the recent blog post, “New Galapagos Islands regulations will change 2012 tours.”

The new regulations will make it possible to limit the number of people on a given island at a given time. No vessel will be permitted to visit the same island more than once in a 14-day period.

When Friendly Planet Travel was advised of these changes, we applauded them! The Galapagos Islands are precious and fragile, and we want to be sure the islands are protected in the future.

Some travelers might assume that these new regulations will affect the tours we offer to the Galapagos Islands. There will some minor changes to the itineraries, but it’s only for the better.

Since we have several tour programs, both cruise and island-hopper types, and are heavily involved in tourism to the Galapagos, we expect to be able to provide excellent programs at affordable prices, just as we do today.

In fact, we plan to continue to grow our programs to the Galapagos in the coming years. And just as we’ve done in the past, we will do it fully respecting the fragile environment so that these precious islands continue to be a source of wonder and discovery for generations to come.

When we make changes to the itineraries of the Galapagos Island Hopper, Galapagos Island Explorer, Ecuador and Galapagos Cruise, and Peru, Ecuador and Galapagos Cruise, we’ll let you know right here on our blog.

The New York Times names Santiago, Chile the #1 city to visit in 2011

Casa de la Moneda in Santiago, Chile

On Sunday, The New York Times named “The 41 Places to Go in 2011.” I was delighted to see that Santiago, the capital of Chile, was named the #1 place to visit.

However, a lot places I thought would land on the list were left off. But I’m going to follow up in another post with a few places I think should have made the list.

In the article, The New York Times highlights how Santiago has made new investments in the arts and the modern museums it’s built in recent years.

One important aspect they forgot to mention was that Santiago is where Spanish colonial buildings and old churches are juxtaposed against the spectacular, snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains. Trust me, the setting is one that takes your breath away, and it’s an image of Santiago visitors cannot forget.

The Casa de la Moneda is one of Santiago’s and Spanish America’s most stunning pieces of colonial architecture. It also is the current seat of the Chilean government. But to find the pulse of the city, you have to visit the bustling Plaza de Armas.

Here the ornate baroque Cathedral Metropolitana, Post Office building, and the Natural History Museum inspire awe. You can also capture a spectacular panoramic view of Santa Lucia Hill, the site where Santiago was founded in 1541.

What also makes Santiago special is that it’s the gateway to many other wonderful parts of Chile, including the Patagonia region of South America, which covers parts of both Chile and Argentina.

Patagonia is a windy, wild, and gorgeous land filled with glaciers, lakes and wild plants, animals and birds. Parks like the famous Torres del Paine will make you feel like you’re in an issue of National Geographic.

Just a short drive from Santiago, you can visit one of the world’s favorite Chilean wineries, Conche y Toro. There you can tour the infamous “Casilla del Diablo” and the lush vineyards, and of course, sample wines that will make your taste buds sit up and notice.

When I traveled to this region to develop Friendly Planet Travel’s Patagonian Explorer by Sea tour, I found myself constantly awestruck by the beauty that abounds at every turn. I truly believe that every traveler who enjoys the natural world as well as earthly pleasures will find a great deal to love, in Santiago as well as the entire region.

And if you’re interested in booking a tour, our Patagonian Explorer by Sea spends two full days exploring Santiago. The other 10 days are spent visiting Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, Cape Horn, Magdalena Island, and Valparaiso. But flip over to our website for the full itinerary.

Besides Santiago, The New York Times lists 40 other locations, and I encourage you to read through the entire list. They point to some obvious and not-so-obvious locales that might pique your interest. Some of the countries they suggest, such as Thailand, Italy, Japan, Turkey, India, Egypt, Morocco, and China, are already Friendly Planet favorites. We offer plenty of inexpensive options for travelers wishing to explore. You’ll find all the information you need on them at our website.

Thanks to the editors at The New York Times for bringing attention to Santiago and the 40 other places they researched. And keep your eyes peeled to the blog to see the places I think should have made their list.

Mark Machu Picchu’s 100th anniversary on Friendly Planet’s new South America tour

Machu Picchu

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu, also known as the lost city of the Incas. American historian Hiram Bingham is credited with bringing South America’s most iconic archeological site to the world’s attention in 1911. And travelers have been flocking to Peru ever since to see the Inca’s architectural masterpiece.

Machu Picchu’s history is quite remarkable. It remained hidden from the outside world in the mist-covered green mountains above the rushing Urubamba River for centuries. The complex consists of giant walls, terraces, and ramps constructed from precisely cut rock formations. Current historians believe it served as a country retreat town for Inca nobility.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this milestone then to see it in person, along with South America’s iconic natural wonder, Iguazu Falls. For the first time ever, Friendly Planet Travel is packaging two of South America’s most significant destinations together on the nine-day Jewels of South America tour.

The distance between Iguazu Falls and Machu Picchu has historically made it difficult to link them together inexpensively on one tour. But we’re now able to thanks to LAN Airlines new flight route between Lima, Peru and Iguazu, Brazil. LAN also introduced a new flight route from Peru to Easter Island, which lets us offer a four-day extension to the island for the first time.

Iguazu Falls

The Jewels of South America tour begins on the border of Argentina and Brazil at Iguazu Falls. The Falls consist of 275 inlets and cataracts cascading down 250 feet, framed by multiple rainbows and mist that rise up to 500 feet in the air.

The next afternoon, jump over to the Brazilian side of the Falls. Walk along the pathways through the sub-tropical rainforest into the canyon on the Falls for an incredible, up-close view. That evening you depart for Lima, Peru where you travel through the magnificent Urubamba River Valley to the picturesque Andean village of Chinchero. By train you proceed to Machu Picchu. It is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and enigmatic archeological sites in the world.

Continue to Cuzco for a walking tour of the capital of the Inca Empire that is located 11,000 feet above sea level. Spend your last day in Lima, the City of Kings and the country’s capital where you enjoy an authentic farewell dinner.

If want to spend more time in South America, we have two extensions you can take advantage of. You can start your tour early with a four-day, pre-tour extension in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Also known as the Paris of the South, Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own flavor, but everywhere the people are warm and welcoming.

Easter Island

Or opt for the four-day, post-tour extension to Easter Island, Chile. It is one of the most exotic, isolated islands in the world and is best known for the incredible moai built out of volcanic rock.

Packaged in the price, from just $1,899, are roundtrip flights from Miami via LAN Airlines, including fuel surcharges; all intra-South America flights and transfers; accommodations in superior hotels with private bath; daily breakfast and one farewell dinner; comprehensive guided sightseeing tours including entrance fees; and professional, English-speaking tour directors and guides.

See for yourself why travelers agree that among all the glorious and inspiring sites of South America, Machu Picchu and Iguazu Falls stand out as jewels of the continent. Book the Jewels of South America tour for $1,899 by Dec. 15.

For the full itinerary, visit our website. And if you have any question write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.

Our in-depth look at Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, part three

In part two of Ruthie Stein’s guest post on her trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, she told you all about the island of Santa Cruz and the breeding and rearing program of the giant Galapagos tortoises.

Now Ruthie will take you along the last leg of her tour to the islands of Floreana and Isabela.


I departed Santa Cruz on a two-hour boat ride on the Pacific Ocean towards Floreana, one of the smallest islands in the Galapagos, home to only about 130 people. My ride to the island was on one of  the smaller boats, but the sizes do vary. A majority of them fit a maximum of 20 people.

Here’s how the boats are set up. The front of the boat is covered and has four rows on each side that seat two people each, for a total of 16 passengers.The back of the boat, which is not covered, seats another four passengers for a total of 20. As I learned, if you’re more prone to getting seasick, sitting in the back relieves that feeling somewhat, but you’re also more likely to get wet during the ride. ;)

My ocean-front cabin on Floreana

When I arrived on Floreana, I checked into the Red Mangrove Floreana Lodge. One of the things that amazed me during my trip was how my luggage got from one island to the next. I never had to lift a finger! I’d hand my luggage over when I checked out of one hotel and by the time I arrived in my next hotel room, my luggage was already there. The Red Mangrove’s level of service was exceptional.

The lodge is made up of 10 independent cabins. The wood paneled rooms make you feel like you’re in the middle of the wilderness, until you hear the crash of the waves outside your door. That’s because every single lodge is ocean front!

When you step out of your room, there’s a wooden walkway that ‘s about six or eight feet wide separating you from the beach. The view is spectacular. I was able to see hundreds of sea turtles coming in and out of the water. And the cool breeze from the ocean kept me so comfortable at night that I didn’t need to turn on my air conditioner or use a blanket.

And keeping with their eco-friendly practices, the lodge provides your soap and shampoo in a dispenser, not in little plastic bottles. By refilling the dispensers, the lodge is creating less waste. This is just one of the many steps they take to protect the ecosystems on the island.

A Floreana finch

What set this lodge apart from all the other ones I stayed at was that it did not have a kitchen. Instead, you get to eat your meals with a local family. I ate breakfast with seven or eight other tourists with a family on their outdoor patio. Our hostess served eggs, a plate of cheese, fresh fruit, and yogurt. We also had a choice of cereal, coffee, tea, and fresh juice.

Getting the chance to eat with the local people was not only a delightful experience, but it gave me a chance to understand their culture, and as a bonus, providing meals for tourists helps maintain their livelihood. In addition, every person I met was welcoming, warm, and friendly. Most of the locals speak Spanish, which I do not. But nevertheless, they went above and beyond to make me feel comfortable.

When I was finished fueling up for the day, I spent a lot of time hiking. It’s the best way to see different kinds of indigenous animals and birds. I walked up to the Asilo de la Paz (Peace Asylum), the site of an artesian spring, one of the few year-round sources of fresh water in the Galapagos.

Galapagos penguins

Then I went to the Cueva de los Piratas (Pirate’s Cave), where pirates carved temporary shelter out of soft stone. This was also where Margret Wittmer, one of the original settlers, gave birth to her son Rolf, who promotes responsible tourism to the Galapagos Islands through his foundation. Afterwards I saw a profusion of Floreana finches on Cerro Pajas (Bird Hill) and more Galapagos tortoises at another reserve.

After two days of exploring life on Floreana, I hopped on another two-hour boat ride for Isabela. The amount of wildlife you see when approaching the island is unbelievable. I saw sea turtles, sea lions, and tropical penguins in the turquoise water. But that was nothing compared to what I saw on my tour of the bay.

Some colorful crabs

The blue-footed boobies, colonies of marine iguanas, and crabs were just stunning. I’ve never seen more colorful animals in my entire life. The crabs were a brilliant red and orange, and there was a small canal where you can go snorkeling. I opted not to, but the canal was full of resting white-tipped reef sharks. I was able to see them above the water as the snorkelers swam around them.

But my most memorable moment on this trip happened on Isabela, and it doesn’t include any of the animals I saw. It came in the form of a very tall volcano — Volcan Sierra Negra, to be exact. It’s the second largest volcano in the world and I hiked that baby. :)

We took the cheetah, which is the big truck with a heavy axle and big wheels from the hotel to the base of the volcano. Our naturalist guide led us up the four miles to the top of the volcano. (That’s right. I said four miles.) It had rained a few days prior so the hike was muddy, which made it even more adventurous.

Our trek to the top of the volcano

The route was surrounded by vegetation and lava rock. And just like every other place I had hiked so far, we were not allowed to pick up anything — not a single piece of lava rock or a petal from a flower. This is all done to protect the delicate ecosystem. The only thing we were allowed to take was wild guava fruit that grew along the trail, which was delicious and refreshing.

When our group reached the top of the volcano we explored the caldera and the fissures in the ground from the last eruption (it’s dormant now!). I also took some time to relax and take in the spectacular view of Isabela from the top. Then we began our descent back to the Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge. It was the perfect place to relax after a long hike. The oceanfront lodge has a beautiful wooden deck by the sea and a rooftop terrace with sea vistas for miles.

After my time on Isabela, I went back to Santa Cruz for a night before departing for Quito, which would eventually bring me back home to the U.S. I was sad to leave the beautiful islands, but I was coming home from one of the most amazing experiences of my life that I will never forget.

I was so fortunate to get the opportunity to go to the Galapagos Islands. I can say first-hand that it is one of the most beautiful places on earth that we should never take for granted, and we should do everything in our power to protect and preserve it.

A rainbow over Floreana

Protests in Ecuador shut down airports: What Friendly Planet Travelers should know

You might have heard about the protests that erupted in Ecuador today. Here’s what’s been reported by The Associated Press. Police officers are protesting a new law that was passed by Congress on Wednesday that cuts their benefits.

These protests quickly grew throughout the country to Quito, Guayaquil, and other cities. Airports are shut down, highways are blocked, and a state of emergency has been declared for the country.

Friendly Planet Travel has travelers in Miami’s airport who were trying to fly to Quito today. We also have travelers in the Guayaquil airport trying to fly back right now.

At this moment Friendly Planet Travel is all hands on deck. We will be working around the clock with the airlines and our representatives on the ground in Ecuador to make sure every one of our passengers is accounted for and is being taken care of.

We’ve been in the travel business for over 30 years and have experience dealing with these types of situations. Recently, you saw how we reported on the political protests in Thailand. And in one of my first posts about the Thailand protests, I explained what measures Friendly Planet Travel takes to ensure the safety of our travelers. I encourage you flip back to the post to see what we do.

Keep your eyes peeled to the blog. I will continue to keep you updated as I get more news on the protests and information from our reps in Ecuador. If you’re really concerned and don’t want to wait until my next blog post, write to me or call 1-800-555-5765.

Our in-depth look at Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, part two

The other week I introduced you to Ruthie Stein, Friendly Planet Travel’s Group Department Manager, who recently returned from a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. When I last left you, Ruthie had just finished telling you about the two days she spent exploring Quito, Ecuador.

I’ll turn the typing back over to Ruthie to give you the inside scoop on the island of Santa Cruz.


Arriving via ferry on Santa Cruz

I departed Quito, Ecuador for the Galapagos Islands on a plane that landed in Baltra, a small island in the Galapagos. It really only consists of an airport, so from here you can take ferries to your desired island. My first stop was Santa Cruz, the second largest island in the Galapagos after Isabela.

When I got off the boat in Santa Cruz, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the mid 80s, and it stayed pretty much at this temperature during the remainder of my time there.

The first thing that became evident when I got off the boat was the respect the locals and the tourism industry have for the fragile ecosystem of the Galapagos. I can attest to the fact that I did not see one piece of trash on Santa Cruz, or any of the islands for that matter.

Inside the Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge

I checked into my room at the Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge, which was gorgeous and is true to the photos Friendly Planet has on their website. What’s special about the Red Mangrove hotels is that they are eco-friendly and are designed to blend into the natural surroundings.

They do such a good job at this that if they didn’t have a blue walkway to get from one part of the lodge to the other, I might have found myself out in the mangrove!

To further prove how well it’s integrated, marine iguanas were sunning themselves everywhere on the hotel’s deck. And the staff had no intentions of asking them to leave — we were on their turf.

Marine iguanas sunning themselves on the hotel’s deck

The iguanas weren’t alone either. Further down the deck, two sea lions made themselves right at home. When another sea lion approached, the one would bark until the other retreated. Those sea lions weren’t budging.

Seeing these animals was just the tip of the iceberg. I saw dolphins, sharks, Galapagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, storks, flamingos, pelicans, finches, and more. But the animals I got to know the best on Santa Cruz were the giant Galapagos tortoises when I visited the Charles Darwin Research Station.

The Charles Darwin Foundation has its Research Station on Santa Cruz. Here there is a 600-acre private reserve where giant Galapagos tortoises freely roam, graze, and sleep. But what makes this even more unique are the great lengths the Foundation takes to protect the breeding of these indigenous animals.

A seal taking a snooze on the dock

Hundreds of years ago when missionaries, explorers, etc., came to the Galapagos, they brought invasive species with them. These species included rats, pigs, dogs, cats, and others. They began decimating the tortoises and their habitat.

Since the Galapagos Islands are the only place where giant tortoises are indigenous, the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park teamed up almost 50 years ago to establish a breeding and rearing program to rebuild the giant Galapagos tortoise population.

Now every tortoise on the Galapagos Islands is fitted with a chip so the Station can monitor them. The chip not only aids in the protection of the species, it also facilitates the hatching of eggs.

When the Station is alerted to the fact that a mature female tortoise has made a nest, the location will be monitored and the eggs will be removed to prevent the nest from being invaded by predators. The eggs are carefully taken from the nest and brought back to the Station, so they can hatch in a safe environment.

Pink flamingos taking a dip

Once the eggs hatch, the little tortoises are reared in small areas that are similar to their natural habitat until they’re about two years old. During this time they’re slowly introduced to the natural terrain, which includes the volcanic rock that the Galapagos Islands are made from.

When they reach the two year mark, they’re transitioned to a larger area until they’re about four or five years old. As they grow during this time, they’re introduced to more difficult terrain and a wider variety of vegetation on which they feed.

At seven or eight years old they are released into the natural habitat of the islands. The computer chip will allow them to be monitored for the rest of their lives and to ensure the continuation of the species.

Today, about 364 giant Galapagos tortoises reside on Santa Cruz. When I was finished learning about this fascinating process, I got to meet some of the tortoises. I was able to stand near the tortoises, but no one is allowed to touch them. We were told, if they approach you, just remain still.

Giant Galapagos tortoises at the Darwin Research Station

One lady standing close to me sat down on a rock. A very friendly, inquisitive tortoise, probably about 500 pounds, walked right up to her. It was huge! These creatures are just magnificent. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to make their acquaintance.

After my time at the reserve, I walked back to the hotel close by. Another fascinating detail about Santa Cruz is there is really only one major paved road.

In fact, there are very few paved roads anywhere on the Galapagos Islands. I believe the reason there are so few tarmac roads is because they want to maintain the natural beauty of the Islands and not disturb the ecosystem.

Some areas of the Galapagos Islands don’t have any roads at all, so the locals and visitors negotiate the land via heavy-duty trucks called chivas. Much of my traveling on the Islands was done by foot, or via chiva through rough terrain, along mud-packed trails and over volcanic rock.

Now that I’ve visited the Galapagos, I believe we must all be totally committed to the conservation of all ecosystems, natural and urban habitats, and the well-being of all people. We must support and contribute to the preservation of the environment, scientific investigation, education, and the promotion of environmental awareness among the local communities and guests on the islands. This can only be achieved by our direct participation in the operation of sustainable tourism.

I’ll tell you more in my next blog post what it’s like getting around the islands of Floreana and Isabela and the volcano I scaled.

An in-depth look at Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

Ruthie Stein, Friendly Planet Travel’s Group Department Manager, got the opportunity to travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands a few weeks ago. She experienced much of what our travelers will see on Friendly Planet’s Galapagos Islands Hopper and Galapagos Islands Explorer tours.

When she returned, she was armed with notes, photos, and memories of what she calls the most wonderful experience of her life. I asked her to share the details of her trip with us on the blog, and she happily agreed.

Over the course of nine fun-filled days, Ruthie spent time in Quito, Ecuador and on the islands of Santa Cruz, Floreana, and Isabella in the Galapagos. She begins her blog post series about her trip with her two-day stay in Quito, which she found to be surprisingly charming, friendly, and full of historical and fascinating sites.


I left Philadelphia on July 18, flying via Miami to board my flight for Quito, Ecuador on LAN Airlines. I landed in Quito later that day. The first word that comes to my mind to describe Quito is magical, and here’s why.

As my plane descended, the city came into view. It’s nestled in the valley of the Andes Mountains. Once you step outside, you see the magnificent mountains and snowcapped volcanoes, including the still-active Mt. Pichincha, surrounding the city.

A glimpse of the Andes Mountains from the valley Quito sits in

No matter which direction I looked, there was never a bad view or an obstructed one. The mountains just towered over the city. The blue skies and white clouds made it seem like I was looking at a postcard. Because it’s in a valley, it puts Quito over 9,000 ft. above sea level, making it the second-highest capital city in the world.

Knowing this fact before I booked the trip, I was nervous about getting altitude sickness. Luckily, I worried about nothing. When I got off the plane I wasn’t nauseous and didn’t have a headache, but my breathing was a little labored. I adapted quickly to the change in altitude, and my heavy breathing disappeared relatively quickly.

From the airport I settled into my room at the Sheraton Quito Hotel. It’s a lovely hotel where the food was outstanding. I highly recommend the salad bar, it was top notch. ;) The hotel is located right in the heart of Quito’s shopping district and is convenient to almost all the major attractions.

Statue of Virgin of Quito overlooking the tight streets of Old Town

I only had two days to spend in Quito, so I set out right away to sightsee and shop. Now in Quito there are two main parts of the city, the old and the new. The new town looks like most modern cities, with high-rises, multi-story apartment complexes, restaurants, and more.

The section I fell in love with was just 20 minutes away — Old Town. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site where I spent a lot of my time. The Spanish influence on Old Town is evident in the colonial architecture that overwhelms every tightly packed street I strolled down. The colorful buildings and churches date back to the early 1500′s when the Spanish founded the city. And it seems that at the top and bottom of every street you see the Statue of the Virgin of Quito overlooking the city.

I also walked through the Plaza de la Independencia. It’s the beautiful main square of Quito that is surrounded by the 19th century Iglesia de la Cathedral, city hall, the archbishop’s palace, and the government palace. Here I got to see the changing of the guards.

Otavalo Market

The following day I was off to the Otavalo market where I spent a couple of hours. It’s a well-known market in Latin America that is famous for selling alpaca blankets, sweaters, and all kinds of products laboriously handmade by the indigenous Otavaleño Indians.

Otavaleños are one of the only tribes, if not the last,  in Ecuador who still make and wear their traditional dress. The women vendors wear intricately embroidered blouses with lots of beaded necklaces, all of which are handmade. And the men have long braided hair, and wear calf-length white trousers, ponchos, and sandals.

Unfortunately, my shopping spree at the market was cut short. My guide reminded me that I should leave room in my suitcase for the beautiful leather products that I intended to purchase at our next stop on the itinerary, the beautiful little town of Cotacachi. It’s named after the Cotacachi volcano, which is located close by.

Here I found numerous shops selling handbags, shoes, belts, wallets, and other items, all made by the indigenous tribes people, and very inexpensive. Not too far from Cotacachi, we stopped at Peguche, another small town inhabited by the local tribes. I was fortunate to see one of the few remaining loom weaving workshops in the home of a local family. Beautiful tapestries, shawls, and blankets are all handmade without the aid of any patterns or templates.

One foot in each hemisphere

The next morning, my journey took me about 45 minutes from Quito, where I visited the Mitad del Mundo, which is Spanish for “middle of the world.” This is where the Equatorial Monument commemorates the exact place where Charles Marie de la Condamine established the equator.

I felt like a real tourist that day when I took a picture with my one foot in the northern hemisphere and my other foot in the southern hemisphere.

By the time I was done hopping between the hemispheres it was time to leave Quito for the Galapagos. I was disappointed that I didn’t have more time to explore the city further and to travel north to visit the Amazon rainforest (that’s the next stop on my wish list), but I was excited and looking forward to seeing the Islands that Charles Darwin explored almost 200 years ago.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about my trip to Santa Cruz island, and what it’s like jetting around from island to island on a the Islands’ ferries. I’ll also share with you the lengths that the Charles Darwin Research Station takes to protect the breeding of the indigenous Galapagos tortoise from the invasive species that were brought to the Islands hundreds of years ago by pirates and explorers.

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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