Friendly Planet Blog

Archive for August, 2010

Older Posts »

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.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

The next hottest destination and other travel trends

South American Explorer Magazine published an interview with me about my insights on the past, present, and future of the travel industry. Thanks to the editors for including me in this month’s issue! Give the article a read to find out what country I think is going to be the next hot destination, the different ways new technology is aiding travelers, and more.

Costa Rica calling! Friendly Planet Travel introduces its first tours to Costa Rica

I’m living up to my promise of adding new destinations to Friendly Planet Travel’s tour offerings in 2010. I’m excited to take travelers to a country that is ranked as one of the happiest places on Earth. No, not Disneyland. I’m talking about Costa Rica!

Friendly Planet Travel’s new seven-day Captivating Costa Rica tour and nine-day Costa Rica Pura Vida tour shows travelers why this country is known as a tropical paradise. Its biodiversity, ranging from jungles, cloud forests, and active volcanoes, to exotic wildlife, rivers, and Caribbean and Pacific coasts, is what lures millions of travelers every year.

Judy Poliva, Product Development Manager for Friendly Planet Travel, went to Costa Rica a few weeks ago with her camcorder in hand. She captured what it was like to a ride a zip line over the rainforest’s canopy and do a Tarzan-swing. She kindly agreed to share her videos, and you’ll get to watch them a little further down.

Both tours begin in San José, the capital and largest city in Costa Rica, which is nestled in a green valley, surrounded by mountains. If you choose the Captivating Costa Rica tour, you will travel to the Arenal region next. It is home to the one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Watch the smoke rise from the cone and lava flow down the hills. If seeing an active volcano isn’t adventurous enough for you, try a Tarzan swing over the canopy. Hit play on Judy’s video below to see what it’s like.

If you opt for the Costa Rica Pura Vida tour, you spend two extra days exploring the Caribbean coastal area and Tortuguero before you head to Arenal. Small boats take you for a tour through the canals of the Tortuguero National Park where you can see rainforest vegetation and wildlife, including Capuchin, Howler and Spider monkeys, crocodiles, and more. You might also see some green turtles, one of several varieties of endangered turtles that lay their eggs on Tortuguero’s shores.

Both tours then continue on to Monteverde. Settle into your air-conditioned mini-van that transports you to the Monteverde Reserve where over 300 species of birds and mammals and many varieties of orchids can be found. Get a better view of its Cloud Forest Reserve on the suspension bridges that span from one mountaintop to another.

Or opt for a canopy tour that includes zip lines. (This is also available in the Arenal region.) Judy handed her camcorder over to the zip line instructor to give you a birds-eye view of the canopy. You see Judy as the instructor comes in for his landing.

Lastly, you’ll drive back to San José to see two of its famous landmarks, the National Theater and Edificio Correos buildings. If you’re not ready to leave Costa Rica, take advantage of the already included airfare and continue on a three-night extension in Manuel Antonio.

If this sounds like a stunning tour to you, it’s not as stunning as the price. Book the seven-day Captivating Costa Rica tour for $799 or the nine-day Costa Rica Pura Vida tour for $999 by Oct. 28.

Included in the prices are round-trip flights from Miami; all transfers via air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven minivans; superior hotel accommodations; daily breakfast; all meals in Tortuguero; comprehensive sightseeing with a naturalist, bilingual guide in Tortuguero; entrance fee to Tortuguero National Park; and more.

With these debut tours priced so low, I wouldn’t wait to book your trip to Costa Rica. So if you have any questions, visit our website for more details and the full itinerary for both tours. And as always, feel free to write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.

Tips to get your travel photos to say a thousand words

A picture is worth a thousand words is cliché but true. When I look at photos from my adventures around the globe, it always brings back a flood memories and stories.

I was talking to Trae Roberts, Friendly Planet Travel Reservations Manager, about photography and he offered some great advice on what type of camera or lens you should bring with you on vacation.

He gave some great tips, so I asked him to jot down his ideas for a guest post. Keep reading to get Trae’s tips on how to get some great shots when you travel. And if you have some of your own photography advice, please share it in a comment on this post.

My best advice is to get a large memory card and click away. See what sticks, and make sure you don’t eliminate pictures based on how they look on your camera’s screen. Upload them to a computer that has a large monitor to see if the picture is a keeper.

If you’re interested in animal/bird viewing, then I recommend using at least a 300 mm camera lens. The large SLR cameras might be a pain to carry, but so worth the reward! Your pictures will come out crystal clear and the range you get is fantastic.

To eliminate the need for a tripod, any lens you purchase over 200 mm must have vibration reduction (or equivalent) in order to reduce movement blur. Most experts suggest spending more money on the lens, more so than the body of the camera. I prefer Nikon for its ease of use, quality, and durability.

I’ll leave you with these last two tips. Anyone using a camera in a dusty environment, such as Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, etc., should not make it a habit to change their camera lens. Dust and dirt are the worst things for a camera body, and changing lens leaves you vulnerable in environments like these. And most importantly — bring extra batteries!

A Michigan family’s adventure on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise

Taking your whole family to the Mediterranean can be an adventure of a lifetime, and it sounds like it was for Sarah Hirsch from West Bloomfield, Mich. She went on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise with her husband, Kevin, and son and daughter, Jacob and Elena.

The Hirsch family recently returned from their tour of Greece and sent me an e-mail recapping their trip. I thought I would share with you all the kind things Sarah had to say and her beautiful photos. Thanks Sarah!

Our family at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

It may be a small world after all, but it sure seems big when trying to narrow down vacation options. Luckily, Friendly Planet Travel makes planning a vacation easy with a variety of specific itineraries of the best destinations around the world.

I had always wanted to go to Greece and see the beautiful islands, and visit amazing historical sites like the Acropolis, Agora, Plaka, and Panathenaic Stadium.

The Athens and 4-day Greek Islands Cruise itinerary offered by Friendly Planet provided me the opportunity to do all of this and more. With help and guidance from our Friendly Planet Travel agent, Becca, it was easy to prepare for a once in a lifetime family vacation.

Our journey began with an overnight flight to Europe, and our layover in Germany gave us a morning to explore the lovely Frankfurt. We arrived in Athens in the late afternoon, and were met by a Friendly Planet representative who brought us to our hotel.

Our family on the Greek Isles

It was so nice to eliminate the stress of handling ground transportation as that was all taken care of, since it is included on every vacation booked through Friendly Planet.

Our evening consisted of an informational meeting with Yanni, our Friendly Planet point person in Greece, who gave us all of the information we would need for our cruise and oriented us for the week.

We chose to have dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which featured a view of the Acropolis all lit up for the night like a beacon welcoming visitors to Athens.

The next morning we were taken by bus to the port, where we embarked on our cruise. The ship brought us to the ports of Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini in the span of four days and four nights.

We were at each destination only briefly, just long enough to taste each island’s unique flavor. These ports of call are so fantastic that even to simply walk around town and spend a few moments dipping our feet into the Aegean Sea equalled an incredible experience.

Elena and I in Ephessus, Turkey

Friendly Planet offers optional excursions for an additional fee in each of the ports. We mostly chose to explore on our own, though we did take an organized tour that we booked through Yanni to the ancient ruins in Ephessus in Turkey, which gave us a look back to the way of life experienced thousands of years ago.

Our final stop was Santorini, which is so unique a place on Earth that it kind of blows your mind a little!

After the cruise, we had two more nights in Athens. Our hotel was located just a couple of minutes walking distance to most of the best sites to see in Athens. Because we chose to go during the middle of summer, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees, so we broke up our days by spending the siesta hours at the hotel pool to keep us cool.

Kevin, Jacob, and Elena in front of Greece’s famous windmills

We began our days with the complimentary breakfasts at the hotel, and spent our mornings and evenings seeing Athens’ great sites.

From the Parthenon and Acropolis, to Syntagma Square, where we used the free wifi to check in back home. The Parliament building where we caught the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first modern Olympics, the new Acropolis museum, the National Gardens, and the Plaka, the main streets of Athens, where we found many great shops and restaurants to enjoy.

We left early on our final morning, with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call, but as tired as we were, Yanni was there with a friendly smile to help us arrive in the right place at the airport.

Overall our voyage was indeed incredible. It was everything that I had always imagined my desired trip to Greece would be, without any of the stress that can come along with trying to manage all the details of traveling abroad. I will always be grateful to Friendly Planet Travel for providing my family with this wonderful experience. Thank you!

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Friendly Planet Travel’s Exotic Ecuador reviewed: How tour guides make the difference

Our most recent Exotic Ecuador tour just returned and I’ve received a lot of e-mails from travelers raving about it. I was thrilled that everyone had a great time, and I can understand why. This tour took travelers through the capital of Ecuador and UNESCO World Heritage Center of Quito, the bustling Otavalo market, the natural springs in Baños, the volcanic peaks of Cotopaxi National Park, the Amazon rainforest, and more.

I thought I would share with you two of the e-mails I received from Friendly Planeteers. Give them a gander. If you’re thinking about traveling to Ecuador, these reviews might help you make up your mind. Plus, departure dates are still available for only $1,199 when you book by Nov. 3.

“What a wonderful experience on this tour! Patricio, our guide was outstanding. His knowledge and love of Ecuador gave us a special insight into the country and its people. Edwin, our driver made the bus go places that looked impossible and did it in a way that we were always at ease. Patricio helped us and others with small things that came up during the trip. Patricio always did more than was expected and was a perfect gentleman. All the places were fantastic, just wish we had more time at each one. We would tour with Friendly Planet again without hesitation.” – Leslie and Dwight Adams, New Brockton, Ala.

“By far this has been the best trip ever!!! Our tour guide Patricio and bus driver Ewin made our stay as pleasant as possible. They were courteous and attentative to everyone’s needs and made us feel safe at all times. I highly recommend this trip to anyone who has never dared to venture to South America – you will not be disappointed.!! The canoe ride up the Amazon river and the scenic panoramic view of the mountains will leave you breathless!!! Pictures to come soon for your enjoyment!!” – Ivonne Davila and Lucia Morales, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Part six of our inside look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

I closed my previous post in this series talking about my 8 a.m. wine tasting appointment. And I wasn’t kidding! We woke up early to disembark at Heraklion, Crete. Crete is the largest of the Greek Isles, and has a culture and dialect that has remained separate from that of mainland Greece. Heraklion is the largest city on Crete and is also the capital.

Right after stepping on land, our group boarded buses that would take us on a half-day shore excursion, appropriately named, A Taste of Crete. The drive itself was breathtaking. We followed a winding, two-lane highway through the countryside that came right up against olive groves and vineyards that seemed to go on forever.

We arrived at a modern winery about 30 minutes from Heraklion where we watched a film about how local wines, olive oil, and raki (a strong alcohol made from the pulp, skins, and seeds of grapes) are made; and how important these goods are to the culture and traditions of Crete. We had a chance to try each of the wines made there, and many people bought bottles to bring home with them.

Then we were back on the road. On route to our next destination we stopped along the side of the road at a spot where you can take beautiful pictures of the landscape and one of the oldest farmhouses in Crete, dating to the Minoan period 16th century B.C.

We arrived in Archanes a short while after. This settlement sits on the site of an ancient Minoan settlement that spread over the same area. It is a beautiful, quaint town who’s economy is based largely on grape and olive processing and marketing.

Our group entered a local tavern where we got to try a number of Cretan foods: olives, cheeses, breads, desserts, and yes, even raki. So now it was about 10 a.m. and we’d already sampled six kinds of wine and one of the strongest drinks you can get in Crete. This made the next part much easier: dancing with traditional Cretan dancers! I shot a quick video of the four dancers who showed off their moves. You won’t see this in the video, but every single person in the room was up dancing in a circle led by the pros. 🙂

After a morning spent eating and drinking, we headed back to Heraklion and boarded the Aquamarine once again, setting course for our last, and probably most anticipated stop: the beautiful Santorini!

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.

Older Posts »