Enjoy some Galapagos glory

During my hiatus from writing my travel column, I’ve been marking off my own personal travel bucket list.

One of the truly inspiring and wondrous times was spent in the Galapagos Islands.

The archipelago, a province of Ecuador, is 1,000 kilometres off its coast. The inhabitants refer to themselves as Gala pagans and are fiercely independent in governance and thinking.

The only time I would not recommend travel to the Galapagos would be in September/October as the seas are rough and travel between the islands is uncomfortable at best and hazardous at worst.

A Galapagos itinerary is best combined with a short city stay in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito. The city is rich in history, architecture and culinary experiences and is best toured with a local guide as many areas are prone to petty theft and nuisance crime.

The 2.5-hour flight from Quito lands you on the rocky outcropping of Baltra. From there, you make your way via ferry and bus to the busiest and most populated island of Santa Cruz.

This tourist-based island is full of great restaurants and nightlife as well as accommodations for all budgets. For those of you with lots of time, you can pick-up last-minute Island cruises. But for those who have a specific time frame, I recommend that you have pre-arranged reservations especially during the high
season — December through March.

Only five of the 18 islands are populated.

Travelling through the Galapagos is done either via sleep-aboard cruise ships or by utilizing the water taxis between the islands. This second option can be a choppy, windswept transit and is not recommended for those prone to motion sickness.

There are pros and cons to both ways of travel.

Land Based

You can plan an itinerary of your choosing. Your stays allow you to truly immerse yourself in island life and get a glimpse of typical day-by-day rhythms of the locals. 

Accommodations on islands such as Floreana and Isabela are basic to moderate. Food and drink options are basic though plentiful. Cost of living is a little higher than ours. Diving, touring and adventure tours will be at an extra expense.

Cruise Based

Options for cruising range anywhere from basic (not recommended) to ultra luxury. All food, drink, accommodations and tours with licensed guides are included.

Your adventure will include stops (not overnights) at uninhabited islands as well as the others. Close up viewing of wildlife both above and below the water line.

Cruising is the only way a luxury client can enjoy high-end accommodations and dining.  Evenings are spent with specialists who teach you about the history, ecological conditions and wildlife that have impacted the region.

Itineraries are set and excursions planned for the group benefit. Pricing for cruises range from $$$ to $$$$$.

The wildlife exhibit little to no fear of humans which allows for incredible close encounters with both land and sea-based creatures.

The land itself offers vividly gorgeous landscapes and countless swimming, diving and snorkelling options.

ne fact cannot be stressed enough. You must be in good physical condition to visit the Galapagos. You will be expected to walk uneven ground, climb in and out of zodiacs, swim and snorkel with marine life and generally partake in the daily activities

Bird watchers, divers, photographers and adventure travel enthusiasts will absolutely adore the islands. It’s also an ideal destination for families with children over 10 years of age.

Disney has nothing on this experience.

The Galapagos will leave you with a new appreciation for nature and simplicity. You’ll return home with a fresh spirit and renewed love of all this world has to offer. Travel there soon to experience this last little Eden lost.

Your travel bucket list

There are so many sad tales of unrequited travel plans from recently retired people. 

Either they’ve been struck by sudden illness or they simply hadn’t planned well enough to incorporate all the varied destinations and experiences they dreamed of while they were working.

Like anything worthwhile, a valid and achievable Travel Bucket List requires planning, research and direction. This is where a professional and knowledgeable travel consultant can be your guide.

Budgeting, planning, saving? 

It all sounds like a financial plan doesn’t it? Financial planners assess individual’s financial needs to help them achieve short and long-term goals. They recommend investments to match the client’s retirement goal. 

The travel adviser that’s right for you will assess your travel needs and help with planning, budgeting and sourcing out the travel suppliers to match your travel goals.

Find a travel adviser who wants to work with you to create the travel dreams and experiences you desire.  Someone who listens. Someone who asks questions. Why? Where? And How? are powerful tools in assisting us to tailor-make an itinerary that is customized to your requirements.

Create a five- to 10-year travel plan now regardless of age. The right consultant will determine which suppliers and destinations can deliver to your personal level of expectation. 

This travel “line” of sorts can incorporate short and long-term goals. Weddings and honeymoons, milestone events, multi-generational trips and retirement travel. 

As your travel budgets, requirements and expectations change, so too will your trusted travel advisor’s focus and direction.

Machu Picchu on your List? The right travel adviser will help you budget your time and money along with the right seasonality, the health and visa requirements and will offer optional inclusions to make this dream destination shine!

Ahh, Africa. This destination is the exotic gem that tops most Bucket Lists. Experiencing her vast wilderness and indigenous cultures is a daunting task to those without a plan. 

What time of year, how much time do I need, what sort of visas and travel restrictions apply?

An around-the-world cruise? Which cruise line is right for you? Big, brash and full of entertainment options? Or smaller, elegant and inclusive with an emphasis on the itinerary?

For those serious about starting or adding to your personal Travel Bucket List, you should check the following travel trade shows ( http://www.traveltime.ca/okanagan-travel-shows) in Kelowna and Oliver in June. 

Well travelled and experienced travel suppliers will be presenting short seminars on their personal product and will be on hand for one on one discussions regarding destinations and lifetime experiences. 

It’s a perfect opportunity to broaden your own travel horizons.

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”Randy Komisar

Cuba, Part II

The direct nonstop service between Kelowna and Varadero is what predicates this area as being many of my clients' “first impression” of Cuba.

Like any resort town, it fluctuates to the needs and demands of its international clientele and is simply a slanted reflection of the real Cuba.

It is my role as a travel consultant to manage my clients’ expectations when discussing destinations and hence my observations regarding the level of service and amenities of the area and how they compare to former vacation hotspots.

Cuba is a diverse and complicated destination in and of itself. To enjoy it best is to be open to its political and economic challenges as well as it’s versatility and beauty. 

The island is the largest in the Caribbean, measuring more than 110,000 kilometres square. 

There are 16 international airports on the island, but few domestic flights between them, which makes the island best explored by car or bus.

However, in saying this, public transport is limited and unreliable. Local workers rely on a hitchhike-and-taxi-share process to get to/from their workplace. 

Car rental is readily available however extended travel is inhibited by a lack of gas stations once you leave the urban areas. Accommodations range from luxury hotels to unique “casa particulars,” which are their version of B&Bs. 

Again, the further you wander from the larger city cores, the fewer the accommodation options.

Our amazing tour guide during our two-day trip to Havana was a wonderful source of information. 

The government owns a controlling interest in all the hotels and resorts in Cuba. They own all the transportation vehicles, shuttle services and majority of the vintage taxicabs.

The country’s employer is the government. They own virtually 99 per cent of all residential housing. In fact, it is only within the last three years that it has been possible for Cuban nationals to purchase their own home or apartment. 

This is usually done with the assistance of overseas family as the government monitors bank accounts that show a balance above $1,500 Cuban pesos. 

Much is made about the low monthly income earned by the Cuban people, but technically the government looks after all housing costs, medical and dental requirements, food ration stamps and provides free primary, secondary and university education. 

It may surprise you to learn that Cuba is one of the leading providers of medical personnel to developing world countries in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

A drive through the agricultural areas of the Cuban countryside is a true eye opener. Time has truly stayed still for this section of Cuba’s population.

Small, simple corrugated roof homes with no running water and little power is the norm. Large water canisters are attached to elaborate bicycle trailers and hauled to the village centre. 

Our unannounced arrival by scooter prompted lots of big smiles and waves from the local children and a few women approached us to try to sell big blocks of fresh homemade cheese. 

It is here that you understand that all the supposed progress facilitated by the Castro government has been primarily for the city dwellers. 

As Canadian, we are taught that “the sky is the limit” when pursuing our dreams and goals. 

In Cuba, the “sky” is determined by Castro.

Cuba bound

The air was warm with a mango-scented breeze when we arrived in Varadero. 

The Customs officials take their job seriously with stern faces and brusque queries. One can’t but help but feel a little intimidated. 

There was no “welcome to Cuba” during this entry interrogation. Thankfully, we were deemed “acceptable” and allowed to pass through the exit door accompanied by a loud buzzer.

Once we collected our luggage, it was off to the Cambio or money changer. You can’t buy Cuban pesos outside the country, so you need to bring cash to exchange upon arrival. 

The Convertible Peso (CUC) is given to tourists to spend and is based on the USD. Once we had some local currency, we jumped into a taxi and headed to our resort.

The beach town of Varadero is10 kilometres from the airport, but the hotel strip extends all the way to the end of the peninsula, which extends another 30-40 km beyond. Along this narrow windswept road, there is a string of international resorts ranging from sketchy two stars to contemporary five-star palaces. 

The farther from Varadero, the newer the resort. Star categories in Cuba don’t measure up to equivalent ratings of the Mayan Riviera. A five star here is a solid 3.5 star in Cancun.

The beach is the true star of this destination. Baby powder white sand stretches for kilometres allowing the avid walker an endless route.

The ocean is clean and vibrant with turquoise hues. Water sports, sailing craft, parasailers and kite surfers along with boogie boards and snorkel gear keep the vacationing clientele busy.

A tourist bus goes from all the resorts to Varadero — $5, hop on hop off all day. Scooters are also readily available for fun exploration of local towns and farm villages.

Varadero has longed been plagued with reviews about terrible food and unhygienic conditions. I felt the food was fine. By no means the same calibre of Mexican counterparts regarding variety and service, but it was plentiful and fresh. They do the best they can with the limited source of produce at hand. 

The accommodations were clean and well maintained. Stick to Barcelo, Iberostar and Melia properties and you will be fine.

The one consensus is that no one employed in the hotel industry seems to like their job. Bar service was slow everywhere we went. Reception staff ignored guests and promised services were never delivered. The general feeling is that you are being tolerated. 

Now and then a bright smile would break through and all was right in the world.

You do yourself a disservice if you don’t go to Havana. Ideally, do the overnight tour to soak up the culture and vibrant nightlife. Cuban music and dance is truly fabulous. 

A sad, aging beauty, Havana nonetheless will impress you with a quiet dignity. The tour guides provide a veritable treasure trove of facts about Cuba’s past and hopeful future.

Cuba is a diamond in the rough. Go with an open mind and adventurous heart. Go because it’s not Mexico.

More The Joy of Travel articles

About the Author

Joy has long been a believer in the art of travel: the belief that a vacation is something to be anticipated savored and then long remembered as one of life’s great adventures. 
Website: thejoyoftravel.ca

You can contact Joy at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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