Cycling in NYC: A Reality Check

 

Cycling is an excellent way for travelers, new residents, and lifelong city dwellers looking for an exciting and practical way to get around. With growing cycling infrastructure complementing a rising community of cyclists, it’s now more promising than ever to ditch the metrocard in favor of a saddle. Riding a bike through New York City offers something for everyone, whether you’re a commuter, a casual weekend rider looking to explore, or an athlete looking for a fun and stimulating way to stay fit. While cycling may be dismissed as childish or a peasant’s mode of travel, the economical and health benefits of riding a bike cannot be ignored. Once you experience the liberation and allure of striking the perfect pedal stroke to get from Astoria to DUMBO, your future trips might just be made strictly on two wheels. With that said, there are a couple things you should now about cycling in this city, which like everything else to do with NYC- gets its own set of rules.

So, without further delay, let me lay out the reality of cycling in NYC and what it has taught me over the last 6 years.

The Good

Discovering the incredible scope of NYC and all of its variable scenery, neighborhoods, architecture, parks, and nature; most of which are connected by a system of over 1,000 miles of dedicated bike lanes. 

While most of the city really is just a huge concrete jungle, no two neighborhoods are ever alike. The variability of our communities in terms of housing stock, historical charm, greenery, how built up or suburban they are, and overall vibe is incredible. Nature is hard to come by, but there are some great parks in town that will get you pretty close to it. I’ll gladly spill the beans on Van Cortland being the best- offering large tracts of unspoiled forested land and gravel bike paths. Forest Park in Queens is also a good bet, and of course you have your usual contenders like Central Park and Prospect Park which offer great roadways closed off to cars and nice landscaped scenery. Jamaica Bay and the Rockaways offer a slower paced, more coastal and Mid-Atlantic vibe then the rest of the city, along with the chance to take in the little natural beauty that remains of this barrier island, marshland geography. Neighborhoods like Park Slope, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Ditmas Park, Jackson Heights, the Upper East Side, Riverdale and Forest Hills are great centers for historical architecture ranging from brownstones to single family tudors, Victorians, and prewar apartment building that all have a nice amount of old, tall, big, leafy trees.

There are extensive waterfront parks and places to ride, namely Astoria Park, the gantries in Long Island City, the East River State Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the 69th street Pier in Sunset Park, and a path that skirts the Lower New York Bay and Bay Ridge until Coney Island. Manhattan is basically encircled by bike paths all along its marine perimeter offering nice parks and excellent views. The whole city is connected by bridges which are attractions and engineering marvels in their own rights, complete with dedicated bike paths.

Long Island City waterfront. Best view of the city off a bikeable path along the water.

It’s quite eye opening to understand just how large and diverse on all levels that this city is, and just as awesome to know that one can see all these places on a bike. 300 square miles of land seems daunting, but once you get out there and start riding, the city will seem smaller because of how well you can connect to different areas on a bicycle.

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Greenways & Bike Lanes

Greenways are the true trophy winners of bike lanes. Talking about connecting different areas on a bicyle, these are quintessential bike highways with their own rights of way and even painted asphalt with lane markers. While regular bike lanes painted on the street creates issues because of illogical placement close to parked cars, greenways are usually in no way affected by them. These types of lanes offer long stretches of safe cycling that allow higher speeds and more piece of mind. Bike lanes on the other hand, while built with good intention, can  often be problematic because of issues with being doored (read below) and cars that are constantly double parked in bike lanes that you must ride around. Nonetheless, they are beneficial to those who wish for a “dedicated” space on the road that makes getting around easier.

Take a look at this map highlighting all bike lanes in the city-from shared routes with cars, to standard lanes, to my favorite Greenways. (Manhattan’s West Side, Kent Ave in Brooklyn, Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, and Cross Bay Blvd & Belt Parkway through/around Jamaica Bay are my favorite greenways).

Cycling in NYC is a fast,convenient way to get around town or to work- offering freedom, mobility, and cost effectiveness that amounts to less money spent on the subway and owning a car.

There are some up front costs associated with owning a bicycle (mainly buying one) and a couple of maintenance kinks here and there that will have you spending money, but for the average commuter, it’s a more sensible way to get around the city because of its remarkable potential for speed and much cheaper cost than other transportation alternatives. When I commuted from Woodside, Queens to Midwood, Brooklyn, the travel time using the subway would take me on a 1 hour and 20 minute detour through Manhattan, including the walking. When I biked those 12 miles, I cut my travel time down to 55 minutes, surprisingly. Cycling can definitely be just as fast as the subway, if not faster. You also have the freedom and flexibility to take your desired route whereas trains run on set lines that may not take the geographically sensible way to get there. Queens to Brooklyn, or northern Queens to southern Queens, for example. Don’t get me started on why there aren’t crosstown lines connecting the outer boroughs. Sorry, you have to go through Manhattan first!

One spends $116.50 for a monthly unlimited metrocard, amounting to nearly $1400 annually. That’s a big chunk of change for not so reliable MTA service, and is more than enough to purchase an all purpose bicycle with necessary add ons like a lock, helmet, rack etc. I won’t even mention the cost affordability compared to a car, but after monthly payments, insurance, parking, maintenance, and gas- it’s a hell of a lot more than the cost of using the MTA. I understand people enjoy the convenience of a car, but living in the city means that it’s way more of a hassle and an expense than it needs to be. Plus, when you have an alternative way of transport that’s entertaining and keeps you active, why would you pass that up? Which leads me to my next point…

It’s incredibly fun & healthy! 

Anything is more fun than taking part in a collective human cattle experience first thing in the morning. Squished and smelly subway carts, for the win? Nope, not on my watch. Taking the train during rush hour for me nowadays is an uncomfortable waste of time, and borderline real life nightmare. If you have to go somewhere, why not at least preserve your personal space and get in a light workout simultaneously? If sitting still playing candy crush for 40 minutes underneath someones crotch is a better utilization of time, I’ll be damned. But I know there’s lot of people, including myself, that enjoy the exhilarating and real life experience of pedaling your way to your destination! Not to mention, we enjoy the many health benefits of a cardiovascular workout routine-including improved fitness and endurance, decreased stress levels, and disease prevention. Check out the many other positive effects of taking up cycling to get inspired. Even if you’re not cycling to work, you can still enjoy the benefits of a fun, healthy way to get around NYC for leisure and fitness.

Acting like I know a thing about fitness after a bike ride to the beach

The Evil

Now that I have painted the rosiest picture of cycling in NYC, it’s time to let loose the pesky demons that can plague us cyclists. If it makes reading through them any better, just know that some of the items I list below deal with pure luck, or lack thereof.

Pot holes and poor road conditions can have a negative effect on your bike health or even your personal safety. 

Hitting a famous NYC pot hole is an all too familiar occurrence for cars and cyclists alike. I know where the nastiest pot holes are on the routes I frequent the most, so I can swerve around them, but there’s still plenty of roads that I bike down which have LOTS of unsuspecting, cycle-thwarting hell holes. Add this into a shitty urban concoction of glass, nails, bumpy roads and other unidentifiable road debris out to kill you, it can seem as if biking in NYC is a pervasive struggle. Most of the time though, with enough vigilance and awareness, these obstacles can be spotted out and avoided.

Shit weather

That’s it. Shit weather. New York has a thing called Summer, Winter, and 2 weeks of in between, transitional semi-pleasant conditions. Sometimes it can rainy and be cloudy for multiple days, other times it can be sunny and dry. You can never get too comfortable with any type of weather here because it is always changing. The summer and winter seasons can be extreme in terms of heat and cold, which may not make for the best cycling conditions. The months with the best cycling are usually April, May, June, September, October, and maybe November. Of course it is possible to cycle year round in all precipitation, but there’s some extra measures and additional precautions to be taken with that. (Ie: protecting yourself and your bike from rain and all temperatures- extra gear/equipment). Look for light winds and temperatures in the 50s-70s for optimal riding. AKA 5% of the year.

Cops may be out to get you

Yep, red light tickets are a thing. You technically can’t go through red lights on a bike in NYC. Nothing beats the confusion and lunacy of having a cop car pull up next to you with their siren on only to ask you to pull over. Better just to avoid the situation from arising and be extra careful around intersections. It’s impossible to get every cyclist to stop at every red light, especially if it’s not a busy one with no cars coming, but hey, the NYPD is going to do what they want to do. I personally think there are more important things for cops to do than to stop cyclists and taunt them with hundred dollar fines.

The danger of being doored and other general safety issues when riding with traffic 

Being doored is when a driver or passenger recklessly flings their door out into a cyclists pathway, only to cause a terrible collision that ranges in severity from a few bruises to broken bones or even death for the cyclist. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a city cyclist. Not only will the rider be hurt, but their bike could be damaged or destroyed. Getting doored a scary prospect that I always think about when riding, and prevention can only go so far. When riding in bike lanes, stay as far away from the door zone (4 feet away from cars) as possible. The issue with that becomes riding too close to cars squeezing dangerously close to you as they pass. In that case, just take up the whole damn lane. You’re entitled to it as a bike rider and need to maintain your assertiveness on the road.

If you ever get doored, be sure to follow these recommended follow up procedures to preserve your rights as a cyclist in the case that the accident is so severe that a report needs to be filled with police. You may be entitled to compensation because of damage to you and/or your bike. Even if the accident is low impact and you feel fine in the moments after, it’s always a good idea to take the drivers information in the case that you discover something is wrong the next day.

Thievery 

This one speaks for itself, really. Theft of bicycles is a HUGE problem in this city, and clipping a bicycle off a flimsy chain is an all too common occurrence that happens when thieves take advantage of easy targets. The market for stolen bicycles in New York definitely exists, and will continue to be that way as long as one could fetch a couple hundred bucks for a bike. The goal here to defeat this hapless occurrence is to deter thieves as much as possible by making it a difficult job for them to steal your bike. Strong U-Locks to secure your frame are my recommendation, as well as locking up your wheels (yes, they will go after your tires/ wheel set as well). Whenever I leave my bike out in a public street, I make sure to secure it to an official NYC bike rack or street sign. Spots that are well lit, trafficked by people, and under surveillance are less likely to have issues with robbery. If your bike is stolen, report it and look for it on Craigslist. If you can keep your bike inside a building or a protected area, do so!

Sweating-If you’re a commuter 

Commuting to work by bicycle is truly an astounding way to start ones day, paving the way to an alert, clear mind jump started by some cardiovascular exercise. It’s also a great way to deter your cowokers from getting to close to that sweaty and smelly funk emanating from your de-stressed and energy charged body. You, or they may not be able to see past the funk in order to justify working up a sweat right before clocking in. The solution here is to bring a light change of clothes and a deodorant stick to freshen up, or just not to exert yourself too much when riding. I’ve seen people ride bikes in fancy suits and nice clothes, so I’m sure they’ve all figured something out. The ideal setup to combat this problem is to have a job that somehow provides a shower and a locker room. Alas, you can sweat to your unbounded pedaling desire!

My Advice:

Don’t let a couple of obstacles get in the way of enjoying the reward of cycling in one of the greatest urban conglomerations in the world. New York City has so much to offer to urban cyclists. We are more advanced and pro-active when it comes to creating a decent cycling infrastructure, and there’s a bursting cycling community here. Cycling in NYC is much like any other aspect of life in this city. Everyone is kind of out to get you and you need to do your best to hold your ground, stay focued, and not let other people stomp all over you. An unsure and in-confident cyclist is an accident waiting to happen. Those fit and weathered enough for the task will succeed. It’s a popular hobby that will only continue to grow as people find out how awesome it is, and as the subway slowly but surely continues to fall apart and increase fares…

Some last pointers:

  • Get a bike from a highly regarded Bikestore (NO BOXSTORE BIKES) or find one on Craigslist. Get one that fits you properly and is suited to your gender. Test it out before you purchase.
  • Figure out what your riding needs are, ie: commuter/fitness/race and find the bike best suited to that purpose.
  • Know minimal bike maintenance. Know how to patch a tube, replace a tire, pump air, and keep your moving parts free of debris and oiled appropriately.
  • When riding, be assertive and aggressive. Do your best to follow traffic rules.
  • Don’t let cars overtake you if there’s not enough clearance to avoid the door zone-take up the whole lane!
  • Make yourself as visible as possible. Be a riding circus clown. Have all the lights, reflectors, and neon streamers clinging to your bike/body as you please.
  • Wear a helmet and don’t listen to music on earphones, stupid.

Happy Riding!

 

Categories: Cycling, Fitness, NYC, United States | Tags: Bike, Cycling, NYC, tips, travel | 1 Comment

Cycling: More Than Just Pedaling

In an effort to resume writing about subjects that I feel some sort of commitment and passion towards besides traveling, I thought maybe I should start looking at the things that I enjoy about being home in New York City so that I can share those experiences. Regardless of how I feel now upon growing older and questioning my place in the city that I have lived in all my life, some things that I love about the convenience of home will never change. Home is where many of our hobbies are created and nurtured, so for me, being on the road for a while, (a hobby in and of itself) distracted me from pursuing other interests that I enjoy. Now that I’m back in action in NYC, I hit the ground running (literally) and cycling which are two of my favorite activities to do here.

While growing up, riding a bike seemed like an innocent and fun activity to do on a Sunday afternoon at the local park. It is within this context that most of us had our initial exposure to bicycles. If you’re like most people, you probably learned how to control the simple machines without the use of training wheels, and hopefully advanced enough as to gain a sensible range of control so that you did not barrel into unsuspecting playgrounders scrambling across an asphalt field. Our childhood bikes were one of our most prized possessions that unfortunately became a thing of the past as we grew older. Most of us simply grew out of cycling or it just wasn’t practical anymore. Those once shiny Shwinns from “Toys R Us” became dusty and forgotten after being locked away in whatever damp and dusty garage/storage room riddled with roaches somewhere in the crevices of this city.

This was mostly my childhood experience with bikes; I’d say it was nothing out of the ordinary. I liked to ride but it was something that I quickly became disengaged with after some incidents involving my bikes that I used to get to High School were stolen. I had two, both pretty decent ones, that I used to chain up outside my house in Queens. Both were clipped and stolen before the winter of my freshman year. I pretty much forgot about them after a while and gave up on whatever cycling that I was doing- until one day my Dad came home with a pretty heavy duty, nearly vintage Raleigh as a tip that he got while delivering motorcycles. I learned my first lesson about owning a bike in NYC beforehand- Don’t leave your bike outside on a flimsy lock- so this one was immediately parked inside its new garage, my house, indefinitely.

It didn’t take long for this new bike, far bigger and better to accomplish much more than the other bikes that I had owned- to suck me in to the world of leisurely day riding. That bike was not a big box store, cheaply made in China crapshoot special, but a heavy duty and authentic hybrid bike made with reliable parts and durable construction. It became my new favorite toy after a couple of joy rides around my hood. One day in the summer of 2010 I remember getting on my bike and making a spontaneous trip to Manhattan from Queens. I kept going further and further, through Central Park and up the Hudson River, until I got so far that I knew that if I kept going I would get pretty lost. I made it to the George Washington Bridge and back, a distance of about 25 miles- my first semi long distance ride. I was so hooked on the thought of powering myself just as far as to where a car or subway train could take me, that from then on out my favorite thing to do became planning routes across NYC and using my industriousness and curiosity to get me out there exploring on the bike. I began to see just how huge and diverse this city is, with so many different neighborhoods and places that you wouldn’t even believe are part of the same city. By 16, I became pretty well traveled on the bike- I had rode through all of the boroughs (except Staten Island-haha) and done a number of 40-50+ mile rides that took me to places like Jersey City, Westchester County, The Rockaways, and Long Beach. Spending an entire day on my wheels with a couple of stops to take pictures and eat a packed lunch became my blissful paradise. I loved the bike, and riding so much that I didn’t even realize it was a female bike until after a year or so later of riding it around town. At that point I decided that I liked cycling enough to justify an upgrade.

I went to a professional cycling store and got fitted for a bike that caught my attention after some research online. I picked out a Trek 7.3 FX, a hybrid bike great for a number of uses like fitness, casual rides, commuting, and even good enough for some distance. It wasn’t a road bike- I wasn’t yet ready to take the plunge into one of those- but it was as close to one as I could get without having drop down bars. It made such a difference on my weekend outings. The bike was stable, durable, felt extremely comfortable, and it fit me perfectly. It was much faster than the vintage Raleigh and had better gear shifting options.

My Trek 7.3 FX pictured in 2016- 5 years after buying it. 

From that point on, becoming wrapped up in my own little trance of freedom, exploration, and exercise on two wheels became a weekly ritual when there was nice weather. That’s basically the story of how I got into casual riding.

Today I am a rider with the same Trek 7.3 FX that I purchased in 2011, who uses it for the same joy rides and getting to work in the summer time. I had a side bike that I used for commuting to school, a steel framed 90s Diamondback, but I got rid of that one and now strictly use the FX. I’m currently using the bike for multiples purposes (commuting and joy rides). It’s a soldier of a bike that has lasted me nearly 5 years and probably 5 to 6 thousand miles but shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. It continues to serve me well for my 50 mile joy rides and my 30 mile round trips to and from work. Last summer I racked up 3000 miles alone by riding round trips from Woodside to Rockaway Beach 6 days a week. To date the most mileage that I have ever put on a bike in a single day is 65 miles from Woodside, Queens to Brewster, Putnam County. I know I could do more.

My old commuter bike. 

I’m ready to adopt another greater, more intense bike that I can use for long distance road cycling. I’m also ready to increase my exposure to road cycling which is why my purchase for a bike better equipped for that is necessary. I know for sure that this is a hobby that is here to stick with me, and I cant wait to challenge myself to reach deeper realms of cycling that I thought were impossible when I was younger. Cycling keeps me in competition with myself and allows for me to attain new levels of physical and mental capacity that have yet to be manifested by my potential. It also brings me to the most beautiful places.

There really are few things that I enjoy more in life than a nice long day of riding under the warmth of the sun, into the cool fresh wind winding down a smooth road. Riding my bike is not exactly part of some greater philosophical agenda for myself to understand more about the world and myself (although it may sound like that). But, it definitely is beneficial to my being with respect to pushing myself and seeing what I’m made of. It’s more about enjoying the simple pleasures of life and watching the scenery go by as I pedal my way into exhaustion, that keeps me riding. Like running, it’s therapy for me, medicine for my soul, it is FUN, and it’s more than just pedaling.

What does cycling mean to you?

Categories: Cycling, Fitness, Thoughts | Tags: Bike, Cycling, Fitness, Health, lifestyle | 1 Comment

Live What You Love

If you’re a person that places value on disposable time and spending it doing the things you love and find worthwhile- then you understand how much of a boost it is to our morale and keeping us sane. Partaking in activities and pastimes that we enjoy not only relieves us, but also gives us a sense of purpose and fills our time with appeal. I’ve always felt like participating in positive and constructive outlets (ie: hobbies and utilizing our talents) helps us to improve who we are as people and gives us a better sense of satisfaction with our lives. They add value and excitement to a routine that may or may not be entirely exciting. Or, from a more therapeutic point of view, doing what we enjoy can simply help us to feel at peace. It’s that sense of rejuvenation which can allow us to be more capable of taking on different tasks and challenges that can be so beneficial.

The happiest people that I know are always the ones that live a meaningful life. They relish in the things that they do either for a living or in their spare time, and they take pride in themselves, what they stand for, and their actions. They share that passion, love, and zealousness for life with other people, and as a result of all that they are happy. That bridge between self realization, fulfillment, and contribution to the greater good of those who surround you (& beyond) is a legacy that I aspire to attain and so should you! Being able to share the passion and knowledge for something that you love with other people is one of the greatest gifts of life. To inspire someone, to lift a person up in any way, shape, or form, is one of the highest forms of human interaction, and it all starts with working on yourself.

We are an outward embodiment of all the things that we think, do, and feel. I guess that’s why the saying “live what you love” is so important to me. If you live what you love, not only do you love yourself but you project that love outwardly onto other people; it shows in your demeanor. You’re more calm, you have a better sense of appreciation, you know what you like, have a better sense of who you are and what you may want to contribute in this world, you attract similar types of people, and you can hopefully help inspire others to live what they love.

I think by incorporating mindfulness into our daily routines and by taking time off to dwell upon meaningful activities that we find enjoyable, we open ourselves to growth, learning, stability, and happiness. By doing what we love, we learn more about ourselves and the people we want to become. We realize what makes us tick, and how to manage that spark of interest so that we may potentially pass on that spark to other people.

All of this is relative to my travel blog because for one, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t live what I love and take those initial steps to go after what I felt was right for me. I wouldn’t have met half the people that I have gotten to know over time, some of whom have inspired me to continue doing what I love which is all a greater push to continue my path. There wasn’t a better way for me to combine my lust for adventure along with the desire to learn about the world and all of the intricacies that come with it- from it’s diverse people, cultures, landscapes, animals, foods, cities, history, civilizations, and so on. I find that when I am traveling, I am living what I love to the best and most meaningful extent that I possibly can (for now), and it just feels right. Eventually I want to give back to the greater community of society in some way, but sharing my journey with any readers out there is the best I can do for now. If you have glanced over this reading and it at least made you think, I have done my job.

How do you live what you love and share that with other people? How do you balance making a living, and doing what you love? Can you?  I definitely think you can if you listen close enough, and play your cards right.

What hobbies or talents do you have? Does it make life more enjoyable for you, and/or help you to become a better person?

Please let me know what you think in the comments section below!

(Featured Image: Cocuy National Natural Park, Boyaca, Colombia- January, 2016)

 

Categories: Thoughts | Tags: life, livetolearn, Mindfulness, travel | Leave a comment

Coming Home, Looking Back, & Looking Forward

It’s been a while since I’ve sat face to face with a blank WordPress document staring back at me. My inspiration to write dwindled to gloomy levels upon my return from an epic trip that constantly kept me on my heels and exceptionally excited. Documenting my travels from this most recent backpacking trip which took me across 3 countries and lasted from November 2015 to March 2016 was a fun and stimulating way for me to capture my experience both for myself and for my readers. Travel writing became my go to hobby while I was abroad. There was nothing more satisfying than sitting in an internet cafe at the end of an exhilarating couple of days in that respective city or town, uploading my pictures to my blog and subsequently retelling the stories that filled my heart with such lust for adventure and life. It was my own little project and a great way for me to sit down and reflect upon the happenings, sights, scenes, and people that I encountered. Blogging while traveling became my niche for writing. So you can guess what happened after I returned home. I stopped writing, but I did a lot of thinking.

I can’t tell you how many times I have attempted to write this article on trying to relay my experience with coming back home from my long, adventurous, and enlightening journey in Latin America. The truth is that I was consumed by such a strange feeling of trying to get back to reality and dealing with the feelings of being home again, mostly “what the hell do I do with my life now” and “what exactly did I take away from all of this” kinda thing. I just abandoned it (this article) altogether and focused on other things in my life- mostly just readjusting, catching up with friends and family, getting back into a fitness routine, and preparing for the short term future.

I felt out of place when opening up my blog and trying to write; there was nothing there. It wasn’t that I was busy- trust me I was far from it, but I lacked the drive to write. But, now that I’ve gone through the full spectrum of what it’s like to come back home after an extended period of nomadic awesomeness and thought about my place and belonging back home in New York. I feel somewhat put together now and willing to share what I can about how it all feels.

The true travelers at heart know what they love- trotting through the world and becoming acquainted with all of its fascinating foreign cultures, people, wild landscapes, food, and meeting the most beautiful souls while on the road. It is a completely rewarding, fulfilling humanizing, and soulful endeavor that opens your mind, heart, and spirit to simply living. By living I mean being completely present each day and experiencing the full range of emotions that make us feel ALIVE. I felt happy, excited, cautious, scared, impressed, grateful, and probably a dozen more feelings on various days, or even the same day, which when all combined, opened myself up truly being able to feel and perceive on a level that I was not accustomed to in my normal life. It’s this fluctuation and variability of intense emotion that leads to a heightened perception and awareness of yourself and your surroundings- which made travel so beneficial for me. Yeah, I miss the cheap and delicious meals, the sweetest and freshest produce from authentic markets, hiking through high altitude cloud forests, winging my itinerary and finding hidden paradises. But it’s the way that travel changed me as a person and my perspective on life which has given me the most significant value. The intangible lessons, realizations, and self questioning that result from a solo backpack trip are absolutely the closest things to my heart that I took away from my trip. But, I will admit- I do have a soft spot in my heart for savory tacos, friendly and happy Colombians, as well as sweet old ladies selling fruit on the street.

Traveling may not be all sunshine and rainbows at every single moment; there will be some difficult, confusing, and unplanned for situations that arise. But it’s the negative emotions and experiences that happen to you which give the positive emotions their zest, vigor, and desirability. Getting incredibly ill to the point of blacking out and having to go to the hospital in a foreign country is no enjoyable walk in the park, but having complete strangers care for you and treat you as a family member is one example of how negative events can be counterbalanced with goodness. Later after the rare but inevitable storm you  realize your place and how good it all feels to have everything be okay, when things are okay. Nothing ever goes perfectly but it’s the cloudy days that make you appreciate the sunshine in all of its warmth and glory. I think that’s an allegory for life which can be taken away from traveling- and definitely was one of, if not the most important lesson that I learned on my first big trip. Mindfulness, being aware of where you are, and feeling the wide spectrum of emotions that let us know we are indeed alive are what it’s all about.

Even the fact that I was able to make travel possible made me feel so immensely lucky and privileged. There are many people who have dreams of traveling but for whatever reasons, be it time, lack of resources, dedications to jobs or people, that it may not be possible. There was not a day that went by that I did not think about how extraordinarily blessed I was to have the opportunity to visit foreign countries and live the life I did for those months. Don’t get me wrong, I had to work hard to save my money to afford this trip, but I wanted it so bad that I was sure to make it happen. It wasn’t easy- but it was very possible.

Witnessing the raw beauty and perfection of Mother Earth gave me a new set of eyes for natural scenery and my relationship with the exterior world was completely reformatted. My soul was nourished by some incredibly friendly and kind people whom I was able to share ideas and conversations with, or simply just a smile. I wont get all sappy, but the moral of the travel story is that it definitely does change you for the better.

I think it’s that chase and that yearning for a breakthrough that makes traveling so addicting for a traveler. A deeper desire to learn. To feel. To engage. To experience.

It’s an escape from normality, the paradigm that keeps us locked in stability and routine that becomes so exhausting and numb after a while which make an adventure to a far away place oh so appetizing. I’m so glad I did.

I feel like in addition to all of my collective experiences in life that result in many lessons and understandings, I have this new reference point to lay back on and an evolved state of mind in which to continue taking in life. I know what’s important to me. I understand how lucky I am and as a result I am incredibly appreciative for this life I was given. I know how important it is to take risks and follow intuition. I know that living according to my own morals and ideals is essential to well being and fulfillment. And I know what makes me a damn happy motherfucker.

All of this took some time to sink in upon coming home. For the first few days, I missed the new and exciting cities, trying new foods, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring with my camera, walking on empty tropical beaches, and meeting wonderful open minded travelers along with warm and inviting locals. It was an amazing experience of growth and learning that I was sad to leave, but I learned to not get so hung up on my memories that I had while traveling. I had to deal with my present realities and issues and let the backpacker persona go, at least temporarily. It dawned on me that my life back in New York, complete with my own bed, comforts of home and familiar faces, is pretty damn awesome as well. Letting go of the traveler and becoming myself at home again was a strange and peculiar transition, but I embraced the things that I love about home to readjust. Running, cycling, swimming, hanging out with my friends, the gym, cooking, dependable grocery stores (I love Trader Joe’s), and knowing where I actually am eventually became my new and nostalgic enjoyments.

In some ways traveling for 5 months also left me with more questions than I had answers to. I was so caught up in the idea of leaving to go on my trip (beforehand) that I did not think about what it would be like to come back home, and where I would want to take my life. It didn’t matter to me, not until I was sitting in the airport in Quito waiting to board my plane back to the United States. And then I was like shit, now what.

My biggest dilemma going forward is how to balance being happy and not being a total hippy that deserts everything to go live in a tent on a beach to meditate and exercise under the sun, eating papayas, fresh fish and coconut rice everyday. I know for sure that I do not want to take the conventional career route of working for a company in a job that I may or may not like for 5 days a week for the rest of my life. I really want to gear myself towards becoming my own entrepreneur that creates my own schedule and produces my own income, but that will all take a lot of research and work to make a reality. I don’t mind picking up a couple of jobs here and there in addition to lifeguarding for the meantime, but I am not in this life to work it away for someone else. My time is my most valuable asset and I want to continue creating, exploring, learning  and utilizing it (my time) with productive activity. I know  that I’ll be embarking on an adventure after summer that will take me into next year (stay tuned for a post on my plans), but beyond that is where things get fuzzy. Teaching English abroad is definitely still in the books, but there’s really a lot of things that I would like to do as I grow into my 20s which I will not mention in this post. I decided that I will at least obtain my Associates degree because I don’t want to let all my college credits that I obtained go to waste and have nothing to show for it. My Bachelors is still very much on hold though because there is nothing at the moment compelling me to return and become a student again. I simply don’t know what I want as far as a career goes and I am not going to pretend like I do so that I can waste a bunch of time and money getting a piece of paper that I might not even use. I will reassess my situation as time goes on but I’ve had a taste of living the life I actually want and I’m not turning back. Onward and upward.

My next biggest dilemma is deciding whether or not I want to stay in my crazy hometown city, New York. I have a love/ hate relationship with this metropolis that I grew up in but ultimately I think my time with this place is numbered. I might be able to stick out a couple more years living here intermittently but the scramble is on to find a suitable location that reflects my personality and values. As convenient and open to opportunity that New York is, it’s just too stressful and high stakes for me to foresee an entire lifetime here.

Ultimately, all I know is that I want to continue developing myself on all levels: physically, mentally, and spiritually, to become the best person that I can possibly be in this lifetime, so i’ll be doing whatever I feel fit to take me there. And I’m glad I took this initial plunge into that journey.

I do consider myself a true traveler at heart not because of the places that I have been to and still want to explore, but simply because I have this burning desire to keep going, to challenge myself with new and exciting endeavors so that I can simply learn more about this life.

Here I am, privileged enough to wage spiritual and existential meaning in my life and how I can be the happiest I can possibly be, and for that I am forever thankful.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Spirituality, Thoughts | Tags: backpacking, Blogger, life, travel | 4 Comments

Traveling: Saving & Being Frugal on the Road

Cover Image: Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira, Colombia (November, 2015)

Travel traditionally seems like an extravagant and expensive pastime requiring large chunks of your hard earned cash and digging into savings. You’ve got the airfare, the hotel fees, the car rental, guided tours, entry fees, and the list goes on. After counting up all the expenses of a potential trip in your head, all you might see are dollar signs standing in the way of your dreamy beach sunset. Don’t get me wrong, you will have to save money and pick an appropriate budget for any trip, but the commonly accepted notion that travel is costly, lavish, and available only to a select few is no longer true. Budget airlines offering plentiful new routes are popping up all over the place, competing for your business and satisfaction. Paying for overpriced hotels does not have to be our only option anymore. iPhone and android applications like Airbnb, Hostelworld, and CouchSurfing are revolutionizing the way we think about where we can stay while on the road. You can in fact travel to many places, both nationally and internationally, for much cheaper than you think. Some degree of flexibility, craftiness, and willingness to save are necessary! But, if you’re willing to travel cheaply, I’ll guess that you may already possess some of those qualities.And if not, travel is a great way to work on money saving and hone in on your budgeting skills.

The way we think about travel must change and reflect the reality of what it actually costs. Taking that week long beach vacation or month long backpacking trip that you’ve been thinking about will not seem so pricey after you apply some of these travel hacks to your trip planning. Here is a list of some necessary money saving travel tips that I’ve used, which will hopefully serve to help you save money and ultimately realize that travel is not as expensive as it needs to be.

Needed: time, flexibility, planning skills, a little bit of research, money, and most importantly- the desire to save it!

Imbabura Province, Ecuador

Hacking Your Biggest Expenses: Best $ave Potential (Part 1)

Picking Your Destination:

Will you be interested in an international or domestic trip? This is the first consideration to think about when planning a trip. It will also give you an idea of what kind of budget you’ll need to allow for. Traveling is an inexpensive, or expensive, as you want it to be, and the world reflects that. Naturally, places that are closer to your home will be cheaper to get to. Increase the distance, increase the price to get there. At the same time, the world has many countries which are especially cheap to travel in, and ones that are not so cheap. A North American traveler looking for an exotic beach vacation would be best suited to staying in their continent and checking out Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean, rather than making the trek over to Thailand or the Mediterranean which can be more costly getting to than the aforementioned destinations.

If you are traveling internationally, will you have to pay for an entry visa or reciprocity fee? Some of the fees can be quite steep depending on which country you’d like to visit. For example, a visit to China, Russia, or Brazil will set you back at least $130 (China) to $140 (Brazil & Russia). If you’re dead set on visiting one of those more restrictive countries, you have no choice but to pay the fee, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a similar experience in a nearby country minus the fee. Try Japan instead of China, Poland instead of Russia, and Colombia instead of Brazil. Those alternatives do not require a fee to enter the country. Click here for a map of which countries you can visit visa-free, but be careful, although they may be visa free you may still have to pay a reciprocity fee (Chile & Argentina).

My last money saving hack that I have to offer when it comes to picking your destination, is to look into countries where your dollar, (or whatever currency you’re using) goes further. Look up exchange rates beforehand and see if you are working at an advantage or disadvantage for your currency. Some countries will be more expensive, and some can be quite cheap. Look to Latin America (Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru) and Southeast Asia (India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia) for the best bang for your buck where a daily budget of as little as $25 dollars a day can be sufficient. Stay away from developed countries in Europe, North America (US & Canada), and Oceania (Australia & New Zealand) if you’re not looking to spend too much.

Santander Department, Colombia

Playing The Airlines:

Once you have picked where it is that you’d like to go, think about getting there. My go to search engine for flights is Kayak. Here, a search includes options from nearly all possible airlines, as well as an options to include segmented trips. This is where being flexible really counts. Toggle on the +/- 3 days options for your best savings potential. You’d be surprised to see that flights can go for different prices depending on the day of the week. The cheapest days to fly are usually during the week, especially during the middle of the week. For example, a quick search for a one way flight from New York to London during the week of May 30th, 2016 yields a price of $311 on that Monday, versus $369 on the preceding Saturday (the day most people fly). If your travel dates are not entirely flexible, you may not have much of a choice, but if you are free to depart whenever, take advantage of the cheaper days to fly! When searching for your flights, check on different days, at different times of day. They may spike when internet traffic is high and people are looking for flights. When you see a price that looks good, take advantage because it will likely change very soon. Don’t wait too soon to purchase your trip tickets. Having less than 2 months until departure is not the best way to get a good deal. Looking more than 2 months away will.

Take advantage of budget airlines and accumulated airline miles. In the US, JetBlue, has great coverage for fair prices within the US and also to Latin America and the Caribbean. Points are accumulated after every flight taken which can be redeemed for a free flight. Spirit Airlines and Southwest are other US budget airlines with significantly cheaper prices than the usual contenders. RyanAir has outrageously cheap inter-city European flights, with Norwegian offering inexpensive service to Europe from American hubs like New York and Boston.

 

Rethinking Accommodation:

Accommodation will take up a large chunk of your budget, but if you can reduce that expense, why wouldn’t you? Hotels are always going to be the most expensive option, so don’t discount a home stay. Airbnb is a highly valuable app that I constantly use while on the go, offering unique places to stay while choosing options that fit my budget. Listings on Airbnb are almost always going to be cheaper than hotels. Whole apartments or private rooms can be found, satisfying whatever your needs and price range may be. The site’s listings run on a review basis, letting you know how well the host manages their property and maintains cleanliness among other things. All the Airbnb experiences that I had in Mexico and Colombia were great, clean, and quiet places managed by regular people and mostly went for less than $15 per night.

CouchSurfing is for more adventurous types looking to forge friendships with other people in different places. Like Airbnb, it also runs on a review basis, but no price is charged. However, you will most likely be sleeping on a couch, and be expected to hang out, or at least talk to your host. CouchSurfing is not a free hotel, but is a great way to not pay for accommodation while interacting with local people and certainly gave me some interesting experiences while in Mexico and also at home in the US.

Hostels are another option offering dorm style sleeping arrangements. They too are quite inexpensive but some of the luxuries of a private space will have to be given up in order to take advantage of those $10 or less beds- including personal space, quietness, and in some cases cleanliness. I’ve stayed in some excellent hostels on my travels, but have also stayed in ones that could use some work. Always read reviews. If you are okay with staying in a shared room with other travelers, hostels can be a great way to save money and meet people. Booking.com and Hostelworld.com are the best websites to find hostel and hotel listings. Send individual emails to hotels and hostels found online to reserve your place and avoid extra booking fees charged through third parties.

Below, I have compiled a list of some more quirky travel hacks that most people overlook when on the road. The above pointers are some of the biggest money saving tips, but don’t discount the following ones which individually may save you a couple of bucks here and there, but collectively when applied to your travels will decrease your daily expenses and keep you on the road for longer.

Hacking Overlooked Expenses: Good $ave Potential (Part 2)

Transportation:

Taking public transport is the most obvious cash saving technique when going from place to place. Most cities in the world have transportation systems, and a good number of places also have public transport outside of cities. Avoid renting a car unless you absolutely must. It’s one thing being on your own in a big city, but another to be with the family in a more rural setting. Use subways and buses in urban areas, coach buses to reach nearby destinations, and taxis to fill in the gaps where public transport cannot. Car rental can cost upwards of $50 per day depending on where you are, and that’s being conservative. Taking public transport varies in cost, but you would be spending a fraction of what is spent on a car. Plus, living how the locals live is part of the travel experience, and that means traveling with them!

Try not to take taxis from the airport to your final destination. While tempting because it’s easy and quick, most airports have transport access to city centers. In the real world, taking a taxi from JFK airport in New York to Manhattan will run you $60. Taking the city bus to the subway will only cost you $2.75. You do the math!

Medellin Metro, Colombia

Handling your Money:

While I was traveling in Latin America, I would always have to hunt down the ATMs of bank branches that charged the least amount in fees and gave me the best exchange rate. In Ecuador, Pichincha bank charged me nothing, while BancoPacifico charged me $1.50. You’ll have to find out these things for yourself, but be aware of the bank fees and know that they differ between branches.

As a tourist, it is an unfortunate fact that you will be viewed as a dollar sign. People will try to take advantage of you and your money. Don’t get overcharged or shortchanged. Overcharging is a reality but being aware of what general prices are in your area, and getting familiar with the numbers in the language of the region you are visiting is useful in avoiding that happening. If you don’t speak the language, ask the person charging you to write the amount they request so you can see the price with your own eyes. Always count your change and make sure it is correct. Don’t be afraid to haggle at markets. It is probable that the price they initially ask you for is substantially higher than what it should be. Walk away if they don’t budge, and see them come running after you offering you the goods for your requested price.

Otavalo Market, Ecuador

Activities:

What kind of low cost and free activities are there to do in your area? Relaxing on the beach, walking around the city and taking pictures, visiting the local market, and hiking are all things that can be free and enjoyable. Usually museums have days where free or discounted admission is charged, so take note of what museums you absolutely want to see and visit them on the free day. If you are a student or senior, bring your ID with you.

Avoid group tours unless you absolutely cannot visit the place without one. Doing it on your own is certainly more adventurous and inexpensive.

Networking:

Do you have any friends or family in a place you’d like to visit? Give them a call, let them know you’ll be in town, and see if they can hook you up with a place to stay or someone else to stay with. They can also offer local knowledge on what to see, what to do, what to avoid, and where the best deals may be.

Make friends with people on the road. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve already been offered to stay in.

Exchange of Traveling Knowledge:

Talk to other travelers on the road for tips, both in terms of money saving and recommendations. You might find out about local travel deals and specialties, whether it’s something to do, somewhere to eat, or a cheaper place to stay. If you are doing an extended backpacking trip, meeting other backpackers heading in the opposite direction can be a great asset. They have most likely done the things you are looking forward to doing, and may spark some new ideas on where to go/see/do. For example, I met many backpackers in South America who were thinking about doing an all inclusive trek down the Inca trail to Machu Pichu in Peru, but were weary at the $500+ dollar plus price tag for a 4 day trip. I would recommend to them that, if they were headed that way, they check out the Lost City trek in Colombia, an alternative inclusive multi day hike with just as awe-inspiring scenery for a fraction of the price at $230.

Packing:

Pack lightly. Avoid lugging along your entire wardrobe in 2 or 3 suitcases. It’s tempting, but don’t do it! I’ve seen this plenty of times at airports and it beats me as to why people would possibly want to pay upwards of $50 plus dollars for an extra suitcase. Pack only the essentials and gear it towards your trip. Remember, nobody is going to know you wherever you are going, and they are not going to realize that you just wore the same shirt twice. Pack away the light, easily folded clothes in your bags and wear those bulky sweatshirts and coats with you on the plane. Take advantage of free carry on allowance- and if you’re really nifty- travel only with a carry on!

Having more suitcases means you may be more limited in your freedom and ease of movement. If your trip includes multiple stops, it can be a pain transporting all those hefty bags around, and some ground transport only allows up to a certain amount of luggage due to space constraints. You will end up paying more for the extra space taken up.

Also, lets say you want to take a small side trip for a couple days from the city you are basing yourself out of. You have a ton of extra luggage that you want to leave behind in your hotel or hostel. It’s all fine and dandy, you can leave that stuff there- but you may have to pay a daily fee for luggage storage. It’s one more thing that can be avoided by bringing along only the bare essentials.

Eating:

Not every single meal needs to be eaten at a restaurant. No, you do not want to miss out on the local flavors and specialty dishes of your new city, but prepared restaurant meals are a tasty way to burn a hole through your budget. Head over to the local market or grocery store and pick up fresh and local items, especially fruits and vegetables. It is a healthy and inexpensive way to eat while on the road, given you have the proper storage and preparation tools at your place of stay.

Street food is also an excellent way to sample local foods for cheap. Some travelers are weary of cleanliness when it comes to eating street food, but I would suggest not missing out on cheap goodies. Be sure to look for stands where crowds of local people await their meals. Locals always know where the good food is, and the stands wouldn’t be crowded if the food wasn’t good or made people sick.

Drinking/ Going Out:

I don’t recommend it. Drinking is probably the easiest way to go broke while having nothing to show for it. A night out here and there is fine, but getting blasted every other day with your hostel mates is sure to put a damper on your budget, and your motivation to get out and explore the next day.

Your Budget:

You know what your budget is, but are you keeping a daily log of your expenses? Writing down your expenses is essential to staying within range. Mentally keeping tabs on things almost never works, and you will get carried away unless you can physically see what you’ve spent your money on. Keep a small piece of paper and a pen handy, or simply write down what you’re spending in the notepad of your phone. I saved tons of money that I would have otherwise spent had I not seen I was skirting on the edge of my daily allowance. You also prioritize your expenses this way.

So, that’s how you can turn a seemingly scary trip for your wallet into a more reasonable, frugal yet enjoyable, trip. for yourself. Everyone’s needs, wants, personal requirements, and budgets are different, but the above mentioned travel hacks are sure to leave any traveler saving a few bucks. Happy (and cheap) traveling!

 

 

 

Categories: Travel Technicalities | Tags: budget, savemoney, travel, travelblog, travelonabudget | 1 Comment

Puerto Lopez: Isla de la Plata & Los Frailes

Dates: 17-21 March, 2016

Location: Puerto Lopez, Manabí Province, Ecuador (With day trips to Playa Los Frailes and Isla de la Plata nearby)

Total Trip Cost: $144.85 for 5 days @ 28.97 per day (Includes hostel stay, transport from Cuenca, some very good seafood, groceries, and a daytrip to Isla de la Plata).

Freshly caught fish served beachfront right out of the Pacific Ocean. Endless sunny days. A stunning stretch of natural, unspoiled white sand beach in the shadows of dry tropical coast forest. A stone’s throw to an island populated with diverse marine birds, sheltered by corals abundant with colorful tropical fish. And most importantly- a relaxed and easygoing small town where the vibe is right. If all of this sounds tempting, then I have a place for you- Puerto Lopez, located smack dab in the middle of the Ecuadorian coastline. This place will go down as my favorite place that I went to in the country.

Fishing is a principle source of income for many in the seaside town of Puerto Lopez

 

After an itinerary that gave me a mixed bag of results through my run of Ecuador, I was holding out for the coast to give me a much needed, “WOW, I love this place” feeling. I mean, the odds were in my favor… You can’t go wrong with the beach when it comes to me. The endless days of dreary, cloudy, and cool weather in the Sierras of Ecuador was taking its toll on me, and a heavy dose of sunshine was in order. Be careful what you wish for, as they always say. I got my dose of sunshine times 100. Being on the sunny coast of Ecuador right as the sun was crossing the equator on March 20th, meant that this would be the strongest sun I would ever encounter. It is brutally strong, bright, and so high in the sky (directly over you), that at noontime, you do not even cast a shadow. I was careful to always wear some sunblock, so luckily I walked away from Puerto Lopez without a scorching red sunburn that I saw so many tourists flaunting. As expensive as sunblock is in Ecuador, it is wise to invest in a bottle or a couple of mini packets. While a typical bottle is outrageously expensive (upwards of $20), I was lucky enough to find these little travel packs of suncream in Cuenca for $1 each.

My trip towards the coast began in that city, with a bus ride to Guayaquil taking just about 4, or maybe 5 hours. The scenery right out of Cuenca is jaw dropping. Pay attention and you will be greeted by the wonders of the high altitude, humid cloud forests of the paramo landscape within Cajas National Park. If you read my Cuenca blog, you’ll see I was bummed to have missed out on a hike through the park because of a pesky cold that drained my motivation to go. But I quickly felt satisfied, and that I didn’t miss out on too much, because watching the mountains grazed by fog pass my by from the comfort of a bus did the job. The bus quickly descends into the coastal plain, arriving at the massive bus terminal complex outside of Guayaquil.

I did not choose to visit the city of Guayaquil because nothing called me to it. I haven’t heard the best things about the city from travelers, and being in a hot, humid, crowded city did not appeal to me.

Getting the Puerto Lopez from Guayaquil is relatively easy. There is a bus line, JipiJapa (Window 26 in the terminal), that has direct service (5.50) to the town with about 4 hours of travel time. Another option is to go to Santa Elena, near Salinas, from where buses begin the “route of the sun”, all the way up the coast to the big city of Manta. That way would probably make sense if you want to work your way up the coast, stopping at places like Montanita and Ayampe, since Puerto Lopez lies to the north of those places. Even more north of Puerto Lopez are places like Canoa and Mompiche, other popular small town, beachfront destinations. Montanita is usually the most talked about and popular of the Ecuadorian coastal towns, but the backpacking party haven did not call my attention either. I was looking for a more local, authentic experience that wasn’t overrun with rowdy backpackers. Canoa and Mompiche looked nice, but they were too out of the way for me to make a visit with my time winding down on this Latin American adventure. So, Puerto Lopez it was.

The fishing market at Puerto Lopez

 

This could either be a place that you love or hate, but most people love it. Yes, it can be smelly, and the dirt roads don’t make it the most aesthetically pleasing of all places, but a trip to Puerto Lopez is mainly to take advantage of a couple things, including: the fish market right on the beach that takes place every morning, the fresh seafood, a day trip to Isla de la Plata, a day trip to Playa Los Frailes, and… that’s pretty much it. But, there’s plenty to do here to keep one occupied for a number of days. If you’re like me then lounging about on the beach, either in Puerto Lopez or a 10 minute bus ride away to Los Frailes, is a fine way to spend a whole day.

One annoying thing about Puerto Lopez is that the bus terminal is located ridiculously far out of town, considering the size of the very small city. There are little tuk tuk taxis that can make the trip in between Puerto Lopez and the terminal for $.50-$1, or you can walk to it alongside the main road for about 25 minutes. Buses seemed to be iffy with picking people up on the road in Puerto Lopez, and also dropping people off in actual Puerto Lopez. I ended up walking 5 out of 6 times.

There are plenty of hostel accommodations in town ranging from your very basic shitbox princess sheets with a questionable shower for $6 a night, to a decent western style hostel for $9 a night, to more expensive and complete places along the beach. I stayed in “Sol Inn”, one block from both the main road and the beach, after a friend recommended it to me. Great option, with nice dorm style rooms that had comfortable beds, fans, and mosquito nets. There were plenty of social areas to meet people, and the kitchen was a great asset to have. Wifi was as good as a small town on the coast could get. Bathrooms were clean enough and hot water is available. I paid $9 a night for that place, a fair price but if you’re super strapped for cash there are cheaper options.

Puerto Lopez has supermarkets and ATM’s, so it’s not completely isolated. Getting to Quito is also a breeze. Buses leave the terminal at 5AM, 8AM, 9AM, and 8PM for $12-14.

My recommendations for the town as far as eating goes, is to take advantage of the eateries set up on the beach towards the southern edge. I had some amazing fish plates there for only $3. I wish I could have eaten some of the delicious looking ceviche for $5 or 6 bucks, but I didn’t get around to it. A walk along the malecon will also give more options in fancier, less seedy looking places. But, they are also more expensive. I had a nice meal of shrimp in fruit sauce from Café Mar, but it was literally the most expensive meal I had in Ecuador at $8. Nonetheless, there’s something for everyone. There is one produce store right next to the church on the main road that sells delicious, almost candy like mangoes. Also nice are the papayas and baby bananas. The selection is the best that can be found in Puerto Lopez, offering all your typical veggies and other fruits. If bakeries are your thing, the one right around the corner from the produce store previously mentioned kept me coming back for more. Their coconut cookies, caramel sponge cakes, and avena were quite addicting.

My first full day in Puerto Lopez was spent at the beautiful Playa de Los Frailes. Its is commonly referred to as the most beautiful beach in Ecuador, and I’ll agree with that (even though I didn’t visit any others- this one did the job). Best to visit during the week, to avoid crowds. Get there by taking any bus from the terminal headed north. Ask to be dropped at the entrance to Los Frailes ($.50). After leaving your information at the desk, you can either take a tuk tuk to the beach or walk for 35 minutes. When I went, I could not walk the natural trail to the beach, so I had to walk on the side of the road. It is part of Machalilla National Park, so there are supposed to be other trails to walk around.

There is a bathroom at the entrance, and there should be someone selling waters but don’t count on that. It’s best to come completely prepared with water and snacks for the day. This is a natural beach with no development or stores. And it’s perfect.

Beautiful, clean white sand, uncrowded, gentle waves, clean greenish blue water, and enclosed by two cliffs on each side of the curved beach, this is a very special and relaxing place to feel connected to the natural rhythms of nature from the waves to the birds. I REALLY loved this beach. PS- it closes at 4PM.

My next adventure was a daytrip to Isla de la Plata, aka the poor man’s Galapagos. There are a ton of tourist agencies who run daily tours out to the island, and I went with “Cercapez”. I probably should have been more careful of the guy, Don Maca, coming up to me on his tuk tuk randomly in the street offering me the tour, but he ended up seeming like an honest guy so I trusted his legitimacy. And he was legit. Thankfully I was not ripped off after giving him the $30. He showed up at my hostel the next morning at exactly the time he said he would, to take me to the boat dock.

Isla de la Plata

 

There were 12 people or so on the tour, which included boat rides to and from the island, a guided ecological walk, a basic lunch of sandwiches and fruit, and the best part- snorkeling right over the reef next to the island.

Here are some pictures of the wildlife from the island. Most popular are the Blue Footed Boobies, which are a signature bird of the Galapagos.

Also present in large numbers are frigate birds.

More like seagulls on steroids. Which also means profuse wads of birdshit.

Supposedly the large amounts of “bird guano” which is the nice way of saying poop is where Isla de la Plata got its name. The moonlight shining on the white wads of crap covering the island made it look like silver, or plata in Spanish.

Some other lovely wildlife were the sea turtles coming up to the boat to feed on lettuce that the guides threw in the water. I don’t know how ecologically correct that was, but it was cool to see them so up close.

The island itself is dry tropical brush that broke away from the mainland. They are not volcanic like the Galapagos.

Afterwards, my days in Puerto Lopez were mainly for lounging around, swimming in the ocean during the sunset, and going back to Los Frailes for a day. As I’ve learned from previous places that I’ve been too, it’s always better to spend a lot of time in a place that you love rather than rushing to see it all. Although this was the only place I visited on the coast, I was content with the experience that I had of the coast. Sunny, authentic, and tasty. Puerto Lopez was a gem. It was a great way to close my adventure in Ecuador, and a great last destination on what has collectively been an unforgettable and amazing almost 5 months of traveling.

I wish I had a picture of the breathtaking sunset that I saw in Puerto Lopez one eveining, but some moments are better seen without a lens and taking it in with every ounce of being that you possess. It’s much more valuable, even if you don’t have a concrete memory of it to look at. Those brilliant shades of fiery orange shining off the crashing waves are forever in my memory. So is the tasty fish.

Categories: beaches, ecuador, nature, Pacific Coast | Tags: beaches, ecuador, travel | 3 Comments

Cuenca & Ingapirca: History in the Highlands

Dates: 12-16 March, 2016

Location: Cuenca, Azuay Province & Ingapirca, Canar Province, Ecuador

Total Trip Cost: $109 for 5 nights @ just under $22 per day (Includes hostel day, food, a movie day, and a day trip to Ingapirca ruins)

I?ll most likely walk away from Ecuador calling Cuenca, the quaint and modest southern city known for its well preserved colonial buildings and churches, rivers, and greenery, as my favorite city in the country. This is a place that caught me by surprise in a time when I needed it most.

Lately I?ve been feeling like I?ve hit a travel wall, which is a combination of my departure date coming closer leaving me anxious to return home, less than ideal weather, not such nice encounters with Ecuadorian locals which make me feel unwelcomed, and an overall shaky vibe about the country. Don?t get me wrong, the country offers much to love, for me mainly in its beautiful landscapes, but it hasn?t captured me the way Mexico or Colombia has. I just haven?t experienced the soul capturing, heart warming, and life changing aspect of travel in Ecuador. At this point I?ve expected that not every country can offer that to me, which is okay because it?s unrealistic. As incredible and mind expanding as travel has been for me thus far, it?s been a slight downer that I haven?t felt that passion and burn for it these past weeks. But it?s all about the reality of being on the road. With my mind, body and soul not completely entrenched in the travel experience I have found my thoughts consistently drifting to friends, family and hobbies at home whereas before they were fleeting thoughts. At least after this trip I can say I?ve gone through the spectrum of emotions and experiences that is long term travel. It?s just the reality of being on the road.

But then Cuenca came along, and shined some light onto my last days in Ecuador. It?s a very easygoing, and relaxed city with plenty to do, or nothing at all besides strolling around the streets and taking in the sights of this historic gem in the south.

I will say that I have been incredibly frugal with my spending money as of late, due to wanting to even out my spending average after busting the bank with my Amazon trip, and not wanting to go back home completely broke. Hence the $22 dollars per day I spent as mentioned under the title of my post. With that said, I still saw a great deal of the city, experienced the vibe, saw some interesting sights, and even took a nice daytrip. Like anywhere in the world, this city is as cheap or expensive as you make it. I stayed in a very basic hostel here for $8 a night, only ate out two or three times for lunch at the market which is cheaper than a restaurant, and ate fruits and vegetables for the rest of my meals.

Oh, I also was sick with a pesky cold for the entire extent of my trip here which dampened my motivation to go out and do things and kept me at my hostel resting and not spending money. With that said I didn?t let my less than ideal physical and mental state stop me from exploring the treasures of this beautiful city.

Cuenca is the capital of the southern Azuay province of Ecuador, and with an area population of 600,000, makes it the country?s third largest. The city is the economic and intellectual hub for the southern Andes, as well as a center for handicrafts and other industries including automobiles, textiles, and furniture. The city is considered by locals and travelers alike to be the most idyllic and visually pleasing in all of Ecuador. Cuenca was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its colonial architecture and many beautiful churches.

 

 

Within the past decade or so, the city has become an extremely popular destinations for North American retirees searching for a low cost, cultural living experience with some pleasant weather and modern amenities. They are very prevalent around the city, and definitely compose a sizeable proportion of the people one will see while on a visit here. I loved how NOT hectic this place was which was a welcome change after becoming acquainted with Quito.

Cuenca is a delight to walk around. From the immaculately kept, nicely decorated Plaza Calderon in the shadows of the blue domed Nueva Catedral, to the green pathways hugging the Tomebamba river just off Larga Street, there are plenty of neat things to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The river was one of my favorite parts about this city, adding a nice natural touch to the urban area. The greenery is kept tame and some walking paths offer peaceful recreation.

 

Along the river are two interesting archaeological sites that remain from pre-Hispanic Cuenca. Originally a Canari settlement, the present day site of Cuenca was taken over by Incan forces and settled in the later 1400s. The two historic sites of Todos Santos and Pumanpongo are mostly Incan construction with a bit of Canari elements. I walked by Todos Santos on a Sunday when the site was closed but still visible from the sidewalk.

Pumanpongo is a far more impressive, terraced pyramid of some sorts, surrounded by a beautiful botanical garden showcasing typical Ecuadorian flora.

Heading into the ?New Town?, the architecture changes to more modern and the streets widen substantially.

The main boulevard is 12 de Abril, where buses can be caught opposite the bank to head up to one of Cuenca?s best attractions- the Turi Mirador (viewpoint). I met up with a friend I met in Popayan, Colombia, and we spent the afternoon checking out the scenery from the viewpoint, as well as back down in Cuenca.

She took me to this amazing urban park filled with the most beautiful sculptures carved out of tree trunks. The park is called ?Parque de la Madre?, and also has plenty of other amenities like a track and jungle gyms.

Soon after we headed off to one of my Cuenca favorites, the 9 de Octubre market. It;s culinary theme park of delicious chocolate and cheese bread pastries, whole roasted pigs served over traditional Ecuadorian grains and salsa, with a rainbow of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls scattered on the main floor.

This is THE place for lunch. Grab a plate of pork, llapingachos, grains, and salad for $3. Or increase your portion for $1 more.

I wish I could say I went to some of the museums that Cuenca has to offer, but with my cold and my intent to save all the money I could, I passed. The most popular are the Museo Catedral Vieja (the old cathedral, Museo del Arte Moderno, Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes (Pre Hispanic Art), and the Amaru zoo.

I did however push myself to make it out to the Ingapirca ruins, which are the most extensive Pre-Hispanic ruins in Ecuador. Also originally a Canari site dating back to 800BC, the Incans overpowered them when they arrived in the 1400s from Peru. Ingapirca is about 2.5 to 3 hours north of Cuenca, and makes for an interesting day trip. It?s totally possible to visit on your own without going on a tour. Simply go to the terminal terrestre and look for a bus heading in the direction to Azogues and Canar ($2.50). You need to get to El Tambo, which is about 10 minutes outside of Canar, but the bus should go there. Once in El Tambo, local busses pass by on the way to the small Ingapirca village for $.75, from where you can walk a couple of minutes to the site.

I?ll be honest, I think I was expecting too much because the ?largest ruins in Ecuador? kind of through me off. The site is not huge at all, and there are only remains of house foundations in addition to a cosmology inspired Sun temple.

It?s only possible to visit the ruins on a tour organized by the site itself for $6. The tour is informative but only lasts about 45 minutes. Well, it couldn?t exactly go on any longer because the site is just not that big. There is also a museum across the way from the visitors center, and a 30 minute loop behind the site that brings you to some other Ingapirca Incan remains that are off the actual ruins. Check out the face of the Incan soldier etched into the hillside rock.

After visiting some astounding archaeological ruins in Mexico and Colombia, this one, while still interesting, does not have the incredible WOW factor that Tierradentro, The Lost City, (Colombia)  Monte Alban, or Tula has (Mexico). A direct bus to Cuenca leaves Ingapirca ruins at about 3:30 PM.

I had all the intentions to hike in the nearby Cajas National Park, a preserved and pristine paramo landscape about an hour west of Cuenca, but my cold prevented me from doing that. I?ve heard it?s a lovely landscape with plenty of awesome trekking, wildlife, rivers, and lagoon scraping the 4000m mark. Take any bus headed to Guayaquil and ask to be let off at Cajas. Maybe next time.

I?m definitely leaving Cuenca better off than how I came here, because of the nice experience I had despite being sick, and because I am that much closer to leaving Ecuador and going back home.

Categories: Architecture, Cities, ecuador, Southern Andes | Tags: City, ecuador, history, ruins, travel | 1 Comment

Baños: Pounding Waterfalls and a Smoking Volcano

Dates: March 8th- 11th, 2016

Location: Banos, Tungurahua Province, Ecuador

Total Trip Cost: Cheap! $87.60 for 4 full days in Banos at just under $22 per day (Includes hostel, transport from Latacunga, activities, and food)

My excitement for a fun filled trip to the adventure sport capital of Ecuador, Banos, quickly turned to cautiously concerned while on my bus ride there, after glancing at an ominous cloud of black billowing smoke sprouting up from the awaking Tungurahua volcano. I was in shock and awe at this incredible sight, slowly shrinking into my reclining seat feeling very small and insignificant in the presence of this beautifully intimidating show of nature. I was second guessing my trip to the small town nestled a lush valley squeezed by two very steep mountains. I could care less if this was one of the most talked about places on the backpacker trail in Ecuador. The thought of melting to my death slowly and painfully in a lava flow had me thinking to flashbacks of seeing the movie “Dante’s Peak” as a kid. The fact that nobody on the bus seemed to notice or care that this volcano was erupting great clouds of darkness into the air was intriguing, or comforting perhaps. Just another day in the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire, right? No big deal.

I didn’t let the fear of dying in a volcanic eruption stop me from visiting one of the most looked forward to place on my Ecuador trip. I truly did think about it however, and contemplated skipping Banos. Although there was no warning about volcanic activity within the area, the earth doesn’t work according to our terms. Volcanoes can be highly volatile and unpredictable. I looked up the news on Tungurahua after settling into my hostel, and it appeared that the volcano entered a continual state of eruption about 10 days prior. I also found out that the volcano has been highly active since about 1999. In that year, the threat of a major eruption became so great, that all surrounding areas, including Banos, were evacuated. Nothing happened and the residents returned soon after. Who knows when the growling Tungurahua will blow its top for real. I just knew that I was in Banos to enjoy the nearby hiking, the highly popular ruta de las cascadas, some thermal pools, and that small town charm. Without suffering the Wicked Witch of the West redux.

My journey to Banos began in Latacunga, where after doing the Quilatoa Loop, I hopped on a bus to Ambato where I subsequently caught a bus to Banos. All of the cities are close to each other with frequent departures. It’s about an hour from Latacunga to Ambato, and between Ambato and Banos, with both bus trips costing about $1.10.

My lodging pick for this excursion took me to the Hostel Transylvania, which will go down as one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in on my Latin American trip. I got a private room, an amazingly reliable hot water shower in my own bathroom, great wifi, and a free breakfast with 3 options for the remarkably economical price of only $9 per night. You seriously cannot beat that. Stay there and you will not regret it. But there’s plenty of options in town, so finding a hostel is not an issue.

My hostel was just one block away from the Basilica of Banos de Agua Santa. The town is a glorified Catholic getaway and touristic center for Ecuadorians who come to experience the pools and waterfalls where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared and made holy. The church illustrates this history through a series of portraits lining the walls of the beautiful and ornate interior of the structure. Here is the church as it appears from the main square, plus some pictures from the inside.

At night..

The sacred waterfalls of the holy water of Banos are visible from the main square, so naturally that is where I headed next.

A modest waterfall pours into several washing pools, and also diverts into the site of the “Termas La Virgen”, one of the two best options for indulging in some hot springs within Banos. The cascading water is a pleasant sight, and sound, to enjoy a couple of moments under its spraying mist.

A walk back over into the center of town led me to the main market, which is really just a collection of independently owned eateries. The meals served here are mostly the same- the standard seemed to be llapingachos (fried potato patties), chorizo, salad with beets, and rice served under a fried egg for $2.50. I sampled a couple of places serving the same exact dish, but none measured up to the first place I tried. I wish I could say where it was, but the collection of unnamed eateries everywhere would make it hard to pinpoint the location. There’s also some fantastic natural juice stands within the market.

Fueled up from the hearty Ecuadorian lunch, I decided to walk it off with a hike uphill to the Bellavista view point. There are maps given out by the tourist office in Banos, highlighting all of the official pathways within the surrounding mountains. Hikes range from easy 2-3 kilometers to challenging 10 k hikes up and down the volcano. The hike up to Bellavista was one of the easier ones.

Here is the impressive view of Banos and its natural environs.

But the best part about the Bellavista viewpoint? The outstanding views and sheer closeness to the erupting Tungurahua volcano.

The fiery mountain was hidden by clouds for most of the time, but one knew very well what was lurking under the overcast upon the sight of tall clouds of expanding ash. In a town that offers incredible views, this takes the cake. I’ve never seen something like this in my life, so beautiful and scary, and so very real.

My next adventure in Banos came the next day when I headed off to the thermal pool, “El Salado”. This site is a bit of a further walk out of town, but in my opinion the nicer of the thermals. Because it is a bit further, they are less crowded, and they also appeared to have more pools than La Virgen. It’s still an easy 20 or 30 minute walk from town.

The entrance is $3 with a $.50 rental swim cap. For that you get a piping hot thermal bath, other thermal baths of varying temperatures, and natural pools filled with the freshwater of the stream flowing next to the site.

It was a relaxing 3 hours to say the least. Jumping from pool to pool, hot to cold. Definitely worth the three bucks.

The highlight of Banos, and the best in my opinion? The ruta de las cascadas. (Route of the Waterfalls).

If you can’t tell by all the bike rental shops around town, this is the star attraction of Banos. For only $5 a day, one can rent a bike a take it down the waterfall road, a total trip of about 3 to 7 hours, depending if you want to stop at the Pailon del Diablo, 20Km (the best one), or keep going to the city of Puyo at 61 KM. Don’t expect a Tour de France bike though, but more of butt bruising clunker. Does the job though. If you’re considering riding to Puyo, you might want to invest in the nicer $15 bikes which are presumably more comfortable and better equipped.

I stopped at the Pailon del Diablo after feeling satisfied, and spent a good 2 hours there. So, even ending the journey there can take up the better part of the day.

I heard many horror stories of the crazy Ecuadorian driving practices along the route, and the hazards of riding  bike on this twisting road. I was cautious, but it ended up being nothing dangerous at all. For me anyways, being used to biking on the streets of New York pales in comparison to some rural riding between the mountains. The only risky part is the first tunnel, where there is no bike detour as there are for the rest of the tunnels. It can be a little precarious biking quite close to passing vehicles. If you have any experience riding a bike at all, this route is nothing to be afraid of.

Along the way are plenty of options for viewing waterfalls, and canyoning across the valley up close to the falls.

There’s a bunch of pretty waterfalls viewable from the road, some of which you have to pay to gain entrance to if you want to get a closer look. I am so against this, even if it’s only one dollar. You do not charge someone to see a work of our natural Earth.

 

The granddaddy of them all was El Pailon del Diablo, (1.50) the most powerful and intense waterfall that I’ve yet to see. Lock up your bike outside the entrance (There are two operated by two separate companies offering two different view points. I chose the one where you have to walk down a 15 minute trail). Located between a gorge, the falls cascade down which such  force, that the resulting mist filling the narrow canyon makes it impossible to take a good picture without wetting your phone or camera lens. There is moisture everywhere, and the sound of the crashing water is heavenly. The sun pierced through the mist creating a rainbow beneath the moss covered rocks creeping upwards.

The above pictures were taken right next to the falls, but a walk across a foot bridge provides a different vantage point.

But still, my pictures do not serve the site justice. You must come here for yourself and experience the energy and power that these waterfalls emit.

After the bike ride and a heavenly two hours experiencing the wonder of El Pailon, I walked back up to town where I found some amazing vegetarian empanadas around the corner from where the bike parking is. After chowing them down, I biked for a little more only to return to the entrance of the falls (The town is Rio Verde), where there are trucks waiting to take lazy bikers back to Banos. As the trip from Banos is nearly all downhill, the return trip back is uphill- hence the handy transport for $2.

Banos is a budget backpacker and thrill seeker’s haven. Most of the activities, lodging, and food, are relatively cheap, assuming you’re okay with not bungee jumping or paragliding. There’s definitely lots to do around Banos, between the kayaking, rafting, canyoning, volcano tours, and other extreme sports, but those activities are a lot pricier than simply hiking or doing the bike ride along the waterfall road. There’s something for everyone here, and one will most likely walk away from Banos feeling refreshed and happy, perhaps a little shaken after viewing the smoking volcano. Next stop- Cuenca!

 

 

Categories: ecuador, hiking, nature, Northern Andes & Quito | Tags: adventure, ecuador, travel, travelblog | Leave a comment

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