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Santiago

overcast 78 °F

I left a cold and gray but delightful Paris and headed for Santiago, Chile - another 12 hour overnight flight, this time on Air France. I guess it's no surprise that they win the prize for best food so, with a modest amount of sleep it was really no problem. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that jet lag was never a problem on this trip. I have generally found that traveling east to west is much easier for me to avoid jet lag and that certainly was confirmed on this trip.

When morning came we were over the Andes so I can't resist a couple of airplane window snapshots. I later found out that there is a bus route from Argentina to Chile over the Andes that sounds like an awesome experience - next time?

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I disembarked and grabbed a shuttle bus to the hotel. After a quiet afternoon at the hotel sitting on the deck, sipping mojitos and blogging, I had a light dinner and hit the sack. By the way, the hotel was the Hyatt Place Vitacura and it was an extremely nice stay with an exceptionally helpful and friendly staff. A bit of a break from Airbnb's and well worth it.

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So what to do first? I know! Let's go to a hands-on science museum! I hit the subway system and zoomed out to MIM, the Museo Interactivo Mirador. It's a nice modern building with an attractively laid out interior.

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Each bay contains a related set of exhibits, and each had a volunteer explainer standing by. There were some maintenance issues with the exhibits, which is of course not uncommon, but overall it was quite well done. One exhibit was kind of unique- devoted to copper and copper mining. It had nice displays of different uses for copper and of different methods of ore refining. It also had an exhibit where kids could see themselves in the equipment used by various workers in the mines and refineries; a little bit of recruiting, I guess.

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One cool thing that appealed to me was their exhibit shop, just outside the museum proper.

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I seems to me that this would be an absolutely ideal place to install an Innovation5-style fablab for the surrounding community!

I walked around the neighborhood of the museum quite a bit to get a feel for the area. My overall impression was of modest and well-maintained single family homes. I did glimpse pockets of poverty in Santiago but I will say that in general the people seemed in good spirits. I also had the feeling of greater warmth of interactions between people wherever I went, including families with children, young couples and just regular folks. I would go so far as to say that I felt that the Chilean people were the most content population I saw on the trip. There are some very nice parks and perhaps surprisingly some very good and well-populated bicycle trails. They have had some tough times both politically and economically, but the economy is apparently recovering and people seem to be getting on with their lives pretty well.

I decided to go for a traditional Chilean meal and picked a place nearby called Chilenazo where I ordered a traditional Chilean barbeque specialty, the parrillada, cooked by this guy.

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It looks big, but it is in fact much bigger (this is the half portion, by the way). Imagine being served a delicious skirt steak that would be a full meal in any US restaurant along with a blood sausage. You wolf it down and the server brings a delicious flank steak of similar size and a nice big pork sausage. You work through that and then its an amazingly tender pork chop and a serving of barbequed tripe. Now in a state of total torpor and meat saturation you are served two more relatively small (waafer thin?) pork sausages. Oh and did I mention the potatoes? I failed completely, by the way.

I only had a couple of days in Santiago and I wandered around downtown for a while. Their central market is quite cool with lots of fruit and flowers. I also ran across this bridge which had a couple of interesting features. First, of course, are all the padlocks. I had seen this in Paris as well but apparently it's a worldwide thing - love locks. Couples write their names (or sometimes a wish) on a padlock and lock it to the bridge. It's becoming a bit of a problem in some places where the weight of the locks actually are damaging the bridges. The second interesting thing is the water. It's hard to tell from this photo, but that water is extremely muddy and moving extremely fast - Andean melt water which is carrying huge amounts of sediment even in mid summer.

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I really liked Santiago - from the great weather (upper 70's) moderated by their altitude, the surrounding Andes that poke up wherever you look, the decent infrastructure and people it is a pleasure to be around it's an extremely appealing part of the world.

Next, I'm off to Valparaiso a coastal city that has always intrigued me - and my final stop on this adventure!

Posted by tdeits 08:05 Archived in Chile Tagged mountains food hotels markets on museum santiago hands barbeque Comments (0)

San Pedro Island, Belize

sleep eat repeat

sunny 82 °F

If you are looking for a laid back Caribbean experience, San Pedro delivers.

The eastern shore of the island is pretty Caribbean coast with a variety of restaurants, bars and hotels lining the beach.

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The hotels range from luxury to budget, as might be expected. If you were looking for the closest approximation to a Hawaiian beach resort with all amenities in downtown San Pedro, you might want to look in to Ramon's Village Resort. We didn't stay there, but wandered the very attractive grounds, peeked into room windows and had a good lunch on the beach by the pool. Not a huge resort, but very pleasant looking.

We ate at several good restaurants - made our own breakfasts. Our favorite turned out to be Sunrise Island Cuisine. It's a little place; it's not on the beach but is tucked into the courtyard of a small hotel about 1/3 mile south of the airport along the main road. We had lunch there twice and dinner once. Ceviche is a restaurant staple in Belize and we had really tasty shrimp and conch ceviche. Seafood is excellent on the island - here's a snapper dinner at the same place. By the way, the owner was most friendly and positively effusive when we came back again! It's a very restful and quiet place that makes a nice brief respite from sun and sand.
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By the way, Izzy's smoothie shop is another not-to-be missed treat a few blocks north of the airport.

The best meal we had was at another well known island restaurant El Fogon. It's a white-tablecloth restaurant where they prepare stews in an open pit in the dining room. It's very popular and everything we ate was delicious. The only downside was that I didn't do enough research on my meal. One of the items offered was gibnut stew. Gibnut is a rodent of unusual size that is considered a delicacy in Belize. Here's a picture of my meal and its source. Up top are my son's and his girlfriends shrimp and fish meals.

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Credit to Trent's blog for the gibnut photo.

The gibnut is a rodent (I don't think I have eaten a rodent before, so that was part of my interest in the dish) also called the Paca and other names. The origin of the name gibnut is a bit obscure; it may have to do with their diet of fruit and nuts. It tasted quite good; a rich and not gamy dark meat in a really tasty mild chile/tomato sauce.

The downside is that I later learned that the gibnut is overhunted and that the current level of hunting is not sustainable. So, while it was an interesting diversion for me, I would not eat it again and you might want to think twice about choosing it as well.

By the way, prices overall were moderate and I don't think I had a bad meal the whole trip. In the next entry, we will actually do something!

Posted by tdeits 06:18 Archived in Belize Tagged hotels restaurants san pedro downtown ceviche Comments (0)

On the way to Quito

A totally relaxing day!

semi-overcast 67 °F

As I was scheduled to leave Detroit early in the AM and arrive in Quito after 11 PM due to a long layover, I decided to find a hotel near the airport for my first night. I chose the Quito Polo Club Hotel. It does not have a website but it is on airbnb and Expedia among others. Even though my flight departure was delayed and I didn't clear customs until after 1AM (there are a lot of late night flight arrivals apparently, and the immigration/customs queues were stuffed with travelers) a driver from the Hotel was there to greet me and whisk me off to my room.

When I arrived, I was astonished by my room. Here is a 270 degree panorama taken the next morning from between the two beds. All three walls are 10 foot high floor to ceiling glass!

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(Not to worry, there are both screen and blackout curtains!) The table outside was my personal patio space as well.

The grounds are gorgeous - here are a few shots.

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One extra treat was that the restaurant is adjacent to the polo grounds, which are still used, at least for practice. Several people were out practicing, so I sat and watched and played with my camera to see what kind of action shots I could capture. I like the blurry one as you can see the path of both the polo ball and of the follow through of the mallet.

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I enjoyed several meals there, well prepared with good fresh fruit and good coffee. The hotel has only 6 rooms and has only been open a few months, so it surely qualifies as a hidden gem.

The next day, entirely relaxed and ready to go, I headed to Quito proper to do some more urban exploring.

Posted by tdeits 18:50 Archived in Ecuador Tagged hotels airports quito Comments (0)

On to the Galapagos!

Santa Cruz Island

semi-overcast 77 °F

After a great time in Quito, I hopped a plane to the Galapagos. Pro tip number one. You have to pay a $20 cash fee before you board a flight to the Galapagos at a booth in one corner of the Quito airport. Also, my ticket agent insisted that I have a lock for my bag before she would check me in. I was able to find one at the gift shop in the airport for about $!0. I have no idea whether this is an airline requirement or what; of course, in the US you can lock your bag but only with a TSA approved lock; that is, one they can unlock. In Ecuador, apparently any lock is OK.

My flight had a stopover in Guayaquil. Pro tip number two!. I thought the flight attendants announced that you could get off the plane while waiting in Guayaquil. I was wrong! I wandered off and because the only passage that would allow me back on was blocked, I had to leave the secured area of the airport. One nice thing was that I got to view this beautiful wall of orchids and plants in the airport:

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It took some charm and patience, but I was able to talk my way back through security and reboard. Whew!

We landed at the Galapagos airport on Baltra Island, the main airport in the islands. I was excited to be in the Galapagos, as I am a great admirer of Charles Darwin and of course it is a legendary 'bucket list' place for many, myself included. What I was not prepared for was my emotional reaction. As we left the plane via a set of stairs, we proceeded down a breezeway. Looking up and to my left I saw two birds; Darwin finches. One was relatively light-colored with a slender bill, the other was darker with a heavier bill.

I was very moved by the mere sight of these two birds. Of course, they were the first wildlife I saw, but more than that, their differences in coloration and beak size perfectly illustrated the traits that led Darwin to intensively examine the birds of the Galapagos. Years of study later, he realized that while he thought he was studying a wide variety of birds; robins, meadowlarks, etc. he determined that they were all evolved finches! These observations formed a significant part of the foundation of his thinking on evolution and natural selection. This is one of those rare scientific insights that is immediately apparent to the non-specialist, and at the same time one that profoundly influenced science. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at my reaction.

Back to pro tips. You need to be ready to pay $100 cash per person to enter the Galapagos at the airport, so be prepared; there is an ATM available, but I wouldn't count on that myself. The airport itself has been recently rebuilt using many energy and resource conservation principles. The airport improvements are part of a multi-decade program to restore the environment and the wildlife of the Galapagos, funded at least in part by this fee. I understand that about half the fee goes to island parks and restoration, about 25% to the towns of Galapagos, and the remainder to a variety of Ecuadorian organizations like the Navy.

Speaking of money, I will repeat from an earlier post. You will have a lot of trouble making purchases in Ecuador and the Galapagos unless you have LOTS of small bills with you. Finding someone who will take a cash machine $20 or even a $10 is a real challenge and credit cards are rarely accepted. I would recommend a couple hundred dollars in singles for a reasonable length stay. ATM's are abundant on Santa Cruz, by the way.

More practicalities. You get your luggage after a pretty entertaining time where you watch a sniffer dog climbing all over everyone's bags. The dog found something from our plane; that bag got hustled off. You then board a quite crowded bus for a 10 minute ride to a channel separating Baltra Island from the main island of Santa Cruz. The airport is probably on this island at least in part because during WWII the US and Ecuadorians build an air base on the island. Unfortunately, the development of the base led to the extinction on the island of a unique iguana species. Luckily, a reserve colony existed and is being used to repopulate the island, which is being restored to its natural state to the extent possible. As you travel on the bus, you will see the foundations of many buildings that were part of the air base.

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The airport bus takes you to a dock where you board a passenger ferry for a 10 minute ride across the channel from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz (you will need one of your dollars right here). There is usually a bus and several taxis waiting to take you onward. If your destination is the main town of Puerto Ayora, the bus will get you there for about $3. The taxi costs about $25 - as usual, ask first. Both get you there at about the same time, so take your choice.

Puerto Ayora is the main town on the south end of the island, about a 45 minute bus ride from the airport/channel. It's a small town but does have plenty of amenities, including a supermarket and many hotels, apartments and hostels. This is the main 'tourist street' along the water and one of its attractions, a small fish market with multispecies attendance.

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I had an AirBNB booking for a small apartment ($65/day). Good hotels run about $100, and hostels are in the $15-$20 range. My place was several blocks from the waterfront which was no problem, and was clean and comfortable. All agree that drinking tap water anywhere in the Galapagos is inadvisable. I continued my modestly reckless policy of avoiding using tap water to drink/brush my teeth, but still eating salads and accepting ice cubes in my occasional adult beverage. I survived with no ill effects, but YMMV!

There are dozens of shops selling day tours and longer excursions. I frequently saw signs out front offering 'last minute' trips of up to 8 days, often leaving the next day. I did not shop these tours, but it does suggest that if you want to take a chance you could find a room for the night in Puerto Ayora and spend the next day shopping for a bargain tour if that is your preference. I'm guessing it would be a good plan to research whether tours tend to leave on particular days (I saw several leaving on a Friday) and get there one day ahead?

My interest was in day snorkeling trips, so I carefully selected one of the tour agencies by the process of wandering past a bunch of them until I got bored. Actually, I picked mine because their walls were covered with pictures signed by happy and satisfied clients and it had 'Evolution' in the name. It was called Galapagos Evolution Dreams . (Their web page is completely content-free, but I have linked to it in case additional info is forthcoming). I went in and said 'sign me up for 3 tours over the next 5 days' and they made recommendations and did so. As it happens, all of the tours were very good and took me to a variety of sites around the Islands. The full day tours typically start between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning and return by 3:00 or 4:00. Each tour has two or three snorkeling opportunities and one other stroll or something. The guides are all certified (I saw about 100 guides in training one day) and I thought they all worked hard to make the trips enjoyable. Water and a lunch are provided (ask if unsure) and they usually provide snorkel, mask, fins and a wetsuit at no extra charge. I brought my own gear as I have a prescription mask. You could snorkel without a spring-weight wetsuit, but the water is perhaps just a bit too cool for full comfort without it.

So, with my plans in place, I hit the supermarket for some breakfast goodies and got ready to get a look at the wild side of the Galapagos. Wet and wild critters here I come!

Posted by tdeits 13:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged hotels tours santa cruz puerto snorkeling lodging guides galapagos airbnb baltra ayora Comments (0)

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