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  • Andrew
  • May 14, 2017 03:04:17 AM
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Travels with Andrew, Heide and Lachlan. Stories, photos, tips and recommendations for family travel.

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RTW – Galapagos Cruise (Part 2)

See Part 1 of our Galapagos Cruise adventure here. Espanola Island When researching which Galapagos Islands cruise to take, we realized that we would be in the islands at the right time of year to see the waved albatrosses on Espanola Island, so we made it a high priority to find an itinerary that included […] The post RTW – Galapagos Cruise (Part 2) appeared first on Airports and...

See Part 1 of our Galapagos Cruise adventure here.

Espanola Island

When researching which Galapagos Islands cruise to take, we realized that we would be in the islands at the right time of year to see the waved albatrosses on Espanola Island, so we made it a high priority to find an itinerary that included this experience. On the fifth day of our cruise we woke to find ourselves anchored off Espanola.

Our activities started with a walk along a spectacular white sand beach. We saw plenty of sea lions and some depressions in the sand where sea turtles had laid their eggs.

Espanola
Lachlan and friends – Espanola Island
Galapagos cruise Espanola
Gardeners Bay – Espanola Island
Espanola
Gardeners Bay – Espanola Island

After our beach walk, we snorkeled from the dinghies. We enjoyed the best snorkeling conditions we had experienced so far, with great visibility and calm water.

After lunch we sailed to a different part of the island. After a tricky landing on some rocky steps, we were ready to tackle the hardest hike of our Galapagos cruise. The first wildlife we saw after landing was many marine iguanas. They were easy to see when they were resting on the white sand. However, the iguanas on the rocks were harder to see and we had to be careful when walking over the rocks so we didn’t step on them.

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Marine Iguanas – Espanola Island
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Marine Iguanas – Espanola Island

As we moved away from the shore the trail became rocky and we had to tread carefully. Soon we saw our first albatrosses.

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Waved Albatrosses – Espanola Island
Galapagos cruise Espanola
Lachlan following our naturalist guide on the rocky trail – Espanola Island

Along the trail we got a close-up view of a pair of blue-footed boobies.

blue-footed boobies espanola

Along with the bird life, we saw some rugged scenery, including a blowhole that sprayed water high in the air.

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Espanola Island
Galapagos cruise Espanola
Blowhole – Espanola Island

We soon came across some more albatrosses. We were there at the time the males were arriving on the island and meeting up with the females who had arrived before them. These birds have an amazing and elaborate courtship dance, and we got to see multiple pairs perform.

Although we had seen so much on the island itself, Espanola had one last surprise for us. Just before dinner we heard the call that a whale shark had been spotted. About half of the Solaris passengers scrambled to get into a dinghy. The nearest available crew member was the bartender, who jumped into the dinghy and grabbed the tiller wearing his dinner service outfit.

looking for the whale shark
Looking for the whale shark – Espanola

We saw the whale shark pass under the dinghy a few times, close enough to see the white markings on its back. The photos don’t really do justice to the experience, but we later found out that it is pretty much unheard-of to see a whale shark in Espanola. They are normally only seen near the far out islands that are only visited by dive cruises.

whale shark espanola
Whale Shark – Espanola

Returning to the boat we enjoyed dinner and the amazing color in the clear sky after sunset.

sunset espanola
After Sunset – Espanola Island

Floreana Island

The next stop on our Galapagos cruise was Floreana Island. This is one of the few inhabited Galapagos islands, although the sites we went to were well away from the inhabited area.

Our first activity was snorkeling from the beach. The highlight was seeing a penguin swim past (very quickly). After our snorkel we hiked, starting from the beach we had snorkeled from.

Galapagos cruise Floreana
Floreana Island

First, we walked through some dense vegetation to a fenced-off area where we could look across a large lagoon. We could see a pair of flamingos, and a couple of chicks.

Next we took a trail that led across the island. About halfway to the highest point of the we had a good view of a larger group of flamingos.

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Flamingos – Floreana Island

Continuing on, we came to a viewpoint which looked over the whole lagoon.

Floreana Island

Crossing over to the far side of the island we came to yet another spectacular beach.

Galapagos Cruise Floreana
Floreana Island

As well as the beautiful beach itself, we enjoyed watching sharks cruise past in shallow water, and rays playing in the surf, sometimes being uncovered as a wave receded.

As we turned to leave, we noticed a great blue heron standing serenely in the vegetation behind the beach.

floreana

Floreana – Afternoon

After lunch back on board the Solaris, our afternoon activities started with a dinghy ride through a shallow water area near the Floreana shore. We saw sea lions, turtles, boobies fishing with spectacular dive bombs, golden rays and baby eagle rays. Maria started to tell us a story about the historical inhabitants of Floreana (an intriguing murder mystery involving a bizarre love triangle) but was interrupted when we saw a penguin swimming in the water. We spent some time following it around. It moved surprising quickly, often ducking under the water and emerging in an unexpected place.

Eventually, Maria completed her story (see this link for all the details), and we finished our dinghy ride and landed in Post Office Bay. After a short wak we found a barrel that was used in historical times as a kind of voluntary mail service. Sailors calling in to the island would leave mail in the barrel for loved ones, and look through the accumulated mail and take anything addressed to someone in their home town or a port they planned to call into. The tradition continues among tourists that visit today. We looked through the mail in the barrel, but unfortunately, we didn’t find anything for an address on our planned itinerary, and we didn’t think we should take anything for Texas when we weren’t planning to be back there for more than a year.

The final activity for the day was snorkeling from the beach along the rocks. We saw lots of fish, a Galapagos shark and a very large turtle feeding on some seweed. While watching the turtle, sea lions came to play, swimming right at us as if they were jealous of the attention we were paying to the turtle.

So ended a day where we saw an amazing diversity of wildlife. Other than a Galapagos cruise, I’m not sure there’s anywhere you can see flamingos, penguins and sea turtles all in the same day.

Santiago Island

When I woke up the next morning in time to catch the sunrise, we were anchored next to the barren volcanic landscape of Santiago Island.

galapagos cruise santiago
Santiago Island just after sunrise

After breakfast, our first activity was a hike on the volcanic landscape, walking on lava rock formed 300-350 years ago. We saw didn’t see much evidence of life, just some lava lizards, lava cactus, and locusts. There were lots of interesting lava patterns and small lava tubes.

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Lava on Santiago Island
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Lachlan on Santiago Island
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Lava Cactus – Santiago Island

It was pretty hot on the lava by the time we finished our hike at about 10am. We were happy to get back on the dinghies to head back to the boat.

Heading back to the Solaris – Santiago Island

Our next activity was snorkeling along the rocky shore. We found a turtle, and while we were watching it, a penguin showed up, chasing small fish.

penguin santiago island
Penguin and Sea Turtle – Santiago Island

Bartolome Island

After lunch we prepared ourselves for another strenuous hike, this time to the famous viewpoint on Bartolome Island.

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Bartolome Island

Before we could leave for Bartolome, the crew had to dislodge an uninvited guest from one of the dinghies.

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A stowaway on one of the dinghies

Once that matter was dealt with, we set off for Bartolome. Unusually for the Galapagos Islands, there was a wooden walkway to the viewpoint.

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Walkway – Bartolome Island

The tide was low enough for us to see an interesting geological feature once we had gained some elevation. A ring of rock forms an almost perfect circle in the shallow water.

Bartolome Island
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Bartolome Island

When we made it all the way to the top, we saw the iconic view of this narrow-waisted island.

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Bartolome Island
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The obligatory family portrait – Bartolome Island

The walk back down from the viewpoint was easier than the climb up, but there was volcanic ash on the walkway which made it slippery in parts. We all made it back down, and had to navigate another wildlife obstacle to get to the dinghies.

bartolome
A natural obstacle blocks the dock on Bartolome Island

When we were all back on board, we set off on the short sail back to the island of Santa Cruz where our Galapagos Cruise would finish the next day.

As this was the last night of the cruise, it was time for a farewell ceremony with toasts to the crew (non-alcoholic cocktails for them, full-strength versions for the passengers). This was also the occasion for tipping the crew and naturalist guide. We were happy to reward the folks who had taken good care of us all week.

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The crew of the Solaris
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One last sunset seen from the Solaris

Santa Cruz

On the last day of our Galapagos Cruise we got up early for the last activity. This was a dinghy ride through the mangroves of Black Turtle Cove.

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Black Turtle Cove – Santa Cruz

The mangroves are a nursery for sea life, and we saw baby sharks and baby rays in the shallow water. We also saw sea turtles and birds perched in the mangroves waiting for unsuspecting fish to swim past.

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Heron – Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz
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Sea turtle – Black Turtle Cove

After this activity, we got into the dinghies for one last time to transfer back to the airport. We said our goodbyes to the other passengers, with a mixture of sadness to be leaving new friends but a sense of excitement for the rest of our RTW journey, realizing that this wasn’t a regular vacation that we were returning from, but an early part of a bigger adventure.

Our Galapagos cruise definitely lived up to our high expectations. It was a privilege to spend time in this amazing pristine environment, and we saw and did some amazing things. The Galapagos Islands are truly special. Let’s hope they stay that way even as they are faced with increasing pressure from tourism and challenges from climate change.

Galapagos Cruise Practicalities

You can find a lot of blog posts and websites out there with great information on how to find, select and book a Galapagos cruise, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few thoughts based on our experience.

There’s no getting around the fact that a Galapagos cruise is not an inexpensive travel experience. For this reason, a lot of RTW or long-term travelers skip it, or opt for a land-based trip to the Galapagos Islands (where they stay on the inhabited islands and take day trips to see the wildlife). I’ll describe the few days we spend in this land-based mode in the next post, and discuss pros and cons vs. a Galapagos cruise.

Our Galapagos cruise represented a significant part of our RTW budget, but we don’t regret including this amazing experience in our plans.

One of the major expenses involved with any visit to the Galapagos islands is the flights in and out. We managed to use frequent flyer miles for our flights, for a very reasonable amount of miles. For our flight out we managed to bundle our flight out of the islands with our flight to Lima, Peru, so it was effectively free. Some cruise operators include flights in the cost of their cruises, but of course you need to look at the overall cost of the total package to make sure that this actually represents a saving.

The most popular way to save money on a Galapagos cruise is to book it “last minute”. This can mean anything from booking online a few weeks out (via websites like this one) to waiting until you arrive in the islands and walking into one of the many tour agencies that offer last minute cruise availability.

We originally planned to wait until a month or so before our trip and start looking for a last minute price, but as we were researching, we found a cruise with an itinerary that we really liked (it included both Genovesa and Espanola Islands as highlights) that had three spaces left, and featured a triple cabin (rare on Galapagos cruise boats). The price for the last three places was discounted – not as much as a typical “last minute” discount, but enough to encourage us to book it.

Through our research we found that because we needed three spaces, our last minute options would probably be more limited than if we were just a couple or a single person. This was another factor that helped us decide to book in advance. We used on online agency to book our trip, and they were very helpful. We would definitely recommend using them.

As it turned out, the boat that we had booked ran aground a few months after we had made our booking. Although this initially alarmed us, it turned out to be a good thing. The cruise operator put a new boat in service which was more luxurious than the one we had originally booked. By the time we took our cruise, it was selling for significantly more than we had paid. The only problem is we may not be able to afford the same level of luxury next time we go …

The post RTW – Galapagos Cruise (Part 2) appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


RTW – Galapagos Cruise (Part 1)

After our short time in Quito, it was time to head to the Galapagos Islands for the first big adventure of our trip – an eight day cruise on the Solaris. First – a quick note about the photographs in this post. They are not the photos I was hoping to use. Our AirBnB apartment […] The post RTW – Galapagos Cruise (Part 1) appeared first on Airports and...

After our short time in Quito, it was time to head to the Galapagos Islands for the first big adventure of our trip – an eight day cruise on the Solaris.

First – a quick note about the photographs in this post. They are not the photos I was hoping to use. Our AirBnB apartment in Lima was burglarized, and among the things stolen were the hard drives containing all the photos I had taken with my DSLR until that point, including probably a couple of thousand pics from the Galapagos cruise and our time in the islands afterwards. Fortunately I took some photos with my phone to post on social media, so those are what you see in this post. I’ll tell the story of the burglary in more detail when I post about our time in Lima.

Note – links on this page may be affiliate links. If you use them, we’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Getting to the Galapagos Islands

Traveling to the Galapagos Islands involves a few more steps than most other tourist destinations. The Ecuador government has a lot of controls in place with the aim being to keep the Galapagos Islands pristine. This started at the Quito airport where we had to go through a special immigration checkpoint (and pay USD 20 each) for a transit control card. Then we went through a special customs inspection enforcing the very strict rules about what can be taken to the islands. After the short flight to the islands, the somewhat complicated process (and the cash requirements) continued. The biggest outlay was the USD 100 per person national park fee.

The next complications are caused by the fact that the airport for Santa Cruz is actually on a small island just to the north of Santa Cruz itself. This meant that getting to our hotel involved a USD 5 (very short) bus ride to a channel where we took a USD 1 boat ride across to the other side. There we loaded up into one of the pickup trucks used as taxis in the islands and paid USD 25 to get to our hotel. At least Ecuador uses US Dollars as their currency, which made it easier to keep track of all these transactions.

Santa Cruz

We had one night in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz planned before joining our cruise the following day. Our flight from Quito was originally scheduled for the morning, however, a schedule change meant that we arrived late in the afternoon, so we had a lot less time than anticipated in Puerto Ayora on our arrival day. This wasn’t really a problem, as we planned to spend a couple more days on Santa Cruz after our cruise.

When we finally made it through the complicated process described above, we checked in to the Hostal Paraiso. Despite the fact that I had booked this place simply because it was the cheapest triple room I could find, it turned out to be a good budget option, clean and in a good location. It also had a covered patio with hammocks, which Lachlan enjoyed.

With a couple of hours of daylight left, we went for a walk and immediately saw some wildlife.

Heron – Puerto Ayora
Marine Iguanas
Marine iguanas on the sidewalk – Puerto Ayora

We stopped for the obligatory Instagram shot at the “Santa Cruz” sign.

Santa Cruz, Galapagos
Heide and Lachlan being tourists

Next, we headed for the famous Puerto Ayora fish market. There wasn’t much happening, so we didn’t see any entertaining antics from animals trying to steal fish scraps. We did see our first sea lion of the trip.

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Sea lion at the Puerto Ayora fish market

For our first Galapagos Islands dinner, we went to the restaurant street near our hotel. Restaurants line the street and they close the road and fill it with tables. After reviewing our options, we decided to stretch the budget a bit for a seafood platter. We managed to eat most of it.

restaurant street Puerto Ayora
Seafood selection, Puerto Ayora restaurant street
seafood, Puerto Ayora restaurant street
Our seafood platter, Puerto Ayora restaurant street

Our Galapagos Cruise Begins

The next morning we had to be back at the airport at 10am to meet our Galapagos cruise. We thought we had left in plenty of time, but had to wait for nearly half an hour for a boat across the channel. Fortunately, we managed to get a phone call through to the office of the cruise company to tell them we were on our way, so they waited for us.

Once we were finally on board, the naturalist guide (Maria) gave the group a safety briefing and explained the national park rules. Then it was time for our first lunch aboard the boat. After lunch we headed off for our first activities, on Mosquera Island.

It wasn’t long before we were in the water for our first snorkel of the trip. Snorkeling along a rock wall, we saw a lot of colorful fish. Some members of the group saw a white-tipped shark, but we weren’t so lucky. After snorkeling, we went for a walk along a very nice white sand beach. We saw a lot of sea lions who like to laze around on the beach here. This first afternoon was a good introduction to the islands.

After dinner, some sharks and sea lions were chasing fish attracted by the light at the back of the boat. They put on quite a show for us. One of the sea lions jumped up onto the boat. At the time we went to bed, the crew were trying to encourage it to leave, as it’s prohibited to transport wildlife from one island to another. We later heard that they had to physically lift him off the boat before we weighed anchor.

Genovesa Island – Morning

After a pretty rough overnight passage, early the next morning we awoke to find ourselves anchored in the middle of the bay formed by a collapsed volcanic caldera. There were cliffs almost 360 degrees around us, teeming with bird life. It was an incredible sight. One of the reasons we chose this particular Galapagos cruise was to see Genovesa Island. On first glance it seemed to live up to the hype.

After breakfast we got into the dinghies and headed to the beach.

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Genovesa Island

First, Maria led us on a walk along the beach. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of birds. We had our first sight of the iconic boobies, both the red-footed and Nazca varieties.

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Heide gets close to the local wildlife on Genovesa Island
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Red-footed Booby – Genovesa Island

However, the highlight of the walk was seeing the frigate birds with their red throat pouches puffed up on full display. We were lucky to be visiting at the right time of year to see this courting ritual. This is how the male frigate birds try to attract a mate.

As well as the birds we saw some sea lions resting in the shade.

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Sea lions – Genovesa Island

After our walk we snorkeled from the beach. It was nice to get in the water because we got quite warm walking in the sun. We saw plenty of fish and some rays. Just before we headed back to the boat for lunch a couple of sea lions put on a display for us, playing around in the shallow water right in front of us.

Genovesa Island – Afternoon

After lunch and some rest time on the boat, it was time for our afternoon activities. First, we snorkeled from the dinghies near the caldera wall. We saw some bigger fish, and also had our first experience swimming with sea lions. Little did we know how common this would be on future snorkels on our Galapagos cruise.

For our final activity for the day, we climbed Prince Philip’s Steps to the top of the cliffs. After making the steep climb, we saw an amazing number of Nazca and red-footed boobies, and learned about their behavior. We were also lucky enough to see the short-eared owl. Maria had told us that we may not see any, but we managed to see three of them. Heide showed off her wildlife-finding skills by spotting one at quite a distance away from the path.

As a result of this very full program of activities for the day, everyone was ready for dinner and then an early night. We left Genovesa Island at 8:30pm for our next destination. With another rough passage ahead, the best place to be was in bed, although the rocking and rolling of the boat did make it a bit difficult to sleep.

South Plaza Island

We woke up anchored near South Plaza Island. I got up to see sunrise, and watched the National Geographic Expeditions ship pull in alongside us. It has to be a good sign on a Galapagos cruise when you’re in the same place as National Geographic. After breakfast we made a dry landing (i.e. directly onto steps or a dock without having to wade through the water) onto South Plaza Island. We immediately saw the two main things we were there to see – cactus and land iguanas.

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Land Iguana – South Plaza Island

We continued on to the island’s highest point, where a cliff top gave us a view over the ocean. Looking down we could see eagle rays in the water and many birds feeding on fish that were being washed into the cliffs by the wave action. In the other direction we could see back to where the Solaris was anchored.

Galapagos Cruise South Plaza
The semi-barren landscape of South Plaza Island, with our boat the Solaris in the background

We also saw more land iguanas and a marine iguana who had climbed all the way up the cliff.

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Land iguana and cactus – South Plaza Island
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Lachlan holds the remains of a Sally Lightfoot crab – the yummy goodness inside has been eaten by a bird

At the furthest point of our walk we saw a bachelor sea lion colony. It was amazing to see them on top of the cliffs so high above the water.

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Heide and Lachlan with bachelor sea lions in the background – South Plaza Island

Completing the loop trail on the lower part of the island we walked across some shiny white rock. Although this looks like marble, it’s actually sea lion poop, polished by the sea lion bodies rubbing on it as they move across the rocks.

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South Plaza Island

Santa Fe Island

Back on the boat we navigated to our afternoon destination, Santa Fe Island. While we were traveling a number of frigate birds flew along with us, hitching a ride on the updrafts from the boat.

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Frigate birds hitching a ride are a common sight on a Galapagos cruise

Our first Sante Fe activity was snorkeling off the dinghies. We saw lots of fish, while others saw a shark and played with sea lions. Lachlan and I were behind the main group so unfortunately didn’t see either. After snorkeling, we took a dinghy ride along a rocky shore to see baby sea lions playing in the protected shallow water.

The final activity for the day was a wet landing on beach full of sea lions. We had to carefully make our way through sea lions on the beach, then put on hiking shoes for the rocky trail. This was a bit tricky, because there were no benches. We had to find a rock or fallen tree to sit on while drying our feet and putting on socks and shoes.

Galapagos cruise Santa Fe
Our landing site on Santa Fe Island

On our walk on Santa Fe we saw some very tall cactus “trees”. They adapted to this height as a defense against the tortoises that ate them, although now unfortunately there are no more tortoises on Santa Fe Island.

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Tree Cactus – Santa Fe Island

As we headed back to the boat after another full day of activities, it was hard not to be impressed by the variety of ecosystems and environments we had seen on just the first few days of our Galapagos cruise.

Kicker Rock

The next morning we woke up and for a change we weren’t anchored. Instead we were circling around a huge rock formation jutting out of the ocean. This was Kicker Rock, one of the many impressive geological features of the Galapagos Islands.

We circled for a while as the sun came up, which gave us a chance to photograph Kicker Rock from various angles.

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Sunrise behind Kicker Rock
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Kicker Rock
kicker rock

The official itinerary for our Galapagos cruise included snorkeling at Kicker Rock. However, the itinerary didn’t include an opportunity to see the famous Galapagos tortoises. This wasn’t an issue for us because we had planned extra days in the islands after our cruise, which would give us a chance to see them. However, most of the other passengers had joined the cruise straight from the airport and were heading straight to the airport after their cruise. This meant that they wouldn’t get a chance to see the iconic tortoises.

The end result of this was that we all agreed to skip the snorkeling at Kicker Rock and add a visit to the tortoise breeding center on San Cristobal Island. After a few circles around Kicker Rock we set course for San Cristobal.

San Cristobal Island

We arrived on San Cristobal Island mid-morning and got on a bus to head to the tortoise breeding center. This is in the island’s highlands, and the weather changed to mist, then rain as we gained altitude. Happily, it wasn’t raining when we got to the to tortoise breeding center.

At the tortoise breeding center we saw some larger tortoises being fed, then saw the very tiny young tortoises in their special enclosures. These tortoises live a long time, with an average lifespan of more than 100 years. It’s a little disconcerting to look at a bunch of tiny tortoises and realize that some of them will be alive after every person currently alive on earth is dead.

galapagos tortoise

On that sobering thought we headed to the airport to drop off some passengers who had signed up for a shorter cruise than the our full 8 day option. We had some free time in town after that, spending it in a cafe drinking iced coffee and taking the opportunity to get online and check e-mail after a few days totally disconnected from the internet.

Back on board we had lunch, then had some free time waiting for some new passengers to join us. Lachlan and I passed some time playing Jenga. This isn’t easy on a moving boat, and inevitably there was controversy when the boat movement took a tower down. I maintain that this should mean a draw, while Lachlan’s position is that it should count as a loss. You can probably guess whose turn it was when the tower fell.

Interpretation Center

After the new passengers joined us we headed back to San Cristobal to the interpretation center. We saw displays about the islands’ formation and the climate, current and geography that created the conditions that resulted in the unique flora and fauna here. There were also exhibits about the history of human presence in the islands.

After the interpretation center we had some more free time in town. We used this very wisely by finding an awesome hole-in-the-wall place that served amazing empanadas. We followed this up with ice cream and some time watching sea lions hunt for food in the harbor.

sea lions san cristobal
Sea lions laze in the afternoon sun – San Cristobal

The half-way point of our Galapagos cruise also marked a week into our Big Trip. So far it feels like a regular vacation (although to a particularly amazing destination). I wonder how long it will take to feel like we’re traveling, not just vacationing?

Galapagos Cruise – to be continued

See the next post to read about the second half of our Galapagos Cruise …

The post RTW – Galapagos Cruise (Part 1) appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


RTW – A Day in Quito

After a couple of years of planning, much discussion, frantic preparation and a round of farewells, it felt surreal to be in Heide’s mom’s car headed to the airport to start our RTW adventure. The first major activity of our trip was two weeks in the Galapagos Islands, but on the way there we planned […] The post RTW – A Day in Quito appeared first on Airports and...

After a couple of years of planning, much discussion, frantic preparation and a round of farewells, it felt surreal to be in Heide’s mom’s car headed to the airport to start our RTW adventure. The first major activity of our trip was two weeks in the Galapagos Islands, but on the way there we planned to spend a day in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.

Note – links on this page may be affiliate links. If you use them, we’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Bogota

Due to the routing of our frequent flyer award tickets, we spent a night in Bogota, Colombia on the way to Quito. Initially, we thought we would have a few hours to have a look at the city while we were there, but a schedule change and some research into Bogota’s traffic (spoiler alert – it’s bad) made us realize that this wasn’t possible, so we changed our hotel to an airport hotel to make the transfers easier.

The Aloft Bogota Airport was a great option for a one night stay, with a good breakfast included. We did have one minor incident when the shuttle driver was hit in the face by the van tailgate loading our luggage which opened up a cut above his eye. Fortunately, we were able to give him a band aid, for which he was very grateful. Lesson learned – being prepared travelers can benefit others, not just us.

Bogota
This view from our hotel room is all we really saw of Bogota

Arrival in Quito

After a short flight from Bogota, we landed in Quito mid-afternoon. After a quick clearance through immigration and customs, we checked at the the taxi desk at the airport who gave us a voucher noting the fixed price (USD 26.00) to our hotel. We managed to get all our luggage and ourselves into the small taxi, then set off at a breakneck speed towards the city. At first, the road was new and very good. The airport in Quito is relatively new so works very well, but it’s a long way from town. As we had two nights and one full day in Quito, we decided to stay downtown, despite the long drive.

After a while, we turned off the good road and onto a narrow, windy and hilly road. From this road we could look up at buildings that cling improbably to the mountainside. At first we thought the driver was taking a tricky back road short-cut, but then we saw a bus coming the other way and some street signs that indicated that this was the main road to the part of town we were headed to. This was confirmed a couple of days later when the taxi from our hotel to the airport took us back along the same road in the opposite direction.

We eventually arrived at the Hilton Colon Quito, in the Marisal Sucre district. As with the previous night in Bogota, we had booked this hotel with reward points to have a nice place to stay to ease us into our trip. We had a room with access to the executive lounge, which provided drinks and enough food for dinner, so we decided to spend the evening in the hotel recovering from our travels.

Quito
The view from the executive lounge – Hilton Colon Quito

A Day in Quito

After breakfast in the executive lounge, we headed out of the hotel to explore. With only one day in Quito, our plan was to focus on the old town area. The historic center is largely intact from early colonial times, and was one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO, in 1978.

Leaving the hotel, we crossed the street into the Parque El Ejido. It was still early, so only a few souvenir and art vendors were open for business. We stopped to watch some old men play some version of boules. After watching for a while, we still couldn’t figure out the rules, so we moved on.

Exiting the park we made our way along a main street towards the historic center. Along the way we saw interesting old buildings in various states of decay.

Old building – Quito, Ecuador

A little further along, we saw a statue in the distance. As we came closer it looked familiar, yet out of place. Coming closer still, we realized it was Mahatma Ghandi. It was located in front of a university, and surrounded by political graffiti.

Ghandi memorial - Quito
Ghandi memorial – Quito
Political graffiti outside the university

Plaza Grande

Eventually we made it to the Plaza Grande, the focal point for our day in Quito. We rested up here for a while after our walk from the hotel. Some musicians were playing who were pretty good, so it was a relaxing atmosphere sitting and people-watching. As we sat in the square it really sank in that we had finally made it to South America for the first time.

Plaza Grande - Quito
Heide relaxing in the Plaza Grande – Quito

At the center of the square is a statue of the Heroes of the Independence.

Statue of the Heroes of the Independence

The square is surrounded by some important buildings, including the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral of Quito.

Presidential Palace - Quito
Presidential Palace – Quito

Old Town Streets

Surrounding the Plaza Grande are some very quaint historic streets. They are also very touristy, filled with street artists and performers, along with vendors selling souvenirs and snacks.

Quito
Quito Old Town

At the end of one street we had a great view of the Virgen de El Panecillo. This is the tallest aluminum statue in the world, completed in 1975 and modeled after a much-loved 1734 sculpture depicting the Virgin of Quito.

The Virgen de El Panecillo - Quito
The Virgen de El Panecillo – Quito

With only one day in Quito for sightseeing, we decided against taking the taxi ride up the hill to see it up close.

After pretty good lunch in fast food chicken restaurant, we visited the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so you’ll have to click on the link to see the lavish golden interior decoration. This was the highlight of our day in Quito, and is a must-see if you are there.

Basílica del Voto Nacional

The last stop of our day in Quito was at another church, the The Basílica del Voto Nacional. This is not nearly as old as the churches closer to the Plaza Grande, with construction beginning in 1892 and taking more than 30 years before the bells were first rung in 1924. However, it is a very impressive building built in a gothic style. With its location on top of a hill it is a major landmark of Quito.

The Basílica del Voto Nacional - Quito
The Basílica del Voto Nacional – Quito

Many visitors to this church climb to the top of the towers for a great view of Quito. We were feeling the effects of Quito’s altitude (2,850 m or 9,350 ft), so we passed. We did go inside the church, just in time to see a lovely light show from the sun projecting colors from the stained glass windows onto the interior pillars.

The Basílica del Voto Nacional - Quito
The Basílica del Voto Nacional – Quito
The Basílica del Voto Nacional - Quito
The Basílica del Voto Nacional – Quito

After the Basilica, we called it a day and headed back to the hotel to take advantage of the executive lounge again for dinner and an early night to rest up for the next day’s travel to the Galapagos Islands.

There are a lot of other things to do if you have more than a day in Quito. A couple of competing landmarks mark the equator. You can take a cable car for views of the city and the Pichincha Volcano that overlooks it. There are also craft markets near the city that are worth a visit. With our travel in Ecuador focusing on the Galapagos Islands, these other Quito sights and the rest of Ecuador will have to wait for a future visit.

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RTW – Preparation

While the fun part of planning for a trip is coming up with an itinerary, there are many other no less important RTW preparation tasks that must be done before you can set off on a grand adventure. This post is by no means a comprehensive how-to. I’ll share some of the issues we faced […] The post RTW – Preparation appeared first on Airports and...

While the fun part of planning for a trip is coming up with an itinerary, there are many other no less important RTW preparation tasks that must be done before you can set off on a grand adventure. This post is by no means a comprehensive how-to. I’ll share some of the issues we faced and how we dealt with them. Different circumstances may require a different approach on any or all of these issues. Just like itinerary planning, there are no one size fits all solutions here.

For context, we are a middle-aged couple with a middle school kid. The decisions we make about how to organize our affairs ahead of a RTW trip are very different from the approach a single twenty-something would take. We also have a specific timeframe for our trip as we are planning to be back in Houston in time for Lachlan to start high school. This may lead us to make different decisions from a family who is heading off to travel indefinitely.

This blog is coming from the final stop before we leave the country. We’re staying overnight at Heide’s parents’ house. Heide’s mom will drive us to the airport tomorrow afternoon and we’ll be off on our adventure.

Note – links on this page may be affiliate links. If you use them, we’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

House

If you own a house, what to do with it will probably be your biggest RTW preparation issue. The big decision is whether to sell it or rent it out. There are definitely pros and cons to either approach, so your individual circumstances will dictate which way is best. Then you have to consider the market. We went back and forth about selling vs. renting. We finally decided to sell the house, mainly because we plan to move to a different part of Houston when we return.

After listing the house and getting a number of showings but no real interest except a lowball offer, we listed the house for rent. Straight away we had some good tenants offer us more than our asking rent, so we changed direction and signed a lease with them. Although things didn’t end up the way we planned, it seems like things worked out well. When we return from our trip we’ll decide then whether we want to sell the house, continue to rent it or move back into it.

Our lovely house in Houston, Texas

Cars

The next biggest issue for most people’s RTW preparation is what to do with your car or cars. Most often it’s going to make sense to sell them. We ended up deciding to keep my car, as it’s very low miles and I won’t be able to find another one like it when we return. It will stay at Heide’s parents’ place while we’re away.

We did sell Heide’s car as she wants something different when we come back from our trip. Also, keeping two cars would be ridiculous, one is bad enough. As Heide’s car was a lot bigger than mine, we needed it right through all of our RTW preparations. We were hauling stuff all over the place, so we needed the space. This made it difficult to try and sell the car privately, so we dropped it off at Carmax on the way to Heide’s parents’ place. They give us a decent price, it was no-fuss and didn’t take too long.

Pets

This is another big RTW preparation issue for pet owners who want to travel. The ideal solution is for a friend or family member to look after your pet while you’re away. We found this solution for one of our dogs, Peach will be spending a year with a family who adores her (particularly the little girl of the house). This family has a farm that they spend some time at, so that will be an exciting new experience for Peach.

Our other dog, Axel, is a different story. He’s a rescue and has anxiety issues so he doesn’t do well with anyone other than our immediate family, and the kennel that he has boarded at while we’ve taken vacations. So he’s going to stay at the kennel while we’re away. They know him there and kinda like him, even when he growls at them.

Peach and Axel

The Rest of Our Stuff

This is not one of those “we sold all our stuff to travel the world” posts. Much as I admire people who can do that, because we have firm plans to return to Houston and are at a stage of life where we have accumulated some things that we really want to keep, we couldn’t take this approach. We did try to get rid of as much as possible. First, we held a garage sale and got rid of many things that we had forgotten we had. We made more than a thousand dollars, so it was definitely a success, although hard work.

After the garage sale we donated a bunch of stuff to Goodwill, gave some things away to other people and threw lots of things in the trash. We filled up our wheelie bin every week for a couple of months, then mad a trash pile in the driveway which was picked up after the movers had cleared the house out.

We rented a storage unit before we put our house on the market, and filled about a third of it with things we took out of the house to declutter so it would show better. When we finally moved out of the house, we filled the rest of the unit … and had to get another small unit for things that wouldn’t fit in the main unit. So, don’t look to us for advice on how to downsize your stuff, we are apparently not very good at it.

Too much stuff …

Luggage

This is a big obsession with people in the midst of RTW preparation as evidenced by the number of blog posts and youtube videos on the subject. The first big decision is carry-on only vs. checked bags. We have managed to do carry-on only for all of our vacations over the last few years. It is great to walk off the plane and not have to join the crowds waiting for baggage to appear. However, for our RTW trip we have to pack for a range of weather conditions, and take some supplies that we don’t need to take when we’re traveling short-term. After a couple of trial packs we realized there was no way we could do carry-on only for this trip.

The next decision was backpack vs. roller bag. Heide and I decided that our middle-aged backs would be better off with roller bags. We found a good deal on a previous year’s model of the Osprey Ozone 75 lightweight rolling duffel which is (just) big enough to carry all of our stuff without being ridiculously heavy. We have managed to stay under the 23kg limit that applies to most of the flights we have booked so far.

Lachlan decided he preferred a backpack. Having seen the havoc he can wreak walking through an airport dragging a roller bag, we agreed with this decision. We initially bought him an Osprey Farpoint 55, which is a very popular travel backpack with a zip-off day pack. After doing the final pack a couple of days ago, we realized that this wasn’t quite big enough, especially the day pack. We picked up an Osprey Porter 65 which has more room than the Farpoint’s main pack, and a separate day pack which has much more space than the Farpoint’s zip-off version.

Travel Clothes

Another RTW preparation obsession in the blogosphere is travel clothes. It is amazing what’s available out there these days compared to previous year’s when “travel” clothes were all very synthetic and not very stylish. These days you can get merino wool clothing and even the synthetic options feel much more like natural materials while being quick-drying and lighter.

Here are some of the clothes we bought for our trip that we think will work well. We’ll have to come back and update this post after we’ve been traveling for a while to report on how well they worked out for us.

Technology

Another difference between travel these days and say twenty years ago is the amount of technology we carry these days. It’s great that we can stay connected while traveling, and use apps and maps to help while traveling, but it all adds to the weight that needs to be hauled around. Also, we’ll be maintaining the blog as we go and Lachlan will have online schoolwork.

Between us we will be carrying:

Camera Gear

These days you can take pretty decent pictures and video with your cell phone, but as a photography enthusiast they still don’t replace real camera gear for me. As will as pics for the blog, I want to capture video along the way. An action cam will be a must, especially for snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands and adventure sports in New Zealand.

I’ve tried to rationalize and buy small or lightweight equipment, but by the time you include lenses, accessories and batteries and charges, a pretty significant part of my load will be camera gear:

Hopefully I’ll be able to capture some photos and footage good enough to make it worth lugging all this stuff all around the world.

So that’s all the boring RTW preparation stuff out of the way. Let us know in the comments if you’re curious about any further details. From now on, the posts will be about the fun stuff – the destinations we’ll see as we travel around the world.

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RTW – Itinerary

I’m writing this post from what is effectively the first AirBnB stay of our Big Trip, although we haven’t left Houston yet. We moved out of our house about a week and a half ago when our tenants moved in, and we leave for South America in a few days to start the adventure – […] The post RTW – Itinerary appeared first on Airports and...

I’m writing this post from what is effectively the first AirBnB stay of our Big Trip, although we haven’t left Houston yet. We moved out of our house about a week and a half ago when our tenants moved in, and we leave for South America in a few days to start the adventure – 14 months of travel. In the midst of all of the things we have to do to get ready to leave, I have just enough time for a couple of posts about planning and preparation for our round the world (RTW) trip, starting with this post about our RTW itinerary.

Our RTW Itinerary – an Overview

Below you can see a map with our planned route around the world. You can use the + and – buttons to zoom in on specific parts of the route and click the “pancake stack” at the top left to see a list of destinations.

Create your own travel map

Read on for some more details on our RTW itinerary. I’ll also note some highlights we are especially looking forward to.

South America

Our first stop after leaving Houston is Bogota, Colombia. Unfortunately, this is just an overnight stop on our way to Ecuador.

After arriving in Ecuador we have two nights in Quito, the capital. We’ll have one full day to check out the sights before heading to the Galapagos Islands. There we’ll do an eight day cruise around the islands in a small (16 passenger) vessel. We can’t wait to see all of the wildlife in the water and on the islands. After the cruise we’ll have a few days to relax and hang out on the beach. We may do some land-based tours if we haven’t had enough nature from our cruise.

Our next destination will be Peru, and we’ll be here for about a month. After a week in the capital of Lima, we’ll be following the so-called Gringo Trail to see Peru’s major attractions, ending up in Cusco to see the Sacred Valley and the must-see Machu Picchu. We’ll be using the backpacker bus service Peru Hop to get around, easing our way into the long term travel lifestyle.

Following Peru will be Bolivia, spending some time in La Paz before a three day tour of the spectacular Uyuni Salt Flats. After the tour we’ll cross the border to transfer to the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile.

After that we’ll take a bus and cross another border into northern Argentina, for a driving tour of the area around Salta. Because Argentina is such a huge country, we’ll take some domestic flights to save some very long bus rides. From Salta we’ll fly to Iguazu Falls, then to Buenos Aires.

From Buenos Aires we’ll fly to Santiago to get a more urban Chile experience.

Island-Hopping Across the Pacific

Our final South American experience will be Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s actually a part of Chile, so we’ll fly there from Santiago.

The feat of RTW itinerary planning that I’m most proud of is figuring out how to juggle schedules and mix and match frequent flyer miles from different programs to island-hop across the Pacific. This will be much more fun than flying all the way back to the Chilean mainland from Easter Island then taking a long trans-Pacific flight to Australia.

From Easter Island we fly to Tahiti, we’re we’ll spend a few nights on the island of Moorea. This island is not as expensive as the more famous Bora Bora, but even on Moorea it was a bit of a challenge to find budget-friendly accommodation. We did eventually find a reasonably priced bungalow right on the lagoon, where we’ll spend some time relaxing after our South American travels.

Our next hop will be to the Cook Islands. After landing on the main island or Raratonga we’ll make an even smaller hop to the tiny island of Aitutaki. This is a real get-away-from-it-all kind of place. We’ll explore the spectacular lagoon and get in some more quality beach time.

After a few days in Aitutaki we’ll make our final Pacific hop to Sydney.

Australia and New Zealand

The next phase of our RTW itinerary will be a couple of months in Australia and New Zealand. We’ll land in Sydney, but won’t spend much time there as it’s a destination we’ve been to many times.

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night
The obligatory Harbour Bridge pic, required at the mention of Sydney

For the first three weeks in Australia we’ll travel to a variety of destinations, seeing a range of what Australia has to offer.

First, we’ll head to the Northern Territory and do a couple of short camping trips. We’ll visit Kakadu National Park, then Uluru and the Red Centre. After that we’ll head to Hobart, Tasmania, which will be quite a contrast from our Outback experiences. Finally, we’ll visit Australia’s capital, Canberra.

After playing tourist in Australia, we’ll spend a few weeks at our house in Brisbane. As well as catching up with friends and family, we’ll take some time to relax and do some travel planning for the rest of our RTW itinerary.

After Brisbane we head to New Zealand. We’ll be there for the month of November, starting in Auckland and working our way south. On the North Island we’re looking forward to Hobbiton and the thermal attractions in Rotorua, and also spending a few days checking out windy Wellington.

After taking the inter-island ferry we’ll explore the natural wonders of the South Island. As well as the mountains, glaciers and lakes, we’ll try some of the adventure activities that New Zealand is famous for. Nothing too crazy, though – no bungee jumping for us. We’ll probably try our hand at some white water rafting and Lachlan definitely wants to try zorbing. Our final stop in New Zealand will be Queenstown.

South East Asia

Although a lot of RTW itineraries include a lot of time in Southeast Asia, we’ll be spending a limited amount of time in this region, just less than a month. From New Zealand we’ll fly to Singapore. We’ll only spend a few days there, as it’s an expensive city.

After Singapore, we’ll head north through Malaysia, which is a Southeast Asian country that we haven’t been to before. We’ll cross the border to Thailand either by land or sea, then make our way to Bangkok. After spending Christmas in Bangkok, we’ll move on to the next big adventure – India.

India

We are planning for two months in India, to give us time to acclimate, and also to see a good part of the country. Two months is really only enough time to scratch the surface, but we will get to see some of the highlights.

The plan is to start in Kerala in southern India. This should be a good introduction to the country without the maximum craziness we will surely encounter elsewhere in India. After some time there, we’ll start to make our way north, with stops in Mysore and the ancient ruins of Hampi before visiting Mumbai.

From Mumbai we’ll head further north to the famous sights of Rajasthan – forts and desert and camels. Next we’ll get to a couple of must-see destinations, Agra (the Taj Mahal) and Varanasi.

After a short time in Delhi we’ll head to the northwest region of India. We’ll start in Rishikesh and spend some time in the slower-paced cities and towns of the Himalayan foothills. Our last stop in India will be Amritsar, and we’ll fly from there to our next destination.

Uzbekistan

The Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan are places that we were always going to include in our RTW itinerary. We’ll spend just over two weeks here, visiting the fabled cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand as well as the capital Tashkent. We also plan to visit the vanishing Aral Sea.

Turkey?

After Uzbekistan, our plans are more fluid. We would like to spend a few weeks in Turkey to get to places like Cappadocia, Ephesus and Gallipoli. However, this will depend on the political and security situation at the time. We may skip Turkey and head straight to Europe after Uzbekistan, or limit Turkey to a stopover in Istanbul. We have just found out that friends are now living in Moscow, so we may go and visit them.

Europe

Our plans in Europe are also flexible. How much time we spend in eastern vs. western Europe may depend on how our budget is holding out. We’ll also have to keep track of which countries are in the Schengen zone. We’ll only be allowed to spend 90 days total in these countries. This is complicated by the fact that there are some countries that are trying to join the Schengen zone, so we’ll have to keep an eye on whether any of them are successful. However, there are some places that we definitely intend to work into the plan.

We plan to be in Italy in April, to beat the worst of the summer crowds. After that we’ll head east to Croatia, then Romania and other Balkan countries. We’d like to then work our way via Prague and other places along the way to Berlin. The plan is to rent a car for a driving tour of Germany from Berlin to Munich.

From Munich, the plan is to make our way to Geneva. Finally, we’ll hit the highlights of Paris, Brussels or Bruges and then Amsterdam before flying back to Houston.

RTW Itinerary Planning Tips

Actually, I don’t really have many generally applicable tips, as planning a trip like this is very personal. The process and the outcome could look different for everyone. It depends on your interests and resources available for the trip (in both time and money). So I guess that’s a tip of sorts – plan your trip for you. Don’t include destinations just because everyone else goes there. As an example, we aren’t spending much time in Southeast Asia, even though it’s a great (and budget-friendly) place for long-term travel. Other places are a higher priority for us.

RTW itinerary planning used to be based on routing rules for round-the-world air tickets sold by the major airline alliances. With increased airline competition, these days it rarely makes sense to buy one of these tickets. It’s usually much more economical to mix and match one-way tickets from different airlines. Different airlines may be more competitive on different legs of your trip. This is especially true when you’re using frequent flyer miles and credit card points for a lot of your flights like we are.

Further Information

For RTW itinerary planning I like the “Pillars” approach where you first decide on a number of places that you absolutely must include in your itinerary. The next step is to build a plan around that. For us there were some “bucket list” activities we wanted to include (e.g. the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Kakadu National Park, Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan), and also some countries that we have been putting off going to until we had time to really do them justice (e.g. New Zealand and India).

For more details on this approach check out this post which does a great job explaining it. The same website has another post that is a great overview of the factors you need to consider to do your more detailed planning once you have decided on your Pillars.

Let us know in the comments if you have been to any of the places we are planning to go and have any “must-sees” that we should check out along the way.

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Japan Family Travel

This post is an overview of our two week Japan family travel experience. Japan is one of our favorite places, and one we keep going back to. We saw a good mix of traditional and modern Japan. We also ate some great Japanese food – it’s one of our favorite cuisines. Each section below includes […] The post Japan Family Travel appeared first on Airports and...

This post is an overview of our two week Japan family travel experience. Japan is one of our favorite places, and one we keep going back to. We saw a good mix of traditional and modern Japan. We also ate some great Japanese food – it’s one of our favorite cuisines. Each section below includes a link to a more detailed post about each part of our trip.

Narita

JAPAN – A NARITA STOPOVER

We arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport a day before our friends who were traveling with us. This gave us the chance to explore the small town of Narita near the airport. We checked out the Narita-san Shinshō-ji temple, and ate our first (of many) sushi meals for the trip.

Japan Family Travel
Pagoda at Narita-san Shinshō-ji

Eastern Kyoto

JAPAN – A WALK THROUGH EASTERN KYOTO

On our first full day in Kyoto, we explored the temples and shrines of eastern Kyoto. We also spent some time strolling the famous Philosopher’s Walk that links many of them. Some of our group even got to try their hand at making a bowl on a potter’s wheel.

Japan Family Travel
Temple Guardian at Otoyo Shrine

Traditional Kaiseki Meal in Kyoto

JAPAN – A FAMILY KAISEKI MEAL IN KYOTO

On our second day in Kyoto we experienced one of the highlights of our Japan family travel. This was a traditional multi-course kaiseki meal in a restaurant that has been in business for more than three hundred years. We also braved the rainy weather to do some sightseeing in the area around our AirBnB accommodation.

family kaiseki
Harise kaiseki restaurant, Kyoto

Western Kyoto Walking Tour

JAPAN – A TOUR OF WESTERN KYOTO

On our last day in Kyoto we went on a guided walking tour. We started at Nijo Castle, then made our way to some iconic western Kyoto sights. These included the Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji, the famous zen garden at Ryoan-ji and the bamboo grove at Arashiyama. We stopped along the way for an okonomiyaki lunch. It was great having a guide along to give us background information on the things we were looking at.

Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Hiroshima

JAPAN – HIROSHIMA PEACE MEMORIAL PARK

After Kyoto, we headed south on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima. We spent a day exploring the various monuments in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. We also visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which provides an overview of the atomic bomb blast that occurred there and also the impacts on the people of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima
A-Bomb Dome – Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Himeji Castle

JAPAN – HIMEJI CASTLE

While traveling between Hiroshima and Osaka, we made a stop at the town of Himeji. The main attraction here is Himeji Castle. This is widely regarded as Japan’s most beautiful castles, and is well worth the effort to see. We explored the castle grounds then made our way all the to the top floor of the castle. The views of the surrounding area were superb. We also had time to check out the nearby Koko-en garden before heading back to the train station to continue on to Osaka.

Japan Family Travel
Himeji Castle

Osaka

JAPAN – A FEW DAYS IN OSAKA

Osaka is one of our favorite places in Japan. It’s a great city for wandering the streets to see the random sights of modern Japan, and the food is incredible, in variety and quality. We recommend at least a couple of days in Osaka in any Japan family travel itinerary.

On our first day in Osaka, we spent a few hours at the excellent Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, then took a ride on the nearby ferris wheel for some spectacular views of Osaka. The next day we did a DIY walking tour, starting with Amerikamura, Osaka’s youth culture center. We then walked down Shinsaibashi, a covered shopping street, before ending up in Dotonbori, where we enjoyed seeing the lights and the crowds before finding somewhere to eat. On our final day in Osaka, the rest of the group went for a day trip to Nara, while Lachlan and I explored the attractions in and around the mammoth Osaka Station building.

Dotonbori, Osaka
Dotonbori, Osaka’s famous restaurant district

Tokyo Neighborhoods

JAPAN – TOKYO NEIGHBORHOODS

The final stop in our Japan family travel adventure was the capital city of Tokyo. We started our time in Tokyo exploring some different neighborhoods. Nihonbashi, Sugamo, Akihabara and Shinjuku all have different atmospheres and attractions, but are all worth checking out.

Sugamo, Tokyo
Vendors setting up for the monthly festival – Sugamo, Tokyo

Two Tokyo Museums

JAPAN – TWO TOKYO MUSEUMS

We spent our second full day in Tokyo visiting two of the many museums that can be found throughout Tokyo. First we visited the Ghibli Museum which showcases the famous Studio Ghibli animation house. Displays there featured characters and scenes from their films, as well as an insight into how they are made. There is also a special short film that you can only see at the museum.

After lunch we visited the Yayoi Kusama Museum, featuring the work of Yayoi Kusama who is experiencing a surge in popularity late in her life after some highly popular exhibits in art museums around the world. It was a great experience to see examples of her early work as well as more recent examples in Japan. Both of these museums require some advanced planning to visit as they are small and very popular. Click through to the post for more information on how to get tickets.

Yayoi Kusama Museum

Modern Tokyo

JAPAN – EXPERIENCING MODERN TOKYO

Our last day in Japan was spent experiencing modern Japanese culture in Ikebukuro and Harajuku. We visited the largest Pokemon Center in Japan, a cat cafe and a crazy dining experience at the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku. We did see have one more traditional experience, visiting the Meiji Shrine and marveling at the grand scale of the buildings and grounds.

Floor Show – Kawaii Monster Cafe

Japan Family Travel Tips

Although our blog is more about sharing our experiences than “how to” guides for the places we’ve been, we do have a few tips to share.

Itinerary

Consider starting your trip somewhere other than Tokyo. This could mean flying in to a different city, or taking the train from Narita airport and connecting to a train to Kyoto or some other place. Tokyo can be a bit overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time in Japan. You may get more out of your visit to Tokyo if you leave it until last.

Getting Around

Trains are the best way to get around Japan, and you should get a Japan Rail Pass. If you are staying a week or more and visiting more than one place, it will almost always save you money to use a JR pass – you can enter your itinerary into an online calculator to confirm this. Although you need to buy your JR Pass before you travel to Japan, you generally don’t need to make specific train reservations in advance, unless you are traveling at one of the specific times of year that many Japanese people are traveling (e.g. “Golden Week” around the end of April). It’s actually better to avoid travel to Japan altogether at these times, as accommodation will also be booked up or expensive and sights and attractions will be very busy.

Food

Don’t be afraid to try different types of Japanese food. Japanese cuisine is not usually spicy or strong-flavored, so you’re unlikely to get an unpleasant surprise. Pay attention to prices though, or you may get a different kind of unpleasant surprise. While there are many opportunities to spend a lot of money, there are also plenty of budget options. Conveyer-belt sushi is generally very good quality and cheaper than ordering from a menu (although sitting at a small sushi bar and watching the chef make your sushi to order is a classic Japan experience you should try at least once). Food stalls around temples and attractions are a good source of budget eats. Japanese convenience stores are also a great source of quality budget food, and worth visiting in any case to check out the amazing array of things available there.

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