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Why didn’t I think this through? Reality kicks in

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Something to get excited about, or at least be grateful for

What would you do if you rocked up to this tropical slice of Galapagos paradise with enough cash for a hotel room, a drink and absolutely nothing else? Panic? Or trust life?

I bought my ticket for the boat that would ferry me from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela at 13:55PM, ran to the marina and made it with a minute to spare. We should have left at 14:00PM, but time ticked by and my breathing returned to normal as we sat bobbing around watching boats load up for inter-island trips.

At this point I should have gone to the cashpoint. I didn’t. But not to worry. There was an ATM on the island of Isabela, supposedly. All good. I could get some out when I got there.

This is where fancy free travel, last minute decisions and lack of research come undone. Of course there wasn’t an ATM.

You don’t take cards?’ I ask Fabricio at Tropical Adventures when I went to book a US$60 tour to visit some volcanic tunnels and craters, ‘Oh, okay… where is the cashpoint’. He looked at me and smiled. ‘No ATMs. There is no a way to get out money in the town. Well, maybe it’s possible’.

Together with an older couple I took to the streets of Puerto Villamil, the main habitation on Isla Isabela. They needed money too, and they needed me. Their Spanish was terrible. I should have charged for my time, been entrepreneurial. I needed the money.

Our first stop at a minimarket proved fruitless, only accepting cards from Banco de Guayaquil or American Express. They sent us on to Hotel Albermarle. Why? Who knows. Maybe because the woman there spoke English.

There is no ATM on Isabela, no way to get cash out ‘, she said, ‘but you could try MoneyGram or Western Union’. Both instant money transfers carried hefty fees but to regain my independence and address my complete helplessness it was going to have to happen.

I tried to do a money transfer but it was declined, possibly because I tried to send money to myself. Maybe, however, it was because a few days earlier the fraud squad at my bank picked up that my card may have been copied in Bolivia and had since placed restrictions on my account. Oh travelling, oh South America. Either way, it wasn’t happening.

I stopped for a moment and thought about my options. I didn’t even have enough cash to leave the island the following day, let alone stay another night, take tours and see the place. How totally silly.

I did what I never wanted to do. I emailed my dad to bail me out. Oh, the shame.

Next I went to cancel my place on the tour before joining a Swede and a French guy for dinner. ‘What would you like?’ asked the waiter. I’d studied the menu and my mind. ‘Just a small beer’, I told him. It was cheaper than a juice and would leave me with 20 cents. Let the alcohol numb my frustration. I watched the other guys tuck into seafood feasts.

Back in my hotel room I was so glad I’d brought along yesterday’s leftover pasta. With no cutlery I squeeze-ate it out of its plastic storage bag. The height of glamour. Dessert was a packet of Oreos that had been squished in my bag for a week or so, but let’s keep things in perspective, at least I had dessert. A little bit of luxury.

I spent a restless night wondering how I was going to get out of this mess, whether the transfer would work, and the next morning I Skyped with my family. After an extended process including phone calls to India and the US, £300 with a £25 fee was transferred to Ecuador. But I still didn’t physically have the money and I wasn’t confident that I’d get my hands on it.

MoneyGram in Puerto Villamil was situated in a convenience store where, typically, the cashier was out on business when I showed up. I’d have to return in an hour or come back later in the day.

But wait a minute! Fabricio at Tropical Adventures had done me a huge favour when I’d tried to scrub my name off the tour list the previous night. ‘Don’t cancel’, he said, ‘I’ll see you at 08:30AM, okay?

I had a few minutes to make up my mind. In a predicament where I wasn’t confident that I could get the money but where there was definite potential for a withdrawal later in the day, would I gamble and go on the trip?

Hell yeah! Trust life, trust it will work out.

It did.

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Filed under activity & sport, costs/money, ecuador, nature, random, sailing, south america, tours, travel

Bussing about Ecuador

There doesn’t seem to be a central database for bus travel in Ecuador and I found it difficult when researching times and costs and journey duration, so here’s a rough guide of some of the journeys that I took, just in case it’s some help to somebody out there:

Quito to Otavalo, 2 hours, $2. Get a bus – there are many companies – from Terminal Terrestre in the north of Quito. Check whether the bus drops you in the town’s terminal or on the Pan American highway (the walk into town for the latter option isn’t too bad).

Quito to Atacames, 7 hours, $9 with Trans Esmeraldas. The bus does go from Quitumbe but only twice a day, it’s better to get a bus from their terminal in La Mariscal where there are frequent departures. (I went with Trans Esmeraldas from Quitumbe to Emeraldas and then onwards to Atacames – it’s another option but considerably longer and much more hassle). The air conditioning doesn’t always work and heading up to the north coast means that you should expect increasing heat and humidity.

Quito to Baños, 3 ½ hours, $3.50. Catch the bus in Quitumbe, Quito’s south terminal. Buses are frequent.

Baños to Puyo, 2 hours, $2. A few bus companies do this route and it is a regular service.

Puyo to Riobamba, 3 hours, $3. There are frequent buses from the main terminal.

Riobamba to Cuenca, 6 hour, $6. There are about five buses during the daytime from the main terminal. Be early! – I was on time but the bus had left ten minutes before its scheduled departure. I ended up in a taxi chasing it to its next stop.

Cuenca to Loja, 5 hours, $7. There are frequent buses from the main terminal.

Loja to Vilcabamba, 1 hour, $1.25 with Vilcabamba Turis, a smaller bus with really frequent services running until 9:30pm.

Loja, Ecuador to Piura, Peru. 8 hours, $8. There are two day time buses (07:00am, 13:00pm) and one night bus with Loja International. I took the overnight bus, a comfy and modern bus by Ecuadorian standards which set off at 11:00pm, arrived at the Ecuador/Peru border around 03:30am and into Piura just after 06:30am. The bus drops everyone off with the Ecuador border officials to get exit stamps. The bridge crossing is done on foot to reach Peru immigration. Once your passport is stamped and you have an Andean immigration slip, you can board the bus again (it will have driven across to meet you).

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Cost of backpacking Ecuador

Ecuador is not known for being the cheapest Latin American country to travel in, but compared to European prices you can still travel comfortably on a budget. If anything, the flight over to Ecuador is the most expensive part. 

I found some things to be very good value, like the public transport (although bus travel down south crept up in price) whilst trips to the Galapagos and food  in more touristy areas like La Mariscal in Quito could feel steep. Some  hostels and hotels charged prices similar to back home in the UK but cheaper options are easy  to find if you do just a little searching. Here’s an idea of some costs from autumn 2011:

  US$ UK £
Water (1.5 litre bottle) $0.60 £0.38
Hostel dorm bed (often B&B) $7-$12 £4.39- £7.53
Meal: almuerzo (inc. Drink) $2.50-$4 £1.57-£2.51
Meal: menu dishes $6-$15 £3.77-£9.42
Taxi across town $2-$4 £1.26-£2.51
Taxi to bus terminals $8-$12 £5.02-£7.53
Bus about town (i.e. Trolle bus in Quito) $0.25 £0.16
Bus travel  (per hour) $1 £0.63

Travelling solo ends up costing considerably more, not so much for accommodation (so long as you’re happy sleeping in dorms) but more in terms of getting taxis to bus terminals. In Quito this is especially the case where the majority of buses leave from Terminal Quitumbe (south) and Terminal Carcelén/Terminal Terrestre (north), both a good half hour drive away from the main hostel areas ($10 or thereabouts). 

I’ve found checking into a hostel with a kitchen, doing a supermarket shop and then cooking for myself is a good way to stick to a budget in more expensive areas.

*prices and conversions correct as of 10/11/2011 using a conversion rate of £1.00 = $1.59/ $1.00 = £0.63 from XE.com. Ecuador have used the US dollar as their official currency since 2000.

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Filed under costs/money, ecuador, solo travel, south america, travel