The Trail to Las Grietas

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The view in the direction of Las Grietas

Las Grietas is one of the few hikes you can do directly from Puerto Ayora, taking you from the town to a narrow canyon where you can snorkel. On our second day in town, we took a ferry across the bay to the start of the trail. It’s a five-minute ride that takes you less than half a mile, but the atmosphere is a world away. Once you get away from the ferry dropoff point, the noise of boat motors dies away and it’s quiet. There’s no sound of vehicles, or bustling crowds. Just the occasional chirp of birds.

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The population on this side of the bay is sparse, isolated, and fairly wealthy

The path from the ferry to Las Grietas started as asphalt but then gave way to sand. We passed private houses and hotels, with high walls and locked gates. The wealthiest people live and stay on this side of the bay, where there are no roads and no stores. After the the homes came a boardwalk and Finch Bay, a beach of white sand and clear aquamarine water flanked on either side by mangroves. Snorkelers dotted the water here, while others sunbathed on the sand.

Past Finch Bay was the official start of the Las Grietas trail, marked with a wooden sign. We left the shade of trees to and emerged next to a salt flat, evidence that work still does exist outside of tourism here, however rare it may be. Rectangular pools of water lay drying in the sun, ringed by crystals of pinkish white salt. Though no one seemed to be tending the flat, a man at a kiosk nearby waved us over and placed a pinch of salt crystals in our hands. I sampled one of the crystals and found it salty, slightly metallic and tangy. It tasted like the sea.

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The salt flats on the trail to Las Grietas
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The salmon-colored water of the salt flats is likely caused by halophilic bacteria, similar to those found in the Rainbow Hot Springs in Yellowstone

The landscape was more arid from here, dotted with leafless shrubs and towerting Opuntia cactuses. We walked along packed red earth and over wooden bridges past marshes and rocky volcanic terrain under. The midday sun bore down intensely. The landscape was flat, then became slightly hill, and finally climbed gently to the top of a cliff. This was the edge of Las Grietas.

After registering with the rangers on duty (rangers are an omnipresence here in the Galapagos), we climbed down the wooden stairs into the canyon. It was blissfully shaded, and we wasted no time stashing our packs and clothes among the rocks and jumping in the water. The water itself was cool and refreshing, a mix of fresh and seawater so clear that I could see the bottom of the canyon, thirty feet down. The occasional parrot fish and mullet swam by, eager to put distance between themselves and us.

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Swimmers at Las Grietas, a narrow volcanic canyon that serves as a great snorkeling and swimming site

We swam to the end of the canyon, then scrambled across slippery rocks into a shallow pool. Though we could have waded in the knee-deep water here, the algae made the rocks dangerously slick, and I found it easier to lay in the shallow water and pull myself along. Sculpins clung to the algae dressed-rocks, scattering was we slid across.Across this pool and another rocky barrier was second deep pool in the canyon, this one teeming with whole schools of mullet and parrot fish.

Stoytcho’s biggest frustration was that he couldn’t see anything. We shared a snorkel and mask between us, a 5$ toy we bought in Mexico. But without glasses, the fish appeared as formless blobs.This didn’t bode well for our snorkeling on the cruise. Luckily, a man with a prescription mask was snorkeling nearby, and offered to let Stoytcho borrow it for a bit. Though the custom mask likely cost more than $100, he let use it without hesitation. It made a world of difference to Stoytcho. We could see all of the fish together, now.

The Galápagos Opuntia

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The Galápagos Opuntia, prickles and all

Plants are underappreciated. I learned this in undergrad, when one of my professors (a botanist) showed a photograph in class and asked students to name all of the living things in it. The students named the animals easily – bear, rabbit, wolf, bird – but failed to point out a single plant in the photograph (for the record, I think there were four). If you want to see this same disregard in action for yourself, type “endangered species” into Google Search or Google Images and scroll through the results. Despite plants comprising nearly half the endangered species in the world (46% as of 2012), there are no plant results on the first page of either search. None. Zero.

In light of this and the fact that plants support nearly all life on Earth, here’s a plant appreciation post. Below is the Galápagos Opuntia (Opuntia echios), a type of prickly pair native only to the Galápagos and listed as vulnerable to extinction:

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A Galápagos Opuntia that’s over 3 meters high. The “trunk” is made of old, dead cactus pads that harden and fuse as the cactus grows.

The Opuntia is amazing for two reasons: it thrives in the harsh Galápagos environment and serves as a source of food for the charismatic fauna people know and love. The Opuntia start out as normal looking cacti, but as they grow their old pads harden and fuse to become a “trunk” for the cactus. They essentially takes the form of a tree, and at over 3 meters tall they are some of the largest plants on the Galápagos. These cacti don’t just survive here, they dominate.

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Spines on the Opuntia’s pads. These don’t always deter local animals.

Their flowers attract birds and flies that pollinate, and the fruit and cactus pads feed land iguanas and giant tortoises in all seasons. Without these sources of food, I’d wager there’d be fewer animals and fewer species here.

And these cacti have a beauty all their own, embeded in the fractal patterns of their skeletons:

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A close-up shot of the dried skeleton from a single cactus pad (like the one above)

Is that not a plant species worth saving?

Travel Update: Chinese Visa Issues

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This is a brief message from the present, where we are currently holed up in Hong Kong at the infamous Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. We came to Hong Kong originally to get visas to mainland China, but after corresponding with a local visa agency, we ran into a problem: we can’t get the visa we want with what we currently have.

Here were our options:

  1. A standard tourist visa, good for at least 30 days and single, double, or multi-entry. Requirements: application, passport photos, copies or proof of ant previous Chinese visas, current passport, and old passport if your current passport was issued in 2015 or later. 
  2. A “group” tourist visa, good only for 30 days and single entry, but we must enter within 15 days of receiving the visa. Requirements: application, passport photos, and current passport.

This left us in a bit of a pickle because we didn’t bring our old passports along for our trip, so option 1 was a no-go. But if we chose option 2, we were committing ourselves to entering China within 15 days, which would make our trip to Japan less than 2 weeks. It was also risky to be on such a tight schedule. Flight delays could result in us arriving after 15 days had passed, invalidating our visa and throwing off our travel plans.

So we opted not to get the visa to mainland China, and we’ll instead hop over to Taiwan for a week or two. I’ll get to practice Mandarin a bit, which is better than not at all (although I will be an illiterate peasant, thanks to my education in simplified characters). From there we will head on to Japan, then fly to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to start the trans-Siberian railway mid-June. It’s a shame we can’t take it from Beijing all the way to Moscow, but I think Ulaanbaatar to Moscow will be plenty of railway for us.

For people looking to get a visa here in Hong Kong to mainland China, here are some details that are current as of May 2017:

  • We have U.S. passports, although from talking with others it sounds like many of the things mentioned in this post apply to all passports that require a visa.
  • We worked with Forever Bright. They were professional and honest throughout the process. Though we ultimately couldn’t get a visa and made no payment to them, they were still willing to help us.
  • If you want a tourist visa and your passport was issued in 2015 or later, you will need to bring your old passport for the visa application process. Forever Bright suggested a copy would work, but I’m not sure if that’s just a copy of the first page or all of the pages of the passport.
  • If you have visited Turkey, it will be an issue and you may not be able to get a visa in Hong Kong, so contact a visa company in advance to find out more. This problem is due to the somewhat strained Chinese-Turkish relations.
  • If you come here to Hong Kong hoping to get a visa to mainland China and failed, you can always drown your sorrows in amazing food. Go out for dim sum at Tim Ho Wan (formerly the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world) or Dim Dim Sum, then relax and repeat.

To the Galápagos

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The landscape of Baltra, with Daphne Major and Minor in the distance

It’s 7 am on New Year’s Day, and we’re just waking up to head to the airport. Outside the streets are empty save for the refuse of last night’s celebrations: scattered confetti, spent fireworks, and the occasional abandoned wig or costume prop. We stand in front of the hotel, waiting for our ride to the airport. Our travel agent, Gabby, arranged to have one of her relatives drive us since there wouldn’t be many taxis today.

“What do we do if he doesn’t show up?” Stoytcho asks me nervously. “We’ll figure something out then. We can always have the hotel call us a cab,” I reply. But Stoytcho’s concerns aren’t unfounded. We’re placing faith in someone we haven’t met, recommended by someone we have known for less than a week. And the biggest celebration of the year happened last night. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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A quiet day at Quito’s airport

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long. Five minutes later our ride pulls up and helps us load everything into the car. Then it’s off to the airport, along empty city streets that widen into equally empty highways. That means no delays in getting to the airport, the blessing of travelling when everyone else is at home with family and/or nursing a hangover.

The airport is also subdued, but plenty of people are queued up and running around, trying to catch flights. Our procedure is slightly different than usual: we have to pay a transit fee and go through a miniature customs for the Galápagos National Park before we can enter the standard security checkpoint. We hand over our $40 in cash at the transit control and receive printed pages that will serve as our transit control cards. Once we have that, we proceed to the miniature customs, where a man hands us a list of food products banned from the Galápagos and asks us whether we have any plant or animal material in our luggage. We don’t, since we had heard about this and threw out most of our food at the hostel, although looking at the list I slightly regret doing that. We could’ve brought our peanut butter.

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A long list of permitted, restricted, and forbidden food products for the Galápagos

Our flight ascends and descends with barely enough time for us to register that we’re on a plane, and we’re at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos. We step off the plane and walk the tarmac toward the terminal, a line of tourists of all shapes and sizes. We enter immigration, plastered with signs reminding you of the park rules: don’t damage plants, don’t take anything, stay at least 2 meters away from all animals, and so on. We’re prompted to pay the $100 per person park entry fee (cash only), then the immigration officer stamps our passports and waves us on. So far, we’ve spent $240 to enter the park alone.

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The last airport bus of the day

Arriving at Seymour Airport isn’t the end of the journey, though. The airport sits on the island of Baltra, and after the last flight each day the island closes. Everyone leaves for their hotels and homes on other islands, primarily on Santa Cruz Island, while the Ecuadorian military enforces the closure, banning anyone from entering Baltra when it’s closed. So camping out to wait for an early morning flight isn’t an option here. Good to know.

We get on the last bus of the day, full of tourists and airport employees going home. Since we’re the last bus, we wait for everyone to get on board. Then we’re puttering across the island toward the coast, past an arid landscape studded with small, leafless tree skeletons. Then it’s past massive wind turbines, their propellers drifting slowly, generating electricity for the island. After that, we pass a few abandoned shacks, alone inhabiting this dusty landscape. Though surreal and beautiful, this unforgiving land hardly looks like one of the richest and most unique environments on the planet. Is there anything living out there?

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Wind turbines in Baltra’s dusty landscape

As if to answer the question, our bus suddenly stops. We’re not sure why at first, but then someone shouts “Iguana!” and we look out the window to spot a meter-long, mango-hued lizard meandering across the road. Immediately we tourists spring into action, pressing against the windows and clicking our camera shutters to capture our first animal sighting in the Galápagos, trying to immortalize the moment, poor angle and terrible lighting be damned. I don’t know if the bus driver needed to stop for as long as he did, but he was kind enough to wait a few extra seconds so we could get our pictures. The locals probably get a kick out of us doing this, since they see these animals daily. The animals are a show for us, and we’re a show for the locals.

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A land iguana crosses the road in front of our bus

It’s near sunset when we reach the ferry that will take us across the narrow channel to Santa Cruz. We climb into the boat while the ferrymen load everyone’s luggage on top. Stoytcho and I have a vested interest in keeping our packs with us: for one, they’re not that heavy, and I imagine them breaking free of friction and sliding off into the depths of the sea. If we get to keep them, it also means we don’t have to wait for the unloading on the other side. We’ll be on the next bus earlier, meaning maybe we can find a bus seat that Stoytcho fits into, though that’s a long shot.

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The ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz

We pay the $1 a person fare for the 10 minute ride and we’re off across the water, where the current is strong but waveless. The ferrymen don’t bother to pass out life jackets though a few people take them of their own accord, and we count 38 passengers with us (a plaque on the boat puts its capacity at 35). So it’s business as usual here, despite increased governmental regulations. The other shore grows closer, and we can see beached boats hiding among the mangrove trees in the dying light. It’s eerie, but beautiful.

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Boats beached among the mangroves on Santa Cruz

On the other side, we leave the ferry and get on another bus, this one taking us from the north end of Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora in the south. Unlike the airport bus, this one isn’t free, and the $2 per person fare for the hour-long ride is the first inkling of how much more expensive thing are on the Galápagos; a ride of similar distance would be about $1 on the mainland. The only other option is a more expensive taxi, so we ride the bus over the darkening landscape. Santa Cruz is a totally different environment, mountainous and thick with greenery. There are occasional houses along the road, ranging from modest shacks to opulent ranch houses. This is an island of life, for both animals and people.

It’s night when we finally arrive in Puerto Ayora, four hours after we disembarked from our flight. The bus drops us off at the pier on the waterfront, where you can catch boats to other islands. We find some cell signal and plot a route to our hostel, in the north-eastern corner of the town known as Barrio El Edén. We’re soon wandering along empty concrete streets, devoid of life except for the occasional dog. At the end of our journey, a hundred meters from our hostel, Google Maps tells us there’s a street where there’s nothing but a steep rocky path with someone’s laundry strung across it. We’re about to turn around when the laundry’s owner comes out from the house next to us. “Best Homestay Hostel?” we ask him, pointing up the rocky path. “Sí, sí!” he gestures up. We duck beneath his laundry and scrabble upward, negotiating the rocks on the dimly-lit path. In seconds, we’re up the hill and in another street, with our hostel in front of us.

“WELCOME NATALIE AND STOYTCHO” is scrawled on a whiteboard out front. Thank goodness, we’re home.

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Our first sunset in the Galápagos

Booking a Last-Minute Galápagos Cruise

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A blue-footed booby along the water in the Galápagos

The Galápagos: a mythical faraway place that conjures up images of pristine beaches and exotic animals, from flitting Darwin’s finches to sunning sea lions. It’s the kind of place you dream of going to someday, maybe once you’ve gotten a more stable job or that raise at work or the time and money and stars align for that perfect anniversary getaway. After all, it’s expensive! This isn’t a place you just decide to visit next week.

That’s how I thought of the Galápagos, even once I learned it was a short flight from Quito. I kept thinking that way when Stoytcho and I entertained the idea of going. We talked about it jokingly, and I told Stoytcho I was pretty sure it wasn’t possible on our budget. But when it became clear we wouldn’t have time to get to Torres del Paine in Chile (partly thanks to our oh so lovely, just-one-more-week stay in Colombia), we began to entertain the idea of visiting the Galápagos more seriously. Just how expensive would a trip out there be, though?

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A sally lightfoot crab in the tidepools

Google searches quickly turned up a host of websites touting last minute Galápagos cruises at “discounted prices”, but with even the cheapest at over $1,000 per person they still seemed pretty pricey. More worryingly, these cheap options were all on small boats with mixed reviews, attributable to two things: cramped living quarters and rough seas. At 6’4″, we were already struggling to cram Stoytcho into tons of places in South America that weren’t built for people his height, from buses to hostel beds. Spending several days hunched over in low ship corridors combined with potential seasickness would not a fun Galápagos journey make. The more comfortable options, the shiny, sleek, azure-sky-and-water luxury cruises still boasted price tags of around $3,000, far out of our price range.

There were some TripAdvisor threads and blog posts that suggested we shop around in Quito or Guayaquil to get cheaper prices, but the thought of running around Quito to visit travel agencies between Christmas and New Year’s sounded awful. So we gave up on the thought of visiting the Galápagos for a while. When we arrived in Quito, our first visit was to the Basílica de Voto Nacional. After visiting, we wandered down one of the streets heading south, meandering our way to El Panecillo, when we noticed a sign in a window proclaiming “Last Minute Galápagos Cruises”. Figuring we could just get a ballpark on what the cost for a last minute cruise was here, I grabbed the handle to the travel agency door and pulled it open.

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Baby Galápagos sea lions on the beach

There are some times in life where you get things because you deserve them, and some times where you get things because maybe you deserved them but also you chanced to meet the right person at the exactly right time. This was a case of the latter. The travel agent behind the door was Gabby Segova (of Ecuador Family Tours), and she spent the time between December 26 and New Years’ Day working with us to book our dream cruise. She was a one-woman powerhouse, walking us through the prices and itineraries of all the available trips, negotiating prices with cruise companies, and finally booking the cruise. And the whole time, she was the most cheerfully delightful person to work with.

In the end, we opted for the ultimate dream cruise–the Santa Cruz II, one of the highest-rated luxury cruises in the Galápagos. Complete with small-group guided tours, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, two onboard hot tubs, roll stabilizers to protect against rough seas, and a library (no, REALLY), the Santa Cruz II was a dream come true. The original price was $4,500 per person. The last-minute cruise price online was $3,000 per person. And our price? $1,550 per person.

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A Galápagos penguin swims in front of our cruise boat, the Santa Cruz II

That’s not to say this process was easy. It involved all of my negotiation skills, from persistence and playfulness to doing my detective work. We visited one other agency, to check their prices. We visited the cruise company and asked for their lowest price, just to make sure they couldn’t give us a better deal. We spent three days sweetly asking Gabby to hold out for a better deal from the original last-minute price of $1,750. That was three days of hoping they wouldn’t sell their last few spots, wondering if we were pushing our luck, wondering if it might fall through. And even with the discounted price, this was still 3 weeks of our estimated travel budget, devoured by a tour lasting less than a week. But now that we’ve done it, I can say it was definitely, DEFINITELY worth all of it. During this experience, I created a framework to help us identify our dream cruise. I’m sharing it below, along with some negotiation tips so if you’re dreaming of the Galápagos, you can make that dream a reality.

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One of the giant tortoise species found on the Galápagos

Why a cruise:

Why didn’t we just visit the Galápagos on our own? Excellent question. The Galápagos is a heavily protected national park and visiting without a tour severely limits what you can see. Overnight stays are permitted on only a couple of islands. Similarly, day trips from the main town of Puerto Ayora visit only a subset of locations in the Galápagos. And in most locations, you’re not even allowed on land without a guide as a precaution to minimize tourist damage to the islands. If you visit the Galápagos on a cruise, especially one with a good itinerary, you’re able to see far more of the Galápagos than you would visiting on your own.

Where to look for cruises:

  • Websites – The easiest place to look, but also the place with the least discount. Googling “last minute Galápagos cruise” should return plenty of websites offering spots aboard cruises leaving in the next week or month.
  • Quito/Guayaquil – Local tour agencies in both cities have information on last-minute cruises and their prices. I’m obviously biased toward Gabby, but work with whomever makes you feel the most comfident. Do make sure they know not only boat types and prices, but also the itineraries of the boats-this heavily influences your cruise experience.
  • Puerto Ayora in the Galápagos – The last, last minute place to book a cruise. You can book from an agency (prices were discounted by ~$50-$100 compared to Quito) or by negotiating directly with a boat captain (does not work for luxury cruises). The tradeoff is that staying in Puerto Ayora is expensive compared to the mainland ($30 vs $17 per night for a room, $7 vs $4 per meal), so you risk spending quite a bit of money if you hang around negotiating too long.

What to consider:

  • Itinerary – Decide what you want most out of your cruise. Do you want to do more snorkeling, or walking around on land? Do you really want to visit a certain island? Do you HAVE TO see the tiny, adorable Galápagos penguins? This is where a good tour agent really shines, as s/he will know cruise itineraries, which locations are worthwhile, and which locations you can visit on your own.
  • Price – This is always a huge factor in deciding which cruise to take, but don’t be priced out by what’s listed on websites or first quoted by an agent. Take note of it and hold onto it for later.
  • What it includes – Our cruise included everything except wetsuit rental and soft drinks/alcohol. Others might charge for the snorkel, or for all drinks beyond water, or for bringing your own alcohol. Be sure to ask your tour company what is and isn’t included in the price of your tour.
  • Timing – Like any tourist destination, there are high seasons. These occur in the summer and during Christmas/New Year’s. Part of the reason we got a great deal was because we booked for just after New Year’s, when the number of customers steeply declines. Keep this in mind if you have flexibility in your travel time.
  • Cruise type/ship type – Are you willing to rough it or do you want to be pampered? How much do you want to be pampered? There may be some variation in cruise type and ship size, but we found the following from our last-minute cruise information: budget (often small yachts and sailboats), mid-tier (larger yachts and small ships), and luxury cruises (the largest ships).
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A marine iguana sunning on volcanic rocks

How to get the best price:

  • Do your research – Nothing is a substitute for knowing your stuff. Go to websites, visit travel agents, and figure out what cruises are happening in the next few weeks. Write down the names of the cruises you’re interested in, when they depart, their itineraries, how many spots are left, and the price. Focus on itineraries that you would enjoy the most.
  • Set your “dream price” and “satisfied price” – the dream price is what you would love to have, and satisfied price is what you’d settle for. For example, our dream price for in the above scenario was $1,500 per person, but we decided we’d settle if we could get below $1,600 per person. During this step, don’t be drawn in by anchoring of their previous prices. Set the price to what you would LOVE to pay, the price that would make you jump up and down and shout if you somehow got it.
  • Shop around – It’s time to get down to business and get quotes from multiple places. Visit travel agents, contact the company running the cruise, and even talk to the captain of the boat if you can. Ask for your dream price. See what price they can give you. Use the difference between their quoted prices and your “settle” price to narrow down your list to one or two cruises to pursue.
  • Be persistent and playful – Now that they’ve made your opening bid, it’s time to check in every day and see if they’re willing to lower it. This could get old really fast for the people you’re contacting, and it will if you’re adversarial or unfriendly. Instead, make it a game and be cheerful. Brighten their day and get to know them. And handle their refusal to lower the price with grace, something like “Darn! It was great talking to you anyway. I’ll try again tomorrow.” At best, these people will grow to like you, they’ll work to meet your requested price, and you’re more likely to get your dream cruise. At worst, you’ll have made several people happier. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being playful.

P.S. We weren’t asked or paid to advertise any of the businesses in this article. We just loved our experience.

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Sunset over an island in the Galápagos

BS.AS a Alaska

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

Back when we were in Cahuita, one of the most notable features of our hostel was the Volkswagen minivan parked out front. It had the same homemade feel as the hostel, hand-painted in bright colors and filled to the brim with belongings. It popped against the green of the tropics, a vibrant, living animal come to rest under the shade of the hostel palms. That’s a great transport van for a hostel, I thought.

As the days drifted by, though, it became clear that the van didn’t belong to the hostel. A trio of young twentysomethings from the hostel tended the van like an ill beast. They cleaned it and checked things under the hood. From time to time I heard them start the engine, although I never saw the van go anywhere. And at night after dinner, we saw them retreat to the van for sleep.

Then a few days after we checked in, one of the twentysomethings approached us and asked if we wanted to buy some banana bread. She was cheerful and friendly, crowned with dreadlocks and accented with a slightly lispy form of Spanish that we struggled to understand. We asked why she was selling the bread. “To pay for gas,” she replied. “Do you need help getting somewhere? Maybe we know someone who can give you a ride,” we said. “No, it’s ok,” she shook her head politely, “We’re driving to Alahka.” “Sorry, where?” I listened harder to understand. She repeated herself, “Alahka. Alahska.”

Alaska.

It turns out that these twentysomethings were driving from Buenos Aires to Alaska. Six months ago, they had purchased a Volkswagen minibus, kitted it out with a sleeping area and pop out kitchenette, and started the drive. They parked and slept where they could, trading labor at hostels for the use kitchens and restrooms. They did odd jobs and sold what they could to get gas money. Currently, that consisted of banana bread made in our hostel’s kitchen and stickers they made to promote the trip. When we met them, they were estimating it would take a year and a half to drive up and another year and a half to drive back—a trip of three full years.

According to Google Maps, Alaska is 6,575 miles (10,582 kilometers) from Cahuita, Costa Rica. This distance encompasses six countries, countless stretches of empty road, and at least seven border checkpoints. I wasn’t terribly worried for them driving through dangerous parts Honduras or Mexico, though—they could clearly take care of themselves. The place I was most worried for them was the Mexican-U.S. border, or specifically, how in hell they were going to get across that border. I tried asking the woman selling banana bread about whether they had U.S. visas: she said they didn’t.

Getting a U.S. visa, even a tourist visa (B1/B2), isn’t a trivial task. Because Argentina isn’t on the visa exemption list, the three of them definitely need visas. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure how much work it took, but doing some research revealed that the application takes around $140 USD, an interview at the embassy in Argentina, and several weeks. That doesn’t guarantee you a visa, either: the U.S. government can choose to reject you if they consider you either a security risk or they think you’ll break the law or overstay your visa. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government makes it very hard to enter the United States.

In previous years, I think they would have had a good shot at a visa, though apparently it’s always been difficult.  But every new visa restriction put in place by the Trump administration makes it seem less likely. It’s true that these restrictions are mostly on visa programs for refugees and long term migrants. But I don’t think it will be long before the administration starts cracking down on tourist visas under the pretense of protecting us.

Which always raises the question for me, “Protecting us from what?” The main response I’ve heard to this is terrorists and terrorism, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In the last 15 years, only 2 out of every 10 convicted terrorists is an immigrant; the remaining 8 were citizens born in the United States. And looking at all crime, immigrants that are not U.S. citizens (both legal and illegal) are less likely to commit crimes than native U.S. citizens. If we took at 1,000 people currently imprisoned for crimes, only 60 of them would be immigrants. Of these 60 imprisoned immigrants, 40 would be convicted of immigration-related offenses (like entering the country illegally). Only 1 of these 60 people would be imprisoned for violent crime; that’s 1 in 1,000 people imprisoned overall. If we want to prevent terrorism and violence in the U.S., shouldn’t we be using our limited resources to address 80% of terrorists and the 94% percent of crime committed by U.S. citizens? Are the crimes and victims of crimes committed by U.S. citizens somehow less important, less deserving of respect and resources? And while the argument is often about what we do or don’t gain by keeping immigrants out, what about the things we lose by excluding them? What about their creativity, their ideas, and the wealth they create?

I have no idea what will happen to those Argentinean artists bound for Alaska. Maybe they’ll make it. Or maybe they’ll run out of money or a vehicle breakdown will end their journey. I just hope that it doesn’t end because of overly-strict immigration laws at the U.S. border.

P.S.: I’m incredibly curious to know what applying for a U.S. visa is like. If you have a story of applying for a U.S. visa (either success or failure), comment or send me a message.

Some tips on Quito’s Metrobuses

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A map of Quito’s Metrobus system

While we were in Quito, we took Metrobuses everywhere. The MetrobusQ system is easy to navigate, since it’s an official city system and not a collection of collectivos. It’s also fast because buses have their own dedicated lane on most streets, freeing them from the usual traffic snarls in rush hour. And it’s cheap–while a taxi costs $2.00 to cover a few kilometers, the bus costs $0.25 per ride regardless of distance (as of December 2016). Since the Metrobus system is so awesome, below are 3 tips to help you get started using it:

  1. Quito’s Metrobus lines are on Google Maps: This makes trip planning on the metro system super easy. Just go to Google Maps and type in your destination, then select the public transportation option.
  2. The official bus lines mostly travel north or south: Quito is a narrow city that stretches north(ish) and south(ish) because it’s situated between mountains. Bus lines primarily travel on major streets along this long north-south axis. This means it can be difficult to head east or west using the Metrobus. You’re better off walking or catching a cab in these cases, unless you can figure out the less formal bus routes.
  3. Riding a bus across the city takes 2 hours: A route from the southernmost stop for buses (Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe) to the northernmost stop (Terminal Terrestre Carcelén) takes 2 hours, while riding a bus from the Mariscal Sucre/Plaza Foch area to either of these places takes about 1 hour.

Happy traveling!

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Posing with my favorite Metrobus station. Seriously, say the name out loud and try not to smile. It’s SO HAPPY!