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Friday, March 15, 2019

Ecuador, So Much More Than the Galapagos! Last Stop, Mindo

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches

One last outing from Quito to describe: the Mindo Cloud Forest, a premier destination for outdoor adventure. Although relatively small in size, the Ecuador cloud forest is considered one of the top biodiversity hot spots, containing approximately 15 to 17% of the world's plant species and nearly 20% of its bird species.
 
Led by our guide, Antonio Jaramillo, who runs a company called Wild Ecuador, we ventured 2 hours northwest of Quito to Mindo. This outing is best started in the very early morning to get the optimum weather in the cloud forest and the chance to do the most -- we did not understand this fact, and had it scheduled for an afternoon visit. My loss is the reader's gain.
 
While it is possible to visit Mindo as a day trip, spend at least one night to enjoy bird watching, hiking, butterflies, chocolate making, orchids, and adventure activities (tubing and rafting in rivers, ziplining over ravines, waterfall rappelling). Antonio is an expert birder -- there are 1680 total bird species in Ecuador, and he has 1125 on his life list! Mindo itself is home to over 450 species. After we rode a chairlift high above the clouds, we really enjoyed sitting with him drinking a local beer at Sachatamia Lodge (which provides a link to all local service providers), while he named the birds we were seeing. Sachatamia is a rustic wood hotel with 13 comfortable rooms and a pool; I would have been happy there. There are many other options for overnight as well, plus places in the small town to grab food and beverage. Plan ahead and participate in more of the available fun.
 
Thanks to Brandi at Kensington Tours for connecting me with Antonio for this part of the trip. His expertise made it special. 
 
In general, Ecuador has 3 geographical regions beyond the Galapagos: the Coast, the Highland areas (including Quito and environs), and the Amazon (for example, Tena). Did you know that most of the roses in the US and Canada come from Ecuador's Highlands? Make sure to explore as many areas as you can. Please contact ActiveTravels for advice and assistance. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/15/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Ecuador, So Much More Than the Galapagos! A Stop at Cotopaxi

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches

On a Saturday morning in late February, my daughter and I set off for a weekend of outdoor fun in Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, home to Ecuador's second-highest peak, about two hours southeast from Quito. This park's namesake, the enormous 19,000-foot stratovolcano Cotopaxi, has, since 1738, erupted more than 50 times, resulting in the creation of numerous valleys. The last eruption lasted from August 2015 to January 2016.
 
Our base for 2 days was the Chilcabamba Mountain Lodge, a recommended rustic hotel described as "cozy, unpretentious and charming." We loved it! Bear in mind, no one at the lodge spoke English, they are all from Cotopaxi and the surrounding area, so Sophie's presence as Spanish translator was vital. The food and views were good, and we really liked our room, equipped with a warming stove, wool ponchos and thick duvets. We didn't get to make S'mores at the outdoor firepit, but we did enjoy the complimentary Canelazo (a warm Ecuadorian drink concocted from sugar cane alcohol, boiled water, cinnamon, sugar, and local citrus fruit or blackberry). Chilcabamba is at 3480 metres (11,400 feet), and I suggest taking altitude sickness-prevention medicine if you visit (you can get from a travel medicine doctor ahead of time). 
 
From Chilcabamba, we enjoyed two main activities, and wished we had had time for two others:
  • Inside the Park, near the Tambopaxi Lodge, we got our horses and rode for a few hours across grassy and rocky terrain, with our guide. Unforgettable!
  • Also inside the Park, we walked around the Laguna Limpiopungo, watching a herd of wild horses, and newborn colt, graze nearby. 
  • Stargazing in Ecuador is purported to be amazing -- not only are you away from light pollution in many of these natural areas, but you are at a high altitude, and, the closer you are to the equator, you can see both Northern and Southern Hemisphere constellations, perfect for the growing field of Astrotourism. It was too cloudy for us.
  • Unfortunately, we did not get to trek to the base camp on Cotopaxi, an outlook at an elevation of 4,864 metres (almost 16,000 feet). Our guide had worked for 7 years at the base camp, the José F. Ribas Refuge, which is a 40 to 80 minute uphill hike from the car park. Here, climbers can spend the night and begin their summit bid. Mountain biking is also available from the Refuge. 
Tomorrow, the Mindo Cloud Forest, a premier destination for birdwatching, hiking, butterflies, chocolate, and adventure activities (tubing, ziplining, rafting, waterfall rappelling), just two hours from Quito. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/14/19 at 06:00 AM
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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Ecuador, So Much More Than the Galapagos! A Visit to Otavalo

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches

Approximately two hours north of Quito lies Otavalo, world-famous for its indigenous population, and for the Mercado Artesanal, where locals sell their handicrafts. It's South America's largest outdoor market, and you will find a wide range of weavings, jewelry, clothes, wood and stone carvings, paintings, and more. Although Saturday is the main market day, and the whole town is filled with stalls, there is plenty open at Plaza de Ponchos on any given day. I went on a Wednesday, and, believe me, there was A LOT to see (and buy). Ecuador uses the US dollar as the official currency, but small bills are what's taken (nothing larger than $20). 
 
After visiting the market, we went to lunch at Hacienda Pinsaqui, built in 1790. Lunch is the major meal of the day in Ecuador--usually soup, a full main plate of meat, vegetables, bread, rice, and dessert. Most restaurants close by 7 pm and dinner is not a big deal. At Pinsaqui, we enjoyed a lovely meal in an historic setting. The Hacienda contains more than three centuries of history. At one point, it was the largest in the area, essentially enslaving 1000 indigenous workers who created products for export to the US. Another time, it sheltered Simón Bolívar who prepared here for the Battle of Ibarra (1823) against the Spanish. 
 
Our Otavalo day also included two more highlights:
  • A visit to the traditional weaving studio of Miguel Andrago. If you are looking for handmade, traditional weaving, go directly to this home and workshop just 10 minutes outside of Otavalo. The Andrago family (four generations working together) is preserving backstrap weaving without the use of electricity or chemicals (all natural dyes), trying to save "this vanishing art." They do not sell their beautiful items at the Otavalo market, only at their studio. My daughter was so intrigued that she asked if she could come back and learn their techniques: Of course! For only $35 US, she can spend a day there. 
  • Peguche Waterfall is situated in a small park close to Otavalo. It is considered a sacred place in Kichwa religion, where purification is held before the Inti Raymi celebrations each June. We enjoyed the short hike to the Falls, and getting as close as possible, feeling the mist. 
Thanks to Brandi at Kensington Tours for the introduction to Hacienda Pinsaqui and Miguel Andrago. Tomorrow, onto the mountains, and the famous active volcano, Cotopaxi.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/13/19 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Ecuador, So Much More Than the Galapagos! Great Activities Within an Hour of Quito

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches

To reinforce yesterday's recommendation to add at least 3 or 4 days to a Galapagos trip in the highlands region of Ecuador, here are three wonderful activities I did just outside of Quito. 
 
Definitely don't miss the ½ hour side-trip to the base of the Teleferico Gondola. The view, as you ascend the east side of the Pichincha Volcano to lookout point Cruz Loma, reveals a unique landscape of the city and the opportunity to travel more than 8,000 feet in less than 20 minutes. Once there, you can spend a few hours or a few days! Options abound: hiking to the summit of Pichincha, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, and even paragliding. Of course, you could just sit with a picnic and take in the vista, including the world's highest Catholic Church. I loved swinging on the giant swing.
 
Another lovely place for outdoor activity is the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, less than an hour's drive from downtown Quito. Lush green farmland has developed in the crater of the inactive volcano, the only such agricultural area in the world (growing maize, beans, potatoes, vegetables, alfalfa, and more, for 500 years). Side note: In Ecuador, there are 18 varieties of bananas, 137 varieties of corn, and 300 varieties of potatoes! From the top of Pululahua, you can take it in, or, if so inclined, hike down. Horseback riding, hiking, birding, and mountain biking are the most popular activities inside the volcano trails. There's even an ecolodge using renewable energy inside the 2500 year-old crater.
 
And, of course, you can't go to Ecuador without straddling the equator. There are not one, but two competing equator sites close to Quito. Most people apparently know that Mitad del Mundo's equator line is a bit off. Intiñan Solar Museum has its own marker, which is closer to the right spot. It's hard to know if either is 100% accurate, but locals claim that Intiñan is more "real." They are only a few hundred yards from one another, so you can easily see both sites. Interestingly, science experiments like the Coriolis effect (where water swirls down a drain clockwise on one side of the equator, and counter-clockwise on the other) work at both.
 
Tomorrow, Otavalo, South America's most famous market, where indigenous locals come from the surrounding villages to sell their colorful handicrafts and produce. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/12/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, March 11, 2019

Ecuador, So Much More Than The Galapagos! First Stop, Quito

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches

Last month, I left Toronto bound for Quito, Ecuador, to visit my daughter Sophie who is there for a university semester abroad. She is living with an Ecuadorian family, taking intensive Spanish classes (as well as classes on Ecuadorian culture and in creative writing), doing community service, and working on an independent study about Ecuadorian gender roles and early childhood education. I had a terrific week in Quito and the surrounding area. Quito is the capital of Ecuador, with a population nearing three million, and it sits at an elevation of 9,350 feet. Founded by the Spanish in 1534, on the ruins of an Inca city, the historic center (or "Colonial Quito") is one of the largest, best-preserved in the Americas, the reason why it's now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Spread along the slopes of the Pichincha volcano and bordered by the hills of Panecillo and Itchimbia, the vistas on a clear day are impressive! 
 
There is no shortage of interesting things to see and do in this large city. Some highlights:
  • Colonial Quito: Here, you shouldn't miss touring churches, plazas, and small winding streets. I enjoyed the Basilica del Voto Nacional, where we climbed the bell tower; the Plaza Grande (Plaza de la Independencia); and strolling on Calle La Ronda, where shops and cafes line the cobblestones.
  • Lunch at the Mercado Central: Definitely go here if you like to try authentic local food. My "hornado, tortillas y mote" with a whole avocado on the side was $3.25 deliciously spent.
  • The Mariscal neighborhood includes Plaza Foch, the party place in Quito: The surrounding blocks have many, many restaurants, cafes, bars, and clubs. Also here is the fascinating Mindalae Museum, an ethno-historical craft museum that explores the arts and practices of Ecuador's indigenous people. 
  • Parks: There are several oases of green in the city. The one I spent time walking through was Parque Carolina. It has a running track, a skate park, soccer fields, and a botanical garden, reminiscent of NYC's Central Park.
  • The enormous Virgen del Panecillo: This Winged Virgin Mary is 135 feet high, the tallest statue in Ecuador and one of the highest in South America, surpassing even the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Built in the 1970s, you can climb quite far up for wonderful views.  
I would heartily recommend adding 3 to 4 days in Quito to any Galapagos itinerary to experience the highlands region of Ecuador. A special thanks to my Quito guide Daniel Muscarel from MuFi Tours. Tomorrow, great activities within an hour of Quito!
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/11/19 at 05:59 AM
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Friday, March 08, 2019

How Travel Advisors Get Paid

We're a membership-based travel agency. Join ActiveTravels and pay the $60 yearly fee and you'll receive our monthly newsletters, be enrolled for hotel giveaways, and most importantly, have someone to help with planning and be of service if something should go wrong during travels. Once you join, you fill out a travel questionnaire that helps us custom-design your trip based on your likes and dislikes about traveling. We receive our commissions directly from the tour operators, hotels, cruise lines, etc. that we work with around the globe. You don't pay extra. We simply receive our 10 to 15% cut by sending them business. There are exceptions to this rule. First, airlines only pay commissions on business class seats. So we need to charge you $50 for flight for ticketing. Second, we design a slew of independent itineraries all over America, Europe, and beyond. I just finished designing a 4-month trip to South America for a couple who took a year sabbatical. This includes all logistics-planes, trains, buses, hotels, guides, even a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. This takes a lot of time and often includes small inns or boutique hotels that don't pay commission. So we have to charge the client directly depending on the number of days. But a typical weeklong independent itinerary fee costs $500-$700. 

It's been fun talking about my profession this week. Thanks for reading. Next week, Amy will be back to discuss her recent trip to Ecuador. Have a great weekend and keep active! 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/08/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, March 07, 2019

How A Travel Advisor Helps Design an Authentic Travel Experience

As a young travel writer, working as a Contributing Editor at Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, I would regularly meet Arthur Frommer in his office in midtown Manhattan. I would come prepared, ready to pitch my 3 to 4 story angles on a sheet of paper and the legendary writer, who made his name penning "Europe on 5 Dollars A Day" in 1957, would politely listen and shoot down every one of my ideas. He then would come up with his own suggestions: "Steve, why don't you do a story on the Caribbean islands that are rarely affected by hurricanes, like the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao?" One of those story ideas I would return to again and again in my travel writing career and, in fact, became the cornerstone of our beliefs when we opened our travel agency, ActiveTravels, 7 years ago. Arthur said to me, "Steve, these big-name American travel companies like National Geographic Expeditions are hiring smaller outfitters to run their trips in each of the countries they visit. Find the best small local ground operator in a dozen countries and pen a story on them. This way, you eliminate the middleman and save a bundle." 

 
Working as a travel writer since 1990, I've had the good fortune to visit close to 100 countries, 46 American states (still missing Iowa, Alabama, Oklahoma, and South Dakota), and 9 out of 10 Canadian provinces (need to get to Saskatchewan). This has given me a wealth of knowledge to help design routes for clients when they travel. But let's be realistic. Even if I've traveled to the African continent 7 times, I'm no expert. In fact, I've barely scraped the surface. And what about those countries still on my Bucket List, like Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Uganda. It's simply unrealistic for any travel agency to have expertise on all countries. That's why we rely on local contacts we've made around the globe, these small tour operators Arthur Frommer first introduced me to so many years ago. They live locally, know every nook and cranny of their country like I know every nook and cranny of the Northeastern US, and they have become invaluable in our profession in creating an authentic itinerary that only a local could know. These include a New Zealander who designs detailed self-guided driving itineraries to his favorite sites and B&Bs on the South Island, a naturalist in Sumatra that will help locate the native orangutans, an art historian in Rome who will take you behind the scenes to talk about Caravaggio, and a Ecuadorean yacht owner who takes small, select groups to visit the Galapagos Islands on weeklong cruises. Whenever one of our clients returns with rave reviews for a local outfitter or guide, we add them to a growing list. That's how we find the perfect person to custom-design your itineraries based on your desires. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/07/19 at 06:00 AM
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Wednesday, March 06, 2019

How a Travel Advisor Helps With Hotel Bookings

In a story I wrote for The Boston Globe on "The Key to Getting a Better Hotel Room," I interviewed Jacob Tomsky, author of the best-selling Heads in Beds (Doubleday). Tomsky, 35, spent a decade in the hotel industry, seven of those years manning the front desk at an upscale midtown Manhattan hotel. I asked him is it better to book a room via a travel agent than to reserve through websites like Hotels.com or Priceline? His response: "From a business standpoint, people who book through third-party travel sites are looking for a discount. The likelihood that they'll return to your hotel is close to nil. So discount reservations are our last priority. They're the ones we put next to the elevator." It also doesn't help that these online travel agents or OTAs are reaping exorbitant finder fees from lodgings, up to 25 percent of cost per room from independent properties, compared to the average 10 percent commission for travel agents.

Hotels respond most favorably to repeat business. If a property like Relais Christine in Paris knows I call them first when booking my clients in that city, they will respond by giving our client the best service and room. Also, a good travel agent knows to call the hotel 2 to 3 days before you arrive to speak to the general manager or director of sales and "VIP the client." It's a business of people serving people. The more you can connect with the hotel, the better your stay. If this is your first time in Paris in 10 years and you only represent yourself, realize you don't have the same leverage as 50 bookings a year at the same property. If you're booking a 4 or 5-star property on your own, you're also missing out on hotels sweetening the pot during your stay. ActiveTravels is aligned with the travel consortium, Virtuoso. When booking one of the upscale properties in that network, we can offer free upgrades, complimentary spa services and breakfasts. 
 
Then comes the research that goes into finding that dream hotel. Google "Italian villas" and you'll see over 59 million results. Have fun with that research. That number will surely increase with the deluge of travel content. In fact, travel advisors have even coined a phrase for the client who spends far too much time researching on his computer, "analysis paralysis." The whole scene is reminiscent of the financial sector a decade ago when investors were enamored with the $10 E-trade. Why use a financial advisor when I can trade on my own? Well, because you don't want to spend a good chunk of your life micromanaging your investments. Today's travelers want someone with expertise to give their stamp of approval, having personally stayed in these lodgings or having known clientele who have stayed there. Thankfully, travel agents no longer sit behind their desks all day researching a trip from afar. They're often on the road gaining valuable expertise by visiting those hotels. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/06/19 at 06:00 AM
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Tuesday, March 05, 2019

How a Travel Advisor Helps with Flight Delays

Last week, we had three clients miss their flight connections and one ActiveTravels member break his clavicle and ribs on a motorcycle accident in Phuket, Thailand. Before our clients even got off their planes, they were rebooked and ready to go on the next available flight. No standing in line for hours at the customer service desk with all the other passengers. The man with the broken bones is still healing in a hospital, but we were able to cancel and reschedule his first-class flight with a slight change fee. In this Do-It-Yourself World, you're led to believe that you can easily book travel on your own. That's certainly true, but when a mishap happens, which is inevitable when you travel, it's good to have someone working on your behalf while you're still on a plane with no WiFi. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/05/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, March 04, 2019

Your Flight is Cancelled: What To Do Next

We arrived around 10 am at the Bangkok Airport with more than enough time to catch our first flight that day to Hong Kong, which would then connect to our Boston flight home. We checked the Cathay Pacific website before we left the hotel and our first flight was on time, as scheduled. But unfortunately, that wasn't the case. We were told at airport check-in that our first flight had technical problems and would be delayed. There was no way we could make the connecting flight in Hong Kong and the next flight from Hong Kong to Boston would be exactly 24 hours later. Uggh.

Travel overseas, especially on a connecting flight and this same scenario is very likely to happen to you. You can jump up and down, pout, and say life's not fair, or you can take a deep breath, pause, and try to get yourself home as quickly as possible in a relatively comfortable manner. We were lucky to have a great person at the Cathay Pacific desk in Bangkok working on our behalf. First and foremost, when an airline cancels or delays a flight due to technical problems, they are under contract to get you to your destination on any airline, not just the airline you booked. Cathay Pacific understood this and led us over to the British Airways check-in to try and catch the flight to Heathrow and on to Logan, but it was too late to get on the flight. He then brought up two other options, fly Lufthansa 11 hours later that day, connecting in Frankfurt, or fly Emirates through Dubai at 8 pm, arriving in Dubai at 1 am. We would then wait at the Dubai Airport until the 8 am flight to Boston the next morning. Neither was particularly appealing. 
 
This is when you consult Google Flights or Kayak to ensure they are offering all options. Our son, Jake, found a 4 pm flight to Dubai on Emirates, which would get us into Dubai at 9 pm. Could they put us up in a hotel in Dubai that night so we could get a good night's sleep before the 8 am flight to Boston the next morning? At first, the Cathay Pacific rep hemmed and hawed, but then agreed to get us on this flight and purchase the hotel room for the night. When we arrived in Dubai later that day, we realized he went one step further. An escort met us upon arrival and led us to an in-transit hotel located smack dab inside the Dubai airport. We didn't need to go through Customs or even go through security again the next morning. All we did was wake up and walk to our gate. But none of this would have happened unless we first did our research, found the earlier flight, and asked for the night's hotel. So if you're ever in this same situation, remember to relax, do the flight research quickly, and be assertive.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/04/19 at 06:00 AM
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Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk.

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