Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Immediately upon arrival in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galápagos, I spent two hours inquiring at every single agency down the main thoroughfare. I beat my previous time, found a reasonable price and a desirable itinerary, played hardball and negotiated a better deal, and I did it all entirely in Spanish. Allow me to toot my own horn here, cause I’m a little proud of myself!
What previous time? Well, the three hours I spent in Ushuaia arranging a last-minute cruise to Antarctica 10 years ago. This time, it’s a last-minute cruise around the Galápagos, a place I would have loved to visit 10 years ago but didn’t have the budget for, naturally, after that rather large expenditure.
So. While I wait for departure, what now? After all, in the Galápagos, it’s all about seeing the animals here, and that can seem somewhat inaccessible.
Cartagena and San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia
There’s a whole lot to unpack in Cartagena. If you’re coming from the bus terminal, nearly one hour away from the city centre, you’ll pass through what most locals probably see: sprawl, traffic, markets, and your average non-descript Caribbean living situation. Honestly, parts of it reminded me of Guyana.
If you’re coming from the airport like I was (because bussing from Medellín would’ve taken 15 hours), you’ll see affluent suburbs. Follow the road and hug the coastline, and you’ll end up in Bocagrande, a neighbourhood of ritzy hotels (and only hotels) and some city beaches along a narrow peninsula. Seen from afar, you might be reminded of Miami like I was.
If you take a boat tour or come from a cruise, you’ll probably have visited or passed by the white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, with the downside of crowds and touts trying to rip you off for a beach chair, umbrella, drinks, and food. That too sounds a little familiar.
Those are all options though. What everyone comes to Cartagena for are the city walls, the colourful houses and balconies, the sense of being transported to another place… and another time.
Medellín and Guatapé, Colombia
Medellín is everyone’s favourite story. Long notorious for drug cartels and violence, the city was deemed the most dangerous in the world in the late 80s and early 90s. Now, it’s made a remarkable turnaround in security and reputation, and is better known as a world vanguard of urban planning innovations, the cultural capital of the country, and one of the buzziest places in Latin America. Locals love the place, they’re friendly, and they’re proud of its progress. Foreigners flock here in droves, enticed by the backstory, the nightlife, the creature comforts, and the luxury for cheap.
In theory, this is a place that I too should love. I can see why so many people do.
Salento and Valle de Cocora, Colombia
What better way to meet up with a friend for the first time in six years than to arrive in town in the middle of the night, both of us having taken night buses from different cities and unable to sleep from going up and down twisty mountain roads? It’s in a hostel dormitory in Salento where I reunited with Mathieu, a friend with whom I’ve had a storied travel history since 2012. Always a pleasure… Maybe except when we’re both sleep deprived and incoherent.
We didn’t plan to be in Colombia at the same time, but found some overlap in our itineraries. Mat, having lived and worked in Colombia for a year a while back, is on a greatest-hits nostalgia tour of sorts. Of course, that’s gotta involve one of the most scenic and (especially recently) rightly popular regions in the country: the Zona Cafetera. At least that’s why I’m here.
But first, a nap.
Ten years ago, when this blog began, I ended my northwards trip of South America at the equator. What’s past the equator? Colombia. The rest of this trip is addressing unfinished business. While I’m not resuming from where I left off by land, it’s gratifying to be able to celebrate a milestone, reflect on my last ten years and how far they’ve taken me, and also simply to keep a promise I made to myself to return.
Travel itself has changed since ten years ago as well. Not so many travellers I met back then on the gringo trail were visiting Colombia, then a destination with only nascent buzz after its years of instability lent it a reputation of dubious safety. Nowadays, it feels like the whole world has caught on. Everybody is here. Hostels are full, walking tour groups are everywhere, and tourists of all ages and abilities flood the Candelaria, the historic old town and touristic center of Bogotá. Colombia’s in its moment.
Jarabacoa and Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
I’ll be honest and say up front that I never really had the Dominican Republic on my radar before. I mean, what do you think of when you think of the DR? All-inclusive resorts, sure. (Flying from Ottawa to Saskatchewan via Punta Cana, definitely.) Baseball? Reggaeton and loud blaring music? Adventure tourism? I can appreciate all of that (except for the satire-friendly political grift), but I wouldn’t include any of those things amongst my preferences.
But hey, when in Rome DR…. I’m here for the wedding of my dear friends Paul and Louise, along with a small group of our friends who’ve all flown in from Vancouver. While I’m not staying with them in the resort, this event did bring me to the country, and I chose to explore a little with the few days I had before it.
After Santo Domingo though, I was definitely looking for a little bit of respite from the hustle and bustle. Mountains, fresh air, and quiet? Sounds great. Oh look, Santo Domingo weekenders!
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
On my first trip outside of Canada in three years, I find myself in a foreign land learning about Columbus (Colón). Amongst the beautiful Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo is the Alcazár de Colón, lived in by the sorta-Spanish-Italian explorer’s son and his family, with his familial artifacts lovingly presented by the obligatory local guides — an elephant-skin trunk here, a harp there, those tiny beds Europeans liked sleeping in back in the 1500s, all of that stuff. It’s the centerpiece of the tiled Plaza de España, ringed by some ritzy international restaurants.
A few blocks down, past more 16th century buildings — colourful, stately, balconied, and draped in jacarandas — is the Parque Colón, with a proud statue pointing opposite the first (and largest) cathedral of the Americas. It too is ringed by a bunch of ritzy restaurants, including a lovely rooftop rum bar overlooking the cathedral.
Across the Ozama River (lined by a Spanish fortress used as a prison in the colonial days, with a blur of other details I don’t remember) is the Faro a Colón (Columbus Lighthouse), a semi-brutalist…thing with a bright light that could sap all the electricity from nearby for miles if turned on. Championed by previous dictator/president Rafael Trujillo and eventually completed in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, written large on it are Bible verses used to proclaim the virtues of expansionism as a means of spreading Catholicism.
So far, it seems like a great trip to Spain. Oh wait, you mean I’m not in Spain?
It’s not easy getting to this town of ~700 people, and yet so many people do it. Like in Nunavut, a stone’s throw away, there are no roads to Churchill. However, there’s a train… and it plods. Moving at a snail’s pace, it’s 45 hours from Winnipeg, or “just” 18 hours from Thompson (itself only a 6 hour drive from Winnipeg).
We met people from far and wide who took this option, both domestic and international travellers. Even an elderly Chinese couple from Calgary, for instance, driving 15 hours (sleeping two nights in their car) to Thompson, a city with a notoriously sketchy reputation, and taking the train up. Nobody had any good things to say about the ride, beyond the money they saved. For us though? Again, like Nunavut: airline points. Two hours in an otherwise extremely overpriced flight from Winnipeg. Between 2017 and 2019, that was actually the only option, when floods wrecked the train tracks and repairs were delayed.
It’s really a wonder how this community survives. Of course, there’s one big draw: polar bears.
Gimli to Riding Mountain, Manitoba
This trip was planned to be just Churchill, with a side of obligatory Winnipeg. Maybe a short drive too, given how much time we had before heading to Churchill. With good weather in the forecast, we bit the bullet and I quickly cobbled together a plan together solely based on the only reasonably priced accommodation I could find with space available on Thanksgiving.
Well, that short drive turned into two of the most Canadian days I’ve ever had.
My last time in Winnipeg was two years ago, on the way home from Quebec. Knowing that I’d probably never have a reason to come here otherwise, I picked a flight home with a nine hour layover in Winnipeg, and spent an exhausting six hours walking downtown and visiting the spectacular Canadian Museum for Human Rights before taking the bus back to the airport.
That was enough time to say I’d been to Manitoba, I thought then. And yet here I am again…with a few days.
This time though, I’m with my friend Daniele, in a sort of sequel to the Yukon trip. One Canadian bucket list item down then, and another one now: we’re headed to Churchill.