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Your Escape Blueprint

If you ever hear anyone say that you ‘don’t have to spend a fortune on a Galapagos cruise’……. They are right! You can indeed see a lot of the islands and the wildlife by staying on the populated islands and going on various day trips to see some of the islands wonders. Be warned, these trips are often rather bouncy rides in small open boats. Exploring the islands this way will cost much less than going on a cruise, unless you find a short, last minute 4 day trip on one of the budget class boats that toil these waters. This island hopping was our back up plan, however we knew that to experience the full beauty and depth of this magical place we wanted to do a cruise.

The Galapagos islands are not a cheap place to get to. First you have to get to Ecuador, then pay another $400 or $500 each to get to Baltra airport, plus the $100 park fee it all adds up. Why travel all that way and pay so much to experience tiny snippets of what the islands offer?

This is why we decided to splurge and take an 8 day cruise through the islands on one of the higher end vessels. For those of you running ‘google’ searches right now, we agree it is not cheap. If you have specific dates and limited time, boats have to be booked way ahead of time and you will be looking at $4,000 to $8,000 per person for an 8 day cruise.

Even though visiting the Galapagos has long been on the bucket list, our budget wasn’t going to stretch that far, which is why we went the ‘last minute’ route. ‘Last minutes’ are just that, last minute bookings at discounted prices to fill empty berths on upcoming sailings. After carefully studying the offerings on this site we figured that we might just be able to swing a deal if we had a bit of flexibility in our schedule.

As the first and final days of a cruise are pick up and drop off days, we decided that we wanted to do at least an 8 day cruise. After all what could you actually see on a 4 day cruise? We knew that we wanted to spend some time visiting the accessible land sites in Santa Cruz as well. We were 2 months out when we went ahead, booked our flights and gave ourselves 14 days in the islands.

Now the nail biting began, how late should we wait to book our cruise? More importantly did we care what type of boat we chose or where its itinerary would take us? After hours poring over yet another useful site the answer was a definitive yes! We wanted to do the lesser travelled western itinerary which goes around the younger and more volcanically active Isabella & Fernandina.  This of course limited our choice of boats. Careful study of reviews and amenities on each available vessel also allowed us to start narrowing down on our choices.

In the end we had 3 firm contenders The Anahi, The Mary Anne and The Nemo II all had a similar itinerary, a maximum of 16 passengers and good reviews. There the similarity ended, the Anahi was a luxury catamaran with a price to match, The Mary Anne was a 119 ft. sailing vessel (one of the few in the islands) and The Nemo II a smallish catamaran with only 12 guests. Which to choose?

The final choice was easier than anticipated, especially the longer we waited. The Mary Anne had become a firm favorite but the first quote just before Christmas 2016 at $2900 each was just a little too steep. With our departure to Baltra on the 10th January not that far away, we hummed and hawed, do we don’t we? Between Christmas and the New Year the price dropped to $2400, yet still we waited. With just one week to go before our flight out to the islands we booked the Mary Anne for $2100 each instead of the $4800 listed in the brochure.

Was it worth it? Absolutely!

To wet your taste buds here are a few of our photos. (Click on an image to see the slide show)

Watch this spot for a detailed breakdown of our itinerary and our adventures. Part 1 with video is coming soon.

 

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Galapagos Musings

The world it seems is in love with the Galapagos Islands. Where else can you see marine iguanas basking in the middle of the street, sea lions dozing on benches, or pelicans unperturbed by all the selfies in which they feature. Or perhaps it’s because drivers slowly drive around the giant tortoises that appear like mushrooms on the roads, or the sharks, stingrays and turtles that cruise along by the busy piers? Maybe it’s the storks, herons and oyster catches that go about the serious business of fishing just feet away from screaming toddlers and sweating tourists, or maybe it’s the finches that boldly clean up your breakfast crumbs right off your plate?

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What I do know is that all of this is a reality; my husband Michael and I have witnessed all of this and more without even leaving the busy, most inhabited island of Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador. We witnessed all of this was just our first day here on this magical island.

As I watched the sunset descend on this wondrous place, I was struck by how sad I felt……… sad? Yes sad because so much more of the world could be like this, if only more of the world’s most invasive destructive species chose to make a change. Yes I am talking about us humans. Homo sapiens, in my humble opinion are more of a curse to mother earth than a blessing. Yet there is hope! The ongoing conservation efforts here in the Galapagos show just what is possible if we put some effort, thought and money into preserving rather then destroying.

I understand that the Galapagos Islands are unique, isolated as they are and with a wide range of species ‘free from predators’. Although history shows that has not always been the case, over the centuries countless whales, tortoises and fur seals were slaughtered and harvested. In fact the fur seal still retains a fear of humans unlike the sea lions who completely ignore us, unless we get too close.

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The Galapagos Islands are isolated and hard to reach, which is why they developed a unique flora and fauna. Yet they are not untouched. Over the centuries whalers, sailors and settlers have impacted the islands. The biggest damage has been caused not by what they hunted but what they left behind. The devastation that the wild goats of Isabela left behind is just one example. The recent eradication of those goats and the reintroduction of Isabella’s native flora and fauna including giant tortoise’s is also an example of what can be achieved if we put our minds to it.

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Galapagos is under immense pressure. It‘s popularity brings its own problems. Each boat, plane, load of cargo, or person that comes here has the potential to bring new challenges. One of these new challenges is a fly, one that feeds on Mangrove Finch hatchlings causing further problems for this endangered and unique branch of Darwin’s finches.
Spending time exploring the islands and seeing the love and concern that many of these islanders have for their archipelago brings me hope. Although we may lose some of the battles and may not be able to save every species. The biggest battle has already been won. Humans and animals can learn to share their resources and live in peace and harmony; it is evident right here in the Galapagos Islands. Long may this peaceful harmony reign.

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Paute in Pictures

Where? We hadn’t heard of it either until we saw a sitter wanted advertisement.

Paute is in Azuay, Ecuador. Yep! We made it out of the Caribbean, at least temporarily anyway and are now perched high in the Ecuadorian Andes.

We are only a 40 minute drive from the better known city of Cuenca yet at a 1200 ft lower elevation (Paute is at 7,200 ft) it’s a lot warmer. The days are sunny t-shirt kind of days and it cools down in the evenings making it very comfortable for sleeping. We have had to switch from just a light sheet to a light comforter and we are sleeping like logs. The change in altitude may have something to do with that too.

Paute is a small town that hugs the river of the same name and it has been a great introduction to Ecuador. The fanciest building has to be the modernistic church, with its striking design it dominates the small plaza in the middle of town. It’s a great place to hang out, people watch and get an ice cream too.

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For us the highlight has been the markets, there are two and between them they have vendors selling everything, especially on Sundays when the overflow spills out onto the adjoining square. There is to us, after the limited choice in the islands, a boggling array of fruit and vegetables. Its inexpensive too a whole shopping bag full of veggies costs about $5, so we love it.

There are also live chickens, guinea pigs (yes they eat them here) and rabbits, plus pots, pans, brooms and even some enterprising guys selling a miracle cream–made from what appears to be huge maggots–Yuck!

In the smaller market we can buy fresh meat, fish and prawns, thankfully already dead and cleaned. Plus we can get a plateful of the Ecuadorian staple…… roasted pig. On weekends and holidays you will see whole pigs slowly spinning over a BBQ on what seems to be every corner. A plateful of this juicy tender pork, whole corn kernels and a potato cake costs just $3. A ‘grande’ Pilsner beer to go with it, enough for two of us is just $1.25.

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When not shopping, eating and practising our ‘Tarzan’ Spanish we go for long walks down by the river. The whole area has been made into a park, complete with swings, slides, dirt bike trails and lots of shady benches to sit and admire the river burbling by. It’s also full of fragrant flowering trees, so yes we do stop and smell the flowers from time to time.

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The town is pretty well maintained but there are some crumbling adobe structures here and there. We haven’t checked into property prices here but if you want a fixer upper there are a few candidates around.

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Paute has been a great introduction to Ecuador but there are so many more places to explore. We will be bringing you insights into Cuenca, Vilcabamba and Riobamba in the weeks to come.

Adios mi amigas

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Our arrival in Cuenca passed in a blur. Our gracious hostess met us at the airport, complete with Buddy (our newest furred friend), then took us for a quick tour of Cuenca before heading off to Paute our home for the next few weeks.

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It seemed to be that no sooner had we arrived at our new house sit in Paute, than we were off again. The following day we were whisked back off to Cuenca to check out the Festival de Artesanias de America.

Artists and artisans gather annually in Cuenca from nearby towns, villages and from as far afield as Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile to showcase their arts. The white canopied tents which stretched along the river bank, spilling into adjacent art galleries and unused courtyards, had gathered a large crowd. Who slowly sauntered along, enjoying the warm sunny day with their eyes peeled for that something special.
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In addition to a wide range of paintings and sculptures there were hand knitted alpaca sweaters, scarves, gloves and dainty filigree silver jewellery from nearby Chordeleg. One display featured the traditional Ikat style of weaving from nearby Gualaceo. Each piece is hand woven from dyed cactus fibre, with the weavers holding the complicated pattern in their heads. The finished pieces are then turned into shawls, scarves, ponchos, bags and even shoes.

One enterprising artisan had converted gaily painted gourds into a range of fun and colorful mobiles fit to grace any child’s room. We especially loved the hot air balloons.
After strolling through the exhibits and displays we headed up into town in search of lunch. Our first impression of Cuenca is that everything is up from the river, meaning lots of stairways, many of which are decorated with intricate and colorful murals.

Lunch was at Sunrise café, a popular expat hangout, serving a range of burgers, sandwiches and local fare at reasonable prices. The menu is in both English and Spanish for those like us, still struggling with Española.

Sated we wandered back down to the fair and found ourselves in the middle of the food vendors! This was a surprise to our hostess as it was the first year they had been included. We could have had lunch right there had we known. However as we were already sated we were able to resist the tempting aromas as we walked back to pick up one of our companions new purchases.
As you can see from the photos it was a great introduction to just one small area of Cuenca and some very talented artists.

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Survived and Revived

After spending three hurricane seasons in the Caribbean Islands it had to happen! We had our first brush, in fact two brushes with a hurricane this year.

We were in our last few days of a housesit on the tiny island of Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines) when tropical storm Matthew passed over. We had been watching it closely and had moved everything possible indoors well before it was due–high winds and outdoor chairs are not good combinations—the golden rule is to batten down as tightly as you can.

The storm hit, although the predicted high winds did not. Matthew dropped 8 inches of rain on us overnight, turning the hillside behind into a mass of waterfalls all pouring into a custom built culvert behind the property.  The sheer volume of rushing water on a typically dry island was a sight and sound seldom seen and one we hope not to see again.

Four days later we arrived at Merritt Island, Florida to visit a friend……. just as an evacuation warning was issued. Yep! Our friend Matthew after hitting Haiti on October 4th 2016, with wind speeds of 130 to 156 mph was on its way. Matthew (a category 4 hurricane) left 1000 dead and 17500 homeless and was bearing down on us once again.

The 15 minutes we spent at a large gas station before said friend arrived to collect us was an eye opener. A steady stream of vehicles pulled in gassed up, then the occupants dashed into the store returning clutching cases of water–and in some instances even more cases of beer—before dashing back and charging off. One concerned citizen, no doubt puzzled over the sight of two strangers just standing there with a couple of suitcases, stopped to inquire if we were OK and “did we know there was a hurricane coming”? After reassuring her that everything was fine she reluctantly left us to our own devices.

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Our friend Don arrived shortly afterwards and reassured us that it wasn’t as bad as everyone was making out. With the current predicted wind speeds of 50 to 60 mph he was planning on hunkering down and riding it out. Which is why instead of joining the 16 mile long traffic jam leading off the barrier islands we stayed in and enjoyed a deep fried turkey dinner. Wednesday the 5th October 2016 we spent visiting the Kennedy Space Center while (what seemed to be) the rest of the neighbourhood were ‘battening down the hatches’. The sounds of saws and hammers prevailed as windows were boarded up and sandbags stockpiled in efforts to minimize damage and flooding.

It was only when the predicted wind speeds met the 100 mile per hour mark that Don decided that maybe he should go after all. Hurricane Matthew was now predicted to make landfall at our location sometime late on Thursday or early Friday. Our flight out of Orlando was at 1.15pm on Thursday the 6th October and we were worried……… would it make it out in time? Which is why I made an early morning phone call on Wednesday, the airlines were co-operating and were making every effort to get people out before Matthew struck, so I was able to get us on an earlier 7.40 am flight.

As the flight was now within 24 hours I went online to check in, to find that although I was checked in we had no seats allocated……..uh oh! This is where the option to buy a premium seat upgrade was priceless. I coughed up the extra $100 plus and secured actual seat assignments, yay!  We hate paying extra fees for upgrades and for checking bags, but in this case it was worth every penny.

Having secured our friends place as much as possible we headed out at 5 am Thursday morning. Us on the way to the airport and he to a friend’s place further inland to sit out Hurricane Matthew.

Upon check-in the attendant predicted that our original flight at 1.15pm would have been cancelled. After all, airlines are not keen to leave an expensive piece of equipment in the path of a hurricane, planes were going out but few were coming in. Our flight had a ‘standby’ list of almost 30 people. Frantic would be passenger’s appealing for a seat were turned away with a ‘good luck’. Had we not upgraded to premium seating guess who else would have been on that standby list? Sometimes it is worth the extra!

The tension in the boarding area was palpable, everyone quiet and subdued, anxiously waiting for boarding.  We have never been so happy to squash ourselves in and fasten our seat belts as we were that day. Taxiing down the runway, the joy and relief of having made it thus far caused grins from ear to ear. Once airborne, we gave each other a high five and thanked our lucky stars, we were on our way home, leaving Matthew far behind.

Despite our close brush with Matthew we are going back to the Caribbean in 2017. In fact we already have 4 months booked in early summer and fall.

Having survived Matthew we headed home for Thanksgiving with family and friends. Got our checkups done, re-provisioned and more importantly recharged our batteries.

After 4 ½ years of travel we were beginning to feel a little jaded and yes we confess, even a little bored. Why? Well for the last couple of years we have been doing mostly repeat sits, meaning we were getting way too comfortable, with no new challenges. As every traveller knows the solution to that is to go somewhere new, so we have!

We arrived in Quito, Ecuador on the 2nd November and despite the high altitude, immediately felt revived! New continent, new country, new language, new people, new customs and two new housesits high in the Andes.

We will be bringing you our insights and impressions of this fascinating country in the next few weeks, so stay posted.

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Lets talk about sex – Do I have your attention?

Living in the Caribbean is a lot like being back in high school – sexual energy abounds. At times the tension in the hormone charged atmosphere is so palpable it feels as if it could be cut with a knife!

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Newcomers to the islands may not immediately recognize the source of the pervading energy. However, once your ear is attuned to the local twist on the English language, the sexual innuendos and overtones are apparent in everyday conversation.

But as we all know it is impossible to ‘play pool with a piece of string’!

To back up all the talk, the Caribbean is home to a veritable cornucopia of libido enhancing magic potions. These love elixirs are for keeping the guys “big and powerful”, or as they say in Jamaica “to keep your back strong”.

The libido enhancing sex tonics include Mama Juana, Damiana (Ram goat dash), Horny Goat weed and Bois Bande infused rums. Even sex powered foods like Soursop, Cloves, Nutmeg and Cacao are popular for their purported libido enhancing properties– chocolate anyone?

The latest libido enhancing elixir we have come across (pun not intended?) is “Sea Moss”.

Sea Moss, also known as Irish moss, is a type of seaweed that grows naturally in the southern Caribbean and is cultivated throughout the islands.

Stories abound about the power of this slimy ocean vegetable – it is known for being a romance enhancer, it off sets the effect of drinking alcohol, and is widely it is known for its health benefits and its ability to restore one’s vim and vigor.

We are currently housesitting in Grenada on a property right on the sea, with Sea Moss being cultivated steps away from our front door. When I found Sea Moss on the beach during the morning dog walk I just had to bring it home and try it.

What possibly could go wrong?

The Grenadians boil the Sea Moss and then make it into a tonic.

I boiled the fresh Sea Moss with water, Cloves, Cinnamon and Cardamom for about 15 to 20 minutes- then blended it (after removing the spices). When the resulting liquid is cooled it turns into Sea Moss Jell-O.

To make the final drink I add brown sugar and organic Grenadian Caoco powder in a tall glass.

To this, I add almost half a glass of hot water to dissolve the sugar / cacao mixture. Add to this 2 or 3 heaping spoons of Sea Moss Jell-O and mix into the hot Cocoa mixture until dissolved. Then top up the glass with milk.

The result is a warm, spicy, hot chocolate with just a hint of the Sea.

Bet you are wondering if the stuff really works – Nudge nudge wink wink , know whatahmean – say no more!

Sorry no kissing and telling.

Here is an interesting video about Grenadian Sea Moss Cultivation – the video is oh so Caribbean – Lovin’ it.

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Our Story

Today Michael and I travel full time, doing what we love!

Strangely, enough we travel in style while spending about 50% of what we used to spend back home in cold grey Vancouver BC. However, it wasn’t always that way.

Just 5 years ago we were well and truly stuck….. stuck in the treadmill of consumerism and filling our lives full of ‘stuff’. After all, if we had enough ‘stuff’ we would be happy right?

We now know how wrong we were, ‘stuff’ is not what makes our souls sing. It’s the joy of exploring new places, meeting new people, doing new things and trying new foods that makes us happy.

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To fully understand what happened to change our perspective so radically, we need to go back a few years………………..

Michael and I met while backpacking around the world, over twenty years ago. Fate threw us together in a rather dramatic fashion at Lake Taupo New Zealand. It started with a simple invite to visit a local pub then being pounced upon enroute by six Maori teenagers in search of some trouble and a little easy cash. The outcome was a bloody nose (Michael) bruises and scratches (Yvonne) and an evening spent giving statements and riding around in a police cruiser trying to identify the culprits.

Our first ‘date’ ended up back at the hostel with a midnight shot of brandy to calm our nerves and a visit from a ‘stress’ councilor who advised that we should carry on talking it out. We are still ‘talking it out’ and Michael still jokes that he knows how to show a girl a good time.

The outcome, apart from a few bruises was that we spent the next eight months traveling together through New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Sumatra and Nepal.

Spending all day together, every day, meant we got to know each other very well. It also made us realize that we really enjoyed traveling together. This is why it was a teary farewell at Delhi airport as I returned to the UK and Michael carried on with his travels through India and Turkey, before coming to visit and meet the family in the UK.

After a year of travel, we had both spent our travel budgets and neither of us had a job. We wanted to be together, but what to do and where to do it?

The answer came shortly after Michael returned to Canada; he was offered a temporary position at the refinery that had paid him to travel (thanks to the severance package after being laid off the previous year).

I joined him in Canada and we knuckled down to make a life together and replenish our coffers. The first few months were tough, I couldn’t work as I was on a visitor’s visa and money was tight. We persevered, Michael branched out as a consulting engineer and I took up an old hobby and started making fancy wedding cakes.

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Four years later, we bought a house in the suburbs of Vancouver and tried to figure out how we could get rid of that mortgage as soon as possible. Although neither of us considers ourselves spenders, we ended up with two cars, two phones and a four-bedroom house full of stuff.

We had a good network of friends, went out for dinner occasionally and usually managed to squeeze in at least one vacation overseas per year. But, we were restless. We were not happy, we were just going through the motions and everyday was the same as the last. Even weekends evaporated in the heat of ‘things we had to do’.

We were stuck in ‘the hamster wheel’ we worked hard, yet too much of our income was going on bills and everyday necessities. We weren’t broke and we were managing to save but what were we saving for? Were we like millions of others, saving until we reached 65 so that we could carry on paying for all the stuff until we kicked the bucket?

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Our wakeup call was when a dear friend passed away from ALS, she went from a bubbly fireball to a unrecognizable skeleton in just a few months. Watching our friends deal with this reminder of mortality made us examine our lives, our dreams and our goals. If this was either of us, would we have regrets, was there something we would rather be doing?

The answer was a resounding YES! We still wanted to travel, we wanted to explore the world and we didn’t want to retire in the burbs of Vancouver and live on two minute noodles because of puny pensions.

The challenge was to figure out a way to travel, without raiding our savings. But, we wanted to travel in style, we weren’t willing to be broke backpackers again.

We knew we could live far cheaper in many parts of the world and initially thought we would spend a few months in Mexico or Asia and then go from there. We had already done the math and knew that we could get a reasonable monthly income if we rented out our home in the burbs. However less than $2,000 wasn’t going to go far.

Then I discovered housesitting!

If we could get enough housesitting assignments we could dramatically reduce our travel expenses, after all flights and accommodation costs are the biggest culprits. Within days we had booked our first housesit and then went into overdrive to get ready for this new phase of our lives.

Emptying a four-bedroom home is not an easy task, especially when you add in all the other tasks we needed to do, such as eliminating mail. Going paperless takes a lot of time, as did switching banking accounts, bill payments and dealing with the taxman to online. We actually work a book on the subject called “Selling Up to Travel

I will be honest there were times when I wondered what the hell we had done. Where we mad to sell or give away all our possessions, to let someone else live in our home, to give up our professions and become nomads? We know that, that is what some of our family and friends thought.

Four years later, we know that we were not mad, far from it. We now live life on our own terms, doing what we want, when we want.

We have visited over 40 countries, made friends all over the world and expanded our culinary skills. No longer tied to a desk for 40 plus hours a week, we have used the time freedom to branch out into new ventures we blog, write travel articles and even published our own books. We have a stronger, deeper more meaningful relationship and plan to be nomadic retirees for a long, long time.

To follow our adventures simply sign up for our newsletters and we look forward to helping you explore this beautiful world too.

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