Galápagos – sea lions, sharks, tortoises, iguanas and more!

If you’re looking for something really, really special to visit in Ecuador – you should definitely try Galápagos. We’ve been there and it was amazing! Here’s what you need to know about these beautiful islands.

Galapagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean around 1000km (~620 miles) from the west coastline of Ecuador. There are 18 major Islands. The most visited ones are:

  • Baltra – there is only an airport there, so you’d typically spend there only few hours
  • San Cristobal (another airport, but you can actually stay on this one)
  • Santa Cruz
  • Isabela

We visited Baltra, Santa Cruz and Isabela. This is how we spent our time (for more practical details, scroll down):

How to get there?

The only reasonable way to get to Galapagos is by flying there. You can choose from Quito or Guayaquil. Typically, the flight both ways costs around $370 and is a bit cheaper from Guayaquil than from Quito. There are some promotions from time to time and you can get as low as $250, but you have to buy immediately after the promotion is announced. Flights are offered by three companies: Latam, Tame and Avianca. The prices are not much different between the airlines.




Galapagos location

The check-in procedure, however, is probably very different from what you are used to. Galapagos are extremely protected from any alien biological material. That’s why it’s prohibited to bring any seeds, plants, animal etc. Your luggage will be carefully checked before check-in and then sealed. Here you have the full list (in Spanish) of products you can take with you: http://bioseguridadgalapagos.gob.ec/lista-de-productos-2/. The luggage procedure is obligatory and costs $10. You will be given Galapagos Government Control ID Card, which you have to maintain until you’re back.

Now, Galapagos are a national park. That means you have to pay to enter there. The Ecuador residents are charged $25, but non-residents have to pay $100 (another reason for getting Ecaudor’s residency…)

What to do there?

The word “galápago” means turtle in Spanish and that is what the islands are known for. But not only that. In the islands there are many endemic species of which most famous are:

  • Galapagos tortoises
  • Marine iguana
  • Galapagos finches
  • Galapagos penguin
  • Blue-footed boobies
  • Fur seal

The best thing to do while in Galapagos is just to observe and admire the nature.

We visited two islands (Isabela and Santa Cruz) and – however similar – there are some big differences. Let’s start from Santa Cruz.

Baltra and then Santa Cruz

Galapagos – the Baltra Airport

First, after leaving the Baltra airport you need to take a free shuttle bus which – during 10 minutes ride – takes you to the small harbor, where a boat cruises constantly from one side to a canal to the other. They’ll charge you $1 for that. Then you can take either taxi ($20-$25 – but you can share with other passengers) or a bus ($2). Obviously, the bus is a bit slower, but we thought that doesn’t justify the price of the taxi. The ride to Puerto Ayora – the main city takes ~45 minutes.

Peurto Ayora is a nice, little town, with many restaurants and hotels, so you will have no problems finding a place to stay even if you didn’t book in advance. The island has a big and really well maintained marina, where you can stumble upon on a sea lion, lying next to benches. But be careful, the law says you should always maintain at least 2 meter distance between you and any animal. Otherwise you may be fined. Sometimes, however, it’s really difficult to obey that law as the animals occupy space right in the middle of your way, just like this:

In the same spot in the night you can watch baby sharks swimming very close the pier attracted by the lights and small fish.

There are at least two places worth visiting in Santa Cruz.

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay is a really nice beach with almost-white sand and iguanas lying in the sand. The main part is towards the sea so it’s called la playa brava (in this case: stormy), so swimming is seldom possible. The beach, though, is really impressive – very long and wide, and the sand is pleasantly fine and hot. If you’d like to swim, just a few hundred meters there is another part of the beach which is separated from the open sea with a small peninsula. There you can swim all the time. It’s super-safe, also for children. At the Tortuga Bay beaches you can rent snorkeling mask for $5.

To get there you have to leave the town heading south-west down the Charles Binford street and walk for like 45 minutes. On your way you’ll pass salinas which are salterns (or salt evaporation ponds) where salt is obtained from sea water. It looks amazing – kind of moon-like landscape.

Grietas

Grieta in Santa Cruz island

grieta is a crack in the rocks made by seismic activity to where the ocean’s waters flow. You  have on of them in Santa Cruz Island. To get there you have to go to the marina and get a boat taxi (costs $0,60) to get to the other side of the main bay, and then you’ll walk for 20 minutes. You have to go down the nice wooden stairs and there it is. We recommend to go there while the sun is still high, so you can see stuff while snorkeling in the water. The grieta is up to 10 meters deep, so you better have good lungs!

Although the entrance is free, you will be told to stay there maximum 45 minutes. This makes sense because the place gets pretty packed at times.

 

 

 

 

The transfer between the islands.

After a day and a half packed with snorkeling, animals and walking, we changed the island. To go to other part of Galapagos you have to book a ticket for a speed-boat (lancha). Do it in advance in one of the local tour centers, because the trips get booked out quite quickly. The ticket costs $30. The procedure is quite complicated. First, you’ll be given a plastic card with the name of your boat, then the guards need to check your bag (again, if you don’t have any seeds or plants) and seal it. Then a boat taxi will get you to your lancha. It takes roughly 2 hours – depending on the weather – to get from Santa Cruz to Isabela.

Isabela

When you arrive on the boat to the Isabela’s marina, you’ll notice it’s much smaller and simpler. That is a sign of what you can expect there in terms of infrastructure. While Santa Cruz can offer good restaurants and fancier hotels, Isabela is a more interesting place in our opinion. It’s much less urbanized. There is no single ATM there and the food is probably a bit more expensive, but it’s quieter, there are more (and more interesting) animals.

From the Marina you can actually walk to the town (15 minutes walk) or you can take one of the small buses or trucks and it’ll take you there. I don’t remember how much exactly it was, but around $1 or $2. Again, you can search for a hotel there. We stayed in the Gran Hostal Tintorera and we can absolutely recommend it. Rooms are recently renovated, clean with A/C, the bathrooms are well equipped and the staff is nice and helpful. The standard price is $30 per person per night (including breakfast) but you can negotiate a bit. 😉 The only potential problem are roosters that belong to the locals and start to crow very early, but unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about it. Unless you pick a hotel at the very beach, but it would be much more than $30 (negotiable!)…

There various options of what to do on Isabela.

Riding a bicycle to the Wall of Tears

Get a bike. There are many places where you can rent it. Rent it for the whole day. Note that the tires are reinforced. It’s important because the terrain is difficult. You can leave the town along the beach heading west and you’re on a really nice road to a really nasty place… But before you reach it, you can admire iguanas and giant Galapagos tortoises. They are really amazing!

The nasty place at the end of the road are ruins of old penal colony. The wall was built by the prisoners between 1945 and 1959. The colony was set up in 1944 by the decision of the José María Velasco Ibarra. Obviously, most of the persons held there were political prisoners. A sad, but interesting spot.

The Wall of Tears

Concha de Perla

Concha de Perla is a nice little bay near the main marina where you can snorkel and play with the sea lions. They’re really friendly but you still need to be careful as they may bite you. The bites are difficult to cure because of bacterias living in the sea lions’ mouths. If you’re lucky you can see starfish, stingrays, turtles and many, many fish. To the bay leads a wooden pier that goes among a mangrove forest. Sun beams penetrate the forest and hit the cristal clear water where the iguanas rest. It’s really beatiful.




And if you want to see more lazy sea lions, just go to the other side of the marina. There should be plenty of them!

Tintoreras and others…

There is plenty of activities that you can do while on Isabela, among others:

  • all-day hiking to the Cerro Azul volcano
  • a cruise to small islands and snorkeling there
  • diving with equipment

We went for a short cruise to a small island called Tintoreras, where – supposedly – you can see sharks. We were unfortunate and we couldn’t see any, but we saw a turtle, Galapagos penguins and the famous blue-footed booby, although we realized that only by looking at the photos we took. 🙂 The island itself is interesting because it features an amazing moon-like landscape.

Costs?

Unfortunately, everything is expensive on the islands. It is because there are not many products produced there, so everything has to be transported from the mainland Ecuador. One shop owner told us they have to paid $1.90 for every pound of goods carried from the continent. That’s why you should not be surprised that a small lunch costs $6, a small bottle of beer costs $5 in a restaurant and $2.25 in a local shop. Pretty much everything is almost twice as expensive and it’s good to have cash, as the only ATM is on Santa Cruz island. Is it worth it? Totally… again, see for yourself (this time, animals and animals only):

Climbing a volcano

The first thing you notice when you live in Ibarra is that huge mountain at the southern part of the city. The view of the mountain accompanies you every day. Over time you stop even noticing it. But it’s there. A challenge, an adventure a mystery.

The Imbabura is an inactive stratovolcano in the province with the same name. It’s located between two major province’s cities: Ibarra and Otavalo. The height is 4,630 meters (or 15,190 feet). Although it doesn’t have a permanent glacier, the top is sometimes covered with snow (which typically melts during the day).

There’s no volcanic activity noted in Imbabura, but the volcano is not believed to be extinct. Although, probability of eruption is next to zero.

The mountain is very important for the local culture. The indigenous people sometimes called it Taita Imbabura which highlights the volcano’s role as the protector of the region. A local legend says Imbabura married other local mountain Cotacachi and the smaller mountains and hills are their offspring.

The mountain is climbed from the city of Esperanza (30 minutes bus ride from Ibarra’s center). The road ends at the altitude of approximately 3,000 meters above the sea level. From there you would need typically 4 hours to ascent and 3 hours to descend.




How is climbing a volcano like Imbabura? Here you have a movie. Enjoy!

 

The swing at the end of the world

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of this one, the famous Swing at the End of the World. It’s been circulating on the internet for some time now. But it is amazing and it’s absolutely worth trying.

La Casa del Árbol (as this is the Spanish name of the place) is located in Baños, where there’s really lots other things to see (check this entry for more information).

The view and opportunities to take incredible photos is what makes this place so popular. Look for yourself:

If you want to visit the swing, you have to go there by car from Baños. You can rent a tour (for around $10) or take a bus. Usually, you have to be prepared for waiting in a really long line to get your chance to try the swing. But again, it is worth it. La Casa del Árbol is a cherry on top of the Baños cake. 🙂

 

Pailón del Diablo – the Devil’s dale

Do you like waterfalls? Love the sound of tons of water falling from above? Love that refreshing delicate water mist laying on your face? Everybody loves waterfalls. That’s why everybody should go to Baños de Santa Agua (or simply: Baños) in the Tungurahua province. Once you get there you will happy to notice there’s more than waterfalls there.

Baños is located near the geographical center of Ecuador, 3 hours to the south from Quito. The city lays in the slopes of an active volcano – Tungurahua at the altitude of 1800 meters (5900 feet above the sea level). The weather is really nice throughout the whole year although the humidity is rather high.




The town itself is really known for thermal baths (hence the name: Baños). It’s well organized and touristic-friendly. There are lots of hotels, hostels and restaurants. It shows everything is prepared for tourists. It feels clean and safe.

The main reason why the Ecuadorians visit Baños is the reputation of the thermal baths. In theory, the water cures many illnesses. It is unclear, however, whether it’s to its chemical composition or temperature or both… It doesn’t stop people from invading very small baths. If you go there by night you can expect crowds. The ticket costs $5 and you can spend there as much as you want. If you want…

A better reason to visit Baños is all those waterfalls! There are supposedly 30 different waterfalls around the city, but we visited reportedly the most interesting one – Pailón del Diablo – the Devil’s Dale (that’s my unofficial translation).

The waterfall is located in a valley, it’s 80 meters (262 feet) high and it’s absolutely amazing! Look at these photos:

There are to ways to enjoy the waterfall. There is more official main entrance that you can reach from below. That means around 40-60 minutes of walking and typically – crowd. The other way is to attack the waterfall from the up – so you can enjoy those suspension bridges – it’s worth it!

I personally think visiting Baños is a must while you’re in Ecaudor. The city is located in a very interesting zone at the slopes of an active volcano and offers nice laid back atmosphere. The food is delicious the service is good and there are lots of attractions there. I recommend!

Shopping at a local marketplace in Ibarra

Most of business in Ecuador is about selling and buying. And what is a better place to do this than a local marketplace?

Let me present you how the local market in Ibarra is. Actually we shot this at two different markets that are close by (Mercado de la Playa and Mercado Amazonas).




The marketplace in Ibarra, Ecuador
The marketplace in Ibarra, Ecuador

Here is how it is inside…

There are some prices mentioned in the video. Below prices of some other products:

  • avocado – 3 or 4 pieces for $1
  • tomatoes – 7 or 8 pieces for $1
  • passion fruit (maracuyá) – 6 pieces for $1
  • carrot – ~1kg for $0.50
  • a pineapple – 1 piece for $0.50
  • a bunch of bananas (12-14 pieces) – $0.50
  • eggs – 10-12 cents
  • a decent machete – $4.50

There are no fixed prices though. You ask: “Give me tomatoes for 50 cents, please.” and they give you something… Most of the fruit/vegetable sellers don’t have scales. The secret is to find the vendor that sells the most for the price. 🙂

7.8-magnitude quake hits Ecuador

Today we experienced something horrible…

We were having a dinner with Julia when everything started to shake. The walls, the ceiling, the floor, everything was shaking for ~60 seconds. We quickly left the house to see other people already standing on the streets and waiting. The cars were swinging, so as the cables hanging above the streets.

Later we found at it was a 7.8-magnitude earthquake with the epicenter near Esmeraldas, the coast of Ecuador. There is a risk of a tsunami.

Until now, 28 deads were reported. Many buildings are damaged on the coast. Fortunately, nothings serious happened here in sierra.

Here’s an article from CNN:

http://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/16/americas/magnitude-7-4-earthquake-hits-ecuador/index.html

Here’s the twitter #hashtag to follow:

https://twitter.com/hashtag/TerremotoEcuador?src=hash

UPDATE: unfortunately, the number of dead is still increasing. Currently the number is: 587

At the cocoa farm

Ecuador is the top 7th cocoa producer in the world. Where and how is it grown? How do the fruits like? Can you be a cocoa farmer in Ecuador? Let’s go on a cocoa farm tour with Miguel, a fellow farmer.

The whereabouts

Miguel’s finca (finca is, in Spanish, a piece of land, a property where you can grow something) is located in Esmeraldas province, an hour drive from the city of Esmeraldas. It’s technically the coast, but the original flora there is similar to rain forest with less humidity.

The farm location
The farm location

The main advantage of the location is obviously the fact that plants grow rapidly. Miguel told us you can see how branches are longer and leafs are bigger just within few hours – it’s amazing! The coast area is a perfect place to grow cocoa.




There are – unfortunately but inevitably – disadvantages. First of all the temperature. How hot it is? Well, it’s difficult to say, as the farm is located far from a major city for which temperature records would be available. But it is hot. 🙂 Here you have the average temperature for Esmeraldas, the capital city of Esmeraldas province. Note that the farm is located deeper in the land, so you’ll need to add few degrees to it. Also, remember the temperatures on the graph are averages, which means in the midday it gets significantly hotter.

 

http://www.worldweatheronline.com/esmeraldas-weather-averages/esmeraldas/ec.aspx
Source: http://www.worldweatheronline.com/esmeraldas-weather-averages/esmeraldas/ec.aspx

There are also venomous snakes and spiders, and a species of giant ant. The ant is not a life threat, but the bite hurts dramatically…

That’s why you have to be prepared not only for work, but also to just visit the place. Although it’s hot you have to wear overshoes (galoshes), a hat and have at least 2 liters of water with you… A mosquito repelent (preferebly with DEET) and sunscreen won’t hurt too. And machete! Don’t forget to buy one before the trip!

The beginners' jungle kit :)
The beginners’ jungle kit 🙂

How to prepare the land?

When you buy a land to grow something, what you typically have initially there is jungle. Jungle means a very dense, concentrated flora – it’s nothing like northern forests. It’s just a green wall.

So, what you first need to do is to grub the forest. This process typically takes 10-12 months. To do that you hire men from the nearby villages and they start the work.

What you do next is you make few announcements in the nearby villages that there is wood available at your land. The locals are very much interested in wood they can get for good price. So they pay you some money and they take the wood away.

What’s left – low quality wood, dry leafs, branches etc. – you burn. And after almost a year you’re ready to grow you plants.

How does a cocoa tree look like?

A cocoa tree isn’t very “tropical” by the first look. It’s a 2-3 meter high tree with long green leaves. Every tree has to have a free space around it – at least 3 meters of diameter.

The cocoa fruit is yellow or orange-red (depends on the kind) and it has spindle-like shape. The length is about 20cm (8 inches). Inside there are beans and that is how the cocoa powder (and then chocolate is made). The beans are covered with a white, soft membrane that can be eaten (it’s sweat and delicious).

There are basically two kinds of cocoa grown in Ecuador:

  1. Cacao nacional – which is allegedly more tasty and generally of better quality but you can only ripe two times a year.
  2. Hybrid kinds – which are of less quality but also less demanding and you can ripe many times during the year.

In the photos in this article and in the movie you see the hybrid types.

The business

For the first cocoa harvest you have to wait at least two years. This is the time needed for the trees to grow and start producing the fruit. But nobody wants to wait for the money that long, do they? That’s why in the meantime you grow less demanding plants, mainly papaya. You can also let the local people grow corn are whatever they need. In exchange they will do some work for you.

The good news is papaya grows very quickly and you can expect first fruits after 5-6 months.

After the harvest you have two options: you can just sell the fruits or the beans to cocoa producers. They will take care of cleaning and drying the beans. This options is less-work – less-money option. Alternatively you can dry it yourself.

When you drive through Esmeraldas you can see a sheets of fabric just laying at the road with cocoa beans on them. Looks like the roads are the best place to do it (maybe because they absorb heat quickly?)

There is still plenty of land to buy. If you plan on becoming cocoa farmer, Ecuador is the place to go! 🙂

And finally a summary movie. Enjoy!

 

How to get an Ecuadorian driving license?

While Ecuador is definitely not the biggest country on Earth, but it’s not the smallest either. The area of 283,560 km² (or 109,484 square miles) places Ecuador at 75th position. This means, if you want to explore the country on your own – you better have a car.

Now, if you’re just a tourist and you have your license, driving a car should not be a problem. At least legally-wise (as I will talk about how driving really is in a separate post). The problem is that driving license issued by your country is only valid for 6 months in Ecuador. If you want to stay – with whatever visa type – for longer than that, you will have to obtain the Ecuadorian driving license.




In this article I’m going through the process of homologación o canje or – in English – certification/approval/replacement of a driving license issued by a foreign country. The following instructions are only useful if you have a valid driving license issued by your country. If you don’t, you will have to go through the whole driving school which is a totally different story… And when I say “driving license” I simply refer to B category, which is the most common and permits you driving “normal” cars.

The process of your driving license certification

The authority responsible for issuing your driving license is Agencia Nacional de Tránsito (ANT) – National Transit Agency. The process is rather straightforward:

  1. Getting your driving license certified by the authorities of your country.
  2. Getting your blood type tests done.
  3. Getting your examen psicosensometrico – your sight, hearing and motor skills checked by an official.
  4. Paying $65 in a bank.
  5. Filling the form (with a photo).
  6. Passing the theoretical exam.
  7. Getting your driving license.

Let me explain each step.

Getting your driving license certified

For recognizing you driving license the Ecuadorian authorities will need one of the following documents:

  • Confirmation of your driving license issued by your country’s embassy in Ecuador (in Spanish).
  • Confirmation of your driving license issued by the nearest embassy of your country, if there isn’t one in Ecuador (in Spanish).
  • Confirmation of your driving license issued by your country’s authorities (the same that issued your license), in Spanish and apostilled.

In most cased option 1 or 2 will be the easiest one, as the embassy will probably issued a document already in Spanish (so no need of a sworn translation). The inconvenience with option 3 is you have to translate it (as it’s unlikely that authorities from your country issue a document written in Spanish) and then apostille it.

In my case, for instance, the closest Polish embassy is located in Lima, Peru. So I called them and asked for instructions. The consul was really nice and helpful and he only asked for a scan of the driving license. Then he contacted Polish authorities to get a confirmation and he issued a document (in Spanish) stating that the driving license is valid. Now, since the document was issued by the embassy, I didn’t have to apostille it. The whole communication was done via email, so I just printed the document and show it to ANT. They told me it was OK to proceed.

Blood type tests

One of the requirements is to have a certification of your blood type. You can do it for $5 in any Cruz Roja agency (or possibly in other places as well, but it seemed to me the easiest option). They will pinch your index finger and get some blood drops and after 10 minutes they will give you a small paper with your type.

Examen psicosensometrico

Now the harder part. In order to proceed with getting your Ecuadorian driving license, you will have to pass a vision/hearing/reflex exam. For most of you, I guess, this will be a surprise…

You can do your exam in any driving school. I chose ANETA – Automóvil Club del Ecuador and it costed me $16,50. You need to have your passport or cédula with you.

So the sight part is watching through oculars and reading veeeeery small letters. If you don’t have 20/20 vision you may have troubles reading it! Very surprising! I’d expect this sight accuracy would be rather needed for F-16 pilot… If you wear glasses or lenses – you should definitely have them with you during the exam.

You will be also checked for color-blindness and similar standard things.

Then the fun part. You will be seated in front of a monitor. A green light will be presented at which you have to press the right pedal (the acceleration pedal). Then suddenly red light is shown, so you need to brake immediately. Your response time is measured.

Next part is tricky. There is a instrument which looks a bit like a circinus. You hold it with two hands and you have to drive a pen attached to it through a metal pathway. You can only go outside the pathway 5 times. You need to focus. It is tricky!

Then you’ll get a pen and you will need to touch points that appear while a disc with a hole is spinning. This seems easy.

There is also hearing test, which I didn’t take. It seems they assume young people have their hearing OK. And there are some general questions (“Are you nervous? Do you sleep well?”) – which in my case – were already filled in, which saved time.

The outcome of this part is a written document with your score and (hopefully!) an approval. This document is only valid 30 days, so don’t procrastinate. 😉

Paying at the bank

This is easy. Well, if you have $65… You just go to any Banco Pacífico agency and say you want to pay for licencia de conducir tipo B – homologación o canje. You will get a receipt which you need to present at ANT. This receipt is only valid 30 days, so…

Filling the form

The form can be found at ANT’s pages and it’s simple. They only ask for your basic personal information (names, ID number, address, phone and e-mail) and you need to put a photo. Don’t get too excited about the photo. They will take another one to put at the license…

The theoretical exam

Having a driving license makes it pretty obvious you can drive a car. The rules in countries don’t vary too much. Nevertheless, it is compulsory to pass the theoretical exam concerning Ecuadorian transit law.

A sample question
A sample question

Fortunately, all the questions are posted at this Google drive. Most of them are easy or – rather – obvious. Some of them are tricky – especially the ones concerning maximum fines for transit law violation. There are 331 questions, but don’t get too scared. You will memorize them in couple of days…

…especially that ANT was kind enough to prepare an exam simulator, which you can find here: http://www.ecuadorlegalonline.com/consultas/agencia-nacional-de-transito/examen-teorico/.

It works exactly like the original exam. You will be presented 20 questions (out of those 331) and you have to have 16 correct answers to pass it. Not too hard, right? Oh, the exam is in Spanish, by the way.

So, take your time and get familiar with questions and answers. It would be a shame if you don’t pass!

Getting your driving license

Normally, everybody needs to make an appointment with ANT taking a turn from their website. This doesn’t seem to be the case for foreigners wanting to legalize their licenses. You can just go to your ANT agency with all your paperwork ready and explain what you would like to do. They will assist you almost immediately.

Again, the list of documents you need to have with you:

  • your identification (passport or cedula)
  • your original driving license
  • your driving license confirmation (from your country authorities)
  • your blood type document
  • the form (filled in and with a photo)
  • bank payment receipt
  • your examen psicosensometrico document

The whole process would take an hour. First they will put all your data into the system and take your photo. That’s the one they will put on your license. Then you will have to pass a similar sight exam. It’s slight different but, again, you will need to read small letters through oculars.

Then, you will be asked to approach a computer and you start with 20 theoretical questions. If you studied, you will have no problems passing it.

Next part is taking a different motor skills test. This is a bit stressful.

You will be presented different figures in different colors, and when you see a certain one, you’ll need to press one of two pedals, or one of two buttons. Your reaction time is measured.

Then, kind of video game. A car will be passing from left to right and you have to stop pressing a key when the car disappears.

Then, hearing exam, which – quite frankly – is a joke. They will play you some very high frequency sounds on normal headphones and you are supposed to press left/right button depending on when you think the sound is coming from. The problem is, the street noise practically drowns any other sound out!

Sounds stressful (and it is), but looks like everybody passes it.

After you’ve finished your test, you will have to wait couple of minutes for your license to be printed out, and… ¡siga, no más! – you’re good to go! Just be aware of crazy drivers – I’ll put some hints soon! Also be aware that the license is valid for 5 years.

Summary

Money: $86,50 minimum (plus: photo or whatever the cost of confirmation by your country would be).

Time: 2-3 days minimum (plus whatever it takes to get your country’s confirmation).

Difficulty: easy to medium

If you have any additional questions or links in the article don’t work – let me know in the comments below. Thanks!

Ecuador’s treasure – the panama hat

 

If you were to mention 5 things that were truly Ecuador’s, the panama hat will be definitely one of them. But why are they called panama, if they’re made in Ecuador? What are they made from? And – most importantly – why are they so shockingly expensive? Let me explain…

The history and the name

Back in the history century the hats were known by the place of purchase instead of where they were produced. And in the 19th century the gold seekers were coming to California through Isthmus of Panama where they were purchasing hats imported from Ecuador. Yes, the genuine panama hat is made exclusively in Ecuador, but unfortunately Panama stole the name…




The hats gained much popularity through their exposure at the world’s fair in Paris in 1855. It was something completely new and exciting for the fashion-centered French.

But the most iconic moment in the history of panama hat is pictured in this photo:

President Roosevelt and the construction of Panama Canal (public domain)

The hat’s popularity went through the roof and by 1944 the panama hat had become Ecuador’s no. 1 export item. The stylish light-color hat would be always related with tropics ever since. But of course Panama Canal didn’t help changing the hat’s name… So, unfortunately for Ecuador, their most precious good would be always known as panama hat.

How it is made

The main material for panama hats is the straw of the plant called carludovia palmata or, more common, toquilla.

Carludovica palmata or toquilla (photo by: Jeff deLonge, Creative Commons)

The process of forming the hat is rather laborious and it can take up to 6 months! You can already have idea about the price level, right?

The hat itself comes in a number of different shapes – as the raw material is molded by a press. The most common shapes are: fedora and borsalino.

In Ecuador there are essentially two places where they made original panamas: Montecristi and Cuenca, but Montecristi’s hats are supposedly of better quality (and of higher price, of course). On the other hand, there is a really interesting panama museum in Cuenca worth visiting. In Montecristi you will find a many shops with huge variety of hats. We visited one of them to ask some questions.

First of all it seems that the local people who manually produce the hats never finish them. Instead they form the a raw shape and sell it to the shops where they finish off the hat and finally form them. Here’s an example of a raw material:

A local Montecristi salesman demonstrates a raw, unfinished hat
A local Montecristi salesman demonstrates a raw, unfinished hat
This is how complicated it is to produce a panama
This is how complicated it is to produce a panama

As mentioned, the whole process of forming a hat may take up to 6 months and it’s completely manual! It has to be expensive. But what does the price really depend on?

How much is it?

As always, it all depends on quality. The quality is defined by the number of weaves per square inch. The more weaves, the better quality. Generally, there are categories:

  1. Fino
  2. Extrafino
  3. Superfino

Here you have a table characteristics and prices:

Panama hats quality matrix
Panama hats quality matrix

As you can see the real panamas start from 14 weaves per inch, but they can go up to 34 which are really, really tiny and the texture is almost as fine fabric. For a $60 you can have a panama, but if you are for a real deal, prepare at least $200-$300 (I’ve heard they can cost triple the original price in US or Europe). It’s said that a high quality panama could be rolled, put in the pocket and no harm will be done. It’s that flexible and durable. Well, I haven’t tried with mine…

How do you measure the quality? The owner demonstrated a small tool for counting the weaves:

SAMSUNG CSC
Counting the weaves with a special tool
SAMSUNG CSC
This one is just “fino”

When you’ve chosen the quality and the model you can now add a nice color ribbon that suits you and all you have to do is… pay. Yes, it’s much, but it’s definitely worth it. A good quality panama will last for years and it’s a stylish gadget that will never be outdated. And if you need a souvenir from the equator – ironically – you don’t get anything more Ecuadorian than a panama hat. 🙂

PS. The data in this article is from December 2014. In 2015 the prices went up heavily. The sellers mention bad year for the toquilla harvest. Well, maybe. But be prepared to spend at least 50% more…

 

Shopping in Colombia

The current importation policy imposed by the Ecuadorian government has made the prices of some products skyrocketing. Anything imported is incredibly expensive.

That is why Ecuadorians that live at the north of the country go to Colombia to do the shopping. The first city just right at the border is Ipiales with its Ecuadorian counterpart – Tulcán.




Ecuador has an agreement with Colombia about frontier traffic. Normally nobody checks your documents and if you are Ecuadorian you don’t need a passport – your cedula will be just fine (if anybody asks in the first place).

In comparison to Ecuador, the prices in Colombia are low. It seems that especially the following goods are worth buying there: food, alcohol, electronics and appliances. Besides that, Colombia produces high quality clothing and shoes. Such nice-looking and comfortable shoes are so much more expensive in Europe or North America!

How do you pay for the shopping there? All the shops in Ipiales accept USD, but the currency in the country is Colombian Peso (COP). The exchange rate at the day of our last visit was 1 USD = 2,945 COP paying with a credit/debit card*. It attracted thousands of Ecuadorians. Here is why:

USD-COP 17.08

As you can see in the chart, it was the best exchange rate in the past 2 years. And today is even better! It means that electronics such as phones, tablets and computers typically costs half of what you would paid in Ecuador. The liquors, however, are 3 to 4 times cheaper.

During your first shopping in Ipiales you can get a bit lost. The weather is typically not very nice – frequent rains and low temperature (the elevation is 2,898 m / 9,508 ft.). The town is rather ugly and the number of the shops is overwhelming so you can get easily tired. Fortunately there is a mall (Gran Plaza) with nice clothing shops and a store called Alkosto. Actually, there are two Alkostos – one in the city center (Parque 20 de Julio) and one in the Gran Plaza mall.

What attract Ecuadorians to shopping in Ipiales is not only the daily offer, but also great deals. For instance in Alkosto they give a 50% discount of your bill to every 25th or 50th customer. There are only 2 conditions. First, you can spend a coupon for that 50% on your next visit between 15 and 45 day later. Second, you have to appear in person, as they will ask your ID. That’s how Alkosto keeps their clients coming back.

*with cash it was only 1 USD = 2600 COP. Interesting difference, isn’t it? The bank rate is better than the “street” rate.