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Saturday, May 27, 2017

This Crazy Health Insurance Requirement

When we first came to Ecuador we were told that we might need to prove ourselves healthy. So we went to our doctor and got a letter stating that we were in good health and unlikely to strain the health care system here.

Unlike the US, (yes, that is a dig) they have a socialized health care system here that one could participate in. We never got around to applying and opted to put cash aside every month to pay for medical incidentals. (Dentist, doctor etc.) Until I hurt my leg/hip, we'd spent maybe $200 on such things. 
I guess that when...

Then the ugly head of mismanagement raised its head. This is strictly my opinion, the Ecuadorian government puts the onus on extranjeros that are straining the system as they aren't paying into it.  I guess that's possible, there are a lot of immigrants coming from Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia and  other Latin American countries to try and improve their lot in life. (Aren't we all?) Here, they take care of your medical needs and worry about payment after. Because of that and some North Americans who have also taken advantage of the system, it has left the Ecuadorians to foot the bill. I can see how that might put a strain on a countries budget, especially when the rug has been pulled our from under them in the form of devalued oil. That doesn't mean that bribery, embezzlement, fraud and plain old mismanagement haven't contributed to the situation. The health system is going broke.

...you do stuff like this...
Anyhow, in classic reactive style, they have decided to make health coverage manditory. For the social program (for the two of us) they want 21% of our stated income that we used to apply for the pension visa. (Yes, more than a fifth of our gross income.) So we started checking out other options and the cost of health insurance is SHAMEFUL. (We belong to the tribe of "Insurance-is-mostly-a-money-grab" (Yet, we always buy travel insurance...go figure!) Granted, compared to what is paid in the US (or so we've heard) the rates are low here, but to an innocent Canadian with universal health care benefits back home, it was all rather shocking.
...insurance is a good thing.
We finally found something that was acceptable to us (private coverage), but it's still costing us $115 USD (yay us for being under 65) that we weren't really putting out before.I'm trying not to resent the fact that we are required to pay for something that we'll likely never need. In truth, it's a small price to pay for my freedom here. So, be prepared, the rules are changing (not a surprise) and you might be turned back at the border if you don't have health insurance. You can't say we didn't warn you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Galapagos Grandure - About Our Trip

Spoiler alert: no matter how you do it, it isn't a cheap trip. The islands are over a 1,000 kms off the coast, so you're pretty much trapped prey and, in fairness, it must cost a lot to get goods to the islands.

We weren't really sure how we wanted to do the Galapagos. There's really two options, a cruise or island hopping, the later being more affordable, but providing less access to the far islands. (We've also heard that the water taxis between islands can be quite an adventure on their own - not for those with weak stomachs.)
Hanging out on the top deck

After much debate we opted for a cruise that hit most of the islands we wanted to see. (None seem to hit them all, so you'd have to take multiple cruises.) Most tour companies offer similar routes, either north or south and have a variety of options with regard to number of days. Almost every multi-day tour will meet you at the airport (we landed in Baltra, the other option is San Cristobal). This makes it seem like it might be hard to get to Santa Cruz, where the hotels are, but it really isn't all that difficult. A bus (free), a barge ($1pp) and another bus ($2pp) or taxi ($25 - this can be split with other travellers, if you're feeling friendly) and you're in town (coming back you pay $1.50 extra to get to the bus terminal by taxi, but that's for up to 4 people (driver excluded).

Things to know: there are restrictions on the type of food you can bring to the islands (citrus is definitely out, but KFC is okay...go figure.) You will also have to wait for your bags to be checked out by the dog squad before you can pick them up.You will pay a $20pp transportation fee at the airport before arriving on the islands and will also have to pay $100pp park entry fee for foreigners ($6pp for residence/citizens & $50pp for participating South American countrymen). Cash machines are available in the airports and bigger towns of the Galapagos  Conservation is a big deal in the Galapagos and the airport in Baltra is the world's first LEEDs Gold airport. All the power is taken from three wind turbines on the island and, apparently, doesn't have enough juice to include wifi.

We opted for Latintours - Nemo II. (There's also a Nemo, and Nemo III, with each ship catering to different budgeting needs. See site here.) They are all sailing catamarans with a motor, as well. Double hulls are more stable in the water (less rolling) and we liked the idea that we might get to travel under wind power.  They call it an 8 day cruise, but in reality it's 7 nights with the final day being only a few hours long. 



Under sail - we cheated the motor was going, too.

Covered outdoor dining area
Briefing area and lounge
Our cabin

Here's our itinerary, accompanied by some photos of the islands we visited:

Day 1 - Bachas Beach - our first sea turtle sighting. The visibility wasn't great, but it was an amazing start! (Snorkel and hike)




Day 2 - Plazas Islands and Santa Fe (snorkel and hike)

 

Day 3 - San Cristobal, Kicker Rock (shark city!) and Brujo Hill (snorkel and hike)

Shark hunting!
Play "sea lion or rock" - I dare you!
Day 4 - Espa├▒ola, Suarez Point and Gardner Beach (snorkel, walk and down time)


Day 5 - Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz - Charles Darwin Centre and the Highlands (walk)

At the tortoise sanctuary




Day 6 - Floreana - Champion and Post Office Bay (snorkel and hike) Floreana has kind of a crazy history involving idyllic Germans, a fake Baroness and murder. Click here for a quick summary of the strange goings on. It will open in a new window.

Founded in 1793 and has been in operation ever since.
Letters are hand delivered by travelers.

Day  7 - Bartolome and Chinese Hat(snorkel and hike) this is where we saw the manta's
Lava tunnels



Pinnacle Rock

  
Day 8 - Black Turtle Cove and back to the airport
Black Turtle Bay is a natural sea life nursery
Golden ray school
Sere lava fields - quite a contrast to the sealife
Last minute trips (off season) are fairly easy to come by if you don't mind the uncertainty. Many of our ship mates stayed on Santa Cruz for a few days in search of a good deal. At this time most last minute cruises will expect payment in cash. Because of cash withdrawal limits on your bank card and the weird limits on the machines themselves this might wipe you out.

Tipping: this was a huge stresser for us, even before the trip and a hot topic on travel sites. While our guide made it perfectly clear that tipping is not a requirement, I know how things work in Ecuador. The cost of your cruise will mainly go to the boat owner, tour company and the booking agent will get a cut. (Our advice, deal directly with the cruise company itself, you'll pay a bit less. Here's a good site: Galapagos Cruise Links) Wages here are low and prices on the Galapagos run double to triple what they are on the mainland.(Case in point: Pilsner beer (large bottle) is $2-3 in restaurants on the mainland, on the islands it will cost at least $5.) So while tipping is voluntary, the crew will be at a major financial disadvantage if you skip the monetary gratitude. 
Part of the crew hard at work
Our Captain - Antonio - manning the helm
Some companies suggested 10% of your cruise value (pp) and others suggest a daily rate both for the guide and the crew. Our company suggested $10-15 per day (pp) for the guide and $15-20 per day (pp) to be split equally amongst the crew. (We had 6 crew members, so that doesn't divide too evenly.) They deserved it, our crew worked ridiculously hard to make sure we were happy, safe, well fed and entertained. I am doing the crew a disservice, I didn't take any pictures of the food. They really did an amazing job. We tipped on 7 nights which made it easier on our pocket book and was fair as the last day wrapped up at 8am and the first started at 11am. We did the lower of the range, but it still cost us $350USD. I won't even get into what that is in Canadian dollars.

Many of our cruise mates were caught by surprise. Their cash had been wiped out to pay for the cruise itself and they had no access to bank machines before the end of the cruise. Consider yourself warned about it all. (I know, Aussies, this is particularly hard on you!)

Best time of year: Depending on what you want to see (mating, hatching, whales etc.) different times of year will be better. There is basically a wet season and a dry season. High season is June to August and December and January. Water does get rougher starting from July-December with September & October the absolute worst. We went in "low" season and lucked out majorly. We saw almost everything on our list and some things we didn't even know we wanted to see. Do your research, but keep in mind that Mother Nature doesn't give a fig about your plans and may thwart you regardless of how well you plan. Here's a good place to start: Ecuador Travel Site and the Galapagos Calendar (same site).

Thanks for coming along on our adventure with us. We highly recommend a visit to these amazing islands and the Nemo boats.