Traveling solo abroad: I’m going to the beach in Montanita, Ecuador!
Tips for arranging a solo trip on study abroad.
I am studying abroad through a semester-long program offered by CEDEI, or Centers for Interamerican Studies, and every single “outing” is planned. The group takes day trips almost every weekend, and there are a few weekend trips thrown in the mix as well. This coming week is spring break, in which almost everyone in the spring semester group is heading to the Galapagos Islands, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet (at least in terms of marine animals). Why is this? Well, the Galapagos Islands are volcanic islands that are still being formed by a hotspot in the ocean and the shifting of a couple tectonic plates. The mixing of hot and cold currents, from Panama and Antarctica respectively, have brought many species to the islands, including penguins. From what I have heard, the Galapagos Islands are an absolutely incredible and beautiful place — I would love to have the opportunity to go there someday, but unfortunately this time around cost significantly more than I could afford.
However, I will still be spending my spring break soaking up the sun: I’m going to the beach! Montañita is one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) beaches in Ecuador. Known as somewhat of a gringo beach, this small coastal town is full of inexpensive hostels, surf lessons, and Spanish language classes. My friend and I, both too poor for this semester’s Galapagos excursion, have managed to find a way to spend this next week in paradise — for less than $300, which includes transportation, housing, food, a surf lesson, and a massage. I don’t think the price could get any better — and this week is Carnaval (Mardi Gras) week aka everyone go to the beach week, which makes the price jump slightly.
Tomorrow, we will head up to Guayaquil, a city whose Carnaval celebrations have been compared to those of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, at the tail end of Carnaval to do some sightseeing and to get the first half of our approximately eight-hour bus trip out of the way. We stay in a $15 hostel that night, and head to Montañita in the morning, where we will relax until Saturday, when we spend all day in busses. Thank goodness for affordable and not too uncomfortable public transportation…
But how did we plan this? Well, it took a while. We started by asking our host families and people at school about the best beaches to go to and what sort of price differences we were looking at. Researching hostels in Montañita took several hours, and making reservations was an absolute nightmare. Many places don’t have a phone number listed — just an online “registration” form that is more like a “comments” form on a blog. A couple of the places we looked at had phone numbers that were disconnected. Eventually we settled on an inexpensive hostel with a rooftop patio with hammocks that we fully intend on using to watch the sunset every night. The Espernato Hostel has a communal kitchen, so instead of paying someone to cook for us, we just get to use the utensils and provide our own food (this is another excellent way to save money…especially since most food here is super-cheap).
There are many other ways to save money on a trip like this, but based on our experiences for the past few weeks, here are a few tips for traveling solo while abroad:
1. Research, research, research. Even if you aren’t sure if you’ll be able to travel (we weren’t until a couple weeks ago), do your research anyway. From nightlife, to hostel reviews, to transportation, you will want to know everything you possibly can before setting out for a weekend excursion, or a week at the beach.
2. Make reservations early. The first, and in my personal opinion, best, hostel we found ended up being booked…we think. The phone numbers on the website didn’t work, and we never received a response regarding our “online reservation” (contact form). Had we had more time to figure out everything, we might be staying somewhere slightly nicer, however the place we eventually booked is equally amazing minus the fact that we have to provide all of our own food.
3. Only use a travel agency if (a) you have a lot of extra cash (b) you are really bad at making plans or (c) you don’t know the language of the country you’re living in. Though going through a travel agency is certainly easier and the guarantee of messing something up is significantly lower, it is also VERY EXPENSIVE. The second floor of my school hosts a travel agency, Apullacta, which has coordinated all of our group trips, so my friend and I went to talk to them when we started planning this week-long getaway. The price estimates they gave us were absolutely astronomical, so we decided to just take care of everything on our own. I would only recommend doing this if your conversational skills in the country’s native language are advanced…on the off chance that you screw up, it could get very bad very quickly. Luckily I’m conversational and my friend is basically fluent, though she regularly denies it.
4. Ask questions. Even though travel agencies will often make you pay even to get simple questions answered, there are dozens of other people who would probably be thrilled to give you a hand. My host family was extremely helpful in terms of where I should go and when I should get there to avoid the craziest Carnaval festivities. The director of international programs at CEDEI was able to help me figure out how to book travel (which is actually something you can’t do here until the day before, so I’m about to head over to the bus terminal to buy my ticket to Guayaquil). A friend from the United States who has been living in Ecuador for the past year was able to give me several travel tips, particularly for Guayaquil, which is a city (apparently) known for pickpockets.
5. Make sure you have enough cash. In Ecuador, at least, credit and debit cards are not used very often. If your purchase is less than $20, most of the time cards will not be accepted. The hostel we are staying at charges an 8% surcharge for using plastic instead of cash. I use certain ATMs in Cuenca, and I took out enough money to pay for the essential parts of my trip and for a few souvenirs if I decide to splurge at the beach. Yes, it is dangerous to carry money, so…
6. Keep track of your cash, but at the same time, I would rather carry cash than carry a card that could get stolen or have my bank freeze my account because they don’t recognize the city the ATM is in (this happened to two people on the trip already).
7. Have fun. Hopefully this is an obvious tip, but have fun. Maybe transportation will be a nightmare, or maybe I’ll get to the beachfront hostel only to find out that it really is only worth $28/night (yes, the prices here are that excellent), but I plan on making the best of this coming week and having fun. After all, I am just about halfway through my Ecuadorean adventure, had a grueling finals week last week (our semester is separated into two halves), and totally deserve to have a week to relax.
So on that note, I’m off to the bus station to buy my ticket to Guayaquil. Let the fun begin!