Galapagos Islands

Galapagos FlagTechnically part of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are so unique, we thought they deserved a page of their own. Situated roughly 600 miles west of Ecuador, these islands were discovered in 1535 by the Spanish, and later claimed by Ecuador in 1832. But the first visitors to the Galapagos–the fauna that’s protected there today–arrived millions of years before.

The archipelago is made up of 13 major islands, 8 smaller islands, and 40 islets. Man’s history in the Galapagos is an interesting one. The earliest human residents were pirates, followed by whalers, who found they could gather food and water there on the long journeys across the Pacific. Made famous by the English naturalist Charles Darwin in the mid-1800s, who’s examination of local wildlife contributed to his famous theory of natural selection, the Galapagos eventually became the site of the Darwin Station, a research organization dedicated to understanding and protecting the Galapagos environment.

The islands became Ecuador’s first national park, and were declared a World Heritage site in 1978.

Wildlife in the Galapagos
galapagos Map The Galapagos Islands are most famous for their amazing wildlife. Mostly sheltered from the evolutionary forces that have helped to shape the rest of the world (namely the influence of man), the creatures of the Galapagos have evolved some very unique traits, helping them survive in their own different environment. Most famous are the Galapagos tortoise, the terrestrial and marine inguanas, lava lizards, and sea turtles. There are also a number of different types of dolphin in the seas around the islands, as well as whales, sea lions, and a wide variety of crustaceans.

The Galapagos are a birder’s paradise, offering sightings of such otherworldly species as the blue- and red-footed, and masked boobie; the many types of Darwin’s finches; and the unusual Galapagos penguins–the northernmost branch of the species.

Traveling in the Galapagos
Most people who visit the Galapagos do so via cruise ship, which they board once they arrive on the islands. There are many flights that will take you, first internationally, to Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland, then to one of the two island airports in the Galapagos.

In terms of comfort and accomodations, the most important aspect of touring the islands is the cruise you book. Do your research and be sure to find one of acceptable price, comfort, and one that offers the various activities you’re most interested in.

Both land and sea activities are popular on the Galapagos. Many people like to snorkel with seals, dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and other aquatic life. Birders have some of the most exciting opportunities to see species not found anywhere else on earth. And hikes and walks are often full of wildlife spotting, as well as beautiful landscapes and flora.

Weather in the Galapagos
Much of the year the temperatures stay cool [typically around 20¡C (68¡F)]. If you plan on snorkeling, the warmer rainy season, from January to April, is the best time. El Ni–o hits hard about one winter every decade, making for very unpleasant and inconvenient travel conditions.

The high season in the Gal‡pagos tends to be mid-December through January and June to August, when most of the vacationing foreign visitors arrive.

Galapagos Islands (Archipelago de Colón) Information:
12,500 (est.)
Square Miles:
4,897 sq. miles (7,880 sq. km)
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (pop 2,800)
Official Language:
Spanish (English used widely)
Catholic, others
Major products/industries:


Guatemala FlagAfter more than three decades of civil war, Guatemala is now emerging as a viable and popular tourist destination. The breadth of Central America’s ecology, culture, and history can be found in Guatemala in a distilled form: ancient Mayan ruins and soaring volcanoes stand side-by-side, and the government’s tourism-focused agenda has encouraged a rich and educational lexicon of Mayan history to arise.

Some say the political and economic pressure that demands the indigenous population put itself on display amounts to another form of oppression, for which Guatemala was known through much of its history. Despite this, indigenous Guatemalan culture lives on in the ruins and rituals of Mayans past and present. Recently, rural villages have been successful in coaxing travelers away from the Guatemala City/Antigua area, into the vibrant wilderness that helps define Guatemala as one of the most interesting and well-preserved countries in Central America.

It must be mentioned, however, that violent crimes exist–particularly in larger cities–and tourists should be aware of their surroundings and cautious of potentially threatening situations.

Traveling in Guatemala
Guatemala MapIt’s easy to get by in Guatemala on the cheap. A one-plate meal will go for less than US$2, while fruit and snacks from the markets are practically free. Camping is also quite cheap, and bus trips cost around US$1 an hour. A hotel room with bathroom, plus a couple of meals, won’t generally run you more than US$25 a day.

It’s hard to exchange anything other than U.S. dollars, but if you do have a different currency, go to the casas de cambio in the Flores or Guatemala City airports. ATMs are available sporadically in Guatemala City (and not available in most other areas), and most banks will give you an advance on your Visa card over the counter. MasterCard, however, is almost completely useless in most of Guatemala.

Waiters expect a tip of around 10%, on top of the 10% IVA (value-added tax). Hotels charge a 10% tourist tax in addition to the 10% IVA. Most hotels and shops have fixed prices, but you’ll be expected to bargain at markets.

Health Risks in Guatemala
Health risks include cholera, dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid, and dysentery. It is advised that you consult a doctor about what shots you may need before traveling to Guatemala.

Weather in Guatemala

November through May is the dry season and, climatalogically, the most pleasant time to be in Guatemala. Along with summer holidays, however, this is also the busiest season for tourists. Although the rain may seem like an imposition during the wet season, it’s worth planning your trip for this time of year if you want to avoid crowds and find bargains.

Republic of Guatemala Information
North / Central AmericaPopulation: 12.6 million
Government: Democratic
Square Miles: 42,500 sq mi (109,000 sq km)
Capitol: Guatemala City (pop: 2 million)
Official Languages: Spanish, Gar’funa, and 21 Mayan languages
People: 56% mestizo/ladino descent, 44% Mayan descent
Religion: Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Mayan-Catholic fusion
Major products/industries: Coffee, sugar, bananas, textiles and clothing, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, natural rubber, flowers, cardamom, tourism

United States

United States Flag“The land of the free and home of the brave.” This is the motto of the United States, but “free” has nothing to do with traveling there. Hotels, campgrounds, and national parks will all cost you if you want to go. Of course, this doesn’t mean traveling in the U.S. is impossible without loads of cash. Road tripping and staying with friends is just one way to save on the costs associated with being in America, and there is so much to do and see there, you can be virtually anywhere in the country and still have many interesting opportunities open to you. Whether you’re looking for islands, mountains, or historical heritage, the United States has it, and it’s never far from where you are.

As for the people, you’ll find all sorts. From rushed and manic city dwellers to laid-back country folk, there’s so much variety–and no lack of strong opinions just waiting to be expressed–it can seem at times like each American is cut from a different cloth, and that’s not far from the truth… The great American melting pot, some say, is much more like a tossed salad of cultures, all living next to and, generally, in harmony with each other, but very few are willing to give up their own heritage in the name of total conformity. That’s what keeps the United States interesting: Americans are never just Americans–they all have their own story to tell.

Traveling in the United States
United States MapTraveling in the United States can be hard if you want to cover a lot of ground. Unlike many countries in Europe that have great rail systems to transport you across the continent at a reasonable price, being mobile in the United States calls mostly for cars, buses, and airplanes. This makes going long distances expensive, so many people plan to visit one region at a time, be it New England, the Pacific Northwest, or other. But don’t worry about limiting yourself: there is so much variety in the U.S. that you could spend months in any one part of the country before running out of places to go.

The national park system in the United States is the world’s oldest (beginning with the protection, in 1872, of the Yellowstone wilderness in Wyoming and Montana), and currently encompasses a vast expanse of resources, from protected land to historic landmarks, museums, monuments, and more, across the nation.

Beyond the National Park Service’s managed land, each state has its own park service that acts as a microcosm of the federal system, adding to the already large amount of protected areas. But despite all of this, the U.S., especially along the coasts, can seem to be a single megalopolis, with cities connected by suburbs laden with strip malls and 10-lane highways. Still, even within these crowded streets are points of interest and historical significance. For example, some cities–like Boston–seem to have so completely embraced their histories that one can have a difficult time differentiating between the old world and the new. Others, such as Miami, have taken on whole cultures entirely unto themselves, where the influence of concentrated waves of immigration has worked to create almost separate countries, within the country.

But there are certain things that remain ever-present and all-American, no matter where you are. Take, for example, Super Bowl Sunday. Baseball may be the official national pastime, but (American) football’s huge popularity makes it a close contender for that title. For anyone traveling to the U.S. in late January, here’s a tip: get yourself invited to a Super Bowl party and you’ll get a taste of America in its truest form.

Weather in the United States
The weather in the United States varies tremendously depending on where you are. Anywhere along the southern border will have warm weather almost year round. While in the north, there are long, cold winters and beautiful but short summers. The autumn in New England is famous for it’s vibrant colors, when the leaves change, getting ready to fall. And summer, along the all of the coastlines, draws throngs of tourists seeking respite from the heat and humidty. Winter sends heat seekers south to the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and southern California coasts; while others are attracted to the snowy mountains in the east and west, for skiing and other cold-weather activities. The Pacific Northwest is notoriously rainy all year long (though the mountains and temperate rainforest’s more than make up for the otherwise inclement weather), while northern California is just as notorious for being cold and clammy in the summer months when, ironically, most of the out-of-town visitors arrive. [To quote a great American author, Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent, was a summer in San Francisco.”] The deserts of the Southwest can be dangerously frigid at night in the winter, and oppressively hot during the day in the summer, so most people interested in these areas go in the shoulder seasons, when they can enjoy the spectacular scenery without worrying too much about the threats of extreme temperature.

As always, a good rule of thumb is to do your research beforehand: check out weather reports in advance of your trip and talk to some people in the know. Hopefully you won’t get rained on, or have to run for the shelter of an air-conditioned room, and can enjoy the glory of the United States at its finest.

United States Information
Population: 285,000,000
Government: Democracy
Square Miles: 3,618,000 sq miles (9,370,000 sq km)
Capitol: Washington D.C. (pop: 570,000)
Official Languages: English, Spanish
People: Caucasian (71%), African American (12%), Latino (12%), Asian (4%), Native American (0.9%)
Religion: Protestant (56%), Roman Catholic (28%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%)
Major products/industries: Oil, electronics, computers, automobile manufacturing, aerospace industries, agriculture