Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays To All

I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and hope everyone is enjoying the holidays!

My personal tradition is collecting Christmas tree ornaments while traveling and sometimes I adapt key rings as ornaments.  These ornaments are a great way to remember our trips and the special birds we saw, also a great way to support the crafts people who make the ornaments!

dscn7774

dscn7775 dscn7776 dscn7777 dscn7778 dscn7779 dscn7781 dscn7782 dscn7783 dscn7784 dscn7785 dscn7786 dscn7788 dscn7789 dscn7790 dscn7791

But no matter how many bird ornaments I buy, I have never had LIVE birds take up residence in my Christmas tree!

How To Inspect A Rental Car Upon Pick-up

Sometimes I manage to get discounted rates that include collision damage waiver on a rental car but Hertz in Trinidad wasn’t one of these times.  I was relying on my credit card’s insurance by paying for the car with the card.  However I really didn’t want to have to stress over nicks and dings and go back and forth with Hertz and the credit card insurer so I always take a few precautions when picking up the car.  I am not picking on Hertz and we didn’t have any problems with this rental but I am illustrating what everyone should do when they pick up a rental car from any company to avoid hassle.

dscn3975

I take photos of the car from every angle both on pick up and return.  dscn3557

Get a photo of the fuel gauge so you can prove you returned it with the correct amount.  In some places it won’t always be on full so you have to match whatever it was when you picked it up.dscn3558

Get close-ups of any nicks and dings.  Usually a smartphone camera is fine.  dscn3559 dscn3560

Check the tires (tyres) and make sure they are in good condition.dscn3561 dscn3562

I have read a lot of horror stories about people getting blamed for small damages that were already on the car because they didn’t take a few precautions.  Don’t forget to take the same photos on the return.  Try to avoid returning a car after hours.  When the employees see you being extremely cautions they are less likely to try to pin something on you and will move on to someone who seems to be an easier mark.  Hopefully most car hire companies are honest but there are bad apples in every bunch so better safe than sorry.

Goodbye South America & Hello Caribbean

Over the last few months, I have taken you on a journey through Ecuador & Colombia and showed you how you can plan a similar trip for yourself.  Before I begin the Caribbean series, I wanted to reflect on Ecuador & Colombia and some things I learned.

  1.  Do your homework!  We had a decent success rate for seeing target birds, most of which were parrot species.  Researching on eBird, Cloudbirders, Surfbirds and some private blogs was the key to knowing where to look for the birds.
  2. You will see a lot more birds with a local guide.  It is not necessary to do a group tour, you can often book a guide on the spot through your accommodation.
  3. Having said that, you get a better choice of guides if you are on a tour as they snap up the best guides months in advance.
  4. Don’t worry if your guide doesn’t speak English as long as they know the birds.  They will be able to identify the birds from a book or a local checklist printed in Spanish and English.
  5. If you can’t find a birding guide, hire a car & driver for a day trip.
  6. Use miles to reach otherwise expensive places like the Galapagos.
  7. Be prepared for anything!  I thought I had done a decent job of preparing but the earthquake in Ecuador could have been a disaster if it had struck when we were in Guayaquil or even between Mindo and the coastal area.
  8. Birding in cloud forests is FRUSTRATING!  I don’t know how many times I saw birds flitting through trees only to disappear into a sea of clouds.  The visibility was terrible and the photography even worse.  In these cases, I did much better with binoculars or a scope if my guide had one.  to track the birds rather than trying to focus a red dot on a fast-flying bird.
  9. High elevation cloud forests are even worse!  Not only do you have the weather conditions, you also have to contend with altitude sickness!
  10. Take time out to relax, get a massage or soak in a hot spa.  Even dedicated birders need to recharge their batteries-human as well as camera!

We did have an amazing time and saw some pretty amazing birds including the Antpitta family which I hadn’t been familiar with but we (especially my husband) were looking forward to getting back to sea level and sunny weather.

dscn3200

Next cab off the rank is amazing, colourful Trinidad!

Birding At High Elevations & Altitude Sickness

I’m sure most people have heard of altitude sickness and probably associate it with mountain climbers.  We’ve all seen tv shows about people getting sick when trying to climb Mt Everest.  But one thing you may not know is that some birding hotspots are located at high elevations and birders do need to take precautions for altitude sickness when traveling to these spots.

List of Highest Large Cities in the World

List of Highest Cities in the World

If you check out some of these cities, you will notice a few that you may visit or transit while headed to birding hotspots.

SYMPTOMS OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS

Everyone handles altitude differently so you need to know at what point you will start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness such as:

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting, excessive flatulation.
  • Fatigue or weakness headache with or without dizziness or lightheadedness, insomnia
  • Peripheral edema (swelling of hands, feet, and face)
  • Nose bleeding, shortness of breath upon exertion
  • Persistent rapid pulse
  • Pins and needles, general malaise

You should consult with a doctor about potential effects of altitude sickness and inquire about appropriate precautions.

From previous travels, I know that I get a bit lightheaded, lose my appetite and sometimes experience nausea or vomiting when I was in Lhasa & Cuzco.  Both cities are over 11,151 feet (3,399 m).  During our most recent trip to Colombia, I noticed fatigue and shortness of breath when we were in the Paramo.  My husband got especially woozy-enough so I felt we had to go back down a bit lower.  We had previously been to Quito at 9,350 feet (2,850 m)with no ill-effects, maybe just a bit of fatigue.  So now we have an idea that around 2800 meters is where we have to be extra careful.  I would actually prefer to avoid going above this elevation altogether, or at least not having Ina go that high since I was able to tolerate 3400 meters in the Paramo.

SOME ACTIONS BIRDERS MAY NEED TO TAKE

Avoid the higher elevations.  We plan to visit Bolivia in 2018 and most people fly into La Paz which is at 3640 metres with the airport even higher at 4150 metres.  We will avoid La Paz and fly into Santa Cruz.  We won’t be going higher than Cochabamba at 2570 metres.

Take medications.  The drug acetazolamide (trade name Diamox) may help some people making a rapid ascent to sleeping altitude above 2,700 metres (9,000 ft).  It requires a doctor’s prescription.

Ascend more slowly/Get back down to lower altitudes.  One example I came across was traveling from Cuzco to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge.  The actual lodge is fairly low, under 2000 metres but you have to go over a pass that’s over 4000 metres enroute!  We would be doing this in a minibus and hopefully they take the pass slowly but at least we can descend by nightfall.

Just one more thing birders need to be aware of!

Experiencing The Big Earthquake In Ecuador

I am actually writing this post 4 months after the actual earthquake which happened on 16 April 2016 but I remember it so vividly.  We were staying at the beautiful Cabanas San Isidro.  It was around 7pm and we had just sat down to dinner.  We had been joined by the very friendly manager, Alejandro and were talking about birds.  The cook had just brought our the first course, the soup and placed it in front of us.  Spoons in hand we were about to dig in when we felt the earth move.  The soup was sloshing around in the bowl and I was wondering what the hell was going on.  Alejandro said, “Earthquake”.  He was outwardly calm but I could tell he was nervous.  The kitchen staff were also putting on a brave face but they were also very nervous.  We all desperately wanted to know what was happening, where the earthquake was centered, how bad it was and if we were in danger but there was no wifi, tv or cell phone signal.

I was extremely nervous as we were on top of a mountain, it had been raining and I was afraid of mudslides.  Finally Alejandro got through to someone and told us the earthquake was in a small town (Pedernales) near the coast which I was not familiar with.  He no longer seemed nervous so I also relaxed a bit and we continued with dinner.  The staff had also relaxed and no longer seemed nervous.  We finished or dinner with no further news, the tv still wasn’t working.  After dinner, one of the staff walked us back to the cabin and stopped along the way to show us the owl.  It took me a while to get to sleep that night as I was afraid of aftershocks.

The next morning, the guide showed up early as agreed to take us birding and everything seemed normal so I kind of “forgot” there had been an earthquake.  The rest of the day was exactly as planned – birding, breakfast, ride to bus stop, bus to Guango Lodge, see hummingbirds, bus to Quito Airport and check in for flight.  The roads were all normal, no traffic jams and most flights were running on schedule.  We used Priority Pass to enter the lounge and get access to wifi.  Only then did I learn what a devastating earthquake it had been!  I Googled “Ecuador earthquake” and read in stunned disbelief of the horror and devastation it had wreaked upon the small towns near the epicenter.  It was a 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale and 661 people were killed and 27,732 people injured.  Here are some links to details and news coverage of the earthquake.

Wikipedia Article

CNN #1

CNN #2

This map shows where we were (purple dot), and the epicenter of the earthquake is highlighted.  I also showed the closest we had been to the epicenter when we were in Mindo.  I am not sure how bad it was there but if the earthquake had been a week earlier, we could have been caught a lot worse than we were.

earthquake map

Sitting there in the Quito airport lounge, I silently said some prayers for the people who had been killed, injured or lost their homes in the earthquake.  Guayaquil had felt it very badly and even had a bridge collapse.  We didn’t have long before the flight left so it took me awhile to get all the details.  I wouldn’t have wifi again until the hotel in Santa Marta, Colombia.

It’s a scary thing to think that we could get caught up in a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane while traveling.  At least with hurricanes you can avoid the season but earthquakes are completely unpredictable.  You are  more vulnerable when you are traveling too.  You don’t know the area, where to go for help and other people around will have their own families to worry about.  Since I got lucky this time, I can’t speak from experience what to do if you are caught in an earthquake while traveling but I did find a couple articles with some good advice.  If you will be traveling to a country that has a history of earthquakes, it’s a good idea to print them or save a copy to your hard drive as you may not have internet after an earthquake strikes.

BBC Travel

Peter Greenberg

The other thing I noticed is when I finally did get online, Facebook detected that I had logged in from a disaster area and had a button I could click to let friends and family know we were ok.

Bus Travel Through Eastern Ecuador

When I was planning this trip, the one thing that worried me was that it was really hard to find information on bus transport along the road between Coca & Quito that would pass by Wildsumaco, Cosanga (Cabanas San Isidro) and Guango Lodge.  It turned out to be as easy as standing on the roadside (or sitting at a bus stop) and hailing the next bus to pass which never took longer than 20 minutes (that could have just been good luck).  None of them were full, in fact they were mostly empty enough that we could each claim a bank of 2 seats and stretch out.  The buses were also very cheap, between $3-8 for each leg.  In the next few photos you can see what the buses were like and see some of the scenery along the way.  It was cool to see signs promoting conservation!

WILDSUMACO TO COSANGA

DSCN2276 DSCN2277 DSCN2278

Since our bus was headed to Tena, we had to jump out at the crossroads and hail a Quito bound bus-which pulled up just as we were crossing the street!DSCN2279 DSCN2281 DSCN2280 DSCN2282 DSCN2284 DSCN2285 DSCN2286

It was pouring rain as we pulled over by the Cosanga bus stop.  We had been told to go to a small restaurant and call the lodge when we arrived, so braved the rain to walk along the road back towards the town to find the restaurant.DSCN2287 DSCN2288

COSANGA TO GUANGO LODGE

After leaving the lodge, they dropped us at the same bus stop and we hailed a bus after a few minutes.  This trip took place the day after the earthquake and since we had no internet, we were yet unaware of how much damage was done elsewhere in Ecuador.  As you can see, these roads were perfectly fine, you would never know the earthquake had been felt in the region.DSCN2445 DSCN2446

This bus was featuring a Bollywood film of all things!DSCN2447 DSCN2449

The weather was still rainy and glum as we took the hour long ride to Guango Lodge.  Coming from the Amazon, the lodge is on the right side so keep an eye out if the driver doesn’t seem familiar with it.DSCN2451 DSCN2452 DSCN2453 DSCN2454 DSCN2455

GUANGO LODGE TO QUITO AIRPORT

Since Guango Lodge is best known for hummingbirds, we only stayed there for a couple hours before heading back out to the main road to get another bus.  There was no shelter from the rain this time and we waited around 20 minutes before we were finally rescued by a bus.

DSCN2591 DSCN2592

We gradually came out of the mountains and started descending into Quito.  The bus would go all the way into the city bus terminal but for people headed to the airport, you need to jump out at Pifo and take a taxi.  Tell the bus driver you are going to El Aeropuerto and you probably won’t be the only one going there.

I don’t remember exactly how much the taxi was, it was around $10-ish and we probably got ripped off but you are pretty much a captive audience and they know you probably have a flight to catch.  It’s less than 10 minutes from Pifo to the airport – easy!  The best thing is that you don’t need to schedule a day in Quito to make a flight the next morning.  In fact it’s probably easier to get to the airport from Guango or Cabanas San Isidro since there is only one road and no traffic!  So why not spend your last night in Ecuador in a beautiful eco-lodge?DSCN2593 DSCN2595 DSCN2596

Getting From Buenaventura To Guayaquil

This is a very easy trip to do on public transport.  After lunch at the Umbrellabird Lodge, we had the guide drop us at the main road between Pinas and Machala.  We only had to wait about 15 minutes until a bus passed heading to Machala.

It was pretty cheap, around $5 for the two of us and the bus wasn’t full so we could spread out.

DSCN0792

The scenery wasn’t that exciting, lots of banana plantations.DSCN0793

Ecuadorian buses are pretty comfortable but for some reason they keep the bathrooms locked.  They wouldn’t let me use it even after asking the driver but they did pull into a petrol station and let me off to use that bathroom.  I tried to get the wifi working but couldn’t find the signal and no one on the bus seemed to know how to use it.DSCN0794 DSCN0795

This is the bus from Machala to Guayaquil.  It took around 3 hours.  Coming from Pinas, you don’t have to go all the way into Machala.  There is a turn off to Guayaquil and about half the bus got off and switched buses here, including us.  This bus was full but still no wifi or toilet usage.DSCN0797

Here we are entering Guayaquil just before sunset.  The whole trip was around 5 hours, we left just after lunch so 12:30ish and got to Guayauil by 5:30pm-ish.  IIRC it was $16 for us both.DSCN0801 DSCN0802 DSCN0803

There are plenty of taxis at the Guayaquil bus terminal and you should only use official taxis for your safety.  It cost about $5 to go to the hotel which was downtown near the Malecon.DSCN0804 DSCN0805 DSCN0806 DSCN0807

If you are in Guayaquil wanting to go to Buenaventura, simply do the whole thing in reverse.  Get a bus to Machala and tell them you want to transfer to Pinas so they drop you at that little transit office at the turn off.DSCN0808

I have no idea what this big statue is but it was pretty cool looking!

Breakfast When Birding

Many hotels and eco-lodges include breakfast in the room rates.  In fact, the more remote lodges that don’t have access to a village or someplace where people can go for meals will have all-inclusive packages built around the optimal birding times.  Breakfast will either be served REAL early, like 5am before you go birding, taken with you as a boxed breakfast of sandwiches, fruit and a juice box or you will go birding first, brought back to the lodge for a main breakfast, then go back out birding.

Any lodge that caters to birders should be no problem, they are used to our needs.  But what happens when you stay in a normal hotel and plan your own birding excursions?  Yesterday, two fellow travel bloggers pointed out scenarios when breakfasts are not served at convenient times.

Melinda of “Magic of Miles” posted that the breakfast sometimes ends too early for people who want to spend a leisurely morning in bed, then have a late breakfast.  This would also be the case for those who want to spend the morning birding, then come back for your buffet breakfast.

Brian Cohen of “The Gate” brought up the opposite problem – you have an early flight (or in our case want to leave early for birding) and the breakfast isn’t open yet.

In my situation where I am traveling on a tight budget I hate passing up a free meal or one that has been built into the price I paid for the room.  I try to use hotel points in larger cities such as Guayaquil and Panama City and in these cases the breakfast usually isn’t included.  Since I do a lot of research in advance, I will either ask the guide where we can get breakfast or buy something at a local supermarket to bring along.  If I am doing a self-drive birding trip, I will find out where we can eat near the location in advance and make sure I have enough cash or pre-purchased food from a supermarket.

If the breakfast is included and I don’t want to waste it, I will ask the hotel to give us a packed breakfast we can bring with us.  Most hotels will do this willingly, it actually saves them money over having us spend an hour at the buffet leisurely eating as we wish!  Depending on how far the hotel is from the birding site and if we are using a rental car, we may go out birding early, come back for the buffet, then go back out again.  If we do this, we usually don’t have to bother with lunch as we will be quite full so it saves a bit more money.

It’s also a good idea to find out the public conveniences (or lack thereof) in your birding location.  You don’t want to drink all that coffee and find yourself being constantly “inconvenienced”!  I tend to stick with water which I sip sparingly to keep hydrated but minimize inconveniences, then step up the hydration when we come back for lunch and siesta.

As always, doing your homework and being prepared goes a long way towards making your birding trip a success!

 

How To Use Promo Codes On Hotels & Eco-lodges – Hotels.com

Every month or so Hotels.com comes out with promo codes that are sometimes targeted or sometimes open to anyone but can give you at least 10% off a booking.  Many eco-lodges now list their properties with Hotels.com and other online booking sites as it gets them a wider audience.  While they do pay a commission to the booking site, they get customers they would otherwise not get if it was too hard to find them and book them.  If you use a promo code issued by Hotels.com, it doesn’t come from their income, it comes from Hotels.com and you pay for it indirectly by not accruing Welcome Rewards.

There is currently a “Get $40 off when you spend $300 or more and use Paypal” coupon.  Use promo code “paypalus40” in the box shown below.  The full T&Cs are here.

Not every property can be used with these coupons but here’s how you can find the ones that work.  In most cases you can exclude chain hotels right off the bat. You can use these instructions for any promo code, not just the Paypal one.

1. USE THE SIDEBAR FILTER AND TICK “REDEEM FREE NIGHTS”

This will get a list of hotels that you can use coupons and vouchers on.  They will be properties that you can pay in advance for.  It doesn’t work if you pay once you check in.  If the word ‘redeem’ is crossed out, try again.

hotels1 hotels2

2. SELECT “CHOOSE ROOM”, THEN THE “PAY NOW” BUTTON hotels3 hotels4

 

3. IF THERE IS A MINIMUM SPEND, THE SUBTOTAL MUST BE OVER THE MINIMUM BEFORE TAXES.

In the example, we need to spend at least $300 to get a $40 discount.hotels5

4. YOU WILL SEE THE DISCOUNT APPLIED BEFORE YOU GO TO THE FINAL PAYMENT SCREEN hotels6

Top 8 Things To Avoid When Planning A Trip Using Miles

No sooner have I returned from the big South American birding trip, I now have to think of NEXT year’s trip.  The 330 day window is approaching for the outbound and I like to book as soon as I see the flights loaded.  Of course we are using miles from various accounts and there has been some tweaking done because of the American and Virgin Velocity devaluations.  This is why I have delayed the trip reports but hopefully I will soon have the important flights booked and can relax a bit.  It has brought to mind a few things I have to avoid while planning “The Godmother of all African Adventures“.

TOP 8 THINGS TO AVOID

  1.  Major public holidays – not only in my home country of Australia but I want to avoid holidays in the destination countries as well.  It is much harder to get award flights at these times.  I check this using Time and Date. 
  2.  School holidays – the last thing we need is for national parks to be crowded and booked solid.  Doesn’t make for peaceful birding!  In this case, I want to avoid South African school holidays while we are in Namibia and Zambia.
  3. Ramadan – We’ll be using Etihad and possibly Qatar Airlines for this itinerary so I want to avoid traveling during Ramadan.  We like to go into the cities during layovers and have a couple days in Dubai for shopping so don’t want to deal with not being able to eat and drink at our normal times.  This makes the trip a challenge as we want to avoid traveling over Easter on the Aussie end and be home well before Ramadan starts and still get reasonably good weather.  Which brings us to…
  4. Rainy Seasons – we couldn’t avoid all of the rainy seasons because this itinerary is in vastly different parts of Africa but I kept it to a minimum as much as possible.
  5. Major sporting events like the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, etc.  Also makes award tickets hard to get and airports will be crowded.
  6. Major elections – I like to avoid them as sometimes they are treated as holidays and services are not available or curtailed because everyone is watching the results come in.
  7. Airline miles devaluations – I try my best to book before a devaluation takes affect.  I couldn’t help the AA one which happened on 22 March as our trip next year can’t begin until after Easter 2017 but I had to reverse the order of the trip to avoid the Velocity devaluation of Etihad partner awards.
  8. Personal and family events planned for 2017 – I had to tweak the dates to avoid being away at certain times when we need to be home.

My goal here is easily booked award tickets to go birding at an optimal time when the weather is decent, everything is open and doing business as usual and the parks won’t be crowded.