One fact made the question of cash very straightforward—Ecuador uses the U.S dollar as its currency. No money changing required. But the issue of how much cash to bring was a challenging one for us. The major expenses were already paid for—the hotels in both Quito and Guayaquil, meals once the tour started, the flight from Quito to the islands and back to Guayaquil, the National Park entrance fee, the day trip to the cloud forest. But tipping on the boat and in the hotels, meals during our 2 days before the rest of the group came, transportation—how much should we bring? We ended up bringing much more cash than we really needed—about $1,500 each. Especially once we were on the boat, few opportunities presented themselves for spending cash: beer, wine, or sodas at the bar; souvenirs in Puerto Ayora and at the Baltra airport; snacks at the grocery store in Puerto Ayora… The group did some shopping in Guayaquil the last night we were in Ecuador (woven bags, handmade blouses, a Panama hat—did you know that Panama hats are made, not in Panama, but in Ecuador?); but all I bought was a large bar of scrumptious dark chocolate. Z and I probably spent less than $300 in purchases (beer on the boat, t-shirts, hats, incidental food), even including our independent activities in Quito. You may spend more or less, but perhaps our ballpark figure gives you something to start with. Be sure you have ~$30/person in cash at the airport when you leave Ecuador for home—a departure tax. It has to be paid in cash. (The charge may increase, so check on how much it will be before you leave.)
We read that the bills should be $20s and should be in very clean shape—no writing, no rips, no wrinkles. Hmmm… I never really got a good explanation of why that might be the case; some murmurs about the Ecuadorean banks and counterfeiting… That was a bit of challenge; we had to go to 3 of our bank’s branches to get that many clean, crisp $20s. (The bank tellers all knew what we were talking about, so it was just a matter of getting enough of the bills.) One teller mentioned that her parents had gotten the best bills they could and had then ironed them, to make sure they were as crisp as possible. Well, it’s a sign of how anxious we were that we indeed did this. (Luckily, my 40-year-old iron, which I hadn’t used in at least 30 years, still worked.)
Once we had them as crisp as possible, the next challenge was to figure out how to carry them without folding them again. Sigh. I finally put my stash in an old checkbook cover, which worked well. Ironically, no one in Ecuador seemed to care that much about the state of the bills (although perhaps that was because they were in such good shape). What we could have used were more small bills–$5s and $1s. During our one day of touring Quito on our own, several places had trouble making change when we paid our entrance fees with $20s. In one case, we gave them a $20 bill, went through the exhibit, and stopped back at the desk to get our change. Rather an act of faith on our part, I’d say. But they remembered us and gave us our $10 change when we came back. Whew!
People worry a lot about tipping, especially on the boat. I have no hard-and-fast rule to offer, but I can share what I read and what we did. Some travelers have reported that they were told a tip equivalent to 10% of the cost of the trip was appropriate. Yikes! That would have an additional $700+ for us. (You can read one horror story in the gray box here.) Elderhostel/Exploritas had made it very clear that a modest tip had already been included in the fees paid; the Tip Top literature was also clear that the crew were paid appropriate wages and received additional benefits. So we were only to tip for service above and beyond the call of duty. The crew and the naturalist guide were all superb. We decided we would give Carlos (the naturalist guide) a tip equivalent to $10/day/person ($140) and the same amount to the crew ($140). Another “rule of thumb” states a tip of about 3% – 5% for the naturalist guide and a similar amount for the rest of the crew is fine—and give more if you felt you had exceptional service. You can read about the respectful way Carlos handled this tricky topic just above the gray box here. Honestly, I just wish all boat would include a moderate tip in the cost you pay, as Elderhostel did. Tipping is such an anxiety-ridden topic…
We had 3 concerns with the luggage we were going to check—the linear limits of the airlines, the weight restriction on the flight from Quito to the Galápagos Islands, and being able to stow our luggage in the boat cabin. The airlines (we were flying American Airlines) restricted the total linear inches—height + length + depth—to 62”. At least with American, they were serious about the dimensional restriction: If you checked an overweight bag (up to 70 pounds), the charge was an additional $50; but an over-dimension bag, $150. Which could be charged each way, if they wanted to. Okay. We were motivated to not exceed that limit.
We decided to research collapsible duffels with wheels. Since we would be gone for 12 days, we needed bags as big as we could get but also as lightweight as we could get. And since we’re not getting any younger, we really needed the wheels, even though they added some weight. Our days of slinging baggage over our shoulders and high-tailing it through the airport to the ticket counter are over (if they ever existed in the first place). We first went to REI; the wheeled duffels there were either too small for all of our stuff or too big to meet the dimensional limits. Z spent a good amount of time on the Internet, checking out what was there. He found a pair that looked good—just made the dimensional cut-off, not too heavy, a reasonable price—and he ordered them. However, when they arrived, he found out that the dimensions posted on the Web site were the internal dimensions; when you added in the extra inches from the wheels and the handle, it was 2” over the dimensional limit. Back to the drawing board. We eventually settled on a pair of Victorinox bags (the E-motion 360)—yes, the company that makes Swiss Army knives (the bags each have a special pocket for your Swiss Army knife, not included)—that were considerably more expensive but that were completely collapsible and clearly stated the external dimensions. (You can see 1 at the right, bedecked with extra colors. Z always sews brightly colored fleece on our bags, for easier identification—in case being bright red isn’t enough to make them stand out. If you click on the photo, you can read about it on the Victorinox Web site. You can probably find cheaper prices elsewhere on the Internet, though.) (Update, 5/7/2016—It appears that Victorinox no longer makes this bag. It’s possible that one might be available via eBay or other similar Web sites.) We ordered those; they arrived; and, just like Goldilocks, these were just right.
The 44-pound limit from Quito to the Galápagos turned out to be much less worrisome. Our bags with all our stuff came in easily under 40 pounds each. One thing working for us was that, since we were heading to warm weather, most of the clothes we packed were really lightweight. Also, since most were nylon, polyester, or other no-ironing-needed fabric, I pretty much just rolled things up like little jelly rolls and packed them on their end. It was interesting how much fit in the duffel that way.
And finally, stowing the duffels in the cabin on the boat turned out to also be easily accomplished. Because the floor of the duffel unsnapped and lay flat, they really did compress when empty to a very small size. Both fit in the bottom of the closet in our cabin. Whew on all counts!
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