San Cristobal Island Trip Report

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about San Cristobal, and the main city Puerto Baquerizo Moren (PBM).

“San Cristóbal Island is the easternmost island in the Galápagos archipelago, as well as one of the oldest geologically.”

“Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of Galápagos Province, Ecuador. It was founded by General Villamil Playas in the mid-19th century, and takes its name from President Alfredo Baquerizo (1859–1951). Today, fishing is the main activity of the locals, but tourism is on the increase along the waterfront with numerous hotels and shops.”

As you might guess from that description, San Cristobal is the second most developed island out of the three main inhabited islands. As such, there are plenty of options for lodging and food. The problem is, I don’t remember anything about them … I went to San Cristobal in 2021 but didn’t return there in 2024 and wasn’t able to jog my memory about where we stayed and what restaurants we had enjoyed. You’ll just have to go and figure it out for yourself! What I do remember though, were the activities.


Free Activities

  • San Cristobal Visitor’s Center (2021) (free) This visitor’s center (called “interpretation center” in Spanish) was so surprisingly good! It gave a fascinating overview of the Galapagos from a variety of perspectives (human history, geologic history, natural history, etc.) We spent several hours here working our way through the very well put together and informative exhibits. I would highly recommend making time to go here.
  • Downtown Waterfront (2021) (free) The waterfront in downtown PBM was a feast of animal experiences! We were there in November and there were SO MANY sea lions, and many of them with small pups. This is also the spot where I remember seeing the highest concentration of Sally Lightfoot Crabs. I had a lot of easily accessible photography fun down here!

Sally Lightfoot Crabs and sea lion pups captured from the downtown PBM pier, 2021.

Full On Activities

  • Kicker Rock (2021) ($?) The highlight of our time in San Cristobal was the full-day Kicker Rock (called Leon Dormido – Sleeping Lion – in Spanish). It was an absolutely stunning day of snorkeling, food, and sea creature experiences! While we saw plenty of incredible sea creatures, the experience that stuck with me the most was how different the rock appeared over- and underwater. Overwater, it was just a big, bird-poop-stained rock. Underwater, it was a bustling and colorful coral ecosystem! Absolutely gorgeous!
    Sorry, I don’t remember how much we paid for it.

Collection of overwater and underwater shots of Kicker Rock/Leon Dormido, 2021.

This brings to an end my thoughts on and experiences in San Cristobal. From here, you can return to the Galapagos Islands Trip Report article.

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Isabella Island Trip Report

As mentioned in the ferry section of the Galapagos Islands Trip Report, there are sometimes “entrance fees” to certain islands. To start this section off, I’ll mention that Isabella has a $10 entrance fee that has to be paid in cash as soon as you get off the ferry.

With that aside, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Isabella!

“Isabela Island is the largest of the Galápagos Islands, with an area of 4,586 km2 (1,771 sq mi) and a length of 100 km (62 mi). By itself, it is larger than all the other islands in the chain combined, and it has a little under 2,000 permanent inhabitants. The island straddles the equator.”

The main town where the vast majority of the 2,000 permanent inhabitants live is called Puerto Villamil and is where the ferry from Santa Cruz drops you off. From the ferry, you can walk 1km into town or catch a taxi for $1/person.


In 2021, I stayed in Hostal Cerro Azul ($40/night). Overall, it did its job as a place to stay, but I didn’t love it.

In 2024, I stayed in El Rincon del George ($25/night). I will say the reception is rough and I insisted on seeing our room before paying, but the room was completely adequate. There was also a nice rooftop eating area and a public kitchen and fridge which we took advantage of.

Both hotels did their job of giving me a safe and moderately comfortable place to stay, but neither one wowed me. Both would be completely acceptable places to stay, although I’d return to El Rincon del George before I returned to Hostal Cerro Azul. But in reality, next time I go to Isabella, I’ll continue to search for a place to stay that I love!


Similar to the other islands, Puerto Villamil has the expensive tourist trap part of town and the local part of town. But Puerto Villamil doesn’t have near the number of options in either category as the other islands.

In the above map of Puerto Villamil, the red denotes generally expensive streets to eat out in. The yellow denotes mid-priced sections of town. And the green denotes generally cheap places to eat out.

My favorite place we ate in Puerto Villamil were the restaurants in the central market. They’re local places, and the food was good and at a fair price.

My second favorite place we ate was Gracias Madre near the Puerto Villamil central park. It was a bit on the expensive side $20-$30/person, but the food was really good and the vibe of the place was great!

My third choice for food, would be the restaurants along the south side of the central park. You’re looking at about $20/person, but the food is good and the location is great.

I would not advise spending much time at the restaurants on the beachfront. I have not tried them all, but at the ones I did try, the price was high and the quality was low.

  • Side note: I would classify Isabella as a “developing island.” Since it has no major airport, not a lot of tourists make it to Isabella. The ones who do generally only stay for a day or two. This is one of the things that makes Isabella my favorite island, but it does also mean that the tourism service industry (hotels, restaurants, etc.) is not as varied and high quality as on other islands.


Free Activities

  • Hanging Out on the Beach (2021 & 2024) (free) Hands down, Isabella has the best beach for just hanging out. The beach near downtown is big and beautiful. Some of the hotels offer lounge chairs and shade if you are staying there. If you’re not staying at a beachfront hotel (they’re expensive!), I advise checking out the Pink Iguana Bar which has hammocks in the shade of a tree right on the beach. It’s a wonderfully chill vibe and the perfect base for a relaxed beach day!
  • Concha del Perla (2021 & 2024) (free) This is a little bay just off of the pier where you arrive on the island. You have to bring your own snorkeling gear here, but it’s a gorgeous little walk out through a mangrove forest, and then, while snorkeling, you can see a variety of creatures depending on the day. I’ve seen marine iguanas, sea lions, rays, turtles, and a wide variety of fish. Definitely worth a chill hour or two.

A marine iguana swims freely in Isabella’s Concha del Perla, 2021.

  • Flamingo Lagoon (2021 & 2024) (free) This is a lagoon right on the western edge of town that flamingos call home. Both times I’ve gone, I have indeed seen flamingos there, but never very many. I’ve been underwhelmed both times I’ve gone. I would say it is worth stopping by but don’t plan on spending much more than 15 minutes there.

A flamingo searches for food in Isabella’s Flamingo Lagoon, 2021.

Cheap Activities

  • Taxi to Mirador el Mango and Cueva de Sucre (2024) ($50) On this last time in Isabella, we wanted to check out some more inland “attractions” such as The Mango Lookout (Mirador el Mango) and Sucre’s Cave (Cueva de Sucre). To do this, we simply flagged down a taxi in Puerto Villamil (all taxi’s in PV are pickup trucks). Initially, we just wanted to go to Mirador el Mango and he told us he’d take us there and back for $20. We later asked him to also take us to Cueva de Sucre and he added another $20 for a total of $40. We ended up tipping $10, because he was so great, for a total of $50 for the three of us. Mirador el Mango is a lookout platform on top of a small hill, right next to a big mango tree. It gives an excellent view of the town and all the nearby islands. Cueva de Sucre is a small cave system on a private farm. It’s pitch black inside (our taxi driver thankfully had flashlights in his glovebox that he let us use), and is fun to walk around.

Full On Activities

  • Half Day Tintoreras Tour (2024) ($70) As the title states, this is a half-day tour. The Tintoreras are very small volcanic rock islands that surround the Puerto Villamil Bay. The tour starts out with a short boat ride to see some birds (penguins, pelicans, blue footed boobies, etc.). In the second part of the tour, we landed on one of the islands and walked, seeing lots of iguanas, to a small inlet where we saw 20-30 sharks basking at the bottom of the inlet. At the moment in time, while we were there, there was also a sea turtle swimming through all the basking sharks, completely unfazed by their deadly potential. The third, and most substantial, part of the tour was snorkeling. We snorkeled for quite some time seeing a variety of fish, sea lions, penguins, and rays. The highlight of the tour was swimming through a lava tube and seeing another 20-30 sharks basking beneath us as we quietly swam above.

From left to right: Two birds rest on a rocky tintoreras outcropping. Two sea lions chase a shark through a Tintoreras lava tunnel. A sea turtle swims mindlessly through a large group of basking sharks in a Tintoreras lava tunnel. All 2024.

Activities I haven’t yet done but want to do next time I go

  • Tunneles Looks like a stunning snorkeling experience with a wide variety of creatures to witness!
  • Lave Tubes Cave Hike Looks like an incredible hike with absolutely massive caves.
  • Sulfur Mines Heat vents coming out of the volcano, spewing sulfur, and staining the ground with beautiful whites and yellows. It looks absolutely gorgeous!

This brings to an end my thoughts and experiences on Isabella. From here, you can return to the Galapagos Islands Trip Report article.

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Santa Cruz Island Trip Report

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say to introduce Santa Cruz Island:

“Santa Cruz Island is the most populous and second-largest island in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. The seat of Santa Cruz Canton is Puerto Ayora. The island’s total population is around 18,000 with those living in smaller villages chiefly working in agriculture and cattle raising.”

So as you’ve got from that, Puerto Ayora is the place to stay in Santa Cruz. It’s not only the biggest city in Santa Cruz, but it’s the biggest city in all the Galapagos and the tourist center of the entire archipelago. As such, it’s got a lot of options for where to stay, where to eat, and what to do. So let’s break down my experiences with all those things!


In 2021, I stayed between two hotels in Puerto Ayora:

Hostal La Mirada del Solitario George ($35/night) which was a solid place to stay. It was about a 10-15 minute walk to downtown (Puerto Ayora is extremely safe and making this short walk, even in the dark, felt completely fine). The hostal didn’t have any real frills, but it achieved its purpose of being a clean and affordable place to sleep!

Hospedaje Germania ($46/night) was much closer to downtown than Hostal La Mirada del Solitario George, but the rooms were extremely small. It felt like a challenge to fit the suitcase in the room with me.

Both were fine places to stay.

In 2024, I stayed my whole time in Puerto Ayora at Lava House ($91/night) which, as the higher price might imply, was the best out of the three places I’ve stayed in Puerto Ayora. Similar to Hostal La Mirada del Solitario George, it was about a 10-minute walk to downtown, but an easy and enjoyable walk. The grounds of Lava House were very enjoyable, and the included breakfast was delicious. I would definitely stay here again and would recommend it to anyone who asks!


My general review of eating out in Puerto Ayora is to avoid the first two streets closest to the water. It seems like these restaurants decide their prices on proximity to the sea rather than on the quality of their food.

In the above map of Puerto Ayora, the red denotes generally expensive streets to eat out in. The yellow denotes mid-priced sections of town. And the green denotes generally cheap places to eat out. 

I’m sure there are exceptions to this broad and vague generalization, but if you’re looking to stay within a budget, the restaurants close to the water will not be your friend. With this said, here are some of my favorite restaurants in Puerto Ayora:

Galapagos Deli (2021 & 2024) This is, hands down, my favorite restaurant in Puerto Ayora. The vibes are great, and the food is delicious. You’re probably looking at spending about $15-$20/person to eat here, but they have great pizzas, fish and chips, drinks, ice cream, and everything! They’re kind of located in a back alley in the downtown area, but don’t let it fool you. It’s my favorite food spot!

Sakana Sushi Bar & Fusion – For Lunch Only (2024) The disclaimer here is, that I’ve only eaten lunch here. During the night, evidently, it is a sushi bar and club, but during the day, it’s just a pop-in restaurant offering “almuerzos.” This is an Ecuadorian thing literally meanings “lunches,” but what’s implied when someone is offering an almuerzo is that you’ll get a good, hearty meal for a very cheap price. On mainland Ecuador, almuerzos generally go for about $2-$3. At Sakana, the almuerzos were $6. You don’t really get to choose your almuerzo, you just get the menu they’re offering that day, but it will generally come with a soup, a main, a small dessert, and a cup of juice. For how expensive everything is in Puerto Ayora, this is a great deal and we ate multiple lunches here!

FraFre Gastrobar (2024) Fra Fre was a new restaurant for me during my 2024 trip and while it falls into my “expensive” zone above, the food was absolutely worth it. You’re looking at about $20-$30/person, but it’s one of the best burgers I’ve had in Puerto Ayora, and my wife LOVED their octopus. If you’ve got a bit of a higher budget, or looking to splurge a little, this is a great restaurant to do it at!

Charles Binford Street (2024) During the day, this just looks like a regular, quiet street. At night, the whole street is closed off and restaurants pop up out of nowhere with their tables and chairs taking up most of the road. While you walk down it, you have every waiter and restaurant owner trying to entice you into their restaurant over everyone else’s (even though they all pretty much sell the same kind of thing). If you’re up for an experience with your meal, you’ll love this street and all the restaurants on it!

Proinsular Market (2021 & 2024) If you’re on a budget and prefer to buy groceries, cook for yourself, and eat packed lunches, this is for you. Proinsular is the biggest (that I know of) grocery store in Puerto Ayora and is located right downtown. It’s also where all the ATMs are located. They have a great selection of items as well as some pre-made sandwiches (about $3.50 each). Great option if you’re on a budget!

Bonus Section: Ice Cream!

Everyone knows that a trip to the Galapagos isn’t a proper trip if you don’t use as much ice cream as possible to beat the heat. So here are my favorite ice cream places in Puerto Ayora:

Galapagos Deli (2021 & 2024) Once again, we’re back at Galapagos Deli with their incredible ice cream flavors, and it’s just a comfy place to hang out for a bit!

Helados Tato (2024) I found this one thanks to the guide on one of our tours. He showed up to the tour licking this absolutely MASSIVE soft-serve cone and bragging how it only cost him $2. It was from Tato which is an unimpressive-looking shop that’s a bit of a walk from downtown. But what it lacks in interior (or exterior) design, it makes up for with a wide variety of delicious soft-serve flavors, and large portions for a cheap price!

Gelato Bar (2024) Last but definitely not least is Gelato Bar located on the main drag into downtown. Great ice cream and they seem to be constantly trying and selling new flavors so every visit there is a fun time of exploration! I’ll also give the side note that their coffee is my favorite coffee I’ve had in the Galapagos so far. I’d drink that Iced Latte every day if I could!


If you’re island hopping like I’ve done, then you’ll be looking for day activities to fill your time, get out of town, and see some things! The minute you start walking around Puerto Ayora, you’ll immediately see tour agencies on every block. All of them pretty much sell the same tours and the way it seems to work is that they will book space for you on the different tours going out. They’re middlemen who get you set up for a small commission (that’s already included in the prices they advertise). Like it or not, that seems to be the way the Galapagos works.

In my experience, there is little to no price variability between tour agencies. When I went in 2021, I shopped around, getting prices from multiple tour agencies and they were all about the same. Maybe I’m just bad at it, but I wasn’t able to bargain the prices down any significant amount.

In booking tours, you can do as I did and just walk into random agencies to see what’s available. Your hotel will also be able to either book tours for you or recommend their favorite tour agent. Or if you want, you can go to the tour agent I used both in 2021 and 2024: Discovery Galapagos.

I get no kickback from you using them, they’ve just taken great care of me both times I’ve gone and I’ll keep using them next time I go back!

Before we jump into the tours I’ve done, the prices, and my thoughts on them, I do want to point out a few free things to do in Puerto Ayora. I did not do tours every single day as I just didn’t have the budget or energy for that.

Free Activities

  • Tortuga Bay (2021 & 2024) (free) is about a 45-minute walk from town to a stunning white and sandy beach with a large population of marine iguanas. While the beach is stunning, it’s not the best for a “beach day” as there is little shade and no amenities out there. Take lots of water, and it’s best to go very early in the morning before the walk gets too hot.

Two marine iguanas sunbathe on the Tortuga Bay beach, 2021.

  • Puerto Ayora Pier (2021 & 2024) (free) is the main pier in town. From this pier, you’re all but guaranteed to see sea lions. I’ve also seen rays, small sharks, and a variety of sea birds!

A small black-tip shark swims among a group of golden rays in Puerto Ayora Bay, 2024. Photo taken from the Puerto Ayora Pier.

  • Puerto Ayora Fish Market (2021) (free) is the fish market in town. It’s not a big spot, but when they’re selling fresh catches, it’s hustling and bustling not only with people but a large variety of sea mammals and birds hoping to scavenge a few scraps!

Cheap Activities

  • Charles Darwin Center (2024) ($10) is a scientific research station on the east side of town. It’s now mandatory to have a guide. They have a small hut maybe 200m before you get to the station entrance. They sketchily call you over and tell you that you need to have a guide, but it feels like a scam the whole time – but it is indeed true. Once at the station, you can see the giant tortoises as well as the giant tortoise breeding program. They also have a variety of informational displays and a small museum.
  • Half Day Bay Tour (2021 & 2024) ($40) – we originally did this as a relatively cheap way to fill a half day we had with no plans, but it turned out to be great! The tour leaves from the Puerto Ayora pier and hits up four popular spots around the Puerto Ayora Bay: La Loberia where you snorkel with sea lions if you’re lucky. Punta Estrada where you can see birds including the famous blue footed booby. Playa de los Lobos to see some marine iguanas, sharks, and crabs. And Las Grietas for some more swimming.

Full On Activities

  • The Daphnes (2021) ($120) – a full-day snorkeling tour to the islands Daphne major and minor. While snorkeling here we swam with sea lions, penguins, and a wide variety of fish! They then served us a delicious lunch on the boat before letting us get off to explore a gorgeous and remote beach where I got to swim with two different sea turtles. Overall it was a great full-day snorkeling adventure!

A playful sea lion investigates the camera while snorkeling around Daphne Minor, 2021.

  • North Seymour (2024) ($220) – a full-day tour where the main event was a significant walk around North Seymour island where we saw hundreds of blue footed boobies and frigate birds! We were there in the middle of June and most of the frigate birds had already mated (they only have their famous red puffy throats before they mate) so we only saw a few of the classic frigates, but we also got to see nesting blue footed boobies (and their eggs). If you like birds, this is an incredible experience! After that, we went snorkeling before having a delicious tuna steak lunch on the boat. The last activity of the day was hanging out on another beautiful and remote beach. This one had a lagoon with several flamingos! I’m really glad we did this tour and if you love birds, I would highly recommend it, but in all honesty, I don’t think I’d do this tour again. If I’m going to spend this much money, I’d personally spend it on a tour where I get to spend more time in the water, hanging out with sea creatures!

Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate Birds on Seymour Island, 2024.

This brings to an end my thoughts and experiences on Santa Cruz. From here, you can return to the Galapagos Islands Trip Report article to see how to catch the ferry from Santa Cruz to one of the other islands!

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Galapagos Islands Trip Report

This is a functional account of my experiences in the Galapagos Islands, written to give you a little insight into what you might expect and how you might prepare for your trip there.

How To Get There

First things first, the Galapagos Islands are a part of Ecuador and to get there you have to first travel to Ecuador. Your best bet is to fly into Ecuador’s capital, Quito, and spend at least a night there before you fly out the next day.

Arriving in the Galapagos, you can fly into one of two airports: either Seymour Airport (on Baltra/Santa Cruz Island) or San Cristobal Airport (on San Cristobal Island). Seymour Airport is the main airport in the Galapagos and serves Santa Cruz Island which is the most populated island in the Galapagos with the biggest city in the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora.

For my 2021 trip to the Galapagos, I flew into Seymour and flew out of San Cristobal.

For my 2024 trip, I flew in and out of Seymour Airport.

  • Practical Tip:
    When leaving Quito to fly to the Galapagos, arrive extra early. You will go to the domestic terminal. Just inside the door to the left is a small office where you need to fill out a registration form and pay a fee of $20. After registering and paying, you need to go to the other side of the doors (next to the bathrooms) where your bags will be scanned and/or searched to make sure you’re not bringing anything ecologically dangerous into the Galapagos. Once you’re cleared, your bags will be zip-tied shut so they can’t be opened without breaking the seal.
    When you are registered and your bags are sealed, only then can you check in to your flight to the Galapagos.

Getting Your Head Around Your Galapagos Trip

Once you are in the Galapagos, you generally have two options to see what you want to see:

  1. A Package Tour/Cruise
  2. DIY Island Hopping

The package tours/cruises are generally booked well before you arrive in the Galapagos and tend to be quite expensive. These are where you book a room on varying sizes of ships and you live on them for several days while traveling around the Galapagos doing different activities. I have heard you can find good deals when you show up in the Galapagos and book last-minute tours where you’re filling empty spots in tours already going out. The plus side of these tours is that you can, in theory, get to more remote places on the islands and see things most others don’t. As I’ve already mentioned, the downside is they are pretty expensive.

I can’t speak with any real authority on Galapagos cruises as I’ve never done one.

Both times I’ve been to the Galapagos, I’ve done “island hopping.” This is where you stay on one of the three main populated islands of the Galapagos (Santa Cruz, Isabella, and San Cristobal). You stay in a regular hotel, eat at regular restaurants, and book day tours or activities based on what you want to do. The strength of this option is

  1. It’s more budget-friendly
  2. It’s allows you to do what you want to do and have the freedom to change your plans whenever you want

But to understand island-hopping, you have to understand a little bit about the three main islands in the Galapagos: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabella.

Santa Cruz is the main populated island of the Galapagos with Puerto Ayora being the biggest and most developed city in the Galapagos.

San Cristobal is the second most populated island of the Galapagos with the second biggest city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Isabella is the third most populated island of the Galapagos with the third biggest city of Puerto Villamil.

  • Just a side note, Puerto Villamil is my favorite city on the Galapagos! It’s a small city and can even be a bit more expensive since there are fewer options, but the city is much more integrated with the nature around it, it’s got a slower pace, and some of the best animal experiences I’ve had on the islands have been there!

In 2021, my island-hopping itinerary was flying into Santa Cruz, visiting Isabella, and then flying out of San Cristobal.

In 2024, my island-hopping itinerary was flying into Santa Cruz, visiting Isabella, and then flying out of Santa Cruz.

There’s nothing wrong with San Cristobal that we didn’t go in 2024, it’s just we had less time. Santa Cruz is the hub of all tourism in Galapagos so that was non-negotiable, and Isabella is my favorite island so I really wanted to go back there. We would’ve gone back to San Cristobal as well, we just didn’t have as much time and prioritized the other two islands over it. If you’ve got the time, definitely do go check it out!

But let’s look a little closer at each of these three islands. My original intention was to put all of this information in one article, but as I’ve been writing it, I’ve realized this is far too long for one article, so made the information about each island its own link with links coming back to this centralized article when you’re done.

Santa Cruz Overview/Lodging/Food/Activities

Ferries between islands

So the whole point of island hopping is to “hop” between the islands. The way you do this is with the twice-a-day ferries. There are ferries from Santa Cruz to Isabella, Isabella to Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz to San Cristobal, and San Cristobal to Santa Cruz. Please note: there are no ferries from Isabella to San Cristobal and vice versa.

The ferries cost $30 one way and have a slew of associated fees (fees to leave the island, water taxi fees to the ferry, fees to enter the island, etc.). I believe I calculated about $16 in fees for a one-way trip. Just to be safe, I would plan on $50 for a ferry.

The ferries fill up quickly and you should book them as soon as you get to the Galapagos. If all the ferries are full, they’re full and there’s no way for you to get where you need to go. In 2021, we booked our own ferries with the ferry office right next to the Proinsular Supermarket. In 2024, we booked our ticket, for no extra cost, as we booked all our other activities with the tour agent, Discovery Galapagos.

Isabella Overview/Lodging/Food/Activities

San Cristobal Overview/Lodging/Food/Activities

So that’s it. That’s all the advice I’ve got about the Galapagos! It’s by no means exhaustive, but hopefully, it gives you a good start as you start to plan your adventure.

I love the Galapagos and I hope you do too!

And now a quick footnote. Throughout these articles, we talked a little about price but didn’t get into super specifics. If you want to see the cost breakdown for our 2024 trip (as well as ways I think we could’ve saved money if we had wanted to), you can do that here.

A Wildly Incomplete Photo Guide to Istanbul

I’ve been super lucky to have traveled the world and seen a good many places. I try my best not to play favorites, but like any honest high school teacher will tell you, you always do have favorites. Istanbul easily falls into my top four cities worldwide (shout-outs to Cape Town, Toronto, and Reykjavik). The world has passed through and ruled from this city.

The history of Istanbul is fascinating, but it hasn’t stunted the city’s development. I’ve seen some cities so caught up in preserving historical buildings in an attempt to hold on to past glory that modern life is sacrificed and held back because of it. In Istanbul, this isn’t the case, as the modern and ancient exist side by side.

I love Istanbul, so when I had the chance to spend four more days this recently, I was beyond excited! I’ve visited several times before but never taken the time to really photograph the city. This was my chance! Before going, I did some research and identified a few spots I wanted to shoot. This write-up is an attempt to share what knowledge I learned both in planning my shots and functionally shooting them. The dream is when you have your chance to go to Istanbul, you’ll be able to spend a little less time planning (like I had to do) and a little more time soaking in this stunning city!

The main spots I decided I wanted to shoot were:

  1. The Ortakoy Mosque
  2. The Blue Mosque
  3. The Haggia Sophia
  4. Maiden’s Tower

Setting Up Home Base

The first thing to understand is the lay of the land and where to set up your home base. I’m going to overgeneralize and offend people here, but below is my take on Istanbul.

Now that I’ve offended everyone in Istanbul with this reductive map, I will say I think the best part of the city to stay in is the “Old European and touristy part of the city,” which is actually called “Sultanahmet.” Pretty much anything you could want to do in Istanbul is either here or can be booked at the many tour offices here. There are plenty of places to stay. English a more prevalent in Sultanahmet since it’s centered on tourism. There are seemingly non-stop great restaurants. And it’s easy to get to and from the airport.

Pro Tip: I used this blog to figure out how to get from the airport to Sultanahmet. Scroll down to the subheading “Havaist bus from Istanbul Airport to Sultanahmet.” The article has photos to help you navigate the airport and everything. I found the Havaist buses to be great and easy, but if you want to try one of the other options, go for it!

1. The Ortakoy Mosque

The Ortakoy Mosque (also known as the Grand Mecidiye Mosque) is a mosque (roughly 175 years old) on the Ortakoy Pier along the Bosphorus River. This was easily my top photo destination on this trip to Istanbul. My wife has this tradition she loves, and has included me in on, where we pick up a fridge magnet from every country we go to.

On our last trip to Istanbul, we picked up this beautiful little magnet that had a photo of a mosque with the sun in the background and some birds flying. I had never seen this mosque before, but I loved the scene! When we got home, I took a photo of the magnet and did a reverse image search to learn it was the Ortakoy Mosque, and that’s when this spot got added to my dream photo list!  

As for shooting this mosque, I decided to go for sunrise one morning. I’m generally more of a sunset guy, but with this mosque located on the west bank of the Bosphorus, it worked best for sunrise. Remember, the sun rises in the east, so that means I could get the sun rising in the background behind the mosque. A good general rule of thumb is to look up the sunrise time on Google and then make sure you’re there a solid 30 minutes before that time. In my experience, the rising sun lights up the sky most spectacularly about 15 minutes before the listed sunrise time. Then after that, you also have the chance to have the actual sun rising behind whatever you are shooting.

For the time I was there in Istanbul, sunrise was listed at 8.04am, meaning I wanted to be there no later than 7.30. Google told me the combo of walking and public transportation would take me about an hour. So, not wanting to take any chances, I woke up at 5.30 and was on my way. After a slight hiccup buying an Istanbul Public Transportation Card (Istanbulkart) and missing a bus, I did indeed make it with time to spare. In all honesty, the sky didn’t have the best colors I’ve ever seen on this particular morning, but it was an absolute pleasure getting to just sit there and watch this one small part of town wake.

I quickly learned that my composition of this mosque photo needed some motion. I tried using various seagulls, but they were too small and didn’t really make an impact in the frame. But luck struck when a bread delivery van rolled down the road beside the harbor and scared a flock of pigeons into flight. These pigeons rose up and flew behind me before circling back to their spot on a path that led them directly between my camera and the mosque! This little piece of luck easily gave me my favorite shot of the mosque (below).

I stayed probably another hour after this shot, and I did try quite a few more compositions, but really I spent most of that time people watching. I had picked up a Turkish coffee from one of the restaurants off to the left of the frame and just enjoyed being there in the (relatively) early morning.

2. The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is a roughly 400-year-old mosque that is located right in the heart of the Sultan Ahmet part of town. We stayed about three blocks away from this mosque, so I had no shortage of opportunities to shoot this mosque. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the mosque several times now, but just the sheer size of it makes capturing its essence in a single shot almost impossible. There are absolutely stunning photos of this mosque out there, but they often use drones or aerial photography to capture the photos. For me, it’s always been a struggle.

But this time in Istanbul, I had a minor breakthrough and I now have a new favorite spot to the Blue Mosque: the Seven Hills Restaurant.

The Blue Mosque is denoted here as “Sultanahmet Camii” which is just Turkish for Sultan Ahmet Mosque. I’m sure you figured that out already, but I thought I’d be uber clear.

This restaurant is located right on the edge of the park that surrounds the Blue Mosque. It’s also one of the taller buildings in the area, and it has an open-to-the-public restaurant on the roof. All of this makes it a great and easily accessible spot to shoot photos of the mosque!

I will warn you though, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the food in the restaurant. They seem to make their name based on the view rather than the food they serve. It wasn’t horrible, but there’s SO MUCH incredible food in Istanbul, so our meal at Seven Hills just didn’t compare.

3. The Hagia Sofia

In terms of history, the Hagia Sophia is fascinating! It started out as a church when Istanbul was the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was then converted to a mosque when Islam became the in-vogue religion of the region. It was converted into a museum when Turkey went through a secular revolution after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And it’s recently been converted back into a mosque by a Turkish leader looking to capitalize on rising Islamic nationalist sentiments in the country.

Now my tip for shooting the Hagia Sophia is actually the exact same for my time as shooting the Blue Mosque, go to the Seven Hills Restaurant. Just this time, you go to the other side of the rooftop and shoot there. The Hagia Sophia is denoted as “Ayasofya Camii” which is just Turkish for “Hagia Sophia Mosque.”

I took this above shot around noon time. The next time I go to Istanbul, I would like to return to the restaurant around golden hour (roughly an hour before sunset) and shoot it then. Considering the sun sets in the west and the Hagia Sophia is roughly northeast of the restaurant, I strongly believe the golden light of the sun approaching the horizon will beautifully light up the front of this gorgeous and storied building!

4. Maiden’s Tower

Now this spot, I discovered by flying on Turkish Airlines. Their seat TVs have a screensaver of great photos from around Turkey that play on a loop until the in-flight entertainment starts. The shot of Maiden’s Tower caught my eye and stuck with me!

Maiden’s Tower is a small lighthouse-looking building built on a tiny island in the Bosphorus River. It has existed in various since at least 1110 AD and has become an iconic sight in Istanbul. It’s located just off the coast of a part of town called Uskudar, so that’s where I went. Since I knew I’d be on the east bank of the river, I wagered that I might be able to get a pretty good sunset shot of the tower, so I chose to go in the late evening.

When I showed up, I found that a significant portion of the riverfront path was under construction, so spot number one was the closest I could get to the tower. I set up my camera on my tripod with my 24-105mm lens and started shooting to my heart’s content. I will warn you at this spot, the river waves hit the sea wall (is it still called a sea wall if it’s a river?) and do cause a significant amount of spray up onto the riverfront path. If you’re not careful, you and your camera will get soaked.

Maiden’s Tower from spot number one on the river-front path.

After shooting here for a while, I decided to see if I could find a better angle. I noticed a park across the street and a small street leading from the park up a small hill. On a hunch, I followed it, and right before it turned inland, I set my tripod up on top of a dumpster and found my favorite angle (so far) of Maiden’s Tower.

I probably spent too long up here, and I ended up shooting so many shots, it turned into an accidental timelapse showing this is indeed an active waterway!

This next part I’m still kicking myself over.

This particular day I was shooting Maiden’s Tower was a pretty cold one, and I had been outside a while. My vision had been to get a sunset shot, but it was cloudy. I was cold. And I hadn’t seen the sun all day. I figured there was no way the sun would set in a way to create the spectacular colors I envisioned, so I decided to call it a day and go to dinner.

Now, remember above, I told you the best time to capture sunrise colors is 15 minutes before sunrise? Well, the best time to capture sunset colors is 15 minutes after the listed sunset time. A lesson I’ve learned before but forgot on this day is to never write off a sunset until after this 15-minute gap is over.

So on this day, I was all packed up and walking to dinner when the sky absolutely BLEW UP! It was spectacular! Purples and pinks just lit the clouds on fire! I scrambled to get my gear back out for a shot, and I did get this photo:

But in all honesty, this shot was taken 5-10 minutes too late, after the most stunning peak colors had begun to fade. I’m still kicking myself for missing the shot I had gone all the way there for, but hopefully, I’ve learned my lesson, and next time I’m in Istanbul, I’ll be able to do it properly.


All in all, I loved my time back in Istanbul. I feel I could spend a lifetime learning to photograph this city and still not be able to capture the beauty here! I feel I’ve gotten better over the multiple visits I’ve had, and I’ve figured a few logistical aspects out, but Istanbul isn’t just about making rad photos. It’s a city that needs to be experienced. It’s got history, culture, and soul. Not to mention the food.

I still have a lot to learn about this city, but I get why people have been fighting over it for centuries.

When you get to visit yourself, hopefully, this guide will help ease some of the logistical challenges of what spots to go to, when to go to them, and some options of where to be to photograph them. With the logistics out of the way, my goal is that you’ll have more time to just be there and experience the magic. But please please please don’t stop after my little list. Istanbul is a treasure trove of hidden gems, each with its own unique charm and story. Take your time to explore. Get lost a little. Find something beautiful. And when you do, I’d love to hear about it! So seriously, let me know.

And if you need some daily inspiration before you can get a trip to Istanbul planned, you can buy one of the shots to hang on your wall using this link. I hope it can serve as a reminder that beauty and adventure are out there!

The Conical Cucuruchos of Quito

It’s a pleasantly clear morning in the Andean capital of Quito, Ecuador. Church bells ring in the air padded by the slow drones of liturgical melodies playing over hastily constructed loudspeakers. Tourists scurry between attractions in the city’s almost 500-year-old historic district. But today is a day unlike any of the other 364. It’s Good Friday meaning La Procesión de Jesús del Gran Poder (The Jesus of Great Power Parade) and the curious conical Cucuruchos of Quito.

Moments before you see them, the tips of their long purple pointed hoods crest the hill, wavering in step with their repentant pace and mildly distorted by the heat rising off the faded tarmac road. Their hoods slowly seemingly grow until the faces of the cucuruchos come into view. Two small eye-holes are the only gaps allowing a glimpse to the person underneath, but that’s the point. 

The entire parade is a sprawling act of both personal and collective atonement for sins against God. It spans five kilometers with many cucuruchos choosing to walk the route barefoot. Others add to their suffering, and supposedly elevate their atonement, by donning heavy chains, carrying heavier crosses, or whipping themselves with bushels of hortiga, an Andean stinging nettle.

Throughout it all, the cucuruchos maintain the conical hoods pointing towards heaven. The masks are worn as a supposed attempt to maintain anonymity in order to keep the focus on the greatness of God rather than on those repenting. While the immersive expanse of purple is the Catholic liturgical color of penitence while the hood is said to represent humility.

To many, the hoods evoke a modern imagery of the US American hate group the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), but the cucuruchos long predate this well-known, but ultimately localized display of racism. The hoods of the cucuruchos can be traced back at least as early as the Spanish Inquisition starting in the 1400s. Men and women arrested for various forms of heresy against the Catholic church and, in the church’s view, against God were required to wear paper cone hats*, known as capirotes, in order to publicly humiliate them.

There are factions within the Catholic church who strongly believe in a theology of “salvation through penance” or that it is through both physical and psychological suffering as self-punishment for their sins against God, they can grow closer to Him. The capirote was adopted as a further form of self-humiliation by those inclined towards this theology. To this day these conical hoods, in a rainbow of colors, are used not only by the cucuruchos, but also by the Catholic brotherhoods of the Nazarenos, the Fariseos, and Saint Rochus to name just a few.

*not all that dissimilar to the more modern era ‘dunce’ hats used to punish and embarrass unruly schoolchildren in the early 1900s.

Spain was a busy place in the 1500s. On the mainland, the Inquisition was nearing its height as the Monarchy in tandem with Catholic church terrorized the populace. And in the Americas, Spanish troops terrorized the newly conquered colonies, looting untold riches under the guise of spreading their Catholic faith. This period of Spanish history made Spain incredibly rich while also enforcing their interpretation of faith across the Americas, including the theology of salvation through penance.

It was in this environment that the first iterations of the cucuruchos began to appear. In colonial Quito, devout Catholics would don these purple hoods and stand outside of churches enduring the elements and public derision as a self-punishment. It was also around this time, the vernacular began to change. The Ecuadorian hoods stopped being referred to as capirotes as they were in Europe, but rather as cucuruchos, the Spanish word for “cornet” — an object being in the shape of a cone.

Over the next several hundred years, the Cucuruchos — the entire person having become identified for their hoods — began to congregate. By the 1800s, annual cucurucho parades during the Easter Holy Week were commonplace with everyone from peasants to Quito’s mayor marching.

At this point in history, Catholicism and Ecuadorianism were intricately intertwined. In fact, to be considered an Ecuadorian citizen, the person first had to be Catholic. It was this way until the late 1800’s when a coup d’état took place and the victorious secular liberals, led by General Eloy Alfaro, not only erased the Catholic requirement for citizenship, but also went as far as to ban public expression of any faith*, including the cucurucho parades.

*freedom of private worship was encouraged

The ban was lifted by the mid-1900s and a priest by the name of Francisco Fernández resurrected the procession as a way to inspire the city’s devout. He repurposed a balsa wood carving of Jesus from the 1600s and paraded it through the streets under the name Jesús del Gran Poder. The name taken from the Biblical passage Matthew 28:18.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

It didn’t take long for the procession to become a staple in the Quitonian religious landscape. It took even less time for the cucuruchos to re-emerge en masse, putting their anonymous penance back on display. Since the first Procesión de Jesús del Gran Poder in 1961, the parade has been held every year with the notable exceptions of 2020 and 2021 during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Best of Ecuador 2021

At the beginning of July, I got to spend two weeks in Ecuador making things officially official with my now girlfriend, meeting her family, and exploring her beautiful country. Seeing that my priorities were elsewhere other than taking landscape-esque photos, I didn’t take and post as many shots as I usually do, but this won’t be my last time to Ecuador. There will be plenty more time for photo excursions in the future. Needlessly, here are my top three vs your/instagram’s top three from my time there!

Number 3

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

For the No. 3 shot, you chose this image of a fishing boat and nets on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. My No. 3 was this bank in the historic district of Quito. I love the warm colors paired with the light flares coming off the sun directly above the bank. I also love the symmetry of the bank.

Number 2

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

For No. 2, our No. 3 choices just flip-flopped. I do love the boat and nets in the foreground, but my favorite part of this shot is the sky! I just wish I had remembered my ND filters so I could have gotten some motion blur up there in the clouds.

Number 1

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

The No. 1 shot is where our tastes diverged. You chose this long exposure shot of this waterfall. I also love the lusciousness of the foliage and how is cradles the waterfall. But my No. 1 shot was this shot of the beach with a lone person walking as the sun sets behind him. I love the light and the ways the buildings pull our eyes into the horizon and the lone walker.

There you have it “your” top three vs my top three. If you want to see more of my Best Of posts, check out below:

More Best Ofs:

Best of Zimbabwe 2021

This was technically my third time in Zimbabwe. The first time I was just passing through as part of my 5000km southern Africa motorcycle trip back in 2013/14. The second time hardly counts as I simply crossed the border at Victoria Falls and spend a few days in Vic Falls, Zim which is really it’s own little enclave unlike the rest of the country.

This third time was for the “opening” of CURE’s newest hospital in Zimbabwe. I got to spend just over two weeks there with essentially three weekends to explore and shoot some photos. So once again, here I present Instagram‘s favorite photos of my time there vs my favorite photos of my time there:

Number 3

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

For your number three, you chose this shot of Nswatugi Cave in the Matobo Hills. I chose this shot of my friend’s thatched house. I love the clouds in this shot, but especially the unexpected nature of seeing an Irish thatched cottage in the middle of Zimbabwe.

Number 2

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

For your number two, you chose this shot of my friend driving in the shadow of a massive rock formation. Honestly, I don’t get all y’all. I obviously like this shot since I took it and posted it, but out of all my shots from this time around in Zim, it didn’t even come close to making my top three. My number two was the cave shot. I love how the grass kind of creates a few leading lines guiding your eyes into the cave, but what I love the most is the color variations in the rocks!

Number 1

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

Your number one was the thatched cottage which, in a sense, I get. But my favorite shot was one that you actually ranked at number four. I LOVE this shot of this tree at the Hillside Dams. I love the gnarled branches, the hollowed trunk, and the soft warm light.

So there you have it, your top three vs my top three.

Last time we did this, I added your top shot to my print store, but this time I refuse. It feels weird to sell photos of someone’s house. Also, I’m so in love with the tree photo that I’m going to add that one to the print store.

Check it out at and get yourself a copy.

If you want to see more of my Best Of posts, check out below:

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Best of Niger 2021

I had the chance to return to Niger in Jan/Feb 2021. It was a weird experiencing returning to a place I had called home for so long, but as a visitor now. A lot had changed, but still a lot was the same.

In terms of photography, the biggest difference is I went back with a super telephoto 150-600mm lens so I was able to try some shots I had previously dreamed of, but never had the gear to attempt.

Here I present Instagram‘s favorite photos of my time back there vs my favorite photos of my time back there:

Number 3

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

We agreed the long distance photo of this minaret came in at number three. For me, it’s an iconic image of Niamey – you can’t go anywhere in town out of sight or sound of a mosque.

Number 2

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

For number two, the insta hivemind chose this up close and personal shot of the setting sun. Honestly, I was lucky while I was there. I had several evenings with very lows hazy which gave some stunning clear sunsets! Usually sand and dust fill the horizon and it’s not possible to see the sun as it gets low. My number two shot was this vantage point of the setting sun over the Niger river.

Number 1

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

My number two shot was the insta hivemind’s number one shot. It’s probably the most photographed scene in Niamey (from the deck of the Grand Hotel), but I think what set this shot apart from the hundreds taken from the exact same spot is I was able to show it in a way people hadn’t seen before (and isn’t that the point of photography?). Now my favorite shot didn’t even make it into the insta hivemind’s top three, but it was taken from the exact same location. I’m a sucker for the post-sunset colors over the river. I also love the light trails from the car’s headlights crossing Pont Kennedy and one of my favorite things about Niamey is how at dusk every day thousands of bats come down to the river to feed and drink (those specks are bats not sensor dust).

So there you have it and as a side note, the insta hivemind’s top shot has been added to my print store. You can check it out at

I love seeing my shots exist out in the physical space so if you see a shot you like on there, but honestly can’t afford it, give me a shout and let’s work something out.

If you want to see more of my Best Of posts, check out below:

More Best Ofs:

Best of Uganda 2020

Recently reflecting on my brief time back in Mbale, Uganda in Nov/Dec 2020. So here I present Instagram‘s favorite photos of my time there vs my favorite photos of my time there:

Number 3

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

Makes sense this aerial shot of rural Uganda came in third for both the insta hivemind and myself. It’s an interesting perspective, but nothing all that interesting is happening in the shot. There’s no real “subject” of the image.

Number 2

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

The insta hivemind choose the photo of CURE’s Director of Operations looking out a Missionary Aviation Fellowship flight while I chose the shot of CURE Children’s Hospital of Uganda’s temporary ward set up in their chapel. I love the leading lines that the dividers make, bringing your eye into the solitary nurse directly under the large cross. So much just worked out with this shot!

Number 1

⟻ Yours | Mine ⟼

The hivemind and myself were of the same mind for our favorite shot from my time in Uganda – this shot of the streets of Mbale, Uganda with the mountain rising in the hazy background. The colors. The busyness. The scenery. I just love it all! It also goes to show, you don’t need super high end camera equipment for great shots. This photo was made on my phone and then thrown into the free Lightroom for mobile app for a quick edit.

If you want to see more of my Best Of posts, check out below:

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