Alethea Smartt first came to Galapagos as a budget-minded tourist during a 16-month solo trip through Central and South America. For over a decade she chronicled her travel experiences on her blog, Alethea’s Excellent Adventures. After visiting all 50 U.S. states and almost 100 countries, she was so enchanted with island life (and one of its inhabitants in particular), that she finally settled down on San Cristóbal and started Galapagos Surf Discovery with her husband, Fabian. This is her story.
I’ve had the travel bug for most of my life. For childhood vacations, my parents, who were on a tight budget, often took my sister and I camping at the many state parks in our native Tennessee area, along with an annual extended family trip to Panama City Beach, Florida. But I first caught vagabond fever during a whirlwind one-week tour of France, Switzerland, and Italy in 1990 with a small group of kids from my high school. In 1991, I lived with a family in the suburbs of Paris for three weeks. Soon after, I convinced my parents to host an exchange student from The Netherlands for my entire senior year of high school.
It wasn’t until I had graduated from college with a French degree, and after a divorce and several demanding jobs, that I decided to take some time off for a more thorough exploration of Western Europe. In the fall of 1998, I set out for two months of solo backpacking and train travel in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.
That trip changed my life — I returned to Tennessee and immediately started working again, but I kept looking for an opportunity that would involve traveling (and getting paid for it!). As luck would have it, Delta Air Lines ran an ad in the local newspaper specifically looking for foreign language speakers. I secured an in-person interview at their headquarters in Atlanta, GA and was hired on the spot. I graduated from flight attendant training on May 28, 1999 and immediately transferred to New York City, where I was based for the entire 6+ years I flew for Delta.
For the most part, I took full advantage of the free flight perks during those years, and often say I spent more time exploring the world than at home. My most frequent work layover destinations were Paris and Brussels, but I was always swapping for something different: Istanbul, Athens, Rome…, as well as for layovers in the U.S. at places that I may have never visited otherwise. In addition, my independent travels during that time led me to places like India, China, and South Korea.
I had actually made a pact with myself that I would not fly for more than 10 years and, after almost seven, I gave it up to live and work full time in New York City. I segued into the 8-to-5 routine fairly effortlessly in my default career of Executive Assistant. When I was able to take time off, I traveled to islands in the Caribbean, as well as Costa Rica, more of Europe, and more far-flung places in the U.S. — Hawaii, Alaska, and the Grand Canyon to name a few.
After a couple of years working many long and mentally draining hours at the office and spending a lot of money just to live in NYC, I decided to rethink my life and refocus my priorities. I started saving as much money as I could and getting rid of all of my material possessions with the goal of being able to take at least one full year off to travel around the world.
As I was nearing my financial goals and starting to wrap up my life in New York, I reconnected (thanks to Facebook) with a childhood friend who was still living in Nashville where we both grew up. While I certainly wasn’t looking for a relationship, I ultimately decided to give him a chance. It took me the better part of a year to convince my boyfriend that he should drop everything and travel around the world with me. In the meantime, we conducted an “experiment” and traveled around the U.S. testing out different cities where we might want to live in the future.
I quit my job in September 2009 and focused all of my time and energy on researching and planning the big trip. We finally set off for Australia in July 2010 and over the next nine months we backpacked through 22 countries on four continents. Then, after taking a break to visit family, we departed again in September 2011 and traveled to another 23 countries in 92 days.
After so much intensive travel, my vagabond desires had been quenched enough to settle down for awhile. We moved to Portland, OR where I worked as a writer, actor, Airbnb host, and craft beer consultant. Whenever the urge to travel arose, we took trips together around the Pacific Northwest and occasionally ventured farther — Iceland, the Panama Canal — but I also traveled a lot independently. As time passed, our differences became insurmountable and we amicably agreed to “uncouple.”
After a solo adventure through Eastern and Western Europe for four months in 2017, I decided to start planning my ultimate bucket list trip. I had always said I was saving South America for last! In September 2018, I set off for what I expected would be a two-year exploration of all of Latin America. In reality, I was also looking for a new place to call home. After traveling through every country in Central America and half of South America, I made it to Ecuador.
When I booked a flight to San Cristobal, Galapagos in July 2019, I didn’t have a plan other than to see as much of the islands as possible on a budget. But, as I would be celebrating my birthday on the islands, my family and friends convinced me to look for a last-minute cruise as a way to honor the occasion. And that’s how I met Fabian!
After spending three amazing weeks exploring Galapagos by land and by sea, I continued traveling solo through South America. I returned to the U.S. in January 2020 to tie up loose ends and visit friends and family, and ultimately was grounded in Nashville during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. Thankfully I had secured a job that allowed me to work remotely, so I went ahead and applied for a professional visa so that I could live and work in Ecuador.
I returned to Ecuador in July 2020 and reconnected with Fabian. We were together 24/7 throughout the pandemic so we had plenty of time to discuss our plans and dreams for the future when I wasn’t hunched over my laptop working. After living in Cuenca, Olon/Montanita, and Guayaquil, we got married in a civil ceremony in January 2021 and, a couple of months later, I became an official Galapagos resident.