So Tom showed up…

My apologies for taking so long to post, it has been a crazy week and a bit. Post disclaimer: moms, you may not want to read this all in one go, breaking it into sections may make it more bearable. Here we go.
After the Galapagos we had a few days in Quito so we attended a pro soccer game (laughable) and then spent a few hours in the local park watching ecuadorian volleyball, and went to Old Town where we saw the changing of the guard at the Presidential building which the President of Ecuador actually attended. Then, Sir Tom Forbes arrived.
The morning following his arrival celebration we decided to hike the Volcano Pinchincha which involved a cable car ride from 2800 m to 4100 m, then a hike to 4696 m. This was a recipe for disaster for many reasons, the biggest ones being Tom was at sea level less than 12 hours before and we were hungover and dehydrated. Nevertheless off we went. The first few hours weren’t so bad, but the last hour and a bit was poor torture. There was not a clear path to the top and the footing consisted of loose stones, mixed with the altitude it made for a tough ascension. Eventually we made it to the top without incident, or so I thought. We sat down to eat our snacks and rehydrate when Chris began to unsuccessfully form sentences. He finally was able to communicate what rough shape he was in. This surprised me as I felt tired, but good in terms of the altitude. I had a moment of relief when I thought “At least I have Tom” which quickly diminished when he proclaimed “Guys, I think I am hallucinating, do you see these drops of colors?” So there we sat at 4696 m, if anything were to happen to either of them what was I able to do? I was contemplating this over my taffy, confident things couldn’t get any worse when I heard the loudest clap of thunder possible. Perfect. We quickly scrambled to pack our bags and start the long descent. I was saying many prayers to tiny infant baby Jesus let me tell you. We made it almost the entire way down when the hail and rain started. We stumbled our way down, tired and soaked, and made it to the cable car as it began lightening. Again, perfect. The conductor told us to head down immediately, as he was about to turn it off for an hour due to the rain. At that point we were so exhausted we just wanted to be down. We hopped in a car, and as the doors were closing he said something to us in spanish which I didn’t catch so I asked the boys what it was, they didn’t catch it all either but it involved something happening in 3 minutes, and to stay calm. Exactly what you want to hear. We began to descend and did we get a lightening show. I was absolutely terrified, we were in an entirely metal car strung from metal poles for god sakes. Even with my eyes shut tight I could still see the lightening. And sure enough, in 3 minutes we stopped. Panic, pure, pure panic. They couldn’t possibly leave us there for an hour in a lightening storm? The boys thought it was hysterical, I was much less amused. Seconds away from tears, we started up again. Safe and sound back at the hostal we all had a hot shower and watched a movie. Phew.
The following day we grabbed a bus to Latacunga which is the jumping off point for the Quilotoa Loop, one of Ecuadors highlights. We stayed the night so we could begin early the next day. We took a bus to one town, and then hopped in the back of a pickup (the only method of transport, I swear mom) to Quilotoa. It was a breathtaking drive, definitely worth the safety risk (sorry mom). Once in Quilotoa we had lunch then hiked down the crater to the lake (formed the same way as the lake outside Otavalo). The hike down was far easier than the hike up, as it was an 800 m difference in altitude and a very steep ascension. After completing that we still had a 10 km hike to the next town, Chughchilan. We had a set of directions that were utterly unhelpful (walk until you reach an open area with sand, then go left), but we also had Tom who had done the loop before so we were confident we wouldn’t get as lost as some of the travelers we had chatted with before going.That was some wishful thinking. We were walking for about 30 minutes when we came to a house which had 2 dogs that began barking. This is the least unusual thing in Ecuador, so we thought nothing of it. The barking seemed to be getting closer, and as we turned around we realized we were in trouble. They were not the friendly dogs we had encountered so far on our travels, but farm dogs trained to protect their land. We thought there was only 2, but a third had the element of surprise and bit Chris. We began to run as fast as we could to get away, but they continued to chase us. We finally got around a corner which must have been the limit for them. We sat down to assess Chris’s leg, which unfortunately had the skin broken. Luckily we knew you had up to 72 hours to start the shots for rabies, so we cleaned the wound and kept on going for Chugchilan. In the terror of running from the dogs we weren’t entirely sure where we were, but we knew we needed to get down to the river which we could see, so we kept on. We met another group of farm dogs, which we picked up rocks and sticks for and Tom did a great job growling to scare them enough to not come after us. Unfortunately, after this encounter during which we scrambled away quickly, we ended up at a rather unfortunate place. It was the side of a cliff. We could see Chugchilan in the distance, but could neither see a way down to the river or a way to anything that resembled more than a goat path. To add the stress of the situation the clouds were beginning to roll in, making it incredibly difficult to determine a route. (Skip this next sentence moms) We made a decision to climb to the top of the “hill” we were on to see if it gave us a better idea of where we were. We began, and it wasn’t too bad as there was vegetation to hold on to, but at the top it was just a rock face. We boosted Tom up first, then Chris helped me, and finally poor Chris had to try and shimmy his way up. At the top, you got a better picture of what we climbed, and just how far the drop was if you fell. It was terrifying. Even more terrifying was that we were no further ahead having just done that. We were in nomansland, in the middle of both towns with no idea where to go. And the clouds just kept on rolling in. It was at the point we were all silently taking an inventory of what we had in our daypacks that would help us survive the night. Then, we heard a faint “amigos,” coming from the direction of a farm on a hill. As we looked up, I spotted a woman running down the hill towards us. We all let out a massive sigh of relief, and waited for our rescuer. For a fee of $20 she would guide us out. I didn’t care what her price would have been, I would have paid it. We walked for over an hour, during which we realized how lost we were and how we never would have been able to find our way out. We came to the main road, and we bid her a massive gracias and continued on. We came to a sign that informed us we had only gone a total of 2.5 of the 10 km to Chugchilan. One of the more disheartening feelings, as we had been walking for hours at that point and had already done the crater hike as well. We trudged on, and it was unpleasant. You have to descend into a canyon and then back up again to get to the town, and by the end of it I was more than exhausted. We arrived to the Cloud Forest hostal at 6 pm, and were warmly greeted and informed supper would be ready soon. We enjoyed a delicious soup, chicken, rice, and cabbage slaw that took some of the edge of the day away. The rooms were beautifully heated and the beds had thermal sheets so we fell into a heavy sleep very quickly. The following day we decided it was in our best interest to head back to Latacunga to see a doctor for Chris’s bite. We hired a pickup truck (again, only option mom!) to Sigchos and experienced an even more breathtaking ride through the mountains. Definitely what the travel book described as being an “andean high.” From Sigchos we took a bus back to Latacunga and headed to the hospital. The doctor orginally told us it was necessary to find the dog and observe it for 7 days, and if it got sick they would start prophylactic shots. Which made me laugh, and point out the obvious that we are gringos, and it was a dog somewhere in the moutains outside Quilotoa. The probability of that occuring was approximately 0. With some very heavy persuasion from Chris and I the doctor referred us to public health, who were much more helpful and kind. We learned he would require a vaccination daily for a week. What to do in Latacunga for a week?…..(Here is a nicely timed break moms).
We arranged a day trip to Cotopaxi for the next day to hike to the refugio camp and glacier, then bike down through the park. It was a beautifully clear day and we had some amazing views on the way up through the park, and the mountain looked absolutely magnificant. We hiked up to the refugio (4864 m) with absolutely no problems, and then onto the glacier (5000 m) again with no problems. Over lunch it was decided we needed to summit the beast. There was no looking back. From there we attempted to bike down (no breaks on the bikes + death roads = certain death) so we hopped back in the truck and headed down to the hostal where we booked our climbing tour for 2 days time. That time was dedicated to drinking as much water and gatorade as humanly possible, and preparing an insanely high carb, protein and fat meal that we forced down for several meals. We also got snacks for the climb, and a good nights sleep. We woke up as prepared as we felt we could be. We geared up with boots, thermal and waterproof pants, snow jacket, 2 layers of gloves, balaclava, crampons, ice axes, and helmets. We then crammed into a van and headed to the park with 4 other hopeful climbers, spotting condors flying along the way which was extremely lucky as there are only 4 in the entire park. When we arrived it was a totally different mountain then a few days previous. Instead of a calm beautiful day with a clearly distinguishable area where the glacier starts it was entirely snow covered, and the snow was coming down heavy. Not a good sign. We hoofed it back up to the refugio where we were suppose to continue on to the glacier to practice with our crampons, but due to the snow it wasn’t a good idea as if all of our gear got wet there was no drying it. Instead we sat in the refugio drinking copious amounts of cocoa tea and water, and running outside in the cold to use the awful restrooms. There is a coyote that hangs around the refugio that we also were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of. We had a delicious spaghetti supper and then at the prime time of 6pm headed to bed to try and catch a few hours sleep. This is incredibly hard at altitude, and even harder knowing the task ahead. Too soon (12 am) we were being awoken to eat breakfast and set out at 1:30 am. I asked my guide how the conditions were, and he said not good. Understatement of the year. As we began our climb we realized how much snow, beautiful powder that would make any skiier or boarder green with envy, had fallen. How did we realize this? Every time we took a step forward we slid an agonizing two backwards. Crampons were utterly useless in powder as there is nothing for them to grab onto. Our ice axes continually sunk up to their heads in the snow, causing an exhausting effort to retrieve. I am not exaggerating when I say it was easily the most difficult physical and mental task I have ever taken on. My mind was screaming the entire time “why are you doing this!!!!” But I persevered. Despite the agony, it was beyond incredible. We had only our headlamps illuminating the way, but when we lifted our heads and looked to the sky we saw the stars and moon more clearly than any other moment in our lives. Even more interesting, we were so high it made it seem we were alongside with the moon. As we dared to look behind us we saw the lights of both Quito and Latacunga glistening far below. As desperate as we were, we still appreciated the moment and the fact we were higher than we had ever been before in our lives.
I was doing great with the altitude, but horrible in terms of the exhaustion aspect. The effort exerted with each step became greater and greater, and my body weaker and weaker. At 5:15 am we stopped and assessed the situation. We were at 5450 m, and the likelihood of making the summit in the snow (and my) condition were unlikely. Also as soon as the sun came up (which was in 10-15 minutes) it was necessary to begin heading down due to the risk of an avalanche (love you moms). With heavy hearts we decided just to head down, as there wasn’t much point continuing on. The sun rose and quickly illuminated our surroundings and the enormity of what we had just done. Looking around we could see the peaks of other volcanos, the cloud layer, and the path we had taken up. It is incredible what we accomplished, especially considering the snow. We walked down in awe of the different views at the different points, astounded by the diversity around us. While our goal was not met, the experience was bar none. Our attempted summit was on all hallows eve, while no treats were given on the mountain (quite the opposite) we celebrated with snickers bar back at the refugio (would have killed for a candy apple). It is unfortunate but none of our group of 7 were able to summit due to the snow conditions (and how late we left…we think our guides knew it was a doomed mission), but some were able to go as high as 5650. If anything it has made us want a summit more than ever, perhaps another mountain is in our future. We are still recovering, the pain is too fresh so it won’t be anytime soon.
You’d think we would take it easy after that but we headed straight to Banos for some outdoor adventure. We arrived and decided to head to the bridge to check out Puenting, which is somewhat like bungee jumping but the rope is solid and you swing rather than bungee. We got to the bridge and realized how high it was and I immediately decided nope, absolutely NOT. Most of group that did Cotopaxi came to Banos so after one person went (of course it was Mr. Forbes) slowly, slowly one by one everyone else did as well. Until there was only me left, and suddenly it became 1) the Cotopaxi crew jump that we all needed to complete and 2) a competition between countries and 2 people from Canada and 2 people from Switzerland had gone so I could seal the deal for Canada. So really mom, I did it for my country. For the record, I thought it was an awful concept, but I was peer pressured into it. Standing on the tiny metal platform with a 120 m drop into a raging river was absolutely horrifying. But when you looked around at the surrounding mountains and the sun peaking through the clouds, it wasn’t as bad. All it takes is 30 seconds of insane courage, and good things do happen. Jumping off was amazing, the swing at the bottom a joyful relief. But the true beauty in the experience was the moment fear was conquered with a single leap. Compared to skydiving, this was a hundred times more intense. I still haven’t quite stopped smiling yet.
Yesterday we hiked to the top of a mountain surrounding Banos with a view of the volcano Tungurahua (which is active and spit ashes out as recent as this morning), and the many surrounding mountains in the area. At the top there was also a little tree house that had a swing that allowed you to swing out over the side of the mountain, allowing for some spectacular photos. Apparently the construction was awful and it is probably going to let go at any moment, but after Cotopaxi and bridge jumping, what is a little swing?
Cheers for now. We love all of our families back home, sorry for the potential heart attacks this post poses.

The Galapagos Islands

We arrived back from our cruise on Friday evening and were absolutely spent after one of the most exciting and interesting weeks of our lives. I kept notes during the week of things to discuss in the blog so I will start from the very beginning and try and put in words (and photos) how incredible our experience was!

Our flight took around 2 hours as we first flew to Guayaquil and had a short stopover and then continued onto Baltra. The most interesting part of the flight was when the crew went through the cabin and sprayed disinfectant spray so we would not introduce any species into the islands. We boarded the boat and got our first taste of the magnificant food with a buffet lunch. We then explored the boat a bit and were absolutely amazed. They were not kidding about the luxury class of the boat. Our room had a king sized bed, desk, air conditioning we could control, and a private bathroom that included dispensers for shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. That may not sound that exciting to those of you at home, but hwne you are on the road for this long it is one of the most exciting moments. We could conserve our dwindling supplies, use the boats higher quality supplies, AND refill our bottles before we left. A dream come true. In terms of the other passengers on board we were delighted there was a total of 11 backpackers, and the rest were a variety of age (from middle aged to mid 70s). It turned out to be an incredible mix of people and we had an absolute blast together.

Day 1: Evening walk on North Seymore Island
We first spotted the nocturnal bird the swallow’tailed gull- thought adapted to nocturnal feeding due to frigate bird who are the “pirates” of Galapagos who survive by stealing food from the other birds. The swallow-tailed gull evolved due to this fact to hunt and feed its chicks in the nighttime. The beaks of the gulls evolved to have white ring/grey beak so young could see the beak to feed. Also the eyes of the gull are larger than other birds and have a red ring surrounding them.
We then saw numerous frigate birds who are again the pirates of the Galapagos. The males have red pouch they inflate to attract females, also make noises with beaks and flap wings. These birds Soar, they don’t fly and can soar for over 300 miles. The big debate is do they sleep while they do this? These birds cannot fish in sea, evolved so oils no longer produced in feathers to protect them. They aren’t sure why. This is why the are pirates- can oufly other birds and steal their food. We also caught a glimpse of the Galapagos snake which is only 1.5m long and is nonvenomeous. They are constrictors and mostly prey on young marine iguanas and lava lizzards. We then were able to see several blue footed boobies up close. They nest on the ground (red footed boobies nest in trees- no land predators for blue feet- some for red- evolved so they can perch on trees and nest there) when looking for mate male whistles and does “star pointing pose” which we were able to see quite close. There is a sequence of pictures in which I am trying to get a pic with a booby in the background but he takes off during the first shot and comes to sit beside me. The next few shots are quite comical as we look at each other, then away, then back at each other thinking “how did you get here?” The color of the feet depicts whether they are a good hunter and if food is plentiful. A deeper blue means a better hunter and plenty of food, which attracts females.
We had our first encounters with sea lions on the beach which was amazing as they are incredibly tame. You had to almost walk over them in some instances. We took in a gorgeous (but very quick) sunset on the beach and then headed back to the boat for a fabulous supper followed by a jacuzzi. While walking to the jacuzzi we saw a massive shark swimming alongside the boat. We thought to ourselves “imagine if we fell in with the shark!” then realized we would be snorkeling the next day…!

Day 2:
We spent the morning exploring Isabela island by a boat ride along the coast with half of sunken volcano, one half is 3860m under the ocean providing a view of the middle of the volcano. You were able to see massive dykes where the lava flows to the surface, the geology was incredible (you would have loved it Patrick!) Animals are bigger in this area due to colder waters for longer periods of time, meaning more food. So larger marina iguanas, larger sea lions that are also furry that originally are from Antartica, different type of blue footed boobies called Nasca (after the plate the Galapagos lies on) boobies that are also bigger. We were able to see sea turtles from the boat, as well as a few penguins. We also observed a moon fish (some call sun fish) fin out of water, which is distinguished from a shark as it is not stable, it rocks from side to side. We spotted our first flightless cormorants which are endemic to this islands. They are unsure why the birds have evolved to not be able to fly, but they have. A marine iguana swam directly infront of our boat which was very interesting to watch, they use only their back tail to propel themselves.
We got back on board and changed into our wetsuits for our first snorkeling outing. In retrospect, this firs day of snorkeling was hands down the best day due to the abundance of marine life and how close the animals were. Unfortunately we did not take the camera this day as we wanted to make sure all of our gear was okay. Chris and I have never properly snorkeled, we figured the Galapagos Islands were a good way to start! There were tons of sea lions which were very curious and wanted to play, the trick was to lay as still in the water as we could with our hands hidden under our arms and they would come to investigate (particularly the juveniles) as they wanted to see what was laying so motionless in the water. It was such a surreal experience to have them swim full tilt at you and at the last second turn away, only to come back seconds later. It was incredible. They also nibbled on a few peoples flippers in the water, just checking things out. There were also so many sea turtles grazing on the bottom of the ocean, but they paid very little attention to us in the water. They were wonderful to just float and observe. This was also the day with the most penguins, which I was absolutely delighted about as I adore penguins. However they seem to be like cats and the more you want them to come near the further away they went. Chris had a fabulous experience in which one actually came up to him and pecked his mask (much to my intense jealousy). They are so fast underwater, they just zoomed around and around, disturbing the schools of fish just for fun.A flightless cormorant in the water also nibbled on his flipper, apparently he was very intriguing this day! There was a massive manta ray that passed briefly underneath us all as we swam.We also saw countless numbers of fish which were beautifully colored. When we got back on board it was hard to digest all that we had just observed. I cant stress enough how incredible the snorkeling experience was!
In the afternoon we walked along a beach on Fernandina which is the youngest of the islands and has one of the most interesting landscapes. In terms of wildlife we witnessed a jouvenile hawk being attacked by oyster eating birds trying to protect a nest nearby, more flightless cormorants who were drying their tiny little wings, sea lions bathing in the evening light, and hundreds upon hundreds of marina iguanas (we actually had to walk through masses of marine iguanas at certain points). We enjoyed another amazing sunset before boarding again for another out of this world supper, and early bedtime.

Day 3:
We spent the morning back on Isabela island at Urbina bay where we discovered nests of sea turtles on beach while disembarking, which are large holes with eggs around the rim of the hole due to the way the turtle digs the hole. Not even 30 seconds into our walk we saw our first sighting of the Galapagos giant land tortoises.During the course of the walk we were able to see both adults and juveniles,which you can tell the difference by the age rings on the shell. They are over 600 pounds and are very shy so you needed to be very quiet and give them lots of room or they would just retract into their shells. All of the tortoises were laying in shade as it was scorching hot even at 9 am when we were doing our walk. We were able to see land iguanas and their nests, which you can differentiate from tortoises nests as they dig diagonal due to the shape of their arms, vs. straight down.
After our walk we got back on board and cooled off by jumping off the 2nd deck of the ship which was so much fun! We were a little leary as they told us to make sure we jumped far enough out that we wouldnt go under the ship.. but it was no problem. It was higher than I expected, but a great rush. The water was beautiful and the current was only strong at the back of the boat. We then had another fantastic lunch and a bit of a break during which we enjoyed the sunshine and chatted.
In the afternoon we went snorkeling in Tagus Cove on Isabela Island off the panga boat, which was different from our first day of snorkeling as the sea beds were more lush with lots of different types of fish, but not as many penguins or sea lions. We took our camera however and got some excellent shots, I was able to get some great shots of Chris with a few sea turtles.
We then did a walk to the rim of Darwins crater, with stunning view of a lava (not molten to Chriss chargrin) field and the overall landscape of the island. It was a beautiful little hike again witnessing another fantastic sunset.

Day 4:
In the morning we disembarked on Rabida Islands red-colored beach, which made Chris feel right at home. We did a walk around the island which was interesting as it was lush green forest at th top, and was very dead near bottom. We were able to watch boobies diving into the ocean fishing, which was amazing to sit and observe. We were also lucky and saw a Galapagos snake constricting a lava lizzard, which was impressive as the Galapagos snakes are really not that big. Back on the beach there were lots of sea lions, including a dead pup. We snorkeled off the beach, where there were not nearly as many large animals, except we lucked in and saw a white tip reef shark which was amazing. There were tons of surgeon fish and king angel fish.
The afternoon was spent at dragon hill on Santa Cruz island which reminded me of the moon fue to all of the rocks. We Saw 1 flamingo and several common stilt birds in a lagoon. We saw lots of different types of land iguanas, who have to survive predation by dogs due to the local population on the island.

Day 5:
The morning was spent at the Charles Darwin breeding center in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz. There are tons of baby tortoises, who were adorable and really made me want to have a tortoise for a pet (until they become 600 pounds). We saw our first saddleback turtle, which are so interesting due to how the shell has evolved due to the food sources available. After the breeding centre we walked around town and had the opportunity to buy souvenirs. The best souvenir I came across was a nativity scene with “Galapagos Islands” written beside it. Hilariously ironic. I purchased 2 beautiful post cards made out of dried rose petals as well as a blue footed booby tree ornament. And most importantly, a box of cheap wine. Lunch was at the Finch Bay hotel which is owned by the same company as the boat, which was a BBQ and was absolutely out of this world. The deserts were incredible, Chris had 4 cheesecakes. Lol.
The afternoon was spent in the highlands of Santa Cruz observing dome shaped tortoises in the wild, which was very cool. There was a tortoise blocking the road to the buses, which Ramiro our guide described as a “Galapagos traffic jam.” We had tea and then headed back to the boat to watch the Ecuador vs. Chile Fifa qualifying game with the crew. Ecuador lost but qualified for world cup, which made the crew very happy. Had a fabulous dinner with a crepe bar for desert. Did I mention how amazing the food was?

Day 6:
Our morning was spent on Floreana Island in Post Office Bay to visit the historic barrel that has served as a post office in the archipelago for over two centuries. It was started by whalers and pirates to communicate with home and worked by the crew leaving letters to be picked up by other ships heading home. It could take over 2 years for these letters to be delivered, and they were always hand delivered. The tradition still stands for tourists, we were able to leave post cards there and to try and find post cards close to home that we could deliver. There were none at all close to either Chris or I, and I suspect it could take quite a while for the ones we left to reach our parents. We then walked to a lava tunnel in which we were able to swim. It was incredibly cold, but of course we had to do it just to say we did.
We then went snorkeling along the coast of an extinct cone called Champion Islet. The water was quite choppy, which lead to many people getting in the water and getting right back out. We toughed it out, despite poor visability, freezing water, and choppiness but did not see a whole lot. The only interesting point was 2 sea lions mating. Lol.
We then walked along Punta Cormorant where there were more flamingos in a lagoon, and a pristine white sand beach where we were able to get some amazing group photos (we made a pyramid, took jumping pics etc etc) and also observed rays in the water.

Day 7:
The morning was spent walking on Santa Fe Island where there were giant colonies of sea lions that we sat and watched for half an hour. It is interesting to observe the alpha male, who is absolutely massive, try and manage the colony. It is quite a stressful job, considering there is always another male trying to move in on the colony and the young pups tend to try and wander. We saw the massive alpha male chase away a few other males out of his bay after they tried to move in. There was also another alpha male hiding among his colony between females, and would pop up and try and make a move on the ladies everytime the alpha male went for a swim. It was quite like a soap opera. There was also a juvenile hawk very interested in a pup that was less than a day old (we could still see its umbilical cord) and we were concerned it was going to attack, but it was moreso just interested I believe. Also, mum was keeping a close eye on the little pup as he was still blind. We also saw the endemic pale land iguana of this island, which was very neat to compare to the others we had seen on the other islands. We snorkeled off the panga boats and saw large schools of fish who like the other animals of the Galapagos were very tame. We were able to swim alongside them without them reacting in any way. An alpha male also torpedoed past us to let us know we were too close, which was very terrifying.
The afternoon was spent on South Plaza Island where we observed sea birds fishing, and a group of male sea lions who were unsuccessful in obtaining a colony all hanging out, which our guide described as the “bachelor pad.” The geology of the island was very interesting and barren.

Day 8:
We spent the morning in the interpretation centre on San Cristobal Island and then we headed to the airport to wait for our flight.

I realize how massive this blog post is, and it doesnt even come close to doing the islands justice. If you ever have the chance to go to these islands, you must. I have posted pictures on facebook as there are 196 of them, but I will try and upload them to here as well for those who I do not have on facebook. For now I hope you enjoy my description of our time on the islands.

We spent yesterday relaxing and going through our pictures from the cruise, and today we got up and went to a local soccer game at the national stadium. The soccer was absolutely awful, it was comical really. We headed to a local park after to watch some Ecuadorian Volleyball, which is 3 on 3 and carries are more than allowed. They always play for money, and we watched 2 matches that had over a thousand dollars on them. It was very intense. We then walked around the park a bit, people watching as there were thousands of people enjoying the sunshine. It was a beautiful, relaxing Sunday.

Cheers!

Otavalo and Quito

Hola!
It has been an exciting few days on the gringo trail for us! I will begin where I left off in Otavalo. On Friday we did a 5 hour hike around Laguna Cuicocha which is a volcanic crater with a beautiful tourqoise lake in the center. It was an excellent hike beginning at 3100 m and going as high as 3500m. The trail was very well maintained and for the most part you walked along the spine of the mountains surrounding the lake which provided spectacular views. It was a great way to spend the day. We hit the hay early in anticipation of the market Saturday morning. The market completely engulfed the small town, transforming the atmosphere entirely to one of excitement and opportunity. The sheer quantity of goods available was astounding, the fact some people lugged it in from hours away even more impressive. However, we were saddened to see that it has been largely influenced by the western world and many booths were filled with “hollister” tshirts and nike sneakers. Even more interesting were the number of traditionally dressed local indigenous people buying from these booths. We came to purchase their handcrafted goods, they came to get a pair of hightops. Irony at it’s finest. A lot of the things we were hoping to purchase (alpaca sweaters and blankets) were quite obviously factory made and distributed by the thousands, so we decided to hold off on these purchases until Peru or Bolivia. We did both break down and buy comfy pairs of linen pants (a shirt for Chris as well to replace a stolen one..unfortunately not dry fit), I bought a beautiful handmade surprise for my goddaughter, and we stumbled upon the most beautiful handmade jewellery near the end of the day in which I indulged in a ring and necklace. I will post pictures as words will not do the intricacy of the design justice. Trust me, they are stunning. We did not have to haggle much either as it was the end of the day and a sale was better than no sale at that point. Later that evening we went to a local bar with a few people from the hostel to take in a traditional andean band. It was very interesting music, the dancing is much easier in Ecuador than salsa in Colombia- basically two-stepping with a few spins. Chris got a haircut earlier in the day to 1/8th of an inch (he almost got a latino shaped cut, we had to ask the guy to round the points he had shaped around his temples. Think “Pauly-D” haircut. I was loosing it laughing) which received many stares as long braided hair on men is a part of the culture. Also, being 6`2″ doesn’t help the situation.
Sunday we headed to Quito bright and early as it is a massive city (I can’t find exact numbers but it is something like 35km long and 5km wide) so we wanted daylight to navigate around. We are staying at the hostel Casa Bambu which is our favorite hostel so far owing to the amazing beds, excellent kitchen facilities, and stunning rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Sunday afternoon we headed to the Quicentro shopping center and invested in a cheap tablet, as every hostel has wifi but not necessarily computers. So far it has been working out great (besides being a bit slow). Monday was dedicated entirely to finding a last minute Galapagos cruise deal. Our hopes were high to find a smokin’ deal as it is low season and we were willing to leave as early as the next day. We had done some research on a few boats we were interested in and so we headed directly to the owners of the boats. We quickly realized how many factors there are to consider when choosing a cruise, and that most companies were unwilling to knock off more than $150 bucks. This meant all of the boats were within a few hundred dollars of each other. So how did we decide? We visited Sangay Touring travel agency where an amazing agent boiled down the differences for us:
1) Type of boat and how this relates to sea sickness (very important for Chris as he gets motion sick): The smaller and skinnier a boat, the more you are going to feel the sea. The larger and heavier the boat, the more stable. So catamarans and large yachts are much better options than schooners.
2) The classification of boats: there is no standard way of classifying boats in the Galapagos, so most boats are considered “First Class” boats. The agent explained it’s best to further break down this category to “low, middle, and high-end” first class boats.
3) The itinerary of the boats: this was crucial information as we did not know much about the individual islands so this made a big difference. He explained what animals are associated with the different islands so it gave us a better idea of what we would see on each boat. No boat allows you to see all of the islands (in our time frame of an 8 day 7 night cruise- a 15 day cruise probably would) but certainly some itineraries are better than others. Also, some ships combine a 3 & 4 day cruise to get the 7 day cruise, which means one day you spend half a day dropping off and picking up passengers. If we are paying the $$ we definitely wanted to avoid this!
4) Quality of the guides on board: most ships have 16 passengers to 1 naturalist guide. The guide can make the difference between a good trip, and an amazing trip. Obviously for us an english speaking guide is a must as our spanish is awful (we keep planning on taking lessons but there is always something more exciting to do) and our agent informed us even though a guide is listed ad bilingual this may not be the case.
5) Quality of the operations onboard: more money doesn’t always mean better operations. We discovered some of the lower end boats had much better operations than several higher end boats.
6) Reliability of the company should something go wrong: some companies put boats in the water knowing full on they are going to breakdown a few days into the cruise. Getting a refund is next to impossible. Going with a company that has an excellent reputation this way provides peace of mind should something go wrong.
7) Size of the ship: as I mentioned most boats are 16 passengers to 1 guide. However there are bigger luxury boats out there, usually 40-48 passengers with 3-4 guides, maintaining the ratio of passengers to guides. We inquired if these ships are less personal as they are larger, but to the contrary they tend to be more personalized as the group can be split up based on language spoken, specific interests etc. The guides on these ships are the cream of the crop and tend to be multilingual.
8) Food: food is overall fantastic on all ships, but portion sizes tend to be smaller on the smaller ships and generally it is plate service. The larger ships have buffet style.
9) Price: generally, the lower end boats prices do not change drastically from the low to high season. However, the luxury boat pricing changes astonishingly from the low to high season (think a third of the price..)
10) Payment: to use a visa/mastercard within Ecuador there is a 5-10% charge. This is HUGE when paying for something like a Galapagos cruise. However several companies allow 80% or more of the cost to be charged on a cards with no fee as they have accounts out of country. This had a huge influence on our decision.
We weighed all of these factors and settled on the 48 passenger luxury boat La Pinta (check it out at http://www.yachtlapinta.com). It was a smokin’ deal (despite being a bit more than what we wanted to pay) and our agent vouched personally for the experience aboard as he and his family cruised with them recently. The guides are top-knotch, the food sounds out of this world, the rooms look amazing, there is the smallest chance of sea sickness for Chris, wet suits & snorkel gear are included, there are kayaks to use, etc etc etc. Considering many of the low to middle range first class boats were priced the same, I think we made the best decision. We leave Friday morning and will return to Quito the following Friday. I will blog upon our return as I want to take in every minute of the cruise! I will be sure to include pictures.
We spent most of yesterday finalizing the cruise and unfortunatelty both Chris and I have been experiencimg some GI issues so we have been laying low since. We are going to take today to recharge, spend tomorrow exploring the old town in Quito which is a Uniseco World Heritage site, and then we are off to Galapagos. So very exciting! And to think…..we could be working right now.
Life is good. Cheers!