To the beach!

We stayed overnight in Guayaquil, where we had landed post-Galapagos. The city was essentially a busy, dusty city. It did have a lovely waterfront along the river so we did fit in an evening stroll. We walked from our hotel near the airport to get there… Probably about 7km that were not particularly scenic. Not sure I would recommend the trek to any visitors.

Guayaquil Waterfront

Guayaquil Waterfront

The next day we strapped on our packs and walked to the bus station. In a word: hectic. We managed to navigate through the terminal to the appropriate desk and get our tickets to Playas. It was pretty nuts. I also needed to navigate the restroom prior to our departure (travelling 5 months pregnant is not always super easy), usually this is a simple process… But in a super busy bus station one tiny bathroom with only two stalls it is a challenge, especially with the families bathing their children in the sinks. Anyway, we  made it to our bus, which was pleasantly air-conditioned and featured a comedy on the television – luxurious! The most entertaining part was probably the vendors they would allow on at red lights and then off again a little later. You could get everything from light snacks to ice cream, fried plantains and meat on a stick (I was very glad I wasn’t suffering from any motion induced nausea). A couple hours later, we made it to Playas, hopped off and began the walk to our hotel.

Our route took us through a surprisingly dusty town. I’m not sure what we expected, but I don’t think this was it. It’s an odd mixture of tourism and everyday banality that doesn’t quite seem to fit. 
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We arrived at Hotel Titopolis, a beachfront hotel we booked for the duration of our stay. They seemed rather shocked we had taken the bus from Guayaquil and had walked there. This hotel is a whole other story. It is run by a very nice, if at times invasive and overbearing, family. The parents have four children, some of whom are around for the holidays. We just can’t quite figure them out – they are all around all day, but they don’t seem to work much. They have a very, very nice lady who seems to take care of everything! She does the breakfast, the cleaning, the lunch, the laundry… Yesterday she served us breakfast at 7am and brought us clean towels at 9:30pm! Clearly amazing. All that aside, the room is comfy and overlooks the beach, there is a small pool and hammocks underneath a cabana. Of course just outside the gate is the ocean with a long wide beach, perfect for a morning stroll where we have found many treasures to remind us of our trip (most recent find: a sand dollars this morning!). We have decided it is the perfect way to end our trip: with some true vacation time.
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It seems not many “gringos” make it here, which suits us just fine. There are quite a few ecuadorians who are around on holiday, so we are hardly alone. Today we were told about a “local” spot where you can take a boat out to see dolphins. We decided to give it a go and head over there.”There” is a port called Puerto del Morro and I say “local” because upon our arrival in this little town, it became quite apparent that dolphin tourism was a very popular destination indeed, perhaps just not for foreigners. It seemed that everywhere we looked there was another sign boasting boat tours to see dolphins. We crashed an extended family outing on our boat – we were the only two of the 16 that weren’t related. It was pretty amusing.

We did see some dolphins! They are such graceful animals and were great to see in the wild. The tour also took us through the mangroves and by some sea birds. I have a general distaste for following the animals once they have been spotted – I mean, seriously, as if the dolphin family wants to be followed by a bunch of gas fuelled boats while they lunch. I was seriously thankful it wasn’t a weekend and the number of boats was limited. The dolphins and birds were lovely, the boat ride was a tranquil hour or so – certainly not a bad way to spend a couple hours of vacation!
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The rest of the time, life is rough. We swim, lie about, stroll and read. So demanding!
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To top off all of our excitement so far we ended today with a lovely Foster Family+ Skype! Not only has Nur made it through the paces, but Justine seems to be holding her own very well (as Paddy said: “With that family!? Thank goodness!”). What better way to end a fantastic day?

Well: A smorgasbord of new year’s dinner is a start and I’m not exaggerating. Shrimp salad, lobster salad, ribs, turkey and so much more. I haven’t eaten so much meat and so few veggies since I don’t know when. All that remains: ringing in the new year! Fireworks Playas-beachside will be warmer than fireworks Bundt-side were in Shanghai last year!

Happy New Year! Enjoy the festivities. We wish you everything wonderful in 2014!

The Galapagos Islands

It has been a while, and as connectivity has been limited, this might be a long one!

The Galapagos truly is a wondrous paradise. It comes by its fabulous reputation honestly and we have seen more than we thought imaginable over the past week.

We began this journey on Santa Cruz, staying two nights in Puerto Ayora. The town itself is filled with lots of trendy bars and restaurants, giving it a very modern feel. The goal is clearly to attract tourists and they are very service oriented. We were spoiled by excellent hosts and a wealth of fabulous seafood.

The fish market in Puerto Ayora

The fish market in Puerto Ayora

We awoke early and headed off to Bahía Tortuga.

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

This area is only a pleasant few kilometres from town and, as the name suggests, is home to plenty of turtles. They nest here, so anywhere off the path is forbidden. There is a beautiful beach and it is here we also saw our first marine iguanas – one also seriously startled me during a swim! There are also lots of sea birds around and we got a good view of the famous blue-footed boobies and some rays. image
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The afternoon was busy! A friendly, good-natured taxi driver agreed to take us to a few key spots: collapsed volcanic craters, lava tunnels and to a tortoise ranch. Just when we thought we couldn’t see any more! The craters were much bigger than we had imagined. The photos don’t do them justice, as they were so deep and round you couldn’t see two sides at once from so close. I likened it to the landscape from “Land Before Time”.

Paddy overlooking a crater

Paddy overlooking a crater

The lava tunnels were impressive as well, left from magma flowing out after a volcanic eruption, you can climb down and follow its curves and high ceilings, checking out the volcanic rock for over a kilometre.
Entering the tunnel

Entering the tunnel

Lava Tunnel

Lava Tunnel

The highlight of the afternoon was definitely our visit to Rancho Primicias, enclosing giant tortoises. It was amazing to witness these beautiful creatures’ slow, deliberate movements. I had seriously underestimated their size… They are about as big as me! Many of these tortoises were well over 100 years old.

Giant Tortoise

Giant Tortoise

Me with an old shell

Me with an old shell

Puerto Ayora is also known for the Charles Darwin Research Station, which breeds various tortoise species, as well as land iguanas. It was worth the visit, and is only a very short walk from town.

Land Iguana

Land Iguana

This subspecies is found on Española Island

This subspecies is found on Española Island

The next day we headed to Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. This was our favourite of the islands – less developed, friendly people and lots to do and see.

We walked to La Muro de las Lagrimas (the Wall of Tears), about a 15km round trip from town. Prisoners were sent to work here in 1946 as punishment. As the saying went “Here the strong cry and the weak die.” Not a particularly encouraging motto. imageAll that’s left now is the wall and a few signs of the infrastructure left behind by the US Army after WWII. The hike to get there is lovely with lots of viewpoints and lagoons off the trail. On our way out we were even lucky enough to see a tortoise in the wild!

Wild tortoise!

Wild tortoise!

Isabela also hosts a breeding centre for various tortoise species. The centre is well laid out and it is amazing to see so many tortoises in one location. Once the tortoises are a few years old and less vulnerable to predators, they are released back into the wild. We enjoyed this particular spot much more than the Darwin on Santa Cruz.

So many!

So many!

We also explored much more marine life around this island. We first snorkelled a small lagoon, Concha de Perla, filled with lots of little fish, rays, penguins, crabs, iguanas and sea lions amongst other things. A very friendly sea lion swam around us and played, even managing to get close enough to startle Paddy!

A playful sea lion

A playful sea lion

Swimming Iguana

Swimming Iguana

Finally, we went on a boat tour to Las Tintoreras. On the way out we spotted some sea turtles, penguins and rays. Then we went on a guided walk along the islands to see the iguanas nesting site (absolutely filled with them – it’s mating season), and a long crevice where white tipped sharks like to hang out. Our last stop was a snorkel amongst the islands where we saw all kinds of fish, starfish, rays, eels and most exciting, sea turtles. I can’t think of a better way to spend Christmas-Birthday!
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Our final Galapagos destination was San Cristóbal. It’s an odd place and with a deep port, clearly a more popular destination for the tour boats. This is evidenced by the developed waterfront and underdeveloped remainder of the town. I have a feeling this town may change a lot in the coming years!

We visited the Park Interpretation Centre, which was quite different from the other centres we’ve visited. It focuses much more on the geological and social history of the islands. Behind it are some great trails and beaches where some sea lion colonies live. They are quite the amazing mammals and such fun to watch! We hung out on Playa Man, swimming and watching the sea lions for quite a while. There are lots of pups around!

Sea lions on Playa Man

Sea lions on Playa Man


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Something we thought we’d never see: A huge sea lion crossing the road. It looked so comical!

We loved our time here – definitely the trip of a lifetime! We enjoyed the freedom booking our own hotels, not being part of a tour or cruise and just wandering around afforded us. Were we to do this again, we would likely skip San Cristóbal and venture to some of the other less populated or uninhabited islands. Of course, we’d get some diving in too – there are just a couple restrictions at the moment, for the best of reasons!

Pad is still not over his dislike of feathered friends...

Pad is still not over his dislike of feathered friends…

The Door.

We arrived in the Galapagos yesterday. A short bus, short boat and taxi ride later we arrived at the hotel. It was mid-afternoon at this point so we ditched our stuff and set out to wander the town and get our bearings before finding some dinner.

The weather was fine, the walk was lovely, the food was delicious and we returned to the hotel in good spirits.

We had been back for a little while when Paddy decided to go refill our water from the filling station downstairs. He unlocks the door, he tries the handle, it won’t unlatch. Yup, we were stuck.

Seriously stuck too, not that there are varying degrees of stuck, but when the only other exit is a tiny window that won’t open you start feeling like you might be there for a while.

We tried the intercom, it didn’t work. We knocked on the door, no one came. We tried calling the hotel via Skype but the internet here is limited. We tried yelling – this worked!!

The owner arrived and opened the door from the other side. She laughed and demonstrated the lock. “We know! It was unlocked!” We exclaimed. The door handle won’t unlatch the door from the inside. “Sure it will!” She responded, looking at us like we were very stupid gringos and slamming the door – from the inside. She tried the handle – it didn’t work. She looked at us with the most priceless look of shock – he handle still didn’t work. “Oh great” I though, “Now all three of us are stuck in here!”

By this time the long day had caught up with me and I was trying to contain my hysterical laughter.

Luckily her daughter had followed and opened the door from the outside. The temporary solution? Tape, so the door won’t latch and us gringos are no longer in galapagaen jail.

Foot tired.

It is our last day in Quito – we knew it would come! Tomorrow morning we fly out to the Galapagos and a whole other adventure begins.

We took off to the new town for some further exploring as we hadn’t spent much time there yet. The atmosphere is different than the old town and there is quite the contrast! People with more leisure time, pricier stores and more sophisticated restaurants were a few of the clues. We walked to Parque Carolina, a beautiful, spacious park in the city. There were lots of people enjoying the sunny Saturday – holidays have begun and there has definitely been an influx of people!

Parque Carolina - Quiet in the early morning

Parque Carolina – Quiet in the early morning

Within the park is a botanical garden that you can visit for a small fee. The setting was amazing and they had different sections for each of the different climates found in Ecuador. They also had two huge greenhouses devoted to orchids, as well as one devoted to carnivorous plants. There was everything from flowering trees to cacti to roses. I will be sure to include some more photos at the bottom for those of you who are interested in seeing a little more!

Touring the Gardens

Touring the Gardens

The same park is also home to a “Vivarium” housing 44 different species of reptiles and amphibians. We got a little presentation after which we were allowed to pet a boa, indigenous to the Amazon, and then explore. They had venomous and non-venomous snakes, frogs, turtles and crocodiles. It was pretty neat to see so many species under one roof!

After our morning of park, gardens and animals we decided to visit la Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal as we had steered clear of any shops and markets thus far. We didn’t last too long, but wandered up and down a few rows of stalls. It was fun to see so many shops in one place!

Now we’re tired in the best possible way. Our time in and around Quito has been fantastic and we are so looking forward to seeing what else this amazing country has to offer!

Aside of the day: We had breakfast with a fellow who works at our hotel this morning. One if his aunts married a Canadian Texaco engineer and they live in Saskatoon. He lived on Saskatoon for a month when he was little to improve his English, but this is the only part of Canada he has ever been to. As Paddy said: “Imagine if the only perspective you had of Canada was Saskatoon…”

More photos!

Walking around the park and gardens, so many flowering trees and birds!
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The rose garden.
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Cacti and other interesting plants.
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Carnivores!
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So many orchids!
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Fifteen Thousand Nine Hundred and Fifty Three

The world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, towers above the landscape at an impressive 19347 ft (5897m). Her name comes from two Quechuan words:”Coto” meaning “neck” and “paxi” meaning moon. Apparently the moon sometimes perches atop the mountain as the head to her neck.

The drive into this pristine park was impressive on its own. Most astounding for me was seeing how much the landscape differs between the north and south of Quito. The last two days spent north of the city couldn’t prepare us for what we saw today.

The drive there took us outside of the city where green rolling mountains flecked with fields dominated the landscape. The potato plants were flowering and various new vistas emerged from beneath the thick blanket of fog as we climbed.

Wild horses at the base of some hills

Wild horses at the base of some hills


Laguna de Limpiopungo

Laguna de Limpiopungo

We arrived at Cotopaxi National Park and headed up to the parking lot nearest the base camp. Our guide, Cristian, has been leading climbs and day tours in the area for 17 years (in all that time, I was the first preggo he ever guided!). He was patient, knowledgeable and got us off to a great start.

Due to the sudden hike in altitude (we started off somewhere around 15000 ft vs. Quito’s 8000-10000) he had us walk very slowly as we began our hike. This was my first experience at such incredible altitude. We began to pick up the pace a little as we went, when suddenly I felt a pounding in my ears and began to see black dots. This was a bizarre sensation, especially as I wasn’t winded or feeling any differently beforehand. In any event, it was nothing a minute of sitting down couldn’t quickly put to rights and we were back on our way.

The walk was spectacular with visible striations, different shades of volcanic rock, views over the valley below and finally the summit.

Valley below

Valley below


Volcanic Rocks

Volcanic Rocks


The Summit

The Summit

We hiked up to the base camp, where those planning to summit the volcano stay in preparation. The trek is apparently 6 hours long from there and about 70% of those who attempt it succeed. It was here that we had a picnic lunch and, as the lodge is currently under construction, observed the donkeys bringing up the building supplies. These donkeys did not seem to like it one bit!

Donkeys on their way up!

Donkeys on their way up!


Unhappy Donkeys

Unhappy Donkeys

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Today, we made it to the highest point we’ve ever been – 15953 ft!

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Aside of the day (rated R): This is more of a hilarious scene really. The donkeys headed down the mountain just ahead of us and we arrived to them waiting next to the parking lot. One particularly frisky male donkey was attempting to mate with a female… BUT he was doing it backwards. He kept jumping on her poor head, clearly not quite grasping the geometry of the thing. She was having none of it.

Oh, and here's an Andean wolf! "Hellooooo!"

Oh, and here’s an Andean wolf! “Hellooooo!”

Bellavista: A Day in the Clouds

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Today we made our way to Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, a private conservation reserve of subtropical rainforest up in the Andes a couple hours north of Quito. The owner, Richard, is an old English ex pat who has been here for about 30 years, having initially made his way to Ecuador as a guide in the Galapagos – one might guess this upon meeting him. He is quite a character. In any event after his initial arrival he decided to stay… His reason: England is a country of the past, Ecuador is a country of the future.

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The cloud forest was absolutely breathtaking with steep slopes, copious flora, buzzing hummingbirds and amazing vistas to name a few. Richard was our guide for the day and he was exceptionally knowledgeable, highlighting key sightings, the diverse relationships within the forest, as well as it’s ability to rapidly regenerate. The oldest parts of the forest are only 100 to 150 years old with trees growing year round! This is hard to believe looking at how lush and thick this forest is.

The following are just a few of the many many photos we took of flora and fauna. So hard to choose just a few!

One of the many orchid species

One of the many orchid species

Gigantic fiddle heads

Gigantic fiddle heads

Hummingbirds at the feeder

Hummingbirds at the feeder

The reserve is home to an eco-lodge where guests can choose to stay overnight, as well as a research facility also set up to house groups of visiting students. Like the rest of the area it is extremely temperate, sure it’s damp rainy and nearly perpetually engulfed by clouds, but there are few pesky bugs and I could not imagine a better place to spend days outside on end. It was so absolutely peaceful there – we certainly wished we could stay longer.

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Aside of the day: We met a Mexican girl who is currently studying in Argentina on vacation visiting her father who now lives in Quito. She was telling us about all of he things she loves in South America, namely the beautiful landscapes, geographic diversity and ancient culture. She finished by saying she wants to move to Canada. Naturally, we asked why. Her response: I never feel safe here. There is no security. In Argentina I am scared all the time. Just a little reminder that perspective is everything and we all have so much to be thankful for!

Lots of love to you all!

Lots of love to you all!

The Journey to Middle Earth

Well, not quite “Middle Earth”… It’s a monument devoted to what they do call the middle of the world or “La Mitad del Mundo” erected on the equator and a nod to Ecuador’s namesake.

A couple people from our hotel were headed there today too, so we split a cab up to the monument just next to a little town called San Antonia de Pinchicha. After finally convincing our taxi driver that we really didn’t want to hire him for a day of sightseeing and to leave us there we were off to the races!

The equator is marked by a massive monument, which is quite entertaining to play around.

Said monument!

Said monument!

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The Ethnographic museum was very interesting and informative, and we also enjoyed visiting the insects in the insectarium! Overall, the place was rather bizarre – Paddy described it as “a 1960s Ecuadorian Disneyland gone wrong”. Between the concrete structures, bright colours and dozens of gift shops, it wasn’t hard to see the comparison!

As this equator was established in 1936, it’s not exactly where the equator is today. About 250m away is another equator museum, “Museo Inti Ñan”, whose location was established by GPS. This place was much more cozy with lovely flora, paths and various wooden structures. They give a guided tour during which they do various science experiments to demonstrate the effect of the equator. Not only did we learn more about some indigenous peoples, but we also got to balance an egg on a nail… And got a certificate certifying our success (yup, it’s official, people!).
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Finally, we decided to check out the nearby Pucara de Rumicucho – the ruin of a strategic inca fortress. The ruins themselves were very cool and the view was absolutely spectacular.
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Aside of the day: We also saw a little more of rural life in Ecuador via a cabby who lived in the area. His daughter was accompanying him to work that day, a very adorable little girl who was approximately 2. She stood on the front seat while he drove, occasionally holding the handle, but usually just demonstrating her excellent ‘cab-legs’. Keep in mind that his child was small enough to stand up straight, while on the front seat. It was impressive albeit mildly terrifying, and I’m going to guess, entirely unsafe. He did ask if we could swing by his house to drop her off before driving us back to Quito – we of course readily agreed and she promptly jumped down and ran inside.

"Until next time!" From your friend the alpaca

“Until next time!” From your friend the alpaca