Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The other white city

Saturday morning we were up-and-at-em early (well, early for us anyways) - saying goodbye to our new friends at the Rose Cottage hostel in Otavalo, as well as to our case of the "lazies". We were actually going to have to exert some effort for the next couple of days to get to our next destination of Popayan, Colombia.

Our border crossing into Colombia was a bit more convoluted then others we have done, but with the exact details of what to do in hand, we were able to do it seamlessly, even helping an absent-minded Danish girl with no Spanish find her way as well. We also had devious plans cooked up in case we had problems at the border - we had heard that some people were rejected from entering the country if they could not prove they were going to leave it. We, of course, don't know what we are doing two days from now, let alone a month or so down the road. We had thus decided to pretend we knew zero Spanish so that they hopefully couldn't be bothered with trying to communicate with us English speaking gringos. We also decided that I would do all the talking, knowing how Pete likes to chat it up with border people (for some weird reason).

All was for nought, and we waltzed across the border without issue into our seventh country. And what a welcome we've had! Within the first day we met three very friendly and helpful locals: an elderly man who wanted to practice his English with us whilst riding the bus, another bus patron who helped us with which buses to take next, and finally a taxi driver turned tour guide who took us out to Las Lajas Sanctuary - a beautiful Gothic basilica built by 1949 into a large gorge near the border city of Ipiales.

We stopped in Ipiales only to see the Sanctuary, and thus dumped our bags at the bus station and found our taxi driver/guide. We negotiated with Omar to take us out to the Sanctuary and wait to take us back to the station - rather then waiting in his car, he walked with us down to the church, filling us in with details along the way.

Of all the impressive churches that we have seen, this one tops them all. It is built straddling a deep gorge with a river running below it. There is a huge waterfall in front of it, and a long stone walkway down to it. The church was built on the site of an acknowledged appearance of the Virgin Mary, and is said to have some healing powers. Lining the walkway to the church were thousands of plaques, most of them thanking the Virgin for miracles performed. A very awe-inspiring site, and if we didn't have a bus to catch, we could have sat there for a couple of hours soaking it all in.

Hundreds of plaques lined the mountainside

Back to the bus station we went with Omar, and then back on the bus for a couple of hours to Pasto, which would serve as our rest stop for the night. On Sunday we had 6 more hours to go before getting to our current city, Popayan.

It was a bus ride like we've never had before. The scenery was as breathtaking as any we have seen and very similar to the lush green mountains we drove through in Ecuador. The elevation changed dramatically several times as we wound up and down the mountainside on the curvy road. Some of the curves got the better of a few people on our bus, and for the third time in our travels, Pete sat next to someone who vomited as a result (I'm beginning to think it's Pete, and not the roads!)

One very unique feature of this trip was the crazy amount of armed police and military that we saw on our way. Even in the most seemingly remote places, there would be a few fully decked out soliders on the side of the road, complete with large automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. It was a little unnerving at first, especially when we got stopped in one small town for an ID check - onto the bus came a soldier carrying an uzi while he took all the local's identification. For the gringo's on the bus (us only), he just asked a couple of questions (to which our we-don't-know-Spanish-strategy kicked in), and he left us be without even looking at our ID.

Pete commented that he was close to soiling himself when the uzi brushed his arm as the soldier walked past! I, on the other hand, found it all quite amusing, especially as I watched one of the soldiers who stood guard outside the bus - with his automatic weapon bouncing off his hip, he was swaying and singing along to the reggaeton music that was playing from a nearby store. Like, really! There are very few places in the world where you can find yourself in this kind of situation - I found it quite entertaining.

After that stop and another for lunch, we finally reached Popayan - the whitest of white cities!

It seems that most every country in Latin America has a city that tries to lay claim to the title of Ciudad Blanca (white city), and we have visited a couple of them (Sucre, Bolivia and Arequipa, Peru). None of these others, however, are even remotely comparable to the blankness of Popayan. Every building in the old city is completely stark white, with impeccably clean streets in which some are even colored such a pale grey that it adds to the distinct blankness. It is really beautiful, and even a little eerie at the same time.

We arrived in Popayan totally unknowing of the huge festival that was about to overtake the town, and totally without accommodations! We are usually quite diligent about booking ahead (in order to ensure that we never have to stay in hostel dorms), but we have kinda been flying by the seat of our pants since the Galapagos. Wouldn't you know it - the one time we come without plans is the one time we catch ourselves in an already packed city. We trudged around town with our heavy packs until we finally found a place to stay - quite a cute little hotel for the whopping price of $25 a night.

We were lucky to find accommodations, but also very lucky just to be here. Popayan is somewhat the cultural and religious mecca of Colombia (the church-to-people ratio is very high), and is home to the biggest Easter celebrations in the country known as Semana Santa (saint week). The festivities have been a tradition or over 450 years! Every day there are musical recitals, art exhibits and parades. The streets are closed and the town is abuzz with throngs of people. We excitedly found the tourist information office and grabbed all the paraphernalia we would need to plan out our few days.

And then, sickness struck. Poor Pete started to feel pretty low Monday, and it all culminated when he actually passed out in a restaurant where we sat to have lunch in the late afternoon. He scared me (and the restaurant staff) pretty thoroughly. After forcing him to drink some juice, we jumped in a cab and headed straight back to our hotel where we didn't leave for the rest of the day. He slept heavily, and by the late evening he started to feel much better. Yesterday he was back to 100%, thankfully! Time to get out of the room and explore!

So much to do, such little time. First up, Manos de Oro, the largest and most unique artisan fair we have seen on our travels. It was SO difficult to not blow all of our money on everything from purses to bracelets to Coca products. I am quite in awe of my own will-power I have developed.

Then, a piano recital! I have never been to one before, but in honor of the week's festivities, a piano player from the Czech Republic was here to entertain with Chopin and Schubert in front of a packed theater.

And finally, the procession late in the evening. Every day this week a parade will march through downtown Popayan, each time in honor of a different saint. It was a gloriously serene and exquisite spectacle, complete with marching bands, hundreds of people lining the streets with lit candles, and huge and heavy platforms adorned with religious symbols.

We enjoyed three hours of the procession, made even better by the fact that we chatted extensively with the two families sitting on either side of us. They taught us (among many things) how to spot counterfeit money, how to say popcorn (there are so many different ways to say it across the continent!), and about the different traditions they experience during Easter week.

Four days into Colombia and we are overwhelmed, but in such a good way. As exemplified by the two families at the procession, Colombians are SUCH an unbelievably friendly bunch! We have been stopped on the street by complete strangers just to say Bienvenidos more in this country then in all other countries combined. The staring at our white skin continues, of course, but at least they are most likely to do it with a smile or an hola.

We are excited to continue, and today we have just a short bus ride to the third largest city in the country. Cali is home to Salsa dancing, many beautiful parks, and apparently is a hotbed for "medical tourism" - plastic surgery. Should be an interesting visit!

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Case of the Lazies

Yep, I said it. I just invented a new word - ¨Lazies¨ (at least my spell-checker won´t accept it)! You can guess the meaning behind it, if not from the brevity of this post, but also from it´s lack of pictures. We took a break from our tough jobs as tourists.

Since we disembarked our cruise in the Galapagos, we´ve done a whole lot of nothing. Correction - I´ve done a whole lot of nothing, Pete has done mostly nothing. For our last day in the islands, I barely left our room - I was recovering from the very poor sleep I had the night before (made painful by the lack of air conditioning), and from the serious onset of sea legs where everything around me was swaying. Feeling a little bit better than I, Pete and Margaret ventured out to explore the beautiful beach at nearby Tortuga Bay for a few hours.

As much as we loved every minute of our experience in the Galapagos, we were at least a little relieved to get back to the higher altitude of the mainland and away from the oppressive heat and humidity. Back up to Quito we flew on Tuesday morning - we said a sad goodbye to Margaret as she boarded a bus south, and plopped ourselves down in old town Quito for two more nights. Two nights guessed it...lazies.

As we may have said a million times already, we ain´t city folk, and we were anxious to get a move on out of the capital city. But, lo and behold, my penchant for losing things struck again. On our way back to Quito from the islands, I realize that I had left my iPod sitting on the bed of our last hotel.

O, blessed iPod! Whatever would I do without your multitude of games? Or your wi-fi capabilities for quick email checks? Or the thousands of songs that I filter through on long bus rides, to aid in my aimless staring out the window? Perhaps this may not seem such a big deal to our average reader, but to a traveler carrying her home around on her back, the iPod Touch is most precious cargo indeed. I was sure it was a-goner and that many dark days were ahead.

But, alas! An amiable and generous Ecuadorian came to my aid! And once again, we were reminded of the general good in people, even from the relative strangers that we have met along our travels.

Esther, the receptionist at our hotel in the Galapagos, found my iPod and was waiting for my call so that she could arrange to have it returned. She put it on a flight the next day, even paying for its passage with no request for reimbursement. In the package contained the following note: ¨Hi Darlene or Peter: Here is your iPod. Please don´t forget it in Quito. People is not honest sometimes.¨ Bless your heart, Esther. I will even forgive you for calling me Darlene.

So, as we had to wait for my precious cargo to be returned, we were forced into another night in the big noisy city. guessed it...nothing of matter. It was inconceivable for us to do anything even if we wanted to - I was still feeling the swaying of the sea, PLUS now a little altitude sickness thrown in (Quito is almost at 3,000mts). Sea legs and altidude sickness? I had no idea that this combination was possible! Somehow, I found a way.

And you would think that with nothing to do, we would have all of our next voyages planned out to the letter - but that proved to be harder than expected. We had taken a break from planning since going to the Galapagos, and there we were, one night left to go in Quito and we had no idea where to go next. We considered just showing up at the bus station with our bags and picking the next bus heading north.

But then the kind hostel owner in Quito brought out a huge wall map of Ecuador for us and at 10pm on Wednesday night, told us where we needed to go the next morning. Yesterday we traveled 2 hours north to Otavalo, a mountain town known for its bustling market, and to help us break up our trip north across the Colombian border. Our cute little hostel is a series of cottages just outside of the town with a beautiful and tranquil setting, complete with hammocks and nothing but the sound of tweeting birds. We were officially welcomed back into the Northern Hemisphere (spending our first night here in 7 months) by having to wear our long johns to bed for the first time since southern Chile. However, it has still proven to be an inspiring place to do more of enjoying the lazies before we say goodbye to Ecuador, and roll into our seventh country - Colombia!

We have been anxiously awaiting to explore this country for a long time. It is a traveler´s favourite, and is often referred to as ¨the best kept secret in Latin America¨. Diminished are the drug wars that once plagued this country with a ton of bad press, as the country vehemently is working to defend and improve its tourist industry. This is a very large country, and thus we are planning at least 4 weeks to explore (although I suspect we will be longer).

But we move on with a sad goodbye to Ecuador, the little country that has stolen our hearts. We came in with very few expectations, and inside found some amazing scenery, unparalleled wildlife experiences, and some very generous and honest people. In our three weeks here we feel we have barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer, which again leaves us another reason to get on a plane back south after we return to Canada in the fall. This list of reasons continue to grow...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lights. Camera. ACTION!

Setting: The magnificent archipelago known as The Galapagos Islands. Some 600km west of the Ecuadorian coast, this myriad of lava rock islands is home to some of the most diverse and unique wildlife in the world.

15 tourists from around the world disembark the yacht Daphne to explore Bachas, a northern beach on the island of Santa Cruz - the first of several to be visited.

Cue Blue Footed Boobies and an intense feeding frenzy as they dive by the hundreds to feed in the shallow water! Cue Sea Lion pups frolicking playfully amidst the rocks! Cue baby Sea Turtles - huddling near the top of their nest and only hours away from their frantic run to the sea! Cue Pink Flamingo flying just overhead and settling in nearby lagoon!

"I paid an extra $5 for the perfect timing of that Flamingo," said our guide Charlie as we set off down the beach.

That statement was almost to be believed. Day after day, outing after outing, we were all constantly stunned by the abundance and close proximity of the wildlife we encountered - Charlie joked that he had all of the animals under contract to show up at the exact times we were arriving. After awhile, we weren't sure if he was joking or not. It was a wildlife experience like none other. And for four jam packed days and nights, we were well guided on our exploration of the islands of Santa Cruz, The Plazas, Santa Fe, Española and Floreana.

There are several ways to explore the islands, and people could easily spend weeks here trying to see it all. Wanting to see as much as we could in a short time frame (and on a small budget!), Pete, Margaret and I booked a 4 night tour onboard the Encantada - a highly recommended sailboat in the "tourist class" level of boats. We were quite happy with the last minute deal that we secured and were set to sail on Wednesday morning.

We flew to the islands on Monday morning to explore a little on our own.
Upon arrival we roamed the town of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz and talked to different tour agencies about the possibility of supplementing our cruise with other day tour options allowing us to take in even more of the islands (we did this on Tuesday, with a half-day tour of Santa Cruz that introduced us to the unique plant life, marine iguanas, sea lions, and our first snorkel!) On returning to our hotel later, we got a distressing message that our boat, the Encantada, had an "incident" (fire!) and that our tour was canceled. Cue PANIC! For the next few hours we were constantly on the phone and doing research online as to what our options were. We finally decided to accept an offer to get on the yacht Daphne - almost an identical tour over the same days, but a free upgrade to "comfortable class".

SCORE!! We were treated to delicious food, a newly refurbished yacht, a top-class guide (naturalist), and many more comforts that we would not have gotten on the Encantada - the most luxury we have experienced on our travels! One small downside, however - our new upgraded class of boat meant that we were traveling out of the price range of many backpackers like us - making us the outsiders to a group of twelve friends who were all at least twenty years older. One small upside on top of that, however - we were the kool kids on the boat - the crew treated us to free drinks, we often got served food first, and we also were tipped off first whenever there was marine animal activity around the yacht.

Our days began early, with the breakfast bell ringing at either 6:30 or 7:00am, with the exception of the first day, which began after lunch. After being well fed, we would climb into the zodiac and be taken ashore the islands for a nature walk. Our first day of exploration was literally as first described above - we were shocked by the immediate exposure to the multitude of animals, including the endemic blue footed boobies. We were just in time to see them diving into the shallow waters by the hundreds, hunting for lunch:

The blue footed booby

Feeding frenzy!

And then there were the pelicans, the crabs, the jet black marine iguanas, and the pink flamingo that swooped by our heads! The stars of the show on this island visit, however, were the wee little baby sea turtles. Two months before, their mama dropped them off on shore as eggs, buried a few feet below the sand. For dozens of days they broke out of the eggs and slowly inched towards the top of the sand, readying themselves for their dash to the open sea, where they would disappear and show up as adults 15 years later.

We were there to see them on the exact day that they were meant to start their scramble to the sea - we could see their tiny little heads and legs almost right at the top!

Baby sea turtles!!

Circling above the turtle nests was a nasty frigatebird - savagely looking for a snack. We offered to stay and protect the turtles to ensure they made it to the sea (only 1% of the babies survive!), but we were not allowed. We were told we had to let "nature be nature". Cue much sad sighing.

The nasty frigatebird!

We snorkeled a bit on Bachas beach (named after the US military barge that was here during WWII), but saw very little in the murky water. We returned back to the boat for dinner and I felt the first effects of seasickness that would plague me for the first couple of days. As soon as the boat started moving to our next location (a 3 hour trip after dinner), I had to promptly lay down with my eyes closed to combat it.

We woke up the next morning and found ourselves on the Plazas - two small islands off the east coast of Santa Cruz. We stopped to watch baby seals frolicking on the shore before our attention was captured by the colorful land iguanas that we saw for the first time. Mating season is over and the males are shedding their colorful skins, but many still showed their vibrant yellows.

Baby seals, playing among the rocks and crabs!

So ugly it's cute?

Back to the boat for lunch, and then into the water for some snorkeling around the boat and in the bay. Pete and I followed a large stingray for some time as it slinked along the bottom (rays FREAK me out!), but we mostly saw a lot of yellow tailed surgeonfish (think "Dory" from Finding Nemo).

El Capitan of the boat took us out a little further for more snorkeling - this is what I was afraid of. We were in SHARK territory! There are a few different sharks in the Galapagos waters and none are threats to humans - but that doesn't matter. They are still sharks! We eerily swam across deeper, darker waters listening only to our own breathing and expecting something to jump out at any second. We fully expected and (half) hoped to see them, and my grip on Pete's hand tightened.

It turned out that it wasn't to be on Thursday (perhaps Charlie was still negotiating their appearance contract?), but we still came away without disappointment. Instead of sharks, we saw a humongous school of salemas (think school of silver fish that shaped themselves into objects on Finding Nemo). There had to be hundreds of thousands of them all huddled together, stretching as far as we could see.

Feeling a little nauseous again from all the swimming in choppy waters, I climbed back on the zodiac while everyone else made their way towards shore. "TURTLE!" yelled one of the snorkelers and everyone quickly swam over to the same area to see a graceful sea turtle swim along.

I stayed on the boat and the driver took us off to the side to give everyone more room. Suddenly, on the far other side of the boat - another turtle! At that point, I didn't care if I vomited in my mask - I had to get back in the water. I jumped in quickly, and was rewarded with having this giant creature all to myself. I swam alongside him for a couple of minutes, marveling in his gentle, graceful nature as he lazily glided along, popping his head up every couple of minutes for a gulp of air. It was honestly a spiritual experience, sharing a moment alone with this amazing animal!

Still feeling sick, I skipped the afternoon walk along the beach and napped instead with dreams of turtles. But Pete came back with more pictures of beach-bum-sea-lions and iguanas.

Dog pile!!

Another six hour trip after dinner landed us on Isla Española the next day. Our morning walk meant seeing the usual onslaught of sea lions and crabs, but we were also treated to seeing a colorful variation of the marine iguana and their nesting spots.

Also, nazca boobies with nazca booby babies!


We were served some relief from the oppressively hot weather with a torrential downpour as we made our way back to the boat. No one was particularly interested in swimming just after lunch then, we all waited until the sun came back out before jumping in to snorkel at Garner Bay. This spot turned out to be the only real disappointment of the trip - the water was very murky and we saw very little. I also decided that I don't like snorkeling when I can't see the bottom and when the current was so strong, as it crashed hard against the cliffs that we were gliding beside.

Back onto the zodiacs and then onto the white beaches of Garner Bay, speckled with big brown patches of lazy sea lions. This time on the beach was free to do as we wish, so we chose to sunbath among the sea lions - keeping the recommended distance away, but still close enough to be sneezed on!

Can you spot Pete?

I wanna be a sea lion!

Our final full day on our boat cruise was our best yet as we visited beautiful Floreana. All animal appearance contract negotiations must have been fully completed, as we were once again startled with our luck at seeing the diverse array.

First up - the Galapagos penguin! Charlie had mentioned before our boat ride that we had a 1 in 5 chance of seeing one, so it must have been our lucky day as we came upon 6 of them right off the bat. Much smaller then the magellan penguins we saw in Chile, they playfully darted around our boat and posed for pictures.

We made two stops on Floreana, the first being Post Office Bay - a locale used in the old days by whalers and sailors to stay in touch with their loved ones at home. Leaving letters behind in an old wooden barrel, other sailors who were on their way home would stop and take it with them. The tradition still continues today - visitors can leave mail for others to pick up and post on the mainland. Pete and I left two postcards of our own, and picked up two others to mail to random strangers. It will be interesting to see when our two postcards will make it to their destination!

Our second stop was to view one of several lava tunnels in the Galapagos. Submarine volcanic activity slowly created all islands in the archipelago - when the lava flows on the outer part of the stream got cold and hardened, the liquid magma continued flowing within, eventually leaving empty tubes behind.

Inside the lava tunnel

Back onto Daphne and we moved to the other side of the island. Shortly after lunch, we made our way to the ominous La Corona del Diablo - the Devil's Crown - for our last bit of snorkeling on our trip. There was a lot of pressure for this last stop, we were all now quite anxious to see the previously absent sharks, and this was reportedly our best chance.

A sailboat beside Devil's Crown

"SHARK!" screamed El Capitan as soon as he entered the water. I had hung back on the zodiac, again nervous of the strong current and my weak stomach! But, I couldn't take any more of the anticipation and I promptly jumped right in.

Two white tipped sharks! Giant manta ray! Sea turtle! Cue dumbfounded tourist (ME)!

I spun around as quickly as my flippers would let me, trying to take in as much as I could in the few minutes I was surrounded by all of the animals. Surprisingly enough, the sharks didn't scare me one iota - they were quite far down and I even chose to follow one of them for a short while to see what he was up to (picking on little fish - that's what!) What scared the bejeezus out of me was the giant manta - I had NO idea that they were that big - they can get up to 6m wide and long!

More beautiful fish, some galapagos sharks, and Pete even saw a tuna dart right to the top and jump out of the water. The best snorkeling we had all week, right on our last day. We regrettably got back into the zodiacs and left Devil's Crown, but Charlie had one more treat in store for us at the end of this fantastic day.

Back onto Floreana, we checked out a lagoon full of pink flamingos and then walked to the most beautiful beach of all. This one was not for swimming though, as right near the shore we watched families of stingrays (with babies!) swim up and down.

Scary rays!

Beautiful, BEAUTIFUL, untouched beach

On this beach we also saw numerous sea turtles, doing their usual lazy stroke very close to shore. Charlie explained that they were all females, waiting until dark to head onto the beach and lay their eggs in the sand. No sooner did he say this then we saw another damn frigatebird hovering overhead, obviously looking for baby turtles already hatched and about to emerge and rush to the sea. The pre-historic looking bird darted it's long beak down into the sand several times, but emerged empty as we all watched - gasping! I couldn't help myself, I whistled at the bird to try and distract it and move it away from the area, but I got in trouble. Again, let "nature be nature", I was told. But thems are babies!! Cue more exasperated sighing. I turned my back and headed straight to the boat. I just couldn't watch.

We had a three hour trip on the water back to port and we enjoyed the sunshine from the top deck, reviewing amongst ourselves all of the amazing things we had seen. Just when we thought we had seen it all...just when we had "checked" off most of the list of things we wanted to see...we had one more surprise - on cue.

¡Muchos delfines! Many dolphins, guiding our ship on the journey back to Santa Cruz! Up to the front we went and watched as six dolphins swam and jumped just in front of our speeding yacht, and another few more did tricks for us along the side. I had never seen such a display before - they were so playful and amazing to watch.
A perfect end to our near perfect cruise.

The following morning we bid a sad farewell to Daphne and her crew, but continued on with Charlie for one last visit. Up into the highlands of Santa Cruz we visited the grandaddy of all animals to be seen on these islands - the giant tortoises.

This breed of tortoise, endemic to these islands, can weigh up to 500lbs and can live to be over 150 years old. While there used to be hundreds of thousands of them roaming the islands, they are now down to only about 20,000 left. They are magnificent animals that astounded early visitors - this impression of theses animals eventually gave the islands their name (
in traditional Castillion language, the word "Galapago" was used to describe a riding saddle, which resembles the shape of the tortoises shell).

They were mesmerizing. We slopped around in mud to find four of them in the wild - idly looking us over while we snapped a hundred photos. They ranged in age from the ~fifty year old medium-sized-giants, to the very old, giant-sized-giants! One amazing feature of these animals is that they never stop growing throughout their whole life.

A medium-sized giant!

After this last visit, we said goodbye to our guide/naturalist/animal-appearance-contract-negotiator, and set back into town on our own. We have only a day left in this enchanting part of the world before we leave it behind and restart our journey north. We leave with hundreds of pictures, a dozen videos, and a million memories.

I am struggling with finding the words to accurately summarize this utterly magical experience in this incredibly unique place.
I feel like I have been typing! Like this! The whole time!! But there truly is nothing comparable in this world to these majestic islands, and we consider ourselves extremely lucky to be some of the few to experience it.

Cue tourists to exit stage right. Sigh.

¡MUCHOS FOTOS! This place deserved an album all to itself...CLICK HERE
There will be more photos added once we get our underwater camera developed!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Back in the northern hemisphere?

We rolled into Ecuador's capital city with two missions: to secure a cheap, last minute deal to the Galapagos Islands, and to visit with family (I know!! In Quito!! Of all places!!)

Mission well accomplished on both parts, with a little sight seeing thrown in as well.

Our first task was the Galapagos deal which turned out to be an easy feat thanks to a lot of research done before hand. We saved hundreds of dollars by waiting until the last minute to book, and were also lucky to get on our first choice boat. Tomorrow we leave for the islands with two days to explore on our own before boarding our cruise (a 12 person sailboat) on Wednesday. We are also excited to be joined by our tango-dancing friend Margaret from Buenos Aires!

Second task - enjoy the surreal experience of visiting with a family member over 6,600 kms away from home! Cousin Deidre happened to be in Ecuador for the last week with a contingent of her school-kids, and when we knew that we would be in the country around the same time - we kept in touch to ensure a meeting.
Neither Deidre nor I could remember the last time that we saw each other - it is most likely in the 15-20-years-ago range, and likely it was only in passing at church in Grimshaw or a family gathering of some sort. Coming from such a huge family as we do, it is easy to lose track of the many, MANY cousins that we share! But thanks to the wonders of Facebook, reuniting was made possible, and it was an immeasurable joy for me to see (and hug!) someone from home.

Me and Dee!

Deidre spoiled us with dinner, treats and other things that will be very useful to us on the rest of our journey (it was like Christmas for us!) The most exciting of these treats being a bag of "Bits & Bites", of which we are carefully rationing. Pete is allowed only one nut per day.

With two days left in the city before our departure to the Galapagos, we finally had some time to explore. It is apparently quite a debate between Cuenca and Quito as to which city has a more attractive old town - and being as we just left Cuenca less than a week ago, we had to check this out for ourselves.

It is a close one! But the edge is given to Cuenca from these eligible voters...

Old town Quito

Another of the main attractions in this part of the country is to visit Mitad Del Mundo (the Middle of the World) - a large monument and park constructed to mark where the equator passes through the country. And this is where Pete and I would take our first steps in the northern hemisphere in 6 1/2 months!

Oops! Now, thanks to advances in measuring technology (GPS), it is known that the actual equator runs about 240 meters north of the tourist complex. So we had two places to visit celebrating this geographic landmark!

Pete fighting to stay in the southern hemisphere!
Or, was he?? This line is fake!

The "real" equator line was way less touristy and more interesting, with some tests set up to show the differences between the northern and southern hemisphere. None of them seemed to work for us though - water seemed to swirl down the same way on both sides, and none of us could get the damn egg to balance on the nail (being right over the equator, this is supposedly possible with the nullified gravitational pulls).

Stupid egg

But! Check this out...worth the whole trip, right there!

As incredibly touristy as it all was, we still had a fun last day in Quito with Margaret finally joining us and also meeting up again with our friends Fran and Ross who just returned from Galapagos.

In just a few hours we will be shuttling ourselves off to the airport and embarking on a trip of a lifetime (within a trip of a lifetime)! We have almost an entire week in the islands - half of it on a boat - exploring all of the varied wildlife that the islands have to offer. Tortoises! Sharks! Penguins! Boobys! And more...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Now...this is it. This is what I've been waiting for.

Screw hiking through landslides and gawking at ancient dead people. Hows about some spa treatments, bathing in waterfall pools, and playing with spider monkeys?

This is my kind of destination. Four nights in the small mountain town of Baños could easily turn into four weeks. Our original plan was to only spend three nights, but we decided to add one more after only being here a few hours. Baños is the perfect destination to get rid of bus-rot and to be introduced to the territory of tropical rainforest that we will encounter as we continue to move further north.

Yes, I know. The word baños does mean bathrooms, but it also means baths, and this town is full of them! Situated under the Volcano Tungurahua, it is home to many thermal hot springs and as such has turned into a bit of a spa destination, with plenty of outdoor activity available as well.

Our eco-hostel, Casa Verde, is a haven! Run by a coupla Kiwi's, it is situated a short distance away from the town and right on a cliff over a raging river. Pete and I splurged the extra few dollars (spent $36 a night!) and got the superior double - a king size bed in a spotless room, private bath, and 270 degree views of the lush green hills and river valley below, enjoyed from our very own balcony and hammock. Add on a tremendous breakfast and owners that feel like friends, and we have found more comfort in this place then any other on our travels.

View from our balcony

After 15 hours of being on a bus over 2 days, we started our stay off here with some much needed rest, followed by a visit to the spa to work out all the kinks. I indulged in an hour massage and a mud bath treatment, Pete had a well needed ear cleaning and we both enjoyed a Baño de Cajon - an unusual sauna experience where we were enclosed in separate wooden boxes with only our heads poking out.

This is not my floating head! It's an ad - cameras weren't allowed in.

The bottom of the box was covered in eucalyptus leaves and once we were entirely closed in, the box filled with steam. After about 10 minutes in this bath, the fun really began....the door opened, and buckets of cold water were splashed on our steaming, sweaty bodies! Talk about a shock to the system! But the fun wasn't done yet - back into the box we went, only to be drug out several more times for this cold water treatment. And each time, they found new ways to torture us - making us sit in a cold bath, dumping water on us from above, and finally via a high pressure hose.

Although this particular treatment did warrant a few stifled screams, our bodies felt completely re-energized when we finally emerged. Overall, some much needed rehabilitation at an incredible price - all of our spa treatments for only $60! Again, my type of destination!

Major sleep-in again the next day but we did manage to get in some activity with a couple of hours of hiking. The town is surrounded by waterfalls so we joined up with a few other people in the hostel and one of the owners for a hike to Chamama waterfall. Suckers for punishment? Maybe, as we immersed ourselves in the torturous, freezing cold pool at the fall, although it was quite refreshing in the hot Ecuador sun!


Day 3 - you guessed it! Slept in again. But for our last day in this town, we went for an experience like none other that we have had. Just 60km way in the town of Puyo (at the start of the Oriente, Ecuador's chunk of the Amazon basin), we visited Paseo de los Monos - a refuge facility for discarded pets. They currently have 55 monkeys of five different species that are being rehabilitated to life in the jungle.

I can't even begin to express what an amazing experience this was. Other tourists came and went in a manner of minutes - we probably stayed much longer then we were supposed to, but we just couldn't pull ourselves away. We were peed on, pooped on, and Pete had money stolen out of his pocket. They chewed on my hair, our shirts and our ankles. They removed my earrings, licked the salty sweat off of our skin and tried to steal our camera.

But then they cuddled, fell asleep in our arms (and in my hair!), and played with us endlessly. We fell in love.

All of the monkeys have names, and we quickly discovered a few distinct personalities. Sambo was the trouble maker, a larger spider monkey who was always being called away by the workers and getting into trouble for harassing us and the smaller monkeys. Fernanda was the best (and cutest) pick-pocket we have found on our trip thus far. Allison was a wee cuddly baby who curled up in my arms and looked up at me with her sad brown eyes.

After two hours we left behind our donation and reluctantly pulled ourselves away. This experience is easily added to the list of coolest-things-we've-ever-done.

Fernanda the pick-pocketer

I want one!

And to top off this near perfect day, we were treated to a wonderful dinner by our newly adopted travel mom. Gunesh is an older Turkish woman who travels the world on her own and bravely attempts most things we would never even consider. The only thing that kept her from bungee jumping today was that she fell out of her white water raft (and bumped her head) yesterday! She is an inspiration, AND a great cook!

We are sad to leave our comfortable little abode and new friends, but tomorrow we have a short bus ride to see the capital of Ecuador - Quito! And Deidre! And Margaret! And some Blue Footed Boobies!

Life is grand. =)

Muchos fotos!! Dating back to Peru, but also many cute monkey pictures... CLICK HERE

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How to get bus-rot

Early Thursday afternoon we said goodbye to Peru and boarded our bus into Ecuador - our 6th country to visit in our marathon around South America!

We reluctantly boarded a stuffy and very hot bus. Our last hostel owner had warned us about the state of these buses - no air conditioning, and sometimes without windows that open. In preparation, I put on the coolest piece of clothing that I own - my light cotton sundress. That proved to be a mistake, as within one hour of leaving I snapped one of the spaghetti straps (as I was twisting in my seat to try to get the air from the window to cool down my back). "Well, at least maybe we'll have no issues at the border then," Pete exclaimed as I struggled to make sure that all relevant portions of my body were covered at all times.

Within two hours we were in Aguas Verdes, the Peruvian border town right before the Ecuador border. This town is home to (as Lonely Planet states) one of the sketchiest border crossings in all of South America. Yikes! Sure enough, shortly after getting our exit stamp out of Peru, Pete and I were shuffled into an adjacent room by a few men and asked for money to buy our Ecuadorian "visa". Knowing the scam, we strongly said "no pagamos nada" (we are paying nothing!) and they let us on our way without a fight. Phew!

Back onto the bus and across the border into Ecuador. After saying goodbye to our friends Fran and Ross who were continuing on the same bus to another point in the country, Pete and I changed buses for another 4 hour ride to our first stop in Ecuador, the enchanting colonial city of Cuenca. As we headed inland and away from the desert coast of Peru, the terrain changed incredibly. We became immediately aware of how such a small country can be the worlds largest exporter of bananas as we passed by miles and miles of trees bursting with the fruit! It is also quite a mountainous country and as we began our ascent around the winding roads, we were in awe of the lush green valleys and raging rivers below. We were also very in awe of the farming practices here - there are fields literally right up the sides of the mountains. That can't be easy.

We drove through several small towns before reaching Cuenca and each time were greeted with stares from the locals who spotted us through the open bus windows. I never thought we were that far off the "gringo trail", but I guess it is low travel season now and white skin is becoming a bit of a rarity. We stopped for traffic in one town and a cute little old man (sitting on the side of the road, apparently just watching traffic) lit up and smiled a big toothless grin when he saw me. He emphatically blew me a kiss with both hands and waved continuously as the bus started up and moved off again. I blew a kiss and waved back. He made my day! And perhaps I made his, as the position of my tattered dress at that point might have been compromised. Oops!

We pulled into Cuenca two hours earlier then expected - thankfully, as we were in need of a shower and our tummies were grumbling! It didn't take us very long in the city to exclaim how very impressed we are with it. Cuenca is touted as one of the most beautiful cities in Ecuador - Pete and I agree that it is one of the most beautiful we have seen in all of our travels. The streets are spotless and there is immense colonial architecture throughout (not just in the city center). And, as you must know by now, I am a sucker for cobble stone streets, of which Cuenca has aplenty!

Besides spending hours ambling around the beautiful streets of the city, we decided to take a sidetrip to Ingapirca, a small town that is home to the best preserved Inca ruins left in Ecuador that are still used for fiestas today. Again bypassing the more expensive tourist option to make the journey, we decided to make it an adventure and boarded a local bus in the early afternoon.

We were told it was a two hour journey, but it ended up being three. It was an entertaining journey on the way there at least - we actually got to see one woman in traditional dress pay for her bus fare with fruit, and Pete caught one guy behind me smelling my hair. Not things that you see everyday!

By the time we got to Ingapirca, we only had 45 minutes before the ruins closed down. We hastily made our way through without a guide, enjoying the views but wishing that we knew more about all of the little intricate details of the ruins. Thank goodness for Wikipedia.

We made our way on foot the one kilometer back into town, hoping to catch a local bus back down the hill to the larger town and find another bus to reconnect to Cuenca. There was no bus - instead there were a group of taxi drivers waiting to offer to get us to town muy rapido. We asked some kids sitting around about a bus, to which they responded that the buses were done for the day. Reluctantly, we coughed up the few extra bucks for the taxi, which ended up also transporting this group of kids (and for much less then we paid).

It didn't take long for us to figure out that there still were many buses on the route, and that we had been scammed by both the kids and the taxi driver who were obviously working together. When we reached the bottom of the hill, Pete turned to the same kid and asked about the buses. Sure enough, he nervously laughed and nodded. We had been punked! At the end of the day though, we probably would have taken the taxi anyways (we were very hungry at this point, and cognizant of the fact that we still had another two hour ride to Cuenca). It didn't take long for another bus to come along and we settled into our seats for the long journey to the city. An awful lot of bussing for only 45 minutes of sight-seeing - Pete and I have different views on whether or not it was worth it.

Overall though, I am not quite sure what I expected of Ecuador, but thus far I would have to say that I am thoroughly impressed. I guess I half thought that it would just be an extension of Peru, but there have been a few things that have differentiated it from it's southern neighbour that we are really enjoying. Besides the extreme cleanliness that we have seen thus far, we also appreciate the fact that Ecuadorians drive like human beings! Traffic lights are heeded instead of being taken merely as a suggestion, and they even use their turning signals (the sound of which actually astounded me, I'm not sure we've heard that noise since Chile). We have only estimated a couple of weeks to explore this country, and I have a feeling it won't be enough.

Today we had another 9 hours on the bus to get to one of the more tourist destinations - Baños. It is a small town idyllically set in green mountains and surrounded by waterfalls - having been here only a few hours we are contemplating adding an extra night to our stay. It is THAT beautiful, plus, I think I will need some more time to get rid of the "bus-rot" that is developing in my bones. We have been on a bus at least every three days since Arequipa, and it is time for a rest! Thank goodness our next trip will involve a much shorter bus ride and then some valuable re-energizing via a bag of Canadian dill pickle chips - we are getting a visit from home in Quito! Can't wait.

P.S. Being abroad is never as fun when loved ones at home are going through a tough time - Muchos besos parati Avery, te amos mucho! xo

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I see dead people

Onward from Trujillo, we took a quick bus to pretty Chiclayo with our new UK friends Fran and Ross. Being the savvy travelers that we all are, we actually booked to stay in Lambayeque - a smaller town nearby and closer to the ruins that are the main attractions for this area.

Or, so we thought! We quickly found out that being in Lambayeque put us closer to the museum, but farther away from the ruins. Well done. No worries though, we checked into our beautiful hosteria (with a pool!) and to enjoy some relaxation for two nights.

Lambayeque is a fairly small town, and as the four of us wandered around in search of food or something to do, we quickly noticed we were the only gringos in town. Stares, whistles and car honks met us every few seconds while we were out. We are apparently THAT attractive!

Our first day saw us visit one of the two local attractions - The Bruning Museum. This lesser known museum houses a small collection of jewelry and other relics from various cultures who lived in this area. The authenticity of some of the items left us a little uncertain however, as one of the models demonstrating ancient fishing techniques was wearing an Old Navy t-shirt!

On our second day we decided to forego the trip to the ruins (anceint tombs of the Sipan tribe) on the other side of Chiclayo - the sun was beating down and we couldn't imagine enjoying two hours in a rocky, sweaty bus. Instead, we hit the Tumba Real in Lambayeque which included a recreation of the tombs and bore many of the items that were found during it's excavation. It was a very impressive collection - well laid out and massive. The re-creation of the major tomb for the Señor de Sipan was a incredible display of the hierarchical society even in death - the King being buried with (among other things): someone to watch over the tomb, two women, a child, several animal sacrifices. Although I do have to say, while I still find it all very interesting, I am a little tired of seeing dead people - mummified and not. We have probably seen more displays of dead people then we have met living Canadians on this trip. That's quite enough for me.

When we weren't visiting museums or lounging by the pool, we were facilitating an international exchange of knowledge - of sorts. One of the great things about meeting new friends on the road to travel with is not only the chance to talk to someone new across the dinner table and to share stories with, it's the new card games that can be learned! Fran and Ross will be taking Wizard back to the UK with them, and we will be bringing Shithead home. I think they win for best card game name.

Tuesday we boarded a bus yet again, this time to get to our northernmost stop in Peru - the beach resort town of Mancora. This locale has been lauded by many Peruvians as "the" place to go for some relaxing beach time. Meh. We stayed up on the hill in little bungalows overlooking the town and the ocean - the beach was decent and stretched for an awful long time, but the town behind it was rather dumpy and really took away from the appeal. We did spend some time under a big umbrella at the beach enjoying some cold beer, but preferred instead to swing on the lazy hammocks outside our door on the hill.

For two nights we enjoyed the views from our hammock and patio, ordering our food up to us while watching the surfers down below. We indulged in many a cold beer and many rounds of Shithead each evening before retreating to our individual bungalows and falling asleep to the sounds of the waves crashing. Not a bad way to spend our last couple of days in Peru, as this morning we are boarding yet another long bus into Ecuador, and unfortunately in the opposite direction of our friends.

¡Chao Peru!

The use of the top five lists will have to be abandoned at this point - as we motor through these remaining countries, there is not enough time and experience to amass such a list! However, we do have some thoughts on our likes and dislikes of this country.

LIKE: The culture and history in this country is definitely the main attraction, as Peru has done a good job of preserving and showcasing this best part of their country. And part of the appeal is that if we came back in ten years, there would be so much more to see again - there is so much yet to be uncovered that another visit would likely look very different.

LIKE: The food and drink! We were actually quite surprised at how varying the food is from the other countries we have visited, and at how delicious it all is! Especially the Pisco Sours. Love the Pisco Sours. (We have had those in many other countries, but not like here!)

LIKE: Despite the few con artists that we had to work around in this country (see below), we did meet some really incredibly nice people who were always ready to help.

DISLIKE: I am glad that we visited this country after we have amassed a bit of Spanish, as now I know how to yell at locals when they try to screw us over! I believe Peru to be spoiled by it's tourist industry, and we have experienced some locals trying to take advantage of the fact that we may be unknowing gringos. But I showed them - ha!

DISLIKE: The amount of rubbish lining the streets and highways everywhere and all the time. It certainly takes away from the natural, beautiful landscapes this country has to offer. It pains us to see locals just toss their garbage out of their vehicles onto the side of the road, have a little respect people!

DISLIKE: Aside from the main tourist draws, exploring small town and off-the-beaten-path-Peru was not as enjoyable as it has been in other countries. The charm and appeal is just not there. Perhaps the whistling and honking has something to do with that...