Monday, August 31, 2009

Same ocean. Different beach.

If first impressions are everything, Peru was failing miserably. Combined with getting robbed in Ecuador just a few weeks previously our mood was understandably low. But we were hoping that getting out of Mancor and the change of scenery would help fix that. Plus who wants to read about our tales of woe and misery. So the next morning we checked out of the dodgy Sol y Mar hotel and trudged down the strip to catch our bus.

The bus ride was actually two. The first was a two hour ride to Piura where we transferred to another long distance bus that took us all the way to Trujillo. The ride was rather unremarkable and this was a good thing – we didn’t need any more excitement – and we arrived in Trujillo after dark. But we weren’t even staying there. We had decided to stay out in the beach suburb of Huanchaco and now had to figure out how to get there. Luckily there were plenty of Peruvian taxi drivers (now edging out the Hondurans as my least favourite species) to whisk us away. The bus station was nowhere near the one marked on our Lonely Planet map and we had no clue where we were in the city and therefore no clue how to catch the local bus to Huanchaco. So we grudgingly accepted what I knew was an overpriced taxi ride out to the beach town. But it was worth it. After roughing it in Mancora, the La Casa Suisse Hostel was a pleasant surprise. It was clean and comfortable and welcoming. And it was easy to finally exhale and get a good nights’ sleep.

The next morning it was time to find out if the rest of Huanchaco was as nice as the hostel. After catching up on some photo uploading and other boring stuff we headed out, ready to face whatever crap Peru decided to throw at us this time. Luckily Huanchaco was a lot like the hostel. The beach, while less beautiful than Mancora, stretched as far as we could see and was peaceful. There were no touts or hawkers and just a sprinkling of tourists, including a few learning to surf in the smaller waves. There was a large pier (photo above) dotted with locals all trying to catch tonight’s dinner. They were outnumbered by pelicans stalking the fishermen in an attempt to coax some of the fish bait into their mouths. One fisherman was playing with the pelicans – throwing one a large plastic fish-shaped lure and laughing as the greedy pelicans gobbled them up only to spit them out immediately then glaring at the fisherman until he threw him an actual fish.

Huanchaco’s beaches were so long and civilized that we actually wanted to spend time on them. We watched the surfers and then found a woman selling grilled kebabs for about a $1 each. We shared one as we watched the beginner surfers on one side of the pier and the pros in the bigger waves on the other. Adrian was inspired and announced that he wanted to give it a go. So we popped into the nearest surf school (recommended by our hostel) and signed him up for a lesson. Why not me too? Well if I went surfing who would be there to document Adrian’s attempt at getting up? Plus the water wasn’t exactly warm.

In keeping with the new surfing theme, we checked out the original Peruvian surfboards that Huanchaco is famous for. Made out of bundles of reeds they were more boat than board. Originally used by locals to fish off shore but now shuttle daring tourists into the waves for a wet ride. At one time they must have been made of nothing but reeds, but now we noticed a Styrofoam core peeking through the gaps in the reeds. We were offered a ride but passed and instead hit up the skewer lady for a cheap dinner. It was a day of doing nothing but it was just what we needed. Our mood had improved and as the sun set, our hatred of Peru was now more of a dislike.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Same sh*t. Different day.

The only reason we were in Mancora was to have some fun in the sun. of course waking up it was overcast. Well at least we didn’t need to worry about getting a bad burn like Simon’s in this weather. And before you remind me about the dangers of sunburns in overcast skies, I made sure to liberally apply sunscreen. But before we headed out, the Ecuadorian family in the room next to ours stopped us in the hall to warn us that their room had been robbed. Gone were 3 digital cameras, some cash and credit cards. We did our best to be sympathetic and went back into the room to double check that we’d locked all our bags tight. Then it was time to figure out how to get out of Peru as soon as possible. And as cheaply as possible. The first 18 hours of bad experiences in Peru, had us cutting down the amount of time to spend in the country. We decided to skip Chiclayo and head straight to Trujillo. All this and it we hadn’t even had breakfast.

Adrian was hoping that breakfast would be a turning point. Last night at the restaurant he had spotted eggs and sausage on the menu of the Swiss/German/Italian restaurant. Of course, once we were served, he discovered that sausages in this part of the world meant hot dogs. Oh well. It was tasty enough and not too expensive. Plus the owner and his family were really nice. So nice we decided against attempting to pass off our fake notes on them.

Hunger satisfied we walked down the strip in search of a bus out of town the next morning, shaving a day off our planned time here. Getting robbed has a way of speeding up time one wants to spends in a country. Unfortunately most buses were night buses and we weren’t in the mood for that or spending another day here. However, a few more blocks and we found one company that left in the morning. It was relatively cheap and only one transfer point. Adrian used his best Spanglish to grill the clerk about the state of the buses, specifically the availability of a toilet onboard. For the first bus no she replied but the second longer leg would have one on board. And remembering back to our time in Peru in 2005, I reminded him that the buses in Peru were much nicer than those we’d been on so far. I also reminded him that Peru was nicer than what we’d experienced yesterday too. He vaguely remembered those happier times and laid off the woman – much to her relief.

Now it was time to visit what we were here for – the beach. It was long and wide but still full of people and horses. The good news was now the sun was out. It was kind of like Tulum (but cheaper, finally one good thing to say about Peru). The water was beautiful and relaxing so we decided to treat ourselves to mojitos as we watched some surfers. We attempted to pay for our drinks with the fake bills but before the server had them in her hand she regretted to inform us that our money was fake. I wish I knew what it was that they could see all those from a mile away that identified them as fake because we’d certainly like those skills. Oh well, we’ll keep trying to get rid of them but maybe a little further away from the border.

Once we were suitably baked and the sun began to slip below the horizon we walked down the beach to check out the surfers and then back to the hotel to change before going out for dinner. Tomorrow we were leaving but it still didn’t feel soon enough. The further we got from the border area the happier we’d be.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New country. New scams.

Our new souvenirs. Fake money.

Today we were headed to the border - our 9th for those of you keeping count. It was going to be a 9+ hour trip so we got up bright and early hoping to arrive in Peru way before it got dark. The great thing about getting up early at a hostel that was also a bar was there was plenty of hot water in the showers. The bad thing? The staff was still sleeping so there was no breakfast until 9am. So we waited an hour until the kitchen opened and hoped that there was a later bus that got us where we needed to go.

We caught a taxi to the bus station. As we pulled in I noticed banners announcing a new direct service to Mancora, Peru. The bus company was having some sort of launch party with balloons and music and food. According to the sign, we’d just missed the 9am bus but the next one was at 10:45. A little late but at least it would be direct. Unfortunately, because of today’s festivities there was no 10:45 bus and the next one wasn’t until 3pm. So we set off to find another bus to take us to the border town where we could catch another bus from the Peruvian sides. That one was leaving in 15 minutes. Perfect – okay we wouldn’t have the luxury of getting all the way there but we’d get there much earlier.

We drove through the mountains from pine forests, to desert, and finally to the coast. The bus got to the border town and let us off just outside at the passport station about 4km outside of town. Unfortunately, the ayudante told us the bus couldn’t wait for us but he told us that when we were done we could catch transportation to the actual border here. Immediately, a guy pounced on us. He offered us a taxi ride to the border for $1.50. Sounded like a deal and much better than carrying our heavy bags in the sun. He walked with us across the highway to the immigration office where we were stamped out of Ecuador. And when we stepped out, our new friend was waiting with a taxi. A few minutes later we were let off in the middle of the town which appeared to be some sort of crazy black market. It was pure chaos and we were glad we had someone to help us navigate the chaotic stalls to the bridge to Peru which was hidden in the midst of it all.

But first we had to change our American dollars into Peruvian money. We stopped at one of the many money changers and he offered almost the actual exchange rate so we said goodbye to dollars and hello to soles. We thanked our friend and gave him a S10 tip for then walked across the bridge. We were unofficially in Peru – unofficially because just like on the Peruvian side the actual immigration office was a few kilometers outside of town and in between was another black market of all sorts of goods even crazier than the Ecuadorian side. Soon we were pounced on by another guy offering us a collectivo ride to Tumbes for S30 (that’s Soles not dollars), including a stop at the immigration office. Hmm. We stopped to consider it. On one hand it was more than we really wanted to pay. On the other, it was a whole lot easier than catching a moto taxi to the immigration office and then to the highway where we’d have to catch a collectivo to Tumbes to catch another collectivo to to our transfer to Mancora. So I asked 3 times about the price and made sure it was the price for both and then decided to go for it.

The man then directed us to his friend’s car. This wasn’t a collectivo but a man trying to make a few bucks on the side. No harm in that I guess. The three of us got in with the driver and were immediately whisked away to the Peruvian immigration post a small hut 2km out of town on the highway. That was over 6km between check points – no wonder there was a thriving black market around here. We hopped out of the car and were quickly stamped in. Now it was time to get back in the car. About 200 metres from the border

The man directed us to his friend’s car. Aha this was just a man trying to make a few bucks on the side. And we got in – first stop the Peruvian immigration about 2km. Peru and Ecuador have a very loose border apparently. We got stamped in without any trouble and then got back in the car. About 200 metres from the border post, the driver turned to us and told us that going to Tumbes was too far and he was going to drive us to the collectivo stop on the highway. Oh great, another scam. I told him (actually I may have yelled at him, being sick of getting scammed every time we got into a car). He told us no and emphasized that he was only going to the collectivo post. I told him to stop the car and jumped out intent on getting away from the scammer jammers. Adrian however wasn’t paying attention and stayed in the car thwarted my great escape plan. The original negotiator however took the chance to make his own escape. With Adrian and our bags still in the car, I was forced to get back in and continue arguing with the driver. Now he agreed to drive us to Tumbes but the price changed. It was no longer 30 for both but 30 for each. And he now said 30 dollars not 30 soles because the trip was 37km away. I told him no and called him a thief and a liar. I told him no, repeated the original price we had negotiated on and told him to stop asking for dollars because we had none. He eventually backed down from $60 to S60 to take us all the way to Tumbes. I was furious with being double crossed yet again. And spent the rest of the ride swearing at him in English and cursing Peru the entire way.

We arrived in Tumbes 20 minutes later (definitely not 37 km). Now that the car was stopped I told him we’d only pay him S50. He eagerly accepted that and gave us our bags – his easy agreement just highlighted the scam. There was no misunderstanding between the two men or between us – it was just the old bait and switch. Adrian handed him a bunch of small bills and then it was off to find our transportation to Mancora. We bypassed the bus stations and headed to the actual collectivos. A taxi driver told us it was going to be S27 and tried to convince us to go with him but I just ignored him. And when we got to the collectivo, indeed the price was only S6 – much better. We got on and enjoyed the ride down the coast.

Our first impressions of Mancora were not great. The town was really just a giant strip of shops and cafes along the Panamerican. – and all of them ugly. The driver let us off in front of the ugliest one – the Sol y Mar hotel that we had chosen to stay at. He then demanded an extra S2 for taking us down the strip. Grr. Sure it was only 60 cents but already this constant scamming was wearing thin. The hotel didn’t get better when we stepped in. It was cheap and cheerless although it was right on the beach. But after the taxi scam we needed to recoup some of our money. I checked out two rooms then chose the sunnier one which was S40/night and payment was demanded upfront. Adrian pulled out a S100 note to pay. The clerk shook his head and pointing to the note said “Es falso”. Adrian pulled out another S100 note. “Es falso tambien.” Then a S50 and another S50 and another S50. Yup that was right. With the exception of the 10s and 20s (most of which were now in the hands of the scammer jammer taxi driver), the money we’d gotten at the border was fake. So not only had the taxi driver ripped us off and the collectivo driver as well but the money changer had too probably in cahoots with our “friend” on the Ecuadorian side. In total, we lost almost $150 in the exchange (photo above). But it explained why the driver wanted American cash. I almost screamed in frustration. The clerk pulled out some real notes so we could feel and see the difference – I can’t say I noticed much – but he could tell a mile away. An old lady standing nearby asked what was wrong and the clerk told her that we had S300 in fake money she tutted and shook her head but was at least sympathetic. However the clerk wouldn’t even give us the room key until he had some money. Luckily there was a bank machine across the street, so Adrian got some real cash out and paid for the room. We were now thoroughly bummed and hating Peru.

Walking down the strip didn’t help much either. Mancora’s only redeeming feature was the beach. Everything else was dirty and dusty and aimed at the tourist pocket book. And let me stress once again that it was an ugly town. After checking out all the menus we ended up at an Italian restaurant run by a German-speaking Swiss guy for the S10 pasta and drink special and S12 for 3 large beers. The food was good even if the town and the country so far was shit. Oh yeah and it was our wedding anniversary.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Churched out and about in Cuenca

The jewel of Ecuador. A beautiful colonial city. That’s how Cuenca was described. Unfortunately we had to wait to check it out. Over breakfast one of the staff members told us that the cheaper room was available but it wasn’t ready to move in. So we waited and waited and finally moved into the new room just before noon. The room was smaller and we were now sharing a bathroom but it was half the price and for that we liked it twice as much as the other. Now it was time to find out what made Cuenca so special.

Today was market day so we headed to the market but it didn’t look like much was happening. So we pulled out the guidebook to check out these beautiful sights. What the guidebooks kinda forgot to point out was that the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca was really a beautiful colonial city of churches. Now we appreciate a good church but after 5 months of beautiful colonial churches we were churched out. And there were far too many to remember their names or which was which.

We found reprieve in the museo de arte moderno. Not only was it free but it was quite good. One of the most interesting was a photographic display by 12 latino artists – they were all brought to Madrid or Barcelona (I’ve forgotten) to shoot their view of the city and the 12 different styles and takes on the same city were interesting when viewed side by side. But the coolest piece looked like a black and white photo but was actually a piece of shadow art. Nothing cures the old church blues than some nice modern art.

Our next stop was the pharmacy – another colonial church polar opposite. Adrian had wrenched his shoulder trying to carry his backpack with the shoulder strap rather than the back straps and was now paying the price. So we were on a search for some ibuprofen. An English-speaking doctor standing in line stepped in to help us translate our order. His translation sounded a whole lot like ibuprofen with a Spanish accent, i.e. he added an o at the end. But we were thankful for the help. And we left, bypassed more churches and dropped off the disposable Galapagos camera to be developed.

With all that modern stuff out of the way, it was time to go back in time again. Way back in time to see some Incan ruins. We walked along the river past the old mansions and old bridges consulting our map every so often to make sure we were headed in the right direction. At one stop, a friendly man saw us and crossed a busy street to see if we were lost. Nope, well not yet anyway. And of course about 5 minutes after we declined his offer we reached a dead end road. We were at the rear of the museum complex but couldn’t get any further thanks to a tall chain link fence. We retraced our steps and tried a different turn and ended up at the entrance but were turned back by the guard to go buy a ticket at the museum. However, there was no one at the ticket booth and another guard told us we could go into the ruins and then come back and buy our ticket. So back to the first guard who grudgingly let us in and then seemed to follow us as we walked through the ruins.

Pumapungo were the ruins of an old Incan town and the site was big but thankfully the signs were in English. There were the old religious buildings, the farm terraces and an old medicinal garden and even an aviary full of very loud birds. It was a lot of walking and by the time we returned to the museum neither Adrian nor I were really in the mood but since it was included in the tickets we were now able to buy so we gave it a looksee. It was a repeat of what we’d seen at other museums and we quickly walked through.

It was time to walk back but first, ice cream and picking up the Galapagos photos. I felt like we hobbled for the last 20 minutes. We’d completed a circle and a half of the city and too many kms to count which our feet were eager to remind us at every step. It would have been nice to relax at the hostel but the bar there was now in full swing. The music was pumping and it was full of people celebrating the end of the week. Our new much cheaper room was unfortunately a lot closer to the music (probably the reason for the cheap price). We dug out the earplugs (don’t leave home without them) in anticipation of a tough sleep and then decided to head two doors down to the other hostel for dinner. It was much nicer and more chill and they had a three hour happy hour with tasty drinks. So we enjoyed a tasty dinner and many caipiriñas our new favourite drink there. Then it was back to our hostel. The earphones worked well enough that we were able to get to sleep – it could have been the caipiriñas too. Cuenca may have been the town of churches but our hostel was definitely not as quiet as a church mouse.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Burning up in Guayaquil.

a big city with big city amenities - thank goodness.

Our plan in Guayaquil was to just chill out after the go go go of the Galapagos – for me that meant catching up on some blogging and uploading the 275 photos from the last week. For Adrian that meant enjoying the sunshine and pool at the hostel and checking out the mall nearby. Well in the midst of doing all that Adrian and I suddenly found ourselves on a mission or two.

Halfway through the photo upload I noticed that my computer was no longer charging. I figured the plug had just come out of the wall but when I turned around to plug it back in I was greeted with smoke and the smell of burning wires. The cord had frayed and was now thisclose to going up in flames. I quickly yanked it out of the wall – I don’t think our insurance would cover hostel arson. Now how to make my computer usable. With an almost dead battery, in about 20 minutes my computer would be a large paperweight. It was Adrian to the rescue. On his mall visit, he’d found not one but two Mac shops. $100 later we had a new cord and an up and running computer. But so much for trying to recoup some of that Galapagos money. The day didn’t pick up either. While checking in on our bank and credit cards, I noticed that our last remaining credit card – the one we’d used to book the Galapagos tour – suddenly had a bunch of mystery charges on it. Adrian called Visa to find out what was going on. Well they weren’t our charges so the Visa was cancelled and reissued. So now we had no credit cards and no travelers’ cheques and just one bank card. Rather than a relaxing day it was all quite stressful.

We tried to shake off the bad news and hung out at the hostel with the rest of the guests. Some of who were familiar faces. Simon had been there before we left for the Galapagos and had spent the last week recuperating from a bad sunburn he’d gotten on the top of his feet while in Mancora, Peru. When we left he’d barely been able to walk and the sunburn was a giant nasty looking blister. Luckily, while we were away a couple of traveling doctors had passed through the hostel and helped him get some antibiotics. At least now he was able to walk and like us he was heading out tomorrow to continue his journey. And there were new faces too including the nicest most polite guy from Alabama. He’d spent the last 5 years in the navy and seen the world although he said most of the world was viewed from the ship watching the officers head to shore for the good times. He was off tomorrow too although he wasn’t sure where.

The next morning all our bags were packed and lined up in the front hall ready for destinations known and unknown. Simon to Quito. Adrian and I to Cuenca. And Alabama to, well, he still wasn’t quite sure. While he sat staring at his map of Ecuador for inspiration, Adrian and I split a cab to the bus station with Simon. And in a change of events, the cabbie actually charged us less than he was supposed to (according to the hostel). Wow that was a first – but not enough to make up for every other cab driver. Once inside the station we said goodbye to Simon as he headed North and we headed South. For us it was perfect timing as there was a bus leaving for Cuenca in just 15 minutes.

Four and a half hours later in Cuenca. We hadn’t heard back from any of the hostels we’d emailed (what is it with South American hostels and email?) but headed to the first on our list anyway. They only had an expensive room available and when I told them I had sent an email they acknowledged that they’d received it but in a condescending way told me they couldn’t guarantee any room when booked online. What? I was annoyed. So they got our booking request but didn’t bother to respond. And they accept bookings online but don’t guarantee them. Wow, that makes no sense. But I guess we were supposed to feel happy that they even had a room for us. Although the room was comfy the attitude was a put off and despite the hostel also being home to a popular local restaurant we went out to find food elsewhere. In less than 24 hours we’d gone from almost burning down one hostel to the cold shoulder at another.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hurry up and wait.

The alarm went off at 5am. Yay and boo. It was far too early to be up. Moving slowly we got ready and dragged our stuff down to reception. Marlon had arranged for a junior guide to take us on a quick tour around Santa Cruz. And despite the early hour, Oscar was waiting for us. We dumped our bags behind the reception desk and then headed out to the Charles Darwin Station. We started on foot and then Oscar flagged down a cab and good thing because our bodies were starting to ache from all the abuse over the last 4 days. Horseback riding, bumpy boat rides, mountain biking, and more bumpy boat rides. Oscar asked us for a dollar because he didn’t have any change to pay. But told us he’d pay us back later. A little weird but it had happened to us a few times. The station was empty and at least the sun was now edging it’s way into the sky. We walked through and Oscar did his best to explain something new about the tortoises and iguanas we were looking at however after 4 days of wildlife spotting we’d heard it all before.

What we hadn’t seen was Lonesome George, so named because he was the last tortoise of his species. He was indeed very lonesome looking despite the two females they had in with him. The females were from another species and the hope was that they were close enough that one day George won’t be so lonesome, if you know what I mean. He didn’t seem to be too interested in the chicks and unless someone put on the Barry White soon it looked like he was going to be lonesome forever. Another new sight was the Galapagos land iguanas. The station had two of the last hundred on the islands. Apparently, they were just too tasty for the islanders as well as all the cats, dogs and goats the settlers brought with them. So there was a breeding program in place for them too. The rest of the station was still closed and good thing because our hour was up and to see the rest would take at least a couple more hours. We caught another cab back to the hotel which we paid for again but before we could get our money back Oscar disappeared. Oh well, I guess it was his self-appointed tip.

Now it was time for a quick breakfast and the official goodbye. The boys were up – of course it was breakfast – but the other 3 were not around. Marlon was a little worried but it was actually his fault. Last night he had told the boys 7am and the rest of us 7:30 for breakfast. But he meant a 7:30 departure. The confusion continued when I asked him who was taking us to the airport. He made a bunch of hurried phone calls and then told us we’d be picked up at 8am by a bus. Then it was a quick goodbye to everyone as they headed off for the rest of the tour.

Closer to 8:30 the bus showed up and we joined another group who were heading to the airport on the other side of the island. On the way we stopped at Los Gemelos – twin sinkholes in the mist (photo above). Then it was back on the highway to the Baltra ferry. Now the sun was out and the water was the beautiful azul colour I’d always imagined it was going to be. Of course it was, now that we were leaving. The ferry crossed the channel and we were shuttled onto another bus that dropped us off at the airport. The airport was heaving with tourists and their massive amounts of luggage. The guide took our passports and rushed off to get our boarding passes. Bad news, we’d been bumped to the 12:30 flight. The guide claimed the 10:30 flight was now only going to Quito but I just think we got there too late and the airline had sold our seats. Great that meant we now had to spend an extra two hours at the small airport, two hours when we could have been sleeping.

The 12:30 flight finally arrived at 1 and we boarded for the short but relaxing hop back to Guayaquil. Back at the hostel it felt nice to see some familiar faces – kinda like coming home after a trip. We were later than we planned back that was okay it gave us an excuse to do nothing. Finally, the joys of doing nothing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Final countdown.

Our last day on the Galapagos. It had been great but all this getting up at dawn and go go go was wearing us down and we were looking forward to heading back to Guayaquil to just chill out. What we weren’t looking forward to was saying goodbye to Beat, Joy and Stacey and heck we’d even miss the boys. They were all staying on for the full 8 day tour. But for us this was the last full day. I don’t know whether if it was because we were near the end but when we woke up despite or hours on the back of a horse, but neither Adrian nor I were achy when we woke up. The only evidence of our ride was a lovely saddle sore on my butt cheek from where the saddle had rubbed during the uncomfortable trotting. Good thing that was it was because we had some hiking to do today.

After breakfast, Marlon led us across the Tintoreras islet. It was home to many sea lions and a huge colony of marine iguanas. While the sea lions often barked their displeasure at us tromping through their areas, the iguanas could have cared less and they were so thick they often completely covered the path. It was difficult to avoid stepping on them but we did our best and none of them dropped their tails in defense. As awesome as all these guys were, they weren’t the reason we were there. The islet was names for the Tintorereas or white-tipped reef sharks. And as we walked further, there were signs warning us not to go swimming in the water. As we got to the water’s edge we could see why. Down below, Marlon pointed out a dozen sharks resting in the shallow water. They looked dead but they weren’t. The water in this area is so rich in oxygen that the sharks can catch some z’s here before heading out in the evening to hunt. In fact that’s the reason that the boats can’t go out on the water after 6pm – too many hunting sharks. Now the boats are probably not allowed out because it would disturb the sharks’ natural lifestyle but I liked to imagine that they were kept in the harbour because they would attack the boats like Jaws. That’s right, my fear of sharks was as strong as ever so I much preferred watching them from dry land.

When we’d had our fill of shark watching we continued walking across the sandy islet and met a small boat which ferried us across the water to the other side for our last snorkeling trip stopping so we could check out some penguins in the rocks. Before we could hop into the shallow water, the ever smiling Marlon got all serious. This was a special place where sea turtles hung out and rested and he instructed us not to hassle the wildlife here. He promised if any of us misbehaved he would end the session early. Gulp. The only thing I could hope was that this meant we’d see something really awesome. I only had one photo left on my disposable camera so I hoped so. And as soon as we plopped into the water we were swimming eye to eye with a giant sea turtle. I snapped the photos and crossed my fingers it would come out (photo above). There were schools of beautiful fishes everywhere often engulfing us and off in the distance even more sea turtles. As I was looking off at them Stacey and Joy suddenly motioned frantically underneath me. I just about jumped out of the water when I noticed the huge shape just a foot underneath me. Joy and Stacey laughed at my reaction. It was a sea turtle that was swimming with me before moving on when I freaked out. But that was okay because just ahead I floated in the midst of four sea turtles just chilling on the bottom. They weren’t doing anything but it was one of the coolest things just hanging out in the middle of them until a family with a screaming kid entered the water nearby and the turtles scattered – sigh, I guess they hadn’t gotten Marlon’s lecture. Marlon let us hang around the area for a lot longer than he was supposed to. But eventually we had to get out of the water and head for lunch.

With full stomachs (even the boys) we headed off west to the wall of tears. It wasn’t much to look at – a 20 foot tall wall of stacked rock. However, the story of the wall was more impressive or depressive. Back in the 20th Century, Isabela Island was actually a prison camp. And to keep the prisoners busy, they were forced to build this wall. There was no point to the wall other than punishment and as a way to thin the prison population – you see, weaker prisoners died under the strain of the exercise while other died when the unstable wall collapsed on them both of which happened regularly. Eventually, the prisoners rioted and in 1958 the prison camp was closed but the wall remained as a reminder. We climbed the stairs to look down on it.

“You can walk out on it,” Marlon suggested shortly after telling us all about the collapses and deaths. Um, no thanks. However, daredevil Joy eagerly jumped out on the wall. As she walked out Marlon warned, “ but don’t go any further because it’s not safe.” Joy quickly made her way back to us. Marlon then tried to convince us to continue to climb up to the top of the 100 stairs to take in the view. I looked around at the misty foggy scenery and decided to stay where I was. And I was glad I did since the others came down out of breath and telling me they’d seen nothing. We hiked back to the van for a stop at the flamingo lagoon. Two flamingos were standing in the shallow water but were either sleeping or hiding from us. We all got lots of pictures of flamingo butts before deciding to head back to the van. As we turned away one stuck his head out – proving that they were definitely hiding from the tourists. But we managed to get a shot before we zoomed off.

Back at the hotel I realized that despite the drizzly overcast weather, there was still enough sun to give my back a little rosy colour during our 1 and half hours of snorkeling. Well all of us, since none of us had bothered with sunscreen. But it was mostly harmless. We changed and grabbed our luggage and then it was time for the part of the day I was least looking forward to – the boat ride to Santa Cruz. After yesterday’s hell on seas, I braced myself for the worst but was pleasantly surprised by the ride. Don’t get me wrong – the sea was still full of 10 -15 foot swells but we appeared to traveling in a better direction. The boat went up and down – sometimes violently but at least we weren’t going left and right and some of us even managed to take a nap. I was happy not be terrified but poor Stacey got a case of the greens. The brave girl did not throw up and we all made it to shore thankful to be on land again. I was doubly happy because that was Adrian and I’s last boat ride, woohoo.

Santa Cruz was much different from the rest of the islands. The harbour was full of giant cruising yachts and the town was full of galleries, restaurants, internet places and all other signs of tourist activity, including lots of tourists. Adrian thought it was great but I hated it. Good thing we were only spending a night here. But it also meant that a lot more eating options and the restaurant that night did not disappoint as we dined on thick seared tuna steaks. Yum. The boys ditched us as soon as dinner was over. But Joy, Stacey and Beat joined Adrian I for goodbye drinks. We all enjoyed fruity girlie girl drinks (well I had a beer) and exchanged emails and contact info. Good people and good fun. They were the main reason we would have wanted to stay. As we were sitting there enjoying our drinks, Adrian shouted in disgust.
“Look at that,” he pointed to a neon lit tourist train that ferried tourists around the town, “in another few years, it’s totally going to be Disney-fied.” Yup, Santa Cruz was incredibly different. We all scoffed at it at first but the third time it went around Joy and I looked at each other.
“Let’s get on next time it comes around.”
Just as we decided to go for a spin and embrace the tackyness of Santa Cruz, the neon train turned off its lights and headed to the garage. We’d missed our chance. Oh well, it was time to turn in anyhow. It was getting late and Adrian and I had to be up at 5am to squeeze in one last tour before breakfast and our flight to the mainland. Just like the train we were done. Almost.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My kingdom for a horse.

Before our horseback ride up the volcano in Guatemala, it had been about 30 years since I had been on a horse (and for Adrian never). Today would be the second time in 30 years I’d been on a horse and Adrian’s second time. Considering how terrifying it had been back in Guatemala, I wasn’t looking forward to it but this was the tour we had signed up for. Adrian however was giddy with excitement imagining that this time he’d be able to ride cowboy style at full gallop. I was glad one of us was excited. Especially since the horseback ride was going to take up most of the day.

Since we’d be out on the trail, today we were packing lunches. We met Marlon in the hotel kitchen where he laid out a spread of bread, tomato, tuna, cheese and condiments so we could make our own sandwiches. And he even had a little something extra for Stacey.
“I looked for something for you. But this is all I could find.” And with that Marlon handed her a can of corn. It was a nice thought but Joy and I started laughing (nicely) at the obsurdity of it. Stacey accepted the can (a little confused herself) and took it back to her room so we could have it with dinner. Once we had made our lunches, we went for breakfast and then piled into the van that would take us halfway up the mountain.

It was another overcast day. And as on every other island, the higher we got the foggier and rainier it got. When the van finally stopped to let us out we were in thick fog barely able to make out the outlines of the horses waiting for us on the ridge (photo above). The horses looked healthier and stronger than the ones in Guatemala but I was still apprehensive and asked the cowboy in charge for the strongest and nicest horse. It must have been a tall request because I was the last to be assigned and helped up on the horse but it meant I was at the back of the pack. Well until my horse just started off without waiting for the group. We were told that the horses knew the way and not to worry but my horse appeared to be on a mission to get up that mountain and wasn’t it the mood to obey me as I pulled on the reins to try to get him to slow down or stop to keep with the group. But my time at the front was short as the boys put their horse riding experience from the Kibbutz to lead the pack.

Despite my focused horse and fear, the ride was actually enjoyable and a heck of a lot easier than climbing the volcano in Guatemala. Instead of the narrow path of loose rock, this path was wide enough for at least two horses to go up and it was compacted dirt and mud. Just as I was beginning to relax, I call came from behind me in the pack.
“Baby!?!” It was Adrian calling out in a panic.
I tried to stop my horse (fat chance of that) as a message soon passed up through the crowd. Adrian had fallen off his horse. Unable to stop or turn the horse around, I had to rely on reports from the others. He was fine and was back up. He hadn’t so much fallen as just slid off because of a loose saddle. Phew. What a relief.

We had an easy ride for about 30 minutes with us beginners (Stacey, Adrian and I) managing to somewhat control our horses until Marlon told us to stop.
“We get off here and walk,” he said. At first I thought he meant all of us but when Joy tried to dismount, he told her no. It was just me.
“Safety first,” Marlon sort of explained. It wasn’t much of an explanation and I wasn’t happy. Marlon joined me as we then hiked up what was probably the steepest part up the mountain. Of course we were now above the clouds and the sun was hot and Adrian was the one carrying the water bottle. We hiked up the mountain for 45 minutes long passed by the rest of the group and the horses. Marlon tried to be cheery by commenting on the scenery to which I icily replied that I’d rather be walking. The path flattened out where the rest of the group was waiting for us. I was allowed back up on the horse which was a much needed break after the hike up but it didn’t help my now foul mood. And poor Marlon, bore the brunt of my evil eye and pursed lips – although he was such a nice guy that I felt a little bit bad for being so mean.

At the top of the mountain we all dismounted. The mountain was an old volcano and the top was actually the ridge of the collapsed caldera. It must have been a big volcano because the caldera was huge. There was evidence of recent lava flows in caldera but Marlon explained they came from a smaller volcano on the other side which was active and to which we would now hike. Great another hike after I’d already hiked. Since I was still fuming and a little tired, I decided to take my time and lagged behind the group. We walked across the lava fields and Marlon pointed out sulfur deposits and lava tubes and even caves where a bit of green had managed to sprout. Further down the side of the volcano we could see lava flowing but unlike our experience in Guatemala there would be no roasting marshmallows or chickens. Marlon kept us far away from the molten rock but had us feel the heat coming out of cracks in the ground as we headed towards Volcan Chico. We took in the view and then hiked back up to the top where we had our packed lunch under a shady tree.

Marlon told me Adrian and I that we now we would both probably have to walk part of the way down. I was not looking forward to that as we got back up on the horses. The wrangler led my stubborn horse by the reins and when we got to the steepest part Marlon told us to get off but the wrangler told him it was okay, we were fine. I learned that Marlon had thought I’d fallen off of the horse and therefore had me walk at the tricky part. Apparently in the past there had been some bad spills and he didn’t want it to happen again. And I could see why the steep part was rather muddy and the horses slipped a bit but it was still easier than Guatemala. Although we all could have done without the wrangler forcing the horses to trot for the last 30 minutes – at least that’s what our sore butts told us. But overall the ride was nice and I felt a lot better about being on a horse. Adrian was now in love with horses and much like diving was talking about doing it all the time. He even asked how much a horse cost. Oh dear, why can’t he fall in love with the free activities.

We got back to the hotel in mid afternoon which would have left us lots of time to enjoy the long sandy beach except the wind and clouds had picked up. Adrian and I did take our books and rum down to the beach to chill for a couple of hours. It was cold and a bit miserable but after four action packed days it was nice to just do nothing. And that night we celebrated over Stacey's can of corn.

Friday, August 21, 2009

What’s scarier giant swells or eccentric Germans?

It was day 3 and our second early morning and already we were tired. But we pulled ourselves out of bed and joined the others for breakfast after packing up and checking out of the hotel. Today we were heading to our next island in our island hopping tour which made us all happy because it meant we had a couple of hours on the boat to nap. The sea however had other ideas. The waves we’d experienced on our short jaunt yesterday were nothing compared to the swells we hit today. They were between about 15 feet high. Now if those waves had just sent the boat up and down I would have been fine. But unfortunately, they also sent the boat rocking from side to side. This was terrifying. We had been given instructions to not move from our seats so as to not upset the balance and I think that made me paranoid despite it being a big powerful motoring yacht. Every couple of minutes a wave pushed the boat to one side and then another causing a bit more terror to rise in me. And this was supposed to be the good season for boating in the islands!

About an hour into the trip the terror was accompanied by a particular nauseous feeling. I’ve never been sea sick before but the violent motion was starting to get to me. To take my mind off of all the icky feelings, I started doing square and cube roots in my head. 2x2 is 4 x 2 is 8. 3x3 is 9 x 3 is 27 and on and on up to 12 to the power of three. It worked (mostly because I suck at math and actually have to concentrate on anything more than 2 digits) and I survived the entire 2.5 hour ride to Champion and Enderby Islands without throwing up or screaming in fear. Trust me - this was an accomplishment.

The two islands were uninhabited except of course for the abundant bird and sea life. Among the frigates, boobies (tee hee), and other birds I’ve forgotten there were also sea lions lounging on rocks as well as our first sighting of marine iguanas. Marine iguanas? You say. Yup this was our first really weird animal encounters. Unlike the land lizards these guys scavenged for food in the ocean, swimming underwater to munch on algae or seaweed. Now that was something I was really hoping to see but the ones we spotted were either in a food coma or on strike because they only hung out on the rocks just above the crashing waves, the same waves that were still rocking our boat as if it were a tiny dingy.

While we were checking out the iguanas, Marlon handed out the snorkel gear and told us it was time to go in. Willingly getting into the water was the last thing I wanted to do. But it was still more inviting than staying on the rocking boat. Plus there was a chance we’d see the marine iguanas in action so we jumped in. The area we swam to was sheltered but there was a strong current that pushed us along. But it was a worthwhile snorkel with plenty of fish and sea turtles to distract us as well as more playful sea lions who swam around and over us. Show offs. However, the marine iguanas stayed on the rocks. Oh well. And when were all sufficiently blue-lipped it was back on the boat to make landfall on Floreana Island (photo above).

Floreana is one of the four inhabited islands although with only 100 people living on it – it can barely be called inhabited. The guide from our first day had tried to tell us the history of the island involving murder and mystery and pirates but none of us really understood what she had said. Thankfully, Marlon was able to fill in the gaps. But that would have to wait until we visited marine iguanas up close and had lunch at the one restaurant on the island. The food was more of the same, soup and popcorn (Joy, Stacey and Beat were now converted), followed by rice, fish and a small salad. Then it was into the island’s Chiva that took us into the highlands.

Our first stop was another tortoise sanctuary where another species lived. Despite the numerous lessons we’d been given in the differences between the species, without seeing them side by side they just looked like tortoises. But they were still cute and we still took hundreds of shots. But the real attraction on Floreana were the caves and the history of them. Floreana had been a favourite hang out of pirates and they were the first to use the caves as a shelter. Some pirates had stayed on the islands and were joined over the years by a handful of Ecuadorians. But it was the settlers of the 20th century that made Floreana famous. The first were a German couple, the Ritters, who came to this remote place in search of some sort of Eden on earth. They were naturalists and hardcore ones at that – they lived only off what grew on the land and even removed their teeth so they wouldn’t suffer from tooth decay. Totally creepy. The Ritters lived peacefully (albeit weirdly) on the island until they were joined by the Wittmer family. The Wittmers had read about this paradise and thought it would be the perfect place to raise their sick son. What they hadn’t counted on was the eccentricity of the Ritters and the Ritters hadn’t counted on sharing their Eden with anyone else. You’d think with so almost no one else around they all would have made an effort to get along but instead they kept out of each others way with the Wittmers building a home for their family up in the old pirate caves. Marlon took us to them and explained how they used the eroded rock formations nearby to trap animals for food. The accommodations were very, very basic and it was hard to imagine someone choosing to live like this in the 19th Century. But Marlon claimed the Wittmers were very happy and even added a few more kids to their family.

But then story got really weird with the arrival of someone called the Baroness and her two lovers. She was a tyrant, stealing food from the families and using the Wittmers’ and Ritters’ limited drinking water to bathe in. There were rumors of sadist sexual rituals that increased with the arrival of another lover who tried to escape from the Baroness only to be “caught” and then shot while out hunting. He lived and eventually did escape the island but never shared his story. Next to attempt to escape was one of the original two lovers. He hitched a ride with a passing sailor but they were both presumed drowned when their boat was found broken up in the rocks. Now before you go blaming the Baroness for these deaths, she and the other lover soon disappeared and were never found. And the Ritters and Wittmers once again lived in peace. Then of course, the numbers started dwindling once again. Herr Ritter, the lifelong vegetarian died suddenly from eating spoiled chicken. His wife/partner then decided to cut her losses leaving the island to the Wittmers (and a handful of Ecuadorians). Apparently, the courts tried to arrest to the Wittmers or at least investigate them for their involvement in all the deaths and disappearances. But nothing was ever proved. And today the descendents of the Wittmers still live on the island operating the hotel the couple built a few years later. Odd for a family that just wanted to be alone. We never did meet any of the Wittmers and we didn’t eat at their hotel. Good thing too because I wouldn’t want to die of food poisoning.

With story time finished, we headed back to meet the Chiva. Stacey, Joy, Beat, Adrian and I walked ahead in search of the oranges we’d seen growing along the path. Unfortunately, they were bitter oranges. Adrian and I didn’t mind but the rest of the gang spit them out. The Chiva then pulled up and took us back down the mountain to the boat for our 1 hour ride to Isabela Island. The sea appeared to have gotten worse and this time the square roots didn’t work and I spent the entire hour clutching my life vest and hiding in Adrian’s shoulder until we pulled up to the dock. I was the first one off the boat and ran to the end happy to be on solid ground.

I immediately loved Isabela and not just because it meant I was no longer on the boat. The island was the largest but felt just as empty as Floreana. The sea front was a long sandy beach (with surfers and sun even) instead of the rocky shore of the other two islands we’d set foot on. It was chill and laidback with many of the locals walking barefoot through the sandy streets. The streets were named after local birds and animals and had the nicest signage I’d seen in ages. It was pretty without being twee and a big change from scraggly dusty San Cristobal. The change of scenery and the stiff drink Adrian made me from our medicinal rum helped improve my mood after the horrible boat ride. But that evening I wasn’t the only one feeling better – the new restaurant offered vegetarian options for Stacey and seconds and thirds for the boys when they asked. It was just what we needed after the creepy scary day. And for the record, the swells were hands down scarier than the eccentric Germans.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trying not to tempt fish and faith.

When shopping around for Galpagos tours, the guide books and message boards are full of things to watch out for: get a written itinerary; make sure you have a Grade II guide; and of course, you get what you pay for, especially when it comes to food and accommodations. So far we felt like we’d gotten value for money – after we switched guides that is. However, others in the group weren’t as pleased when it came to the food. And by others, I mean the anti-social lads. While vegetarian Stacey didn’t complain about her food, the three lads were constantly asking for more. Not only did they prefer each other’s company to ours, they preferred to eat, a lot. Over breakfast, we forced the three to give us their names. They were Maier, Gilad and A… um… I’ve forgotten, so let’s call him Aaron. The three young guys from Israel were not impressed with the portions at any of either the restaurant from yesterday or today’s breakfast place and were quite vocal about it. Perhaps the growing boys still had growing boys appetites because the rest of us were quite satisfied with the amount of food. Oh well, you can’t please them all. Although it was early, we were running late. So we quickly ate and then Marlon helped us find an open shop where we could buy disposable waterproof cameras to document today’s fun in the water. But first it was time for fun on the land.

We all piled into a bunch of waiting pick up trucks loaded up with mountain bikes and headed up into the highlands. The trucks went up and up and soon we were in the clouds. Our first stop was supposed to be a crater lake but the clouds were so thick that we had to continue on. Somewhere just above the clouds at the top of what seemed like a mountain. We got out and were each kitted out with a mountain bike and a helmet.

“Now we go down the mountain,” Marlon let us know. But first we all tested out our bikes. Good thing because I had no brakes. Better to find that out now than while hurtling down the mountain going a bazillion miles per hour. There were a couple of bike mechanics in the trucks who quickly adjusted and tightened whatever it was that needed to be tightened and adjusted. And then we were off. The road was muddy and unpaved and for the first 45 minutes we went downhill – fast. Even my newly tightened brakes could only take the speed down from to terrifying to scary. I could feel the mud splashing all the way up my butt and back. This was not going to be pretty. Then the road narrowed and got rougher and hillier. Twice I had to get off the bike and walk up the hill. They weren’t huge but I wasn’t expecting them and hadn’t changed gears quick enough. I finally got the hang off it but had to walk one last time over the highest hill. At the top we gathered and Marlon let us know we only had another 20 minutes to go. It was all downhill and paved. We all pushed off excitedly. The road was awesome – there was no peddling and hardly any need for brakes so we all coasted down at breakneck speeds coming to a stop just outside another interpretation centre. Super cool and super fun. And we were all sad that it was over.

We posed for pictures with our dirty backsides, legs and bikes. Then headed into the centre where Marlon gave us a similar lesson in Darwinian evolution as the first guide had. However, this time we understood what was being said. The reason for the biology lesson was waiting just outside. The centre was also a tortoise refuge and soon we were in the midst of dozens of giant tortoises. We walked around and through the first group in awe of these giant cuties and then another group and another before we were taken to the hatchery (or is it nursery) where we saw hundreds of baby tortoises from the smallest to those almost ready to be released. Super cute. We all took at least a hundred photos of these guys. Like the sea lions on the beach, Marlon promised us more to come. And I was sure by day 6 we’d all be sick of them. But at that moment we couldn’t get enough.

Somehow Marlon convinced us to got our muddy butts back into the pick up trucks and we headed back to the crater lake. The clouds had cleared a bit so at least we could see 20 feet in front of us. So we hiked up the side of the old volcano for a view of the lake or at least an attempt to see the lake. We saw only clouds and fog but a little patience and a good gust of wind later for a brief moment we got a misty view of the lake in the old volcano. We could only see half but it was big and beautiful and reminded me of Apoyo in Nicaragua. And as soon as we all snapped a few shots the clouds came back and the view was gone. But that was okay because after that bike ride and the tortoises we were all starving – especially the boys, of course.

The vans took us back to Puerto Moreno to the same restaurant as the day before for the same meal. This time Joy, Stacey and Beat all joined us in adding the popcorn to the soup. I think they were coming around. And just like before, Stacey got fried rice while we got full meals. But she was a good sport and laughed it off. And of course, the boys tried to finagle more food out of the juice nazi, to no avail. Then it was onto the speed boat. Although we weren’t on a cruise, we would be spending a good deal of time out on the water. Not just to get to the other islands, but also to check out the wildlife in the water and perhaps to try and wash some of the biking mud off of us.

The boat took us out to the open sea and I was suddenly glad we hadn’t sailed to Cartagena from Panama because the open sea was rough. The waves were huge with huge swells helped out by the cold wind that was whipping across the water. Yet we were willingly going snorkeling at a place called Kicker Rock. It was a compressed pile of ash that jutted out of the ocean about five kilometers off shore. It was uninhabited except for the hundreds of thousands of birds that lived and crapped all over it, and the fishes “and other surprises” Marlon told us that lived in the waves that crashed up against it. The sea was even rougher closer to the rock. Actually, Kicker Rock was two huge triangular rocks jutting straight up from the water with a narrow channel that ran between them. Marlon pointed to the dark narrow channel as he handed out the snorkel gear. “This is where we go first. The boat will wait on the other side for us so follow me.” And with that he jumped in the choppy water before I could ask if there were any other options

Without the sun to warm it up, the water looked cold, dangerous and the opposite of inviting. However, we’d paid a lot of money for this action-packed tour so we forced ourselves to jump in. C-c-c-old!!! I, as usual, got the wonky snorkel which wouldn’t stay upright and out of the water. It tried to drown me as much as it was supposed to help me breathe and the big waves didn’t help much either. It wasn’t much fun and I decided to just swim through the channel without dawdling. Marlon led the way pointing out sea turtles, giant rays and hundreds of fish that the lads attempted to swim after. This didn’t make Marlon too happy (first rule of snorkel club: don’t hassle the wildlife) but it only got worse when he suddenly shouted SHARK. Sure enough about 5 metres away from us was a small shark swimming parallel to us. As the boys went diving after it, all I could think was get me out of here. Even after surviving my last shark encounter in Panama, I was still deathly afraid and this time the anxiety was made worse by the wonky snorkel. I couldn’t keep my face under water long enough to keep an eye on it. And had no idea if I was swimming away from or closer to the meat eating reef shark. As soon as that fully registered, panic kicked in. I tucked in the dangly bits of my swimsuit (no need to try and bait the shark with bits of me) and attempted to power swim my way through the channel and back on that boat. Just as I was about to pass Marlon, he gleefully pointed down below us, mistaking my proximity to him for keen interest. This time it wasn’t another shark he was pointing out but an entire school of sharks, at least 20 of them! Although they were about 20 metres down below their silhouettes were still big, Jaws big. I don’t think I’ve ever swum as fast as I did at that moment. Marlon tried to point out rays and turtles but I was no longer interested in anything and passed him as fast as my little legs could carry me finally get through the channel and made sure I was the first person back on the boat.

“You’re not afraid of sharks are you? Marlon tried to joke when we were back on the boat.
“Not afraid. Terrified,” I replied humourlessly.
“Don’t worry. There are no sharks at the next snorkel site,” he promised.

Adrian and the rest of the lads groaned with disappointment as the boat continued on to the next snorkel spot. I was wary of getting back in the water so soon. Marlon traded snorkels with me and told me it would be fine this time. And when we pulled up to the Los Lobos site closer to shore, I realized he wasn’t just blowing smoke. The water was sheltered and much calmer. It was also shallower and, most importantly, less shark-infested. Unfortunately it wasn’t warmer. But I soon forgot about the cold. There were fish and sea turtles everywhere as well as sea lions swimming and playing with all of us. They all moved so fast I could only hope I got pictures of them. It was definitely more my speed and I wished we had stopped here first, maybe then I wouldn’t have been so terrified of the sharks (maybe? Perhaps? Probably not). However, I didn’t spend too long in the water. This time it wasn’t sharks that got me out of the water, it was the water itself. After 5 months of the warm Caribbean, the chilly Humboldt Pacific current was too cold for me. And I wasn’t the only one; both Joy and Stacey had blue lips by the time they were back on board. And by the time we got back to shore, the cold wind had given even the fearless boys a case of hard-core goose bumps.

We stopped back at the hotel for a warm shower and dry clothes before heading out to dinner back at the same restaurant. And yes, once again Stacey had fried rice, although this time they added mushrooms. Unfortunately, she hated mushrooms and once she had picked them out was left with about two tablespoons of rice. But she was soon in good company, both Beat and I cut into our fish only to realize it was raw. We summoned over the cranky waiter and asked for it to be cooked. After 20 minutes we realized it wasn’t coming back. Poor Marlon had to go and request some food for us from the juice (and now fish) nazi. We eventually got our plates by which time the lads were already gone. We spotted them across the street in another café scarfing down a pizza. Joy and Stacey left soon afterwards to find Stacey some food while Adrian, Beat and I stayed behind for a drink before heading to back to the hostel and to bed. We’d brought a bottle of rum with us in anticipation of social evenings but it was going untouched with all these early mornings. Tomorrow was yet another action-packed day. I just hoped it didn’t include any more sharks or else I’d be using that rum for Dutch courage rather than socializing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The great Galapagos getaway begins.

Thanks to Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands are one of those places you mention you might visit and people immediately get all excited for you. Everyone imagines bizarre animals and plants on some remote islands way out in the middle of the ocean. Well, we used to be like and now it was our turn to visit them. Unfortunately, when we forked over the money (or rather our credit card) to pay for our great Galapagos getaway the high price was enough to wipe out the excitement of visiting these truly unique places. And it was kinda hard to get any enthusiasm together when the alarm went off just after stupid o’clock. Instead of excitement we were worried. What if we’d seen better things elsewhere? What if our tour sucks? What if we don’t see anything? We did our best to muster up some enthusiasm as we grabbed our bags (with a last minute check to make sure we had nothing in our carryon like a swiss army knife) and headed to the airport. As the taxi approached the airport, I started to feel a bit happier. I actually love airports – they always signal the beginning of a new adventure and a new place (even if it’s traveling for work). Most people think of them as a pain in the butt however, flying is still kinda decadent to me or maybe I’ve just seen too many old movies or been on too many buses lately. The Guayaquil airport only added to this feeling. It was shiny and new and decadent. There was a smoking lounge where we could hang out – it had oversized leather chairs, newspapers, wifi and lattes. Like flying Porter Airlines in Toronto but with cancer. Any way, it was a nice place to wait particularly since our gate was actually behind some locked doors meaning the waiting area at the gate next door was overflowing with people.

When we were finally let onto the plane (only 30 minutes late) the decadent feeling continued. The flight was just over an hour but we served an early lunch with wine. For free. Huzzah and take that other airlines. The decadence ended once we landed at the tiny airport on San Cristobal Island. The airport was an open-air structure not meant to accommodate a plane full of tourists and all the tour company reps, nor the second plane load that landed five minutes after us. Needless to say it was chaos. Every tourist had to go through not just a passport check but also had to pay the $100US tourist entry fee for landing on the islands which are considered a national park. Then we had to wait for the luggage while police dogs sniffed each piece. No, there wasn’t a huge drug problem in the Galapagos. These dogs were sniffing for any plant or animal life being brought into the park. Since most of the tourists appeared to be on some grand tour and carrying their entire wardrobes with them, the process took a long time. In the meantime I found our rep to let her know we were here. About 30 minutes later, we had our bags and met her and another guy and two other girls who were also on our tour. Our rep shuttled us into two pick up truck cabs and dropped us about three blocks away at our hotel. She gave us our room key and told us all we had 15 minutes to unpack and freshen up before we were to meet back for lunch and the beginning of our adventure. Wow already we were on a tight timeline.

Once we were all in the lobby, our rep lead us through the streets of Puerto Moreno, the main city of (and perhaps the only town on) San Cristobal to a small open air restaurant. Now that we were sitting down it was time for a little meet and greet. The two girls were Joy and Stacey from Edmonton (yay, Canadians) and the guy was Pete from Switzerland. Then it was time for the meat and great, aka lunch. It was a typical Ecuadorian almuerzo of soup followed by rice and fish accompanied by a pitcher of juice and a bowl of popcorn. We dug in and tried our best to break that awkward first meeting silence with more than the slurps and burps of lunch. Joy and Stacey were on a four week backpacking vacation through Peru and Ecuador. Pete was on a big round the world trip too. As we were finishing up, our guide let us know that we would be joined by three other lads sitting at another table. Once we were done, she took all of us down to the sea front in town to meet the town sea lions. They were just lounging on the beach. They were close enough that we could touch them but we weren’t allowed to and in fact when we got too close to them they bark their stinky fish breath at us in warning. Of course, Adrian was the one to discover this when he tried to pet one of the baby sea lions.

With hundreds of photos taken by all of us, it was time to move on to the Interpretation Centre just out of town. Here the rep tried to give us all an introduction to the islands and the animals. Unfortunately her English was as good as my Spanish, which means not good enough, especially for the hour long talk. A quick look around and I realized I wasn’t the only one struggling. Oh boy this did not bode well for another 5 days. Thankfully we eventually moved out into the actual park area. With the exception of the town, the entire island was park. Although that word brings to mind images of verdant forests, San Cristobal was anything but. It reminded me of the Yucatan peninsula – all dry and scraggly and rocky. It wasn’t quite what I was imagining the Galapagos to be like – but I’m not sure what I was expecting anyways, perhaps a bunch of small sandy islands in the ocean instead of these big volcanic islands. But I digress once again.

The guide took us up a rocky hill where we got our next taste of the unique Galapagos flora and fauna – a lava lizard which kinda looked like any other small lizard we’ve seen on out trip, and cacti which looked like cacti. I was not feeling particularly impressed but I was feeling a little breathless. The hill we were climbing was high and this girl is not a climber. But I made it up to Darwin’s Point and only slightly behind the others. And good thing because there was something spectacular waiting up top. The view. We could see 360 degrees – across the island, out to the sea. It was spectacular. Down below we even spotted some of the famous blue footed boobies on the guano covered rocks. And in the water more sea lions. Cool. Now that’s more like it. We walked down the hill to the water’s edge.

“Now we go swimming” the guide said. I’m sure this sounds like a good idea to you. But the sun was going down and it wasn’t exactly super warm. And the water? Well we were in the middle of the Pacific and it didn’t look like it was going to warm us up either. But how could any of us say no to a dip off the Galapagos Islands. We put on our suits and gingerly made our way to the water. I say gingerly, because the under our bare feet were lots of sharp volcanic rocks. And to get into the water we had to jump a two foot gap to a bigger rock sitting in the water where we could make our way into the water which was just as cold as I thought it would be – freezing in fact. Despite Joy’s attempts to convince us it got warmer the longer you were in, it didn’t. good thing the sea lions swimming near by were enough to distract us from the temperature for a little while. However, without any snorkel gear to take it all in, it was just a cold swim in the ocean so I wimped out and decided to head back to land and hopefully into the sun.

Getting out proved to be a bit more difficult. I made it to the first rock but trying to bridge that gap back to shore was a little more difficult with my stubby legs. I had to try all sorts of configurations on how to climb over and up before finding the right way back. Phew. I thought I was going to be stuck there for a very long time. When everyone else was through being an ice cube, we headed to a beach full of sea lions to watch the sun set before heading back to the hotel. There was a guy waiting there for all of us. His name was Marlon and he was our guide for the rest of the week, and fluent English speaker. Yay! He took us through tomorrow’s itinerary (all I remember was the fact that we had to meet at 7:30am) and then we went back to the same restaurant for dinner.

Dinner was a chance to hang out and relax and get to know each other. Since Marlon had just met us all we had to reintroduce ourselves and that’s when I realized that Pete was actually Beat. The three lads were now sitting with us but we never found out their names as they were obviously all friends and kept to themselves. The meal was a bit more relaxed than lunch although the food was exactly the same. Soup and popcorn. Followed by rice, fish and salad. Adrian and I introduced the others to the concept of adding the popcorn to the soup which none of them were too keen on trying except Joy. Like us her first reaction was confusion followed by a “not bad”. She’ll soon be hooked I sure. Dinner was tasty except for Stacey’s. She had to wait an extra 20 minutes for her vegetarian dish which should have been easy (same thing no meat) but was instead some measly portion of fried rice just like at lunch time. Poor girl. Marlon promised to help her get something better the next day. What he couldn’t help us get was more juice and when I asked for some more (in my nicest, most polite Spanish), the waiter/chef/owner took all the glasses away like he was some sort of “juice nazi”. Good thing we had the cheesy video montages playing on the tv to keep us amused. They were the most amazing thing – 30 seconds of every hit of the 80s and no more. Watching it was like watching “Name that Tune” but for retro music lovers with ADD. It would have been fun to hang out longer with the crowd – it seemed like we had a good group of 5, plus the 3 anti-social lads - but we were all too aware of the early morning and big day tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to life, back to a sweaty reality.

Once again just as soon as we’d met someone we really liked it was time to move on. Unlike Annie, we had nothing keeping us in Riobamba and the Galapagos Islands were waiting for us. So we said goodbye and exchanged emails then hopped in a taxi to the bus station. There was a bus leaving shortly and we rushed to get our tickets and onboard before it took off. Unfortunately that was the most rushing of the day as the highway was half under construction. Instead of a 4.5 hour trip it took us almost 6 hours to get to Guayaquil and as we came down out of the mountains, it became a stifling 6 hours once the heat and humidity hit us. It was sweaty but also nice to be back in a tropical climate.

The bus headed over a long bridge which took us right into Guayaquil and to the bus station. Like Quito, the bus station was huge and looked just like an airport terminal. My confusion wasn’t helped by the planes landing next to us, over us and all around us. I wondered briefly if the bus had pulled into the wrong terminal until I saw other buses parked in the terminal. Apparently the airport was just on the other side of the runway. But since this was a big transportation hub finding a taxi was as easy as stepping out the door where hundreds were lined up. Finding one that knew where our hostel was a little more difficult. Our hostel was in a residential area and new so it had yet to register with any of the cabbies. Thankfully another person standing nearby was able to help out and help us get a decent price. Despite the cheap price, my love for Ecuadorian transport had been dulled by our bus robbery. So there will be no more jumping up and down at the prices.

Indeed the hostel was a house, a big house in what looked like a fairly wealthy area of the city. But it was also close to a grocery store and tones of restaurants. And the hostel, although once a home, was well equipped and new. The rooms were comfy and clean and breakfast was included as was use of the big pool. We took advantage of our new “western conveniences” (please say that in Adrian’s accent – it’s his term) and had dinner at Burger King then headed to bed. The heat had whacked us out so you can forgive our lack of food creativity. Exploring the new city would have to wait until tomorrow.

Actually the next day I didn’t feel like doing much either, but Adrian was able to convince me to get out of the house, I mean, hostel. We hopped on a local bus (25¢) that took us to the heart of the city. As we drove downtown, Guayaquil was unimpressive and looked like any other Latin American city. Big. Hot. Dirty. Congested. Some of the streets even reminded me of the avenues in New York. But that changed when we got off at the Malecon. For the millennium, the city had done up the riverfront as a brand-new promenade which was very unlike other Malecon’s we had seen. It was all wood and steel with just enough shade to help us escape the hot sun. It was fun just to walk the length and take in some of the monuments incorporated in the design, including the Bolivar and Martin rotunda (photo above) where we stopped to test our knowledge of Latin American flags (perfect score). But we veered off it and into the city when we saw some old buildings. There was the city hall, a museum complex and a bank and eventually the main square and the cathedral. Oh yes, another main plaza. But this one was different. Sure there were trees and statues and people selling stuff. However, this park had more iguanas than people. (On a side note I just had to look up what a group of lizards are called – it’s a lounge of lizards, fyi). They were on every surface and many were either territorial or horny as we saw quite a few iguana fights going on so we hung out and watched the action hoping to see one defensively drop its tail. Alas we only saw one weird tale thing and that was a three pronged deformity which was just gross so we headed back to the Malecon where we gave into temptation and treated ourselves to a McFlurry. It was ridiculously expensive (almost $3) and I’m sure the price was somehow rigged to the temperature outside so that the hotter it got the more they charged. However, it was delicious and cold and a lot less messy than an ice cream cone would have been in that heat.

At the end of the Malecon was the contemporary art gallery which we could see before we could get in – some bad signage had us walking into dead ends before we finally found the entrance. Inside the air conditioning was a welcome reprieve and the museum wasn’t bad either. There was a small museum that was a miniature of the one we’d visited in Quito. But we zipped through it since we’d already had our fill of pots and arrow heads. But the art gallery was fun. Rather than being divided up by style or era, it was more educational and the categorized by method, technique and theme with signs that tried to explain how to appreciate modern art. However when faced with a forest of 6 foot tall pencils hanging from the ceiling only the artist can truly explain the where, what, how and why.

When we were done, Adrian decided we should explore the hill where the old-style clapboard houses still existed. A road lead up and around the hill and it was pretty. Most of the old shuttered homes were now expensive shops and art galleries catering to the tourists though. As we were taking in the sights a voice called out from up above, “Are you Canadian?” I looked around and finally located the speaker two floors up hanging out a window. I asked him how he knew and he pointed to my Mountain Equipment Co-op handbag. The guy was on the phone and returned back to his conversation so I’m not sure if we were supposed to go out for poutine and beavertails. I just smiled and waved goodbye and kept walking. I guess the MEC logo is the new Canadian flag. Good to know we were so easily identifiable especially as it began to get dark and the area was closing up leaving us vulnerable. We headed back down to the Malecon and found the bus back to the hostel. Adrian got off at the laundromat to pick up our clothes and I headed back to the hostel. When he returned back to the hostel, we headed out for sushi (I know, sushi in Ecuador made by actual Japanese folks, amazing. And no, although Adrian did try some sushi, he ate the cooked salmon.) and then it was an early night. Because tomorrow we were off on our big Galapagos adventure.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Plan b turns into Plan c

Baños really hadn’t really captured us like I expected. We’d had fun in with the whitewater rafting (although my arms would argue otherwise) but there really wasn’t much more to keep us here. Plus, we needed a fresh place to help us get over the sting of being robbed. Our next stop was Riobamba, a not so distant town famous for the Devil Nose rail ride. We hadn’t ridden on a train yet and with the promise of spectacular scenery was enough of a reason to get us on board. But first we had to get Riobamba (my fingers can’t make up their mind if they’re typing La Bamba or Obama, even though both are wrong).

We checked out of the hostel and walked to the bus station. The next bus was in 45 minutes so we bought our tickets and joined the pile of gringos on the benches and chairs. When the bus did arrive, we were all dragged out of the station and on to the street. Very odd. Of course without the benefit of a bus platform, it was chaos trying to get on board. As all the gringos put their big packs underneath the bus, the locals rushed on and took all the seats – so much for the assigned seats on our tickets – meaning we had to stand. The ayudante blamed the ticket seller at the station for overselling the bus but he didn’t bother to kick out the locals most of whom didn’t have tickets. My love for Ecuadorian transportation was soon fading. It wasn’t fun standing up as the bus navigated the twisty mountain roads but as people got off, seats cleared and Adrian and I were able to sit down, together even, for the last 90 minutes of the ride.

Our luck changed in Riobamba when we found a room at the Oasis hostel – $20 for a private room with hot water and cable tv. (plus it had a dog and a cat which we always take as a good sign). It would be lovely to stay here if only briefly. Now it was time to arrange that spectacular train ride. As I took advantage of the hostel’s wifi, Adrian went out to arrange our train tickets. While he was gone, I chatted with one of the other guests, another Canadian named Annie who had left her grown kids behind to work down in Central America. Previous to her time in Ecuador she’d worked for an NGO in the Guatemalan jails back before the war officially ended. She was also an archivist and had worked with Ecuadorian church archives that went all the way back to the conquest. Not only was she interesting and nice and she was also just fun to chat with.

When Adrian returned he had dinner and bad news. The train that you supposedly couldn’t book in advance was sold out and not just for tomorrow but for the next week and a half. Stupid high season and stupid tour groups. So what were we going to do in Riobamba? I guess we’d figure that out tomorrow.

Without an early train to catch we lazily woke up and took our time with breakfast. Adrian went out to find both breakfast and money on a Sunday morning in a town that was closed up tight. Unlike Belize, the food was easier to find than the money but it took a few attempts to get the money out. But he succeeded thanks to Annie’s tips on local bank machines. Now it was time to figure out what we were actually going to do today. Our guidebook suggested a visit and hike to the base camp of Chimborazo, the volocan/mountain that loomed over Riobamba. It’s the furthest you can get from the centre of the earth (actually I’m not sure how that works but that’s what the guidebooks all say) but you don’t have to be a mountain climber to get that way. It’s possible to take a bus up to the base camp road and then walk 30 minutes to the refugio. So being of the non-mountain climbing variety that’s what we planned to do. Annie had been and offered some great advice like wear sunscreen, bring warm clothes and definitely wear a hat. And when she found out I didn’t have one, graciously lent me one of hers.

We grabbed a taxi to the bus station, and the taxi driver was friendly and made sure we got on the right bus which was just about to leave. I confirmed with the taxi driver that the bus indeed went to “el camino a Chimborazo” and then again with the ticket guy. I was surprised at the cost $1.50 (because it was high), but just assumed that the turnoff was a lot further down the highway than we originally thought. And then it was time to enjoy the ride through the spectacular scenery. We hadn’t been able to catch the train which would take us through the countryside but for a fraction of the cost I think we had a view that was just as awesome. We rode up through the clouds past some vicuñas and then Chimborazo (photo above) loomed high and mighty over us. The snow on top reminded us of what we left behind in Toronto when we left almost 5 months ago.

We got closer and closer to Chimborazo as the road circumnavigated it and then we started to turn away from it. As I looked back I saw the sign welcoming visitors to the park getting smaller and smaller. What appeared to be the distant base camp and even crosses memorializing dead hikers were getting further away not closer. I looked up at the driver and ticket guy. The driver was speeding ahead and the ticket guy was asleep. Even if we got them to stop now it would be a long walk back to the turnoff and then we’d still have to hike up to the refuge. So much for plan b. I guess we were moving onto plan c. Adrian and I consulted our map and discovered that the town the bus was heading to was famed for its cheese and chocolate. Well, maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad change of plans after all.

The bus pulled into the town of Guaranda and were immediately disappointed. The town was not very attractive and mostly shut up. It was so unattractive we didn’t take a single picture. We pulled out the map and set off in search of the cheese store. Of course in the 5+ years since the book was published, the cheese store had moved. A gentleman saw us looking at the map and came to our rescue, directing us to a cheese store. We purchase a block of cheese, some chocolate and bread and sit in the main square munching on sandwiches. Then with nothing keeping us in Guaranda we headed to the bus station to get back to Riobamba.

The bus was packed but sitting on the left side we had front row seats for the view of Chimborazo. We passed through the clouds and through the desert like foothills that were dotted with vicuñas and alpacas. And as the clouds cleared, we saw Chimburazo. It was just as breathtaking the second time around. And for the next 45 minutes we got to view it at sunset as the bus made its way around it before heading down into Riobamba just after dark.

Okay so we hadn’t taken the iconic train, climbed the iconic mountain, but we’d eaten some icon cheese and chocolate and my stomach tells me that’s even better.