Author Archives: Bob

Escaping the Stratosphere

First, a little history:  Almost 20 years ago, Jen and I visited Las Vegas and our hotel room (in what was then the Las Vegas Hilton) looked right out at this Space Needle-like building with an amusement park on the top if it.  We could clearly see the roller coaster that went over the side of the platforms and the slingshot ride that went straight up a tower and dropped riders straight back down.  We could even hear the screams of terror from people hundreds and hundreds of feet above the desert floor being scared out of their wits.

I was scared out of my wits just thinking about it.  I didn’t want to go near that building or even touch its lengthy shadow.   I sensed that Jen had other thoughts about it, but realizing whom she had married, she did not pressure me to seek out these elevated thrills.  Nevertheless, to make up for anchoring Jen to the ground, I agreed to go on the New York, New York roller coaster and everything seemingly ended happily enough.

That six pack we bought in Bryce helped us celebrate the lax Vegas open container policy. It was a local brew called Evolution Ale.

Back to almost present day.  Zoe saw the tall skinny building, part of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, last week and is very interested in the elevated thrills.  On top of that, the New York, New York roller coaster was not running when got to that part of the strip last Sunday, so she’s thrill-deprived.   Then there was my highly-publicized reversed stance on the Angels Landing Trail.

This sets the stage for me to really come through as a father in a way that I rarely ever do.  Recall that we still have one activity left in our 3 activity for $57 packages we purchased on our first day here.  The first two activities we chose were the dolphin/big cat tour at the Mirage and the CSI Adventure at the MGM.  Our last selection (and they give you a whole week to use them up) was the Adventuredome, an indoor amusement park at the Circus, Circus hotel. This was our main family activity today.  Jen might suggest that the sojourn she and I took early this morning to see the sun rise over Bryce Canyon was a more pleasant — if extremely cold — experience,  but the girls decided to sleep in and miss the subtle shadows emanating from the hoodoos just beyond the clouds of our frozen exhalations.

Not El Loco. This is one of the Adventruredome’s spinny guys that Jen and I passed on.

The Adventuredome is a fine place, especially since we were getting in at a reduced price, and we ended up spending more than five hours there.  We walked around, ate a few things*, played some video games*,  tiptoed through a laser beam maze*, played laser tag, watched some 3-D movies and rode some rides.

It was this last bit that I think earned me the Parenting Iron Cross.  Not only did I ride both roller coasters in thie place, I rode the yellow one —  El Loco — three times.  That’s right.  Me.  El Loco.  Three Times!  This is the roller coaster that has a 90-degree drop and -1.5 g forces, and an inverted drop and a whole slow motion upside down part.   It is also the one roller coaster that didn’t make me motion sick — the red Canyon Blaster, with its two loops and double barrel roll made Jen and I both queasy.

Everyone but Zoe passed on this ride.

It should be said that neither of these rides lasted more than 45 seconds and that 90-drop was only a fraction of the 1,000-foot precipice Jen had to navigate in Zion. (Also, Jen eventually agreed to a turn on El Loco just before we left the Adventuredome.  This is probably because I had started to make such a big deal about how brave I am.)  Plus I refused to go on any of the rides that spun or swung back and forth.  Zoe had to go on most of those herself.  (Though I did surprise everyone by going on the one that shoots you straight up to the top of the dome and then drops you down — almost like the one on the Stratosphere, in as much as baby aspirin is like morphine.)

The point is that by the time Zoe had gone on all the rides and had been on El Loco four times, her thirst for thrills had been sufficiently quenched.  Plus we had run out of time for her to go up on the Stratosphere.  I had started to get the impression that Jen was not that interested in going up there.  The Stratosphere is in a somewhat rundown section of the Strip and its casino/lobby smelled more like smoke than the other hotels.  It does not fill one with confidence vis a vis safely supporting one a thousand feet about the desert floor.

Me caught in the act of being brave

So, practically before Zoe knew what was happening, we were whisking everyone away from the questionable excitement and into a much more palatable experience, dinner at P.F. Chang’s on our way to the airport.  Then it was just a matter of a five-hour flight spanning most of a continent and the hours of 11 pm PST to 7 am EST to get us home.  Hopefully the Space Needle thing has been put to rest for at least another 20 years.

*All the starred activities cost extra money beyond the entrance fee.

Yes, this is snow

Frequent readers of this blog might remember our experience in Yellowstone National Park, whereby we were caught off-guard by cold weather. History has repeated itself: Bryce Canyon gave us a chilly reception today.

It actually got colder than this, down to 27-degrees, at one point in our drive along the rim.

Sad to say, in both cases we really have no excuse for suffering. Our guide book told us to bring hats and gloves to Yellowstone, even in August, and we laughed it off. Yesterday the internet forecast temperatures in the 30s today in the canyon. We just couldn’t get our heads around it. It’s almost May. We were sweating in shorts a few days ago in Las Vegas.

Even as we embarked on our main hike today, around 9:30 a.m. Utah time, we told the girls that it would get warmer as the Sun rose. It would get warmer as we got below the rim and out of the wind. It would get warmer as we lost elevation and reached the canyon floor.

Picture would be improved with wool hats an mittens

It did get warmer…somewhat. From 28 degrees in the trail-side parking lot to maybe 31 degrees inside the canyon. There, as we feasted on microwave popcorn Zoe had ferried in her backpack, I started to notice white flecks in the air. Errant cheese powder from the snack? No, it was snow. Because it was still sunny out, my brain stuck to the cheese powder explanation for quite a while. But no, it was snow.

The flurries followed us around the canyon as we hiked among fantastical sandstone formations and ducked through carved-out doorways. At times it reached squall proportions right where we were; at times we could see the squalls darkening the forests of rock spires in distant parts of the canyon. Bryce is well worth the effort to get here, plus the effort to move up and down its switchbacks, and even the effort to ignore the merciless cold.

I, particularly, rate it favorably to Zion for its relative lack of crowds and its relative lack of vertiginous overlooks. Sadly, not everyone in the family would agree with me, solely based on the relative lack of a cafe selling hot chocolate in the lodge.

This is a place Jen and I would like to visit again. We could hike around a lot more in the canyon (the girls have reached the end of their hiking rope and we couldn’t wring many more miles out of them even if it were a sunny 65 degrees outside) and there is a very appealing bike path that calls out for further investigation.

Now the squalls are across the canyon, in the center of the picture.

For now, we’ve retreated to our cabin in the nearby — and rather ironically named — town of Tropic, UT, where the heater is turned on and the wifi is just good enough for us to crank out a couple of blog posts.

Observation Point

A few words about our accommodations now. The Zion Ponderosa Ranch seems a little remote from the national park, especially compared to the campground behind the visitors center and the lodge right in the heart of the canyon. We drove though the town of Sprinvale on our way here, and it has plenty of hotel rooms right outside the main gate.

Lanie went for the two zip line trips for $12 deal, as well as the 20 minutes of bungee trampolining (also $12).

To get to our ranch we had to drive all the way through the park and into the highlands beyond. It’s situated on a windy plateau that is remote enough for us to spot deer and jack rabbits among the campsites, cabins and covered wagons (like the one we stayed in during out cross country trip!). It offers a fine assortment of activities, right here on the premesis — our cabin’s front porch overlooks the paintball arena — and the hot tubs we visited a few times were quite pleasant.

If it has an unfinished look about it, that might be because of this year’s long winter. Several projects got off to a late start, according to yesterday’s canyoneering guide Shelby, because the snow was so slow to melt.

Lanie’s power breakfast

Until this morning, we’d probably have said the best thing about this place is the restaurant. The dinners were quite good and the buffet breakfast — included with the price of the cabin — really impressed us. Waffle bar, oatmeal bar, breakfast parfaits, eggs and bacon. They were instrumental in getting us through our adventures here so far.

Secret “back door” trailhead

And then we found out a secret. Shelby told us we could access the national park from up here on the plateau. Not just accesss the park, but the Observation Point. Most park visitors have to subject themselves to a steep 7.5-mile hike just to get up to Observation Point. All we had to do was drive two miles of dirt roads and walk a nice, flat three miles through a lovely forest to get there.

We eventually got out of the woods and the views opened up.

So there we were on the East Mesa Trail, bellies full of breakfast, strolling our way to the best view in Zion National Park. It did not disappoint. We were able to look down on all we had taken in two days ago, and amazing view right down the canyon. We saw the lodge, the shuttle road, the Virgin River. We were even able to look DOWN on the Angels Landing that Zoe and Jen struggled so hard to reach.

We did still have to coax the girls along with a bribe of soda after the hike. But I think they thought this walk was worth the effort, too.

Looking down on Angels Landing

Although we checked out of our cabin before embarking on the hike, we returned to the ranch to cash in on the soda bribe, catch up on some blogging (wifi is slow; uploading pictures is time consuming), and get in a little more time on the tennis court.

It was in the 60s there and we were in no big hurry to get to Bryce Canyon, which was reportedly in the 40s and raining.   When we eventually did head out, we found out one more benefit of the Zion Ponderosa Ranch: It’s relatively close to Bryce Canyon, only an hour and a half drive.

A few hoodoos in Red Canyon State Park

As we gained altitude, the temerature dropped, but the terrain changed. We even had a chance to stop at Red Canyon State Park to get a preview of the hoodoos we’re going to see at the national park tomorrow.

Back to earth

I admit, abandoning the Angels Landing expedition was not my proudest moment. As I returned to the sandy, beachy area (not close to any precipices) where we had left Nadia and Lanie, I felt a mixture of relief and embarrassment. We stayed there for quite a while watching the steady stream of people, old ladies and kindergarten-aged kids* among them, streaming out and back from the final peak. We scanned for Jen’s sage green or Zoe’s aqua jackets.

When the wind kicked up and hail started, I felt terrible and very worried. But it also seemed time to get back to the bottom of the mountain.

The girls and I took our time getting back down (part of the trail is etched right into the sheer cliff wall and we weren’t the only ones sticking to the inside track) but we only had to wait 20 minutes or so at the trailhead before Zoe and Jen caught up with us. Such relief — and a happy ending!

Or was it? An ending, I mean. Or course it was happy. It was still only noon or so (according to our watches and phones). There was a whole lot of national park to explore.

On the Zion Lodge front lawn

So, here’s what we did. We hopped on an adjacent path (the Kayenta Trail), which kept very close to the canyon floor, brought us underneath a few waterfalls and deposited us at the Zion Lodge. Here we refilled our water bottles, browsed the gift shop, and ate ice cream under a grand tree in the front yard.

Mostly dry under this waterfall

But it wasn’t over yet. We hopped on the bus and shuttled over to the end of the line to pick up the Riverside Walk trail head. This trail, also low in altitude, followed the Virgin River a mile further into the canyon. We got right up to the beginning of the famous Narrows, the part of the park that our friends Kevin and Cheryl said we HAD to do. This walk in the river snaking through the winding slot canyon is Zion’s most famous feature.

But, snow is melting in the mountains and too much water is making its way through the narrows. The trail probably won’t be open for another month or so. In fact, rumor has it that a woman was reaching in to touch the water and they had to fish her out 150 yards downstream.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to stay disappointed in Zion.

On the Riverside Walk Trail

Lift your eyes in any direction to scan the colors and angles of the canyon walls. Contemplate the natural forces that brought the canyon into existence. It’s enough to occupy any mind out of the doldrums.

Of course, we had a nice dinner for us waiting for us back at the ranch. That was nice to think about, too.

*Jen says she saw the kindergaren-aged girl out on the trail, tethered to the father. This didn’t strike her as an ideal arrangement.

Two from the bucket list

We try to make every vacation day a special day, and generally we’re pretty successful at that. But today was one that exceeds even our normal standards of special: I think it was the first time ever that we’ve been able to cross two things off the 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up list. Two out of 500: that’s .004 percent of the entire list.

Who would believe that there are two places in the 500 Places list between Las Vegas and Zion Canyon? What’s more, none of the 500 are from Vegas or Zion. I mean, c’mon. Did you see that M&M wall? Seems strange that Mr. Fodor, or whoever wrote that book left that out.

But it does contain a visit to Hoover Dam, quite a wall in its own right, and our first stop today. No, it’s not made of M&Ms, or any other kind of candy. Yes, it does have a pretty good snack bar — the chicken avocado sandwich, today’s special of the day, was particularly impressive. Oh, and we did the Power Plant tour (which contained only one dam joke) and walked across the top of the dam into Arizona. Some people noticed Nadia’s UNH t-shirt and talked to us. They are from Barrington and have a daughter in Zoe’s school.

Terrific, fine. Cross it off the list.

Our next stop was in the Valley of Fire State Park, which seems an interesting inclusion to the 500 Places list, given that none of the nearby national parks are listed. Then again, it only costs $10 to get in and there are lots of cool petroglyphs and even more huge red rock formations all over the place. Not bad for somewhere we never heard of and would have totally driven right past if it weren’t for the book.

The highlight of this visit was spotting the heard of bighorn sheep on a hilltop about 500 yards from us. The petroglyphs were cool, too.

Check another one off the list. Some of these things we had to travel all the way to South America for, and here were two on the way between points A and B.

We eventually did make it to point B after a singularly interesting drive through Zion Canyon National Park. After about 20 switchbacks, the road goes right through a mountain. The tunnel is more than a mile long! The only thing that would make it better is if it were on the list.
Happily, we made it to our new accommodations — the ranch cabin we’ll be occupying for the next three nights — before the resaurant closed.

Approaching the Zion tunnel

Let the good times roll

The blog is back to tell you that at least some of what happens in Vegas will be shared on the internet.

For instance, after a pleasantly uneventful flight (thanks, Spirit Air!) we saw lots of slot machines in the airport.  We also kind of got lost on the way to our condo.  (The streets of Sin City apparently have been altered slightly since our GPS was programmed, circa 2008.)

This morning we found that our condo has lovely roses  and even a mango tree.  There are a few pools, too, but we might not be able to experience them because there’s so much to do in the one day we have on the Strip.  
The culminating event will be an evening performance of Mystere, byt Cirque de Soleil  (http://www.treasureisland.com/shows/2/mystere-by-cirque-du-soleil?.   Before then, it’s a day of adventure, including the girls’ first credit cards, by which we will strive to keep track of what they spend while we’re here.

Swimming along

Thanks to our talented and generous Tuneles guide and also our talented and generous friends the Brookses, we now have a host of great pictures from one our most scenic Galapagos adventures.  The photo files were copied to the huge memory card we used in our camera — but out camera could not find them.  Thankfully, Chris Brooks knows how to handle such situations.  Now we are able to share:

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Here’s our guide, Senor Carlos himself, snapping a selfie with the girls on top of the boat.

 

 

 

DCIM101GOPROHe climbed all over the place to take pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lanie took a famous picture of a heron’s nest at this very point in the trip.

 

 

 

 

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This is the terrestrial part of the trip.  We wanted to swim in the canals, but that’s not allowed.

 

 

 

 

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This is when we got to swim.

 

 

 

 

 

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We followed these golden rays for quite a while, according to the pictures.

 

 

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But what about sharks? you say.  The sharks were hiding:

 

And for good measure, here’s what it’s like to see a seahorse in the wild:

 

The best building (and landlord) in Quito

If you’ve known me for a little while, you’ve probably heard of — or even had the good fortune to meet — my good buddy Justin. I’ve known him since college, he was best man at our wedding, and he’s generally regarded as a fine fellow to have around.

We like renting apartments online because then we can cook for ourselves sometimes.

We like renting apartments online because then we can cook for ourselves sometimes.

Among his many fine qualities is a deep knowledge of the city of New York, and a great willingness to share this knowledge. From the US Tennis Center to the Bottom Line, Justin has taken me lots of places over the years. He’s even facilitated several Pavlik family visits to the city, all for very, very little that I have been able to offer him in return.

Everybody should know someone like Justin, I’ve often said. And now, I feel almost like I know two people like him. This is because our landlord/guide in the great city of Quito gave us very Justin-like treatment during our visit there. It should be said that a few days of association cannot really compare to more than 20 years of friendship (and also we paid Ecuadoran Justin for our room and the rides he provided to us, which actual Justin does not encourage us to do).
But still it was extremely beneficial to us to have such a great host, and we found ourselves very comfortable handing many of our decisions over to a qualified urban guide. This part of the trip reminded me very much of our Justin-led trip to NYC.

The "outer ring" of Quito as seen from Ivans car on the way from the airport.

The “outer ring” of Quito as seen from Ivan’s car on the way from the airport.

I should say that our guide wasn’t actually called Ecuadoran Justin; he’s called Ivan, and if you ever meet him he’ll try to convince you that he learned English over the Internet. In actuality, he spent a good portion of his teens and 20s living in the greater New York Metropolitan area (roaming the same streets Justin does!) before returning to his native Ecuador and starting a family. So he’s got an accent that, while it’s more Jersey than Justin’s (Justin hardly ever says “youse”), evoked our past trips to the concrete jungle. Also, he drives a tiny little car, like Justin used to, all the better for zipping in and out of traffic. Ivan and Justin both got married (to other people, not each other) within the past few years and now have families. So many similarities.

Lanie practices ten stories about the city.

Lanie practices ten stories about the city.

In Quito, it’s good to have some inside knowledge. Especially if you’re only going to be there for a few days. It’s not New York City, by any means, but it’s definitely big enough that you could just wander around for days without proper directions. Ivan was great at showing us our new neighborhood, in the high-end North Side of the city. Before even bringing us to our building — “the best building in Quito,” he told us — he drove us through several of the surrounding streets to show us shops and restaurants of note — Just like Justin did for us in Flushing Meadows. The apartment itself was extremely well appointed — Ivan even had Netflix up and running for us (we were at the most exciting part of National Treasure 2 when the earthquake hit on our second-to-last night in Quito).

He told us where to get taxis and how much we should pay to get to the various places we wanted to go. He even offered to take us to places out of the city (including the airport) for less than taxis would charge. And he provided multiple nuggets of wisdom that we probably would not have gotten from taxi drivers or your average apartment renter:

— When he took us to the Mitad del Mundo, he brought us right to the “unofficial” attraction, which is both more geographically accurate and less expensive than the big park run by the government. We all felt the unofficial Mitad del Mundo site was much more interesting than the big monument and I bet most people just get dropped off at the big one. Ivan told us how to walk to the main attraction once we got done with the first one.

— He told us about the main boulevard that shuts down and is dedicated to bike traffic on Sunday mornings, and that bikes are available for rent at kiosks along the way. It’s true that our attempt to take advantage of this nearly ended in disaster — Lanie was attempting to ride a bike that was too big for her and caused a man to wipe out and possibly damage his bike — it was still an idea that appealed to us greatly.

 

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Sunday morning the park: papaya and several dozen people doing Zumba in the background

— He suggested we spend time in the park across the street from our building, Parque de Carolina. This turned out to be a great idea. The park had loads of stuff to explore and was filled with people on the weekend we were there.

— He confirmed, after we emailed him, that it was actually an earthquake making our building — the best building in Quito — sway back and forth, and suggested that it might not be a bad idea to walk outside and stand around in the park for a while until we got the feeling that the earthquake was actually over. It took about an hour and a half before we felt that way. We should also say that well before the earthquake, as he was showing us the building, he told us that it could withstand a 9 in the richter scale. The earthquake that affected us was not nearly that strong, and it was centered several hundred miles away from Quito.

Reenactment of us fleeing the building after the earthquake.

Reenactment of us fleeing the building after the earthquake.

— He introduced us to Mote con Chicharron, which sounds really cool and tastes pretty good, too. This was after we asked him where we should go for lunch that wasn’t too expensive and was what a local person would eat. He brought us to this hole-in-the-wall place and even ordered for us. It was very tasty and unlike anything we’d ever eaten before. Mote con Chicharron consists of several types of corn (mote) on plate with lots of pieces of crispy fried pork (chicharron), as well as a lot of very large lima beans. Most of us liked it considerably.

— He bought a new washer/drier (both functions, one machine) and had it installed the day before we got there so we could do laundry for the first time in two weeks.

— He gave us a very good rating on the online booking system we used to get in touch with him.

— He was willing to pick us up from the airport and bring us back (our return flight to Boston left at 9 am and he had to pick us up at 6).

So there you have it. Anyone who is considering a trip to an exotic place but doesn’t know exactly where should consider Quito. And anyone who is considering a visit to Quito should definitely get in touch with our friend Ecuadoran Justin, aka Ivan. Contact us and we’ll tell you how to get in touch with him.

My comeuppance

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There’s the tall statue way up on the hill.

Apparently, I did not write enough about the volcano the other day, and I suspect to make up for it today I was made to climb up in a tall statue at the top of a high hill. I had to pay money to do this.

A taxi driver brought us up the high hill. There was a long stairway that we could have climbed, but we read that the stairway leads through a dicey neighborhood. From the base of the hill, it didn’t look dicey. It looked open and bright, but our taxi driver confirmed that it was “muy peligroso” to walk those stairs, and he brushed off the idea that we might walk down the stairs back to the Old City when we were done with the big statue. Instead, he waited for us while we climbed around like little ants on a baby carrot sticking out of a watermelon, and then he drove us back down.

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Even though we only walked to the top of base of El Panecillo, it was still a little high for me. Safe, though. Very safe at the top.

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View from the top of the hill: Old City is in the forefront, more modern Quito (where our apartment is) is in the distance.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course he’s going to tell us the we need him to shuttle us up and down the hill because he’s going to make more money. He could have easily made up that story about the two “Norte Americana turistas” who just last week decided to climb down that very stairway only to have ruffians take their camera by force. As we drove up the hill he cast significant glances at me every time we passed someone by the side of the road as if to say: “You really want to walk up those stairs with THAT guy loitering around?” Every person we passed he looked at me like that.

None of them looked that bad to me, but it turned out all right. At that point, anyway, I was tired and cranky after an over-long effort to find the oldest ice cream shop in Quito and the ineffectiveness of any tourist map to show where Guyaquil Street is. Those quaint streets in Quito’s Old City are best for walking singly or in pairs, not for a party of five. The sidewalks are narrow and you think that the dotted line drawn a little ways into the street is a demarcation line that allows for extra pedestrian traffic. Then a bus comes by and you realize that the dotted line is where the bus’ tire goes and if you’re on that line you’re going to get run over. Even if you’re inside the line, even if you’re mostly on the sidewalk, you can still get whacked by the bus. It’s a very tight situation. There’s a lot of people walking around in the Old City.

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Inside this church, it’s super golden.

But we found the ice cream shop (established 1858) and we also got a huge hunk of watermelon for fifty cents and it was so good we bought another. Even better than that, if you can believe anything’s better than that, is when we were visiting La Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus, it sounded like they had their classical music Pandora station blasting, but what it really was was the National Symphony of Ecuador practicing for a performance tonight. It was excellent.

History and frozen confection mix.

History and frozen confection mix.

Those guys are good; and the church was beautiful. You can find it by googling “Church in Quito filled with gold.” (They would not allow us to take pictures on the inside, sorry.) The performance is tonight and it’s free, but I don’t want to go back down there with those buses.

Actually, I think I’m overstating the bus danger. Remember, though, we’re just spent two weeks in a place where some of the roads were dominated by giant tortoises.  Quito is a very different, and truly excellent contrast.  For one thing, it should be known as the “City of 1,000 Vistas” because everywhere we go — including our apartment — has a different and spectacular view, usually from above.  We haven’t even gone on the Teleferico yet.  This is a gondola that will take us to the top of one of the surrounding mountains (and very possibly something I’ll interpret as a punishment for something else I’ve done to my family). This city is very close to many cool tourists sites — lakes and caves and villages — most of which we won’t have the time to see on this trip.  Also, while we haven’t seen $7 dinners we have caught wind of $3 lunches with a similar three-course menu structure.  Let me at them!  It’s lively at night, although last night was more lively than tonight thanks to a big soccer match, and the food truck scene has been good enough to alleviate the pain of not having $7 dinners.  We went back to the parking lot with the food trucks tonight for tacos, burgers, and pulled pork sandwiches.

Other highlights from today were walking past the Presidential Palace, which we could have visited but I didn’t bring our passports with us; seeing several other churches and monasteries; visiting Itchimbia Park, which is right across the valley from the tall statue but in a safe enough area that the taxi driver let us off no problem; and getting to talk with three different taxi drivers.

Hydrating in Itchimbia Park.

Hydrating in the park.

It was like trickle-down punishment: I had to go up in a high place, and three different taxi drivers had to suffer through conversations in Spanish with me.

I learned today that in the back seat the ladies listen to my conversations with the taxi drivers and pick up Spanish pointers, which is somewhat troublesome. I really mustn’t make a lot of sense to these guys, and I really don’t follow what they tell me very well, but they’re all very nice about it.  Somehow today — probably completely against the flow of conversation —  I used the word murcielago (bat, like the kind that flap around at night).  I’m sure it took the driver by surprise — we were probably talking about global monetary policy or something — but in the back seat Zoe and Jen were impressed.  Really, that’s all that matters.

A geological and economic history of Galapagos

The first people who came to the Galapgos Islands had one concern.

Peeking into the crater of El Chico Volcano

Peeking into the crater of El Chico Volcano

Scratch that. The first people who came to Galapagos were probably Incas who looked around and said, we’ve already got volcanoes at home what do we need this place for? At least, that’s how our tour guide Xavier explained it yesterday as we hiked north from the Sierra Negra Volcano crater across the path of two major lava flows (the more recent from 1979) to a side-spout called El Chico Volcano.

There certainly are plenty of volcanoes here: five major ones on Isabela Island alone. The one we toured yesterday has at least 100 “lava chimneys” or holes of various sizes that reach way down to where all the action is at. Sierra Negra last erupted in 2005, though not nearly as spectacularly as in ’79 when thousands of acres were covered with lava over a span of three months.

The Incas likely went home pretty quickly.

What I meant to say was the next wave of people who came here — fishermen and whalers in the 1500s or so — had one concern. Well, from my experience I can say they probably had several concerns, like: I hope my kids don’t fall into that volcano; and How can I keep sand from destroying our sole remaining camera? But they had one main concern, and this is supported by our guide, Xavier: How were they going to make money off this place?

Sitting on a lava wall

Sitting on a lava wall

It was not an easy question to answer. The place is beautiful and it looks like it should be a money pot, but mining salt and sulfur didn’t really cut it. It was too far offshore to be a real productive exporter of fish (though fish did factor into the eventual answer, as you’ll see).

It was still very sleepy here when Darwin toured it in the mid 1800s. In fact this Island — the largest in the archepelago — had only a couple hundred residents as the last millennium mark approached. Now, though, Xavier says the population was more than 2,000 ten years ago when the last census was taken, and he estimates that there are more than 5,000 people living here now.

Of course tourism is the main engine for growth here, and all of the tours we’ve been on have been fabulous. Each one is different from the one before. Each guide is extremely knowledgeable and personable.

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We make it a point to stroll by early in the afternoon to check out our dinner options.

But I have come to consider the tours, and all of the daytime stuff here — the beaches and animals and such — to just be time-killers for the real main even on Isabela: $7 dinner.

That’s right, each night we cruise Calle Antonio Gil’s restaurant row and peruse the placards offering the day’s set menu items. At least five restaurants do this, all offering slightly different stuff but all basically the same three-course menu (and juice!) for seven bucks. Except one that sets its price at $6.50.

I ask you: Can you beat that?

Granted, it’s not a big dinner, but it’s big enough. We don’t have the facilities to deal with leftovers, anyway. There’s generally enough variation on the small menu of the day to keep everyone happy. I get fish; several other people get shrimp (at one place the shrimp option costs a little extra), Nadia and maybe someone else gets chicken or meat. There are various sauces. We get bowl of soup before the entree, a nice glass of juice, several side dishes, and a postre (Spanish for dessert).

Check out the Coke bottles. What were we thinking?

Fish with celery sauce

We did run into trouble one night when no place had a viable non-fish option. And one night two girls decided to split one of the fixed price entrees and a pasta dish off the regular menu. Regular menu options not only tend to be more expensive, they also include neither juice nor postre. Once everybody but me shared a $25 pizza, but I was the only one who got juice and dessert (it was Jello).  Get this, way back on the first night before we really figured things out, everyone ordered drinks on top of our set price menu. We must’ve looked like a bunch of tourists!

While every night the dinner bill has been $50 or below with tip, it wasn’t until last night that we finally hit the sweet spot with a $35 bill. Tonight I plan to shake things up a little by requesting menestra, or beans, instead of the french fries — at no extra cost, mind you.

How do you make money off me in the Galapagos?   $7 at a time.